The Tangled Web We Weave

by Crawlspace

 

~ Day 5 ~

~ Wednesday ~

 

            Since he hadn’t heard from them yet, and knowing how prone they were to oversleeping, Mamoru felt it would be best to go and check on them.  So here he stood, raising his hand to knock on the door a third time.  When this brought him the same lack of response as his previous attempts, he opened the door slowly and peeked around the corner.

 

            “Usako?” he said quietly, then smiled as he stepped fully into the room.

 

            How they had managed to sleep like this, he didn’t know.  In a twisted tangle of bedspread and sheets, Usagi, Hotaru, and Chibi-usa lay this way and that.  Usagi seemed to be the most wrapped up in the sheets, sprawled out on her stomach with her head at the foot of the bed.  Hotaru was pressed against her side, as if Usagi was her favorite body pillow, the girl’s head resting on the bunched up pink pajama leg pooled around Usagi’s knee.  Chibi-usa was using Hotaru as a footrest while she spread out sideways across the king-sized bed, her hair fanned out around her.  And all three of them looked perfectly content, dead to the world in their slumber.

 

            Mamoru walked over to the foot of the bed and knelt down in front of Usagi.  He reached out and gave her a gentle shake, saying softly, “Wake up, Usako.  You don’t want to miss breakfast, do you?”

 

            Usagi’s nose twitched, and she swatted at him lazily.

 

            Mamoru chuckled, which disturbed her further, then gave her another shake.

 

            This time, Usagi’s eyes cracked open as a tiny frown formed on her lips.  When she saw the source of her displeasure, though, her frown turned into a punchy smile.

 

            “Mamo-chan,” she whispered in a sleepy-soft voice, followed by a nonsensical happy “gheeeeee.”  Her lips puckered and she kissed at him.

 

            He indulged her with a quick, good morning kiss, and his fingers stroked her bangs away from her eyes.  “Someone forgot to set the alarm clock last night.”

 

            “Hmm?” replied Usagi.  She turned her head as best she could to see the alarm clock over her shoulder.  When she saw what time it was, a tight puff of air blew through her lips and she let her head fall back down to her pillow.  “It’s barely 8 o’clock,” she grumped.  “We’ve got a whole half hour until breakfast, and we’re on vacation.  Nobody normal gets up this early when they’re on vacation.”

 

            “I’m up,” he informed her with a lopsided grin.

 

            Usagi reached up and patted his cheek.  “You’re special.”  Then her hand fell, her eyes closed, and she mumbled out, “Come back in 15 minutes.”

 

            Shaking his head, Mamoru stood.  He walked around to the side of the bed so he could get to Hotaru and Chibi-usa.

 

            Chibi-usa basically ignored him, rolling over and pulling the covers up tighter around her.  Then he reached for Hotaru.  Her head popped up when he touched her shoulder, and she blinked at him through a dazed expression.

 

            “Time to get up,” he said to her.

 

            “Oh.  Okay,” answered Hotaru.  She nodded her head, even though it didn’t really seem like she understood what was happening.

 

            It took several moments for her body to catch up and realize she was awake.  But slowly, she untangled herself from Usagi and the sheets, and slid out around Chibi-usa.  She swayed just a bit as she stood, but then she stretched her arms high over her head and yawned long and wide.  That seemed to do the trick.

 

            She smiled up at Mamoru, thanked him for coming to get her, then left to go and get dressed for breakfast.

 

            Now the only one awake in the room, Mamoru stood and looked over the bed.  They weren’t going to get up easily, he knew.  So he thought for a minute, then came to a decision.  Time to wake up, he thought as he took a firm hold of the bedspread.  One way or the other…

 

            Hotaru paused and looked back over her shoulder when she heard the startled yelps coming from Usagi’s bedroom.  She grinned, though, when she realized what it was, and proceeded back to Setsuna’s room.

 

            “Setsuna-mama,” called Hotaru as she opened the bedroom door.  “I slept late.”

 

            Setsuna looked around the doorframe of the bathroom, her hands occupied with pinning up her hair.  “Not by very much.  I would have come to get you if you were much longer.”

 

            “Mamoru woke us up,” replied Hotaru as she pulled shorts and a t-shirt from her dresser drawer.

 

            “Did you sleep well?” asked Setsuna as she put the last pin in her hair.  She walked into the bedroom and sat on the bed, squirt bottle and hairbrush in hand.

 

            “Yes,” answered Hotaru.  Her nightgown landed on the floor in a heap, and she hurried to pull on her clothes.  “But it took awhile to fall asleep.  They both roll around a lot, and I got stuck in the middle.”

 

            Setsuna grinned, thinking briefly that turnabout was fair play while also reminding herself that tonight, some combination of those three would likely be winding up in her bed.  Further contemplation on the matter was cut short as Hotaru sat beside her on the edge of the bed, ready for her mama to begin working out the few morning tangles in her hair.

 

            When that was done, they started meandering down towards the dining room.  They passed Mamoru in the hallway as he leaned against the doorframe, waiting patiently for Usagi and Chibi-usa.  On their way down the stairs, they got an unexpected greeting.

 

            “Good morning, Meioh-san, Hotaru,” said Ami’s grandmother, a bright smile on her face.  “I was just about to come and get you.  Meioh-san, there’s a young man here to see you.”

 

            Setsuna’s eyebrows rose in curiosity, and she looked down at Hotaru.  The little girl shrugged, just as curious as her mother at what this could be about.

 

            Midori led them into the foyer, to the young man holding a white box.  Thick, sandy-brown bangs hung shaggy around his eyes, and a work ID hung around his neck with several other cards and a few bills tucked in with it.  He smiled at them and bowed when he saw them, and Setsuna guessed his age to be no more than 20.

 

            “Good morning, ma’am,” he said politely.  “Are you Meioh Setsuna?”

 

            “Yes, I am,” she answered, and out of the corner of her eye, she noted Midori chuckle lightly before turning to leave.

 

            The young man smiled.  “I work at Children’s Hospital, and Ishida-sensei asked me to deliver this to you.  The delivery services would have taken too long and gotten here too late.”

 

            He held out the large, white box tied with a pale blue ribbon, then waited as Setsuna opened it.

 

            A smile formed on Setsuna’s lips as she lifted the brightly colored bouquet from the box.  The flowers and baby’s breath were in a white basket with another blue bow tied around it and a tiny, plastic bee sitting perched in the middle.  The card, however, was tucked so far down along the edge she almost didn’t see it.

 

            She picked up the card, then smirked, realizing that she probably wasn’t supposed to see it.  “Congratulations.  It’s a boy,” she read in amusement.

 

            The young man blushed and reached forward to take the card.  “Sorry.  I was supposed to take that out.  And I’m also supposed to tell you that Ishida-sensei is very sorry for leaving the way he did yesterday.  He realizes he’s an idiot, but he hopes you’ll forgive him, anyway.”

 

            Setsuna smiled at him.  “Thank you, very much.  For both the flowers and the message.”

 

            “You’re welcome,” he answered.  “And if you don’t mind me saying, you should forgive him.  He really is a great guy.”

 

            With a chuckle, Setsuna asked, “And how much did he tip you to tell me that?”

 

            “Nothing,” smiled the young man.  “He gets that one for free.”  He bowed again and wished her a good morning before turning to leave.

 

            “Well, what do you think?” asked Setsuna as Hotaru scrutinized the flower basket.

 

            The little girl pursed her lips in thought, then answered, “They’re pretty, I guess.  At least he said he was sorry.”

 

            Oooo!  Flowers!” suddenly issued from across the foyer. 

 

            Usagi, much more chipper than she had been when she was trudging down the stairs a moment ago, ran up to Setsuna with Chibi-usa close behind her.  “How pretty!” she continued excitedly.  “Are they for you?  Did Uncle Kyo send them?”

 

            “Yes, and yes,” replied Setsuna, holding them so both Usagi and Chibi-usa could see.

 

            Usagi grinned lopsidedly at her.  The blonde didn’t need to say a word.  Setsuna could already hear the sing-song “somebody likes you” perfectly well in her head.

 

            “I should take them upstairs,” said Setsuna, sidetracking any discussion on her personal affairs.  “Before we run into any more distractions and are late for breakfast.  Hotaru, go ahead with Chibi-usa.  I’ll only be a minute.”

 

            Setsuna was spared any further grins and giggles only by the luck of having most of the others already in the dining room.  She set the flowers on the dresser, and giving them one last glance, she smiled.  Every once in awhile, even if nothing was to come out of it, it was nice to be pursued by someone with a somewhat romantic side.  Not that she would ever openly admit that.  She’d never hear the end of it if she did.

 

            She allowed herself a soft laugh and a grin, and then she went down to join everyone for breakfast.

 

            In the dining room, random conversation was being hit back and forth like a volleyball, bouncing from one subject to another and back again.  Rin seemed to be ignoring most of it, sitting at the head of the table and nursing his second cup of coffee.

 

            Hana smiled as one more person wished her a happy birthday.  She laughed, letting them know she was aware they were only using her new year’s worth of wrinkles as an excuse to have a party.

 

            Seijuurou, feeling the need to fill the void left by his baby brother, raised his orange juice to her and told her she was absolutely right.  And maybe he could find her a few new gray hairs to go along with her new wrinkles, just to add to the excitement.  Then he grabbed Kaya to him and started rooting around the top of her head.

 

            The elder Mizuno gave him a swat and a glare, informing him she had no gray hair.  At least none that modern technology couldn’t hide.

 

            More laughter, and then it happened.

 

            Kara, leading her mother by the hand, walked quietly into the room.  They wouldn’t have been noticed at all if Kara hadn’t run up to Hana in childish exuberance to tell her “happy birthday.”  But they were here, and Shouko had to do it, because she’d had that talk with Kara and it was the only way the girl would believe that her mama hadn’t lied to her about liking Makoto.

 

            So, with Kara and several others watching, she walked up to Ami and Makoto and smiled.  “Good morning,” she said pleasantly, and before either of them had a chance to respond, she reached out and hugged Makoto.

 

            A pin drop on the carpet would have sounded like an explosion, the room went so quiet.  Seijuurou’s mouth hung open as he stared at his wife.  Ami imitated her uncle, and Makoto went stiff as a board, shocked and completely lost at how to respond.  Not that Shouko gave her much time to really think about it.

 

            Almost as quickly as she’d acted, Shouko pulled away.  Without making eye contact with anyone, she walked around to her seat.  With her cheeks flushed, she bit out quietly to Seijuurou, “Not a word,” then went about giving a great deal of attention to folding and unfolding her napkin in her lap.

 

            Kara grinned widely and ran over to Makoto.  She pulled her down, letting Makoto know it was her turn for a hug, and when they were level, she whispered, “My mama likes you.  I asked her, and she said yes, and we had a long talk about it.”

 

            Proper words escaped Makoto at that moment, so she only nodded.  Kara nodded back, then moved on to Ami and the baby while Makoto did her level best not to actually look over at Shouko.

 

            Finally, though, everyone settled.  With one notable exception.

 

            “Where’s Kyo?” asked Rin, looking in disapproval at his son’s empty chair.

 

            “Still at the hospital,” answered Midori.  “But he called and said he’d be home in time for the party.”

 

            Seijuurou smirked and mumbled so only Shouko could hear, “Coward.  At least I come home and face it rather than hiding out at work.”

 

            One corner of Shouko’s mouth turned up, but she didn’t respond.  If her husband wanted to believe that all the busy work he created to stall for time wasn’t a form of ‘hiding out,’ then she would let him have that for now.

 

            Food was set out, and things moved along much as they had every other morning, until the maid quietly walked in looking for Midori.  She apologized for interrupting, but there was another delivery.  This time, the birthday cake for Hana’s party.

 

            Midori nodded and stood.  “We’re getting off to an early start with these things today,” she noted with an amused smile.

 

            As Ami’s grandmother left the room, Makoto leaned over to Ami and quietly asked, “They had a cake delivered for Gram’s birthday?”

 

            Ami could hear the faint disapproval in Makoto’s voice.  “Yes,” she answered.  “They do every year, and whenever we have a large party or such.  It’s always very good.”

 

            Makoto bit her lip, trying to think of a way to say this so no one would be offended by what to her was a basic truth.  “I’m sure it’s good, and that whoever made it put a lot of care and effort into it, but it’s a store bought cake.  For Gram’s 90th birthday.  It’s just so… impersonal.  I mean, it’s a family party, and the cake is store bought.”

 

            Ami smiled.  She realized she should have expected this response.  Taking Makoto by the hand, she said, “Come with me.”  Then she turned to Rin.  “We’ll be right back, Grandfather.”

 

            Rin nodded and dismissed them, and Ami led Makoto into the kitchen where Midori was with Hikari and the cake.

 

            It really was a beautifully done cake, Makoto had to admit.  Two perfectly shaped rectangles, the top smaller than the bottom, were covered in thin layers of white icing.  Ribbons of white icing decorated the edges, and delicate blue and yellow flowers with vivid green leaves accented the corners of the bottom layer.  ‘Happy 90th Birthday’ was centered on the top in an elegant script with more icing flowers to highlight it.  The perfect birthday cake, but in a way that made if feel sterile.  If this had been a formal function, it would have been fine.  But this was family, and it needed to feel that way.

 

            She was just finishing forming these thoughts when Ami’s grandmother smiled at her and said, “Isn’t it lovely?”

 

            Makoto swallowed hard, wondering what honesty might cost her in this instance.  Thankfully, Ami saved her from having to find out.

 

            “Actually, Grandmother, that’s what we wanted to talk to you about,” jumped in Ami.

 

            “Oh?” said Midori, curious to where this was going.

 

            Ami nodded.  “We do think it’s a nice cake.  However, as Gram’s party is something that’s going to be strictly family, we thought something homemade would be a bit more appropriate.”

 

            A thoughtful frown touched Midori’s lips, and she looked back down at the cake.  “But we’ve already got this one, and Hikari and her staff have so much to do in preparing dinner.  At this point, even if you were right…”

 

            She trailed off a bit, and Ami found her chance to offer a solution.  “Makoto can do it,” she said happily.

 

            Midori looked between Ami and Makoto dubiously.  “Ami, sweetheart, this isn’t a small affair, even if it is just family.  Besides, Makoto is our guest.  We couldn’t possibly ask her to do that.”

 

            “I don’t mind,” said Makoto, her enthusiasm growing quickly.  “And I’d like to be able to do this for Gram.  I can bring the kids in to help, that’ll personalize it a bit more, and they’d have fun, I think.”

 

            Midori looked at her with hesitation.  She could see the plan being laid out behind Makoto’s eyes, though, and she hated to quash the girl’s eagerness.  So, slowly, she found herself agreeing.  It wouldn’t do any harm to let them have some fun, she reasoned, and they’d still have the good cake to fall back on.

 

            “All right,” said Midori finally, and she couldn’t help but smile at the way Makoto’s eyes lit up.  “Just tell Hikari what you need, and she’ll point you in the right direction.”

 

            “Thank you,” answered Makoto happily.  She turned back to a widely smiling Ami.  “Let’s finish breakfast, then we’ll get everyone who wants to help together.  I’ll have a better idea of how to go about things, then.

 

*          *          *

 

            Once breakfast was completed and cleaned up, Makoto took stock and organized her helpers.  She took special care to be respectful of Hikari as the cook showed her around.  This was, after all, her territory, and Makoto didn’t want her presence to become intrusive.

 

            Chewing on the inside of her cheek, Makoto looked intently at the things laid out before her.  “What’s Gram’s favorite color?” she asked finally.

 

            “Green,” answered Ami, shifting Miki from one shoulder to the other.

 

            Makoto’s eyes narrowed.  “Is there any place we can go to pick up a few things?”

 

            “I’ll have to ask Grandmother,” said Ami.  “I don’t know the area well, but she should be able to tell me easily enough.”

 

            “And I can drive if I’ve got someone to give me directions,” threw in Rei from where she stood leaning against the counter.

 

            “Great!” said Makoto.  “I’ll make a list.  Ami, you go with Rei, and I’ll get started here.”

 

            Minako hopped down from the table edge.  “I’m going, too!  I’m not letting anyone go shopping without me.”

 

            Makoto clapped her hands together.  “Then let’s get to it!”

 

*          *          *

 

            Midori walked by the kitchen, still feeling a bit of trepidation over leaving a gaggle of teenagers to supervise a handful of children during a cooking experiment.  However, she resisted the temptation to stop in and see how they were doing.  Instead, she continued on her way to the library.

 

            Kaya and Ken were already there, her daughter immersed in a novel and Ken typing away on his laptop.  Kaya set down her book and smiled at her mother as Midori sat in the chair across from her.

 

            “I saw the girls in the kitchen,” said Kaya while Midori thumbed through a small stack of books beside the chair.  “Do you know what they’re doing?”

 

            “Makoto asked to make a cake for Gram,” answered Midori.  She made a choice in reading material, then sat up and asked somewhat worriedly, “Should I have found a way to tell her not to?”

 

            “No, definitely not,” returned Kaya with a firm shake of her head.  “Trust me, if Makoto ever offers to cook for you, let her.  She puts many trained professionals to shame, and if I didn’t think it would be taking full and total advantage of her, I’d get you to have her cook the whole meal.”

 

            Midori relaxed back in her chair and chuckled at Kaya’s absoluteness.  “Well, that does make me feel better.  Now I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with.”

 

            Kaya smiled, pleased at her mother’s confidence in her word.  “You won’t be disappointed.  Truthfully, with as long as Ami’s known her, I’m surprised my daughter isn’t as round as she is tall.”

 

            “Who’s as round as they are tall?” asked Rin as he walked in on their conversation.

 

            “No one, Father,” answered Kaya with a grin.  “I was just commenting on Makoto’s cooking skills.”

 

            “Really?  Well…” was all he had to say on that.  Then he got to the point of why he’d come to find them.  “Midori, I’m going out for a bit.  Jouku has a few things he’s playing with, and it’s easier to go over it in person than over the phone.”

 

            “I knew you couldn’t go a whole week without running off to work,” smirked Midori.

 

            “I’m not going to work,” countered Rin evenly.  “I’m going to Jouku’s.  His house certainly isn’t the hospital, and us discussing something work related as colleagues just for the pleasure of it isn’t really work.”

 

            Mmmm,” hummed out Midori, making it perfectly clear she didn’t buy this particular line of reasoning.

 

            Rin huffed, then looked over at Kaya.  He waved a hand casually between her and Ken.  “The next time you two are up here, the four of us will have lunch together.  I want him to meet you.”

 

            Kaya’s response stalled for just a second.  How many years had it been since he’d wanted to introduce her to a colleague?  Longer than it had been since he’d stopped dragging her out to the hospital for random reasons, but not quite as long since he’d stopped pulling her into his projects.  But now, just like that?

 

            She glanced at Ken as he answered politely, and automatically, she did the same.  “Yes, sir.  The next time we’re up here.”

           

*          *          *

 

            His eyes wide, Miki watched as his mama showed him the proper way to separate an egg.  She did this several times, and it looked like fun.  So when she picked up a new egg, Miki reached out and gurgled.

 

            Makoto smiled at him and let him wrap his fingers around hers.  “Sorry, Little Bug.  You only get to watch this time.  But maybe next year I can find something for you help with.”

 

            Miki pulled her fingers into his mouth and started to chew.  This was much better than an egg, so he was quite content.  Until she took her fingers away.

 

            “What’s the matter, Miki?” asked Hotaru when he started issuing cranky sounding cries.  She left her cupcake batter and went over to him.

 

            The baby reached out for her, recognizing someone who would give him lots of good attention.

 

            She lifted him from his seat and cuddled him to her, cooing baby words at him.  Miki cooed back, then giggled when she raspberried his tummy.

 

            Makoto gave them several minutes to play, then said lightly, “Okay, back to work, now.”

 

            Hotaru nodded, but rather than put the baby back in his seat, she handed him to Michiru.  It was a better situation for both Miki and Michiru, as neither of them seemed to be having any real luck with the cooking aspect of things.

 

            “You’re such a girl,” teased Haruka when Michiru handed her a jar of cherries so she could take Miki.  Haruka set aside the bowl of cupcake icing she was mixing up and took the jar over to the sink.  Turning on the hot tap, she said, “Now I’m going to show you how it’s supposed to be done.”

 

            Michiru propped Miki up so he could see Haruka.  “You hear that,” she said playfully as she bounced the baby lightly.  “Uncle Haruka is going to show us how it’s really done.”

 

            Miki chirruped in laughter as fingers tickled his side.

 

            Usagi giggled at the display.  She handed Makoto the measuring cup she asked for, then took a step back as the mixer whirred to life.  “Hey,” she said as egg yolks and sugar blended together, “did you see the flowers Setsuna got this morning?”

 

            “She got flowers?” answered Makoto in surprise.  “From who?”

 

            Michiru grinned.  “From Kyo, no doubt.”

 

            They all waited a beat for Haruka to comment, but she was too wrapped up in her battle with the uncooperative jar to pay them any mind.

 

            “I saw them,” jumped in Chibi-usa.  “And they were from Uncle Kyo.”

 

            Hotaru frowned, the strokes in her batter becoming wider and slower as she turned things over in her mind.  She still liked Kyo mostly, but she didn’t want him fixed up on a date with her Setsuna-mama anymore.  After all, the idea had been for Setsuna to have some fun while they were here, not for her to be reminded that she was alone.  That was what Kyo had done, and he would do it again, whether he meant to or not.  No, Hotaru decided, he had been a bad choice, no matter how nice he seemed.  It was best to just stop, at least for now.

 

            A nudge from Chibi-usa knocked her out of her thoughts.  “I need a few more paper cups,” said the girl, holding up her cupcake pan.

 

            “Okay,” answered Hotaru.  She reached over only to find an empty table as Kara lined her pan with the last of the paper cups.  “Mako-chan, we’re out of cups,” she called over to her leader.

 

            “There’s more on the counter over there,” answered Makoto.

 

            Hotaru walked over to get them.  Unfortunately, she did so just as Haruka’s battle with the cherry jar was coming to an end.

 

            The lid on the jar finally gave way with a loud pop… and kept on going.  Red juice and cherry halves went flying, finding a perfect target in Hotaru.

 

            Haruka blinked.  “Oops.”

 

            Hotaru frowned at her, feeling it was supremely unfair that while she stood here in a puddle of cherry with a shirt and shorts that couldn’t be saved, her papa had come out completely unscathed.

 

            Michiru took the baby back to his seat, then went over to Hotaru.  Stepping carefully so she wouldn’t create a bigger mess, she handed a roll of paper towels to Haruka after taking several for herself.  She wiped off what she could from Hotaru’s arms and legs, then pointed the girl in the direction of the doorway.  “Go on and change,” she said.  “I’ll keep an eye on your cupcake mix.”

 

            Hotaru looked back up at Haruka, which earned her a sincere, “sorry,” then sighed and ran upstairs to change.  It only took her a few minutes to find clean clothes and pull them on.  The dirty ones were tossed haphazardly onto her laundry bag along with a thought for her Michiru-mama and a silent promise to tend to it properly later on.  Then she started back downstairs, hurrying so they wouldn’t get too much further without her.

 

*          *          *

 

            Kyo yawned hugely as he walked toward the house, fumbling his car keys and dropping them to the walkway in the process.  He grumbled unhappily, feeling too tired to even bother bending down to retrieve them.  And since he didn’t need them to get inside…

 

            Stepping over his wayward keys, Kyo made his way into the house.  He stumbled through the door, grateful no one was around.  All he wanted right now was a nap and a shower, and then he would suck up his ego and go find Meioh-san to see if the flowers he’d sent had bought him some forgiveness.  Maybe she’d sit with him at the party tonight if they had.

 

            A silly, punchy smile appeared on Kyo’s face.  “And then maybe she’ll accept your uniform button, and the two of you can go steady,” he chuckled quietly to himself, then shook his head.  “I need sleep.  Badly.”

 

            He was halfway up the stairs when he heard small feet charging toward him.  He stopped and looked up as his young partner in crime came to an abrupt halt several steps above him.  The slight frown she wore clued him in to the fact she wasn’t happy with him for yesterday’s fiasco.  Ready to apologize and ask forgiveness, Kyo grinned sheepishly, and his eyes twinkled playfully as they met hers…

 

            And everything stopped.

 

            The world around him turned deadly silent.  His blood froze and his breath caught in his chest as dark, spectral fingers stroked his soul.  The deep gaze of suddenly cold and ancient eyes held him spellbound and nearly terrified as the enemy he so often fought wrapped his heart in its icy grip, and in that moment, he knew death more intimately than he’d ever imagined possible.

 

            Then she blinked.

 

            Kyo gasped, clutching his chest and falling back several steps.  “What the hell…” he muttered, wide eyes fixed on Hotaru’s bare feet.

 

            She moved a step closer, and he almost lost his balance as his eyes snapped up.  Whatever it was he’d seen in her was gone, but the frown was still there, and those eyes...  She looked at him a moment longer, then walked slowly around him and down the stairs.

 

            Kyo sank to the steps and watched her back through the banister as she picked up her pace again and ran off toward the kitchen.  “What the hell?” he repeated softly to himself.  He licked his dry lips, then scratched at the shadow of a beard on his face.  A shiver ran through him, and he closed his eyes.  After a few deep breaths to steady himself, he stood and slowly made his way to his room for a fresh change of clothes before retiring to his office.  He would ask questions later, when he was of a mind to handle the answers.

 

*            *            *

 

            Several pots were boiling lazily on the stove, vegetables were lying victim on cutting boards, and something was cooking in the oven by the time Ami, Rei, and Minako got back.  They walked into the kitchen, each of them carrying large paper shopping bags.

 

            Sitting at the table, Makoto looked up from icing the bottom layer of the cake, her eyes curious when she saw the bags.  She knew the list she’d given them hadn’t been that long, and she was certain it hadn’t included the silver and green metallic tassels sticking up over the edge of the one Minako was setting down.

 

            The blonde grinned at her.  “We went shopping.”

 

            “I see that,” Makoto answered, grinning back at her.

 

            Ami walked around to Makoto, her hand resting lightly on Makoto’s back as she handed her the smallest of the bags.  “We did remember to pick up the things you asked for,” she said, easy humor in her voice.  “But Minako made a few additional suggestions I thought were very good.”

 

            Minako smiled proudly, and Rei dug around in one of her bags, coming up with a plastic yellow horn.  She twirled it on her finger, not blowing on it in consideration of the baby asleep in his stroller.  “We’re going to have a party,” she announced.

 

            “I thought we were already going to have a party.  Or did I miss something?” asked Makoto, sounding just a bit confused.

 

            Rei smirked.  “We were having a formal affair,” she clarified.  “Or something a lot more proper than a birthday party should be, anyway.”   

 

            “My grandparents may not intend it,” added Ami, “but even family parties do tend to be a bit… stuffy.”

 

            “That was my word,” jumped in Minako.  “I asked about decorations and stuff when we were going by this one store, and from what Ami said, I decided things were just going to be too stuffy and mundane for a party.”

 

             “So you guys went shopping,” concluded Makoto, and three heads nodded.  “Okay, so don’t keep me in suspense.  What did you get?  And what are those tassels for?”

 

            “The party hats,” answered Minako happily.  “We’re going to make them ourselves.  I thought it would be fun.”

 

            “So we got all the necessary items,” picked up Rei.  “Glitter, paint, stickers.  Along with a bunch of little game favors and confetti poppers, plates, cups, napkins, sparkly candles for the cake…”

 

            “For the cupcakes,” Makoto corrected quickly.

 

            “Right,” returned Rei, one corner of her mouth quirking up.  “For the cupcakes.  And lots and lots of paper for the hats and a banner.”

 

            “Hats and a banner that will be an outside project,” pointed out Ami.  “Especially if the kids are going to help.”

 

            “They took everyone outside for lunch when Hikari started to reclaim her kitchen,” said Makoto, pointing her icing knife towards the window.  “They wanted to share the sampler cupcakes they did while you were gone.  I swear, I’ve never made so many cupcakes in my life.  I only need half a dozen for the cake.  The rest were just a busy project.”

 

            Minako giggled and teased, “Cupcakes for lunch?  I knew leaving Mako-chan in charge was a good idea!”

 

            Sticking her tongue out at her leader, Makoto retorted with, “I’ll have you know I made sure they all ate properly before letting them have the cupcakes.  But if you want any, you better hurry.  And since you’re officially an adult, you’re allowed to have cupcakes for lunch.”

 

            Grabbing up the bags with her fingerpaints and glitter, Minako wasted no time.  Calling over her shoulder, she said to Rei, “C’mon.  As your official adult, I say you can have cupcakes for lunch, too.  Because I love you like that.”

 

            “Oh joy be unconfined,” muttered Rei, picking up the other two bags and following behind Minako.  “Haruka better have left us some good ones.  I know I saw chocolate before we left.”

 

            Pfft, Haruka nothing,” dismissed Minako.  “It’s Setsuna we have to worry about.  She’s sneaky and possessive when it comes to her sweets.”

 

            Ami giggled as their voices drifted away, then she leaned over and gave Makoto a quick kiss.  “How did things go while we were gone?”

 

            “Pretty well,” answered Makoto, a pleased smile on her face.  “Except for one small incident involving Haruka, Hotaru, and a jar of cherries, we didn’t have any problems at all.  And now that I have everything I need to finish the cake… Thanks, by the way,” she added, leaning in for a thank-you kiss that lingered longer than Ami’s hello kiss had.

 

            “You’re very welcome,” grinned Ami when they parted.

 

            “I should be done soon,” finished Makoto.  “Then I can give the kitchen back fully to Hikari, and I won’t have thrown her off schedule at all.”

 

            “I knew my ears were burning for a reason,” said Hikari lightly as she came back into the kitchen.  “Welcome home, miss.  Did you have an easy shopping trip?”

 

            “Yes, thank you,” answered Ami.  “And thank you for sharing the kitchen with us this afternoon.”

 

            “I was glad to,” answered Hikari, meaning it much more now than she had when she’d said it this morning.  “I’ve found myself glad for the company.”

 

            Makoto smiled.  “That means I cleaned up right and didn’t break anything.”

 

            Hikari laughed, but didn’t attempt to correct her. 

 

*           *          *

 

            Makoto took a few steps back, paused in contemplation, circled around one more time, then nodded slightly.  One more strawberry, she thought, to fill in the largest gap of free space on the left.  Then a few lines of green icing to connect it to the rest of the “vine…”

 

            Again, she stepped back.  This time when she nodded, a smile of satisfaction accompanied it.

 

            Hikari stepped up beside her as the two women who had come to help her with dinner looked on, both amused with the young perfectionist in Makoto and impressed by her abilities.

 

            “Very well done, Kino-san,” complimented Hikari.  She took a moment to admire the birthday cake, now very happy that her mistress had allowed this young woman a chance to show off.

 

            Wavy white icing covered the two large, round bottom layers and the small, imperfect pyramid of cupcakes on top.  Strawberries had been halved and meticulously placed to appear random, each of them connected by icing vines from which tiny green leaves sprouted intermittently.  Leaves that in a few spots held tiny candy pieces that looked suspiciously like lady bugs.

 

            “Thank you,” answered Makoto, pride evident in her voice.  She looked over at Miki.  “And what do you think, Little Bug?”

 

            Miki’s barely open eyes blinked, then he yawned widely, stretching his toes out as far as they could go.  A soft gurgle and spit bubbles followed the yawn, and one eye closed, making him look somewhat uneven.

 

            “Not interesting enough for you, huh?” laughed Makoto.  “That’s okay.  But since I want you to stay awake, how about we find you something you do like?”

 

            His silence and sleepy half stare led her to believe he thought this would be impossible.  But she was up to the challenge!

 

            With some help from Hikari, she got the cake securely stashed away, then gathered up Miki.  A quick trip upstairs for some necessities, and then they were heading outside to join the others.

 

            The baby perked up considerably at all the activity suddenly going on around him.  Two small folding tables had been brought onto the patio and turned into an arts and crafts heaven, with cups of glitter and beads, little trays of paint, fuzzy pompoms, markers, crayons, glue, and more spread out for the taking.  The regular tables had been designated for party hat and card making.  Michiru, though, had taken over creation of the ‘Happy Birthday’ sign, and with help from Haruka was tracing out the design on the banner paper spread out across the lawn.

 

            Makoto pulled a chair up beside Hotaru as the girl cut a piece of red trim for her hat.

 

            Hotaru smiled at her.  “Can we make a hat for Miki?”

 

            Makoto looked down at her wide-eyed son, who seemed to be finding the silvery pompoms on Hotaru’s hat fascinating.  “We can try,” she answered.  “But I don’t know if he has the patience to wear one yet.”

 

            “One extra small, then,” answered Hotaru.  “Just long enough to get a good picture, so I’ll make sure it’s a really good hat.”

 

            “Card or hat, Mako-chan?” asked Rei, scissors in hand.

 

            “Card, I think, since I’m going one handed right now,” replied Makoto.

 

            Rei nodded and cut her the appropriate size paper.

 

            “Where’s Ami,” asked Makoto, taking the paper and searching for a green marker.

 

            “She went to find her mom,” answered Minako.  She put a heart sticker on the front of her card and reached for the gold sequins.  Her head then titled to one of the other tables, and she added, “This is a group project, after all.”

 

            “Yeah, I guess so,” commented Makoto quietly as she watched Kara instruct her parents on the proper way to make party hats.  A way that apparently involved lots and lots of glitter.

 

            Midori wandered in and found a seat between Seiji and Usagi.  The older woman laughed when Usagi handed her a sheet of construction paper and pushed several markers in her direction.

 

            Across from them, Shouko grinned.  “Go on, it’s fun.  And don’t forget the glitter,” she said, earning and approving nod from her daughter.

 

            Seiji had no interest in the glitter.  He was, however, debating about how girly the yellow pompoms really were and whether or not they would sissify the racecar on his hat.  A hand suddenly reaching for them snapped him from the hard stare he had going on, and he looked up at the hand’s owner.

 

            Mamoru smiled at him, then dabbed dots of glue onto his own hat for the pompoms he’d taken.

 

            Seiji smiled, pushed up his glasses, then pulled out two yellow and one black ones for himself.

 

            Makoto was just getting the border drawn around her card when Ami can in with her mother and Ken.  The older two seemed a bit hesitant and lost, but a little nudging from Ami, as well as the sight of Setsuna so seriously weighing her options in tassel toppers, seemed to put them at ease.  So Ami abandoned them to her grandmother and squeezed in beside Makoto.

 

            She’d only just picked up a piece of silver trim in an attempt to match up colors for a hat when Haruka called over, “The banner’s ready when anyone wants to start painting!”

 

            Kara looked immediately torn.  The little girl bit her lip, but her father came to her rescue.

 

            “Finish this first,” he said, tapping the table beside her current project.

 

            Kara let out a relieved breath and nodded.

 

            People started moving back and forth more, picking up more decorations or grabbing paint to start on the banner.

 

            Minako picked up some of the finger paint and headed for the sign.  Crouching down beside Michiru, who was filling in one of the wide letters with swirls of color, she picked an empty corner and started her own design.

 

            Kara followed suit, and when she was done drawing the kitty she would have gotten her Gram if her parents had let her, she signed the picture with a pink handprint.  Then, just so her Gram would know for certain it was her, she picked a new color and signed her name.

 

            One corner of Minako’s mouth quirked up.  “That’s a great idea,” she said, making the child smile widely.  “We should all do that.”  She stood and called over to those still on the patio, “Hey, guys, we’re all going to sign the banner!  Bring some extra paint over so we can all do a handprint!”

 

            Makoto and Ami, now alone at the table with Miki, looked at each other, then down at the baby. 

 

            Miki looked up at them and sucked a few extra times on his pacifier.

 

            Ami reached down and tickled his foot, causing him to giggle around his pacifier and curl his toes.  “Feet would be easier with him, I think,” she suggested.

 

            Makoto nodded.  “How about it, Bug?  Sound like fun?”

 

            The baby cooed and clapped at the smiles they were giving him.

 

            “All right, then,” said Makoto.  “Let’s go pick you out a good color just for your Gram.”

 

*            *           *

 

            He couldn’t sleep.  For as long as he’d lain here, all he could do was toss and turn, the last 24 hours flitting across his consciousness in bursts.  And every time he would touch on sleep, those purple eyes would grab him and pull him back.

 

            Kyo sat up, throwing the covers aside roughly.  He muttered darkly, then forced himself to get up.  He wasn’t going to get any rest.  Not now.

 

            Pulling on his clothes, he left the foldout bed in his office the way it was, and headed back to the house.  Outside, he could hear the children laughing, and wisps of conversation began to catch his ears as he got closer to the activity.

 

            Hanging back a bit, he watched them gather around the banner.  A slight smile touched his lips as he watched his niece trying to get her son to hold his legs still long enough for her to get his paint covered foot on the paper.

 

            His quiet chuckle was loud enough to catch Kaya’s attention, and he gave her a tired grin.  That must have served as an invitation, he assumed, because she started to walk towards him.

 

            “Hey there,” she said, standing beside him and giving him a soft nudge with her shoulder.  “You look like hell.  When did you get home?”

 

            He frowned at her, but answered, “A few hours ago, but I can’t sleep.  Too tired, I think.”

 

            A few moments of silence passed between them as they watched the girls, then she asked, “Why didn’t you tell me you’d started working at Children’s?”

 

            Kyo looked down at her and smirked.  “Why didn’t you tell me you were seeing someone?”

 

            Kaya returned that smirk, and they answered in unison, “Because it never came up.”

 

            Shaking her head, Kaya rested a hand on his arm.  “Come on over for a few minutes.  The girls picked up some things for the party, as a surprise for Gram, and we’re all signing the banner.”

 

            “Does Dad know?” asked Kyo, a gleam in his eyes despite his exhaustion.

 

            “Not yet,” chuckled Kaya.  “Mother’s handling that for us.”

 

            Kyo laughed.  This would be too much fun, and it would be wrong not to be a part of it.  So he put his arm around his sister’s shoulders and started walking with her.  He stopped short, though, when he saw Hotaru with Kara.  His heart sped up, and sweat broke out across his forehead when she reached for the smaller girl.  He barely stopped himself from jumping between them when Hotaru pulled Kara’s hand to her, and he wasn’t sure if he should feel foolish or relieved when all she did was draw a purple smiley face in the pink paint on Kara’s palm.

 

            “What’s wrong?” asked Kaya, concern in her voice.  “You’re awfully pale all of a sudden.”

 

            He stopped her from reaching to feel his face.  “I’m fine,” he assured her, though it sounded hollow.  “I just need sleep.  But I… there’s something I have to do first.  Don’t worry, sis, I’m okay.”

 

            With that, he left her not believing him in the least.  She watched him go over to Ami and say something quickly.  Ami seemed surprised, but looked around for someone with clean hands to pass Miki to.  Her closest option seemed to be Rei, and the brunette took the baby as Ami went off with Kyo.

 

            “What was that about?” asked Kaya when she got over to Makoto and Rei.

 

            Both girls shrugged, and Makoto answered, “He said he needed to ask her something.  That was it.”

 

            Kaya looked over and watched Kyo lead Ami to the garage, presumably going to his office.  She bit the inside of her cheek, curious about what her little brother wasn’t bringing up this time.

 

 

*        *       *

 

            Ami stood silently and watched Kyo pace as he mentally composed what he wanted to say.  His tension and agitation were unnerving to her.  She had never seen him this way before, every memory she had of him containing a laidback, easygoing smile.  Something must be terribly wrong, she reasoned, and there were very few subjects it could encompass for him to have come to her with it.

 

            She licked her lips nervously, and when he suddenly stopped pacing and turned to her with stormy blue eyes, her breath caught.

 

            “Hotaru,” he said, an underlying fear in his voice.  “What is she?”

 

            So it was about one of them.

 

            Ami bit her lip, wondering what it was he had seen, the good or the bad, as both had the potential to bring about the same reaction.  Regardless, though, this wasn’t something she could fully answer, even if she’d wanted to.

 

            “Why would you ask something like that?” said Ami, hoping to find a quick way around this.

 

            “Do I even need to tell you?” returned Kyo.  “You have to know.  Her eyes.”

 

            A chill touched Ami, and her gaze fell involuntarily.  Shaking her head, she answered, “I really don’t…”

 

            “Damn it, Ami!” burst out Kyo, startling both of them.  Ami looked up at him wide-eyed, and he stopped, taking several deep breaths.  When he spoke again, his voice was calmer, but demanding.  “Don’t lie to me.  Not about this.  There’s something… something in those eyes.  The darkness that my kids fight when I can’t save them anymore.  She isn’t just standing in that shadow, she is that shadow.  Now tell me.  What is she?

 

            Keeping her eyes level with his, she searched desperately within herself for answers to something even she didn’t fully understand.  Without realizing it, she started wringing her hands as she tumbled over all the words she could use, each of them holding a different shade of truth.

 

            “She’s different, a unique soul,” said Ami, slowly finding the colors with which to paint her uncle’s truth.  “It’s a difference that can be frightening, but I trust her, with my friends, my family, my son.  She is a little girl who can be painfully shy and introverted with strangers, but who loves her friends and family deeply.”

 

            Kyo swallowed hard, trying to stay balanced on the tightrope he felt like he was walking.  “I understand that you trust her.  You brought her here, exposed your family to her, so I would hope at the very least you would expect her not to do any harm.  But you’re dancing around the question.”

 

            “I’m answering it in the only way I can, Uncle Kyo,” countered Ami.  “Can’t that be enough?”

 

            Kyo leaned back against his desk.  He scrubbed at his face with his palm and sighed deeply, the dark circles under his eyes emphasizing the angles of his face and bringing out his weariness more clearly.

 

            “You didn’t see what I saw,” he said quietly, his eyes closing.  “I’ve never been that close to it before.  And to have it here, in my home and near my family, at the whim of a child’s emotions…”

 

            A hand rested gently on his upper arm, and he opened his eyes.  Warm and reassuring, Ami smiled at him.  “I promise you,” she said softly, “that Hotaru isn’t a threat to this household, nor will she hurt anyone in a fit of temper.  Please, trust me with her.  Things have gone well up to now, and we only have a few more days.”

 

            Several seconds passed, the tired and unsure blue of his eyes holding on to the confidence in hers.  Then he said, still sounding uncertain, “Your faith and your trust.  I wonder if it’s just because you’re too good a person, or if she really has earned it.  All right,” he conceded, slowly nodding his head.  “I will trust you.  But if it even seems like something is going to go wrong…”

 

            He left that hanging between them, and Ami nodded as, in the back of her mind, Mercury sighed in relief. 

 

*              *            *

 

            They had been almost through cleaning up after the arts and crafts projects when Ami quietly asked to speak with her.  Michiru had walked into the house with her, both looking as though they were doing no more than returning borrowed supplies to their proper places.  The conversation that took place, however, surprised Michiru.

 

            And now she needed to have a conversation with a certain little girl before they all went down for the party.

 

            She knocked lightly on Setsuna’s door before easing it open.

 

            Standing on the bed so she could reach the zipper on Setsuna’s dress, Hotaru greeted her with, “We’re not ready yet.”  Then the child finished pulling the zipper all the way up and hooked the clasp at the collar.  Jumping down to the floor, she smiled widely.  “Okay, now we’re ready.”

 

            Michiru grinned at her.  “You’re ahead of your papa.  She was still getting dressed when I left.  You look very nice, by the way.”

 

            Hotaru giggled and spun around, the skirt of her sleeveless white dress billowing out just slightly, the tails of the purple sash ribboning around her.

 

            Michiru applauded, and Hotaru curtsied.  Then Michiru asked, “How about you come with me for a bit?  You can help me hurry up Haruka.”

 

            Setsuna looked at her suspiciously.  “You know, there have been a number of clandestine meetings and whispered conversations going on this afternoon.  A person might start to wonder.”

 

            Michiru laughed lightly.  “Oh, Setsuna, don’t be so distrustful,” she said, brushing it off as a bit of silliness.  Then she took Hotaru’s hand and pulled her towards the door.  “We’ll meet you downstairs.”

 

            Hotaru followed along unquestioningly, but started to become suspicious herself when they kept going past the bedrooms.  Her chest tightened a bit, and she bit her bottom lip as Michiru continued them along, silent and unhurried.

 

            “You know what I did, don’t you?” she asked finally, her voice barely audible.

 

            “Yes,” answered Michiru just as quietly.

 

            They turned into the library, and Michiru closed the door behind them.  A brief walkthrough to make sure they were alone, and they stood, facing each other.

 

            “Am I in trouble?” asked Hotaru.

 

            Michiru crossed her arms.  “I think the better question would be ‘are we in trouble?’  The answer to both questions, however, is no.  You have Ami to thank for that.  You realize you’ve put her in a very awkward position, and she’s been far more understanding than we have any right to expect.”

 

            Hotaru’s eyes fell to watch her twisting fingers.  “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.  “I didn’t mean to do it, and I’ll apologize to Ami.  But he was there, and I wasn’t expecting him to be, and I was angry because of what he did to Setsuna-mama.  It just… happened.”

 

            Michiru stepped forward and placed her hands gently on Hotaru’s shoulders.  The girl looked up at her, and Michiru smiled.  “You must be very careful about what you let happen, and think before you act.  It’s good of you to be protective of Setsuna, but regardless of our feelings on the matter, we must leave it to her to handle.  She will resolve things with him as she sees fit.”

 

            Hotaru’s lips formed a tight line, and she looked away from her mother.

 

            Wondering what she wasn’t saying, Michiru carefully took Hotaru’s chin in her fingers and turned her head back.  The deep purple of her eyes was a sorrowful shade, dark swirls of emotion tinting them.  Wisps of truth, regret, remorse, and a certainty that she was right regardless, all swirled together.  And the way she held those emotions spoke of something Michiru’s years of parenting let her recognize easily.

 

            Guilt.

 

            Michiru’s fingers brushed across Hotaru’s bangs and tucked a few locks of hair behind her ear.  “You and the others didn’t know he would walk out on her when you set them up.  It’s not your fault, Hotaru.  Though she was disappointed, it wasn’t a major blow to her.  I’d even say she’s forgiven him.”

 

            Hotaru shook her head and backed away from Michiru.  Her voice firmer than it had been, she came back with, “You only say that because you don’t see.  There’s a difference between acceptance and forgiveness.  Even if it’s not always noticeable.”  She took a deep breath, then added, “I won’t say I’m sorry for what I did to him, because for a moment, he knew what it was like to be her, whether he realizes it or not.  And he deserved it.  But I’m sorry what I did made problems for Ami, and I promise to be very careful not to do it again.”

 

            As she watched the kaleidoscope of her daughter turn, Michiru wondered if perhaps they should leave, in spite of Ami’s insistence they not.  She found herself nodding, though.  “All right,” she said, her voice low.  “I trust the promise you’ve made me, because I know you will think very hard on what you’ve done and how it will affect everyone if the wrong people find out things they don’t need to know.”

 

            Hotaru gave a short nod, and the momentary edge in her bearing melted away.  But then a slight frown touched her lips.  “Wait a minute.  Does that mean I’m going to be spending the rest of the night in my room thinking instead of at the party.  Cause it’s been a long time since you made me sit in the ‘Thinking Chair,’ but I remember how it works.”

 

            A corner of Michiru’s mouth turned up.  “How do you think I’m going to answer that?”

 

            Hotaru stood in contemplation for a moment, her head tilted slightly to the side as she tried to find the best way to make forced thinking sound like a bad idea.  “Well,” she started hesitantly, “I suppose there is at least a little bit of a reason for you to make me do that… but I think I should go to the party.  Because… because… because I told Ami I’d take pictures for her, and we don’t want to do anything more to upset her today.  And,” she added quickly as the idea came to her, “if you don’t let me, people will ask why, and I know you don’t really want to lie to them, and the truth will make them suspicious.  Don’t want the wrong people asking questions, you know.”

 

            “Some very fine points,” replied Michiru.  “Though you forgot to mention that there will be plenty of time for ‘thinking’ tomorrow, while the others are out playing.”

 

            Hotaru’s shoulders slumped in partial defeat.  But at least it wasn’t a total loss.  “Yes, Michiru-mama,” she mumbled out.  “So I can go to the party tonight?”

 

            “Yes,” answered Michiru.  “Everyone would have less fun without you, and Gram would miss you.  As you said, pictures are expected, and you’ve somehow wound up the official photographer.”

 

            “Thank you,” replied Hotaru.  Then she held up her empty hands, “We went so fast, I forgot my camera.”

 

            “We’ll stop back and get it before we go downstairs,” answered Michiru, moving to open the door.  As they walked out of the library, she caught Hotaru’s hand and held it loosely, the small warmth always a reassurance to her.

 

*            *            *

 

            Trying to get dressed for the party was turning out to be a multi-layered chore.  Having only made it to her bra and underwear before having to dress the baby, Makoto snapped up the legs of the sailor suit Miki’s Aunt Minako had bought for him, while Ami spoke to her about what had happened with Kyo this afternoon.  There was a noticeable hint of stress in her voice as she finished.

 

            “So what did Michiru say when you told her?” asked Makoto.

 

            Ami tucked her blouse into her skirt, then let out a long breath.  “She offered to find an excuse for them to leave.  I didn’t want them to do that, though.  It would raise more questions than I want to pretend to answer, and Uncle Kyo would be put more on edge if it looked like they were running.  I think he just needs to be around her a little more when she’s just being Hotaru.  Oh,” she added, coming over and sitting on the edge of the bed.  She waved a finger back and forth for Miki, and the baby grabbed it with a giggle.  “She also asked that we not say anything about any of it, especially to Haruka.  She’d like to handle it herself.”

 

            “Yeah, I can understand that,” smirked Makoto.  “Especially the Haruka part.”  She gave the baby’s bare foot a kiss, then left him to Ami so she could finish getting dressed.

 

            Ami lifted Miki, and he smiled brightly at her.  She smiled back, telling him what a handsome young man he was in his suit.  Then to Makoto she said, “Where are his socks?  The ones with the anchors on the cuffs?”

 

            “I think I put them in the top drawer,” answered Makoto, pulling her sundress from the closet.  As Ami searched for the socks, Makoto slipped the dress on and asked almost casually, “Do you really think all Kyo needs is more time around her?  He sounded pretty freaked out.”

 

            Ami closed the drawer and shrugged lightly.  Going back to the bed, she laid the baby down and started to put on his socks.  “I’m hoping seeing her as a normal child again will do it, even if it’s only enough to let us leave without any more issues.”

 

            Normal,” chuckled Makoto.  “Why do I feel like we all take that word a little too much for granted?”  Then her voice lowered a bit.  “Have you ever looked?  I mean really looked?”

 

            Ami paused in her inspection of the front of Miki’s suit, then slowly shook her head.

 

            “Don’t feel guilty,” said Makoto gently.  “Neither have I.”

 

            “Something similar came up when I was talking to Michiru,” replied Ami softly.  “She said she had to look into those eyes, because what kind of a coward would she have been if she’d killed Hotaru without knowing her at least that much.”

 

            “That’s different,” said Makoto quickly.  “They’re different than us.  We never tried to kill her, for one.  And we aren’t her parents.  I know what she’s capable of without needing to see it in greater detail.  Doesn’t mean I don’t love the kid.  But I am really glad Saturn’s on our side.”

 

            Still feeling uncomfortable with the subject, and wanting to change tracks, Ami looked up at Makoto.  Her forced grin quickly softened into a tranquil smile at the sight of her partner, hair falling down in soft waves around her shoulders.  The delicate wispiness of her dress flowed around her figure, showing it off in a subtle way, revealing the simple beauty of her.

 

            “Leave your hair down tonight,” said Ami as she picked up Miki and cuddled him close to her.  She stepped over to Makoto, then reached up for a kiss, adding a quiet, “Please?”

 

            Makoto grinned down at her.  “Since you asked so nicely.”  Then she reached out and smoothed down the tuft of hair on Miki’s head.  “Please stay dry and clean, Little Bug.  Just until I have the chance to get your picture taken,” she half pleaded.

 

            Miki cooed happily at her, reaching out to try and grab the chain around her neck.

 

            “That’s my good boy,” she cooed back, giving his cheek a light stroke with the back of her fingers before going to finish getting ready.

 

*           *           *

 

            The first to arrive in the dinning room, Rin stared hard at the decorated hat sitting square in the middle of his plate.  The red and yellow circles were near perfect in shape, and the red trim around the bottom complimented the shiny red tassel on top.  He reached out a finger and brushed the tassel, an edge of his mouth turning up just slightly.

 

            Midori walked up behind him, a wide grin on her face.  “How do you like it?”

 

            “It’s nice,” answered Rin, an observing tilt to his head.  He waved his fingers vaguely.  “However, if I had done it, I think I would have put some of those fuzzy round things on it, for accent.”

 

            “Well,” smirked Midori, “next time the children plan a project, be certain to stay home so you can put things together the way you like, rather than running off to work because you think you’ll find something more interesting there.”

 

            Rin hrrumphed.  “I didn’t know they were planning a project.”

 

            Midori shrugged and moved around him to pick up his hat.  “Neither did I,” she replied, putting the hat on his head and pulling the elastic down under his chin.  “But if you’d been home, you would have found out.”

 

            Rin groused a bit more as she kissed his cheek, earning him soft laughter from his wife.

 

*           *          *

 

            The light chatter in the room quieted, then stopped altogether when she walked in.  The stares ranged from surprise to admiring, and out of the corner of her eye, Makoto saw Ami’s smile widen.  A happy warmth blossomed in her chest at the pride she could see in her partner’s eyes, and her cheeks blushed a light rose at the low whistle that passed from Haruka’s lips.

 

            A moment later, Minako and Rei came up behind her, both stopping short.  Makoto couldn’t tell if Rei meant to do it or not, but that violet gaze ran over her in obvious appreciation, a crooked grin on her lips. 

 

            Minako’s eyes had gone almost comically wide.  Then they narrowed as the blonde smirked.  “Very nice, Mako-chan,” she complimented, slowly nodding her head.

 

            Loving the attention, but suddenly feeling just a touch self-conscious, Makoto’s cheeks flushed a darker shade.  With a chuckle, she said, “It’s not really that big a deal.”

 

            Minako’s smile became mischievous.  “Yes, it is.  You’re gorgeous, but you never show off.” 

 

            “Yeah, she saves it all for Ami,” pointed out Rei.

 

            “Right, right,” agreed Minako.  “So when you do go all out for us, it’s a big deal.”

 

            The soft smile on Makoto’s face was a beautiful thing, Michiru thought, and it was such a simple truth to make her so genuinely happy.  Absently, she said to Haruka, “She really is lovely.  I think that look suits her very well.”

 

            Haruka smirked.  “I’m thinking about the next time I have to spar with her.”

 

            One perfect eyebrow rose in consternation as Michiru looked up at her.

 

            Haruka winked.

 

            With a sigh, Michiru shook her head.  “What a difficult challenge you face.  I’ll remember to think of you while I’m working out at the pool with Ami.”

 

            “Touché,” whispered Haruka, and a tiny smile formed on Michiru’s lips as a hand slipped into hers and twined their fingers.

 

 

*          *          *

 

            His tension was obvious when he saw her, but Hotaru didn’t so much as glance at him.  Michiru, though, smiled at him, and Kyo couldn’t help but return it, if a bit weakly.  Then the young woman turned back to her child, her lover, and Chibi-usa as the three of them blew on their noisemakers, each trying to outdo the other.

 

            From off on the side, Kyo watched his mother gently tease his father.  He saw Usagi tilt Mamoru’s party hat just a bit to the side, because apparently it was on too straight, and the young man grinned, returning the favor for his fiancée.  His grandmother fussed over Ami’s baby, and Seiji tried to act like he wasn’t staring at his crush.  Kyo let out a long, tired breath.  There was no darkness here, not like he’d been expecting.

 

            Then he felt Setsuna step up beside him, and his heart beat a little faster.

 

            “Thank you for the flowers,” she said, a smile on her face.

 

            Kyo grinned at her guiltily.  “Did they buy me some absolution for being a complete jerk?”

 

            “This time, yes,” answered Setsuna.

 

            “You know, Meioh-san, the way you say that implies that I will be given further chances to make an even bigger fool of myself,” he returned, only half teasing.

 

            Setsuna smiled enigmatically.

 

            Kyo started to chuckle, but noticed that now he was being watched.  Purple eyes glimpsed his way surreptitiously, the child trying not to stare, but wanting to know what was going on.

 

            His chuckle turned into a rye grin.  “I don’t think your daughter likes me very much anymore.”

 

            Setsuna looked at him curiously, then cut her eyes to Hotaru, who suddenly found something much more interesting as far on the other side of the room as she could get.  “Why do you say that?” asked Setsuna, thinking she now had a reason for some of her earlier suspicion.

 

            Kyo shrugged noncommittally.  “Let’s just call it a hunch.  I guess the flowers didn’t impress her at all.”

 

            “I suppose not,” answered Setsuna quietly.

 

 

*           *           *

 

            After dinner, they’d all gathered in the family room for presents and cake.  First, though, pictures had to be taken.  It was supposed to be a quick affair, but once it started, it turned into a massive thing that involved every grouping they could think of and every camera that could be found in the house.  Hana was glad to have such a large family around her, and knew she’d love the photos, but she’d forgotten how something as simple as taking pictures could turn into something so complicated.

 

            Now it was over, though, and she could finally get to her presents!

 

            Feeling like a happy child, Hana carefully opened another of the homemade cards, this one from Usagi.  Cartoon bunny rabbits with bows in their ears smiled up at her from the cover as the girl did the same from beside her.  Hana took several moments to look over the card, exclaiming over all the cute little details she hoped her eyes were seeing correctly.

 

            Judging by Usagi’s reaction, she was getting everything right.

 

            The card was set upright in the growing forest of cards beside her chair, and another was handed to her.  Her smile widened.  She truly was enjoying all of this.  The family room had been decorated with vividly colored streamers and the large banner all her children had made for her.  The cake Makoto had worked so hard on sat on a table beneath the banner, along with more cupcakes than she could count and a set of festive paper plates with bright plastic utensils that matched the party hat she was wearing.

 

            She hadn’t had a birthday party this lively and party-like in decades.

 

            As she opened this latest card to see a music note surrounded by silver glitter, Kyo moved to get the attention of everyone in the room.  Things quieted, and he pulled a nervous looking Seiji over beside him.

 

            The boy pushed up his glasses, then stammered out, “For my Gram’s birthday, I’m going to play a song that my Uncle Kyo has been helping me practice.  Happy birthday, Gram.”  His eyes lifted briefly to where Michiru was standing with Haruka’s arm loosely around her waist, before cutting back to Hana.  “I hope you like it.”

 

            Hana smiled at him, her eyes offering gentle encouragement for her shy boy.

 

            Michiru smiled, also, ready to pay extra attention to this young musician.  Her eyes narrowed in curiosity, though, when instead of picking up a violin, he moved over to the piano.  The boy slipped easily onto the bench, placing his hands over the keys with a practiced familiarity.  The words from the note he’d left under their door ran behind her eyes, and Michiru quickly realized her mistake.

 

            Well, how egotistical of me, she thought with silent laughter.  But Haruka thought the same thing.  Oh, goodness…

 

            As Seiji’s soft tune turned to a happy jaunt, Michiru looked up at Haruka and whispered quietly, “He plays the piano.”

 

            Haruka nodded.  “And he’s pretty good, too.”

 

            A corner of Michiru’s mouth quirked up at her beloved’s apparent obliviousness.  Glad they were far enough off on the side so their quiet conversation wouldn’t be a nuisance, Michiru asked, “When I was on tour last year, at which concerts did you accompany me?”

 

            Haruka grinned.  “I went to all of them with you.  As if I would let you go romping around all over Japan without me.”

 

            “So possessive,” muttered Michiru lightheartedly.  “But you know that’s not what I mean.  When did you accompany me on stage?”

 

            Haruka held up two fingers.  “Only twice.  Let’s see… Okinawa and Ky…”  Her eyes went wide as things mentally shifted into place.  “No.  It can’t be…” she whispered almost to herself, her eyes looking back at the boy playing the piano.

 

            A hand hid Michiru’s soft giggle, and she had to fight not to laugh outright at the shocked and horrified look on Haruka’s face.  A teasing note in her voice, she quoted the love letter that had been delivered to the wrong person.  “’I hope someday I can play as well as you do,’ and ‘I really, really like you,’ and ‘I hope you can like me just a little.’  Oh, my, but I don’t think he likes me very much, standing between you two the way I do.  No wonder his mother was so worried about how we’d act around him.”

 

            “But he’s a boy,” shot back Haruka.

 

            “Precisely,” returned Michiru gleefully.  “And I think it’s so sweet that he picked Tenoh Haruka for his first crush.”

 

            Haruka’s cheeks tinged pink.  “But little boys don’t get crushes on me.”

 

            Michiru smiled sympathetically and patted her arm.  “Just pay attention to him, Haruka, because he’s playing this song as much for you as he is his Gram.”

 

            Frowning down at her, Haruka shifted uncomfortably.  Her attention, though, did go back to Seiji, and she applauded when he finished.

 

            The boy was complimented thoroughly as he was ushered back to Hana, and a proud smile accented his rosy cheeks.  Cheeks that turned bright red when his eyes finally met Haruka’s.

 

            The eagerness she could see in him was almost painful, as were the tips of Michiru’s fingernails in her lower back as her lover oh-so-gently nudged her forward.

 

            Standing in front of the boy, Haruka hesitated, trying to figure out what to say.  If he’d been a girl, it would have been easy.  She would have just smiled a certain way, leveled her gaze just so, and lowered her voice just a touch so that the actual words wouldn’t even matter.  But he was a boy, damnit!

 

            Finally, since he seemed to be holding his breath in anticipation for her to say something, she reached out and ruffled his hair.  “Good job, kid.  You did good.”

 

            Seiji’s smile doubled in size, and his whole face lit up.  “Did you really like it?”

 

            “Yeah,” answered Haruka with a nod.

 

            “I practiced really hard,” he went on, his voice slightly higher from nervous excitement.  “I want to play on stage, just like I saw you do.  I know I’m not that good yet, but I want to be.  And maybe race cars, too, but I don’t know if my mom will let me.”

 

            “Well, just keep practicing,” she replied, then smirked.  “But maybe don’t say anything to your mom about the cars.”

 

            Michiru stepped back from them as Seiji kept talking, not inclined to stop now that he’d found a way to get started.  She looked around the room for Hotaru, then went over to where the girl stood with Setsuna.

 

            “What’s going on over there?” asked Setsuna.

 

            “Haruka has a very devoted fan,” answered Michiru merrily.  “Hotaru, why don’t you see if you can get some good pictures of them together while they’re talking.

 

            Hotaru nodded and hurried to find a better angle for the shot.  As the shutter on her camera clicked, she wondered how much her papa was going to be teased for this later on.  And if she’d be able to get in on any of it without getting into trouble.

 

*          *          *

 

            From the easy grin Hikari tossed her just before lifting the cake knife, Midori guessed she looked a bit tense.  But she felt justified in this, because life had taught her one very simple lesson.  When something looked too good to be true, it often was.  And Makoto’s cake looked almost perfect.

 

            “Relax, Mother,” whispered Kaya as she slid up next to Midori, an anticipation that rivaled the children’s twinkling in her eyes.  “I told you she knows what she’s doing.”

 

            Midori smiled tightly at her.  “I’ll relax when this is over, dear.”  Then she tilted her head slightly as she studied her daughter’s face.  “You’re much more cheerful all of a sudden.  You’ve been quieter than usual this afternoon.”

 

            Kaya grinned.  “No, I haven’t.  But if I seem suddenly happier, it’s because I’m aware that I’m bigger than the children and can get to the strawberries first.  I want one on my cake.”

 

            Shaking her head, Midori shooed Kaya away.  “Go on, then.  But at least leave the first piece for your grandmother.”

 

            “I’m not that callous,” answered Kaya in mock insult.  Then she grinned again and worked her way to a good spot in the cake line.

 

            Midori went back to watching Hikari as the cook moved with an experience that made it look easy.  A large piece of cake was laid perfectly on a brightly colored plate, and as an afterthought, an extra berry was placed beside it.  The plate was handed to Hana, and that was when Midori noticed how Makoto had eased quietly up beside the older woman.  As Makoto lightly bounced a drowsy looking Miki, Midori smiled, wondering who was more anxious to see Hana’s reaction.

 

            More cake was passed around as Hana slowly moved to get a taste.  Her careful pace was attributed more to her age and failing eyesight than anything else, and it was beginning to make Midori crazy.  Finally, though, her mother-in-law took her first bite.

 

            Hana’s smile grew, crinkling her eyes in a joyous fashion, and when she looked up at Makoto, the girl was already beaming with accomplished pride.  “Oh, that’s excellent, sweetheart!” she enthused.  “And the strawberries are a perfect accompaniment for it.  It’s a blessing to have family with such wonderful talents the way I do.  And I love how you’ve shared some of those talents with me.”

 

            “I’m glad I could do something to make your birthday happier,” answered Makoto, her smile wide.

 

            “You did, very much so,” replied Hana.  She looked around for Rin, about to call to him.  He was already occupied with his cake, however, attacking it with what for him was enthusiasm.  Hana chuckled and looked back at Makoto.  “I should know I don’t have to tell my son anything when it comes to baked treats.  But don’t you wait too long, or they’ll leave you with crumbs.  Give the baby to Rin so you can get some before those vultures eat it all.  You worked so hard, I don’t want you to get left out.”

 

            Makoto smiled and nodded, though she wasn’t completely certain giving Miki to Ami’s grandfather was the best course of action.

 

            Seijuurou was halfway through his when he saw Kara walk by with her plate.  He stared at the strawberry sitting on her icing, and pouted.  “Hey, I didn’t get a berry.  Anybody want to trade for a candy ladybug?”

 

            His plea was ignored as the others happily ate theirs and complimented their young chef.

 

            Midori, because of her early trepidation, had gotten stuck at the end of the line.  She listened to all the compliments and exclamations, and realized easily that it wasn’t all just politeness.  She looked down at her plate with the candy ladybug crawling across it, her trepidation now turned to curiosity.  Her fork stabbed an icinged corner, and she finally got her first taste.

 

            Well, she thought, Kaya was right.  Letting Makoto cook had been an excellent idea.

 

            “Told you so,” said Kaya from behind her, a smug grin on her face.

 

            “You’re entirely too pleased with yourself,” returned Midori.  “Especially given that it’s your daughter and her companion who are responsible for it.”

 

            Kaya chuckled and took another bite of cake.

 

            Midori rolled her eyes.  “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to leave you and your ego for a moment to go and compliment Makoto on a job well done.  Perhaps I’ll drop a few hints for the three of you to come back for my birthday so she can have another go at it.”

 

            A sudden, choking cough was her answer, and Midori smirked as she walked away from her daughter, not giving Kaya enough time to excuse her way out of it.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Usagi giggled softly as she scurried through the hall.  She’d managed to sneak away with two pieces of cake hidden between two plates, and considering the way everyone had been vying over the last few scraps on the serving tray, she figured she was also lucky to have gotten away with all her fingers intact.  And she’d done it all without being noticed.  Truth be told, she was rather pleased with herself.

 

            At her destination, she turned the knob, and the bedroom door opened with a soft ‘snick.’

 

            From the bed, two heads looked up at her in surprise.

 

            “You’re back early,” said Luna, shifting her attention from the television to Usagi.

 

            “Only stopping by,” answered Usagi as she sat on the bed.  “I brought you guys a goodie.”

 

            Artemis moved over to her and sniffed at the covered plate.  Then his whiskers turned up into a kitty grin.  “Makoto’s cake,” he said.

 

            “Usagi, this is actually very thoughtful of you,” said Luna, sounding somewhat surprised.

 

            Usagi grinned at her.  Me and Minako felt bad for you guys, having to be locked away like this.  We wanted to do something for you.  The cake was my idea.”

 

            “And it was a good idea,” replied Artemis.

 

            She gave his ears a scratch, then separated the plates.  “I have to get going before they notice I’m gone.  I’ll be back later.”

 

            Luna licked her lips.  “Thank you, Usagi.”

 

            “You’re welcome,” she answered, then let herself out.

 

            “So…” said Artemis, looking at the two plates and the half of strawberry sitting on one of them.  “Who gets the strawberry?”

 

            Luna looked at him, smiled in an almost evil kitty fashion, then flicked out a claw.

 

            Artemis almost fell over in his haste to back away.

 

            Luna chuckled, then cut the berry in half.  “You can pick which half you want.”

 

            A lopsided grin touched Artemis’ face.  He picked his half of the berry, and the two of them went about enjoying the bit of party that had been brought to them.

 

 

*          *         *

 

            He’d had his picture taken with everyone in the room at least once, smiling each time at the silly sounds they made or the way they tickled his tummy.  So when his great-grandpa Rin offered him his pacifier, Miki not only accepted it, but enthusiastically went about sucking on it in gleeful, drooling abandon.  Content, he settled into the crook of his great-grandpa’s arm and watched as they moved about the room.

 

            After walking around for a bit, they stopped by his Aunt Minako.  She smiled, and cooed, and tickled his cheek, and he giggled back at her.  He loved his Aunt Minako.  She was fun to play with.

 

            But then Aunt Minako stopped playing, looking surprised at what Great-Grandpa Rin said to her.  Miki looked up, wondering what had happened.

 

            “Thank you,” repeated his great-grandpa, heavy sincerity in his voice.  “I gathered you’re the one largely responsible for all of this.”

 

            Miki looked back at his Aunt Minako as her fingers brushed his hair.  The moment of uncertainty passed as she smiled brightly, and Miki resettled.  He cooed happily at the sound of her voice, and reached for the shiny thing on her finger as her hand moved into his line of sight.  She let him grab hold, and he played with her fingers as she and his great-grandpa continued to talk.

 

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Haruka flopped down onto the bed and stretched her arms up over her head, a satisfied smile on her face.  She was rather proud of herself for how well she’d handled the whole Seiji thing, once the initial awkwardness had worn off.  The kid had walked away happy, and she’d gotten a ‘promise to reward you later’ smile from Michiru for her efforts.

 

            She cracked her eyes open and watched the other woman as she slowly ran a brush through her hair.  Even in a plain, sleeveless nightgown she was gorgeous.  Haruka grinned and silently admitted to feeling oddly pleased at having caught the eye of a young male admirer over her mate.  Not that she wanted this to become a habitual thing, mind you.  But once in a while…

 

            “Haruka.”

 

            Some of her grin fell away as she sat up on the bed and crossed her legs.  It was amazing how much could be conveyed in the tone of one word as it fell from Michiru’s lips.  Anger, passion, amusement, the occasional bit of jealousy, the change in moods often subtle, but always there in the way she said ‘Haruka.’

 

            Rather deftly interpreting Michiru’s tone this time to mean ‘we need to talk about something that will potentially make you unhappy,’ Haruka’s arms crossed in preparation of the conversation.

 

            Michiru set her brush down and moved over to sit at the foot of the bed.  Lips still tinged in a delicate shade, she smiled in a calming way before she began to speak.  But as she went on in a slow, even manner about what had happened between Hotaru and Kyo, Haruka’s frown deepened.

 

            “Did he try anything?” asked Haruka unhappily.

 

            “Nothing as far as I know,” answered Michiru.  “I suppose he realized there wasn’t much he could do, other than seek answers from a safe source.”

 

            Haruka snorted.  “As long as he keeps it to himself.  Besides, he had it coming to him.  And I’m surprised you’re punishing her like that, after everything you said about him.”

 

            “I’m only going to do enough to impress my point,” answered Michiru.  “After she finishes helping me pack, she can go play with the others.”

 

            Her lips pursed, and Haruka studied Michiru’s features for a moment.  “There’s something more bothering you,” she said.  “You think I’m not taking it seriously enough?  Because I do know that part of our responsibility to Hotaru is to teach her responsibility, and maybe I am being too careless about this.  If you want me to talk to her, too…”

 

            “That’s not it,” replied Michiru with a slight shake of her head.  “I believe her when she says it was an accident, and knowing she put Ami in the position she did, as well as the harm it could do to the others, will be enough to give her pause if a moment like this comes up again.  There was something else, though.”

 

            Her voice trailed off for several seconds as she reflected on what had been said.  And what hadn’t.  Her voice softer and edged in uncertainty, she went on, “Hotaru kept something from me, Haruka, and it frightens me a bit, because whatever it was seemed to pain her greatly.  It’s also made me fear that in trying so hard to ease Hotaru’s burden, we may have overlooked the other member of our family.”

 

            Scooting forward on the bed, Haruka moved so she could put her arms around Michiru.  Pulling her into a warm embrace, she whispered, “We do as much as Setsuna will allow us to do.  She’s always going to be guarded, Michiru.  But she’s just a little less guarded with us, so we can be there when she needs us to be.  You know we can’t force things with her.”

 

            Michiru leaned into the embrace and nodded in acknowledgement.  Yet the hidden presence of so many secrets and half truths tickled at her mind.  How many were there, she wondered, both in this house and her own.

 

*            *            *

 

            Comfortably dressed in his pajamas, Ken gurgled and spit, then smiled a cheesy grin at himself in the bathroom mirror.  With an amused chuckle, he switched off the light and stepped into the bedroom.  What he saw when he did immediately killed his good mood.

 

            He watched Kaya pace the room for several rotations before asking, “What’s wrong?  Today was nearly perfect.  The kids had fun, the party went off without any problems, and your grandmother enjoyed herself immensely.  Even your father was having a good time.  So why are you pacing as if someone just pulled your research grant?”

 

            Kaya stopped and looked at him, her brow furrowed in thought.  None of those thoughts, however, manifested as words, so Ken shrugged.

 

            “Fine,” he said, moving towards the bed.  “If you’re not going to tell me, I don’t care.  But either come to bed and sleep, or go pace somewhere else.”

 

            “My father was happy,” said Kaya suddenly, looking somewhat confused as the words fell from her lips.

 

            Ken stopped and looked at her, feeling a familiar sense of being lost.  He was used to this with her, since most of their more personal and difficult conversations started without making any sense.  “Okay.  And this is a bad thing because?” he asked, trying to connect the appropriate dots.

 

            With her arms folded over her chest, Kaya chewed on the inside of her cheek as she again worked her way from one side of the room to the other.  Why was this bad?  “Because he’s happy,” she answered absently.  “He’s happy with you.”

 

            “I thought that was the idea,” returned Ken, confusion in his voice.

 

            Kaya stopped pacing, her own conflicted confusion seeming more like defensive consternation because of her bearing.  “It was.  Or, it was supposed to be.”

 

            “Let me make sure I completely understand this,” said Ken slowly.  “You’re upset because your father likes me?”  A beat of thick silence followed his question, and he threw up his hands in agitation.  “Christ, Kaya, what the hell would you have preferred?  That I act like an ass so he can throw me out?”

 

            “Your language,” replied Kaya quietly.

 

            Ken laughed unpleasantly.  “Don’t try to divert things.  Besides, I think I’ve earned the use of a few impolite words after everything I’ve gone through this week for you.  Now what the hell is going on in that head of yours, because I am completely lost.

 

            Turning away from him, Kaya stared out the window.  Her heart beat rapidly, and she took a deep breath, determined to keep her voice level.  “I do want my father to be happy,” she began.  “All my life, that’s what I’ve wanted, and for the first 25 years, that’s what I got.  He was proud of me, he spoke to me as an intellectual equal, and he trusted my judgment, though not always without question.  But I did have his trust.  Even more so than Seijuurou did, and I was proud of myself for that.

 

            “But then everything with Suoh happened.”

 

            Taking a few steps, she moved over to the dresser and picked up a glass paperweight with a globe in its center.  Turning it over in her hands, she continued, “I had to fight my father hard for permission to marry.  I’ve told you about some of it.  My father knew it was a bad idea, though, but he trusted my judgment enough that he gave in.  He was proud of me, too, for standing up so strongly for something I knew was truth.”  She laughed bitterly.  “We all know how well that turned out.”

 

            She set the paperweight down and turned back to Ken.  His expression was difficult to read, though it was obvious he was displeased.

 

            “I’m not Suoh,” he said calmly.  “And while I don’t like being compared to your ex-husband, I understand your parents doing it.  Though I think we got over most of that the first day I was here.  So I’m still lost on what your problem in all of this is.  Your father doesn’t disapprove this time.”

 

            “That’s the problem!” shot back Kaya, her control slipping away.  “You don’t see it at all, do you?”

 

            “Obviously not!” threw back Ken.

 

            “The way he looked at me when we first got here,” went on Kaya.  “With the same uncertainty that’s been in his eyes for the last 20 years.  But it slipped away so easily after he met you.  I made a mistake, a big one, after fighting harder with him to prove I was right than I ever had before.  I lost his trust, his approval, and his faith in my judgment, and nothing I’ve done since has been able to get it back.  Until you.  He approves of you, and suddenly that pride is back in his eyes.  He wants my thoughts, again, and my opinions.  Not because of what I’ve accomplished professionally, but because of you.  Because I’m sleeping with the right man.”

 

            Ken stared at her, incredulous.  His jaw set, and he shook his head.  “You know,” he stared, his voice cold, “I used to wonder about your relationship with Ami, especially when you first brought up everything with her and Makoto, when you were just guessing at what they were to each other.  But that was a difficult subject, so I wasn’t sure.  But now I know.  It’s not just you and Ami, it’s your entire family.  Except for maybe your grandmother, and she only speaks her mind because she’s too old to play these stupid games anymore!  For all that you speak to each other, none of you actually tell each other anything.  I love you Kaya, and I’m not trying to dismiss your feelings or downplay how hard I know this is for you.  But between you and your father, I can’t do it anymore.  So I’m getting out of the middle.  Talk.  To.  Your.  Father.  Before we leave on Friday, actually bring this up and have a real conversation with him about it, because I don’t want this taken out on me after we get home.  But I’m done with it tonight, and I’m going to bed.  Alone.  Goodnight.  Please turn the light out before you leave.”

 

            With that, he left her nearly fuming as he climbed into bed, pulled the covers up harshly, beat on his pillow, and closed his eyes.

 

            Kaya stood in silence for several moments, the adequate words to address him running loudly through her mind, but never making it to her lips.  Rather, she did as he asked and walked over to the door, opened it, and then, without turning off the lights, slammed it behind her before heading to her grandmother’s room for the night.