The Cruelty and Fairness of Fate
~ Chapter 28: Home ~
The bristles of the broom scraped lightly along the path, playing chase with an errant piece of paper. Minako laughed quietly at her little game as the broom finally captured the paper and brushed it off to the side with the other debris.
It was a warm Thursday evening, and Minako was enjoying being outside, even though she’d been left to finish the remainder of the light work to close up the shrine. Leaning against her broom, she let out a sigh and surveyed the front yard. It looked pretty good, if she did say so herself, and this was a nice change of pace from the hecticness of work and school that followed her around during the week. Not that she was complaining about any of it. She was having too much fun to do that.
“Hey now, no slacking off,” came Rei’s chiding voice from behind her.
Minako stood straight and turned around, a smirk on her features. “I could say the same to you. You do know you have to use soap when you wash the dishes, right?”
“Ha! Those dishes are so clean they squeak,” returned Rei with a smug grin. She hefted the bag that was over her shoulder up a bit higher and added, “They’re drying. I’ll put them away when I get back from Ami and Mako-chan’s.”
Minako nodded, then asked, “What’s in the bag?”
Rei reached into her bag and pulled out a small oil burner and one of the little scented oil bottles they sold at the charm booth. “Those classes we went to were all well and good, and they’ve got the right idea with the breathing and visualization, but their way is more likely to have Mako-chan hyperventilating than anything else. So, now, I’m going to teach her how to do it the right way.”
With a smile, Minako teased, “How good of you to do that for her.”
Rei nodded. “Yes, it is. Besides, I’m hoping it’ll work as a good distraction, since Ami said Mako-chan’s been cranky as hell all afternoon. Well, she didn’t exactly use those words, but that’s what she wanted to say. But she did say Mako-chan has decided that if she has one more contraction that isn’t actual labor between now and when she delivers, she’s going to kill someone.”
“Poor Mako-chan,” sympathized Minako with a chuckle.
“More like poor Ami,” replied Rei. “If I didn’t know her better, I’d swear this whole ‘research’ thing she has to do tonight is just an excuse to get away for a few hours.” Rei laughed and shook her head. “But whatever the reason, it’ll be one more thing she can cross off her list. And I need to get going. I’ll see you in a few hours,” she said as she stepped up to Minako and kissed her lips lightly.
Minako waved as Rei walked away and disappeared down the stairs. As she finished cleaning up, she wondered how late Artemis would be out tonight. He’d seemed in an awful hurry when he’d left after dinner. Her smile growing, Minako murmured to herself, “I guess even those two can’t fight their destinies.”
The tap of footsteps on stone caught Minako’s attention, and she turned around with a teasing grin on her face, ready to poke at Rei about whatever she’d forgotten. The grin faded quickly, however, when she saw the man standing there. Her hands gripping the broom handle tightly, she said in quiet surprise, “Daddy?”
“Minako,” he said by way of greeting. He cleared his throat nervously and stuck his hands in the pockets of his slacks. “How have you been?”
“Okay,” she answered faintly. For a moment, her feet fidgeted, then she said more clearly, “I’ve been okay. Everything’s been going pretty well.”
“Good, good,” her father replied, nodding his head. “I’m glad to hear that. You’re still going to school?”
“Good. That’s an important thing.” He took a breath. “So... yes. Well…”
“I got a new job, too,” blurted Minako quickly. Her fingers twisted around the broom handle as she continued to speak at a rapid pace. “It’s at a production company, but I don’t really do much other than copying stuff, and getting coffee, and I follow Colleen around a lot and help her with stuff. Oh, and Tuesday I stayed late and got sandwiches for the last minute meeting that was going on. But that’s what I’m supposed to do, so it wasn’t really a big deal, and if I stay late sometimes I leave early the next night, so it all evens out. And my boss-boss is pretty nice, even if he can’t remember my name and calls me ‘New Girl’ all the time. Colleen’s great, you’d probably like her. She’s American, but her stepdad is Japanese, and she’s lived here since she was seven, so she’s really more Japanese than American, and my English is better than hers.” Minako took a deep breath. Her mouth opened to continue, but slowly closed again. There was so much she wanted to say, but she didn’t want to say the wrong thing, and there was so much that could be the wrong thing.
The elder Aino listened and tried to keep up with his daughter as she spoke. When she paused, he could feel an awkwardness settling over them. He sighed and let his eyes close, letting the words fall from his lips before he had a chance to second guess them. “I’m glad you’re happy, Minako. Really I am. Adult or not, you’re still my child, and I was concerned about you.” His eyes opened again, and he looked directly at her. “But just because I love you doesn’t mean I’ll sit back and pretend to approve of all of what you’re doing. I do want you to have a good life, though, and I…” He faltered for a moment, his hands balling into fists in his pockets. He cleared his throat and looked down at his feet as the words rushed out. “I would like to know that you’re okay, and also when you’re not. So if you would tell me from time to time, I would appreciate it. Though, if you need to call me, it would be best if you did at the office. We both know how your mother is, and regardless of what she may be feeling… Well, she just doesn’t forgive easily.”
Minako stared at her father through tears that were beginning to well up in her eyes. “Daddy, I…”
“Do you still have your key?”
The question was sudden and brought her father’s nervous eyes back up to hers. Minako hesitated, the question clear on her face. “My house key?” At her father’s nod, she went on, “Yes, I still have it. I suppose you want it back?”
“No,” he answered with a shake of his head. “I just wanted to make sure you still had it. I’m taking your mother out of town next weekend, and I thought you’d like to come by and pick up anything you might’ve left behind. I know you couldn’t have brought everything you’d want with you. And it’s all still in the awful state you left it in.”
“Um, yeah, I did leave some stuff,” answered Minako. “Thank you. And, um, I’m sorry about the mess.”
They stood in silence for several seconds, neither exactly sure what to do or say. Then, without any warning, Minako’s father stepped forward and put his arms around her. Minako stood against him, too shocked to move, as his arms tightened and then released her. He took several steps further back than before and spoke hurriedly.
“I have to leave,” he said as he began to turn away. “Your mother’s expecting me, and I don’t want to be too late.”
As he walked quickly away from the shrine, Minako could only stare after him, her hands never loosening their grip on the broom.
When Rei got home a few hours later, she was greeted by her grandfather with the news of their earlier visitor. Worried and more than a little angry and annoyed, Rei hurried around to her room, where she found Minako sitting on the porch outside.
Quietly, Rei sat beside her and stared up at the same stars Minako’s gaze was fixed on. “Hey,” she said softly. “How are you doing?”
Minako looked down at her hands and the keychain she was holding. “My dad came to see me.”
“I heard,” answered Rei. She put her arm around Minako’s shoulders and the blonde rested her head against her. “What did he say?”
Minako grinned a little. “That he was worried about me and wanted to how I was. And that he still loves me.”
Rei stiffened and had to force herself not to say the first things that popped into her mind.
Feeling Rei’s reaction, Minako set aside the keys and took Rei’s hand. She played with her fingers as she said, “I know how you feel about this, Rei, but please just let me have it. I didn’t think he’d ever speak to me again, and my mom probably won’t. He’ll never approve of me, but he doesn’t hate me either. And I don’t think he’ll be angry forever. That’s all I want right now.”
Rei took a deep breath and nodded her head. “I know, Mina, and I’m glad you’ve got at least that.”
Minako gave Rei’s hand a squeeze in thanks, and then she asked, “So, how was Mako-chan?”
With a smirk, Rei answered, “Pretty much exactly as Ami described. She’s ready for this to be over. As if the next 20 years are going to be any easier.”
Minako smiled and snuggled closer to Rei’s side. For a while longer, they sat and talked, enjoying the warmth of each other and the clear night.
* * *
The sound of pens scratching against test papers was the dominant one in the classroom. Every now and then, it would be offset by a foot scuffling or a chair creaking as one of the students shifted. Yukiko was used to these sounds and could easily ignore them as she graded the homework assignments her students had handed in that day. What she was having a hard time ignoring, and what was making her crazy in the process, was the silent, almost constant fidgeting coming from what had once been her calmest, most focused pupil.
Yukiko let out a sigh and turned over another paper. When Kino had left, she had been so relieved she hadn’t even minded Keiko’s giggles at her expense. The girl was gone and could now give birth properly in an elevator or taxi cab rather than in her classroom. Because of that, Yukiko had walked into school last Monday completely relaxed for the first time since the start of the trimester.
Then Mizuno had happened.
Every midmorning and afternoon, Mizuno had taken to checking up on her girlfriend. Keiko thought it was sweet and cute. Yukiko figured she would have also if the afternoon call hadn’t wound up during the break in the double period she had with Mizuno’s class. The girl almost seemed to expect something to be wrong when she called home, and her bearing near the end of their first period would reflect that. Then, after she’d made her call and assured herself all was well, the relief she felt was palpable and showed in the small smile she wore for the rest of class. Those swings in her behavior were making Yukiko jumpy as hell. Especially today, because when she’d come back to class, Mizuno hadn’t been smiling.
Yukiko’s foot tapped anxiously against her chair as her peripheral vision picked up Mizuno’s movements. The girl looked up from her test to the clock on the side wall. She started chewing on her lip as she looked back down. Her pen jittered nervously in her fingers as she looked back up and down again, as if more than 20 seconds had passed. She sat up straighter and stared at her paper for a full 30 seconds before her pen went into her mouth and she looked back up at the clock.
Without conscious effort, the red pen Yukiko was using wound up between her teeth and she bit down hard. A foul, metallic taste filled her mouth and she grimaced, cursing silently. Her pen fell to her desk as she barked out, “Mizuno!”
Every head in the room immediately snapped up. Ami sat frozen in her seat, her eyes wide as she stared at her teacher. Finally, she managed to stutter out, “Yes, Kume-sensei?”
After a deep, calming breath, Yukiko asked, “Are you done with your test?”
Ami swallowed hard. “Yes.”
“Are all of the questions answered fully to your satisfaction?”
“Then would you bring it up here, please?”
Ami nodded and rose slowly from her seat. She tried to ignore the stares of the other students and the embarrassed flush she felt in her cheeks.
As Ami stopped in front of her desk, Yukiko looked around her and glared at the others who were still watching them. “Since everyone’s stopped writing, I’m going to assume the rest of you are done also.”
Every set of eyes snapped back down to their tests. All except for one. Yuu kept his head down and his pen against his paper, but his focus was on Mizuno’s back and the quiet conversation going on in front of him.
Yukiko focused back on the girl in front of her and the papers she was being handed. Taking them, she leaned forward and gestured for Ami to do the same. Ami looked a bit puzzled by this, but did as requested and leaned in over the desk.
With her chin propped in her palm, Yukiko asked quietly, “You couldn’t get a hold of her, right?”
Ami’s cheeks flushed a brighter pink and her eyes fell to some spot on the desktop. “No, sensei,” she answered in an equally quiet tone.
Yukiko nodded slightly. “And it’s making you a little nuts, isn’t it?”
Ami shifted uncomfortably. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be disruptive. It’s just, she isn’t by herself, and it’s odd that no one answered the phone. I’m sorry.”
Lifting her head so she could wave her hand dismissively, Yukiko answered, “Don’t look so concerned about it, Mizuno. Are you sure you’re done with this?”
Ami nodded at the papers her teacher held up.
“Then go,” said Yukiko. “Class is almost over, so make your call and reassure yourself. Then come back and reassure me.”
Ami looked up and smiled thankfully at her teacher. “Thank you,” she said.
Yukiko waved her off and sat back in her chair. She slumped down a bit and let out another sigh as Mizuno retrieved her cell phone and hurried out of the room. Yukiko didn’t know how much longer she had until Kino delivered. Keiko refused to tell her no matter how she tried to wheedle the information from her. She just hoped it was soon, because she didn’t think she could handle too many more missed phone calls.
As had become her recent habit, Ami walked to the side door closest to her classroom. Once outside, she pushed the speed dial button that would connect her to Makoto and held her phone to her ear, a concentrated frown appearing on her face as she listened to it ring.
On the fourth ring, Makoto picked up. “Hey, sweetheart,” she said. Then, knowing she’d missed their regular call and that this would have worried Ami, added, “I’m sorry I missed you last time. I swear I’m okay, though, and that everything’s fine.”
Ami let out a relieved breath at hearing Makoto’s voice. Just for a moment – well, perhaps more than just one – she’d been certain something had gone wrong. “I’m glad you’re okay,” she said calmly and honestly. “It’s unusual that no one would answer when I call, though. My imagination was beginning to conjure all sorts of terrible scenarios.”
“I’m sorry. Really I am,” answered Makoto, sounding contrite. Then, with a smile creeping into her voice, “I’d ask what sort of scenarios you were conjuring, but I’m more curious about why you’re calling me and not taking your AP test.”
Ami grinned a bit self-consciously as she answered, “I was being more outwardly nervous than I realized after I finished the test. Rather than checking my answers, I’m afraid I was making Kume-sensei as jumpy as I was. She kicked me out and told me to do what I needed to do to calm myself before coming back to class to reassure her there was nothing to be jumpy about.”
Makoto chuckled, pretty certain that if Ami had really been in trouble with the teacher, they wouldn’t be speaking to each other right now. “First I get you in trouble with your mother, and now I’ve gotten you kicked out of class. I think I’ve been a bad influence.”
“Of course you have,” answered Ami matter-of-factly, but with a smile. “That’s why I like you so much.” She listened to Makoto laugh at that, and then said, “Now it’s your turn. What were all of you doing when I called?”
“We went for a walk,” answered Makoto. She shifted, and Ami heard the chair creak at the same time the school bell rang behind her. “Bug’s in a bad position or something,” went on Makoto. “I thought maybe if I walked around for a bit, I could jostle him enough to get this backache to go away. So, we went around the block. Only it took longer than I remember it taking, and when we got back, the message light on the machine was blinking.”
“Did it help at all,” asked Ami, that niggle of concern sneaking back in. “And don’t tell me it did if it didn’t, because I’ll know you’re lying and worry even more.”
“It helped,” answered Makoto with no hesitation. “I think part of the problem was me sitting in one spot for too long and not moving anything but my toes. Luna and Artemis tried really hard to talk me out of going, though. You’d have been proud.”
Ami smiled, a quiet laugh escaping. “I’m sure. What are you doing now?”
“Right now, I’m sitting here in my nightshirt and trying to decide what level of laziness I’m going to achieve. General Laziness,” listed Makoto, and Ami was certain she was using her fingers to count off as she talked, “which is me crashing in bed with a book until you get home. Super Laziness, which includes the rest of the mint chip in the freezer, the TV remote, and me crashing in bed until you get home. Or Super Duper Laziness, which includes all of the above plus a nice soak in a moderately hot tub.”
“You’re going to pick number three,” said Ami sagely.
“Good guess,” replied Makoto with a laugh. “And I guess, now that that’s been settled, I should say goodbye and give you back to your teachers.”
“I suppose,” answered Ami, nodding her head.
“I love you, sweetie. And don’t worry about me so much. I’m fine.”
“I know,” said Ami, a warm smile spreading on her face. “I’ll see you when I get home. I…”
She had started to turn towards the door, preparing to end her call the way she always did. Instead, she froze midsentence as her eyes locked on to those of the boy standing at the top of the steps. She hadn’t heard him come out at all, didn’t have any idea how long he’d been there watching and listening. Her heart sped up as her eyes held on to Yuu’s, and quietly, her voice steady and firm, she said to Makoto, “I love you, too.”
Neither one of them blinked. Ami’s call ended, and she turned off her phone without ever once looking down or away. Yuu didn’t frown, or smile, or give any reaction at all to Ami’s precise movements. His face remained expressionless even as the smile Ami had worn swiftly turned to a line that wasn’t quite a frown. They stood like that for several long moments, neither moving or speaking, only staring at each other.
She wasn’t sure how much time had passed when Yuu broke eye contact by turning away from her. His movements were easy and casual, one hand resting in his pocket as the other opened the door, as if he hadn’t just stood there and pinned her with one of the most eerily intense stares she’d ever been subjected to. Ami blinked a few times, not at all able to interpret what had just happened or what she had seen in those brown eyes. The whole thing had just been… odd.
Out of time, and not really wanting to think about it anymore, Ami walked back inside. All she wanted now was to finish the day and go back home.
* * *
Back in her nightshirt after a long soak in the tub, and with a pair of thick, fuzzy socks on her feet to keep her toes warm, Makoto was lying in bed when Ami came home. Luna and Artemis heard the girl’s footsteps before Makoto did, and Artemis lifted his head and blinked sleepily over Makoto’s side as the bedroom door was opened. Luna was already standing and stretching in the V formed by Makoto’s knees when Ami walked in.
“You all look rather comfortable,” said Ami softly as she sat on the edge of the bed closest to Makoto.
“We are,” answered Makoto with a lazy grin. “You should join us for a while. We’ve got a few hours before Usagi gets here.”
Ami smiled at her and ran a finger lightly over the arm that held one pillow to Makoto’s chest. “That sounds like a good offer. Let me take care of one thing first, and then I’ll come back. It won’t take long.”
Makoto nodded, then reached for the hand against her arm and held it briefly to her lips. “Okay,” she answered as her fingers played with Ami’s.
Artemis, realizing he was going to be moved sooner rather than later, stood from his spot against Makoto’s back and meandered down to the end of the bed. He picked a new spot against the front of Makoto’s legs and lay down next to Luna as Ami stood to leave.
Sometime later, after the four of them had resettled and were lying comfortably in the dim, early evening light, they heard the front door open. Usagi’s voice drifted into the room, announcing her arrival with Chibi-usa. The cats were the first up, and they jumped down from the foot of the bed to go and greet the newcomers.
Ami’s hand was warm against Makoto’s back, and when its gentle movement didn’t stop, Makoto sighed just a bit wistfully. A half-smirk forming, she said, “I suppose we should get up now. So you aren’t late for class. Not to mention it would be pretty rude to just ignore our guests.”
“Mmm,” murmured Ami from behind Makoto, and without even having to look, Makoto knew a contemplative frown had appeared. Then Ami said, “Perhaps I should stay home tonight.”
“Will you keep rubbing my back?” joked Makoto.
Her tone sincere, Ami answered, “If that’s what you want.”
Makoto shook her head and maneuvered onto her back so she could see Ami. “I was kidding,” she said with a kind smile. “I don’t want you missing school just because I have a few aches. And as much as I would like to keep you here all to myself, what I want is for you to go to class and learn all sorts of really important stuff. That way, you can get into the best med school on the planet, become a world famous doctor, and have everyone adore you as much as I do because you cured all sorts of terrible things like runny noses and chicken pox.”
A soft grin formed on Ami’s lips, and she nodded slowly. “All right. I suppose everything will be okay here, with Chibi-usa around to keep all of you in line.”
Makoto huffed in amusement. Then, as she moved to sit up on the side of the bed, she grimaced and said, “Well, things will be okay. Once I get this task with Usagi over and done with. I can’t believe I’m about to do this after all the times I swore I never would.”
Ami’s grin widened, and she answered, “It’s not all that bad a thing, Mako-chan. And you still refused to use the canned icing, so it isn’t a complete compromise of your values.” The grin she wore turned to giggles at the affronted look Makoto shot her.
“I’m glad you find this so amusing,” returned Makoto, her glare only half serious. “Just remember you think this isn’t so bad the next time you want chocolate and I pull out another box of cake mix instead of the real thing.”
Rei stood outside her bedroom door, rattling the car keys she’d just retrieved. The downside to Minako’s new job, she lamented silently, was the amount of time it took away from other things. Things like the date they’d had planned for Saturday night. However, her boss, bless his yen-pinching heart, preferred to give Minako her time back rather than pay her overtime. So Saturday’s date was rescheduled to tonight.
Rei tossed the keys up and caught them in a tight grip. “We’re going to be late!” she called through the closed door.
“It doesn’t start till ,” came back an unhurried reply.
She pursed her lips and tried again, shooting back, “We won’t get good seats!”
Minako opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. “It’s Monday night, Rei. No one goes to the movies on Monday night.”
“We do,” smirked Rei.
Minako grinned and looped her arm through Rei’s. “We’re special.”
Hotaru hurried ahead of Haruka, the small bag from the camera shop held tightly in one of her hands. They had to pass the bakery on the way back to the car, and her papa had promised they’d stop in before they left for home. All of their after dinner errands were done now, and Hotaru knew just what she wanted to take home for everyone’s dessert.
A few steps ahead of Haruka, Hotaru stopped on the sidewalk outside the bakery window to wait for her. The cheese cake was sitting on display, a layer of cherries decorated with puffs of whipped cream covering its top. Hotaru licked her lips in anticipation.
A moment later, Haruka came up behind her. Smiling over her daughter’s head, she asked, “Are you sure that’s what we should get?”
Hotaru nodded enthusiastically.
“All right. Let’s go,” she said. With Hotaru beside her, Haruka opened the door, and the scent of baking chocolate and other sweet things wafted over them as they went inside.
She could hear Usagi over at the counter quietly counting the number of strokes as she stirred the chocolaty mixture in her bowl. Beside her at the table, Chibi-usa carefully held the bottle of red food coloring over the icing she had mixed up and very slowly squeezed out the number of drops she’d been told would make pink. Makoto grinned and finished placing the paper cups in the second cupcake pan. This actually hadn’t been so bad, after all.
“Okay, Mako-chan, I’m done,” called Usagi.
“All right, next step,” answered Makoto. She stood slowly, her movements awkward as she found her balance. Picking up the two cupcake pans, she walked the few feet to Usagi and set them on the counter. “Fill each one evenly, up to here,” she instructed. “The pre-heat light’s off, so after you do that, put them in the oven. Don’t forget to set the timer. And then, when they’re done, while we wait for them to cool, whatever’s left over in the bowl is ours.”
Usagi mirrored the grin her tutor was wearing and followed her instructions.
“Hey, Mako-chan,” said Chibi-usa. She pushed aside the bowl she was done with and looked over at the older girl as she asked, “Can we spend the night tonight?”
Makoto leaned back against the counter and smiled at the girl. “But it’s a school night. No sleepovers on school night’s, I’m afraid.”
“You don’t have to go to school, though,” returned Chibi-usa. “It won’t hurt if we miss one day so someone can stay here with you.”
“Luna and Artemis will be here,” answered Makoto. “I think I can make do with them.”
“Please, Mako-chan. We could give them the day off,” continued the little girl.
Usagi, after closing the oven door, decided to insert herself into the conversation by walking over to Chibi-usa and whapping her on the head with a potholder. “Don’t be a pest. She already told you no.”
Chibi-usa cringed under the assault, then shot Usagi an indignant glare. Standing on her chair so they were eye to eye, she said, “I know what she said. But I want to stay, so I asked again. That doesn’t mean I was being a pest, and it doesn’t mean you have to hit me for it.”
Usagi waved the potholder dismissively. “That was hardly a hit. Besides, you were being a pest.” She waved the potholder over in Makoto’s direction. “See, look, she’s in pain just from having to list… en… Um… Mako-chan? Are you okay?”
Usagi’s voice quieted quickly as her eyes widened in surprise and concern. Makoto’s eyes were squeezed shut and her lips were pressed into a pale, thin line. One of her hands gripped the edge of the counter to the point her knuckles were turning white, while the other arm held her middle. The small whimper that escaped as she tried to suck in a breath pushed Usagi passed her initial second of confused panic, and the blonde hurried to her friend’s side.
She knew Usagi was beside her, and that it was her hands on her shoulder and stroking her arm. Makoto also knew what was happening, regardless of the fact that she’d been told just two days ago that she wouldn’t deliver for at least another week. She was shaking her head, some part of her still trying to deny it, even as the words passed her lips. “That was a real one.”
“A real what?” questioned Usagi uncertainly, not quite ready to accept the inevitable.
Makoto turned her head to look at Usagi and said, “A contraction. They’ve been a little more regular, but I didn’t think… I’m in labor.”
Usagi let out a nervous laugh and began to shake her head. “No, that can’t be right. It’s the 5th. You’re not due until the 14th,” she said logically. “So that can’t be what it is. What’d you have for dinner?”
Makoto stared at her in disbelief. “Usagi, that was not my dinner.”
“Well, it has to be something,” argued the blonde. She looked down at Chibi-usa, who now stood halfway between them and the chair she’d been on. “It’s something else, right?”
The little girl bit her lip and looked down, not answering.
“Chibi-usa,” said Makoto calmly. “Answer her, please.”
Chibi-usa dug her toe into the floor as she said softly, “Tomorrow.”
Makoto paled at that word and its implications. “What time tomorrow?”
Chibi-usa shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. But it doesn’t happen until tomorrow.”
Usagi continued to shake her head. “Un un, no. It’s too soon. Ami has a plan and everything, and none of it starts until Friday. Besides, she said it wouldn’t happen until the 17th, and Ami is never wrong.”
“Well, she is this time!” bit out Makoto as another contraction tore through her.
Usagi may have been in deep denial, but she stayed beside Makoto, talking to her and trying to get her to breathe through it, just the way they’d been taught. When it passed, Makoto opened her eyes. Her breathing was hard, but she still managed to get out a command for Usagi. “Call Ami. Now.”
The noise had no real directionality. At least, to Rei it didn’t. If it hadn’t been for the very distinctive ring tone, she would have been glad to be annoyed with the couple two rows ahead of them for leaving their cell phones on. Instead, as the sound of Sailor V finishing off one of her enemies emanated from Minako’s sweater pocket, she sunk down in her seat and tried to pretend it wasn’t them.
“You know, you’re supposed to turn that off before the movie starts,” muttered Rei as Minako finally pulled the phone from her pocket.
Seemingly oblivious to the death stares they were getting from the group on their right, Minako whispered back, “I usually do. Guess it’s a good thing I forgot to this time, huh?” She hit the answer button on the phone, but before she could even say hello, Usagi’s panicked voice came roaring through.
“I know you’re on a date, and I’m sorry, but she’s in labor, and I can’t get a hold of Ami!” rambled out Usagi at a rapid fire pace. “She’s in class, so Luna won’t let me use the communicators, but she won’t answer her phone, and Luna told me to call you instead since I couldn’t get her, and… Help!”
They’d left their seats among the annoyed grumbles of the other moviegoers as soon as they heard Usagi’s voice. They were halfway through the lobby when that last plea made Minako reflexively pull the phone from her ear to save her hearing.
“We’re closer to Ami than Mako-chan,” thought Rei out loud. “Get her, then go to the apartment?”
Minako nodded, then said into the phone, “Try and stay calm, Usagi. It won’t take us long to get there. Can she wait long enough for us to pick up Ami first?”
Usagi started to answer, but was cut off by someone shouting something to her from across the apartment. Minako couldn’t make out what was said, though she did think she heard the words ‘damn’ and ‘water’, but Usagi’s answer came through loud and clear.
“What do you mean it broke?” called back Usagi. “Well then, fix it!”
Minako took a deep breath and looked at Rei. “I think we’re going to need a plan B.”
Hotaru watched from the passenger seat as Haruka clicked open her cell phone with a practiced ease.
“Hi, Michiru,” answered the blonde. “You’ve got great timing. Any later and you would have missed us. We just passed Sagawa’s and should be home in about 15 minutes.”
“What does she want us to get?” asked Hotaru curiously.
Haruka shrugged one shoulder, then said into the phone, “Why do I have to pull over? I can drive and talk at the same time. Just tell me what it is you want me to pick up.” Haruka sighed and paused for several seconds, blowing air through her lips. As they stopped at a red light, she went on, “Okay, I pulled over. What? Why?”
Hotaru raised her eyebrows, wondering what was being said on the other end. Then she began to giggle as Haruka frowned and handed her the phone.
“Your mother wants to talk to you.”
Still grinning, Hotaru took the phone. “Hi, Michiru-mama. Well, we were stopped, but the light changed and we’re starting to drive again. Okay.” Hotaru held the phone away from her and looked up at Haruka. “Michiru-mama says she’s glad you like the couch so much since that’s where you’re going to be sleeping for the next month.”
Haruka rolled her eyes and finally gave in. Muttering her annoyance under her breath, she flipped on her turn signal and pulled out of traffic. When the car was safely parked on the side, Hotaru gave back the phone. “Okay,” said Haruka, “I really did pull over this time. Now will you tell me what it is you couldn’t tell me while I was driving?”
It all happened rather quickly after
that. Hotaru watched as her papa’s eyes
went wide and her hand clenched tight around the steering wheel. After a rushed, “Are you sure?” and “We’ll
meet you there,” her papa tumbled the phone at her without fully closing it and
threw the car into gear. Hotaru didn’t
have time to check and see if anything was coming at them before Haruka made an
illegal U-turn across four lanes of traffic.
However, the screeching of tires and blaring of horns let her know that,
yes, there had indeed been traffic heading at them. She gripped her seat and closed her eyes,
because while she had absolute confidence in her papa’s driving skills, Hotaru
wasn’t quite so trusting of the rest of
After several seconds, Hotaru opened her eyes. There were no flashing lights or sirens chasing them down, and even though they were passing the other drivers at a rate Haruka generally saved for the race track, Hotaru felt secure enough to ask a few questions. “What’s happening? Where are we meeting Michiru-mama?”
“At the hospital,” answered Haruka, never taking her eyes off the road. “After we pick up Mako-chan. Looks like that kid of hers decided to make his appearance a little early.”
“She’s having the baby?” said Hotaru, instantly perking up. “Now?”
“Yep,” replied Haruka right before she slammed her hand against her horn to get the guy driving his Mercedes at the speed limit out of the passing lane.
Sinking into her seat a bit, Hotaru left Haruka alone so she could concentrate on the course ahead of her and reached for the cell phone that had fallen at her feet. “We were supposed to have another day,” she muttered under her breath as she dialed quickly and fidgeted until Michiru answered. “It’s me. I’m glad you didn’t leave yet. No, we’re still in the car, but we should be there soon. I just need you to get my bag for me. It’s got my cameras and everything in it. No, it’s by my bed. Just bring it with you, please. Okay. Thank you. Bye.”
Hotaru closed the phone and held it securely in her lap. It was a good thing she had listened all the times Setsuna-mama told her about being ready early and not waiting until the last minute to finish things. If she’d waited to pack until she got home tonight, she would have missed everything.
The class was entering its second hour, and Ami supposed she couldn’t blame the other students in the lecture hall for feeling a little restless. A boy down on the left yawned and stretched when the professor turned his back to add more notes to the board. Behind her, she could hear the quiet shifting of feet and bodies and whispers of what she thought might be apologies for stepping on a foot or nudging an arm.
She pulled her bag a little closer, allowing an extra few seconds to glance at the phone clipped to the outside of it. It was still on and with a full battery, but the nonexistent signal bar bothered her. Granted, it had worked perfectly well when she’d called home earlier, even though the phone wasn’t registering any signal, so she had no reason whatsoever to worry. She reminded herself of that one more time, and looked back towards the front.
Ami had just given her attention back to the professor when she heard the hushed voices behind her. She tuned it out the way she always did with such distractions, until a finger tapped her shoulder. Mildly annoyed, she turned around, then leaned back closer when the girl indicated she should.
Leaning down as best she could to whisper, the girl continued the chain that had started at the top of the hall. “Red peanuts roll down matched bugs car Ali is bored says hi and Mako-chan’s in labor.” The girl nodded and grinned, quiet pleased with herself for being able to remember the whole convoluted thing. Then her eyebrows knit together in confusion over why Mizuno had suddenly gone so pale.
Ami looked around the girl and up at the back of the lecture hall frantically. Her eyes finally landed on Minako in the last row, and the blonde waved at her. Ami stood quickly, knocking her papers to the floor as she did, and said in a rush, “But she isn’t due for another week!”
The entire class stopped and stared, but Ami didn’t even notice. The professor was the one who got her attention away from Minako. “Is there a problem?”
“Yes,” answered Ami bluntly before turning back to Minako for further information.
“Family emergency,” picked up Minako. “We need to take Ami home with us.”
“Fine, fine,” said the professor. “Just get your things and go, Mizuno.”
Ami nodded and quickly grabbed her things, shoving them haphazardly into her bag. She practically ran to the top of the stairs, oblivious to the whispers that followed her. As they were hurrying to the car Rei had double parked and idling, Ami asked, “Is she okay? What happened, and why didn’t anyone call me? Or is it so bad that you had to get me in person?”
“She’s fine,” reassured Minako. “Usagi tried to call you, but couldn’t get through, so she called us instead. Haruka’s getting them, and we’re all going to meet at the hospital. We’ve got everything covered, Ami. It’s all going to be all right.”
Ami shook her head as they climbed into the back seat of the car. “I should have been there. I knew I shouldn’t leave her tonight, and I should have stayed home, no matter what she told me.”
Minako put her hand on Ami’s arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. “It’s okay, Ami. You made sure she wasn’t alone when you couldn’t be there, and no one expected anything to happen this soon, anyway.” She grinned, then said in a more teasing tone, “Not even born yet, and he’s already surprising you and making all of us crazy. Just imagine what it’s going to be like after he gets here.”
Ami smiled at her. “Thank you,” she said softly. Then she and Minako both looked down as Ami’s phone started to beep. She pulled it up and frowned at the full signal bar and the little voicemail icon with a number beside it. “Five?”
“You know what?” said Minako slowly as she reached over and extricated the phone from Ami’s grip. “I bet all of those are from Usagi. So how about you just let me handle checking them for you?”
“Why?” asked Ami, some paranoia creeping back in. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“Nothing,” answered Rei quickly. “It’s just that Usagi started to panic when she couldn’t reach you. And I think by the time she got us, she was more panicked than you really need to hear right now.”
“You’re not telling me something,” repeated Ami. “Is she really okay?”
“She’s fine,” answered Minako. “We wouldn’t lie to you about that. But…” Her eyes met Rei’s in the rearview mirror, and the miko shrugged. “It’s nothing bad,” went on Minako. “It’s just that, when Usagi was on the phone with us, Mako-chan’s water broke.”
Ami sunk back against the car seat. “Already?” she said quietly. “All of that happened already, and I wasn’t there. I wanted to be with her.”
“You will be,” replied Rei. “Just like you’ve always been. You’ll be there so she can hold your hand and curse at you between contractions. And you’ll be there when your son is born. That’s the important part.”
Ami nodded, the disappointment still there, but understanding the truth in Rei’s words. “How much longer until we get there?”
“Twenty minutes if we don’t hit traffic,” answered Rei. “Thirty if we do. We’ll get you there in plenty of time, Ami. Don’t worry.”
Ami tried to relax and not think too hard about it. She felt Minako’s hand cover hers, and realized then how rapidly her foot was tapping against the floor. Last time, she thought suddenly, it had been Usagi holding her hand, and the anxiety she felt had been tainted with fear. She was still nervous and anxious, but this time it wasn’t because of the fear. Ami closed her eyes and took a deep breath, a smile slowly beginning to form on her lips.
The door to her office always creaked slightly when it was opened slowly. Some part of Kaya’s tired mind registered the sound, but the familiarity of it relegated it to being ignored. Her eyes never opened, and she turned a bit more onto her side as she dozed comfortably on the couch.
Ken walked quietly through the dimly lit room, the only light coming from the small desk lamp Kaya was using as a nightlight. He knelt beside the couch and smiled down at her before running the backs of his fingers lightly across her cheek.
Kaya woke enough to open her eyes a slit and do a quick survey of her surroundings. Hospital office, no lights, no nurses or beepers. No emergencies that needed her immediate attention. And Ken. She smile sleepily and raised a hand to pat his cheek. “Later,” she rasped out. “Too tired now. Need sleep. And you shave.” With that pronouncement, her hand dropped back down and she rolled over onto her other side.
Chuckling softly, Ken crossed his arms over his chest. “You are a stubborn one sometimes, aren’t you?” he said to her back. “Well, I’m willing to wait, but I’m not sure your grandson is.”
That penetrated the haze Kaya had been resting in, and she quickly turned back over. “What does that mean?”
“It means,” answered Ken, “that Makoto’s on her way in. I just got the call from my service.”
Kaya sat up quickly and reached for the lamp beside the couch. “But she isn’t due for more than a week, and Ami seemed to fully expect her to go over her due date. Is it still Monday?” she asked, reaching for Ken’s wrist and pulling it closer to squint at his watch. “Ami has class tonight. Are they together?”
“I don’t know,” answered Ken. He stood and pulled her up with him. “The message only said that her water broke while she was at home, and that she was on her way to the hospital.”
“What a mess,” sighed Kaya. “I hope Ami was with her. They haven’t tried to call me at all, but they knew I was here, so they wouldn’t have to. She had an appointment with you over the weekend, didn’t she?”
Ken nodded. “She’s in perfect health. There weren’t any indications that she’d go into labor just yet, but I don’t expect any problems.”
“Okay then,” responded Kaya, rubbing her hands together and looking for all the world to Ken like she was about to start pacing the room. “First thing to do is get down to Labor and Delivery. Make sure they know just who it is they’ve got coming in.”
“Throwing your weight around a bit, Mizuno-sensei?” teased Ken with a wide grin.
Kaya gave him a high class smirk in return. “Some people around here believe that just because I can garner a certain amount of respect and admiration from my peers that I have the same amount of clout to balance it out. I have the reputation, so I might as well use it. And what better way to use it than for my daughter?”
The car turned into the parking lot and pulled to a stop as close to Makoto’s stairs as Haruka could get without actually parking on the lawn. Hotaru had her door open before the keys had even been taken from the ignition. Wanting to keep up with her papa’s pace, she sprinted for the stairs. When she wasn’t overtaken by the fourth or fifth step, Hotaru stopped and turned around to see what was taking Haruka so long. She stared in confusion as Haruka paused at the back of the car and opened the trunk.
Haruka leaned into the trunk and moved a few things aside. Successful in her search, she straightened up and held in front of her the rubber mat she kept in case she needed to change a tire or get under the car while away from home. The grey material was a bit spongy, kind of like the bathmat in their tub, only sturdier. Having only been used once, it was still perfectly clean and would serve Haruka’s purpose just fine.
After closing the trunk, she moved around to the passenger side of the car. Haruka knelt down and carefully laid the mat across the seat, tucking in the sides as best she could. Taking a step back to survey her work, she nodded in approval and then gave the seat a gentle pat before closing the door. That detail taken care of, she ran over to the steps and passed a still confused Hotaru.
“Aren’t you coming?” asked Haruka over her shoulder as she took the steps two at a time.
Hotaru shrugged at her papa’s retreating back, realizing there were some things she was better off not asking about. Then she hurried up the stairs after her.
Haruka didn’t have any idea what to expect when she opened the door, but she had been expecting something just a bit more… chaotic. Instead, Makoto was sitting in one of the dining room chairs, her eyes closed as she tried to keep her breathing even. Usagi was beside her, holding her hand and looking like she was in more pain than Makoto. Luna was on the table behind them, while Artemis had taken up position further away on the back of the couch.
Hotaru edged passed Haruka, who had stopped in the doorway, and hurried over to Makoto and Usagi. When Makoto opened her eyes again, Hotaru smiled at her.
“Hey there,” said Makoto after a few breaths. “Thanks for coming. I was wondering when you would get here, and that was pretty quick.”
“We hurried,” said Hotaru. “Are you still okay?”
“Yeah,” answered Makoto. “As okay as I’m going to be for awhile, anyway.”
“Do you have everything?” asked Haruka, coming further into the apartment.
“Almost,” said Usagi. She rubbed her hand, trying not to be too obvious about it. “Chibi-usa’s getting the last thing.”
Right then, the little girl appeared from the hallway. “This is it, right, Mako-chan?”
Makoto nodded at the little cow Chibi-usa held. “That’s it. Just put her in the pocket on the side of my bag. We thought Suu would make a good focal point,” explained Makoto at Haruka’s questioning look.
“Whatever works for you, Mako-chan,” replied Haruka. She offered a hand and helped Makoto slowly to her feet. “Ready now?”
Makoto gave her a weak grin. “I think so.” Then she looked down at the cats, who were already moving towards the door. “I promise not to keep you in Usagi’s backpack for long. As soon as we get a room, we’ll find someplace for you to stay.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Artemis. “We’ve gotten used to these sorts of travel accommodations.”
“Besides, we don’t have to get in until we’re at the hospital. So it won’t be so bad,” added Luna.
“Okay. It looks like we’ve got everything, and Ami’s meeting us there,” said Makoto. “Let’s get going.”
Everyone agreed except for Haruka. A concerned look suddenly crossed her face, and she asked, “Do you smell that? Is something burning?”
“The cupcakes,” murmured Makoto, suddenly remembering what they’d been doing before they’d all been severely sidetracked.
“Oh no!” yelped Usagi at the same time. She dropped her bag and made a dash for the kitchen. “I forgot to set the timer!”
By this point, Ami had reached an entirely new level of frustration and anxiousness, and all her friends could do was stand there and watch as she vented some of it at the young nurse in the maternity ward. “What do you mean there’s no one here by that name?! She has to be here! There isn’t anyplace else they would take her.”
The three of them had made it to the hospital without any problems and fully expected everyone to be there when they arrived. Instead, they’d found an empty hallway and a proverbial brick wall.
“Check again, please,” went on Ami as her hands gripped the counter around the nurses’ station. “Her name is Kino. K-I-N-O.”
The nurse, who’s ID read Shiana, smiled up at Ami and spoke calmly in an attempt to dispel some of the desperateness she could hear. “We don’t have anyone checked in by that name, sweetheart. You’ve probably just beaten her here, if this is where they were bringing her. Tell you what, though. I’ll call downstairs and double check, just in case someone down there has seen her or heard something. Okay?”
Ami nodded and thanked her, relaxing and backing off a bit.
“What’s going on?”
The voice of one of her coworkers caught Shiana’s attention just as she picked up the phone. She looked over at the woman who had walked up behind her and answered, “We’re trying to find a patient. I’m calling downstairs to make sure she isn’t here yet.”
The new arrival nodded as she picked up some paperwork. “Who are we looking for?”
Surprised green eyes looked away from the papers they’d been scanning. “Mizuno-sensei’s Kino Makoto?”
Shiana looked at her questioningly as Ami quickly answered, “Yes. She is here, then?”
The nurse shook her head, “No, I’m afraid not. But Mizuno-sensei wanted us to let her know when she and her daughter got here.”
“I’m her daughter.”
The nurse smiled at her. “It’s good to meet you. Kino-san isn’t here yet, I promise you. Why don’t you and your friends have a seat over there for a few minutes, and we’ll give your mother a call. Maybe when she gets up here, your friend will have gotten here also.”
“All right, and thank you,” said Ami before moving back to Rei and Minako.
As the girls went over to the chairs across from the nurses’ station, Shiana looked up at her friend and asked quietly, “How did you know who she was?”
The other nurse grinned. “That’s what you get for being on break when important people come for a visit.”
Once she got the call, it only took Kaya a few minutes to get herself together and down to where Ami was waiting. The worry and excitement over it all were already there, carried quietly inside her and hidden from most of the people who saw her, but when she saw Ami for the first time that night, the true significance of the moment struck her. Her steps slowed as she remembered with perfect clarity how it had felt to hold her daughter for the first time and see her own eyes staring up her from a tiny, scrunched up face. Every other moment in her life paled in comparison to that one, and she was almost as overwhelmed by the idea that tonight it would be Ami in that position as she had been all those years ago when it was she herself.
Ami’s voice and the suddenness with which she approached snapped Kaya out of her memories. As Ami’s arms wrapped around her waist in a tight hug, Kaya smiled. Returning the hug, she asked calmly, “You were in class, weren’t you?” When Ami nodded, she went on, “I was afraid that had happened. How’s Makoto getting here?”
Ami pulled back from her mother and, with some help from Rei and Minako, explained everything up to the present point.
“We seem to be missing some key people,” said a voice from behind them.
Everyone looked over as Michiru and Setsuna arrived.
Michiru, who’s words had gotten their attention, smiled kindly at Ami. “How are you?”
Ami took a deep breath, then answered, “I’ll be much better once Mako-chan gets here.”
“I’m sure they aren’t too far away,” said Michiru.
A wide smile formed on Minako’s face. “Actually, she’s a whole lot closer than you think.”
Following Minako’s line of vision, Ami looked over into the hallway and immediately forgot everyone else around her as she hurried to meet the ones heading towards them. Haruka stopped the wheelchair and grinned down at them as Ami reached for Makoto. One hand found Makoto’s as the other first went to Makoto’s bangs and carefully brushed them away from her eyes before moving to gently stoke her cheek.
Clearly relieved, Ami let out a sigh. “How are you doing so far? How much time between contractions?”
Unconsciously flexing her fingers around Ami’s, Makoto answered, “I’m okay, I think. There were a few that were really close together, but most have been about four or five minutes apart.” Makoto stopped and grinned at Usagi. “Truthfully though, I think so far, she’s having a worse night than I am.”
For the first time, Ami really took notice of the people standing around her. Holding Makoto’s bag, Hotaru stood beside Haruka, who still had her hands on the wheelchair’s handles, ready to take them wherever they needed to go. Chibi-usa was standing closer to Usagi, who wore a sheepish expression on her face and was holding her backpack at an odd angle behind her back.
“It was dark and I couldn’t see it,” stated Usagi before Ami could ask. “I didn’t know it was there.”
“She sat on a cheesecake,” explained Chibi-usa. “Splat! Right down in the middle of it.”
“My poor, genuine leather car seat,” lamented Haruka piteously.
“I really am sorry,” said Usagi as she turned pitiful blue eyes onto her senshi.
Haruka closed her eyes and sighed. “Don’t worry about it, Odango. It’s easily enough fixed.”
“Excuse me,” interrupted a nurse. She smiled pleasantly at them. “There’s some paperwork that needs to be filled out. If someone doesn’t mind taking care of it, we can take her to get settled in.” Several heads nodded as the nurse turned to Haruka, ready to hand over the clipboard she was holding. “Would you be the father?”
Caught off guard by that, Haruka hesitated in answering. Amid the quiet giggles and snickers coming from her child and friends, she opened her mouth to say something, but was cut off by Usagi.
“No, no, no,” laughed Usagi. “Haruka’s…”
“Just a very good friend,” inserted a mischievously grinning Michiru, stepping up and placing a hand on Haruka’s arm.
“Oh,” answered the nurse. She looked around for any other suitable candidates. “Well then…”
“Here, we’ll do it,” offered Rei. “You guys go and do what you need to.”
Ami and Makoto thanked her, and then Ami took the bag Hotaru was holding. Usagi reluctantly gave up her backpack to Makoto just before Haruka wheeled her away, following after the nurse and Ami’s mother.
When they were out of sight, Rei circled around behind Usagi. She shook her head at the cheesecake-colored stain on the back of Usagi’s skirt and ‘tsked’ a few times.
Usagi sighed. “Yeah, I know. I burned the cupcakes, too. But at least we got here.”
Rei chuckled and folded her arms, holding the clipboard to her chest as she did. “Are you going to need a change of clothes? I’m sure we’ve got enough time. I can run you home if you want.”
Usagi looked at her in surprise. “You’re not going to tease me?”
Rei shook her head. “Not tonight, Usagi. I think you’ve been traumatized enough.”
Usagi smiled hugely and, on pure impulse, threw her arms around Rei.
Rei made a sound that was close to a surprised squawk as the clipboard was crushed between them. “Okay, okay,” she said after a few seconds and an amused chuff. “Enough. Do you need clothes or not?”
Letting her go, Usagi shook her head. “Haruka let me call home while we were in the car. Mama’s going to bring me some. Besides, I needed to let her know what was going on and to make sure she would let both of us stay.”
“Is she going to?”
“Yes. She thinks this will be a good experience, and as long as Mako-chan doesn’t mind, she doesn’t either.” Then Usagi frowned as she remembered the rest of that conversation. “She also told me to pay close attention to what was happening, because she had to go through that for 17 ½ hours with me and 15 with Shingo. Then she reminded me that long labors run in the family. Have I mentioned lately that I want to be unconscious? Cause I really don’t think anyone’s taking me seriously when I say that.”
Rei laughed and clapped a hand on Usagi’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Usagi. Even if we do forget, I’m sure you’ll find lots of ways to remind us.”
Hotaru giggled to herself as she passed by and overheard them. After some of the things she’d heard coming from Makoto on the drive over, she wondered just how Usagi would choose to remind them when the time came. And if it would be as varied and colorful as Makoto’s.
“Did you bring it?” asked Hotaru when she stopped in front of her mothers.
Setsuna held out the small, purple duffle bag that very obviously held more than just Hotaru’s cameras. Before allowing the child to take it, she said quietly, “I’m certain Makoto will want pictures of the baby after he’s born, but, for right now, I want you to respect her privacy and leave her be. And when all of this is over, you, Chibi-usa, and I are going to sit down and have a long discussion about the merits of discretion, keeping secrets, and preserving the timeline.”
“Yes, Setsuna-mama,” answered Hotaru contritely as she took the bag. Her contriteness was short lived, however, as she and Chibi-usa led the charge to the waiting area, where everyone began to settle in for the long haul.
Suu, CD’s, snack bag, stopwatch to time the contractions… Ami held up the stopwatch and gave the buttons a few quick, experimental clicks before setting it aside and pulling out Makoto’s dark green nightshirt. They were alone in the room now, save for Artemis and Luna, who were making themselves scarce by hiding out in the bathroom.
“Here we go,” said Ami as she slung the nightshirt over her arm and reached for Makoto. “Can you stand up for a few minuets? That would make this easier.”
Makoto smiled at her from where she sat on the edge of the bed. “I can stand. I could have walked up here if Haruka would have let me.” But rather than move, she took Ami’s hand and held it loosely in hers, watching intently as she twined their fingers.
Able to feel the slight tremble in Makoto’s hands, Ami laid the nightshirt on the bed. Her free arm wrapped around Makoto’s shoulders and gently pulled the girl to her.
Makoto let go of Ami’s hand and circled her arms around her waist, resting her head against Ami’s chest. “I’m never going to make you go to school ever again,” she said around a deep sigh. “Everything just happened so fast, and then I wanted Usagi to call you, but she couldn’t. And we almost burned down the apartment.” She paused for a moment, enjoying the comforting feel of Ami’s hand stroking her back. Then she said very quietly, “Chibi-usa said tomorrow. I think we’re going to be here for awhile. A really long while.”
She was trying not to let it show, but Ami could hear the faint fear and uncertainty in Makoto’s words. She bent down to place a kiss on the top of Makoto’s head, then moved her back so she could see her eyes. “You can do this, Mako-chan. And I’ll be with you the whole time.”
Makoto smiled at her. “I’m glad you’re here. I could never want anyone with me more than I do you.”
Ami smiled back and ran a finger slowly down Makoto’s cheek. “How about we get you changed now? Saatchi-san should be here in a few minutes. We’ll be all ready by then.”
Rei stretched her arms out behind her as she walked back to the waiting area. At just passed , everyone was still awake and holding on, but some of them just barely. Chibi-usa, Hotaru, and Usagi were on the floor together, juice boxes and coloring books on the table in front of them. Or, in Hotaru’s case, under her.
The little girl looked up at Rei from where her head was resting on her folded arms. “How much longer?” she asked.
“They’re guessing maybe four or five more hours.”
Hotaru nodded at the answer, then abandoned her coloring book in favor of Setsuna’s lap. The older woman set down the magazine she’d been looking through and adjusted them until they were both comfortable.
“Are we switching again?” asked Usagi. “I think it’s my turn to stay with them this time.”
Rei nodded. “But she wants to move around a little. She said she’s too uncomfortable just lying there for too long.”
“That means it’s my turn,” said Haruka. She grinned down at Michiru, who’s head was resting against her shoulder.
Michiru grinned back, then hid a yawn behind one hand as she sat up. “I’ll be here when you get back.”
“Where’s Minako?” asked Rei after Haruka had left.
“She said she wanted to walk around for awhile after we let Luna and Artemis outside,” answered Usagi. “I left her down by the nursery.”
Rei nodded and went off in search of Minako. She found her a few minutes later still standing in front of the nursery window. “Whatcha been doing?” she asked as she stepped up and stood beside her.
Minako grinned and answered quietly in deference to the stillness around them, “Window shopping.”
Rei chuckled softly. “Really?”
“Mm hm. I want that one,” said Minako, pointing to a bundle of pink. “She’s so cute. She can’t be more than a day old, and look at all those curls. She keeps scrunching up her face like she wants to cry, but then changes her mind, and she’s so tiny.”
Putting an arm around Minako’s shoulders, Rei replied, “I told you before, Mina, babies aren’t like kittens. You can’t just walk up to a window, pick out a cute one, and then bring it home like a stray. Besides, I don’t think her mom would like that very much.”
Minako smiled at Rei’s teasing and leaned in a little closer. They were alone in the corridor, the lights muted because of the hour. The stillness of everything made the movement of the reflection in the glass stand out even more, and out of reflex, her eyes glanced over in the newcomer’s direction. An uncharacteristically deep frown formed when she recognized who it was standing at the other end of the glass. “What’s he doing here?” she asked, pulling Rei’s attention to him.
Rei mirrored Minako’s frown when she saw Yuu standing there, his hands in the pockets of his jeans as he tentatively edged closer to the nursery window. He wasn’t looking towards them, but Rei didn’t particularly care if he was ignoring them or just hadn’t noticed them yet. Dropping her arm from Minako’s shoulders, she walked over to him. With her arms folded over her chest, she fixed him with the most intimidating stare she could and demanded to know what he was doing there and how he’d even known to come here to begin with.
Yuu seemed startled by Rei’s sudden nearness. Minako watched him take a few reflexive steps back as she caught up to Rei. Part of it, Minako guessed, was that he didn’t recognize Rei right away. But when she came up behind her, he finally put it all together. Yuu pulled himself to his full height, which seemed to her to be just an inch or two taller than Makoto, and tried to match Rei’s stare.
“It’s none of your business why I’m here,” he returned defiantly. “And you shouldn’t even have to ask how I know. Half of Mizuno’s cram class goes to our school. By tomorrow, everyone’s going to know.”
“It doesn’t matter who knows or how,” said Minako. “But Makoto and Ami are our family. That makes all of this our business. And it has nothing to do with you.”
“Look,” said Yuu, becoming more defensive, “I just had some morbid curiosity about what was going on. A friend’s sister said Mizuno had lost it completely, and she’s been acting weirder than usual lately. It’s got nothing to do with you, or them, or anything else. I just wondered if Kino’d had it yet…” His words began to drift with his eyes as they turned back towards the window, only to be cut off as Rei placed herself deliberately between him and the glass.
Throwing his hands up in exasperation, Yuu began to back away from them. “You know what,” he said angrily, “I don’t care. Kino and the rest of you be damned. This isn’t my problem.” With that, he turned and walked quickly away.
“Jerk,” muttered Rei to his retreating back.
Several moments passed in silence before Minako finally asked, “What do you think that was all about?”
Rei shook her head. “I don’t have a clue.”
“We should tell Ami.”
“No,” said Rei. She saw the question in Minako’s eyes and explained further, “We certainly can’t tell her now, and saying anything later would be pointless. Just mentioning him upsets both of them, so let’s just let it go. We handled it, and brining it up later isn’t going to do anyone any good.”
Rei’s logic didn’t completely satisfy her, but Minako found herself agreeing nonetheless. Casually taking Rei’s hand, she said, “Let’s go back. I want to see how Mako-chan’s doing for myself.”
With a grin, Rei draped her arm back around Minako. Together like that, they made their way back to the waiting area.
There were times when she had to remind herself that just because she was at the hospital didn’t mean she was on duty. The work, however, provided Kaya with a distraction she was glad to have tonight. As much as she liked Ami’s friends, she wasn’t really comfortable sitting and waiting with them, just as she wasn’t completely comfortable hovering over Makoto as much as she felt she wanted to. So the work was welcome, in its own way, and helped her pace out the time between visits.
She passed the girls in the waiting area, all of them finally given in to the need for sleep. In the room, she found Usagi the same way, curled up on the couch with Ami’s stuffed animal hugged tightly to her. She might have smiled at the sight if she hadn’t been so completely focused on Makoto and Ami.
The regular room lights had been turned out and replaced by the bluish white of the nightlight over the bed. Makoto sat in the middle of the bed, several pillows in her lap for her to lean on, while Ami sat behind her, rubbing her back and talking too quietly for Kaya to make out the words. Makoto’s eyes were squeezed shut beneath her sweaty bangs, and one fist was twisted tightly around the sheet as a sound somewhere between a hum and a whimper slowly escaped from her. After several seconds, she began to relax marginally, though her eyes didn’t open. She was holding up remarkably well, in Kaya’s opinion, but the exhaustion was plain to see in her features.
Kaya walked over to the bed and carefully sat on the corner. She smiled at Ami, who gave her a tired grin in return, before reaching forward to smooth back a few strands of hair that had come loose from Makoto’s ponytail. Quietly, she asked, “How’s everything going? Everyone out there tells me you’ve been doing very well.”
“I am never doing this again,” answered Makoto tersely.
Kaya nodded, sympathizing with the sentiment. Her hand dropped back into her lap and folded with her other as she said, “It shouldn’t be too much longer, though I remember when people said that to me, it really didn’t make things much better. And Ami was taking so long…”
Makoto cracked her eyes open to peer at the woman in front of her. “How long?”
Kaya grinned in spite of herself. “Well, from the time I first realized I was in labor until she was born, it all took about 34 hours.”
For a moment, Makoto’s jaw went slack. Then her lip began to quiver as her eyes filled with weary tears. Shaking her head, she whispered hoarsely, “I can’t. I can’t do it for that long. I’m so tired, and I just want it all to be over. Please don’t make me do it for that long.”
Kaya’s heart broke at that, and she wished dearly that she could take it back. Ami looked like she wanted to cry herself as she tried to reassure Makoto that it would only be another hour or two, and Kaya once again reached out to her in an attempt to repair the bit of damaged she felt she’d done. Her thumb wiping away the tear that was trailing down Makoto’s cheek, Kaya went on, “I didn’t mean to make you cry, sweetheart. Most people usually find it amusing when I tell them that, but I suppose now just wasn’t the right time for it. And I know for a fact you’ll have this baby by the time the sun rises. He’s like you that way. Ami just needed some extra time to think things through and make sure being born was the right decision for her, and she wasn’t going to be rushed into it. That’s always been her nature, even back then.”
Kaya startled as Makoto’s hand unexpectedly latched onto the white jacket she wore and tried to tug her closer. Still a bit surprised by the action, Kaya moved forward until Makoto stopped her by awkwardly putting her arms around her and resting her forehead against her shoulder.
“Promise?” asked Makoto.
“I promise,” answered Kaya reassuringly. She carefully moved the pillows on Makoto’s lap out from between them to make things less awkward, and then began a gentle, tentative stroking over Makoto’s hair. The girl’s grip on her remained, her fists tightening into the white material on each contraction as the first syllable of a curse would be cut off by that same humming until it had passed.
Glad to be here and able to help, Kaya began to ease into the role she was playing, taking some of the pressure off of Ami for awhile. “You know,” she began somewhat aimlessly, “my grandmother would be very impressed by you if she was here right this moment. ‘Times may change, but people don’t.’ She’s always saying that to me. Back when I had Ami, she didn’t understand why I insisted on going to a hospital, because if having her children at home with nothing but her mother and a midwife was good enough for her, then it was certainly good enough for me. She completely missed the point.”
“The epidural,” supplied Ami, enjoying listening to her mother talk. More so than usual because Makoto seemed glad to have her there as well.
“That’s right,” answered Kaya. She reached back and patted Ami’s cheek affectionately. “Pregnancy didn’t really suit me very well. The result was worth it, though, even if it did throw off my plan. Ami came a few years early, you see, since I wasn’t planning on having my first until I was 30. Then I was going to have the second four or five years later. One of each, that way, Suoh and Father would have a boy to keep them happy, and Mother and Gram would have a girl.”
Kaya chuckled lightly as she reflected back on that part of her life. “It seems almost silly to me now, thinking Suoh could have been any happier with a son. He was so absolutely fascinated by Ami, and so completely in love. Every little thing she did captivated him, and he always talked about how she would follow him with her eyes when he worked. Those first few weeks after we brought her home, even with Gram and my mother there, I was terrified. She was so small, and it felt like everything I was doing was wrong because none of it was working the way the books said it was supposed to. Suoh, on the other hand, would just pick her up like he’d done it a million times before and stick a bottle in her mouth without even thinking about it. And he would keep her tucked in one arm like she was a football while he showed her how to sketch out a landscape or portrait.”
Makoto grinned against Kaya’s shoulder as Ami said, “That made Gram crazy, didn’t it?”
“There were a lot of things about your father that made Gram crazy,” replied Kaya evenly. “The only time she ever lost her temper with him, though, was when I was in labor and his fidgeting got to be too much for all of us. She and Mother banished him out to the waiting room with the rest of the men, which was where Gram thought he should have been to begin with, until you were actually being born.” Kaya had never asked how all those hours had gone for him. She knew instinctively that putting Suoh, her father, and Kyo into the same room together wasn’t a good idea, but at the time, she hadn’t really cared. Now, she just flat out didn’t care to think about it at all. Instead, she chose to muse over a personality that a part of her, on very rare occasions, missed.
“That was one of the odd things about Suoh,” she went on. “He could sit for hours and look out over a field or up at the sky without ever putting pencil to paper. Then he’d lose days in his studio just staring at a blank canvas without moving. But with anything else, he was like a child with ADD. If something wasn’t happening right then and there to hold his attention, he would start to fidget until someone granted him freedom.”
“Ami’s like that,” inserted Makoto. She shifted a bit, trying to find a better angle to sit at and adjusting herself more comfortably against Kaya. “Not that last part, but the part about losing time. She does that when she studies. She works too hard sometimes.”
Ami’s cheeks reddened just a bit at the observation, and Kaya smiled. Tilting her head down just a bit, she said softly against Makoto’s ear, “That’s why I’m glad she has you.”
Usagi had never woken up so fast in her life. Under the bright lights of the hospital room, she scrambled from the couch to her feet and watched in wide-eyed wonder as the medical staff moved quickly into place.
Ami and her mother stood next to Makoto, one on each side, holding her hands and helping support her when the doctor told her to push. Red-faced from the exertion, Makoto had given up any and all pretense of quiet and civil. The deep-throated string of invectives that issued from her as she put the last of her energy reserves into it reverberated through the room and caught the surprised attention of the people several rooms away.
“Good girl,” said Ken when they paused for Makoto to take a breath. “We’re almost there. One more good push should do it. As soon as you’re ready.”
Makoto nodded once, then tightened her grip on the two standing beside her. A grunt of effort turned into another hard yell until, finally, she fell back, gulping in relieved breaths as her own voice was replaced with the high pitched cries of newborn.
A shaky laugh escaped from Ami, and she could feel the tears that had suddenly started to run down her cheeks. She wiped at them hastily before reaching down to stroke Makoto’s bangs away from her eyes. As Saatchi-san announced for everyone that it was a healthy boy with all his fingers and toes, Ami placed a kiss against Makoto’s forehead, smiling against her skin in a way that reflected Makoto’s own happy-but-tired grin. Still holding onto Makoto, they watched as Saatchi-san clamped off the cord and finished cleaning the baby’s mouth and nose. Then he smiled up at Ami as a nurse held out a pair of surgical scissors to her.
“This is your big moment, Ami,” he said happily.
Ami nodded, her smile widening even more. She swiped at her eyes one more time and forced her hands to steady before nearing her still mewling son. The small snip seemed to startle him a bit, and his crying started again in earnest before a blanket was wrapped loosely around him and he was handed to his mother.
As the baby was placed against her chest, Makoto’s perspective narrowed down to nothing more than this one, tiny person. His skin was red and wrinkled, the little bit of brown hair on his head dark and matted. His feet were smaller than her palm, and his fingers barely fit around her thumb as she stroked his hand with her finger. His crying had slowly calmed, and his lips moved just a bit, putting a dimple in one chubby cheek. Makoto gently ran the back of a finger over his dimple, letting out a soft laugh as she did. At the sound of her voice, his eyes started to ease open. He blinked a few times, looking almost dazed, before turning his unfocused gaze up to hers.
And for a just a moment, the universe stopped as she saw eternity in a pair of deep blue eyes.
“Hey, look,” said Usagi in quiet awe as she slid up to them and stood beside Kaya to look down at the baby. “His eyes are almost exactly like Ami’s.”
Ami’s smile turned shy as her hand moved carefully over the baby’s head. “Most babies are born with blue eyes, Usagi,” she said softly. “In a few days, they’ll begin to change to green.”
“Maybe,” answered Usagi dubiously. She held a finger out for the baby, and he caught it in an uncoordinated grip. Usagi giggled happily at him, telling him how cute and perfect he was. After a few minutes, she unwillingly pulled herself away from his attention. “I gotta go tell the others. If I wait too long, they’ll hurt me.” Then, after one more glance down at the baby, she excused herself and hurried out to her friends.
Ken smiled after her, then looked over at Kaya. She was biting her lip, partially obscuring the smile she wore, and refusing to let the shine in her eyes spill over. He’d already heard how she’d promised death and double shifts to the first person on staff who called her ‘Grandma,’ but he knew she was just as happily caught up in it all as the girls were. Turning back to Makoto, he smiled almost mischievously, and said, “How about you give him to Grandma for a few minutes, so we can get both of you fixed up a bit. I promise we’ll give him right back.”
Not seeing the look that earned him from Ami’s mother, Makoto agreed, albeit reluctantly. After handing the baby to Kaya, she smiled up at Ami and nodded, giving her the permission she wanted to go with them.
“Does he have a name yet?” asked the nurse as she began to fiddle and fuss with the baby.
“Miki,” answered Ami.
“That’s a good name. Now, let’s see… You joined us on May 6th at ,” she went on as she checked the numbers on the side of the small table. “Twenty-one inches and seven pounds, twelve ounces. You’re going to be a big boy, aren’t you?” She finished wrapping a blanket around him and put a blue cap over his head. Just before handing him to Ami, she smiled at him and said, “Welcome to the world, Kino Miki. I hope you have a long and happy stay.”
* * *
Several hours had passed. All of their friends had come and gone. Kaya had left them alone to give them time to get to know each other as a family, but now she was ready to head home herself, and she wanted to see them one more time before she did. Stopping at the door to Makoto’s room, she stood and stared inside, trying to take it all in. She felt the presence of the man behind her before she saw him, and on instinct, leaned back against him.
Ken wrapped his arms around her for the few minutes she would allow it and said, “You’ve had some time to really think about it now. How does it all feel?”
“Surreal,” answered Kaya without missing a beat. Then she grinned. “But good. It feels good.”
“How about coming back to the apartment for awhile?” asked Ken. “I can at least give you breakfast and a little time for some real sleep before I have to leave again.”
Kaya smiled, surprised at how easily she found herself agreeing to it. “Just let me say goodbye first.”
Ken nodded, then kissed the top of her head before leaving her alone with the girls.
Kaya took a few more minutes to gather her thoughts together and then went into the room. In the soft morning light, Makoto slept soundly, the combined result of her own exhaustion and pain killers. Ami sat in a chair beside the bed with Miki asleep in her arms.
Smiling down at her daughter, Kaya traced a finger along the baby’s ear and said, “I have to leave for a while, but I’ll be back this afternoon. You should let them take him to the nursery for a bit so you can get some rest, too.”
Ami shook her head, the act reminding her mother of a petulant, overly tired toddler. “They said we could keep him as long as we wanted,” she argued quietly, her eyes staying focused on the baby. “Besides, Mako-chan had him all to herself for nine months. It’s my turn now, and I want to make sure he knows who I am before I have to give him back.” Then she grinned widely and looked up at her mother with a sleepy-drunk kind of happiness. “He has blue eyes.”
Kaya couldn’t help but chuckle. So much for rational logic, she thought. “I saw,” she said softly, grinning back at Ami. “He has very nice eyes, sweetheart, and so do you. Except, right now, yours are drooping so much I can barely tell. So, here, let me have him, and we’ll compromise,” she went on as she carefully lifted Miki from Ami’s arms.
Ami frowned at her mother in silent protest while the baby fussed at being moved from a warm and comfortable spot.
Experience had taught her how to resist Ami’s pout, even if the attempts weren’t always equally successful. This time, she distracted herself by humming softly to the baby as she walked him over to the hospital bassinet. “I know you like it better when your mama holds you,” she said quietly. “And I understand why she would rather be holding you. But right now, you all need some rest, so be a good boy for your Grandma Kaya and sleep.”
“His Nana,” corrected Ami as she walked up behind her mother. “Mako-chan asked if you would mind. It was what she called her grandmother, and she never really thought he would have one, but now that he does…”
Kaya smiled at Ami, touched deeply by what she was being given here. “I would like that very much,” she said. Then she turned her attention back to the baby, placing a kiss against his cheek before laying him down. To Ami, she said, “Let him sleep here for awhile, and you lie down and do the same. When you wake up, he’ll be right here waiting for you and wanting attention.”
Ami nodded, hiding a long yawn behind her hand.
“Good,” replied Kaya to Ami’s almost answer. Then she reached forward and pulled her into a hug. “I love you, sweetheart.”
“I love you, too, Mom.”
After a few quiet moments, Ami walked her mother to the door, grinning to herself when she saw Ken standing at the end of the hall trying to look like he wasn’t waiting. When her mother was gone, rather than going to the couch, Ami went back to the chair she’d been sitting in and pulled it closer to the bed. Her fingers brushed against Makoto’s as she lay her head down beside Makoto’s arm. Her eyes had drifted closed and she was almost asleep when she felt fingers move against her own. Those fingers moved up and began slowly brushing through her hair.
Ami turned her head and smiled at her barely awake partner. “Hey there. Are you feeling okay? I thought you’d sleep longer. Mom made me put the baby down, but I’ll get him for you if you want.”
Makoto smiled back at her and would have nodded if her eyes hadn’t started to slip shut once again.
“When you wake up,” whispered Ami as she allowed her own eyes to close and her fingers to thread through Makoto’s. “I’ll get him for you when we wake up.”