“The Ghosts of Dreams We Left Behind”
Chapter 3: Times Like These
Minako tapped the small metal stylus against the desktop, careful not to prick her fingers on the sharp pointed end. After the battle as things were calming down, they had pulled all three of the metal projectiles from the flagpole they had lodged into after slicing across Rei’s arm. Ami had taken one with her, and after spending the better part of two days analyzing it every way she could think of, she had called Minako with less than enthusiastic news.
“It’s titanium,” Ami said into her communicator. “But that’s it. It’s just a very sharp, titanium stylus.”
Minako pursed her lips and thought for a moment. They were missing something, they had to be. “What about the inkwell?” she asked, thinking back to the object that had cracked and turned to black powder seconds after Mercury had begun scanning it.
“Just ink,” answered Ami, clearly bothered by the answer. “There were trace amounts of dark energy, but nothing unique to help identify it. The residual black powder was only dried up ink.”
“That wasn’t a random youma,” stated Minako as she began to think out loud. “Something’s out there, and it’s going to hit again. Why, though? And why now?”
“I’m sorry I don’t have more to tell you,” offered Ami apologetically.
Minako smiled and waved a hand dismissively, though the gesture only grazed the edge of Ami’s screen. “No, no, I’m just throwing some thoughts out there. You can’t find it if it isn’t there, right?” Then her smile dropped a bit. “How’s Makoto?”
Ami shifted, and Minako watched her glance over her shoulder. “Unusually quiet. In four years, she’s only seen Tomoko twice, and each time her friend has gotten hurt. And then there’s the other issue…”
Minako didn’t need to ask what that other issue was. She did know they needed to find a way to move passed it, though, and quickly. “I could come talk to her,” she offered. “We need to get together, anyway.”
“She isn’t ready,” answered Ami with a shake of her head. “Give her another day or two, perhaps, to let her try and work through some of it.”
Reluctantly, Minako agreed. “Rei’s looking into things her way, but she hasn’t found anything yet, either. How about we all meet the day after tomorrow?” Ami nodded, though she still seemed unhappy about the matter. Minako couldn’t blame her, and with a sigh she stretched her hands up over her head. “I hate to say it, but we may not get anywhere with this whole monster mess until the next one appears. I’m gonna be hopeful, though. Maybe between you and Rei we can figure it out.”
Ami thanked her for her confidence in them even if she wasn’t sharing it at the moment. They finished their call with no more real information having been exchanged, and Minako went to find Rei. It had been several hours since the miko had stolen away to the fire room and she would be needing a break.
Knocking lightly against the door, Minako peeked her head into the room. “Rei?” she whispered, hoping she wasn’t interrupting anything important.
Rei quickly stuffed the letter she was reading into the
folds of her dogi.
The formal foil letterhead of
Minako moved into the room and joined Rei by the fire. The flame was steady and full, moving almost languidly. Under other circumstances, she would have taken this as a good sign. Today it just led to more frustration. “Yeah. She didn’t really have anything new, though. Could only tell me that those things that hit you were made of titanium.”
Rei frowned and rubbed at her now-healed arm. “What about Makoto?”
“The same. Ami wants to give her another few days to snap out of it,” added Minako as she leaned back on her elbows.
“Not likely to happen. Especially that quick,” returned Rei.
“I know.” Minako inclined her head toward the fire. “Anything?”
Rei shook her head. “But I did feel something at the park. It was attached to a deep red orb – maybe a ruby or garnet. But it disappeared just as quickly as I noticed it.”
Minako sighed, then scooted over a bit more so she could rest her head on Rei’s shoulder. “This should be old hat for us by now. Why does it suddenly feel so complicated?”
“Maybe we’re thinking about it too hard,” suggested Rei. Her head tilted so her cheek rested against the top of Minako’s hair. “We’ll get it, though, whatever it is.” There was a brief pause, then, “Remember I have that appointment tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I remember. But you’re still not going to tell me what kind of appointment, are you?” smirked Minako.
“I will after it’s over,” returned Rei. She forced a smile to keep Minako from thinking about it too hard. “And by then I’ll actually have something to tell you about.”
“Fine, fine,” answered Minako in a playfully dismissive tone. She lifted her head and looked pointedly at Rei. “Just don’t forget you promised to buy me dessert after lunch for making me wait so long to find out. You’ll probably have to buy one for Usagi, too.”
“Just so long as I don’t have to sit there all afternoon and replan her wedding. Again. For the fifth time.” Rei chuckled and shook her head. “I swear we’re going to have to have ten ceremonies just to get in everything she wants to do. And you,” she added, wagging a finger at a completely unrepentant Minako, “you keep encouraging her indecision by taking her to get all those magazines each time a new one comes out.”
“Ah, Rei, you just don’t understand this very important moment in the life of a young princess.” Minako giggled happily. “But you did it so well for me.”
A slight blush touched Rei’s cheeks, but her pride in herself for that moment was obvious. “Whatever. But she’s got less than a year, so you need to start helping her make some decisions or else her mom’s going to take over completely and we’ll all be wearing those hideous blue gowns that not even you can make look good.”
The anger. The hurt. The lingering fear. These were emotions she wasn’t used to dealing with, and as Ami pushed from the side of the pool in one more lap, she found herself no closer to resolution than she had been the night before. Perhaps it was the lack of restful sleep, as the silence in their home had been anything but peaceful. What little sleep had come had been interrupted by fits of restless crying from Miki. She and Makoto had both been glad to see the dawn come simply so they could retreat to their own corners – her to the pool and Makoto to the gym with a now soundly sleeping baby.
Ami completed the lap and grasped onto the rough concrete edge of the pool. Through slightly labored breathing she could hear footsteps approaching at an even and unhurried pace. Michiru.
Any other time she would have smiled at the familiar sound of her rival. Today, though, she wasn’t in the mood for any friendly competition or trivial pleasantries.
The older girl must have noticed, because as her towel was laid over the back of a chair, she said without preamble, “You seem a bit distracted this morning. Your strokes are uneven and your time was off by almost five seconds.”
Ami sighed, then looked up at Michiru as she sat on the edge of the pool. “Makoto. She’s building walls around herself to keep out the world and she’s pushing me out in the process.”
Michiru’s eyebrows rose in surprise at the bluntness of Ami’s answer. She had expected a bit more resistance to her prodding. “You two seemed to be doing a bit better on Saturday. What’s changed in such a short period of time?”
Ami’s chin rested on her folded arms as her feet paddled languidly beneath the water. “Saturday appears to be the problem. Or at least the part that’s pushed Makoto to the point she’s at now. She doesn’t want to go back to school.” A frown touched Ami’s lips. “That sounds so simplistic when I say it, like it shouldn’t even be a problem.”
“But it is,” supplied Michiru, “because there’s considerably more to it than that.”
“Mmmm,” murmured Ami. “She’s afraid, even more now than she was before. She feels helpless, yet even in her helplessness, she believes she’s the only one who can properly protect Miki. Her son. And here I am, standing on the outside of the box she’s building around herself. Again.”
“And you’re just going to let her leave you out?” asked Michiru pointedly, her voice edged with disapproval.
“Of course not!” answered Ami defensively, her feet stilling as her body tensed. “But how do I argue this? We learned a long time ago that the things that go bump in the night aren’t just fairytales or shadows of an overactive imagination. In a house full of people, our son was taken. I can’t tell her she’s overreacting, and I can’t find a justification for the need I feel to move on from this in spite of how afraid every stranger who smiles at my son makes me feel.”
Her tone gentler, Michiru asked, “Why do you feel like you need to justify it? Letting her close herself or Miki off from the world won’t make either of their lives better.”
“But to her it will keep him safe,” returned Ami. “And to that end it keeps all of us from being hurt again. Or at least she believes it does.”
“Did you tell her it doesn’t?” asked Michiru as she stood and reached for Ami’s towel.
Ami shook her head and pulled herself up over the side.
“Because I’m finding there’s a very large part of myself that doesn’t think I should have to,” admitted Ami as she took her towel to dry her face and hair. “If she can’t understand by now that she isn’t alone in all of this, how am I supposed to convince her of that?”
Offering a kind smile, Michiru placed a hand on Ami’s shoulder. “Sometimes a point needs to be made repeatedly or in an unexpected, possibly harsh, manner.”
“We were harsh enough last night,” returned Ami. Then she produced a halfhearted grin. “Perhaps I need to try for unexpected.”
“When you do, you’ll have to let me know how it goes.” Michiru glanced up at the high dive, and for the first time, Ami noticed Haruka watching over them. The racer waved, her legs swinging lazily, the brown flip-flops on her feet threatening to fall into the water at any moment. “We would both like to have you as company, and Hotaru would enjoy some time to play with the baby. She’s been… unusually preoccupied since we got back.”
“That vacation was somewhat difficult on all of us. I’m sorry for that.” Her head hung in a tired fashion. “I’ll let you know when we’ve reached the appropriate point for a visit.”
They said their good-byes and Ami waved up to Haruka before reluctantly heading back to the locker room. As much as she needed to, she really didn’t want to go home just yet.
Backpack slung over his shoulder, Shingo greeted their visitor with a smirk and a tip of his baseball cap. “Meioh-san beat you here. Have fun if you can keep my sister from killing Chibi-usa,” he laughed before disappearing down the sidewalk.
Minako’s eyebrows rose and she carefully pushed in the partially open door. “Hello! Usagi!”
A flash of pink ran by, dragging Hotaru and a piece of white, polka dotted fabric with it.
“Chibi-usa, I’m gonna kill you!” called Usagi. “I’m not your mother yet, so I can do that!” She was about to go tearing by after her mischievous charge when she spotted Minako and came to an abrupt halt. Smiling widely, she said, “Oh, hi, Minako. Give me just a few minutes to finish getting Chibi-usa packed and I’ll be ready to go.” She chucked her thumb in the direction of the living room. “Setsuna’s in there if you want to wait with her.”
“Sure,” shrugged Minako. “And take your time. I’m not in a hurry.”
Usagi nodded, then turned an intent gaze at the staircase. Chibi-usa stuck out her tongue, then pulled Hotaru the rest of the way up the stairs. “Chibi-usa!” called Usagi again as she resumed her chase.
Chuckling as she went, Minako joined Setsuna in the living room and took a seat in the large chair across from the couch. “I forgot their parents were out of town.”
Setsuna smiled. “They actually seemed to have been getting along very well until Chibi-usa ‘remembered’ something she forgot to pack. I’m still not sure what that something was, but it seems to have sparked Usagi’s ire.”
“They know how to pull each other’s Velcro,” smirked Minako. She sank back into the chair cushions and her thoughts became slightly distant. “Setsuna, I’ve been trying to remember something, but I can’t. What did you guys do with us when we were little? I kinda remember going on calls, but not really doing anything. And Makoto complaining cause she never got to go… but that doesn’t really feel right and I just can’t remember.”
“That’s probably because most of the time you didn’t know there was a call, since we usually left you with your governess.” A half smile touched Setsuna’s lips as she went on, “You were too young and your powers too raw for you to be effective in battle, though Jupiter did like to bring you along if she thought it was safe enough. Most of the time, though, she left you both with your governess. Now what was her name…” She frowned slightly, her mind running through all the faces that had graced the palace halls. While governesses were rare compared to the other staff, the names had all begun to run together over time, and Setsuna became annoyed with herself for not recalling the woman who had such an obvious – and oft encouraged – crush on their leader.
“Zerellia,” offered Minako with a wide grin. “She always made sure I had a bow in my hair before she’d let me leave my room.” She huffed in amusement, thinking briefly of the woman who had done the same to her in this lifetime. “I wonder if my mother is some distant descendent of hers.”
“I’ve seen odder things,” answered Setsuna. Then, “What’s brought on this bit of nostalgia?”
“Makoto,” said Minako. She sat forward in her chair, more serious than she had been. “I’ve changed the rules, but I didn’t think far enough ahead when I did. I know well enough that back then, if Makoto had gotten pregnant, it would have been hidden. And within an hour of him being born, Aria would have handed Miki over to be taken to a world so far away that ‘Jupiter’ wasn’t even in their vocabulary. But I couldn’t do that to her, and I promised her we would make this work.”
“Are you beginning to doubt that?”
“No. Maybe. Kind of, but not really.” Minako sighed, sounding tired and disappointed. “Do you remember Aria’s tree? The one by the river that you had to hike forever to get to? Well, there’s this big old tree on the shrine property that I found about a year ago. They don’t really look alike, but they feel the same. Last night, I was sitting under that tree trying to get Aria to tell me what I need to do, but all I could see was her frowning at me. I don’t like it when she frowns at me. But,” she went on, sitting up straighter and finding some of her lost confidence, “I still believe what you told me about this being balance. I just need to figure out how to balance the balance.”
“I’m sorry I can’t tell you how to do that,” said Setsuna sympathetically. She looked over as the other three came bustling into the room. “Sometimes even I have difficulty finding the right balance.”
Chocolate coffee slushy in hand, Usagi hummed happily as she perused the magazine section of the bookstore. Racks of thick, glossy tomes in shades of white, pink, and silver stared back at her, each offering to make her special day even specialer. Usagi giggled around her straw. ‘Specialer.’ She was going to have to remember to use that word around Rei just to see what kind of reaction it would get.
A magazine with a lacy looking wedding cake and two engraved silver rings caught her eye and she added it to her pile. Then she noticed Minako leaving the bakery counter with a plate of gooey pastries and grabbed up the half dozen magazines she’d collected. This would be enough to get them started.
The scent of warm cinnamon greeted her as she slid into the corner booth beside Minako. Magazines were laid carefully to the side, and for a moment she felt Makoto’s absence very keenly. But their friend would join them next time, or perhaps they would go to her. For now, though, there was planning to do and warm sticky buns to do it with.
“So, I’ve been thinking,” began Usagi as she grabbed for
a sticky bun and took her first glorious bite.
Behind her sticky bun, Minako chuckled. “If you were queen, you wouldn’t even be having one wedding.”
“Why not?” asked Usagi pitifully. Curious blue eyes stared at her, threatening to spill over a well of tears if she didn’t provide a good explanation quickly.
Waving a hand to stall whatever might be coming, Minako said hurriedly, “No, no, I don’t mean because it would be you. On the moon we just did things a little differently, that’s all.” She swiped some icing off her sticky bun. “If the queen bonded, it was kept secret so she could keep this image of solitary control that she had. And probably to keep the person she was bonded to safe, too.”
“Bonded?” asked Usagi. “But I just want to get married.”
“Same thing,” explained Minako. Then her lips turned to a contemplative frown. “Well, sort of. The rest of the population just said vows in front of a priestess. Us,” and her hand circled the table to indicate the two of them and their missing comrades, “for us it was more like souls merging. Granted, I was never given the all important cautionary ‘talk,’ but apparently it’s a souls-bonded-for-all-eternity type deal.”
“How romantic!” gushed Usagi. She took a sip of frozen chocolate coffee and let her eyes go dewy and distant. “The lonely queen, in order to keep her true love safe, hides their affair, forever living in secret with her lover.” She sighed. “I wonder if my mother had a secret lover she bonded her soul to?”
“Of course she did,” laughed Minako before she could think better of it. “Where do you think you came fr… uh… never mind.” But it was too late as excitement lit upon Usagi’s features. “No, Usagi. I can see the question you’re about to ask, so just don’t.”
Seeing true panic suddenly on her friend’s face, Usagi replace her real question with another. “Why? Was it illicit? Or was she secretly seeing someone below her class? Like the stableboy, maybe. Everyday when she went out to ride, he would saddle up her horse and hand her a flower, secretly indicating where they were to have their romantic rendezvous…”
“What? No.” An image of a pretty young woman with pale blond hair and clear blue eyes flitted across Minako’s memories. While it might have been interesting, their lead stablehand really wasn’t Serenity’s type. Through a grin, she replied. “It wasn’t with any of the help, and it certainly wasn’t illicit. And there really isn’t any story behind it. Actually, I bet you’ll be disappointed at just how boring it all really was when you do remember it,” lied Minako, somewhat pleased with herself for sounding as convincing as she thought she did.
Usagi slumped back in her seat and took a conciliatory bite from her pastry. “Tho if it wat a secret,” she mumbled around her mouthful of food, “how’d you know bout it?”
“There were very few secrets in the palace,” grinned Minako.
“Well,” huffed Usagi as she reached for one of the magazines, “this princess wants a wedding, and a big one. Here,” she scooted closer to Minako, “look at these dresses. I think this one here would be perfect for Rei.”
Situated comfortably in his bouncy seat, Miki sucked on his pacifier while watching his mother fold a laundry basket full of towels. A fluffy green one was laid on the stack beside him on the table, and Makoto smiled. “What should we do after this, Little Bug? How about the sheets?”
Miki blinked at her.
“Nah, me either.” She picked up the next towel. “Do you think your Ami-mama has had enough alone time? Maybe we should see if she wants to do something with us. You know I made her pretty mad, but I’m going to get her to understand. I will.”
“I told you, I do understand.”
The soft voice behind her startled Makoto, and her head jerked around. She winced, partly in pain and partly in shock. The towel fell to the floor as her hand came to her neck, though her eyes never wavered from Ami’s naked form as it stood silhouetted in the doorway. Ami’s arms crossed loosely over her chest, the action enhancing her figure rather than hiding it.
Makoto swallowed hard. “Okay,” she began, her voice laced with uncertainty, “I can tell by the look on your face that you’re still pissed off, and that this isn’t some sort of seductive thing. So what gives?”
Her expression never changing, Ami answered, “I’m making a point. Now, I’m going to say something, and you’re going to let me finish before you say anything else.”
Makoto nodded gingerly.
A deep breath and Ami continued in a measured fashion. “First, we are different people, and because of that our experiences are different, but that’s just the way it is. No two people, even those going through the same event, will experience things the same way. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t understand each other. I do know what it’s like to lose someone dear to you. I watched you die once, and with you went my hopes of coming home, because even if we did survive, my world would have suddenly been very empty. So don’t ever tell me I don’t understand.
“Second,” she went on, the slightest quiver in her voice, “if you want to stay home with Miki, I will support that decision. However, I want you do to it because that is what will make you happiest and not out of fear. If you’re doing this because you feel like you need to build walls and close the two of you off from anything and everything that could do you even the slightest bit of harm, then I will fight and argue, because neither of you can be happy living like that.
“And third,” and now the quiver was gone, replaced by a cold determination. “Miki is my son. Never forget that. My need to move on from this in spite of my fears makes me no less his mother. But I can’t move on without you. I don’t want to. If that means living in the box you’re creating for awhile, then that’s what I’ll do. But I will find a way to get all three of us out of that box. All three of us, Mako-chan. Together. Understand?”
Makoto hesitated for a moment, then answered quietly, “Yes.”
Ami smiled, her body relaxing slightly. “Good. Okay, then.” She took a deep breath. “I have to step into the back for a moment, then I’ll come help with the laundry.”
Again, Makoto nodded, and as Ami turned and left, she exhaled deeply. “Your Ami-mama knows how to make a point when she wants to,” she said quietly. “Now how the hell do I answer all of that?”
Miki cooed. Unfortunately, Makoto didn’t have a translation for the answer he was giving her.
Minako was going to go crazy, and it was all Rei’s fault.
She had been good all day and not pestered Rei at all about the secret meeting she’d gone to. They had gotten through lunch with Usagi, dinner with Grandpa, had cleaned up the dishes, and now here they were, staring at each other across the table in their room.
Rei’s lips moved as if she were going to say something, then stilled. Minako would have had considerably more patience with this exercise if it hadn’t been the fourth time Rei had done it in the last seven minutes.
She was going to go crazy.
“Rei-ei-ei-ei,” she whined in a way that she hoped indicated her distress. However, her evil and dastardly love had the nerve to laugh. Minako finally snapped, her head thudding against the table.
“Oh, all right,” chuckled Rei. “Here.”
The edge of an envelope slid under her nose, and Minako’s eyes crossed as she tried to focus. “Hmmm,” she murmured as she perked up. She lifted her head and the foil pressed return address glinted happily at her. Snatching the open envelope from the table, she hurriedly pulled the letter from it, scanning it as quickly as she could. Then a wide smile lit up her face. “Really? You got in?”
Rei smiled back at her. “Yep. I really got in.”
An excited squeal accompanied Minako launching herself across the table at Rei.
Rei “oomphed” as she landed against the floor, the wind knocked out of her. Kisses reined down upon her for several seconds, and then she found herself staring up at a beaming Minako.
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me! How long have you known? Oh my gosh!” gushed Minako in rapid-fire form as she sat up a bit and straddled Rei’s hips. “I am going to be married to a Keio girl. Everyone’s going to be so jealous! And why didn’t you tell me!” she repeated, slapping Rei playfully on the arm.
Still smiling proudly, Rei propped herself up on her elbows as best she could and answered, “Because I had something I had to check on first. And the letter was here when we got back from vacation.”
“But this is great news. You should have said something so we could all celebrate,” chastised Minako, punctuating it with a wounded pout.
Rei laughed and apologized profusely, but then she sobered a bit. “This has the potential to be really great, but I don’t think it is just yet. Cause you know, Mina, a really good school comes with a really big tuition bill.”
“Pft. There’s plenty to cover it in that trust fund you’ve got,” pointed out Minako.
Any jubilation Rei had been showing quickly evaporated, a dark cloud covering the light in her eyes. “No. That’s my father’s money, and I don’t want anything to do with it.” She sat up fully, sliding Minako off her lap in the process. “I went to see Kimiko today. Before you ask, no, I don’t have any idea where my father was at the time and I didn’t bother to find out. She and I just had some business to discuss. Looks like he’s maintained that account even through the last year, but even if he hadn’t, I still wouldn’t take it. I won’t give him the satisfaction of redemption by letting him do this for me. I can do it by myself.” Then she sighed, her lingering anger fading. “I just have to figure out how to do that. Explaining to my grandfather that I’m about to take on massive amounts of debt when he thought my future was set isn’t going to be easy.”
Minako’s hand reached out to touch Rei’s cheek, continuing on to comb through her hair. “Whatever we have to do, we’ll make it work,” she said softly. Then the huge, happy grin returned. “But right now, we are going to celebrate and be happy. We need something good to finally happen, and…” she stood and practically bounced over to the closet, “I went shopping.”
A suspicious smirk formed on Rei’s lips. “You went shopping? For what?”
“You’ll see. Now, close your eyes,” ordered Minako, waving a hand at Rei to get her to obey.
Rei did as asked and listened as Minako rummaged through their closet. The blonde mumbled to herself as she pushed aside boxes and dug under plastic bags. Rei was considering getting worried, afraid her wife may actually be trying to dig an escape route. She chuckled to herself.
“You’re not peeking, are you?” called Minako as clothes rustled and fell from hangers. “I hear snickering.”
“Nope, promise,” called back Rei. “You’re not lost in there, are you? One Sailor V stashed in there is enough, and I really do like having you out here with me.”
Minako giggled, the sound bright and cheery. “I love you, too.” Then, a moment later, “Okay. Open your eyes.”
Rei did as asked and had to bite her lip to keep from laughing. Minako was the perfect – albeit hastily put together – image of a preppy college student. An oversized sweater with Keio’s emblem on the large side pocket and thick navy blue stripes around the wrists hung halfway to her knees. On her head was a matching, cream-colored visor, and hanging from her shoulder was a dark blue backpack, a tiny unicorn mascot dangling from the front zipper.
She waved a miniature pompom and giggled. “I knew you could do it,” she said excitedly. “And I wanted to be prepared.” From the sweater pocket she produced a brightly wrapped cylinder. A quick tug on both ends, and it burst open with a loud POP, confetti showering down around them. “Congratulations! Woohoo!”
Rei grinned ear to ear. “Thank you. So, what’s in the backpack, Mina?”
Plopping herself and the bag down beside Rei, she quickly unzipped it and pulled out a ball cap. Placing it on Rei’s head, she took a moment to adjust it and admire her handiwork before holding up the matching sweatshirt. “It’s a little warm to wear it now, but in the fall it’ll be perfect. And look, it matches these.” Two notebooks and a binder were laid on the table, both bearing a silver foil version of the school logo, along with an engraved pen and keychain. Another pompom was pulled from the bag and she waved it, announcing in a singsong voice, “My girl is a Keio girl.” Humming the line softly to herself, she leaned forward and rested her arms on Rei’s shoulders.
“Congratulations, Rei-chan,” she whispered, continuing to close the distance between them until their lips met, soft and warm.
Two cereal bowls were set on the kitchen table, followed quickly by a giant tub of chocolate ice cream. Haruka wore a concentrated expression as she systematically collected syrup, sprinkles, nuts, and whipped cream.
“Cherries,” volunteered Chibi-usa. “Don’t forget the cherries.”
“Oh, no,” called Hotaru, racing her papa to the refrigerator. She giggled as they tussled playfully, her coming up victorious with the unopened jar. Laughing, she scurried over to Michiru. “Here, Michiru-mama. It needs to be opened.”
Haruka put her hands on her hips and half frowned at her daughter.
“You can open the syrup,” offered Michiru in mock sympathy as she deftly turned the lid.
“I want her to open the ice cream!” piped up Chibi-usa as she climbed onto one of the chairs.
Hotaru scrambled up in the chair beside hers as Haruka happily complied. The children clutched large tablespoons as the plastic carton was peeled open with a pop and a crack. Chibi-usa reached over and traced a smiley face into the icy side, her garnet eyes sparkling as she giggled.
A voice tickled at the back of Hotaru’s memories. “No, silly. Like this…” She swallowed hard.
“Here,” laughed Setsuna as she scooped a small snowball of marbled chocolate into the bowl. “It’s called ice cream for a reason. If you try to eat that much at one time it’s gonna feel like you’re sticking your face into a vat of sharpened icicles.”
Hotaru stared down at the bowl and poked at the ball of chocolate. She knew she liked chocolate. Even if the Venusians contributed nothing of real value to the alliance, their place in history was guaranteed just for this decadent treat. But she still wasn’t sure about the creature it had come from. Pushing a long lock of dark hair behind her ear, she asked ruefully,“And this really came from that… thing?”
Setsuna grinned and scooped up a spoonful of gooey, drippy goodness. “Yep. And it’s called a cow. C-O-W. Cow.”
Hotaru cringed at the mention of the creature’s title. Her frown was then turned on Setsuna as the girl dropped her spoon and practically doubled over in laughter.
Garnet eyes danced in mirth as she sputtered out, “You should see the look on your face right now. And my cows are no worse than those fuzzy brown tolick things from your world.”
With a huff, Hotaru crossed her arms over her chest. “Well, at least my tolicks have real paws. Your cows have stones melded onto their legs.” Rather than eliciting any kind of planetary pride and indignance, Setsuna laughed even harder. Hotaru tried to scowl, but it came out more as a smirk and quickly turned into a giggle. “Okay, okay,” she laughed, throwing up her hands. “So show me how to do this the right way before it all melts.”
Hotaru startled, then blinked. The gentle inquiry had come from her Michiru-mama, her warm hand having come to rest lightly on Hotaru’s shoulder.
Still feeling a little dazed, the child glanced from worried aqua-blue eyes to look back at Chibi-usa. “Your eyes,” she said in a whisper. “I don’t know why I never noticed before.”
Chibi-usa’s cheeks flushed red at the scrutiny, and that seemed to snap Hotaru out of it. “I’m sorry,” she stammered, turning her attention quickly back to their evening treat.
Haruka reached over and laid the tips of her fingers on Hotaru’s hand. “Maybe we should take a break for a few minutes?”
Hotaru shook her head. “I’m okay. I just got distracted. And you said we could have ice cream for washing the dishes.” Then she looked over to Chibi-usa and grinned. “With sprinkles, right?”
Chibi-usa hesitated for a moment, intently studying her friend’s expression. Then she nodded, finding her own grin. “And whipped cream with strawberry syrup.”
“I’d prefer caramel,” said Michiru as she slid onto the chair beside Haruka’s.
The racer smirked, her eyes twinkling.
“On my ice cream, thank you,” elaborated Michiru through a smirk of her own.
Haruka laughed as she reached for the ice cream scoop. “Whatever you say, love,” she answered softly, enjoying the giggles from the two little girls and the sly grin from her partner.
“I’m home,” called Setsuna as she closed the door quietly behind her.
“Puu!” welcomed an enthusiastic and pajama clad Chibi-usa. “Welcome home,” she went on as she hugged her favorite guardian. “You missed the ice cream, but you can still watch movies with us. But you have to put your pajamas on first.”
Setsuna smiled down at the child. “I would enjoy that. Go save me a seat while I change.”
Chibi-usa nodded and ran past Hotaru as she hurried back to the living room, obviously still riding a sugar high.
Hotaru, however, seemed considerably more subdued. A sense of unease settled over Setsuna as she approached her daughter. “Good evening, Hotaru,” she said, unable to hide her sudden trepidation behind a forced smile.
“She has your eyes,” returned Hotaru quietly, her face an expressionless mask even as her voice echoed with an edge of accusation.
Setsuna tensed, caught off-guard and unprepared. It didn’t seem to matter, though, as Hotaru turned from her and followed after Chibi-usa. She let out a slow, unsteady breath as the girl disappeared from her sight, then whispered, “I know,” before heading up the stairs.