The Cruelty and Fairness of Fate

by Crawlspace


~ Chapter 27:  Living Life ~

 

 

            Her mind finally made up, Rei quickly pulled her shirt over her head.  She took a moment to interrupt Minako’s shower by cracking the door and calling in, “Mina, there’s something I have to do.  Go ahead without me, and I’ll meet you guys at the park.”  The door was closed again before Minako had a chance to pull her head out from under the water’s spray.

 

            Rei’s pace slowed as she approached her destination.  The cherry blossoms on the small branch she had taken from a tree at the shrine matched those that bloomed and fell around her as she walked.  Turning a corner, her hand reached out to run along the bars of the wrought iron fence that surrounded the cemetery.  When she reached the cemetery’s entrance, Rei paused for a moment before going in and making her way to the short, black pillar that marked her mother’s grave.

 

            Kneeling down, she brushed aside the covering of pink blossoms and other debris that lay across the base of the gravestone, then carefully placed the branch she carried in one of the holders on its corner.  “Hi, Mom,” she said softly in deference to the stillness of the place.  “I’m sorry it’s been so long since I visited.  I suppose you know about everything that’s been going on.  I’m still trying to sort some of it out, but it’s been getting easier.”

 

            Rei took a breath and ran a hand through her hair.  “I can’t give him any more chances, Mom, and I don’t think he expects me to.  I know that hurts you, but he isn’t the same as when you knew him.  Whatever it is that made you love him so much disappeared a long time ago.  I’m not even sure what it is that made me love him for as long as I did, either.  But I know he hurt you, and I don’t know why you thought he wouldn’t do the same to me.  I’m a little angry at you for that.  But for all the times I remember you saying not to be upset by what Dad did, and as much as I think you wanted us to have a relationship, I can’t help wondering if you knew it was all going to fall apart eventually.  That’s why you made sure I had Grandpa.  And I feel like I’ve taken that for granted all these years.”

 

            A corner of Rei’s mouth turned up into a small smirk.  “And speaking of Grandpa,” she went on, “he’s finally started teaching me to drive.  If he had any hair left, it would all be grey by the time I’m a fully licensed driver.  He told me about how you came home in tears and cried to Grandma about how he was being mean to you because you kept grinding the gears when you were learning.  I don’t know if he’s gotten more patient in his old age, or if having an automatic just makes it easier, but the trauma has been kept to a minimum.”

 

            Grinning, Rei sat back and rested her weight on her hands.  “Now let’s see, what else has been going on?  My friends have all got stuff happening in their lives these days.  Usagi’s started the one year count down for when she can get married.  Though I swear she’d marry Mamoru the second he steps off the plane if her parents would let her.  He should be home the middle of next month, just in time for Mako-chan to have the baby.  She’s due in a few weeks, you know.  The whole thing still seems a little strange sometimes, but she and Ami are really happy.  Plus, it’s fun watching Ami get all wrapped up in something other than school for a change.  Turns out she’s a hoverer, and she’s got the rest of us babysitting Mako-chan when she can’t be around to do it herself.”  Rei laughed to herself as she sat forward and brought her knees up to her chest.  “Tomorrow’s my turn, actually, but I don’t think Mako-chan minds.  Because no matter how much she says she’s ready for this, she’s got to be a little scared.  Just so long as we don’t baby her too much, I can tell she’s glad to have us around.

 

            “I’m meeting all of them at the park with Mina in a little while,” went on Rei as her chin rested on her knees.  She idly turned the gold band on her finger and smiled.  “Things with her are going really great.  I swear I love her even more now than when I first started telling you about her.  Somehow, we’ve survived everything that’s been thrown at us, and she’s telling the truth when she says she has no regrets.  Disappointments, yes, but neither of us regrets what we’ve done.  And I’m not afraid of forever anymore.”

 

            After a moment of silence, Rei stood and brushed off the seat of her jeans.  “I have to get going, but I’ll visit again soon.  Bye, Mom.”

 

            As she turned to leave, a warm breeze picked up and blew against her back, pushing her hair over her shoulder and bringing down a rain of cherry blossoms from the trees around her.  Rei closed her eyes and smiled.  Tucking her hair away from her face, she looked back over her shoulder.  “I love you, too.  And I’ll bring her with me next time, I promise.”

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Minako flipped on the radio in the bedroom, then hurried to get dressed so she wouldn’t be late meeting the others.  Plus, she wanted to find out where Rei had run off to without her.

 

            The song she was singing along to tapered off, and the DJ came on with his weather and cherry blossom watching reports.  “Looks like we’re being smiled down on today, people, because we’ve got another sunny one ahead for all of you heading out to Ichinohashi Park, which is, of course, the best spot we could find to take it all in.  The blooms in that park are at their fullest today, so get out there and have some fun while you can.  We’ve gotten word that Hoshigara Elementary already has their picnic area set up.  Megumi-sensei says don’t forget your sketch pads, kids!  For the rest of you, remember that the south corner of the park has been rented out to a private party for the day, so plan your own party around it.  And with that, we bring you the latest number one tear-jerker from the Princess of Lost Love herself.  Here’s Nakusu Ai singing ‘Falling.’”

 

            Minako reached over and turned off the radio.  It was a good song, one of her more recent favorites, but it was also one of the most depressing things she’d ever heard.  That just wasn’t the mood she was in right now.  She finished dressing, humming to herself as she did, then called to Artemis and took off for the park.

 

            Coming up on the south end of the park, the first thing Minako noticed was the crowd.  People were pushed in tight, trying to see over and around each other, as well as a rope barrier, several vans, and what looked like television equipment.  Her curiosity growing by the second, Minako moved closer, but realized pretty quickly she wasn’t going to get very far.

 

            “Mina, what are you doing?” asked Artemis from his place on her shoulder as Minako stopped and quickly looked around.

 

            As stealthily as she could, Minako began to sidle her way towards one of the vans that faced away from the crowd.  “I want to see what’s going on,” she answered, pressing herself against the side of the van, which forced Artemis to jump down from her shoulder.  She grinned down and whispered loudly to the cat, “Come on, Artemis.  You’re just as curious as I am.”

 

            “Curiosity and cats don’t mix well,” mumbled Artemis.

 

            Minako began inching her way forward across the side of the van, not really listening as the white cat talked to her.  She could hear other people talking now, and a man shouting out curt commands, but couldn’t see anything good from this spot.  So, keeping her head below the tinted glass of the driver’s window, Minako peeked around the front of the vehicle and smiled widely at the scene of organized chaos that greeted her eyes.

 

            The people she presumed were the workers were running around tinkering with equipment and setting up what was going to be their next shot.  She still couldn’t see the man she heard shouting orders, though.  A boy in glasses caught her eye as he ran passed with a bottle of water and something he’d grabbed off the food table.  She watched him hurry over to a canopied trailer, and her eyes widened in excitement at what she saw.  Nakusu Ai, live and in person, practically right in front of her close enough to touch.  Just wait until she told the others about this!

 

            And then her view was effectively cut off by a pair of black jeans and a white t-shirt stretched over an extremely tall and muscular man with a shiny bald head and dark sunglasses.  Minako slowly stood to her full height, her head tilting back so she could look up into his humorless face.  She grinned and laughed nervously, her mind quickly running through all the best excuses she could think of for her presence here.

 

            The security guard crossed his arms over his chest and glared down at her.  But before Minako could begin to form her explanation of why she was there, she realized someone else was shouting at her.  She looked around the mountain of a man in front of her and saw a man pointing and gesturing almost frantically at her. 

 

            “You, new girl!  You aren’t the one who gets paid to stand around and look pretty.  That’s what her majesty over there is for,” called the man who had been shouting orders at everyone.  His face was reddening from exertion under his graying beard, and at the pace he seemed to be going, Minako understood why.   “Now get that box over to Colleen so we can get this done!”

 

            Minako started to object, to tell him that she wasn’t who he thought she was, but he turned away before she had the chance.  She frowned in confusion, then looked back up at the security guard, who only shrugged and stepped aside.  Not knowing what else to do, Minako shrugged also, then took a few steps back and bent down to get Artemis.

 

            “That’s a good kitty,” she said in exaggerated cutesiness to him as she scratched around his ears.  “I have something I have to do, so you go find your friends.”  Then she added in a quick whisper, “And tell them I’ll be late.”

 

            Artemis nodded to her and meowed once for good measure before running off.

 

            Minako stood and turned back to the security guard.  “Um, you don’t happen to know what box he was talking about, do you?”

 

            Without saying anything or looking away from her, the security guard pointed to a man in a gray, button-down shirt.

 

            Minako smiled at him brightly.  “Thanks,” she said before going over to the box man.

 

            After a quick conversation and a silent confirmation from the security guard that she was indeed supposed to be there and in possession of “The Box,” Minako was on the hunt for Colleen.  It took a few tries, but she was finally pointed to a petite woman atop a folding ladder who was toying with one of the large lights.

 

            Standing at the bottom of the ladder and holding “The Box” with its unspecified contents, Minako called up, “Colleen?”

 

            Without turning away from what she was doing, Colleen answered, “It’s about time you got here, Iroki.  Senzo’s been running around just begging to give himself a heart attack because he thinks we’re running over.”  Colleen laughed, then looked down at Minako.  Her laughter was cut short as she said, “You’re not Iroki.”

 

            Minako shook her head.  “No, sorry.  I’m Minako.”

 

            “Where’s Iroki?”

 

            Minako shrugged.

 

            Colleen slid down off the ladder and stood in front of Minako.  She ran a hand through the mop of short, dark curls on her head before readjusting the dark rims of her glasses over her hazel eyes to better look at the blonde in front of her.  From her looks and name, Minako had been expecting some kind of foreign accent, but when Colleen spoke to her, it was with perfect Japanese.

 

            Except that Colleen wasn’t speaking to her at the moment.  Instead, she was walking away and calling rather annoyedly for someone named Senzo.  Minako, for lack of anything else to do, followed after her, never once abandoning her duty to ‘The Box.’

 

            After shouting his name at him in close proximity several times, Senzo finally turned around to acknowledge her.  “Did the new girl find you?” he asked, not bothering with why Colleen was looking for him in the first place.  “Is that damn light fixed yet?”

 

            Having worked with this man for the last five years, Colleen was used to him and his eccentricities.  She also knew how to ignore his questions and get answers to her own, regardless of the roundabout responses he had a tendency to give.  “I can’t fix it if I don’t have my staff.  Where’s Iroki?”

 

            “Who?” asked Senzo, genuinely confused by the question.

 

            Colleen rolled her eyes.  “The new girl,” she clarified.  “Where is she?”

 

            “She’s standing right behind you,” answered Senzo, pointing behind Colleen to Minako.

 

            “I don’t know who she is,” shot back Colleen, “but she isn’t Iroki.”

 

            Senzo turned to Minako then.  “You’re not the new girl?”  When Minako shook her head, he asked, “Then who are you and why are you holding that box?”

 

            Minako took a step forward and bowed as best she could with ‘The Box’ in front of her.  “Aino Minako, sir.  And you asked me to take this to Colleen, so…”

 

            Senzo nodded, remembering that part.  Then he asked, “Do you even work for me?”

 

            Again, Minako shook her head.

 

            “Do you want to?”

 

            The question caught Minako off guard, and she hesitated just long enough for Senzo to find an answer for her.

 

            “Good, you’re hired,” said Senzo firmly.  “You belong to Colleen.  Do whatever it is she tells you.”  Then he looked back at Colleen, who was staring at him with her mouth gaping in disbelief.  “She’s the new girl.  Now go fix that blasted light!  We’re burning daylight and money here!”

 

            Colleen didn’t even have a chance to answer as her boss moved quickly on to another person and issue.  So, instead, she looked over at Minako and grinned.  Sounding much friendlier than she had a moment ago, she said, “I suppose I should be used to that by now.  Anyway, I need to stop being so rude and introduce myself properly.  Minako, right?”

 

            Minako smiled back at her.  “Yes.”

 

            Mitsukari Colleen.  Do you really want a job?  It’s okay if you say no, I promise.”

 

            Minako thought about it for a moment, then answered honestly, “I’m not sure.  What is it I’m supposed to be doing?”

 

            “Well, for starters, you can bring that box over this way and set it down.”  As Minako followed her back over to the broken light, Colleen studied her through sideways glances before finally saying, “You look really familiar to me.  I know you’ve never worked for us before, so where have I seen you?”

 

            Minako shifted the box a bit, then laughed lightly, hoping it would cover up the sudden shot of nervousness she felt.  “I think I just have one of those faces.  Everyone thinks they know me.”

 

            “I guess,” shrugged Colleen.  Then she asked, “Are you still in school?”

 

            “Mm hm, my last year,” answered Minako as she set the box down.

 

            “Same as Iroki,” said Colleen as she bent to rummage around in the box.  When she found what she was looking for, she got back on the ladder, but kept talking to Minako the whole time.  “Well, you’d be taking over her job, obviously.  We need someone around the office after hours, when the regular staff has gone home, but we’re boneheaded enough to still be working.  Hours are four to eight, Monday to Friday, though you might be needed at other times, like today.  Officially, you’ll be my part time assistant, but what it really translates to is you’d be a gopher for anyone who needs something from you.”

 

            “What is it you do?”

 

            “I fix things,” answered Colleen with a smirk that left Minako feeling like she was missing something.  “The man running around and shouting at everyone is Hagino Senzo.  He’s usually a bit more calm, though not by much, and he’s terrible with names, so don’t ever expect him to remember yours.  And he owns all of us, since it’s his company.”

 

            Minako’s eyes widened at that piece of information.  Hagino?  As in Hagino Music Productions?”

 

            “Good girl.  You read the backs of your cds.”  Colleen finished tightening one thing, tied off another, then looked down at Minako.  “So, still interested in the job?  I will warn you, though.  You may see some interesting things from time to time, but the job itself isn’t always fun and can get downright boring.”

 

            Minako looked around at all the people running around, setting things up, or tinkering with equipment or a temperamental young idol.  Somehow, she doubted things could ever get truly boring.  But there was just one small snag.  “I am interested,” she answered tentatively.  “But I already have a job I can’t just walk out on.  There are some people I’m going to need to talk to first, before I can give you a definite answer.”

 

            Colleen nodded in understanding.  “That’s fair enough.  I’d really appreciate it, though, if you hung around for a few hours.  I could use the help, and we could call it a trial so we both know what we’re getting into.”

 

            “Sure,” answered Minako.  “But I’ll have to call my friends and let them know where I am.  I was supposed to meet them here this morning.”

 

            “Do you need a phone?” asked Colleen, automatically reaching for the one clipped to the pocket of her jeans.

 

            “No, thank you.  I’ve got one of my own,” replied Minako, pulling hers from her pocket and holding it up.

 

            “You know, when I was your age, we had to use payphones,” quipped Colleen.  Then she redirected her thoughts as she made the final adjustments to the wiring.  “So, is one of these people you need to call your husband?”

 

            Minako looked at her, surprised, until Colleen held up her hand and tapped her ring finger with her thumb.  Minako smiled as she twisted the ring around her finger.  “I forget sometimes that people can see it now,” she admitted.  Then added just a bit hesitantly, “And, actually, she’s my wife.”

 

            Colleen’s hands stopped in the middle of what they were doing, and she looked down at Minako with raised eyebrows.  “Really,” she said, clearly surprised.  Then she chuckled and shook her head.  “You’re a unique one, Aino Minako.  I can tell that already.  I think it’s going to be fun having you around.”

 

*            *            *

 

            The others had beaten her to the park with enough time to get the picnic blanket and first round of goodies set out.  Rei spotted Makoto first, sitting in a green folding chair with Chibi-usa on the blanket at her feet.  The little girl was sipping bright blue liquid from a squat soda bottle while Usagi and Ami stood talking to some tow-headed kid with a camera and school ID around his neck.  This boy wasn’t the blonde she’d wanted to see when she got here, and the fact that Artemis was sitting there right beside Luna made Rei wonder even more about Minako’s whereabouts.

 

            The first thing Rei heard as she walked up to them was the boy thanking her friends for letting him take their picture.  Well, that pretty much answered the question she felt like asking anyway.  “Hey, guys.  What’s going on?”

 

            The grin on the boy’s face grew into one that seemed slightly familiar to Rei as Usagi answered, “We’re getting our picture taken for the school paper and maybe the yearbook.  Chio-kun is working for both today.”

 

            The boy, Chio, nodded.  “I’d like to get one of you, also, Hino-sempai.  And one of everyone together.”  He hesitated for a moment, then asked, “Um, Aino-sempai wouldn’t, by chance, be close behind you, would she?”

 

            Rei thought he looked just a little too hopeful when he asked that.  “Actually, I don’t know where she is.  We didn’t leave together.  You guys know anything?” she asked, directing the question back to her friends.

 

            “She was slightly sidetracked by something,” answered Ami, silently promising to explain further once their unexpected guest had left.  “We’re not sure how long she’ll be.”

 

            “Oh,” replied Rei.  “Well, anyway kid, I’m not big on having my picture taken these days.  Especially for anything having to do with a newspaper.”

 

            Chio’s smile began to fade into disappointment.  “Please, Sempai?  Just for a group shot and one with Aino-sempai when she gets here.”

 

            Rei frowned and answered pointedly, “No.”

 

            The boy faltered, stumbling over his words as he searched his pockets in what was becoming a near desperate state.  Finally, he pulled out a piece of paper and stuttered, “But you’re on the list.  If I don’t come back with a picture of you and Aino-sempai, Yukari will hurt me.”

 

            Rei narrowed her eyes at Chio and took the list he was holding up.  She scanned it quickly, noting places and people that had been specified and a few crossed off.  Towards the bottom, her eyes stopped on one item that read, ‘Kino and Mizuno – cute factor.  I don’t care if you have to beg.’  She would have found that very amusing if, right beneath it, Minako’s name hadn’t been written twice as big as everything else and underlined three times.  And below Minako’s name was a bulleted sub-list:  *Group with friends – the usual 5.  *With Tsukino for the look-a-like’s page.  *With Hino.  *Backdrop of blossoms – come back without and I’ll hurt you (I know where you sleep).

 

            Rei looked up from the list and glared at the boy almost unintentionally.  She held the list so he could see it and pointed to Minako’s name.  “Okay, who is this ‘Yukari’ and why does she want so many pictures of my wife?”

 

            Chio paled under Rei’s stare.  Makoto was the first to come to the poor kid’s rescue.  “You’re scaring him, Rei,” she said with an amused grin.  “And don’t worry about Yukari.  She’s his sister and in the drama club with Minako.  Their dad’s one of the guidance counselors at school.”

 

            “She’s in our class, too,” added Usagi.  “And the assistant editor of the school paper, and I think she’s on the yearbook staff this year, also.”

 

            Chio nodded to confirm this, his green eyes wide as he waited for Rei’s reaction.  “All right,” said Rei.  “That tells me who she is.  So what’s the big fascination with Minako?”

 

            Ami grinned as she answered, “You know how Minako always teases you about having fangirls?  Well, Itoh-san is something of the Minako equivalent to that.  Minako is the star of the drama club, naturally social, and somewhat larger than life.  With Itoh-san’s penchant for over-exaggerated gossip, Minako was just the perfect target for her.”

 

            “Exaggerated gossip?” mumbled Rei as the missing pieces fell together behind her narrowed eyes.  Then those eyes opened wider as one particular piece clicked into place.  “Wait a minute.  Prince Haruka?”

 

            Usagi giggled as all three of them nodded.  Chibi-usa looked as confused at that question as Chio did.  She wanted to know what it meant and decided to ask Rei later.

 

            Rei laughed and shook her head.  “Okay, now I remember who she is.”  Then she leveled a calmer gaze back at Chio.  “But that doesn’t mean I want my picture taken or anyone stalking Minako to get a bunch of her.”

 

            Ami’s cell phone interrupted the boy’s silence.  All eyes turned to her as she reached into her pocket.  “Hello?  Hi Minako.  Are you okay?  Your friend relayed your message to us.”

 

            Rei took a few steps closer to Ami as the girl nodded to what was being said to her.  She wanted to talk to Minako, but this seemed to be shaping up into a conversation just between the other two.

 

            “Yes, I know,” answered Ami with a fond sort of annoyance.  “Mako-chan is the same way.  She completely misses my point about those things not being for personal use.  Her own phone would be much more convenient.”

 

            Rei and Makoto both gave Ami and her conversation a slighted frown.  “You know, I think I’ve just been insulted,” muttered Makoto.

 

            Chibi-usa nodded and handed her up a bottle of bright pink soda to commiserate.

 

            Finally, Ami handed the phone over to Rei, grinning as she did.  “She’d like to speak with you.”

 

            “Okay,” said Rei into the phone.  “What’s going on?  I haven’t heard any of this yet.”

 

            Rei listened as Minako explained what it was that had held her up.  Her eyes grew round as her jaw fell open.  “You’ve got to be kidding me.  There’s no way.”  She looked over to the cats, and Artemis gave her a quick, subtle nod.  As Minako did the same thing verbally, Rei laughed.  “I want to see this for myself.  Sit tight and keep an eye out for me.  I’ll be over there in a few minutes.”  She folded the phone and handed it back to Ami.  “I’m going over to see what she’s up to.”

 

            Rei had taken three steps when Usagi’s voice stopped her.  Blue eyes looked over to Chio, who was still standing there, his hands holding on to his camera and a childishly hopeful expression on his face.

 

            Rei sighed in defeat.  “All right,” she said.  “You can come with me.  But,” she added sharply, “you may only take one picture.  Understand?”

 

            The boy grinned widely.  “Yes, Sempai.  Thank you,” he babbled out excitedly.  He moved quickly to Rei, and as she turned and began walking away, he hurried to keep up, deliberately staying one step behind her as they walked.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Colleen wiped the back of her hand across her brow, not caring about the small streak of dirt it left behind.  Her dark, curly bangs would cover most of it anyway.  She slid down off the ladder she was on, tossed a few tools into the box on the ground, then scanned the area for the two people she needed to find.

 

            Senzo was being annoyingly quiet at the moment, so her short walk found her Minako first.  Colleen stopped and stood not far from where the blonde was with two people she assumed were her friends.  The boy had a camera and was snapping pictures as Minako smiled happily and posed in front of one of the smaller cherry blossom trees.  A dark haired girl stood beside the boy, her arms crossed over her chest in an unhappy manner.

 

            Colleen tapped the knuckle of her index finger against her lips.  She watched as Minako waved the girl to her, only to have the girl very adamantly shake her head ‘no.’  Not caring about the protests she was receiving, Minako pulled the girl to her and wrapped her arms around the girl’s shoulders, holding her there so the boy could snap off a few more photos.  The dark haired girl smirked at something that was whispered in her ear, and that was when it clicked.

 

            Colleen laughed loud enough to draw a few curious stares.  ‘I knew I’d seen you before,’ she thought with a grin.

 

            Senzo appeared beside her, not terribly interested in what she found amusing.  He only wanted one thing.  “Is that damn light fixed yet?”

 

            Without looking at him, Colleen answered flatly, “Yes, that damn light is fixed.  That should be everything.  Of course, if you’d get some new equipment…”  She let the sentence trail, having said it enough in the past for Senzo not to need it completed.

 

            Senzo grinned at her, a brief window of amusement appearing in his otherwise frantic nature.  “I have you.  I don’t need new equipment.”

 

            Colleen turned to smirk at him at the same time Senzo looked over to see what she was staring at.  “What the hell?” he muttered before starting forward towards Minako’s group.  “Hey, you, Shutterbug Jr.!  What are you doing on my set with a camera?”

 

            Colleen stayed where she was and waited to see how far Senzo would go.  If it looked like he was really going to scare them, she would help out.  She hoped Senzo wouldn’t actually scare off or run off this particular ‘new girl.’  She like her and wanted to keep her.

 

            A few minutes later, Senzo was waving to her with one of his hands resting on the shutterbug’s shoulder.  “Colleen!  Get this kid over to Red!  I told you we didn’t need to hire a professional to get shots of the crew!”

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Minako walked slowly to the sitting room, carefully balancing the serving tray she carried.  Rei followed beside her, now silent after the discussion they’d had while Minako was preparing the tea.  She understood why Minako wanted to do this.  Getting Grandpa’s permission to take this new job was important to her, just as showing him the proper respect while doing so was.  Minako considered this not only good manners, but as the least she could do for the man who had taken her in, treated her as if she were his own granddaughter, and not asked for a single thing in return.

 

            The little creamer on the tray bobbled as Minako reached to open the door.  A tiny splash of cream dribbled down its side and around the plate of cookies as she quickly rebalanced the tray.  One of Rei’s hands touched her arm to help steady her as the other reached around her and opened the door.  Minako gave her a grateful smile and either didn’t notice or just ignored the small gap Rei left between the door and its jamb after Minako had gone through.

 

            Grandpa sat atop a dark floor pillow, his arms folded with his hands tucked into his sleeves.  He waited patiently as Minako set the tray on the table in front of him, righted the two china teacups, and filled them.  When she was finished, Minako sat across from Grandpa and waited until he’d lifted his own cup before reaching for hers.

 

            Several quiet minutes passed before Grandpa set his cup back on its saucer and smiled at the girl across from him.  “Very good,” he said approvingly.  “I’m very impressed.  Now, I believe there was something you wanted to speak with me about?”

 

            Minako nodded and began her tale of what had happened the day before at the park.  Her smile grew as she described the people she’d met and the odd sort of chaos they embodied.  As she shifted to the details of the job she’d been offered, she settled down and became more serious.  She went through every point she’d rehearsed with her mirror perfectly, acknowledging everything he’d done for her and how thankful she was, promising to keep up with her schoolwork and still help Rei with the chores, and finally, very respectfully, asking for his consent.

 

            Grandpa steepled his fingers in front of him, the expression on his face one of contemplation as he looked at the girl before him, her head bowed respectfully.  An expression that would have been perfect had it not been for the grin tugging at the corner of his mouth, which Minako missed completely.  Clearing his throat once, he nodded and, sounding very serious, said, “Yes, yes, that all sounds very interesting, and the responsibility of an outside job could be good for you.  However, even though it sounds like you’ve thought this through a great deal, I must question if you’ve really considered what all of the consequences may be.  Not only for you, but for the shrine as well.”

 

            Minako was chewing nervously on her lip as she raised her head.  “I believe I know how it will affect me, Grandpa, and I’m willing to accept that responsibility.  I did talk it over with Rei, and I think we worked out a good way to deal with our chores.  If you would tell me what other concerns you have, perhaps we could talk them over and find a way to work something out?”

 

            “My concern isn’t just with the workload shifting back to Rei.  It’s with the shrine itself.  You see, a shrine without pretty girls is like a night without stars,” said Grandpa sagely.  “Having two pretty, young shrine maidens working here attracts the same and is good for business.  And, as you know, I am terribly concerned with the spiritual wellbeing of the young women who come here.  Why, Rei herself could tell you how I’ve dedicated my remaining life to helping set them on the path to maturity and guiding them into the reality of true enlightenment.”

 

            Minako’s eyebrows knit together as she asked slowly, “Path to maturity?”

 

            “Yes,” answered Grandpa with a curt nod.

 

            “And the reality of true enlightenment?”

 

            “Absolutely.”

 

            Minako smirked, for the first time seeing the glint in Grandpa’s dark eyes and knowing without a doubt this was where Rei got it from.  “And you think having both me and Rei here, after all the wonderful publicity we’ve gotten lately, is going to bring in even more pretty young girls for you to help ‘enlighten?’”

 

            “That has become my most earnest prayer,” replied Grandpa solemnly.

 

            Minako’s cheeks puffed out as she tried to hold in her giggles.  A few escaped, but a deep breath took care of those that didn’t.  Then she smiled prettily at him and said, “I hate to say this, Grandpa, but I don’t think any of the pretty, young girls who would come to the shrine because of me and Rei would be all that interested in taking a stroll down any ‘path’ with you, or any guy, for that matter.  Besides, if any of those girls ever tried to lure my Rei down such a path, I’m afraid I’d be forced to offer them my own form of ‘enlightenment.’  Or worse, think of what your granddaughter’s very unmiko-like reaction would be should she find herself with the shoe on the other hand.  Are you really okay with tempting Rei’s evil temperament so much by allowing me to stay in the presence and adoring glow of a bunch of pretty, young girls?”

 

            Grandpa sighed heavily and his shoulders slumped.  “I suppose you have a point.  You are a bit of a distraction, and would probably be better off working somewhere else.  Still, it was a nice thing while it lasted.”

 

            Grinning ear to ear, Minako scooted over until she was sitting next to him.  “Aw, my poor, poor Grandpa,” she said consolingly.  “But you still have a very beautiful Rei to attract all those pretty young things, even if she is a bit temperamental about it.  And I’ll still be here to help out on weekends.”

 

            Grandpa’s exaggerated sorrow quickly shifted to a happy, lecherous little smile.  He leaned closer to whisper something that Rei couldn’t hear from where she was standing on the other side of the door.  She did, however, hear Minako’s shocked gasp of, “Grandpa!” and the giggles that followed it.  Then she saw Minako lean down and kiss Grandpa’s forehead.

 

            The door to the room slid aside quickly, and Rei stepped in, a frown on her face.  She crossed her arms and looked down disapprovingly at Minako and her grandfather, addressing them as if they were two wayward children.  “Okay, that’s enough of that.  I’ve told you before you should know better than to be doing stuff like that, Grandpa.”

 

            “Like what?” he asked innocently.

 

            “Like whatever it is you just said to her,” answered Rei.  Then she said to Minako, “And you.  Don’t encourage him.  He’s bad enough as it is.”

 

            “Oh, Rei, don’t be so mean,” pouted Minako cutely.  “You should be nicer to your grandfather.  He’s such a sweetie.”

 

            Rei rolled her eyes.  “If you say so.  Don’t you need to call that Colleen person tonight?”

 

            “That’s right,” answered Minako.  She stood quickly.  “Need to do that before it gets too late.”  Before leaving she turned back to Grandpa and bowed one more time.  “This shouldn’t take too long.  Then I’ll come back and we can finish our tea.”

 

            Grandpa nodded, and as Minako left the room, Rei sat down beside him.  She pushed one of the cookies around on its little china plate and said without looking up at him, “Thank you for letting her do this.”

 

            With a smile, Grandpa answered, “She must choose her own path.  It’s not my place to try and decide for her.  Besides, I could tell she was beginning to get bored with working here.”

 

            Rei grinned as she picked up the cookie and tumbled it between her fingers.  “Something like that.  She had fun for awhile, though.  Her star just needs a little more happening on a daily basis.”

 

            “What about your star?”

 

            Rei smirked.  “My star has enough trying to deal with you and your idea of ‘enlightenment.’”

 

            Grandpa laughed, then reached for his teacup.  “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Rei.  Even if you are terribly mean to your old Grandpa.”

 

*            *            *

 

            Chibi-usa sat on the floor sandwiched between the side of Hotaru’s bed and Hotaru herself.  The dark-haired girl was half lying in Chibi-usa’s lap, down far enough so the back of her head could rest against Chibi-usa’s shoulder.  Her eyes were closed, and her breathing was mostly even, disturbed only by the occasional giggle or silly grin.

 

            On Chibi-usa’s command, Hotaru took a deep breath and began to let it out slowly as Chibi-usa counted.  She managed to make it all the way to six this time before Hotaru’s even breath turned into a barely contained laugh.

 

            Chibi-usa grinned and bopped Hotaru on the head.  “Hey, come on, now,” she said, trying to act like the serious instructor, but failing because of her own amusement.  “You’re supposed to be relaxing.  So stop laughing all the time.”

 

            “I am relaxed.  See?” smiled Hotaru as she held up her right arm with her wrist hanging slack.

 

            Chibi-usa took hold of the upraised arm near the elbow and gave it a little shake.  Hotaru’s hand flopped up and down limply, proving its relaxed state.  Then Chibi-usa moved it from side to side, still encountering no resistance.  “Okay, you’re relaxed,” she agreed with a nod.  She raised the hand she held and patted Hotaru’s cheek with it.  “Good girl.”

 

            “Silly,” laughed Hotaru as she claimed back her arm and rolled onto her stomach beside the ice cream bowl they were sharing.  She picked up her spoon and swirled around the soupy chocolate and butterscotch mixture before swallowing a spoonful.  When Chibi-usa joined her, she went on, “But I was already relaxed when we started.  So were you.  I don’t think practicing will work if we’re both already relaxed to begin with.”

 

            Chibi-usa nodded around her ice cream.  “Well,” she started as she swallowed, “everyone seemed more like they were playing than practicing when Ami and Makoto came over last weekend after they all got done at the hospital.  But I think you’re right.  They’re probably a lot more serious when they do that stuff in class.”

 

            Hotaru slowly swallowed another spoonful of melted ice cream before saying, “So what we need is someone who’s serious and tense.”

 

            Chibi-usa nodded with her spoon hanging from her mouth.  For a moment, Hotaru imitated the action.  Then their eyes met and held steady as identical grins spread across their faces.  Two spoons dropped quickly into the chocolaty remains of the ice cream as both girls bolted for the hallway.

 

 

            She had been sitting in the house’s small library, her feet propped up comfortably on the leather ottoman that matched the large chair she was most fond of, when she heard their voices and stampeding feet coming down the hall.  Setsuna had lowered the book she held, using her finger to keep her place, and waited.  Even expecting them, however, she still jumped just a fraction as the door was flung open and the two girls came flying into the room.  Now, she sat with Hotaru on one side of her and Chibi-usa on the other, listening as they explained to her why she wasn’t relaxed enough and how they could help her with that if she would let them practice on her.  She was almost afraid to ask what it was they wanted to practice.

 

            “What Ami and Mako-chan showed us,” answered Chibi-usa.

 

            “For when Mako-chan has the baby,” explained Hotaru further.  “They were practicing at Chibi-usa’s last weekend.”

 

            “Except Hotaru wasn’t there,” added Chibi-usa.  “So I said I would show her how to do the relaxing breathing stuff, since we all need to know how to keep Mako-chan calm until Ami can get her to the hospital.  But we need someone who really needs to relax so we know if it’s working or not.”

 

            “Hotaru, Small Lady,” began Setsuna, giving each girl a small, indulgent smile.  “I think it’s very commendable that you want to be able to help Makoto when the time comes.  However, I am actually very relaxed at the moment, so it wouldn’t work any better with me than it was with you upstairs.”

 

            Hotaru pulled Setsuna’s arm up from the chair arm and gave it a light shake.  Ignoring the raised eyebrow her mother gave her, Hotaru concentrated on the stiffness in her wrist.  Shaking her head sadly, Hotaru pronounced, “Nope, Setsuna-mama, you’re all tense.  See?” asked Hotaru as she gave the arm another jiggle and got the same result.

 

            Setsuna opened her mouth to protest once again, but was stopped by Chibi-usa’s almost pitiful plea of, “Please, Puu?”  She looked down at the girl, her lower lip now pouting out and her eyes all round and sad looking.  Then, against her better judgment, she looked back at Hotaru, knowing full well what she was going to see was going to kill her resolve completely.  And sure enough, she saw those large violet eyes staring back at her in a heartbreaking puppy dog stare that was so much like one of Haruka’s it was frightening.  And entirely effective.

 

            Setsuna sighed and hung her head in defeat.  “All right,” she said quietly, reaching for the ribbon on the book’s spine to mark her place.  “I’ll help you practice.  Let’s go into the den.”

 

            Both girls cheered and helped to pull Setsuna to her feet.  She couldn’t help but smile at their enthusiasm as they drug her out of the library and to the den.

 

           

            Michiru finished cleaning off her brushes and put the last of her supplies away.  She stepped back over to the canvas she’d been working on for the better part of the day, observing it with a critical eye.  There was still something not quite right.  Perhaps tomorrow she could get Haruka to come and sit with her for a bit while she worked on it.  More often than not, just the simple presence of her partner helped her to find that missing something.

 

            Finally deciding she was completely done for the day, Michiru turned off the light in the room and went to find her family.  She knew Haruka was outside in the garage toying with the cars, though she’d lost the last of the sunlight an hour ago.  She wasn’t sure what plans Setsuna had for the day, and the girls had been unusually quiet for the last few hours.  She wondered if perhaps the three of them had gone out and she hadn’t noticed because of how occupied she’d been with her own task.  She was ready to accept this as the most likely explanation when she heard music drifting softly from the den.  Wondering what might be going on and why they’d put one of her old concert recordings on, Michiru walked up to the double doors that led to the den and slowly pushed one open.  What she saw brought a very amused smile to her face.

 

            The lights were turned down low to match the quiet tone of the music.  Setsuna sat on the floor, leaning against one of the couches with pillows propped behind her back and under her feet, her head tilted forward and her eyes closed.  Chibi-usa sat behind her on the couch, dutifully massaging her neck and shoulders.  Hotaru was on the floor at her stockinged feet giving the same concentrated attention to each one in turn.  The little girl laid one foot aside gently and was reaching for the other when she noticed Michiru standing in the doorway.

 

            “Hi, Michiru-mama,” greeted Hotaru happily.  “Did you get your painting finished?”

 

            Michiru swallowed a laugh as Setsuna instantly tensed up at the mention of another person’s presence.  “Not quite, Hotaru.  Tomorrow, perhaps.  So, what have the three of you been up to?”

 

            Chibi-usa and Hotaru gave her the quick rundown of what had brought them here and what they were trying to do.  “But I think she’s all tense again,” said Chibi-usa as she lifted and dropped a stiff arm back onto Setsuna’s thigh.

 

            Setsuna cleared her throat, then opened her eyes to look at Michiru’s elegantly smirking face.  Resigning herself to the fact that she was never going to hear the end of it, Setsuna decided she might as well take advantage of this while she could.  So she ignored Michiru and instead addressed the girls.  “Perhaps I am still a bit tense.  A little more practice might be in order.  You’re both doing very well, by the way.”  She wiggled her toes as both girls grinned at the praise and set back to their tasks, Chibi-usa taking on the role of breathing coach for this round.

 

            Michiru didn’t even bother trying to hide her laughter this time.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Lying on the couch with her feet propped up on the arm, Makoto watched Ami as she finished setting up the mini planetarium Setsuna and Hotaru had given them.  Well, given Bug was probably more accurate.  The planetarium, like the brown, stuffed bunny Makoto was playing with at the moment, had been gifts for the baby shower all their friends had surprised them with this afternoon.  They’d even managed to surprise Ami, though she’d been in on it from the beginning.  A small campaign of disinformation from everyone, including her mother, had seen to that.  So when Rei came over to show off her license and new found driving skills, Ami honestly had no idea where they were being driven to or why.  Makoto found herself more grateful for that than anything else she’d been given today.

 

            “That should do it,” said Ami as she placed the top cover over the black dome of the base.  She stood to turn the lamp off, then reached back toward the coffee table to switch on the planetarium.

 

            The ceiling was suddenly bathed in tiny points of light that flowed down onto the walls.  Ami had chosen the filter for the constellations, so Makoto wasn’t certain, but she thought she could see the Big Dipper in the mass of stars.  Ami touched another switch on the black base, and the stars began a slow, lazy crawl across the livingroom.  With the nighttime breeze coming in through the open windows and the sound of crickets mixed with the evening traffic, the room was given a calmer, gentler feel.

 

            Ami grinned at her handiwork and then moved back to the couch.  She carefully lifted the pillow from under Makoto’s head and replaced it with her own lap.  Her fingers twirled around the end of Makoto’s ponytail while Makoto played with the ears on the bunny that sat atop her belly.  She had finally graduated from the ‘basketball stage’ to the ‘beach ball stage’ according to Ami’s mother.  Ami chuckled lightly thinking that Makoto hadn’t found that quite as amusing as the rest of them had.

 

            Makoto tilted her head back and stared up at her partner when she heard that little bit of sound.  “What’s so funny?” she asked, reaching to give the round, blue ‘I’m the Daddy’ button pinned to Ami’s shirt a flick.  The yellow sticky note with ‘Ami-mama’ printed on it was still there underneath it, also, and Ami didn’t seem in any hurry to remove either.

 

            Ami shook her head and answered, “Nothing really.  I was just thinking about something.”

 

            Makoto rolled her eyes and groaned.  “It’s not that ‘let’s use string to guess how wide around Makoto is’ game, is it?  Because if it is, I’m never speaking to you again.  And I think someone needed to reiterate that part to Haruka.  It was wide, not tall, wide.”

 

            Ami chuckled a little harder at the memory of the length of string Haruka had taken.

 

            “I knew it,” said Makoto indignantly.  “That is what you were thinking about!  Finding amusement in my humiliation.”

 

            “I wasn’t Mako-chan, honest,” swore Ami, though she had to admit it had been funny.  Even if she wouldn’t admit it out loud.  “I was just thinking of something my mother said.”

 

            Makoto smirked evilly, then said, “Potty-training Ami?”  She laughed at the look that produced on Ami’s face.  Even with it so dark in the room, she could tell Ami was turning a rather interesting shade of red.  “Don’t worry, sweetie,” added Makoto.  “I’ll still love you no matter how many embarrassing stories your mom decides to tell.”

 

            Ami’s embarrassment slowly began to change back to humor, and she smiled down at Makoto.  Placing a kiss against Makoto’s forehead, she said, “I should thank you for that, I suppose.  And I’ll always love you, no matter how many yards of string around you are.”

 

            Makoto lifted the little bunny up to kiss Ami’s cheek.  When she brought it back down, she settled it against her side, then said, “I wonder if Suu will be jealous of her new siblings?”

 

            At the mention of her favorite stuffed cow, Ami grinned a little wider and went back to playing with Makoto’s ponytail.  “Well, I don’t know how she’ll feel,” she answered as if she were giving this very serious thought.  “But, just to be certain she doesn’t feel left out or less special, perhaps we should keep her in the bedroom with us instead of moving her to the nursery.  She does seem rather fond of her spot on our bed, after all.”

 

            I knew you’d never give her up, thought Makoto amusedly.

 

            The two of them fell into a comfortable silence.  Between the quiet night sounds and the feeling of Ami’s fingers running softly over her hair, Makoto felt herself begin to nod off.  Her eyes had been closed for several moments when a random thought popped into her head, and she had to share.

 

            “When we get a house,” said Makoto softly, “I want to be able to sit with you like this in front of a fireplace.  So we have to make sure we have a fireplace.  And a dishwasher.”

 

            The corners of Ami’s mouth turned up as she replied, “That sounds nice, Mako-chan.  Can we have a pool, also?”

 

            “Definitely,” answered Makoto.  “We have to have a big backyard.  Big enough for a pool, and a swingset, and a tent so we can camp out and do this for real, and you can tell us all the scientific stuff about the stars we’re gazing at.”

 

            “Don’t forget your garden,” added Ami.  “He’s going to be so much like you, and not just with his good looks.  I bet he’ll love helping you with it and being out there digging in the dirt.  Though he may like the worms a bit more than you do.”

 

            Makoto opened her eyes to look up at Ami.  The girl had her head tilted back and was watching the stars as they turned on their ceiling.  For a moment, Makoto thought about the yellow onesie Ami had bought as a shower present.  He’s not only going to be like me, she thought right before she said, “So, you really think he’s going to grow up to be a handsome, yet brainy ‘Laptop Model,’ huh?”

 

            “Yes, I do,” answered Ami almost shyly.

 

            “What if he’s more of a jock?”

 

            “I don’t see a problem with that, either.”

 

            “You wouldn’t be disappointed?  Really?”

 

            Ami’s head nodded slightly before she raised it from the back of the couch to look down into Makoto’s eyes.  “Yes, really,” she answered.  “I would never be disappointed by something like that, and I have every confidence that you will be more than able to handle that aspect of his life.”

 

            “Whew, well, that’s a relief,” said Makoto, sounding as if she’d just been freed of some great burden.

 

            “Why do you say that?” asked Ami, curious as to why this was such a relief to her.  Surely Makoto knew by now she would love this child no matter what.

 

            A teasing grin formed on Makoto’s lips as she answered, “Because I’m sure you’re the one much more qualified to handle the homework part.”

 

            “Mako-chan!”

 

            “Oh, come on, Ami-mama,” laughed Makoto.  “You know it’s true!  Would you really trust me with keeping up your son’s grades?”

 

            “I’m sure you would do just fine with that part as well,” replied Ami, her smile widening at the new mental image of a little boy in a soccer uniform sitting at the kitchen table with his first grade reader.  “However,” she went on, “I wouldn’t mind the responsibility.  Not at all.”

 

            “Homework, wow,” said Makoto almost reverently as the thought really settled over her.  “He’s going to have homework, and practice for whatever sports he plays, and we’re really doing all of this, aren’t we?”

 

            “Yes, we are,” said Ami just as reverently.  Her hand found Makoto’s and laced their fingers together.

 

            Flexing her fingers around Ami’s, Makoto whispered, “Can I tell you a secret?”

 

            “You can tell me anything you want to, Mako-chan.”

 

            Makoto swallowed hard, then said, “I’m just a little bit nervous about all of this.”

 

            For a heartbeat, Ami was silent.  Then she answered, “I am, too.  But I’m still glad we’re doing it.”

 

            “Yeah, me, too,” replied Makoto, closing her eyes and finding comfort in Ami’s nearness.  And hoping that she was giving some of that back in return.  “Me, too.”


*            *            *

 

            Makoto opened the door to the nursery and walked in ahead of Ami’s mother.  “We finally got all of our stuff out of here and unpacked,” she said as Kaya took in the room-in-progress.  “Now we’re trying to get Bug’s stuff into some kind of order.”

 

            “Those last few weeks, I lost track of the number of times I rearranged Ami’s things.  For some reason, I felt the need to keep refolding all of her clothes,” said Kaya as she walked further into the room.  She passed by and ran her fingers over Ami’s old crib, which sat in the middle of the floor.  On the side of the room with the closet, there was a rocking chair and changing table with a few pieces of clothing and blankets folded on top of it.  A dresser was set against the wall on the opposite side.  There was no order to the placement of anything, and Kaya could tell they were still in the process of arranging things, as Makoto had said.  Smiling, Kaya indicated the splotches of paint and doodles that decorated one wall.  “What about that?  I take it you’re planning on repainting?”

 

            Makoto smiled.  “Yeah.  Antique white isn’t a real color.  He’ll get bored looking at it all the time, so I want to redo the room.  I think I like the lightest blue best.  The one Ami did the happy face in,” she said, pointing to the image and brush strokes on the far left beside her own dark blue flowers.

 

            Kaya laughed.  “This is Ami’s artwork, is it?”

 

            Makoto nodded.  “Her artistic abilities lie in her poetry, not her painting.  And I’m betting it will be the others that do most of the actual paint job, since I can’t,” she added, the slightest bit of annoyance creeping into her voice.

 

            “You’ll have enough to deal with yourself,” answered Kaya with some sympathy.  “Let them have this one little thing.”  Then she smiled fondly.  “I always wondered if Ami had kept up with her writing.  It’s been years since she let me read any of the poems she wrote.  I thought perhaps she’d given it up.”

 

            “She still writes,” replied Makoto.  “But she’s shy about it and keeps most of it to herself.  I can’t get her to show me half of what she does.”

 

            The sound of the front door opening caught their attention.  A few minutes later, Ami came into the room.  She stopped beside Makoto, her hand briefly touching the girl’s back.  “Hi, Mom,” she said happily.  “I was hoping I’d get back before you got here.  I got everything on the list, Mako-chan.  They only had regular peanut butter this time, though.”

 

            “That’s okay,” replied Makoto.  “I’ll gladly take whatever I can get.”

 

            Kaya smiled as she watched her girls.  Then she remembered the small matter that had brought her here earlier than planned.  Her voice even, she began, “I’ve had a nice visit with Makoto while we waited for you.  And you were only out taking care of your responsibilities, which is something I’m glad to see.  I was beginning to worry about that, you understand.  I thought perhaps with all the freedoms I’ve allowed you of late, that you might be slacking off.”  Her arms crossed over her chest and she looked directly at Ami as she said, “We need to have a discussion, young lady.”

 

            “Um, maybe I should go get dinner started,” said Makoto, easily recognizing the tone of Kaya’s voice even without the words, knowing she needed to get out of their way, and in a sense asking permission to leave before this conversation went any further.

 

            “Do you need any help?” asked Kaya, her voice losing some of the sternness she’d affected when she’d addressed Ami.

 

            Makoto shook her head.  “No, I can handle this part on my own.”

 

            “All right,” answered Kaya.  “But let us know if you need anything.”

 

            Makoto nodded, then excused herself from the room.

 

            Standing alone, Ami fidgeted under her mother’s gaze.

 

            “I got a call from your grandmother last night,” began Kaya.  “Imagine my surprise when she told me how long it had been since they’d heard from you when I specifically told you two months ago to call them and tell them what you were doing.”

 

            “I’m sorry,” said Ami quietly.  “I meant to, but every time I tried to call, I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to bring it up.  It’s not the easiest thing to work into a casual conversation.”

 

            Kaya resisted the urge to say she did know because she’d already had this specific conversation with her mother, and instead smiled to help soften her words.  “I know better than anyone how hard it can be to tell your grandparents something they may not want to hear.  But you made this choice, and it’s something you have to take care of yourself.  Don’t be so worried about it, Ami.  Your grandparents love and adore you beyond words, and I promise any shortcomings you think they may see will be blamed on me, not you, so you have nothing to be concerned about.  You’ve got less than a month left.  I think it would be best if you told them before the baby is born.”

 

            Ami nodded in agreement, then a grin slowly formed on her lips.  “We have three weeks,” she said softly.  “Just three more weeks.”

 

            Kaya smiled down at her daughter.  “Are you feeling at all overwhelmed by it yet?”

 

            “A little,” admitted Ami.  “But it’s a good sort of feeling.”

 

            “Then that’s what you tell your grandmother when you speak with her after school tomorrow,” said Kaya.  “She’s expecting your call, and it will make her happy to know that you’re happy.  And if you can, when you talk to her, find a way to work in the words ‘great grandmother’ in reference to her.  Just for me.”

 

            “I promise,” laughed Ami.  Then she sobered a bit.  “Was she very upset with me?”

 

            “No,” answered Kaya.  “Mother just assumed you’d gotten busy with school and the rest of your life.  Actually, that wasn’t even why she called.  She’s been after me for a while now about Gram’s birthday.  Last night was just another excuse to drive her point home.”

 

            “She wants you to come to the reunion this year?”

 

            “She wants us to come every year.”  Kaya sighed lightly, a sure sign of her admitting defeat.  “I can’t argue with her when she says Gram doesn’t have many years left, and that we don’t get up there nearly as much as we should.  Plus, this year, you have Makoto and the baby, and this would be a good chance to introduce them to everyone.”

 

            “So we’re going?” asked Ami, not at all minding the idea of seeing the relatives her mother so often tried to avoid.

 

            “Yes,” answered her mother.  “And I thought you might like to invite your friends, as well, since you’ll all be on summer break.  They’ve been good to you this last year, and it’s the least we can do to thank them.  Besides, with all this unpleasantness recently, it would be good for them to get away for a while and have a real break.  Now, let’s see,” went on Kaya, becoming very thoughtful in expression, “Usagi’s young man will be back by then, so you should invite him, also.  Assuming, of course, that her parents don’t have any objections.  With his recent studies overseas, I think Father will enjoy talking with him.  And if Chibi-usa is still with Usagi’s family, she’ll be there so Hotaru will have someone to play with, just in case Kara is too young for her and she doesn’t have any interest in playing with Seiji, so that will take care of that.”

 

            “You want me to invite Hotaru’s family as well?” asked Ami, doing a mental tally of how many people this would have invading her grandparents’ estate.

 

            “Of course,” replied Kaya, as if she couldn’t understand why Ami would even ask that.  “They’re your friends, so there’s no reason you shouldn’t.  It’s not as if your grandparents don’t have the room.”  Then she turned her eyes away from Ami and picked up one of the little t-shirts that lay on the changing table.  Focusing all her attention on refolding the small garment, Kaya added, “And I thought… perhaps… I might bring a friend with me this year, as well.”  She laid the shirt back down and carefully smoothed it out before looking back at Ami, a touch of nervousness in her eyes.  “Unless you think it would make you too terribly uncomfortable?”

 

            Ami smiled gently and moved to stand beside her mother.  Picking up one of the blankets beside the shirt Kaya had just refolded, Ami imitated her mother’s actions as she said, I think it would be nice if you had a friend to bring with you.  I shouldn’t be the only one, Mom.”  Then she looked back up, the smile still in place, and was rewarded with a similarly grateful one from her mother.

 

*            *            *

 

            It had been over an hour since Usagi had arrived at the apartment.  After greeting her and giving her a few minutes to settle in for the evening, Ami had taken the cordless phone and hidden in the bedroom to make the call to her grandparents.  Once since then, Makoto had walked by the bedroom, just to make sure everything was okay.  After several seconds of straining to hear through the closed door, she was able to pick up Ami’s low voice.  There was no crying or shouting, and they were still talking, so everything must be okay.  Makoto hoped that was what it meant, at least, as she flipped another page in one of the wedding magazines Usagi had brought over with her.

 

            Now that she had official permission, Usagi wasn’t wasting any time.  Tonight, since she was staying with Makoto while Ami went to cram school, she had brought over a bunch of magazines and catalogues she’d collected and laid them all out on the dining room table in front of them.  The idea of being able to dress her friends up for her wedding was unbelievably fun to Usagi, and the idea became even more fun with one of those friends there helping with the preliminary ‘perfect dresses’ search.

 

            Makoto grinned as Usagi chattered on about flowers, and colors, and what would look best on who, all with an infectious sort of joy.  They had all found the happiness they’d been looking for, regardless of how they’d fallen into it.  This wedding would be the final cap to all of that.  Makoto envied Usagi that, just a little.  Not with a bad kind of envy, but the spiteless kind that left her knowing she’d be living a bit vicariously through her friend, right up to the day she preceded her down the aisle.  But it wasn’t the marriage she envied.

 

            Marriage was, at its heart, about love, a promise, and a commitment to that promise.  It was what she had here with Ami, the thing they’d started the first night they said ‘I love you,’ and Makoto cherished that more than anything.  What she envied was the wedding itself, though she felt a bit foolish and silly for that.  After all, beach balls didn’t wear white.  But she had spent so much time dreaming about what it would be like, the perfect end to the fairy tale she’d been looking for, that she could still see it.  Everything from the creamy colored satin, to the little pink sweetheart roses, to the two flower girls in long, white dresses with pink satin sashes and shiny, black Mary Janes.

 

            She wasn’t sure how long she floated on that soft, familiar cloud, or was even aware she was doing it, until she came back down.  Usagi sat staring at her, her chin propped on her hands and a smile on her face.  Makoto’s cheeks warmed at the scrutiny.  The blonde’s smile touched her eyes, and Makoto saw a glint of knowledge in their blueness that left her thinking Usagi had seen some of that daydream.

 

            Still smiling, Usagi looked back to the magazine in front of her.  “Anyway, my dad wants us to get married by a real priest, not one of those Westerners-for-hire a lot of the wedding planners use,” went on Usagi as if their brief pause had never happened.  “So as soon as Mamo-chan gets home, we can pick a church.  I hope that won’t bother Rei too much.  But I’ll keep her so involved in stuff, she won’t have time to think about it.  And after you have the baby, we can start looking for dresses.”

 

            Their conversation was still going on, having moved to the merits of lacy things with ribbon, when Ami came back into the room.  She sat beside Makoto, but not quickly enough to get a peek at the pages she’d just closed.

 

            “How’d it go?” asked Makoto, aware of the calmness Ami wore that hadn’t been there before she made the call.

 

            “It went okay,” answered Ami, a small grin on her face now that the weight of her nervousness had been lifted.  “Actually, it was a bit odd.  My grandmother was significantly less surprised than I expected her to be.  And while she was very interested in knowing about you, she spent considerably more time asking me about my mother.”  Ami’s head tilted a bit to the side, and her grin reformed into the thoughtful frown she wore when she was trying to puzzle something out.  “It’s been three years since I actually saw them.  I didn’t even know for certain back then, so I can’t see how I could have given off any sort of signals or such for her to pick up on.  Perhaps it’s just a matter of mother’s intuition, or in this case, grandmother’s.  Unless they really can tell just by looking, and Minako wasn’t teasing about that.”

 

            Makoto smiled, but didn’t say anything beyond a quick reassurance that Minako had been teasing that day.  There was no need for Ami to know the real reason if she hadn’t figured it out on her own.  Besides, it was all just speculation on Makoto’s part.  It was just as likely that Ami’s grandmother had really good intuition, the same way it was possible Saatchi-san was a just a really good and intuitive doctor who always knew exactly what little things were bothering her at any given check-up without her having to say a word.  However, Makoto suspected it had more to do with the one person they all had in common – Ami’s mother. 

 

            “Regardless,” went on Ami, snapping her attention back to the two in front of her, “Grandmother said they’re looking forward to meeting you.  All of you.”

 

            “I still can’t believe your mom invited all of us,” said Usagi.

 

            “I was a bit surprised myself, but more so because she wanted to go,” replied Ami.  Then she looked over at the wall clock and stood.  “I have to get going, or I’ll be late.”  Out of what was now reflex, she started to bend down towards Makoto, but caught herself and paused, her cheeks tinged pink.

 

            Usagi giggled and turned in her chair so her back was to them.  She covered her eyes with her hands and said, “I promise I won’t look.  Go ahead and kiss her.  You know you want to.”

 

            Makoto laughed and shook her head, then reached for the front of Ami’s shirt and gave it a light tug.  Ami moved closer and bent down to give Makoto a quick kiss.  “Love you,” she whispered before straightening back up.

 

            “Love you, too,” answered Makoto with a warm smile.  As Ami began to gather her books, Makoto added, “Call me when you get there and again before you leave.  If you forget, I’ll make sure people start following you around, too.”

 

            With a quick smile and a promise not to forget, Ami closed the door behind her.  Usagi turned around in her chair and leaned forward, resting her chin on Makoto’s shoulder.  “Aw, how cute,” she teased and laughed at the playful swat it earned her.

 

            “Smart aleck,” chided Makoto with a chuckle.

 

            Usagi sat back in her chair and began flipping through the catalogue they’d been looking at before Ami came into the room.  “Hey, Mako-chan,” she asked.  “If it was your honeymoon, which of these would you pick?”

 

 

            Several days later, when Usagi secretly slipped Ami a sealed envelope, the blue haired girl found herself grateful it had come with an imperative not to open it until she was alone.  Sitting on her bed, the door to the room closed, Ami stared at the torn out catalogue pages as her cheeks flamed red.  Who knew those little wisps of white lace and ribbon could hide so much and yet so very, very little all at the same time?

 

            The little pink note that had come with the pages was lying, unfolded, on the bed beside her.

 

                        Ami,

 

                        Mako-chan likes these best.  You guys are gonna have

                        a great honeymoon!

 

                        Usagi

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Keiko made it to the guidance office just in time to see Yukari place a brown paper bag roughly on her father’s desk and then turn away without so much as a word.  The attitude, however, was apparently only reserved for the elder Itoh, because when the girl passed the young teacher, she smiled prettily and greeted her with a pleasant, “Good morning, Sensei.”  Keiko responded with an equally pleasant greeting and thought to herself that Yukari was likely the only student in the school other than Kino-san who wasn’t intimidated by the man she had come to speak to.

 

            Knocking against the open door, Keiko said, “Am I here at a bad time?”

 

            Itoh-san shook his head and waved her in.  “No, no.  That girl’s beginning to wear on my last nerve, though.  Sometimes, I think she forgets who the parent is and who the child is in this relationship.”

 

            Itoh-san took the lunch bag Yukari had left for him and placed it in one of his drawers.  When he did, Keiko noticed the student files lying on his desk and felt just a bit sorrier for disturbing his morning.  “Are those all for today?”

 

            The hard line his mouth usually formed turned down into a frown.  He picked up several of the folders and started running down the list.  “These three are being suspended for the rather harsh hazing of a first year on the baseball team.  A first year whose parents are threatening to sue everyone they can think of, including us.”  He let those drop to the desk and held up another.  “This is the reason for my daughter’s newfound attitude problem.  Aino had to get a job, and because of that, has had to quit the drama club.  This is somehow all my fault because I’m the one who had to sign her working papers.  But at least she’s keeping up her grades.  Or at least as up as Aino ever gets.”  Minako’s file hit the desk, and the next one he picked up was Makoto’s.  “Since the term started three weeks ago, I’ve been hearing nothing but complaints from certain people, who shall remain nameless, because Kino keeps coming to school out of uniform.  She isn’t even in their classes this term, for God’s sake, and yet they still feel a need to complain.  But there are certain things you just never discuss with a pregnant woman, especially one that pregnant, and what she’s wearing is one of them.  Kino can come to school in her bathrobe and slippers for all I care, just so long as she gets herself here.”

 

            One corner of Keiko’s mouth turned up as Makoto’s file landed on top of the others.  “And what about this one?” she asked, her finger tapping against the one file he hadn’t touched.

 

            The frown on Itoh-san’s face went back to the line it had been in earlier as some of the tension in his brow disappeared.  “That one never gives me any problems.  Mizuno just needed some information for her scholarship applications.  She also wanted permission to keep her cell phone on during class when Kino goes on leave.  They should all be like her, Keiko.  She doesn’t break the rules, when I have her in my office, it actually has something to do with her education, and when I talk to her, she listens.”

 

            “I do believe, Itoh-san,” replied Keiko, humor in her voice, “that if all your students were like that, your job would become considerably too easy.”

 

            A rough bark of laughter escaped the guidance counselor.  “From your mouth to God’s ears,” he said.  Then he leaned back in his chair and asked, “So, what did you need me for this morning?”

 

            Keiko reached across the desk and picked up Makoto’s file.  Seeing just a bit of Itoh-san’s tension return, she smiled and said reassuringly, “It isn’t anything terribly serious, and I have no complaints whatsoever.”

 

            “She’s just your favorite student, and you want to check up on her?” asked Itoh-san.  Which would make sense, since you’re the one who will be doing the home visits.

 

            “It would make sense, but that’s not quite it.”  Keiko placed the folder back on the desk and folded her hand in her lap.  “She’s uncomfortable.  One only needs to look at her to see that.  Trying to deal with it is distracting her from what’s going on in class.  She isn’t getting what she normally could from being here, and I think, perhaps, now might be a good time for her to start her leave.  Tomorrow’s Friday, it’s only a week earlier than we’d planned, and I think it would do everyone some good.”

 

            Itoh-san templed his fingers in front of him as he thought.  Slowly, he began to nod.  “I agree,” he finally answered.  “And I certainly can’t see any harm to readjusting our schedule a bit.  It might even reduce the tension levels of some of the faculty.  I swear I saw Yukiko practically running away from Kino the other day.”

 

            “Well, we have to remember that no one on the faculty aside from you and I knows when she’s due.  Little details like that do tend to cause a bit of anxiousness in some people,” answered Keiko simply, not allowing any of the amusement she’d felt at Kume-sensei’s uncharacteristic fear of her very pregnant student to color her words.

 

            Itoh-san looked at the woman in front of him, charmed by her smile and almost able to see some of the mischief behind it.  Giving her back what passed for his own grin, he began to relax.  Perhaps his day was starting to look up a bit after all.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Five pairs of feet jogged at a steady pace through the woods behind Hikawa Shrine.  Having a better sense of the land and its layout, Mars led the small pack through their warm-up run.  Chibi-moon was beside her, breathing hard, but doing her best to keep up.  Venus was one step behind them, while Sailormoon and Mercury trailed behind.  Of the two in the back, the latter trudged along compliantly, even though this was something she truly hated to do.  The former was considerably less placid and complained whenever her lungs would allow her the breath to do it.

 

            Sailormoon yelped suddenly as a low branch appeared in her path.  She ducked, but not far enough to keep her odangos from brushing through the leaves.  Her steps thrown off and uneven, she flailed for a moment as she spit out the greenery that had fallen into her face.  With an annoyed grunt, Sailormoon steadied her pace, then picked it up until she was once again even with Mercury.

 

            “I don’t get,” huffed out Sailormoon between breaths, “why we have to do this.  I get enough exercise running… every morning… trying to get to school… on time.”

 

            “We’re almost done,” answered Mercury evenly.  She banked a bit to the left, trying to keep to the path the others were clearing by virtue of being in the lead.  “Just try not to think about it, and perhaps the others will be here by the time we get back to the clearing.”

 

            Sailormoon stayed close to Mercury so there was no chance of her getting lost or hitting anything else.  What seemed like forever and one turn later, they emerged into the clearing where the rest of their party, along with Luna and Artemis, were waiting.  There was still no sign of the Outers.  Mars was leaning against a tree near Venus and stretching.  Chibi-moon bounced on her toes, still wanting to move and waiting for the actual practice to start.

 

            Pink sugar, definitely, thought Sailormoon as she watched the girl.  She plopped herself down on the ground at Mercury’s feet, her legs forming a V.  She stretched forward to touch her toes, then sat back up and wiped her arm across her forehead to clear away the sweat that had formed under her bangs.  Letting out a long exhale, Sailormoon was getting ready to give one last, good complaint about the heat, when Mercury’s soft voice stopped her.  She looked up to see Mercury with the palms of her hands facing the ground as the end of one attack phrase quietly spilled from her lips.

 

            With a jump and a squeak, Sailormoon’s head snapped back down as the first, cool mists of Mercury’s Shabon Spray touched her legs.  As the mist rose up around them, Sailormoon giggled and passed her fingers through the fog that began to dissipate around the level of her neck.  Feeling infinitely better with the temperature drop, she turned her smile up to Mercury.  “Thanks.  I needed that.”

 

            Mercury returned the smile.  “You’re welcome.  I feel a bit better now, myself.”  She noticed the others begin to move closer and take advantage of the quick cool-down before it all evaporated, and the cats move farther away to avoid it.  Luna and Artemis jumped up on the rock where Mercury’s bag was resting, and that was all it took to remind her of something she wanted to do.  “I’ll be right back,” said Mercury, heading for her bag.  “I want to call Mako-chan once before we really start practice.”

 

            As Mercury took the cell phone from her bag, Luna said to her, “It’s only been one hour.  I’m sure she’s all right.”

 

            “I know,” answered Mercury with a slightly embarrassed grin.  “But an hour is an awfully long time when Mako-chan is by herself and restless.  I just want to make certain she isn’t too restless.  I’ll be quick, I promise.”

 

            Luna watched as Mercury moved several yards away, concentrating on nothing but her phone call.  She turned to Artemis and said, “Maybe leaving her alone wasn’t such a good idea, after all.”

 

            Artemis nodded in silent agreement.

 

            Luna’s attention was drawn back to the other girls when she heard Mars’ voice.

 

            “She needs a better target than that,” said Mars as the three of them stood around Chibi-moon and the tree she had her Pink Sugar Stick aimed at.  “Until that tree grows fangs and sprouts legs, it isn’t a real target.”  Then a devilish grin formed on her lips, and she bent down to whisper in Chibi-moon’s ear.

 

            Chibi-moon listened intently, then nodded.  When Mars stood away from her, she turned to face Sailormoon with a grin that almost managed to capture the devilishness of Mars’.

 

            Sailormoon frowned down at the girl, who was now aiming at her, and took two steps backward.  “Hey now,” she said, just a hint of nervousness in her words.  “You wouldn’t.”

 

            “You, evil look-a-like, who would kidnap someone who needs more practice than any of us, and then try to disturb the much needed training of the valiant and noble Sailor Senshi, can not be forgiven.  In the name of the future moon, I’ll punish you!”  Chibi-moon smiled wide, and then let out in a loud burst, “Pink Sugar Heart Attack!”

 

            And nothing happened.

 

            The Pink Sugar Stick flickered several times like a neon sign, one lone pink heart tumbling passed its edge and landing on the ground in a poof of pink dust.  Chibi-moon frowned at her Stick as she gave it a hard, vigorous shake.

 

            Sailormoon put her hands on her hips and laughed.  “Serves you right.  I should punish you in the name of the moon just for trying that.”  The new laugh that was coming from her quickly changed into a yelp as a stream of tiny pink hearts finally found their target – her.  “Hey, knock it off!” complained Sailormoon as she batted at the hearts with her hands and backed away from them at the same time.

 

            This time it was Chibi-moon who laughed.  As Sailormoon turned and started running, Chibi-moon followed her, a few of her hearts managing to clip Sailormoon’s retreating backside, making her jump.

 

            Luna bowed her head and sighed as Mars doubled over in laughter.  “Go get her, Chibi-moon!” called Mars in high glee.  “Don’t let the evil clone daimon get away!”

 

            Mercury looked up from her conversation to see what all the commotion was.  She watched Sailormoon duck behind a tree, turn to stick her tongue out at Mars, then take off running again, still pursued by her pink attacker.  “Apparently,” said Mercury to a curious Makoto, “Sailormoon has been abducted by the newest forces of evil and replaced with a clone daimon.  Chibi-moon is now attempting to vanquish that daimon.”  Mercury chuckled at the response that got.  “It would seem Mars agrees with you.  However, Luna and Artemis look somewhat less than amused.”

 

            The cats had left their spot on the rock and gone over to Venus.  Artemis got her attention and directed her away from the still laughing Mars so they could speak more privately.  Both cats looked sternly at Venus, but it was Artemis who spoke.  “You stand here as their leader, in the middle of a battle.  Your princess is being attacked, two of your Senshi have turned traitor, and the third is unduly distracted by personal matters.  You have lost all control of the situation.  What do you do?”

 

            Venus tapped her finger against her lip and rested one hand on her hip, looking as though she were giving this serious consideration.  Then she waved her hand in Mercury’s ‘unduly distracted’ direction.  “Well, to begin with, that’s your fault.”

 

            “I beg your pardon?” asked Luna.

 

            Venus smiled at the cats and knelt down to them.  “There’s a reason we never leave Mako-chan alone anymore, and that’s it.  I told you one of you needed to stay at the apartment with her.”

 

            “She said she would be perfectly fine by herself for a few hours,” replied Luna, not about to admit she had already realized this on her own.

 

            Venus reached over to scratch the black cat’s head.  “I know what she said.  I also know why she said it.  The two of you should already know that Mako-chan feels like she’s letting the team down somehow just by not being able to transform.  Pulling someone out of practice just to keep her company would have made her feel like she was being even more of a burden.”

 

            “That’s why Ami didn’t argue with her about it,” added Artemis, realizing that particular detail for the first time.

 

            Venus nodded.  “That’s my guess.  But Ami’s extra worrying is the end result of it.  I can’t really blame her, with Mako-chan due as soon as she is.  If this were a real battle, though, she’d be here 100%.  I’d stake all our lives on that.”  She straightened up a bit and redirected her gaze to two others.  “Now, as for Sailormoon and Chibi-moon, just look at them.”

 

            Luna and Artemis looked around Minako to the small battle that was waging.  Sailormoon had produced her Eternal Tier and was using it like a bat against the hearts Chibi-moon was trying to pummel her with.  The blonde wore a grin that was more amusement than annoyance as she egged the younger Moon on.  Chibi-moon laughed, the stream of hearts momentarily faltering.

 

            “Does she really look like she’s in danger?” asked Venus quietly.  Chibi-moon’s attack may sting a bit when it hits bare skin, but that’s about all it does.  They need to have some fun, we all do, and the practice she’s getting using it on a moving target will do her good.  Besides, if Sailormoon really wanted to stop her, she could.”  Then Venus’ attention drifted to the last of her present Senshi, and a mischievous grin replaced her smile.  “On the other hand, you two might have been right about that traitor.  She should be dealt with.”

 

            Venus stood and quietly called her Love Me Chain into existence.  That same mischief still on her features, she leveled the chain straight at Mars, catching the girl off guard.  Mars’ laughter was abruptly stopped, but the amusement never left her smile.

 

            Venus walked slowly up to her captive, one end of her golden chain swinging lazily in her hand.  She circled around Mars, taking her time and eyeing the girl as if she were sizing up an opponent.  Her gaze lingered a bit along the smooth, perfect legs Mars’ fuku showed off to good advantage, before moving up and locking on to the amused violet of Mars’ eyes.

 

            “You’ve done a very bad thing, Mars,” Venus chastised teasingly.  “I’m afraid I’m going to have to punish you.”

 

            Mars smirked.  “In the name of Venus?”

 

            With a very girlish giggle, Venus answered, “Of course.”

 

            Mars, her arms pinned to her sides by the Love Me Chain, took a step closer to Venus so they were eye to eye with less than an inch of space between them.  Her voice low and hinting at the ‘evil and dastardly’ her love found so much amusement in, she said, “Then all I can do is ask that you please show some mercy on me, oh great leader.  I’ll even beg for it, if you want me to.”

 

            Finding himself not far enough away to miss the words or the waggle of Mars’ eyebrows, Artemis shuddered and hid his head under his paws.  “I really wish I hadn’t seen that,” he mumbled.

 

            Luna let out another longsuffering sigh and put one paw to her head.  Things were definitely not going according to the plan.  All she needed now was for…

 

            “I hope we’re not too late to join the party.”

 

            Luna froze at the deep, cheery voice behind her.  A shadow fell over her, dimming the sunlight on the back of her closed eyelids.  And they were going to stay closed, too.  She didn’t need to open them to see the half smirk on Uranus’ face or the pretty little smile hidden behind Neptune’s hand.  Saturn’s giggles gave her away, and Pluto’s observing silence might as well have been a solid thing.  No, thought Luna, she wasn’t going to open her eyes to any of it.  Instead, she put her head down and covered it with her paws the same way Artemis had.  The universe could finish falling down around them just as well without her.