The Cruelty and Fairness of Fate

by Crawlspace

 

~ Chapter 26:  Starting Over, Part 2 ~

 

 

            She could hear noise inside the room, but for the life of her couldn’t figure out what was going on to make those sounds.  Crossing her arms over her chest and tapping her foot impatiently against the porch, Rei glared at the red ribbon tied across the doorframe and the little Do Not Enter sign that hung from it.

 

            As if the sight of her fearsome gaze could actually have some effect on the door, it seemed to tremble just slightly before sliding open a crack.  Minako peeked out, and when she spoke, Rei could hear the smile even though she couldn’t see it.

 

            “Oh, good, you’re still here,” said the blonde happily.

 

            “Of course I’m still here,” answered Rei.  “Where else would I be?”

 

            “Well, right now you could be going to get washed up and dressed.  Here, wear this,” said Minako as she thrust a black dress, the one Rei had worn on Valentine’s Day, out the door.  “But don’t take too long, because I’m almost done.  And stay somewhere away from the door.  I don’t want you to see before I’m ready for you to.”

 

            Rei chuckled and shook her head as the door was once again closed to her.  Minako had been at this for the last several hours after barring Rei from the room early in the afternoon.  Since then, Rei had watched the blonde periodically emerge to collect this or that from some other part of the house, but any questions she’d tried to ask or all the looks she’d thrown Minako’s way were teasingly ignored.  That was okay, though, because it was all part of the game Minako was playing, and it was making her happy.  She deserved to make herself as happy as she could right now, because if things didn’t go well at the hearing on Tuesday, this would be the last chance for them together like this for a long time.

 

            Rei quickly clamped down on those thoughts and pushed them away.  Minako had already decided what the mood was going to be, and that’s what Rei was going to stick to.

 

            All dolled up and redressed for the evening, Rei had only been waiting a few minutes when Minako came to get her.  The blonde was smiling and almost giddy in her excitement of finally being able to reveal what it was she’d been working on. 

 

            Taking Rei’s hand in hers, Minako led them back to the room.  She stopped at the door and turned to face Rei.  “Close your eyes, please.”

 

            Rei complied, and, when she did, she heard the door slide open.  Then Minako’s hands once again took hers and led her carefully into the room.

 

            “Okay, open them,” commanded Minako as she released her hold.

 

            Rei opened her eyes and smiled hugely at what greeted her.  Everywhere around her were hearts of all different sizes and colors.  Small, fluffy ones were thrown on the bed overtop a quilt embroidered with them.  Along the perimeter of the room hung strings of heart shaped lights tangled with little white lights.  A red scarf had been draped over the lamp shade, subduing its light and giving better attention to the novelty lights and candles set about the room.  Pink, white, and red construction paper hearts were taped to the walls, along with a few store bought ones that declared ‘Happy Valentine’s Day.’  Flying among all those hearts were a few cupids and white doves.  And on the table in the center of the room, a heart shaped candle glowed beside a vase of dark red roses and a decorated gift box.

 

            “Wow, Mina,” she finally managed to get out around the laughter she was biting back.  “Happy Valentine’s Day?”

 

            Minako nodded.  “Happy Valentine’s Day, part two.  Because the first part didn’t end to my satisfaction.”

 

            “You seemed pretty satisfied to me,” smirked Rei.

 

            “Rei!” shot back Minako, appearing as scandalized as she could.  “I’ll have none of that, young lady.  At least, not just yet.  Now come open your present.”

 

            With that, Rei was pulled over to the table and made to sit in place before her gift.  The box was red with tiny white hearts stamped all over it.  It was held together by a large white ribbon surrounded by a cluster of smaller, curlier red ones, off of which hung a tag with Rei’s name on it.

 

            Rei carefully untied the bow as Minako sat beside her and watched.  When she lifted the lid, her smile grew wider.  Lying inside the box was a homemade book, the words ‘Once Upon a Time…’ written in white crayon across the red paper cover.  Under the title was a picture of the two of them framed in bright colors, glittery stickers, and ribbon.

 

            “Hurry and take it out,” urged Minako since Rei was taking too long for her liking.  “I want to read you the story.”

 

            Even more carefully and slowly than before, Rei lifted the book from its box and set it on the table between herself and Minako.  Minako reached for it then, and turned to the first page.

 

            “Once upon a time,” she began as a hand drawn picture of a blonde with a red bow in her hair was revealed, her hand held in a V sign, “there lived a very pretty, popular, and talented young girl.”

 

            The page was turned, and on the next one was another drawing of the girl, except this time she was flanked in the upper left by a trio of schoolgirls.  Down on the right was a passable Artemis, an old version of their henshin pens, and a red mask.

 

            “The girl was happy with her life,” went on Minako.  “She had her friends and her family.  She wasn’t really great at school, but she did well enough.  She dreamed of becoming an actress and a model and a singer – the perfect idol.  And that dream made her happy, because she believed in it.  But there was something missing.  Some little thing that she couldn’t quite put her finger on.  Then, one day, the girl met a very strange white cat.”

 

            Minako turned to the next set of pages.  This time, the cartoony drawings were on both sides of the paper.  On one page, Sailor V smiled with Artemis beside her.  On the opposite side, V fought a purple blob with green spots and yellow horns.

 

            “The cat spoke to the girl, which was an odd thing in and of itself,” continued Minako.  “The girl, being the brave soul that she was, didn’t run away, but squealed in delight.  ‘You’re so cute!  Are you some kind of alien?’ she asked.  The cat, who’s name was Artemis, was a bit confused, as this was not the response he’d been expecting.  But he pulled himself together, and, rather than just admitting he was some kind of alien, went on to tell the girl a grand tale about a lost moon kingdom and the search for that kingdom’s princess.  And while the girl had never seen a talking cat before, or heard of such a story, it was all somehow very familiar to her.  So she did as the cat asked and became Sailor V.  But there was still something missing.

 

            “Time passed and battles were fought.  The girl began to realize what it was she was missing.  Even with Artemis there beside her, she felt very alone.  Sometimes, the battles would be hard or scary, but the girl went on, because she believed in what she was doing.  She also believed the cat, who had become her dearest and closest companion, when he told her they would find the others soon, and that someday she would also find her One, even with her duty before her.  So the girl kept going.”

 

            Rei raised her hand up and gently cupped Minako’s cheek.  “I’m glad you kept going,” she said softly.

 

            Minako smiled at her, then turned the page.  “We’re getting close to the good part, so pay attention, okay?”

 

            Rei nodded and refocused on the drawing in front of her.  This time she saw a group of four stick figures, each identified easily by the color of their triangular fuku skirts.  Up above the figures, seeming to float in midair, was a Sailor V sticker haloed in crayon yellow light.

 

            “The day finally came when the girl got to meet her fellow Senshi,” picked up Minako, her voice more joyful than a moment ago.  “Though it took some time, those four became her truest friends.  The girl was very thankful to have them, because she wasn’t alone anymore.  But still, there was that one little missing something.  The girl had almost given up hope that she would ever find that missing piece.  And then, one day…”

 

            Rei grinned when she saw the drawing on the next page.  It was obviously her, dressed in her dogi and hakima, a broom in one hand and bouquet of flowers in the other.

 

            Minako smiled at her rendering of Rei and went on, “One day, one of her very dearest friends handed her a flower and asked her out on a date.  The friend didn’t know how much the girl wanted just that, but she did know how much the girl wanted someone to love and to love her back.  The friend, who became the girl’s beloved Rei-chan, loved the girl with everything she had and allowed her into places of her soul that no one had ever seen before.  The girl was able to do the same for her beloved Rei-chan, and when she did, that hole where something had always been missing was filled with more love than she had ever known.  The girl thought she had everything she could possibly want.  But then, her beloved Rei-chan went and surprised her.”

 

            Minako reached for the glass of water that sat on the table and took a sip before going forward.  When she was ready, she carefully flipped the page.  In the center of the paper was a big heart with the word ‘Home’ written across it.  “Her beloved Rei-chan said just one word to her,” said Minako, her voice heavy with the emotion this memory held for her.  “Everything in her life before that moment paled in comparison to the gift of that word.  Because, from there on, the girl knew no matter what happened to them, or how far or how long she might have to go away from her Rei-chan, she would always be there waiting for her.”

 

            Rei reached forward and took Minako’s hand.  She twined their fingers, the candle’s light reflecting off the gold ring around Minako’s finger.  “I would wait an eternity if I had to.  But I don’t have to, Mina.  We won’t have to,” she said quietly.

 

            “The story’s not done yet,” answered Minako softly.  “Let me keep going.”

 

            Rei acquiesced and turned back to her gift.  “What the…?  Mina?” she questioned when she saw the image on the next page.

 

            A devilish smile appeared on Minako’s lips.  “But there was another side to the girl’s beloved Rei-chan.  And that was the evil and dastardly Rei-chan,” said Minako with dramatic flare as she waved a hand over the picture of a Rei with devil horns, fire surrounding her as a backdrop and lighting up her eyes.  There was even a red spiked tail curving around her from behind.

 

            Rolling right over Rei’s indignation, Minako continued, “The evil Rei-chan thought she could be all sneaky and one-up the lovely and innocent Mina-chan, who also just happened to be the Senshi of Love.  And when evil Rei-chan executed her plan and managed to surprise Mina-chan, well, Rei-chan became quiet full of herself.  Even though the lovely Mina-chan loves and adores all aspects of her Rei-chan, and loved her more than anything for that surprise, she just couldn’t let this go unchallenged.  What kind of Senshi of Love would she be if she did?  So, Mina-chan decided to get even.  Turn the page Rei,” she said quickly, her excitement showing in the slight bounce of her movements.

 

            Her curiosity piqued, Rei turned to the last page in the book.  Her eyes widened and got just a bit misty when she saw the familiar heart with ‘Home’ in its center.  But unlike the previous one, this heart had a gold ring tied to it by a thin red ribbon.  Over top of the heart, ‘Forever’ was written in a fancy script to match the engraving on the inside of the band.

 

            Reaching around Rei, Minako untied the ribbon to release the ring.  She held it in one hand and took Rei’s with her other.  Clearly and quietly, she said, “Mina-chan wanted to give her beloved Rei-chan something solid, something real, that she could look at and touch whenever they were apart, so she would also know how much she’s loved and cherished.  I wanted you to have something that will always let you know that you are my forever.”  Then, taking a great deal of care, she slid the ring onto Rei’s finger.  Once it was in place, she moved forward and captured Rei’s lips in a warm promise.

 

            The kiss ended and Rei pulled Minako against her in a tight hug.  “I love you,” she whispered into Minako’s hair.

 

            “Mina-chan loves her evil and dastardly Rei-chan, too,” giggled Minako.

 

            Rei grinned.  “Evil and dastardly, is it?”

 

            Mmm hmm.  Just the way I like her.”

 

            With a chuckle, Rei asked, “So, is that the way the story ends?  Happily Ever After?”

 

            “No,” answered Minako as she settled into Rei’s arms.  “Happily Ever After, yes.  But the story never ends, Rei.  We never end.”

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Usagi sat in front of her bedroom mirror and fidgeted with the items in front of her.  She wasn’t even used to being up and ready on time.  She had no clue what to do with herself when she was ready early.

 

            As she switched the positions of her brush and powder box one more time, Usagi caught sight of Luna’s twitching tail in the corner of the mirror.  Turning in her seat to face the cat, who was lying on the bed, Usagi asked, “What am I supposed to say to her?  I mean, I don’t need to know what to say if she loses.  I’ll be too busy crying to say anything.  But what am I supposed to say if she wins?  This isn’t a happy thing no matter what, Luna, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to say.”

 

            Luna raised her head from her paws and, for a moment, studied the girl in front of her.  This was Usagi’s strong point, she thought, and there was no better answer she could give than the one Usagi would ultimately come up with herself.  “You’ll know what to say when the time comes, Usagi.  And I believe you’ll say just the right thing.”

 

            “Thanks, Luna,” answered Usagi with a small smile.  Then she turned back to her mirror.  “I hope Mom will be ready soon.  I don’t want to be late picking up Mako-chan and Ami.  Maybe I should hurry her up?”

 

            Luna smiled at that.  Rather than let Usagi see, she stood and stretched, thinking perhaps it was time she headed on her way.  “Your mother will be ready on time, Usagi,” she said as she jumped off the bed and went over to the open window.  “Just try to be a bit more patient.  Since you can’t take me with you, there’s something I need to do.  I should be back later tonight, but if not, don’t be concerned.”

 

            “Where are you going?” asked Usagi as she watched Luna’s reflection.

 

            “We all have our place today,” answered Luna.  “And I’m not the only one who can’t go with you.”

 

            Usagi nodded as understanding dawned.  “All right.  I’ll see you later, then.”

 

            Luna nodded, then left through the window.  Usagi went back to distracting herself by playing with the things on her vanity and lamenting about how wrong it was to be up so early during spring break.

 

 

            Minako sat quietly on the edge of the porch, Artemis curled up in her lap.  The morning was warmer than she’d expected it to be.  More normal feeling, also.  Perhaps the calm was artificial, or just some instinctive coping mechanism her brain knew she needed to survive the day.  Regardless, here she sat, dressed exactly the way she’d been instructed to dress, running through the lines she’d been instructed to say, exactly the way she’d been instructed to say them, all while slowly stroking Artemis’ fur.

 

            He was lying so perfectly still, thought Minako, even though she knew he was awake.  She wondered how long he could stay like this, because he’d have to be exceptionally quiet and still if she was going to hide him in a dorm room.  Particularly if she wound up with a roommate…

 

            Minako’s hand stilled on Artemis’ back as her eyes closed, and she took a deep breath.  She swallowed hard a few times, refusing to let anything happen that would ruin her makeup, because there wouldn’t be time to fix it, and they couldn’t be late.  Then she felt Artemis’ head butt gently against her shoulder.

 

            Opening her eyes, Minako found herself staring into worried blue ones.  Artemis tried to give her a grin, but couldn’t quite make it.  So he brought his paws up onto her shoulder and tucked his head into the crook of her neck.

 

            Minako put her arms around him a bit more tightly than she probably should have.  He didn’t make any sort of complaint, however, and Minako was grateful for that, because she could feel the first threads of that early morning calmness starting to come undone.

 

            Light footsteps made Minako loosen her grip on the white cat.  She looked up and saw Rei standing there.

 

            “Sorry if I’m interrupting,” said Rei apologetically.  “But we need to get going.  Grandpa’s waiting by the car.”

 

            Minako nodded and gently set Artemis off to her side.

 

            As she stood, Artemis said, “I’ll see you when you get back.”

 

            The blonde smiled at him and reached to give his ears a quick scratch.  “When I get back this afternoon,” she said softly before turning to leave with Rei.

 

            When the girls were out of sight, Artemis laid back down in the sun filled spot he’d been sitting in with Minako.  His eyes closed as if he was resting, but his tail continued to lash uneasily from side to side.

 

            “Artemis?”

 

            At his name being quietly spoken, the cat stilled his tail and opened his eyes.

 

            Luna jumped up on the porch beside him and found her own spot in the sun.  “I thought you might like some company while you wait.  And Usagi was too restless for me to keep watching.  All the tossing and turning she did last night was bad enough.”

 

            “They did the same thing,” replied Artemis.  “I don’t think either of them slept at all.”

 

            The two of them talked for a while, about little things that didn’t really matter rather than the things they were really thinking about.  Those things could be said later if it really became necessary, though.  For right now, this was enough to get them through the uncertainty of the morning.

 

 

            Inside the courthouse corridor, Usagi was pacing back and forth in front of her.  Beside her on the wooden bench, Makoto was rapidly tapping her foot.  Ami took a deep breath and tried to maintain her sanity as the three of them waited for Minako and Rei.

 

            “There they are,” said Usagi suddenly as her movement stopped.

 

            Ami looked over and saw Rei and Minako approaching with Grandpa and a woman who must be their lawyer.  Ami stood and offered a hand to Makoto to help her do the same.

 

            Greetings were made, and when Minako’s lawyer addressed Makoto, it was with a bit of a startled pause.

 

            Makoto smiled at the woman.  “No one told you, did they?”

 

            Aya grinned a bit self-consciously.  “I apologize, Kino-san.  I was made aware, it’s just a bit surprising to see it in person.  You’ve been well, though, I hear.”

 

            “Very well, thank you,” answered Makoto.  “And thank you for helping my friends.”

 

            “Don’t thank me just yet,” answered Aya.  “We’ve still got an uphill battle in front of us.  But we’re going to do all we can.”  She looked around at the faces surrounding her, and suddenly felt better about their odds.  There was no logic to the feeling, but it was welcome just the same.  She turned to Rei.  “Because she’s a minor, it’s a closed court.  Only immediate family is allowed in, so you and your friends will have to wait out here.  We’ll be calling your grandfather just to confirm she’s employed and has a place to live.  Beyond that, everything rests on Minako and her parents.”  Then she addressed Minako with a confident smile.  “Ready?”

 

            Minako squared her shoulders and looked the woman in the eye when she spoke.  “Yes.  As I’ll ever be.”

 

            “All right, then,” returned Aya.  “Let’s go.”

 

            Minako tossed one last glance over her shoulder at her friends as she was led away into the courtroom.  The door closed behind her, and a collective nervous sigh was released from all the parties who were left waiting.

 

            Ami sat back down, joined a moment later by Makoto, who went right back to tapping her foot.  Grandpa stood beside them, leaning against the wall and trying not to look worried.  Usagi started pacing again, setting a tread that an anxious looking Rei began to follow.  Ami resisted biting at her nails and realized just how long an afternoon this was going to be for all of them.

 

 

            Having never been in a courtroom before, Minako couldn’t say if the one she was in now was smaller, larger, or the same as all the other ones in the building.  The emptiness of it, though, made it seem terribly large, and sitting there by herself beside a woman she barely knew made Minako feel very small and alone.  The emptiness of the room also accentuated its silence.  Each little noise echoed louder than it normally would have.  The pop of latches on a briefcase were more like gunshots to her, and Minako cringed before turning sadly curious eyes to the source of the noise.

 

            Her parents’ lawyer shuffled papers from his briefcase and leaned over to whisper something to her father.  It had been three weeks since she’d seen or spoken to either of her parents.  The last time Minako had been away from them this long, her return had been greeted with hugs and kisses and tolerant parental patience as she rambled on about all the things she’d seen and done.  This time, however, her mother hadn’t even acknowledged her presence.  Her father had looked at her, probably out of reflex at hearing the door at the back of the room open, Minako thought.  But the disappointment and embarrassment he wore made Minako wish he’d ignored her the way her mother was.  And, even though she’d anticipated those reactions to a degree, it hurt far more than she’d expected to actually have it happen.

 

            The door to the right of the judge’s bench opened, and everyone stood as he took his seat.  Minako had always been told first impressions were important, and she tried to project the best impression she could in those few seconds while forming her own of him.

 

            Himuro Jinto came across as stern and serious.  Older than her father, he neither smiled nor frowned, but kept his mouth in a straight line that gave away no real hints to his mood.  The way he held himself, tall and proud, left no question as to whose domain this was.

 

            As Minako retook her seat, she reminded herself that stereotypes were a bad thing.  She didn’t want people doing that to her, and she shouldn’t do it to others.  Just because he looked like a very humorless and conservative man didn’t mean he wouldn’t also be a fair man.  The universe was, after all, a balance of fairness.  Beginning to twist the gold ring on her finger, Minako hoped that first impressions weren’t really as important or telling as she’d been led to believe.

 

 

            Jinto listened to the case as he would any case brought before him.  When each side was well and fully done, he retired to his chambers to look over the notes he’d taken and all the information he’d been handed.  When an appropriate amount of time had gone by, he went back and passed down a decision that irrevocably altered the lives of the three people involved.  That was, after all, Jinto’s ultimate power.  Except this time, it hadn’t been his.

 

            Power could be a heady and ego inspiring thing.  Jinto knew this from his years of wielding his own particular brand of it over the people who passed through his courtroom.  To hold the fates of so many lives had always been an awesome responsibility to him, one he both revered and reveled in.  It was, therefore, very disconcerting when that power was taken away from him.  On occasion, however, one needed to be humbled slightly in order to fully grasp the brighter ring that was being offered.  He looked down at the documents he’d just signed, the ink still drying on the paper.  The Aino case was now closed, though not in the way he would have chosen if he’d really had a say in it.

 

            To the girl’s credit, she appeared to be a mature young woman who was very determined and very set on her path.  Her parents were going to lose her because of their stubbornness, with or without his help.  So what did his own thoughts on it really matter?  Jinto sighed as he closed the file folder.  But if it had been up to him, he would have sent her home and let her parents try to finish raising her, come what may.  That wasn’t what had happened, though.  Instead, he had set her free and welcomed her into adulthood, whether she was ready for it or not.

 

            Pulling his cell phone from its clip, Jinto dialed a number from memory.  “Good afternoon, Yoshimura-san,” he said pleasantly when the phone was answered.   “I trust you’re doing well.”

 

            “As well as can be expected,” answered Kimiko.  “I presume you’re calling about the matter we discussed involving the Senator’s daughter?”

 

            “Right to the point, Yoshimura-san, as always.  Yes, that’s why I’m calling.  The matter has been dealt with in a way I’m certain the Senator will be pleased with.”

 

            Kimiko’s voice took on a slightly more pleasant edge.  “We’re thankful to you for your help and your continued discretion, Himuro-san.  I’ve been asked to extend an invitation for you to join the Senator this Sunday for brunch.  He would like to thank you in person.”

 

            Jinto smiled, suddenly much more satisfied with this case than he had been.  “I gratefully accept the Senator’s invitation.  Thank you.”

 

            After the call was completed with all the necessary pleasantries, Jinto folded up his phone and placed it back on his belt clip.  Then he stood and reached for his robe.  There was a full docket ahead of him, the decisions to which were fully and wholly his.

 

 

            The room was slowly getting darker, but neither girl moved from the bed to turn on a light.  Still dressed in the blouse and skirt she’d worn to the hearing, Minako sat curled up against Rei with her head resting against Rei’s chest.  She listened to the calm, even beat of Rei’s heart and tried to find her own peace there.

 

            As Rei’s hand stroked slowly over her hair, Minako thought about how all the time she’d spent preparing for the worst had left her completely unprepared for getting what it was she wanted.  When the judge had made his announcement, it had been swift and to the point.  There was no fanfare or celebration, nor cries of outrage and injustice.  There were no sounds at all, save for the drop of the gavel.  Her lawyer had automatically responded with a curt nod of approval, and Minako had looked over to her parents, needing to see.

 

            In that moment of decision, her father had turned to look at her as well.  In his expression, Minako saw all the same things she had seen earlier, except for one little thing.  In his eyes was a sadness and loss she hadn’t expected, and for the first time, Minako truly felt the finality of the choice she’d made.

 

            And then there had been her mother…

 

            “She wouldn’t even look at me, Rei,” said Minako quietly, breaking the silence that hung over them.  “Mom was so angry she couldn’t even stand to look at me.”

 

            Rei’s arms wrapped around Minako and held her closer.  She could feel the tears as they silently began to fall.  Pushing back the renewed hatred she felt for the people who had put Minako through this, Rei remained as calm as she could and rocked the girl gently.  “It’ll get easier, Mina.  I promise it will.  And I’ll be here with you.”

 

            With a shaky breath, Minako nodded against Rei.  She cried a little harder as Rei continued to whisper softly to her.  Through it all, one thought remained prevalent and kept her from drowning.  For better or worse and everything in between, she was home.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            The bed was warm, the pillows Makoto had wedged under and positioned around her were soft, and while she was hesitant to call anything comfortable these days, she was, at the moment, happily content.

 

            At some point not too long ago, the alarm clock had gone off, signaling the start of the first day of the new school term.  Ami had gotten up rather easily, the morning person in her always evident, even when they'd been on break.  Makoto, on the other hand, had lost count of the number of times she'd said, "Just ten more minutes," each time Ami had come back to wake her.  And each time, Ami, the sweetheart that she was, would oblige the request and give her ten more minutes to rest. 

 

            She hadn't really fallen back to sleep since Ami's last call, only drifted in that place somewhere in between.  So when Ami's soft footsteps started across the carpet again, she woke that much more, and when the mattress dipped slightly under Ami's weight, Makoto groaned in inevitable acceptance. 

 

            Ami’s fingers carefully brushed the bangs across Makoto’s forehead as she said very apologetically, "I'm sorry, Mako-chan.  I know you didn't sleep well last night, but you have to get up this time.  Breakfast is ready, and if you don't come out now, you won't have time to eat."

 

            Makoto struggled to sit up in her fluffy prison.  She looked at Ami through sleepy eyes and wondered how she'd missed the girl getting dressed.  Maybe she had actually fallen asleep again, after all.  With a sigh, she said, "Okay, I'm really up this time.  Thanks for doing breakfast for me.  Just let me take a quick shower first."  Makoto yawned and rubbed at her eyes before slowly moving her legs over the side of the bed.  She leaned forward to place a good morning kiss on Ami's cheek, then asked, "What do you want for lunch?  I'll fix that after I eat."

 

            "I did that already, also," answered Ami.  "I hope you don't mind sandwiches."

 

            Makoto looked at Ami curiously.  There was no way she could have had enough time to get completely dressed and make both breakfast and lunch, because the alarm had only just...  Makoto looked over at the clock and cursed under her breath.

 

            Trying to hurry, but only managing to move slightly faster than she had a moment ago, Makoto got to her feet.  She tossed out a quick, "Why didn't you tell me it was so late?" before grabbing a towel and disappearing into the hall.

 

            Ami, unperplexed by it all, remained seated on the bed.  "I did tell you," she said to the empty room.  Then she shrugged her shoulders and got up to leave the room as well.

 

 

            "I hate this uniform."

 

            Minako looked over to the source of the complaint.  Rei stood, staring in the mirror, a frown on her face.

 

            "It's just so... blue.  And too long," complained Rei further as she pulled at the skirt, lifting it and letting it fall back to her knees to prove her point.  Then her hand slapped at the bow that hung limply on her chest.  "And what's with this stupid bow, anyway?  Yours doesn't do this."

 

            Minako finished pulling on her socks, then got up from the bed and walked over to Rei.  Very patiently, she stood behind Rei and reached around to the bow in front.  They both watched as Minako retied the bow with a practiced ease.

 

            "There," said the blonde, giving a small, final tug.  "I'm afraid there isn't anything I can do about the rest of it, though."

 

            Rei exhaled in nervous agitation.  Speaking to Minako's reflection, she answered, "Well, at least the bow doesn't look like a dead thing anymore."

 

            Minako grinned and wrapped her arms around Rei, leaning her chin on Rei's shoulder.  "I like the way this looks on you.  The whole thing."

 

            "Thanks," answered Rei.  A lopsided grin appeared, and she added, "But next time I'm picking a school with a better uniform."

 

 

            "Oh, to hell with it," mumbled Makoto as she threw a handful of safety pins on her dresser and her uniform skirt on the floor.  What had been just a bit tight two weeks ago wasn't fitting at all now, and no matter how she pulled at, repositioned, or tried to pin the thing, it just wasn't going to work.  So rather than fight with it anymore, she went over to her closet and took out a short sleeved, gray dress with no zippers, hooks, or buttons on it whatsoever.

 

            As dressed as she planned on getting, Makoto pulled her hair up into a ponytail and went out into the livingroom.  When she saw the curious look on Ami's face, she forestalled the question by saying rather pointedly, "Don't.  Say.  A word.  Not one.  As far as I'm concerned, this is ready to leave.  And if anyone disagrees with me, they can suspend me.  In fact, I hope they do, just so I can be done with them that much sooner."

 

            Ami didn't argue or comment on Makoto's mini tirade.  She only stood from the chair she'd been waiting in and picked up both their bags.  Makoto took hers as they walked out the door and followed Ami as far as the stairs, where she stopped on the first step.  A puff of air hit her bangs as her mind did a mental count of the number of steps in front of her plus the number of blocks to school.  She multiplied that by what those numbers were going to do to her back and feet, and then she remembered the walk home and squared it all for good measure.  The sum of that crooked equation was less than encouraging.

 

            "Mako-chan?" questioned Ami from her place a few steps down.  "Are you all right?"

 

            Makoto let go of the numbers tumbling through her head and focused on Ami.  "Hmm?  Oh, yeah, I'm okay."  She set her bag down against the railing and turned back towards the apartment.  "I just forgot something.  Be back in a minute."

 

            Ami debated for a moment, then headed back up the stairs after Makoto.  Makoto had left the door open, and Ami stood in the doorway watching as Makoto dialed the phone. 

 

            "Michiru, hi," said Makoto when the other end was answered.  "I know you guys are busy getting Hotaru ready and all, but could I talk to Haruka for a few minutes?"  For a moment, she looked up and over at Ami, one side of her mouth turning up in an almost-smile, before she turned back away.  "Hey, Haruka.  Yeah, we're okay.  I was just wondering if that offer for a ride was still good?"

 

            Ami smiled to herself and walked back outside.  She stood downstairs and waited for Makoto to finish.

 

            A few minutes later, Makoto joined her downstairs.  "Haruka's coming to get us.  She shouldn't be too long."

 

            "I'm glad she's coming to get you," answered Ami.  "But I think I'd prefer to walk.  She's doing this as a favor to you, and I'd feel as if I was imposing on that.  Besides, the others are waiting."

 

            "So call Minako's cell and tell her what's up.  And you wouldn't be imposing.  Haruka included you when she said she would be by."

 

            Ami grinned and shook her head.  "No arguing, remember.  You already said it.  But I will wait with you until she gets here."

 

            "No, go on ahead," said Makoto, understanding Ami's point of view, even if she did prefer to keep the girl with her.  "You'll be late if you wait with me."

 

            Moving closer, Ami stretched up to place a quick kiss on Makoto's cheek.  Her thumb reached up and stroked the spot her lips had touched as she said, "I'll see you when you get to school, then."  Her steps were hesitant as she began to walk away, and, just before she turned the corner, she looked back over her shoulder and waved one more time.

 

            Makoto waved back, then leaned against the railing once Ami was out of sight.  She looked down at the little pink lunch box Ami had taken the time to wrap up for her this morning, even though she’d gotten as little sleep last night from all of Makoto’s tossing and restlessness as Makoto herself.  How many different ways could a person find to say ‘I love you?’  Makoto was already staring at one, while ideas for a way to say it back started to tumble through her mind.

 

 

            Itoh Yukari considered herself to be a very lucky person.  After all, none of her friends had a best friend in college who was willing to take time out and drive them to school in their shiny new graduation present for the sole purpose of giving them bragging rights.  But Aika was good like that, and Yukari flashed her a thousand watt smile as they pulled up in front of the school.

 

            “Thanks, Aika.  I really appreciate it,” said Yukari as she took her time gathering herself together, just to be sure enough of her classmates saw them.

 

            “No problem,” answered Aika.  “Because it’s not like we could let you be seen riding in with your father or some equally horrible thing.”

 

            Yukari stuck her tongue out at her friend’s sarcasm and forgot to pull it back in as her eyes went wide and followed the yellow convertible that drove by and swung around to pull in behind them.

 

            Aika was rolling her eyes even before the exclamation burst out of Yukari.

 

            “Oh my gosh!  It’s the Emperor’s nephew’s son!  And he’s with Kino-san.  And they have a kid,” announced Yukari in over exaggerated shock as she watched Makoto get out of the car and Hotaru climb into the front seat.  Then her feigned shock turned into a giggle.  “I wonder if Hideo-sensei knows she’s being cheated on?

 

            Aika gave Yukari’s arm a light shove that only made the girl laugh harder.  “Jeez, Yukari.  You know, not everyone can tell when you’re joking and when you’re trying to be serious.  So watch what you say.  Kino-san doesn’t need any more illegitimate kids pinned on her.  Now get out of my car and go find Minako,” said Aika as she reached across Yukari and opened the door.  “That guy is really cute, and I want to know who he is, if he’s single, and if that kid is just his baby sister who he’s being a prince for and dropping off at her elementary school before heading over to whatever prestigious university he’s a student at.”

 

            Yukari snapped off a quick salute, then teased, “Yes, ma’am.  Should I find out what his favorite dessert is, too, while I’m at it?”

 

            Aika frowned at the giggling brunette and shooed her quickly from her car.  “I want answers when I come back, or I’m leaving you to your father,” threatened Aika after the car door was closed.

 

            Yukari shot off one more salute, then turned and hurried away on her mission.

 

 

            There were pluses and minuses to every situation.  Rei realized this and was actually pretty glad she seemed to be more on the plus side of things this time.  Of what was on the minus side, there wasn't too much to complain about.  She wasn't in Minako's class, but she was in Makoto's, sitting right across from her, in fact.  The uniform was a bit icky, but workable once the bow was done right.  She didn't know anyone and did miss the attention she was used to getting from the other girls, but, again, this was something she could live with.  And she had already been asked to the Welcome Back dance by that boy sitting over by the window, so she wasn't feeling completely hopeless.

 

            At the front of the room, the teacher was going on about the things he hoped to accomplish with the class over the course of the term.  Here was another plus.  This guy seemed much more interesting than her last history teacher, Sister Mary Margaret.  Yet not quite so interesting that she felt the need to write down every word he was saying, the way Makoto seemed to be.  Rei glanced over at her friend, who was still scribbling away, and wondered if maybe Ami wasn't starting to rub off on her just a little too much.  Then again, not even Ami could find a way to take that many notes on what was little more than a verbal syllabus.

 

            Rei's curiosity ratcheted up a notch when she noticed Makoto's quick nod and the way she began to fold up the paper she'd been writing on.  The teacher finished up what he was saying just in time for the bell to ring, and Makoto stood from her seat.

 

            "I'll be right back," she said to Rei.  Then she grinned.  "Don't break any more hearts while I'm gone."

 

            "How do you know about that?" asked Rei quietly enough to keep it between them.

 

            "I was coming back just as you were shooting him down.  But at least you were nice about it," teased Makoto.

 

            "You'd think the ring would be a tip-off," said Rei with a wave of her hand, the gold band on her ring finger plainly clear.

 

            Makoto shrugged, not having any better answer, then got herself out of there.  She had two stops to make and only ten minutes to make them in.

 

 

            All in all, it had been a good first day back.  Ami now had a clear layout of what was ahead of her academically for the next few months.  With that information, she was able to begin forming a good schedule of what she needed to complete in the next few weeks so she could devote more of her time where it would be most needed next month.  Namely, with Makoto and the baby.

 

            Feeling secure in her plans, Ami opened her locker… and froze.  There, sitting atop her shoes, was a tiny folded note with her name and a little heart printed on it.  Ami's face went instantly bright red.  Her heart started to beat faster and her palms began to sweat.  Her ears started to ring and her eyes darted from side to side to make sure she was still the only one here.

 

            Upon confirmation that she was alone, Ami's eyes shot back to the little love letter.  Her thoughts began to randomly tumble over each other.  Surely everyone knew about her and Makoto by now.  Why would someone do this?  What would Makoto think if she found out?  Would she be jealous or amused?  Or both?  And what was she supposed to do with this thing?  If she knew the boy, was she supposed to ignore him or seek him out and politely say 'no thank you?'  Or was that being too terribly presumptuous?  Or what if it wasn't one of the boys, but one of the girls this time?  That was a possibility, all things considered.  And why did this have to happen now, darn it!  Because she was never good at handling these sorts of things.

 

            Starting to feel a little dizzy, Ami gripped the door of her locker with one hand and cautiously reached forward with the other, as if that tiny piece of paper could somehow leap up and bite her.  Very carefully, her thumb and index finger grasped the edge of the note and started to lift it out of the locker.  That was when she noticed it.  The handwriting actually looked extremely familiar.

 

            Suddenly feeling very foolish, Ami gave a little embarrassed cough and began to open the note with a steadier hand.

 

Dear Ami,

When I got to school this morning and walked in the door, for just a moment, I felt my heart stop, because standing there in the hallway was the most beautiful person I've ever known.  I was in awe of her.  And then my heart soared because I realized I get to see her every morning just by opening my eyes, and then again every night right before I close them.  I'm a really lucky person, aren't I?

Thanks for taking care of me this morning, sweetie.  I love you (and not just for your cooking).

 

Makoto

 

 

            Ami reread the note one more time, a warm smile replacing the embarrassment she'd worn.  Amazing how something so small could make her feel so good.  She refolded the note and placed it inside her bag so she wouldn't lose it, then went to meet the others for the walk home.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            With a yawn, Ami stretched her arms high over her head.  As she brought them back down, one hand paused to rub her eyes while the other reached for the mug of peppermint tea Makoto had set on the desk beside her.  She took a sip of the now lukewarm liquid, then tried to refocus on the notes in front of her.

 

            She heard Makoto's footsteps a second before a warm hand gently touched her neck.  Ami closed her eyes as Makoto's fingernails scratched lightly against her skin and into her hair.

 

            "You've done enough for the first day back," said Makoto quietly as her fingers continued to move slowly and work out the tension that had been building in Ami all evening.  "You need to take a break and relax."

 

            "I'm almost done.  Just a little more," was Ami's response, though she didn't open her eyes or try to move away at all.

 

            Makoto grinned and reached forward to close Ami's notebook.  "No, you're definitely done for the night.  Now you get your reward for being such a hard worker."

 

            Ami opened her eyes and turned to look at Makoto.  She was standing there in her nightshirt and grinning in a way that let Ami know she'd been up to something.

 

            Smiling back with just a hint of the sleepiness she felt, Ami asked, "What kind of a reward?"

 

            "Come with me and you'll see," answered Makoto, a mysterious smile on her face as she tugged on Ami's hand to pull her to her feet.

 

            Ami complied, her studying put aside and forgotten as Makoto coaxed her into the  hallway and up to the bathroom door, which she slowly pushed aside.  Ami immediately noticed the soft amber glow inside the room.  Stepping in ahead of Makoto, her eyes reflected the warm light from the short, white utility candles that sat along the sink and the shelf on the opposite wall.  The tub had been filled, a layer of bubbles floating on top and giving off the slightest hint of lavender.

 

            Enchanted, Ami watched as Makoto walked over to the CD player they kept in the bathroom and pressed the play button.  A quiet piano melody drifted from the speakers, and Makoto moved back over to Ami.  Standing in front of her, Makoto smiled as she gently reached for the buttons on Ami's blouse.  "It's my turn to take care of you for awhile," she said in a soft voice as she began to undo the top few buttons.

 

            The pink that tinged Ami's cheeks was barely noticeable in the low candlelight.  She stood still and allowed Makoto to do as she pleased, closing her eyes and enjoying the light tickle of the taller girl’s fingers against her belly and then her arms, as Makoto’s fingertips trailed softly upward along the outside of them.

 

            Without a word,  Makoto moved so she was standing behind Ami, where she took hold of the blouse and gently eased it down Ami's arms.  Setting the blouse aside, she reached back for Ami, her hands playing delicately against the smaller girl’s sides, and she grinned as she saw Ami's bare toes curl and uncurl.

 

            Still grinning, Makoto lowered her lips to Ami's shoulder to lay a soft kiss there, while her hands undid the button and zipper on the side of Ami's skirt.  That fell to the floor and pooled around Ami's feet.  Makoto's left hand then moved to lightly caress Ami’s belly as her right slid slowly up Ami's arm and over the top of her bra strap.  Slipping it down over Ami's shoulder, she placed another kiss in the spot she had just exposed.

 

            Ami sighed quietly and let her head lull to the side.  Makoto took advantage of the invitation and trailed her lips across Ami's neck.  She unhooked the bra and let it fall to the floor beside Ami's skirt.  On the way back up, her thumbs hooked into the sides of the little white panties with the green bow on the front.  For a few seconds, she teased under and along the waistband before sliding them over Ami's hips.  They slid down most of the way on their own, and Ami stepped out of them and away from the small pile of clothes at her feet.

 

            Turning so she could face Makoto, Ami reached up and put her arms around the other girl’s neck.  She smiled at her for a moment before pulling her into a slow, lingering kiss.

 

            After several moments of indulgence, Makoto pulled back first.  Her fingers brushed the bangs off of Ami's forehead and tucked the sides of her hair behind her ears.  "The water's hot.  Get in and relax for awhile, and I'll come back and get you when I finish up what I need to do."  Then she grinned a bit sheepishly.  "I just need you to hand me the stuff that's on the floor, so I can hang it up."

 

            "Leave it," said Ami, her arms still resting around Makoto's shoulders, her eyes warm and vibrant.  "Stay and relax with me."

 

            Makoto shook her head and smiled.  "I'd like to, but it won't work that way.  Besides, this is just for you.  But, so you won't be lonely..."  She reached over onto the shelf and pulled down a yellow rubber ducky.  Giving it a squeeze so it would squeak, she said, "I'm sure Bug won't mind you borrowing one of his toys."

 

            Ami laughed softly, then took the duck she was being offered.  "But you'll come back soon, won't you?"

 

            "Yeah.  After I'm sure you've had sufficient relaxation time."  Makoto leaned forward and kissed the tip of Ami's nose, then whispered warmly against Ami's cheek,  "Besides, I'm not quite done with you yet."

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Ami sat patiently on the edge of the bed, wrapped up in Makoto’s fluffy, white bathrobe, while Makoto stood over her and carefully dried her hair with a towel.  When she decided she was done with it, Makoto tossed the towel into the laundry basket in the corner and turned to get a brush.  She used her fingers to feather back Ami’s damp hair, more as an indulgence for herself than anything else, then started running the brush in gentle strokes through the soft silk of Ami’s hair.

 

            Soon, the hushed tone of Ami’s voice drifted to Makoto’s ears as she began to hum a slow tune.  Ami began to lose herself happily in the feel of Makoto’s fingers and the brush’s strokes.  While the lazy part of her drifted, her hands started to feel restless, wanting to return some of the touch she was being given.  Without any conscious effort on her part, Ami found her fingers skimming along the edge of Makoto’s nightshirt.

 

            Makoto cleared her throat to get Ami’s attention, but never paused in her ministrations.  “The two of you can play later, after I’m finished,” she said, trying to sound firm, but grinning the whole time.

 

            The corners of Ami’s mouth turned up, and her hands moved over the nightshirt to draw little circles on Makoto’s belly.  “I was hoping I’d get to play with you,” answered Ami softly, her voice a mixture of shy and mischievous.

 

            Makoto smiled, certain her cheeks were turning red just from that voice alone.  After a few more brushstrokes, she set aside the brush and placed a finger under Ami’s chin to tilt her face up.  She smiled down at her and said, “Very pretty.  But, then, you always are.”

 

            Ami felt a tender warmth wrap around her, not from the compliment, but from the reflection of love and absolute honesty in Makoto’s eyes.  “Thank you,” she said as she took the hand that was holding her chin and twined their fingers together.  “I feel very good and much more relaxed now.”

 

            “I’m glad,” answered Makoto.  “But there’s one more thing you need, and then you’ll be as relaxed as I can get you tonight.”

 

            “And what’s that?” asked Ami curiously, just a hint of suggestiveness behind the question.

 

            “Swing around up on the bed, and I’ll show you,” said Makoto teasingly.  “Just leave enough room for me to sit behind you.”

 

            Ami did as requested while Makoto climbed into bed and situated herself with her back to the headboard.  The pillows she had behind her giving her the support she needed, Makoto lifted the bottle of body lotion from the nightstand and asked Ami to scoot back until she was sitting with Makoto’s legs around her.

 

            Leaving the lotion alone for the moment, Makoto reached forward and moved the collar of the robe down just enough so she could touch Ami.  At first, her hand rested against the curve of Ami’s neck, her thumb stroking lazily over the soft skin.  As Ami’s perfect posture began to droop, Makoto’s fingers began to stroke more firmly.

 

            A deep sigh escaped from Ami, and she fidgeted just a bit as Makoto’s fingers started to drift further down inside the robe.  After several minutes of pleasant teasing, Makoto reached around in front of Ami and, with a little help, untied the sash holding the robe together.  Her hands then moved back up to Ami’s shoulders and slowly slipped the material off of them, bit by bit, revealing the perfect, pale skin of Ami’s back.

 

            Letting the top half of the robe bunch around Ami’s hips, Makoto began to concentrate on the bare back she had exposed.  Her fingertips touched low against Ami’s spine and slowly trailed upward, eliciting a quick shiver from the girl.  Smiling, she reached for the bottle of lotion that rested beside her and squeezed a little into her palm, rubbing it between them to warm it.

 

            Ami again caught the slightest hint of lavender just before the coolness of it touched her skin.  Makoto’s hands worked slowly and in broad strokes, her fingers kneading soothingly into the muscles of Ami’s back and shoulders.  Ami’s head tilted slowly forward and her toes curled rhythmically against her crossed legs in a pace which matched that of Makoto’s hands.

 

            A pleasant sigh escaped from Ami as Makoto’s fingers worked their way gradually down the outside of her arm.  The coolness of the lotion mixed with the warmth of Makoto’s palm against her elbow, fingers tickling lightly at the inside before moving down further to take her hand.  Makoto’s thumb rubbed against Ami’s palm, tracing the lines and massaging gently between the delicate bones.  Each finger was given equally caring treatment before Makoto moved over to do the same on the other side.

 

            As she stroked Ami’s fingers with her own, Makoto leaned forward and whispered against Ami’s ear, “Still feeling good and relaxed?”

 

            Mmm,” was Ami’s barely coherent response as her fingers wrapped around Makoto’s.  “I should let you sleep in more often.”

 

            Makoto chuckled and placed a light kiss against Ami’s ear.  Then she began to carefully ease the girl out of her lap and laid her against the pillows at her side.  When Ami was comfortable, Makoto eased onto her side next to her.  Her fingers began to play along the edges of Ami’s hair, then traced a gentle path over her cheek.  Going further, her fingers teased over the curve of one small breast, until her hand finally rested against Ami’s belly.  She watched her fingers as they rose and fell with Ami’s breathing, and she drew the same shapes with her fingertips that Ami so often sketched on her.

 

            “This isn’t just for today,” said Makoto softly.  “It’s just one small thing I can do for all the things you’ve done for me.  I do see them, Ami, even when a lot of the time it seems like I don’t.”  A corner of her mouth turned up into a half grin as her finger drew a triangle around Ami’s belly button.  “Things like how you always buy me peanut butter and vanilla pudding, then let me eat as much of it as I want without saying its not good for me.  Or how you don’t laugh at me for crying like a baby at those stupid long distance commercials.  And the way all the things I need to get to are suddenly down lower on the shelves or closer to the counter edge than they used to be.  And how you say ‘I love you’ and really mean it each time, rather than it being just words or what you’re supposed to say at that moment.  I love you for all of that.”

 

            Makoto’s hand traveled upward with her eyes.  Her hand stroked slowly between Ami’s breasts and under them as she watched the girl’s face relax in pleasure.  “I love you for lots of other things, too,” she continued.  “Like how you rub my feet for me, even though they’re all swollen and ugly looking, just because it makes me feel better.  And how you worry over me all the time.  I love you for your patience when my moods get all swingy and crazy, and for your courage.  I definitely admire your courage, especially for the way you stood up to your mom, just because you wanted to be with me.  And the way you’ve always stayed true to yourself and been able to say, ‘This is me,’ to anyone who criticized you because of your smarts, or your looks, or the people you care about.  And I love you for not being ashamed of me because I couldn’t.”

 

            Ami reached up and touched the backs of her fingers to Makoto’s cheek.  She stroked lightly and smiled when Makoto turned to catch her hand with a kiss.  “You shouldn’t put me on such a high pedestal, Mako-chan.”

 

            Makoto chuckled.  “Are you kidding?  I’m going to put you on the highest pedestal I can find, and then I’m going to hide the ladder so no one can find it but me.  That way, I can keep you all to myself.”

 

            Ami’s smile widened as her hand reached around Makoto’s neck.  “Well, I suppose it’s okay.  So long as you can still get to me,” she replied, her voice low.  Carefully pulling Makoto down to her, Ami drew her into a deep, languid kiss.  Right then, she didn’t care where Makoto put her, so long as she would always be able to reach her.