Note: This chapter has many Japanese words that may be difficult for some readers. I have included a glossary at the end of the chapter in case you run across something you are unfamiliar with.

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Saturday evening, December 25Hikarizaka Train Station


So confident was Tomoya in his belief that the surprise arriving on the train would be the short and terribly cute little sister of Youhei, that he didn't notice the tall girl with blue-gray eyes and dark brown hair until she was standing directly in front of him and blocking his view.

"Oh, uh… Yuki-chan?" Tomoya had not seen his cousin since the Autumn of the previous year when he went to his grandmothers birthday party. Now, she was standing in front of him with a suitcase in her hand and looking a little nervous.

"Should I not have come?" Okazaki Yuki asked.

"No… I mean yes!" Tomoya blundered. He stopped, took a breath and started over again, "I'm glad you came. Tomoyo-chan kept this all a surprise so I didn't know who to be looking for. But this is a good surprise too. I appreciated the note you sent me on my anniversary."

"Oh yeah." Yuri blushed when she remembered getting a reply letter from her cousin on such nice stationary after she had sent him only a quick note on folded up notebook paper. "I liked the letter you sent me too."

"So… how are things going with the astronomer?" Tomoya asked as he took the handle of Yuri's rolling suitcase and turned toward the street.

"It worked out well." Yuri's tone was melancholic despite the positive words. "But, he graduated last spring and is studying abroad now." That seems to be a pattern in my life.

"Long distance relationships can be hard." Tomoyo said sympathetically.

"Not for me." Yuki said resolutely, "We broke up the day after his graduation. We made a promise to each other that if we're both single when we graduate college, we'll date each other again. But…"

"Yeah…" Tomoya said after Yuki had let her sentence trail off. "So… how long will you be staying with us?"

"Okazaki!" Tomoyo gave him a reproving glare.

"What?" Tomoya sounded startled.

"You made it sound as if she's not welcome." Tomoyo admonished her boyfriend. Taking the younger girl's hand, she said, "Yuki, you're welcome to stay as long as you like. Also, Obāsan told me that you'd be bringing some homework or study materials?"

"Thank you, Tomoyo-san!" Yuki blushed at Tomoyo's familiarity of using her first name without any honorifics. The was also thrilled with the older girl's interest in her as she answered, "Yeah… I'll be taking some tests after the break, to try and get into a nice high school near the university. I just need some help with a few subjects. I want to make sure I do well on the tests."

"You're coming to the right place!" Tomoya smirked.

"Huh?" Yuki couldn't tell if Tomoya was teasing or being serious.

"I wasn't a very good student until my third year of high school." Tomoya explained, "That's when I was reunited with Kotomi and she came up with the plan to take me with her to America… but I needed to catch up on all of my courses first."

"Really?" Yuki had heard from her mother, that Tomoya used to be a delinquent, but she hadn't believed her until now. "So, you really did use to be a delinquent?"

"We both were." Tomoyo replied matter-of-factly and asked the younger girl, "Do you believe people should get second chances, Yuki?"

"Yes." Yuki still blushed at Tomoyo's familiar use of her name, but she honestly did hope that people could get second chances. If not, she would never be able to make it into her Aunt's high school… and then would probably not be able to go to college with Tomoyo-san.

"Good. So do I." Tomoyo told her, "I used to get into a lot of fights, but I changed and eventually became the Student Council President. Tomoya was late to school every day, skipped classes, got bad grades, and didn't participate in any clubs. But he turned everything around in his last year and became someone that everyone admired."

Yuki was beginning to see where Tomoyo's confidence was coming from. When she compared herself to Tomoya and Tomoyo, she realized that her own problems weren't nearly as insurmountable as she had believed.

"Kotomi, Kyou, and I worked with Okazaki to help him get his grades up." Tomoyo continued the story, "It took us a few months, but his grades were much better. And, by the time he left, his English was at the conversational level."

"Yeah, that's great…" Yuki could see that Tomoyo was quite proud of Tomoya's achievements, but there was one little problem she thought she should mention, "I don't have several months though."

"True, but you're not starting off from as far behind either." Tomoyo said with cool assurance, "We'll have a look at what you need to cover when we get to the house, but after the talk I had with your grandmother, I don't think this will take too long."

Yuki knew that a lot of her older relatives liked Tomoyo from when she was talking with them about cooking local cuisine. But a lot of those older relatives had been the same ones who said that Naoyuki and his son were both no-good. They had argued that the father and son shouldn't be welcomed back into the family. Even after Naoyuki had been back for a while and was obviously not the reprehensible person that they had suspected, they had again argued that Tomoya and his gang of friends should not be allowed to visit. Few of those relatives had bothered to apologize after the previous year's visit when Tomoya and his friends not only cleared themselves of all suspicions, but had impressed almost everyone. Almost… some of the relatives stubbornly kept their long held grudges. Yuki no longer trusted her elders like she used to, but she did trust her grandmother. Obāsan had been impressed with Tomoyo, and now Yuki knew why.

Confidence.

Yuki had never met another girl that had ever exuded as much confidence as Tomoyo did. Her own doubts seemed to fall away just being near Tomoyo. With only these few words said, since she got off the train, Yuki was now certain that there would be no problem living in the same house with Tomoyo for the next four years. Indeed, she was looking forward to it more than ever.

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Sunday morning, December 26Inari Shrine


"Youhei, are you ready for this?" Tomoya asked his shorter friend.

"What are you asking?" Youhei retorted, "You don't think I'm in love with Yukine?"

"No, I'm sure you two love each other." Tomoya sighed and said, "It's just that… marriage is a pretty serious thing, you know."

"Ha! You're one to talk. You met a girl in April and married her in August!" Youhei shot back.

"What are you on about?" Tomoya acted innocently, "I knew Kotomi for over ten years before we got married."

"Most of that time doesn't count and you know it. Besides..." Youhei sounded more serious now, "haven't you heard? I'm in the Tokyo Police Academy now. It's not exactly the place for being a delinquent."

"Yeah, I know." Tomoya pulled himself up from the pad where he had been sitting and walked over to stand next to Youhei at the big mirror where they gave their Kimono's one last look before heading out into the ceremony hall.

Tomoya had known Youhei for almost four years now and through that journey they may not have always agreed with each other, but they had always been friends. For most of that time they had their fun in the moment, since their futures always seemed bleak. But that had all changed since their incredible third year when both of them had pulled out of their downward spirals. Tomoya had been worried about his friend for a while, but Youhei had shown more stability and determination than anyone had expected.

Well… anyone except Yukine. Looking back, Tomoya realized that Yukine had been by Sunohara's side since… Kotomi's birthday party in their third year. He couldn't fathom what had caused the kindhearted second year girl to believe in someone like Youhei, but she did – and it looked like she had been right. In that short period of time, Youhei had turned his life around: he graduated with decent grades and a recommendation, got accepted to the Tokyo Police Academy, and was doing well there.

Tomoya was impressed with his friend and proud of all he had accomplished. He desperately wanted to tell him how he felt, but for some reason, it felt weird saying such things to his only close male friend. Still, Youhei had selected Tomoya to be his Best Man, and if there was ever a time to tell him something like this, it would be before Youhei made one of the most important commitments of his life. "Um… listen Youhei…"

"Yeah, I know." Youhei smiled.

"Huh?" Tomoya glanced at his friend but could tell from the knowing smile that Youhei already knew what he was thinking.

"Kotomi-chan relies on you and Kyou because you both have better social skills than her. You two can read the atmosphere and other people far better than she can." Youhei's smile became a look of smug pride, "But neither of you can hold a candle to me! I can tell what you're thinking just from looking at your face."

Tomoya almost dismissed his friend's brash claim but there had been too many times where his insight had been right. In their second year at the high school, he knew of Kyou's fascination with Tomoya almost before she did. In his third year, Student Council President Sakagami recognized his talent and got him on the Disciplinary Committee where his insight was used to great effect.

And, ever since arriving at the shrine that morning, Youhei had been watching the inner turmoil playing on Tomoya's face while trying to get his courage up to express his feelings. Youhei hadn't said anything since it had been interesting to watch his friend struggle between embarrassment and courage. But, Youhei didn't have the kind of sadistic streak that would allow him to enjoy watching his friend suffer needlessly. At least, not for more than an hour or so…

"We've both been through a lot, and look… we both did okay, didn't we?" Youhei suddenly sounded cheerful.

"Um… yeah. Better than expected, I guess." Tomoya felt the relief of not having to say something too embarrassing.

"Hell yeah, better than expected!" Youhei gave Tomoya a friendly punch in the arm, "We both have amazing wives, our futures don't look like crap any more, and some day our kids will be going to the same school."

"Huh? Our kids… that last bit didn't sound like you." Tomoya observed.

"Yeah," Youhei admitted, "I heard Kyou talking to Yukine the other day. You know she has a habit of calling Shuichi and Shuji her kids?"

"Yeah, that's Kotomi's idea." Tomoya explained, "Since both of her parents were taken from her at an early age and she ended up alone, she wants to make sure nothing like that ever happens to her kids."

"So, Kyou-chan is what… a reserve-mom?" Youhei asked skeptically.

"More like a co-mom." Tomoya told him, "If Kotomi has her way, and she probably will, the kids will grow up calling both of them Okāsan."

"Whatever floats her boat. I would think it would be confusing for the kids, but I didn't grow up without any parents. Anyway, she was saying something about becoming a teacher when she gets back from America and teaching everyone's kids at the same school. I just don't know if Yukine and I will…" Youhei let that thought trail off as something else got his attention. Looking at their reflections in the mirror, Youhei noticed something odd. He glanced over at Tomoya's feet to make sure he was wearing his formal Zori and not some elevated Geta, but he was surprised to see that Tomoya hadn't put on any sandals yet. He was still only wearing the Tabi on his feet, and yet his height…

"Um… Tomoya, did you get taller?" Youhei asked.

"Well…" for a moment, Tomoya thought of playing a joke on Youhei and telling him that he was the same height, but Youhei looked like he was shrinking. It would have been an excellent prank, but he just couldn't do that to his best friend on his wedding day. "Yeah, a little bit. Don't worry about it. We need to get out there now. The ceremony is about to start."

"Right!" Youhei took a deep breath and looked up at his long time friend.

Tomoya was a little surprised at the smile on his face and the twinkle in his friend's eyes. He suddenly looked supernatural like an elf or fairy that was about to embark on some exciting mischief. He was thinking about asking if Youhei was okay when his beaming friend laid his hand on the door knob and made his proclamation.

"This begins the next chapter of my life, let's do this!" Youhei threw open the door and walked gallantly out to the waiting audience. Truly, it was an odd assemblage of Yukine's classmates, Youhei's relatives, gang members that were there for Yukine, some police academy peers that were there for Youhei, and mutual friends that were there for both of them. As unusual and disparate as this group was, they were united in wishing only the best for friends on their special day.

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With Yukine being the last surviving member of her family, there was not much she could contribute to the cost of the wedding. However, many members of the two gangs that had previously been rivals had volunteered time and some materials to make repairs to several of the buildings on the shrine grounds as well as a form of payment on Yukine's behalf. When her fellow students found out that a group of volunteers was working to fix up the shrine's facilities, the high school's Cultural Society club raised funds to buy vermilion paint for the shrine's several Torii gateways. The entrance, the buildings, and the grounds now looked better than they had in years. So, it would be in this recently renovated place that Yukine and Youhei would be wed.

Youhei's family was not wealthy enough to provide formal Kimono's for everyone, but that turned out not to be an issue. Kotomi, Tomoyo, and Kyou already had similarly themed Homongi in gold and dark maroon that matched the dark blue and maroon Kimono that Tomoya and Koumura were wearing. Youhei's mother wore a traditional black Kurotomesode that the mother of the bride or groom would wear. It was elegantly decorated with bright patterns of branches and peach blossoms below the waist. The same pattern was on the lower half of Mei's bright yellow Irotomesode. A single background color other than black with a pattern only below the waist signified a close relative of the couple to be wed. And there wouldn't be many relatives as close as Mei was to the brother she was so proud of on this chilly, but pretty December morning.

There was not a cloud in the sky and the air was cool and crisp without being too cold. The heat from the sun could be felt, but only barely. The weather forecast said that it would remain clear throughout the day, but it would steadily be getting colder as a winter storm was moving in. But that would be another day. On this wonderful morning, when two friends and lovers became husband and wife – the sky, like their hopes, were unblemished.

All eyes turned to the big doors at the back of the great hall as the brides party made their entrance. Like so many other people in the room, Youhei and Tomoya were stunned when they saw Yukine for the first time in her Shirokakeshita. The brilliant white Kimono gleamed from the rays of the rising sun behind her.

With Yukine holding onto his arm, Koumura proudly walked up the isle in his role as the father-of-the-bride. Indeed, he was very proud of her. Even if he had retired the year before she would graduate, she had been an important and transformative friend to the students that he had taken an interest in. She had grown in many ways herself, too. No longer the helpful but retreating figure she had been, Yukine was actively working with the man she loved to find a happy future for the both of them. For too long, she had worked diligently to support other people, but never asked for anything of her own. Koumura was glad to see that she was finally embracing some happiness for herself.

Behind Koumura and Yukine, Fuko had received a special accommodation. Like Mei, she was wearing an Irotomesode. Although she was not actually related to Yukine, today Fuko would play the role of the sister of the bride. Her Kimono was a solid bright green with images of puffy clouds and cranes in flight. The special position of honorary sister had come from Yukine and Youhei. The Irotomesode was a gift from her sister and brother-in-law. At first, they had toyed with the idea of shooting stars as the pattern on the Kimono, but they remembered a comment from Tomoya and worried that Fuko might end up in a daydream state partway through the ceremony.

From his position at the front of the room, Tomoya could see all the guests watching the ceremony. Although some seemed bored, most of the guys in the room looked interested with the few emotional ones being from the group of gang members. But it was the reactions of the girls that got his attention. He had heard once that all girls will either be happy or cry at weddings and it looked like that was true. Tomoya could see the happiness on Kotomi's face as the ceremony proceeded. She seemed to take particular interest in the special Kimono's used in the ceremony. That's right. As much as she is interested in science, Kotomi has always been interested in traditional Kimono's. We were married in Yukata's since it was summer time… Tomoya wondered for a moment if Kotomi wished they had been married in the winter or spring so she too could have had all these special Kimono's around her. No. That wouldn't have worked out after all. Since both of our mothers are gone and neither of us have any sisters, there would have been no-one to wear the Kurotomesode or the Irotomesode. That… would have reminded her of her loss and might have actually saddened her on her wedding day. I guess for the two of us, a summer wedding in Yukata's was best.

Still looking at Kotomi, another thought occurred to him. I wonder how many of me are doing this same thing in those alternate universes. Remembering Ushio from that strange place, his eyes moved over to Nagisa in her bright red Homongi with patterns of flowers and butterflies. Then again, I wonder if Nagisa and I are the ones getting married in some of those universes. Or maybe Kyou or… that's right – with an infinite number of parallel universes, every combination is possible. Some are simply more probable than others. He remembered the conversation with Winter Tomoya more clearly now than he had in a long while and continued to wonder about probabilities and different worlds. Why… why were there so few Tomoya's that had chosen Kotomi? Am I doing the right thing by…

Tomoya was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he almost missed the part where he was supposed to hand Youhei the ring. A few people in the audience giggled as he remembered what he was supposed to do, stumbled through his movement and almost dropped the ring. There were some giggles, but the embarrassment didn't last very long. The ceremony continued and was soon over, but he wasn't finally brought back to the present until he heard everyone shout "Kampai!"

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"Kampai!" everyone shouted again at the reception. Yoshino Yusuke had just delivered a toast themed on the importance of realizing the meaning we have in the connections to the people we hold dear to us, but Tomoya had barely heard any of it. His mind was still daydreaming about the what-if possibilities of other choices and the fates that those choices led to. Tomoya's musing were interrupted again. This time it was by somebody making a choking and spluttering sound.

"THIS!" Nagisa gasped, "This is real sake!"

"Yeah Nagisa, you're twenty years old now. You're old enough to drink real sake." Akio said sagely.

"That's fine Dad, but you didn't tell me… I need to prepare myself for it." Nagisa blushed when she noticed that everyone was looking at her.

"What's the problem?" Yuki whispered to Tomoya, "Sake's not that big a deal, is it?"

"You're not in Hokkaido any more." Tomoya whispered back, "The drinking age is taken pretty seriously around here so it's become a kind of 'rite of passage' towards becoming an adult."

"Oh." Yuki watched as Nagisa's cup was refilled for her to earnestly try and have a drink with her parents. The seriousness of it all made her start giggling.

"What's so funny?" Tomoya quietly asked.

"It's just… if that's the rite of passage for being a grown-up, I became an adult before I was a teenager." Yuki smirked.

"Huh?" Tomoya was a little surprised. As much of a delinquent as he had been in high school, he still hadn't gotten involved in drinking alcohol. And yet his cousin, who was supposed to be a 'good girl' had been drinking since she was a preteen? He understood that there were cultural differences across Japan, but it was still odd to find out something like that.

"Whoa…" Yuki looked concerned when she saw how pink Nagisa's face had become, "somebody better show her how to do it right or she's gonna get drunk and make a fool out of herself."

Tomoya was about to make a move when he saw Ryou step in.

"That's enough, Nagisa." Ryou stopped her girlfriend from holding the cup out for another refill.

"Wha? Why Ryou?" Nagisa slurred her speech, "I jus wanna drink wif my Dad. Thersh no harm in that, right?"

"You've had a drink with your dad. You need to stop now." Ryou circled her arm around her girlfriend's waist since Nagisa was starting to look unstable on her feet.

"But heesh shtill drinking, so why can't I?" Nagisa pouted.

"Nagisa," Tomoyo's strong voice called out from close behind the tipsy girl, "look carefully into Ryou's eyes. Tell me what you see."

"Huh?" Nagisa had initially been startled by Tomoyo's voice, but now she was concentrating on Ryou's blue eyes as much as she could. Blue eyes that looked… wet. With growing concern, she said, "She… she hash tearsh. She looksh like sheesh going to cry. Tomoyo-chan, why ish Ryou going to cry?"

"She's worried about you Nagisa. She doesn't like what the alcohol is doing to you. If you keep drinking it, you are going to make her cry." Tomoyo let that sink in for a moment before she asked, "Do you want to make Ryou cry?"

"No!" Nagisa said with alarm. Her lethargy and slurred speech seemed to fall away when her arms suddenly wrapped around the lavender haired girl that was holding her up, "I love Ryou! I love her more than anything else in the world. I don't want to make you cry, Ryou! I don't ever want to make you cry!"

"Mmmmmmfffff!" Ryou cried out, but the alcohol had torn down all of her girlfriend's social barriers and an unrestrained Nagisa was kissing Ryou with a level of passion rarely seen in public… in Japan anyway. Ryou was terribly embarrassed by the kiss at first, but she could feel herself melting into Nagisa from the heat of the embrace and soon, she was kissing back regardless of who, or how many people were watching.

"Wow!" Sanae said as she watched the passionate embrace. Her own cheeks were now quite pink from the sake she had been drinking with her husband and daughter. Then she teased her husband by telling him, "Ryou-chan kisses better than you do."

"What?" Akio sputtered, "You're saying you'd rather kiss Ryou-chan than me?"

"No, Okāsan!" Nagisa broke off her kiss to rebuke her mother. Holding her girlfriend close she made her claim to her mother and everyone else in the room, "Ryou-chan is mine."

Ryou wanted to say something but she suddenly felt herself crushed into Nagisa's chest by the grip of her girlfriend's encircling arms.

"Aww," Sanae sounded disappointed for a moment but rebounded, "Hmmm? What about Tomoya-kun? I'll bet he's a good kisser."

Kyou was about to make a hot retort to the teasing older woman but was stunned by Kotomi's unexpected, sort of scientific, and somewhat erotic response.

"He is amazing." Kotomi smiled dreamily, "Just thinking about kissing him makes me short of breath, my pulse rate goes up, and my skin feels electric. When he kisses me, I sense explosions of light and sound, my skin becomes sensitive, a heat seems to spread to every part of me, and my body feels light as a feather. I can only think about kissing him forever, since all other thoughts in my mind simply fade away."

"Kotomi-chan!" Tomoya gaped. He was of course embarrassed that she would say this in front of all their friends. But he was also stunned because he had never heard her say anything like that before.

"Oh… wow!" Sanae had only intended a little light hearted teasing, but Kotomi's sensual description left everyone agape and blushing a little. "He's really that good?"

Youhei noticed that both Tomoyo and Kyou silently nodded in agreement with Kotomi.

"Yes." Kotomi took Tomoya's arm and leaned into him. "I can feel a powerful urge within me, and I find that I am struggling to keep myself from becoming intimate with Tomoya-kun even now."

"Kotomi-chan!" Tomoya's blush was starting to look unhealthy. He almost blurted out, But Kotomi-chan, you're the one that taught me how to kiss! I never kissed anyone before I kissed you. However, unlike his wife, Tomoya had working social skills that prevented him from saying embarrassing private things in public places. He could only stare at her and hope that she would stop on her own.

"Tomoya-kun?" Kotomi innocently looked up at her husband.

"I… You…" Tomoya's state of embarrassment and frustration was too much for him to put together any rational sentences.

"I believe Tomoya would like you to refrain from any further discussion of his sexual prowess in public." Tomoyo offered.

"Yes… that!" Tomoya pointed at Tomoyo to further indicate that she had phrased his thoughts perfectly.

"Oh!" Kotomi suddenly paled and looked sad, "Did I make another faux pas?"

Tomoya hugged his humorously charming wife close and was about to make a response when the photographer called out to everyone.

Could I get everyone together? Are you ready to do the group picture?"

It was a picture many of them would treasure for years to come. Everyone was in festive Kimono's and looked their best. Tomoya was surrounded by Kotomi, Tomoyo, Kyou, and his cousin Yuki. Youhei seemed to be at the center of a crowd too with Yukine, Fuko, Mei, his parents, and the Yoshino's around him. Between the two of them, Koumura, the Furukawa's, Nagisa, and Ryou made happy poses. If it hadn't been for the brilliant white Shirokakeshita that Yukine was wearing, and the black Kurotomesode that Youhei's mother wore, it would have looked like a picture that captured the gathering of the Okazaki, Furukawa, and Sunohara clans, rather than a wedding photo.

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Friday night, December 31Inari Shrine


A week later and a few sporadic snowfalls made the hike up the steps to the shrine a bit difficult. The stone carved steps were not very wide, so everyone broke up into pairs to climb up to the place where they would bring in the new year. Some were appreciating the late night outing more than others.

"Weren't we just here?" Youhei asked Tomoya as they walked up the steps to the shrine grounds.

"Hah! How is married life?" Tomoya asked, then hastily added, "And don't say it's the same, but with a toilet seat cover!"

"Heh… but it's not the same." Youhei smiled. "Every time I think about being married to Yukine, I feel like the luckiest man in the world. Sometimes it seems too good to be true and I'm afraid I might wake up from this dream."

"Stop trying to sound philosophical, you're throwing me off." Tomoya smirked.

"Hey, I'm studying to be a police officer." Youhei reminded his friend, "Cops are very philosophical."

"Huh? What's so philosophical about being a cop?" Tomoya wasn't picking on his friend now. He had never heard this position and was genuinely curious.

"Well, there's good and evil, right and wrong, legal and illegal – right?" Youhei began his discourse as he walked next to Tomoya, "Is the right thing always good and legal? Can something illegal be a good thing… or a right thing?"

"For instance…" Tomoya prodded.

"Would you violate a no-trespassing sign to save a child or an animal? Youhei asked.

"I see." Tomoya could easily imagine several conundrums and asked, "But police aren't supposed to be judges or juries, so what do you do?"

"The easy answer is that the Police are there to enforce the law. We don't have to figure out right and wrong or good and evil. That's what courts and religions are for." Youhei said.

"Hmm… that sounds a little harsh." Tomoya observed.

"It is. That's why it's very important for a police officer to be aware of all the laws. There are old ones and new ones. There are even laws that contradict other laws." Youhei had a twinkle in his eye as he continued, "So a good cop always needs to know which laws need to be enforced in any situation.

"Ah ha." Tomoya chuckled. He had to wonder if this was something they were actually teaching at the Tokyo Police Academy, or was this just another example of Youhei finding a loophole in the system. Something landed on Tomoya's arm that made him look up.

"Hey, it's snowing!" Ryou had also noticed and was looking up at the swirls of falling snow as they slowly fell from the sky.

"Aww… now I have to change what I'll be praying for." Mei pouted.

"You were going to pray for snow?" Yuki was aghast. Being from the northern island of Hokkaido, she had seen plenty of snow in her life.

"Wait!" Youhei sounded shocked, "You weren't going to pray for your brother to have a happy marriage?"

"You've only been married for a week! What has my onii-chan done that requires prayers to save his marriage?" Mei asked in a suspicious voice with her mitten covered fists on her hips.

"Oh it's nothing like that," Yukine said as she took Mei by the arm and explained to her, "Youhei gets very jealous if his imouto isn't thinking of him first. Your onii-chan is very selfish that way."

"Hee hee hee!" Mei sounded positively thrilled at that explanation. Having reached the shrine grounds at the long path of stairs that led up the hill, Mei and Yukine let go of each other so they could each take one of Youhei's arms.

Suspecting that someone would be taking their cue from the younger girls, Tomoya was surprised when only Kotomi was there to take his right arm. Looking around, he saw that Kyou was with her sister, and Tomoyo was having a conversation with his cousin Yuki.

"Everyone is so lively. I wish I had friends like this." Yuki said aloud.

"Were you a loner at your school?" Tomoyo asked the taller girl.

"No, senpai." Yuki explained, "I'm from a pretty rural area, so there aren't many kids in the school I'm going to now. All three high school grades are in the same classroom. Obāsan says that the new school in Sapporo will have lots of kids in it. She said there will be so many that there will be several classrooms just for the third years."

"Our school is like that." Tomoyo surprised the younger girl. Then she realized that Yuki hadn't seen her high school on this trip so she wouldn't know how big it was. "But, even if you were in a single classroom with three grades, surely you made some friends there?"

"Sort of… I guess." Yuki sounded almost apologetic, "The part of Hokkaido where we are from is mostly devoted to agriculture so most of the kids my age are already working on their family farms or have jobs related to farming. There is no time for joining clubs or putting on festivals at the school. Since my boyfriend graduated last spring, I am the only one in our whole high school class that has any plans to go to college. So, that makes me…"

"Different." Tomoyo finished her younger friend's sentence. "I used to feel different from everyone else around me too. I used to be quite the loner. I didn't need anyone else and I didn't trust anyone either. And… it's hard for someone to become a friend when you can't trust them. Now, I have become comfortable with having friendships. It was your cousin and his friends that helped me, you know."

"Yes, senpai." Yuki liked hearing how cool her cousin was, but all this talk about being able to have lots of friends saddened her. Stuck out in the sticks, my own high school life is pretty drab by comparison. And… I don't have a collection of wonderful friends to show for it either.

"I'm glad you're trying so hard to get into that high school in Sapporo." Tomoyo told Yuki, "I'm used to having friends now and I had been dreading going so far away to a place where I didn't know anyone. Now, I know I'll have at least one friend."

"Senpai!" Yuki squeaked.

"By the way, do you know how to play volleyball?" Tomoyo asked, "I have an affinity for sports but I don't like playing on big teams. I had been thinking about trying beach volleyball…"

"They seem to be hitting it off." Ryou commented to her sister as they walked behind the platinum blond Tomoyo and the taller Yuki.

"That's a good thing." Kyou observed, "It sounds like they'll be together for the next four years at least."

"Yeah." Ryou sighed. I wish there was a way for us to be together too, onee-san.

"It really makes me feel better knowing that you'll have Nagisa-chan with you while you're off at school." Kyou took her sister's hand and squeezed it, I don't know if I could go back to America if I thought you would be all alone. I just couldn't bear it."

"Onee-chan!" Ryou squeezed her sister's hand back and felt a sudden warmth all over. Wanting to spend as much time around her sister as she could, she asked Kyou, "Nagisa and I are going to get fortunes after the prayer. Do you want to come with us?"

"I…" Kyou suddenly remembered the fortune from the previous year as if she had just read it.
*** Greatest Curse
*** Romance
*** A good friend's tragedy will requite your greatest desire.

"Maybe not this year." Kyou tried not to sound too dire, but she could tell that Ryou was disappointed that they wouldn't be getting fortunes together like they had so many times before. What am I worried about… the odds of me getting the same fortune again are astronomical. Besides, they're just little pieces of paper. Steeling herself against the unreasonable fear, Kyou forced herself to laugh and told her sister, "I'm just kidding! Of course we'll get our fortunes together, Ryou."

.

Kyou stood staring at the paper in her hand. It was not the same one she had seen last year, but Kyou found it disturbing nonetheless. Considering how it followed last year's fortune, it was also somehow… terrifying.
*** Future Good Fortune
*** Hopes and Dreams
*** A hardship is postponed, but it's day of reckoning will come. Stand firm and strong
through the hardship and the treasures you seek will finally be yours.

Why… why can't I just get something simple? 'You'll get good grades', or 'you'll find something you're looking for'… It doesn't even have to be a Great Fortune. Even something average would be fine. Why do I have to get these… things. What does this mean? I don't want my greatest desires or treasures if it means a good friend has to have a tragedy. Whether that tragedy is now or in the future, I don't want it! While everyone else was laughing or talking about their silly fortunes, Kyou quietly walked over to the tree that would hopefully absorb this fortune away from her and let her have a peaceful life. Kyou held the fortune in her hands and closed her eyes. Instantly, she saw Tomoya's face smiling at her. Tomoya… are you my greatest desire? She thought about Ryou insisting that the baby boys were Kotomi's and not hers. Do I want some of my own? Are those the treasures that I seek? If I tie this fortune to this tree, what will I be throwing away? NO! I am being ridiculous. I am Fujibayashi Kyou and I do not believe in such superstitious things. Ryou is the one that plays with cards and dabbles in fortune telling, not me! I'm too practical for this kind of…

Trembling fingers folded the fortune as tears slid down a cold cheek.

This means nothing to me. I am not a superstitious person! I'm not!

Unsteady hands reached out to the tree and pressed the folded paper against a spot of bare branch.

I don't need to requite my greatest desire! I don't need such treasures! I am happy right now. I'm happy with the way things are… now. I don't want anything to change.

When her fingers closed around the folded fortune to press the knot in the paper to seal it against the bark of the tree, her eyes closed tight and squeezed out the gathered tears. In her mind's eye, she saw herself holding a baby with Tomoya's arms around her in a loving embrace. A sob wracked through her body and the warm tears flowed freely down her cold cheeks at the dream that could never be.

"No!" Kyou turned away from the tree and immediately ran into a comforting softness and a whirlwind of purple hair.

"Kyou-chan." Kotomi wrapped her arms around her unsteady friend and held her close. Even with her poor social skills, she could tell that the trembling she felt through the winter clothes were not from the cold. Her Kyou was upset and hurting. I must try to do something. Even if I am not very good at it, I must try… for Kyou.

"Kotomi-chan." Kyou responded automatically in a sobbing voice. Her own arms wrapped around her friend.

"Kyou-chan makes many faces. I have been fortunate enough to see so many of them." Kotomi said quietly, "When Kyou-chan smiles, it makes me think of playing kittens, bright colored balloons, and the laughter of children. Kyou-chan is so pretty… even the faces that Kyou-chan makes when she is distraught are beautiful to behold. But it hurts me to see you like this. It hurts in my heart because I only want for you to be happy. What can I do, Kyou-chan? What can I do to make you happy again?"

Give Tomoya to me! Kyou wanted to shout. But no… that wouldn't make me happy either. It would crush Tomoya and it would tear Kotomi apart… and I could never live with that either. Kyou started to say something but the words wouldn't come.

"Do you still love Tomoya-kun?" Kotomi asked as if she were a close friend and not the person-in-question's wife.

"Yes." Kyou admitted. She was only a little shocked at that kind of question from Kotomi by now.

"I know that he still loves you too." Kotomi said as she stroked her hand through Kyou's lavender hair.

"You think so?" Kyou was unsure. Even having been in this strange relationship for over a year, those kinds of doubts could always find her.

"I am certain, but if you would like me to verify…" Kyou was turning to shout out to Tomoya who was a few dozen meters away.

"No!" Kyou pulled Kotomi back to her and stopped the purple haired genius from yelling out a question like that in front of all the people visiting the shrine. "I know he still loves me. I was just being stupid."

"Stupid?" Kotomi's eyebrow arched as she considered it, "No, you are not stupid, Kyou-chan. But these fortunes… They are far too random. If you would like, I will render you a fortune based on rational thought and observation."

"Huh?" Kyou was surprised, "You do fortune telling like my sister?"

"No." Kotomi smiled, "there may be probability, but there is no reliance on chance the way I do it."

"Oh?" Kyou was getting interested now. She had never known this side of Kotomi before, "Have your predictions ever been right?"

"I have never done this before, and I do not plan to do it again. This is just for Kyou-chan." Kotomi said earnestly.

"Ah… okay, let's hear what my future holds… according to rational thought and observation." Kyou thought that Kotomi would release her, so she could do some kind of theatrical move to begin her little show. But Kotomi continued to hold her and simply started talking.

"In the next five years, your fears and doubts are going to fall away and you are going to accept your position in the family. Your bonds to the boys are already strong and they will only get stronger as you embrace the roll of their mother and they love you with all their hearts." There was nothing bizarre or supernatural about what Kotomi was saying, and yet the words seemed to conjure images in Kyou's mind.

Kyou could see herself hugging preteen boys and sending them off to school, cheering them at sports day and comforting them when they had a moment of sadness. Kyou could only gasp at the realism of the images in her mind as she saw herself being the perfect mother.

"This is a very good thing since I will probably have another child or two before we permanently move back to Japan. Those future children will need Okāsan Kyou every bit as much as the boys." Kotomi could feel Kyou tense up when she mentioned the future children.

"Ah!" Kyou gasped. She could see that kind of future happening just as Kotomi described it. Far from any anxiety about Kotomi having another child with Tomoya, it was another unbelievably clear image that had sprung from her mind. A daughter! Kyou was holding the little girl in her lap while she giggled. Then there was a room with clothes scattered all over the place and Kyou was dressing up the doll of a girl in one outfit after another while both of them laughed and cheered at their mutual fun. It was a wonderful future to think about, even if it meant that she would forsake any 'little treasures' of her own.

"After we move back to Japan, you will become a school teacher. Or – and this is more likely considering the education and the experiences you will be able to bring with you… I can see you starting up your own private school for elementary and middle school students. It will be a wonderful place that will prepare the children to go to the best high schools." Kotomi closed her eyes to focus on what she knew of Kyou, her dreams, and what could conceivably be accomplished.

"Ah!" Kyou had never thought of that. She had only wanted to be a kindergarten teacher so she could prove to herself and to everyone else that she could be a nurturing influence to children. But to run her own school… Her boys and this future girl were wearing wonderful uniforms and proudly walking up to the gates of her school. My school!

"The children you raise will be smart, healthy, and strong. They will fear you as the Okāsan that always knows what they are up to. They will love you as the Okāsan that is always there for them when they are in need. When they get married, you will wear the black Kurotomesode and proudly stand beside Tomoya as their beloved Okāsan. Later, they will come home with their own children who will know you as their Obāsan. You will be an Obāsan that all the grandchildren will love and adore their entire lives."

An older Kyou greeting small children gleefully calling out to her. Sitting around a big table with children, in-laws, grandchildren… Showing them how to ride bicycles, going to school plays, reading stories while they go to sleep.

"Oh Kotomi-chan, that… that is so beautiful!" Kyou realized that this was exactly the kind of fortune she would like to come true for her. But, something seemed missing. Realizing what it was, she asked, "Kotomi-chan, what about you?"

"What do you mean?" Kotomi blinked.

"In all your predictions, I am beside Tomoya-kun, I am the Okāsan and the Obāsan." Kyou asked, "What about you?"

"Kyou-chan, Tomoya has more than one side." Kotomi reminded her lavender haired friend of something that she thought was intuitively obvious, "When we sleep, do you not sleep on one side of him and I on the other?"

"Um… yes." Kyou realized her error, but she let Kotomi finish her thoughts.

"I intend to stand by Tomoya-kun's side, but I can only stand by one side at a time. It has always been my hope that you would have his other side. I am not so selfish a person that I would deny you that, when the two of you clearly love each other."

"Ah!" Kyou was about to deny that their love was the same as his love for Kotomi's.

"I believe Tomoya-kun loves you just as much as he loves me." Kotomi stunned her friend by telling her, "I don't think he is capable of loving one of us more than the other. But, I fear that it won't be the same with the children."

"Huh?" Kyou felt Kotomi stiffen this time. It was as if Kotomi were being forced to admit a difficult thing.

"They will love you more than me. I'm afraid it is inevitable. It is easy to see that probability if you review the facts." Kotomi sounded a little sad as she admitted her predetermined defeat.

"Facts? What do you mean?" Kyou was getting ready to argue such nonsense out of Kotomi's head.

"I am cold, dispassionate, and aloof." Kotomi made a wan smile as she gave her evidence, "Young and growing children will have a difficult time relating to me. Your warmth and kindness will fill the void that would be difficult or even impossible for me. You will be the Okāsan that they will run to first."

"Kotomi-chan…" Kyou didn't know where to begin. She felt herself becoming furious with Kotomi but she knew that she had to find another way to deal with the genius girl that didn't involve fury and violence. No, Kotomi doesn't respond well to anger or rage.

"Kyou-chan?" Kotomi could feel the change in her friend. She was glad that Kyou didn't seem so sad any more but something felt wrong. The happiness that she had expected wasn't there as expected.

"Do you think I have changed at all, since you met me?" Kyou asked in as controlled a voice as she could manage.

"Yes, Kyou-chan! You have become an even more amazing person." Kotomi said with painful honesty.

"You have changed as well, Kotomi-chan." Kyou said.

"Maybe a little…" Kotomi had been trying to change but didn't think she had managed anything nearly as incredible as the great strides Kyou had made, or the complete turnabouts that Tomoya and Youhei had accomplished.

"No, Kotomi-chan! You have come a long way from the isolated hermit that Tomoya had found in the library." Kyou continued to hold onto Kotomi tight so they couldn't see each other's faces. If Kotomi could see the anger that Kyou was sure was on her face now… it just might give her nightmares. "You can talk to people you don't know. You were even able to enjoy going to an amusement park. And I can tell that when you are… feeding your boys. The connection is there Kotomi."

"But you make that connection as well and you are better at it than I am…" Kotomi was quietly giving her honest opinion and completely unprepared for the ferocity of the response she triggered.

"NO KOTOMI!" Kyou shouted. She didn't care if several people were now looking. She could not let this pass. Clinging to the now frightened friend, she continued in a quiet voice, "I can see the love you have for those boys. It's as clear as day. That feeling you have when you hold them to your chest… that's what love is. There's no magic to it. You are not doing it wrong or inadequately. Nobody is doing it better than you… not even me." Kyou held Kotomi's kimono tightly in her fists and closed her eyes as the tears ran.

"Kyou-chan, I… I…" Kotomi was unsure of what to say. She could tell that Kyou was mad, but she had no idea why she should be upset now. A brief thought worried Kotomi, What if Kyou does not actually love the children but is only taking care of them out of a sense of obligation? Has my prediction then offended her? Kotomi dismissed the notion after reviewing all the observations she had made since the boys were born. No, I am certain that Kyou-chan loves Shuichi and Shuji. Then, what have I done to offend her so?

"Cold, distant, and aloof may have been a description of you from back when Tomoya found you in the library, but it's not true any more." Kyou finally allowed Kotomi to pull back far enough to see her face. "But anyone that has ever seen you with your babies would never dare describe you that way, and do you know why?"

"Eep!" Kotomi squeaked after seeing Kyou's face that still radiated some anger, "Um… no… why is that, Kyou-chan?"

"Because if they did… I would break them." Kyou'd dark aura seemed to intensify, for a moment as she said, "I would break them into little pieces."

.

"So, has Kyou been skipping her anger management classes?" Youhei asked Tomoya. "Oof!" he grunted as he was hit in the ribs on each side by both Yukine and Mei.

"Give her a break." Tomoya chuckled at Youhei's pain, "We've been here for three weeks. It's been a while since she went for a nice long ride on her bike. I swear that think is like magical stress relief for her."

"Oh?" Mei asked, "Is Kyou-san into cycling?"

"Not quite," Tomoya brought up the picture of Kyou on her metallic purple Low Rider and showed it to Youhei and the girls.

"Wow!" Mei was impressed.

"That's not a bike," Youhei gaped, "that's a monster! It's bigger than she is!"

"Actually, it's smaller than the one she was riding when I got there." Tomoya told a stunned Youhei as he pulled up the picture of himself on the Road King. "I took her old bike so she got a smaller purple one."

"Great!" Youhei chided his friend, "That's what you're going to be doing for the next five years, huh? College classes, riding motorcycles, and having a great time while I'm in a Police Academy… A POLICE ACADEMY!"

"I'll also be raising two kids…" Tomoya was trying to make it not sound like a constant party.

"Three." Mei chimed in.

"Three what?" Tomoya asked.

"Three kids." Mei smiled sweetly at him while she explained, "Kotomi-chan says she wants to have another before she finishes college."

"Ulp!" Tomoya began to wonder if Kotomi was even wired to talk about that kind of thing with him at all.

"She might want two more… but I could be wrong." Yukine smiled.

.

Mid February and Late April of 2005


Six weeks later, Tomoya would find the fortune he had acquired that night at the shrine, in one of the pockets of his suitcase. He had kept it since it was a good fortune. It told him that his blessings would soon multiply.

A few months later, he would be sitting at the breakfast table with Kotomi, Kyou, and Koumura when he would find out that his blessings were multiplying… again.

.

The Kotomi Continuum 2


The story continues in the next book. The Kotomi Continuum 2 is set five years after the events in this book. Tomoya, Kotomi, Kyou, Koumura, and the kids have returned to Japan and Kotomi's research into parallel universes is reaching the practical experimentation stage. Please enjoy discovering how the Clannad characters fare as Kotomi's interests raise the SciFi and Adventure flags.

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Glossary


Geta: Less formal footwear worn with Yukata's.

Homongi: also called the visiting wear kimomo. It is less colorful than a Furisode and is appropriate for friends of the bride and groom to wear to the wedding and reception.

Imouto: little sister

Irotomesode: A Kimono for female relatives (not mothers) of the bride and groom. It is typically a single color (not black) with imagery only below the waist.

Kurotomesode: Kimono worn only by the mothers of the bride and groom. Black with patterns below the waist.

Obāsan: Grandmother

Okāsan: Mother

Onee-chan: big sister

Onii-chan: big brother

Shirokakeshita: Kimono worn by the bride, usually white with long sleeves.

Tabi: split toed socks worn with Zori.

Zori: more formal footwear worn with Kimono's.