The Tangled Web We Weave

by Crawlspace


~ Day 2 ~

~ Sunday ~



            Early morning light shone through the windows and reflected off the silver spoon Midori was placing in the sugar bowl.  Kaya smiled as she stood silently in the kitchen doorway watching her mother perform the familiar ritual.  Every morning, for as long as she could remember, her mother had risen with the sun.  And each morning, her mother would come down to the kitchen to prepare her father’s pre-breakfast snack after he’d locked himself away in his office.  ‘Never give him the whole pot of coffee,’ her mother had said to her once as Kaya sat and watched.  ‘Otherwise, he’s got no incentive to come down to the breakfast table.’


            The sugar bowl was placed on a serving tray beside a dark green mug and small dessert plate.  A second spoon was lifted from the drawer and placed on top of a cloth napkin.  Humming to herself as she worked, Midori closed the drawer and walked over to a row of ceramic cookie jars.  She paused in her nameless tune as she contemplated which jar, then resumed it again a moment later when she decided on the center.


            ‘Chocolate chip.  He’s in a good mood and she wants him to stay that way,’ mused Kaya as her mother placed three cookies on the dessert plate.


            Knowing her mother’s task was almost complete, Kaya took a breath and smoothed down the yellow blouse she had tucked into her jeans before walking fully into the room.  “Morning.  Need any help?” she asked, her mood pleasant as she walked over and kissed Midori’s cheek.


            “Good morning, dear,” answered Midori.  “I’m almost done here.  Just waiting on the coffee.”  Turning so she could lean against the countertop, Midori smiled at her daughter.  “How did you sleep last night?  That boy of Ami’s certainly knows how to put up a fuss when he wants to.”


            “I got by well enough,” answered Kaya, not about to give out any details.  She chuckled and was about to comment on Miki’s impressive lung power when movement outside the window caught her attention.  She watched as Seijuurou crept along the side of the house by the bushes, looking over his shoulder guiltily as he went.  Her brother then darted across the open expanse of grass between the house and garage before ducking around a corner and disappearing.  “What the…”


            “Kaya?” questioned Midori at the sudden frown on her daughter’s face.  She started to turn to the window, following Kaya’s concentration.


            Kaya’s attention snapped back, and she stopped her mother from turning.  “Sorry.  My mind wandered there for a second.  A shadow,” she said quickly.  “Maybe a stray or something.”


            Midori regarded her dubiously.  “A stray?  Or something?”


            Kaya nodded.  Then, hoping for some diversion, “Oh, look, the coffee seems to be done.”


            Midori glanced at the pot.  “It does seem to be, doesn’t it.  We’ll discuss your ‘stray’ later.”  She lifted the pot and poured out what would be Rin’s starter cup for the morning.  “Help yourself to what’s here.  We’ll make more when we have breakfast.”


            Kaya nodded and waited impatiently as her mother moved slower than usual in finishing with the tray.  When Midori was finally gone, Kaya hurried from the kitchen and out into the side yard, curious to find out what her big brother was up to.


            Following the same path Seijuurou had taken, Kaya crept up along the side of the garage and peered around the corner.  An amused smile grew as she watched him take a long, slow drag off a cigarette, and then release it just as slowly, a look of pure ecstasy on his face.  Kaya shook her head at the ridiculousness of the situation, then straightened up to her full 5’3” height and put her hands on her hips.  “Ishida Seijuurou,” she called sternly.


            Caught off guard, Seijuurou dropped his cigarette mid drag.  His eyes and throat burned horribly as he swallowed and choked for lack of clean air.  He beat on his chest, coughing as his eyes watered over, leaving him with a hazy view of his sister finding mirth in his misery.  Finally, when he was able to look at her through almost clear vision, he sputtered out, “Cripes, Kaya, what are you trying to do to me?  Give me a heart attack?”


            “You don’t need me to do that for you,” she answered as she moved closer to him.


            Seijuurou took a deep breath, and when he didn’t cough anymore, answered back, “No lectures, little sister.  I haven’t had a cigarette in four days, and if Shouko leaves me alone about it, so should you.”


            Kaya smirked.  “If your wife is so okay with it, why are you out here hiding?”

            “She doesn’t like me smoking around the kids.  Besides, it’s not her I’m hiding from,” he said, a similar smirk appearing.


            “You’re a grown man of 45 years, Juurou,” pointed out Kaya in amusement.  “What do you think Father’s going to do?  Take you up to his office and pull off his belt?”


            Seijuurou responded with a quick and simple, “Hypocrite.”


            Kaya frowned and crossed her arms over her chest.  “And that means what?”


            Leaning back against the garage, Seijuurou fished around in the pocket of his shorts until he found his pack of cigarettes.  He tapped the pack against his palm before sliding out a fresh one.  “You’re a grown woman of 44 years,” he threw back at her.  “What did you think Father was going to do?  Ground you and lock you in your room so you couldn’t go out with your fiancé on Friday night?”


            Kaya’s frown deepened, and Seijuurou watched the anger rise in her eyes, along with a sharp embarrassment.  Her temper evened out quickly, though, and with her arms still crossed, she leaned against the garage beside him.  “He isn’t my fiancé,” she said quietly.


            With an unlit cigarette jittering between his fingers, Seijuurou waited for her to say something more.  When several minutes passed and she didn’t, he picked the conversation up for them.  “You know, I think I would have been more surprised if you hadn’t done things the way you did.  Even if he is everything they wanted you to marry to begin with.”  Seijuurou held up his hand in appeasement when Kaya shot him a sharp glare.  “I know.  You aren’t going to marry him.  Nevertheless, it would have been easier and caused everyone a lot less stress if you’d just told us.”


            “Everyone but me, you mean.”  Kaya sighed slowly.  She looked down and watched her sneakered toe dig into the grass.  “You know as well as I do there is no such thing as just telling anyone in this family anything.  If I had told Mother about him, she would have asked questions.  I don’t have answers to those questions yet, Juurou.”


            “So why’d you bring him home?”


            “I don’t…”  Kaya bit her tongue on reflex to keep the rest of that hated phrase from leaving her mouth.


            Seijuurou bumped against her lightly and smiled at her when she looked up at him.  “I’m not Father,” he said gently.  “’I don’t know’ is a perfectly acceptable answer to me for now.”


            Kaya smile gratefully back at him.


            “So, how about answering some questions you do have answers for?”


            She shrugged and looked back down at her feet.  “I met him three years ago when we found ourselves with a common patient.  He’s divorced, has been for about 12 years.  He has two grown children, a boy in college and a girl who married last year.  We were aware of each other in passing and on reputation for quite awhile, but had never spoken until that patient made it necessary.  After that, we were more aware of each other in passing, and we found ourselves on friendly terms.  Then, one afternoon, he asked me if I’d like to join him for coffee.”


            “And that was it?” asked Seijuurou, thinking that sounded a touch too simple for his sister.


            Kaya let out a short laugh.  “Hardly.  I was barely managing to balance Ami and work.  I didn’t have time to add something as complicated as coffee.  So, I very politely declined his offer.  And he very graciously accepted the rejection.”


            Kaya stopped talking, though a small grin touched her lips, and Seijuurou got the impression that the better part of the story had continued on silently in her head.  After several moments of nothing more from her, he started to tap his foot impatiently.  “You’re waiting for me to ask, aren’t you?”


            Blue eyes fairly sparkled as they looked up at him.  A happy smile grew, and Kaya continued, “We went on being friendly in passing.  A few weeks went by, and this time, rather than asking, he brought the coffee to me.  He even had little packets of cream and sugar so he could get it just the way I liked it.  I couldn’t refuse him.  I didn’t want to.”  She chuckled softly.  “It had been a long time since anyone had brought me coffee like that, especially after I so thoroughly refused the first offer.  He’s patient that way, though, and he tolerates the more difficult aspects of my personality.”


            “We are difficult people,” chuckled Seijuurou, repeating one of Hana’s often used phrases.


            Kaya nodded, and, sensing a way to shift the topic off herself, said, “And speaking of tolerating difficulties, I noticed Shouko seemed a bit unhappy yesterday.  How badly is she bothered by the girls?”


            Seijuurou waved a hand dismissively.  “No more than she usually is by such things.  She’s still trying to figure it all out for herself, since she has no trust in your judgment at the moment because she thinks you’ve gone crazy.”


            “I doubt she’s the only one who thinks that,” smirked Kaya.


            “Don’t worry about it.  She’ll be civil, for appearances sake, if nothing else.”


            “What about the two of you?  How have things been lately?”


            Seijuurou hesitated, putting the cigarette to his lips and wishing it was lit.  He brought it down and let it tumble between his fingers as he answered, “It’s up and down, same as always.  It’s just unfortunate that this particular downward swing is timed the way it is.”


            “What did you do?” asked Kaya pointedly.


            Affronted, Seijuurou answered, “Why do you always assume it’s something I’ve done.  There’s two of us in this marriage, you know.”


            Not feeling remotely guilty for her assumption, Kaya returned without pause, “Eight days.”


            Seijuurou rolled his eyes and pushed up his glasses.  “You’re never going to let me forget that, are you?  Even Shouko has let it go at this point.  Anyway, fine.  It’s just her usual complaints about me not being home enough.  We’ve had a fairly large staff turnover at the hospital in the last year, and I’ve been busy dealing with it all.  Admittedly, I’m not with her and the kids as much as I’d like to be.  Lately, maybe even a little more than is totally excusable.  That’s just how it goes, though.  But, apparently, during my absence, Seiji has picked up a crush on some pop idol or other.  He’s practicing a lot more because of it, and getting really good, but Shouko wants me to talk to him about it.  And all that other stuff.  I will, I just haven’t had a proper chance to yet, and then a few weeks ago when I forgot to get Kara from preschool…”


            “You forgot the baby?” interrupted Kaya, and the look on her face was easily twice as incredulous and twice as angry as the look had been on Shouko when he’d finally walked through the door that night.  Kaya’s voice lowered to that same tone their father used when he was about to tear into one of them for their own stupidity.  With her words measured, she went on, “Not being able to be there is one thing.  We make that up to them knowing they’ll understand when they’re older and in the same position.  But we don’t forget them.  You don’t forget your children, Seijuurou.”


            Not liking being chastised by his little sister, Seijuurou frowned at her.  “I didn’t really forget her.  I just lost track of time, and by the time I found the time again, her mother had already been called to come get her.  Kara certainly wasn’t scarred by it or anything, and she forgave me completely after two bowls of ice cream.  She even came out and slept on the couch with me.”  When the corner of Kaya’s mouth quirked up, he said, “Shouko told me and the kids it was the equivalent of making me stand in the corner.  But it was only for one night.  My wife does love me and wants to spend time with me when we can.”


            “I know.  Though I have no idea at all what it is she sees in you,” teased Kaya.


            Seijuurou put his fists on his hips, sucked in his gut, and puffed out his chest.  “I am the eldest son of a well respected family, a successful doctor, and I can quote Yeats from memory.  What more could a woman ask for?”


            Kaya poked him in the stomach, and he let out a huff, his successful and respected self settling back into it’s somewhat mushier natural state.  “What more indeed?” she laughed.  Then, “Come on.  Hikari’s going to start breakfast soon, and I don’t want everyone coming to look for us.”


            The cigarette he still held was placed back in its packaging, and he sniffed his shirt to see if it smelled too much like his bad habit.  “I think I need to change before we eat,” said Seijuurou.  “Oh, and just so you can warn your not-fiancé, Father is going to make us go play golf with him after breakfast.  You know, I had that practice green installed so I would never have to step foot on another golf course with Father.  I hate that game, Kaya.”


            Kaya gave his shoulder a sympathetic pat.  “I feel for you.  Actually, Ken is somewhat fond of the game.  I should warn him about Father’s competitive streak, though.”


            “You better warn him to let Father win,” ordered Seijuurou.  “Because none of us, most importantly me, wants to have to do this again tomorrow.”


*            *            *


            Rin walked from his office to the kitchen, not seeing any of the people he expected to be heading to breakfast.  He enjoyed having the children and their families home, he thought to himself.  He just never expected there to be so many of them in his lifetime that they’d need to move a simple breakfast into the formal dinning room.


            Sticking his head around the doorway into the kitchen, Rin spotted Midori and grinned to himself briefly before walking into the room.  Dori,” he said to get her attention away from their young cook.  When she looked over at him, he showed her his pitifully empty mug.  “My coffee’s gone.”


            Midori smiled at him.  “We’ll be brining some out to the table in just a few minutes.  Why don’t you go see if everyone’s been told it’s time to eat?”


            Rin nodded and started to turn, but changed his mind and moved over to Hikari instead.  “Those cookies were excellent this morning, Hikari,” he complemented her.


            “Thank you, sir,” answered Hikari, smiling brightly at him.  She wiped her hands on the apron tied around her waist, pushed aside a few stray locks of dark hair that had come loose from her braid, and, after getting a brief nod from Midori, added, “There’s quite a few left over, and I was planning on baking fresh ones this afternoon.  Would you perhaps like to take a few more?”


            Rin almost grinned, but contained himself appropriately.  “I think I would, yes.”


            Hikari put three cookies on a paper towel and handed them to him.  He thanked her, then made his way to the dinning room with his cookies and empty coffee mug.


            At the long dinner table, his extended clan had begun to gather at the promise of food.  Seiji was already in his seat, lost in his video game.  Rin frowned, not liking that the boy’s father would let him bring the thing to the table.  He saw Seijuurou at the other end of the table, talking quietly to Kaya and Ken.  Best to voice his displeasure now, before Shouko came down and did it for him.


            Rin took the last bite out of the first cookie, set the remainders on his plate, then walked down to speak with his oldest children.  He made it as far as Ami and Makoto, who were next to Kaya and Ken at the far end of the table, and the stroller they had parked near them.  Rin peeked inside the stroller to find Miki reclining in comfort and sucking contentedly on a white pacifier, a sight much different the one he’d envisioned from the night before.


            Miki stared up at his new admirer wide-eyed and blinked.  When deep blue eyes blinked back at him from behind gray wire glasses, he cooed happily and waved his hands to be picked up, losing his pacifier in the process.


            Rin, sensing impending disaster, quickly retrieved the pacifier from the baby’s lap and returned it to his mouth before the baby had a chance to realize it was missing.  Then he patted Miki on the head and said, “Perhaps later.  Be a good boy in the meantime,” before turning to the baby’s parents.


            The reason for the hushed tone of the conversation going on beside them was made readily apparent when Rin got a good look at them.  Makoto sat with her chin propped on her hand and her eyes half lidded, unseeing of the world around her.  Ami had given up even pretending, letting her head rest atop her folded arms on the tabletop.  Normally, Rin would have chastised them lightly and told them to head back to bed rather than sleep on the table, but this morning he took pity on them.


            As the first pot of coffee was put on the table, Rin set down his mug and turned over the coffee cup beside Ami’s plate.  He filled the china cup, then carefully waved it by Ami’s nose.


            At the scent of freshly brewed caffeine, Ami perked up a bit, her head lifting just a fraction as she inhaled deeply.  Her eyes opened slowly, and she grinned sleepily at her grandfather and the gift he was offering.  “Thank you,” she said as she sat up fully and took the warm cup in her hands.


            Rin nodded at her, then looked over at Makoto, who was now watching them with a lazy smile.  “How about you, young lady?” he asked, ready to pour her the next cup.


            Makoto shook her head.  “No, thank you.  I’m more of a tea person.”


            “Hikari,” called Rin as the cook set the third pot of coffee near the head of the table.  “Is the tea ready yet?”


            “Just one moment more, sir,” she answered.  She finished placing the last of the cream and sugar she’d brought out with her, then returned to the kitchen.  True to her word, a moment later, she returned with two steaming pots that matched the china settings on the table.  “Here you are,” she said as she filled Makoto’s cup.


            “Thank you,” answered Makoto as she smiled gratefully up at Hikari.  “Very, very much.”


            Hikari smiled prettily, then went back to setting out the various food dishes she had piled on her cart along with the teapots.


            Rin, now more interested in his coffeepot than Seiji’s Gameboy, said quick greetings to his children and a more polite one to his guest, then retreated to the head of the table.  He was just getting in his first sip when the rest of his family started rolling in.


            Kyo led his grandmother by the arm to her place on Rin’s right.  He held her steady as three little girls shot passed them and straight for the baby.


            “Did he eat yet?” asked Hotaru as Miki held onto her finger.


            “Yeah,” answered Makoto.  “But if you’re feeling brave, I’ll let you try and give him a bottle later.”


            Shouko called Kara over to her seat and straightened one of the little girl’s curly pigtails after lifting her into her chair.


            “Can I sit over there, Mama?” asked Kara, pointing over to the other side of the table where Chibi-usa and Hotaru would sit.


            “No, you need to sit with me while we eat,” answered her mother.  “But,” she went on after a moment’s thought, “you can ask your friends if they’d like to go swimming with you after we’re done eating.”


            Kara smiled and nodded happily.


            Shouko then looked over to her son.  She lifted his Gameboy from his hands, ignoring both his protests and the way his yellow racecar crashed and burst into pixilated flames.  “You can have it back after breakfast.”


            “No, he can’t,” jumped in Seijuurou as he took his seat between his father and son.  “He’s going golfing with the rest of us.”


            Seiji looked at his father in abject horror.


            Seijuurou shrugged.  “If I have to be a man about it, so do you.”


            Sitting beside Hana, Usagi started to chatter happily with the older woman once she and Mamoru were seated.  Mamoru was pulling Chibi-usa’s chair closer to the table for her when Kyo greeted them with a hearty, “Good morning.”  Then, with a gentleman’s flourish, Kyo pulled out the chair beside Chibi-usa for Hotaru to sit.


            Hotaru smiled at him and curtsied with a giggle.  “Thank you, Ishida-san.”


            “We’re practically family, kid.  Just call me Uncle Kyo,” he answered casually as he pushed her closer to the table.  Then he turned back on the charm and held Setsuna’s chair for her.  Smiling a perfect, if somewhat scruffy smile, he said to her, “You can just call me Kyo.”


            Setsuna’s expression remained stoic, and she answered politely as she sat, “Thank you.  Ishida-san.”


            “Rejected!” declared Kyo dramatically as he put his hand to his heart.  Then he smiled and walked over to his own seat on the other side of the table between Kara and Kaya.


            Setsuna could feel eyes on her from both sides and knew both of those faces would be wearing identical grins.  The heat rose in her face as she refused to look at either Hotaru or Haruka, instead reaching for the middle coffee pot to distract herself that way.


            Haruka wasn’t going to let her get away that easily though, and was about to comment when, out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Michiru smile.  It wasn’t her teasing, playful smile like it should have been if she was going to help poke at Setsuna.  Instead, it was her kind, indulgent smile, and it was being directed at the boy at the other end of the table.


            Seiji’s cheeks turned bright scarlet just as Haruka looked over at him, and he dropped his eyes, fiddling with the napkin on top of his plate nervously to hide from their stares.


            When Haruka kept her gaze pointedly on him, Michiru nudged her surreptitiously in the ribs.  “Don’t stare, Haruka.  It isn’t polite,” she said, her smile changing to her playful one.


            Haruka smirked.  “I won’t if he won’t,” she said quietly.  Then she happily turned her stare back to Setsuna and waited, watching the pink darken those tan cheeks ever more by the second.


            Rei shook her head in amusement at what was going on so close to her.  Beside her, Minako talked casually with Ami’s grandmother while trying to figure out a way to sneak some table scraps upstairs for Luna and Artemis.  The cats had free roam of the estate, and plenty to eat from the kitchen thanks to Ami, but Minako hated leaving them out of the family meal.  By taking them a little something, she felt like she was making up a bit for having to segregate them when everyone gathered to eat.


            The last plate of food was placed on the table, and the meal formally began.  Rin paused for a moment, sipping his coffee and watching.  This was good.  Not the life he’d envisioned, and not one without its complications, but a good one nonetheless.


*            *            *


            Things had quieted down after breakfast, with everyone going off either to play or explore.  Ami and Makoto had wandered to the family room, too tired to do much of anything else.  Ami made it as far as the couch.  After Makoto decided she’d taken enough steps and that the floor was perfectly comfortable, Ami laid down and stretched out, yawing hugely as she did.


            Hana smiled as she watched them situate themselves.  With the baby stroller parked beside her chair, she picked up her latest sewing chore to keep herself busy while the girls dozed.


            Makoto shifted herself so she was lying beside the couch where Ami lay, then she grabbed a pillow to rest her head on.  Her eyes closed easily as she listened to Hana talking softly.


            A white thread passed through the eye of a needle on blind luck and instinct.  As she centered the loose button over the old thread holes, Hana held a one-sided conversation with Miki.  “Midori used to be able to do this, you know, when she was young,” she began.  “Her mother was a very dear friend of mine.  That’s why we chose her for Rin, because we knew where she was coming from and that she was taught proper skills.  But somehow, all of the medical learning she did pushed out all of the practical learning her mother taught her.”  Hana sighed as she pulled the needle through the button, using her finger as a guide to keep her centered.  “So now I’m left with a house full of doctors who can sew up a person without a problem, but who become helpless at the idea of a loose button.  I don’t know how they’ll manage after I’m gone.  I suppose it’s all right, though.  Rin would have been unhappy with a woman of less intelligence and accomplishment, and Midori knows how to hold her own with him.  They keep each other grounded and stable.”


            Makoto’s smile grew at the warmth in Hana’s tone.  Then she felt a slight tug on her hair and cracked her eyes just enough so she could peer up at Ami.  She chuckled lightly at the smile on Ami’s face while the girl’s fingers played with the end of her ponytail.  Once the ponytail was wrapped loosely in Ami’s fingers, Makoto felt that hand rest lightly against her back.  Makoto allowed her eyes to close once again, and she drifted off under the comfort of Ami’s familiar touch.


            She wasn’t sure how long she’d been asleep, though she didn’t think it had been all that long, when the patter-squish of wet, flip-flopped feet pulled her awake.  She squinted her eyes and propped herself up slowly on her elbows to see Hotaru, Chibi-usa, and Kara now in the room.  All three stood in front of her wearing damp bathing suits.


            Hana set down her book and the large magnifying glass she was using to read it.  “Come here, Kara,” she said, motioning the child to her.  “You’re dripping all over the floor.”


            Kara obeyed and let her great-grandmother take the large towel from around her shoulders to dry her off better.


            Chibi-usa and Hotaru quickly checked themselves to see how badly they were dripping.  To their relief, they’d both faired considerably better, not having had to scramble out of the pool right before they’d come inside.  Then Hotaru remembered why they’d been sent in, and she looked down at a half awake Makoto.


            “Michiru-mama said to ask if you want us to take Miki for awhile,” said Hotaru.         


            Makoto pushed herself into a sitting position and found herself nodding before giving it any thought.  “He’s been good this morning, well, for as long as it’s been light out, anyway.  You guys should be okay with him.”


            Hotaru smiled and went over to the baby’s stroller.  Miki waved his fists and kicked his legs excitedly when he saw her.  “Guess what?” she said as she reached to pick him up.  “You get to come and play with us for awhile.”


            “Be careful with him, dear,” said Hana with some concern as Hotaru lifted the baby and settled his still squirming self against her.


            Hotaru nodded, and Makoto answered, “Its okay, Gram.  Hotaru knows how to hold him.  She’ll make a good babysitter, especially since she’s the only one other than Ami still determined to get him to take a bottle.”


            “He’ll only do it for Ami, though,” added Hotaru.


            “Most of the time, he won’t even do it for me,” said Ami as she sat up and rubbed her eyes.  As her vision cleared, a grin spread on her face.  “I like your bathing suit, Kara.”


            Kara smiled widely and pulled away from Hana.  She held her arms out to show off the design, and Makoto got her first real look at it.  The face wasn’t Rei’s, and the eyes were brown instead of violet, but the red senshi fuku easily confirmed who it was supposed to be posed against the background of red and orange flames.


            Kara spun around, showing off her Sailor Mars bathing suit.  “And my shoes match, too,” she said, holding her foot out for them to see the red flip-flop with the symbol for Mars over her toes.  “She’s my favorite, so my daddy got me my bathing suit, and shoes, and towel with her on it.  He can’t tell them apart very well, though, so my ball has Sailor Venus on it.  But that’s okay, cause she’s my favorite third.”


            “Hotaru,” said Makoto, “make sure you get some pictures while you’re all out at the pool.  And make sure Rei’s in them.”


            Hotaru giggled.  “Rei already made sure I did.”


            “Rei says Sailor Mars it the best, too,” said Kara.  “And that I have good taste.”


            Makoto smiled at the little girl and agreed that she had very good taste.  “But I like Sailor Mercury the best.”  The sudden blush on Ami’s face was perfect, and Makoto wondered idly just where Jupiter fell on Kara’s list of favorites.


*            *            *


            It had started out innocently enough, with a child’s simple question of who wanted to play ball.  Things never stayed that simple, though, and when Minako caught the yellow and orange volleyball with the image of her superhero persona emblazoned on its side, the first spark of competitive glee had lit.  If Haruka hadn’t been the one standing next to her at just that moment, they might have been able to contain the resulting blaze.  As it was, the two blondes now stood on opposite sides of a makeshift volleyball net, staring each other down.


            “You’re not on a racetrack this time, Tenoh,” threw out Minako in full challenge.  “This is my game and my turf.”


            “Feeling brave, are we?” replied Haruka, a self-confident smirk on her lips.


            Minako returned the smirk with one of her own.  “I’m only trying to save your reputation.  After all, I wouldn’t want to embarrass you in front of your girlfriend.”


            “Funny, I was just going to say the same thing to you,” answered Haruka.  Her smile widened in anticipation, and she called over her shoulder without breaking their eye contact, “You guys ready?”


            Michiru and Setsuna, who had been drug into the middle of it along with Rei and Usagi, answered back in the affirmative.


            Minako called back to the two members of her team, and when she only got back an enthusiastic “Ready!” from Usagi, she turned her gaze to Rei.


            The miko stood with one hand on her hip and an amused grin on her face.  She held the ball in her other hand, having won the coin toss for the serve.


            Minako raised a questioning eyebrow at her.


            Rei nodded, then shifted her attitude and stance to serve.  ‘Who was the weaker link?’ she contemplated.  ‘One in the back, but which one?’


            From the sidelines, Miki burbled happily as he bounced on Shouko’s lap.  Beside them, Kara waved the shredded paper pompoms her mother had helped the girls quickly pull together.  “Go, Rei!” shouted the little girl.  “You can do it!”


            On the other side of the net, Chibi-usa and Hotaru answered in kind, calling out their support for the Outers and waving their pompoms enthusiastically.


            Her own competitive spirit building amid the cheers from their “fans,” Rei made her decision and served the ball.


            For the first few minutes, the ball volleyed back and forth at a deceptively easy pace.  Rei watched from her corner as Minako and Haruka kept dominance over the ball, neither putting their full ability into it.  They were toying with each other, she thought, issuing a silent challenge and almost daring each other to lose patience and strike first.


            Slowly, the tempo began to pick up.  Minako’s moves became more focused, her agility and experience being put to good use.  One corner of Rei’s mouth turned up as she observed the perfect form and tone of Minako’s body as she deflected a hard return from Haruka.  The ball bounced back to Usagi, who in a less than graceful manner gave Minako the setup she wanted.  Minako stretched like a lithe cat as she completed the maneuver, and Rei’s smile grew.  One did not need a beach, she mused, to fully appreciate the sight of Minako playing volleyball in a bikini.


            Then it touched her, skirting along the edge of her consciousness, and her smile abruptly fell.  The cheers and laughter faded away until all she heard was the whisper of the air.  A sharp chill passed through her being, the game and people around her disappearing into shadow until only one thing was left in her focus.  The trees.  The branches rustled, and she could almost see…




            The force of the impact knocked her off her feet and back to the here-and-now.  She clutched at her head, managing to squint one eye open enough to see her attacker.  Rocking back and forth on the ball’s orange and yellow background, Sailor Venus smiled widely at her, her fingers raised in an overly large V.  Rei knocked the ball away and squeezed her eyes shut again, trying to get the ringing in her ears to stop.


            In a matter of seconds, a crowd had gathered around her prone form.  Minako’s hand touched her tentatively, and the blonde asked cautiously, “Are you okay?”


            Rei slowly opened her eyes to see not only Minako squatting beside her, but also Ami’s aunt and Kara.  The little girl clutched her ball, a worried look on her face.


            Shouko inched a bit closer.  Then, with her hands going to guide Rei, she asked, “Can you sit up?”


            “Yeah,” answered Rei.  She squinted against the hot sting on the side of her face and tried not to think about the way she could already feel her eye swelling up.  “That came out of nowhere.”


            Michiru looked away and scooted the baby up against her shoulder.


            Haruka chuckled.  “You seemed a bit… distracted there.  That’s what you get for paying attention to the scenery instead of the game.”


            Shouko shifted uncomfortably as Usagi giggled.  As she backed away a bit and stood, she said to Kara, “Ask your friends if they’ll go with you, then run up to the house and tell your grandmother we had a small accident and are in need of an ice pack.”  She turned back and looked down at Rei.  “We’ll look at it further when we’re inside, but I think the worst you’ve suffered is a bad bruise.”


            Rei nodded and sighed.  Then she remembered, and looked at Minako in a much more serious manner.  “I felt something.”


            Kara held out her ball.  “It was my ball.  Sorry.”  Then she looked at her mother.  “Are you sure she’s okay?  She forgot what hit her awful quick.  Maybe she has anmeesia.”  She looked at Rei, a serious little medical professional.  “That’s what happens when you get hit on the head.  And someone has to hit you again so you can remember everything you forgot.”


            Shouko grabbed Kara’s arms before she could even begin to raise them.  “It’s amnesia, and she doesn’t have it.  Hitting doesn’t fix it, and you know better than to even try to hit someone.  Now, go do what I said.”


            Kara nodded, and in quick order was running back to the house with Hotaru and Chibi-usa.


            Minako, all the sympathetic humor she’d been plotting suddenly gone, held Rei’s gaze for several seconds.  Then she looked up at the others in silent confirmation before turning back to Rei.  Offering her help up, she said, “Let’s go inside.  We can deal with it better there.”


            Shouko, confused by the sudden change in atmosphere, said, “She really will be okay.”


            Minako smiled at her.  “Thank you.  I suppose we’re all just feeling a little guilty.”  Then she smirked.  “But it serves her right for not paying attention.  If the ball had hit the ground instead of her, we’d have lost a point to them.”


            “What makes you think you didn’t?” asked Haruka.  “No exceptions, little bird.  The ball hit the ground on your side, even if it did bounce off her first.  Our point.”


            “No way!” chimed up Usagi.  “It’s an exception!”


            Rei rolled her eyes, then grimaced at the pain it caused.  “I’ll meet you guys inside,” she said, and started to walk away without them.


            “Wait, Rei,” called Usagi, hurrying to keep up with her friend.


            Minako shrugged.  As Shouko walked away after Usagi and Rei, Minako looked at the other three, her concern reappearing.


            “What do you think it was?” asked Michiru.


            “I don’t know,” answered Minako.  “I guess we’ll find out once we can get everyone together without any added company.”


            The others nodded in agreement, then started the short trek back to the house.


*            *            *


            Usagi tiptoed carefully into the family room, not wanting to wake up the room’s occupants.  Well, one of them, at least, since she’d come here to do specifically that to the other two.  Quietly moving passed Hana, who had dozed off in her chair with her book and magnifying glass perched precariously in her lap, Usagi made her way over to Ami and Makoto.  She stopped and watched their sleeping forms for a moment, a silly girlish grin on her face.


            Ami was stretched out on her stomach, her mouth hanging open and one arm dangling over the edge of the couch.  Her hand rested lightly against Makoto’s back, her fingers twined loosely in Makoto’s ponytail.  Makoto seemed just as content in her sleep, lying on her side and hugging a pillow to her chest.  Usagi giggled softly as the tiniest of snores escaped from Makoto each time she exhaled.  Usagi sighed.  She really hated to have to do this to them.


            Kneeling down, she poked at Makoto’s shoulder.  Makoto stirred, her face scrunching up and then relaxing again without her fully waking.  Usagi poked a bit harder, this time whispering loudly, “Mako-chan.  C’mon, Mako-chan, I need you and Ami to get up now.”


            Makoto’s face scrunched up again in an exact imitation of what she always referred to as Miki’s ‘unhappy face,’ and she inhaled deeply.  Her sleepy eyes blinked open and she stretched as she mumbled out, “Usagi?  What?”


            Usagi sat back on her heels, giving Makoto the room she needed to sit up.  The movement stirred Ami, and she pulled her hand back before turning on her side away from the disturbance.  Makoto reached up and gave Ami’s side a light tickle, causing the girl to curl up.  Then she gave her a slightly firmer shake, saying, “Up and attam, sleepyhead.  We’re being summoned.”


            “He won’t take a bottle,” muttered Ami.  “You feed him.  I’ll change him later.”


            Makoto smirked.  “Sure you will,” she replied sarcastically.  “But that’s not it.”


            Ami turned just enough so she could look at Makoto through one eye.  When she saw Usagi sitting there and grinning at them, she opened her other eye and sat up, now much more attentive.


            Usagi’s grin faded as she leaned in and spoke quietly.  “Rei sensed something when we were outside.  We’re having a meeting as soon as we can get everyone alone.”


            Makoto frowned deeply.  “What kind of something?”


            Usagi shrugged.  “She didn’t get a chance to say.  There was a… small accident.”


            “Is she okay?” asked Ami in concern.


            “Yeah,” answered Usagi.  “Michiru just nailed her in the head with the volleyball.”


            Ami and Makoto startled and looked at her with identical expressions of surprise.


            With a nod, Usagi replied, “That’s exactly what I said.  Come on, before all the doctoring Rei’s getting drives her completely nuts.”


            The kitchen was crowded with everyone standing around and gawking at Rei.  Three doctors hovered over the seated miko as she held both an ice pack and her patience.  Makoto moved over to Michiru and took the baby from her just as Midori finished waving a penlight across Rei’s injured eye.


            “It doesn’t look like there’s any real damage,” said Midori, and Shouko and Kaya nodded in agreement.  “Just keep the ice pack on it for awhile.  That should help with the swelling.  There isn’t really much we can do about the bruising, I’m afraid.”


            “Just my luck,” grumbled Rei.  She brought the ice pack up against the purplish bruise that colored her cheekbone and flowed up around her eye, wincing at the force with which it landed.


            Midori patted Rei’s head in sympathy before excusing herself.  Shouko gathered up Kara, promising the girl she could come back and play later, and led her out of the room after Midori.  Kaya lingered for a few moments, taking time to smile and coo at Miki before asking if his parents had gotten any rest after breakfast.


            When they were finally free of outsiders, a quick group consensus led them all up to Rei and Minako’s room.  Leaning against the dresser with her arms crossed over her chest and a serious frown on her face, Haruka said, “Okay, what was it?  What are we fighting this time?”


            Sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed with Usagi and Minako flanking her and the cats at the foot, Rei shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I’m not even sure it’s something we have to fight.  I didn’t get a good enough sense of it to know anything other than it was there.  But I did feel enough to know that it was focused on us.”


            “Last night?” asked Minako.  “Was it one of those?”


            Rei shook her head.  “No.  Last night was just passing curiosity.  Nothing more than that.  This was stronger, more concentrated.”


            Lying on Makoto’s lap with his head on her knees, Miki looked up at his mother with wide eyes as she sighed.  His calm, almost serious demeanor matched the tone in the room, and he held on to one of Makoto’s fingers while she spoke.


            “So much for a peaceful vacation,” said Makoto.  “Having Ami’s family in the crossfire of all of this makes it even worse.  It’s going to be hard keeping them out of it if anything starts.”


            “Maybe we should leave,” suggested Usagi.  “So we’re sure nothing will happen to them.”


            Standing beside Makoto’s chair, Ami shook her head.  “Thank you for your concern, Usagi, but until we know for certain what it is and why it’s here, I’d prefer we stayed.  This visit is very important to my mother, for more reasons than she’ll tell me, and I don’t want to leave her.  And as we aren’t certain who was here first, I’d feel safer keeping watch on my family until we know absolutely that we’re the cause of the danger.”


            “She’s right,” spoke up Luna.  “You could have just been a momentary distraction for whatever was out there rather than its intended prey.”


            “Well, whatever it’s here for,” broke in Haruka, “we aren’t going to get any answers just standing around and talking about it.  We’re not expected to make another appearance until dinner, so that should give us a decent amount of time to look around and see what we can find.”


            Minako nodded.  “A few people should stay at the house, just in case.  And Usagi, you can fill Mamoru in as soon as he gets back.”


            Usagi gave one curt nod.  “Right.”  Then she looked at Rei in apprehensive curiosity.  “Um, Rei, what did you mean when you said you felt ‘passing curiosity’ last night?”


            Before Rei could answer, Minako jumped in and replied off-handedly, “The house is haunted.  Okay people!  Let’s get going!”


            While everyone else got up and started to move, Usagi stayed frozen in place.  “H-h-haunted?” she stuttered out.


            “It’s not haunted, Usagi,” reassured Rei as she stood and set her icepack on the nightstand.


            “Then why did Minako say it was?” questioned the blonde suspiciously as she got up and followed after Rei.


            “Because she has an overactive imagination,” answered Rei as they all filed out of the room.


            Minako heard what they were saying and smiled in amusement, but Usagi wasn’t assuaged by it.  “I don’t know,” she said slowly.  “And I have to sleep all alone in that big room, too.”


            A few paces ahead of them, Setsuna looked down at Chibi-usa and Hotaru.  “You two should sleep with Usagi tonight, so she isn’t frightened by Minako’s ghosts,” she said in her serious Pluto voice.


            Three frowns met her command, and Usagi mumbled, “That really isn’t necessary.”


            “No, no, I insist,” went on Setsuna.  “The safety and well-being of the princess must always come first.  You girls agree with that, don’t you?”  Not giving either girl or anyone else a chance to respond, she went on, “I’m sure I’ll be perfectly all right and find a way to get through the night.”


            Haruka snickered.  “I’m sure you will.  Especially when there’s a certain member of the household who would be more than happy to help you find a way to spend the night braving some ghosts.”


            Setsuna pointedly ignored her.


            Hotaru giggled, then in a singsong voice intoned, “Somebody likes you.”


            “Hey, Hotaru,” went on Haruka as they descended a flight of stairs.  “How would you like a Kyo-papa to go along with your Setsuna-mama?”


            Hotaru tapped her finger against her chin, looking as though she were giving this some serious thought.  Then she smiled widely.  “That’d be kind of cool!  Ooo, and I want to be a flower girl when they get married!  With a purple satin dress!”


            “Me, too!” chimed in Chibi-usa.  “But I want a pink dress.”


            “Perfect!” announced Haruka.  “And we can have the wedding next August, after a proper one year engagement.”


            Setsuna sighed.  “You are all incorrigible.  No one ‘likes’ anyone, no one was flirting with anyone…”


            “Who said anything about flirting?” interrupted Haruka, a devilish grin on her face.


            Setsuna cleared her throat, the tiniest of blushes beginning to show on her cheeks, then went on, “And no one is getting married next August.”


            A demure smile on her lips, Michiru chastised her charges lightly, “She’s right.  And you should know better Haruka.  After all, it’s much too hot in August to hold a wedding.  We should do it in either the spring or early fall.  And at those times of year, the wedding gazebo at the park would make a perfect backdrop.”


            Makoto chuckled as she listened to Setsuna’s love life being planned out for her in spite of her protestations.  There were some things only family could get away with putting you through, and this particular family was taking full advantage of the rare opportunity they’d been presented with.  Makoto glanced beside her at Ami, to see if she was also sharing in the mirth.  The worried frown and tense set of Ami’s shoulders let her know the answer was an unequivocal ‘no.’


            “Hey,” said Makoto softly, lifting her fingers to gently stroke Ami’s cheek.  “It’ll be okay.”


            In Makoto’s arms, Miki watched her gesture in infant awe.  Then he burbled and lifted his arms towards Ami, his fingers flexing as he tried to reach her.


            Makoto grinned at him.  “You want your Ami-mama to feel better, too, don’t you?” she said to Miki before handing him off to Ami.


            Ami kissed the baby’s head and hugged him to her for a few seconds before settling him more comfortably in her arms.  She waved a finger in front of his eyes, and when he caught it and pulled it into his mouth, a small smile touched her lips.


            “It’s going to be okay,” repeated Makoto.  “We’ll keep everyone safe if anything happens.  I promise it myself.  Besides, the last time you guys had to fight, you did it without me and still managed to mop up the bad guys.  With me here and back in action, we’ll take ‘em down no problems.  Well, except,” and here her grin turned lopsided and she poked discretely at one breast, “I hope my senshi fuku still fits right, since not every part of me is back into the shape it was before.”


            Ami smiled gratefully at her.  “Thank you,” she said.  Then she looked down shyly and fussed a bit with Miki as her smile turned more playful.  “And I’m not complaining.”


            Makoto’s smile grew and she leaned in closer to Miki.  “You’re going to be a good boy and sleep tonight, aren’t you?”


            Miki let out a high pitched gurgle, and Makoto decided that was his version of a very happy, “Yes, mama.”


            “That’s my good Bug,” she cooed at him.


            Downstairs and ready to break off into their various groups to investigate, Ami still felt concern for her family’s place in all of this.  However, that concern was tempered by the presence of her friends and the absoluteness of Makoto’s promise.  Makoto would keep them safe, no matter what, and no god in heaven would be able to help anyone who got in the way of that promise.



*            *            *


            “There you are.”


            Kaya looked up from her book and smiled at the wide grin on Ken’s face.  She laid her open book across the arm of the dark, wing-back chair she was in and tucked her legs more snuggly under her.  “You look happy,” she said as she lifted her glasses from her face and tucked them into the pocket on her blouse.  “I take it the game went well.”


            Ken nodded as he sat on the chair’s matching ottoman.  “I think so.  Your father seemed to enjoy himself.  Your brother, on the other hand…”  He shook his head and chuckled lightly.  “I have to say, I feel pretty bad for him.  Even Seiji made out better than he did.”


            “Seijuurou has never been the most athletically inclined of people.  He’s happier in front of a chess board or behind a book.  Kyo was the one who got all the physical skill,” replied Kaya.  Then she added teasingly, “So, did you let my father win?”


            Ken smirked.  “I didn’t have to.  He was pretty humble with how badly he beat us, though, and I can now say with no doubt that I know where you get your competitiveness from.  I think I was able to somewhat impress him with my modest skills, though.”


            “Really?” she said, her head tilting to the side in a somewhat skeptical manner.


            “Really,” answered Ken.  “He even invited me to come back behind the rec room tomorrow afternoon and putt with him.”


            The amused grin Kaya was wearing dropped.  “He did?”


            “Yes.”  Ken shifted uncomfortably, his jovial mood flattening.  “I thought that would be a good thing.”


            Shaking her head suddenly, Kaya force a small smile and reassured, “No, no, it is.  I’m just surprised.  He’s more possessive with that little practice green than he is his office.  He must like you if he did that.”


            Ken’s smile reappeared, and he sat up just a touch straighter, his pride with making a desirable impression on the elder Ishida apparent.  “You had me worried there for a second,” he said, then reached forward and picked up her book so he could see what it was.  Keeping his finger between the dog-eared and yellowing pages, he read the scratched silver writing on the cover.  In Moonlight, Death’s Shadow.


            “One of my mother’s favorites,” explained Kaya.  “I was eight the first time she let me read it.”


            “Looks like it’s been read a good deal since then.”


            Kaya nodded, then took the book from him, allowing his fingers to slip from the page she had saved.  “You must be at least a little hungry by now.  If you’d like, after we eat lunch, I’ll introduce you to Detective Matsura,” she offered, giving book’s cover a tap with her knuckles.


            “Sounds good,” Ken answered, gracing her with one more warm smile before standing and holding out a hand to her.


            Kaya smiled back, this time genuinely, and took his hand.  ‘You’re making too much of it,’ she told herself as they left the library.  ‘It’s just two men playing a game.  That’s all.’  She forcefully pushed that little tickle of jealously away, as far as she could, and focused instead on the happy voice of the man walking beside her.


*            *            *


            Mars stood on the small dock of the man-made lake and scowled.  They had been out here for almost three hours and hadn’t found a blessed thing.  There had been something out here, though, and it frustrated her to no end that it seemed to have just disappeared.


            Soft footsteps behind her made her turn around.  Mercury came up slowly behind her, her blue eyes fixed on the screen of her minicomputer.  She stopped and stood for several seconds, then looked up at Mars and deactivated her visor.


            Mars sighed.  “I know.  Nothing.”


            Mercury shook her head.  “Perhaps we’ll be lucky and it will remain nothing.”


            A stray piece of debris was kicked into the water, and through the ripples, Mars watched her image detransform.  When the water stilled, Rei’s image stood frowning back at her.  She poked absently at the grayish, yellow-ringed bruise that was quickly receding from around her eye, causing both her and her image to grimace.


            “You know,” said Rei, “I really don’t want anything to happen, whether it’s causing trouble for your family or just messing up our vacation.  But still…”


            Ami smiled at her.  “I understand.”


            A second later, Venus came running up to them.  “Uranus and Neptune just finished a second sweep of the woods.  They didn’t find anything that looked out of place.  Setsuna says everything’s quiet at the house, too.”  She then looked her friends up and down, shrugged, and detransformed.  “I guess this means we’re done for the day.  But it was good to get out here like this,” she went on, stretching her arms up over her head.  “We’ve all gotten a little lazy since Miki was born.”


            At that, Ami warned playfully, “If Luna or Artemis hears you say that, they’re going to use the woods to make us run drills.”


            “That might be a good idea,” answered Minako more seriously than either Ami or Rei liked.  “And it will give us a chance to run a new sweep tomorrow.”


            “Unfortunately,” replied Ami in a less than enthusiastic manner, “you’re right.  We should include all the others, also, if that’s what we’re going to do.”  She paused for a moment, thinking, then added, “I’ll trade places with Makoto and stay with Miki while…”


            “Oh, no,” interrupted Rei.  “You’ve got a house full of willing babysitters, and if the rest of us have to run laps, so do you.”


            Ami had the good grace to look chagrined at getting caught in that one, and Minako giggled.  “It was a good try, though,” said the blonde.  “Come on, Haruka and Michiru are already heading back to the house.  We’ll get everyone caught up, lay out a plan for tomorrow, and then try to enjoy what’s left of the day.”


*            *            *


            The bedroom was silent except for the ticking of the alarm clock.  Sitting on the bed against the headboard, Shouko bit the inside of her cheek to hide an amused grin.  Across from her, Seijuurou stared intently at the chess board between them.  His legs crossed under him Indian style, he leaned in closely.  The tip of his tongue poked out the side of his mouth as his eyes moved rapidly, his mind laying out each possible move.


            He’d seemed so completely defeated when they’d come home from the golf game, thought Shouko.  She couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.  So, Seiji was set free to do as he pleased, and Kara had gone after Kyo.  She chose not to think about the trouble those two could possibly be getting into together and instead concentrated on her husband.  Now, with the game only a few moves away from being over, she was certain his ego had been properly restored.


            Seijuurou’s eyes suddenly stilled and focused on his knight.  A wide, triumphant smile spread on his face as he reached forward and made his move.  Then he pushed his glasses up and aimed his smile at Shouko.  “Check.”


            ‘Oh, yeah,’ she thought, ‘his ego most certainly isn’t hurting any more.’


            Allowing a small smile to creep through, Shouko responded with, “It’s not completely over just yet.”


            “Technicalities,” answered Seijuurou.  “Do you want to decide how best to lose now?  Or would you rather wait until after dinner?”


            Shouko smirked as her husband chuckled at his own humor.  A half hour until dinner, she mused.  Her mind ran through all the different ways this could play out, and she came to her decision quickly.  She’d already done her bit on Seijuurou’s behalf.  She didn’t want this hanging over her for the rest of the evening.


            Not allowing it much thought, Shouko moved her last remaining rook in a half-hearted effort to end things quickly.


            Seijuurou didn’t need to contemplate his next move.  As soon as Shouko’s hand was off the board, he slid his piece into place and declared triumphantly, “Checkmate!”  Then he looked up at his wife and did something that caught her completely off guard.


            The chess pieces tilted and fell, the middle of the bed dipping under Seijuurou’s weight as he leaned forward.  The kiss was firm, but fast, and Shouko barely had a chance to react before he was pulling away.  Still startled, she blinked at him and his goofy grin.


            His hand rested on her bare knee, just an inch away from the hem of her shorts.  “Let’s get the kids rounded up so we can get ready for dinner,” he said.  Then he stood, causing the chess pieces to roll further hither and yon, and walked out of the room, presumably to find his children.


            Shouko sat for a moment and stared after him.  ‘Up and down,’ she thought to herself.  ‘And sometimes just entirely too difficult to figure out.’


*            *            *


            There were some questions that just didn't need to be asked.  You could simply tell by the look on someone's face what they were going to say, how they were going to say it, and what would happen to you when they did.  Unfortunately, that brief moment of omniscience would inevitably pass before the knowledge of how you were supposed to respond could be revealed.


            Shrugging her shoulders for the second time as Midori coxed her into one of the dining room chairs, Rei said again, “I don’t know what to say.  I guess I’m just a quick healer.  And I did keep the ice pack on it.”


            Kaya leaned in beside her mother and stared at Rei as if she were a lab specimen, searching for some sign of a now nonexistent bruise.  “Even so, there should still be some bruising.  Nothing heals that quickly.  Ken,” she called, waving him over.


            Rei was peripherally aware of her friends and fellow senshi standing in the background in states varying from fidgety-nervous to amused.  As one more person stepped up to stare at her, and she felt her options and patience begin to lessen, she threw out silently, ‘A little help here, guys.’


            As if she had been able to hear Rei’s plea, Ami took a step forward and said tentatively, “Mom, I really don’t think it’s something to be concerned over.”


            “I wouldn’t say I’m concerned, per se,” answered Kaya.  Then she said to Ken, “Take a look.”


            Ken looked closely at Rei’s face while still managing to keep a polite distance away.  Finally, he asked, “What am I supposed to be looking for?”


            “I told you how she got hit with Kara’s volleyball,” replied Kaya.  “There was a fairly large bruise left behind.”


            Ken squinted his eyes and tried to look harder.  “Nope.  I still don’t see it.”


            Kaya sighed, and Minako hid a giggle behind her hand.


            Rin, curious after having listened to all of this, sidled up beside Midori.  He adjusted his glasses and stared down at Rei.  A frown appeared on his face, and he looked over at Ami.  “Is this the one that got hit this afternoon?”


            Ami swallowed hard.  “Yes.”


            “Hmm,” he grunted, then stared back at Rei.  “I think you overreacted.”


            Midori and Kaya both frowned at him.  Then Kaya said, “All things considered, I’d say we barely reacted at all.  She got hit hard enough to knock her off her feet.  All we did was check her eye for any damage and give her an ice pack.  And when she walked out of the kitchen afterward, she had a bruise the size of my palm around her eye and cheek.  I think the fact that it’s gone now is cause for at least some curiosity.”


            “What’s everyone staring at?” asked Kyo as he and the rest of the family walked in.


            From her seat at the table, Hana answered, “They’re staring at Rei’s eye, dear.  It’s done something interesting.”


            Kara ran ahead of her mother to squeeze in between her grandmother and aunt.  She leaned in on Rei’s knees and stared up at her.  “Hey, her face is all better!” she announced happily.


            Shouko worked her way into the group, with Kyo and Seijuurou pushing in along with her, the three of them unintentionally pinning Kara tighter against Rei’s legs in the process.  Surprise, followed quickly by confusion, flitted across Shouko’s face.  “What happened to her black eye?”


            “She doesn’t have one,” said Kyo pointing at Rei’s eye.


            Rei wondered idly if they’d throw her out for biting that finger.  And if that would actually be a bad thing at this point.


            “She had one this afternoon,” returned Shouko.  “Didn’t she?”


            Kaya, Midori, and Kara nodded.


            “Well, we aren’t going to get any answers standing here and staring at the girl,” said Rin.  He removed himself from the small crowd around Rei and headed for his own seat.  “Everyone, sit.  It’s time for dinner, and I’d prefer not to have a cold meal.  If this particular curiosity bears further discussion, it can take place after we eat.”


            The final order given, everyone obeyed and started to meander to their seats.


            Rei started to let out a sigh of relief, but quickly sucked it back in when she realized Ami’s mother wasn’t moving along with the rest of them.


            Kaya held Rei’s gaze for a moment, scrutiny as strong as ever in her stare.  Then she glanced up at Ami.


            Ami’s heart sped up for just a second before her mother broke eye contact and slowly turned away, heading for her place at the table.  A hand briefly touching her back made her jump.  Usagi smiled at her in a way that was supposed to be reassuring, but wound up around a giggle because of her reaction.  Ami smiled back, letting out her own sigh of relief.


            “Crisis averted,” whispered Makoto quickly.


            Ami nodded and began to relax as the conversation quickly drifted to things of more interest than Rei’s quick healing.  This hadn’t been the best of starts for their vacation, she admitted silently.  It had to get easier from here, though.  Yes, she assured herself, tomorrow things would most definitely be easier.