"A SEEDLING AMONG THE ASHES"

A Sailor Moon fanfic

By Bill K.

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Sailor Moon and all related characters are (c)2004 by Naoko Takeuchi/Kodansha and Toei Animation and are used without permission, but with respect. Story is (c)2004 by Bill Kropfhauser.

As always, for those only familiar with the English dub:

Usagi=Serena

Ami=Amy

Rei=Raye

Makoto=Lita

Minako=Mina

Haruka=Amara

Michiru=Michelle

Setsuna=Trista

Mamoru=Darien

Chibi-Usa=Rini

Finally, Haruka and Michiru are NOT cousins.

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2061 - - a year that I will never, never forget.

I look out the window of the car, the low whine of its electric motor barely perceptible to me. Homes, businesses and the occasional white eggshell style dwelling that harkens back to the first days of Crystal Tokyo pass across my vision without actually being seen. Instead I see a scene from nearly forty years ago, a scene that has become an indelible part of my memory, but a scene I would give anything to have never happened.

We were gathered in Ami's office in the palace. Serenity was there with Endymion. Rei was there, as was Minako. They even managed to pry Haruka and Michiru away from their own interests. Since we were all there, I figured it would be bad news. A look at Luna and Artemis and the grave expressions the cats wore was all the confirmation I needed.

"I summoned you all here," I recall Ami beginning, dragging the words out of her mouth reluctantly, wishing she could be saying anything but this, "because I've - - discovered something - - that will mean different things to different people. Luna and Artemis have confirmed my suspicions."

"So what's up?" Haruka asked bluntly. That was her. I could see Ami's demeanor worried her, but she always tried to take bad news head on.

Ami took a moment to compose herself.

"The beings in this room," Ami began, "are not aging at a normal human rate. We're all in our early to mid forties, and yet we all have the bodies of people in their mid-twenties."

"This is a bad thing?" Minako asked. I knew better.

"That's up to the individual to decide," Ami scowled, annoyed at the interruption. "I first began to ponder the question when I realized that Luna and Artemis had more than doubled the normal life span of a healthy feline. That led me to realize that I was far healthier than I should be - - I just hadn't noticed. My medical tests confirmed that physiologically I hadn't aged along a normal human progression. None of us have."

"I'm assuming you cats know why," Endymion commented, locking his eyes on them.

"We do," Artemis confessed. "We weren't trying to hide it. You have to realize that any memory we have concerning Silver Millennium is locked until a particular word or event triggers it. We didn't realize it ourselves until Ami brought it up."

"What Artemis is trying to say," Luna continued, "is that you're all the reincarnation of the royal court of Silver Millennium. Those born of Silver Millennium will live without aging for at least a thousand years."

"Luna!" gasped Serenity while my senses swirled. "A thousand years? How?"

"Well, Your Majesty, it isn't called Silver Millennium for naught. Silver Millennium is literally the thousand-year reign. After a thousand years, you will produce an heir and when that heir comes of age, the cycle will repeat. In the case of your mother, Queen Beryl interrupted the cycle. You see, this isn't a guarantee of immortality. You can still be killed. You simply won't age."

"You mean I'm going to be young for a thousand years?" gasped Minako happily. "How great is that!"

"What about my husband?" I heard a small voice ask timidly. I realized the voice was mine. "What about my kids?"

The room quickly hushed. I sought out Ami's eyes and instantly knew the answer.

"I've run tests," Ami replied for the benefit of the others, "both on my husband Hayami and on your family, Makoto. They're all aging normally. Apparently whatever force is keeping us young can't be passed down, perhaps unless both parents are of Silver Millennium. They'll all have normal human life spans."

I don't know how the others reacted. I know I went into shock. Since that day I've lived knowing this day would come and dreading it.

Sanjuro, my wonderful husband of fifty-eight years and father to my children, died. I'm traveling to his funeral.

* * * *

Ami's the first one to greet me at the funeral. Serenity and the senshi are there and they all go out of their way to make me feel like I'm not alone. Ami, though, seems to be the most concerned about me, even more than Serenity if that's possible. If there's one good thing about this curse of living a thousand years, it's knowing that those four will live it out with me.

A hand touches my arm and I glance in that direction. It's Ichiro, my darling boy Ichiro. He rode here with his wife Setsuko and their kids. I look into that kind face, that face that looks more and more like my Dad's every day and I can't hold it in any longer. The tears come and I smother my sobs by crushing him to me. Feeling him in my arms makes me remember him as that tiny, timid little boy I always carry in my heart. But he hasn't been a boy for years. He's fifty-four years old. He has a wife and kids and his little Atsuko just had a boy last year. I'm a great-grandmother - - and I look young enough to be his daughter.

"I know how you feel, Mom," he whispers to me. "You just have to remember that he's begun his journey to eternity now. He's going to a much better place."

I kiss him and I hug him and suddenly I don't want to let go. Because I know someday they'll take him from me, too.

"Come on, Mom," Akiko whispers to me as she grabs my shoulders. "Don't squeeze too hard or you'll break him."

I let her gently pull me away. That was one of San-san's favorite lines.

I turn around only to pull her to me, because I'm blubbering all over again. Her arms come around me easily. Oh, Akiko, you've been twelve kinds of aggravation to me over the last fifty-seven years, but you're also one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever bestowed on me. I always see so much of San-san in you, and yet he always said he saw so much of me. I don't care if you married that woman and left me with no grandchildren! I don't want to lose you! I don't want to lose either of you!"

"Come on, Mom," Akiko whispers to me, rubbing my back with her hand. "You knew this day was coming. You've got to get a grip." She doesn't say more - - tears have stolen her voice away just like they've stolen mine. Akiko adored her father. She may be even more devastated than I am.

I have to be strong. My children need me - - because San-san's not there for them anymore.

The monk's address during the ceremony is a blur. I understand later that there were dozens of condolence messages. There are just as many people here. One thing about San-san - - everybody loved him. The sutra chant is over before I even realize it's started. I'm too busy holding my children.

Suddenly Rei is before me. I don't understand what she wants until she forces the incense into my hand. With her support, I trudge over and offer the incense to - - to my dead husband. As the others offer their incense, I look at them. Serenity's crying so hard that Endymion has to hold her up. Minako looks like a zombie. Atsuko is trying to be emotionless and the poor dear isn't succeeding.

And just as suddenly it's over. The mourners depart. They offer their words of encouragement, words I don't hear. Ami hands me the envelopes the mourners left and I can't even remember what they're for. Then they begin nailing the coffin shut. Each driven nail hurts as if it's being driven directly into my heart. I want so badly to rip that coffin open and shake San-san until - - until he gives me that goofy grin of his that tells me everything is going to be all right. And just before I move, someone captures my hands in theirs. It's Ami.

"Makoto, I know how hard this is for you," she says and the sympathy in her eyes makes it hurt just that much less. "Please come up to my office tomorrow. If you'd like, I can offer some professional advice to help cope with your grief - - or if you prefer, I can tell you how I got through it when Hayami passed on." She's struggling to stay calm. She does it so much better than I do. "Or I can be a very old friend with a very strong shoulder to cry on. But please come. Please don't try to shoulder this burden by yourself."

She knows me so well. I try to speak three times, to say yes, but I've got no voice left. Finally I give her a feeble nod. She pats my hand. My grandchildren lead me back to the limousine.

* * * *

It's been a month since the funeral - - a month since San-san was - - laid to rest. In that month I haven't left our quarters in the palace.

No, it's not 'our' quarters anymore - - it's just 'my' quarters.

I know Ami told me I shouldn't just sit here and mourn and be lonely. I know I said I'd see her and talk. In the end, I lied. I don't see her. I can't. I can't talk about it. I can't talk it out. It hurts too much. When I don't show, she calls me. I turn off the video feed so I can't see her and mumble something about it being too soon - - which it is. Then I disconnect her. And every day I miss, she calls again. I don't answer. I can't.

After a week, everyone tried to pry me out of here. Rei's been here, Minako's been here, Serenity - - and Ami's practically camped on my doorstep. I don't see any of them. I don't want to. I just want to be alone with my pain.

Ichiro and Setsuko have been here. I let them in, but I barely heard what they said to me. Setsuko visited again on her own, trying to lift my spirits. Even seeing my grandkids didn't help. Atsuko even brought my great-grandchild hoping it would help. All I managed to do though was upset little Masaki. I'm so sorry for it, but I couldn't help it. Seeing him just reminded me that he was one more life I was going to see buried.

Akiko's been here the most. She stops by once a day to force me to eat and to clean the place up. I don't clean anymore - - me, who Minako once called "The Neatness Senshi" lets it go. It just doesn't seem to matter anymore. And I only eat to get Akiko to shut up. Nothing tastes. In my grief, I don't notice how my depression is affecting Akiko - - until my darling little baby girl lets me know in her own special way.

"Goddamn it, Mom!" Akiko roars. "Snap out of it! Do you think you're the only one that's hurting? Do you think you're the only one he left?"

I think those are the first words that have really penetrated my foggy brain since it happened. I turn to her and I finally see the hurt and I'm so sorry because I know I'm as much to blame for it as San-san's death.

"Ichiro and I lost our dad!" Akiko bellows. "So we hurt just like you do! But now you're making us watch our mom waste away to nothing, too! And there's nothing we can do about it! Damn you, Mom, don't make us mourn you both! We need you!"

Her eyes tell me she's sorry she said it, but that she's not sorry she means it. My little rebel - - still sassing me after all these years.

"I'm sorry, Akiko," I whisper - - my voice is hoarse from disuse. "But what's the point of going on if I'm going to outlive you all?"

She's stuck for an answer, so much so her lower lip is trembling. I hate myself because I've only succeeded in transferring some of my hopelessness to her. As a gesture of conciliation, I reach out to her with my hand. She grasps mine and I pull her to me - - she was never strong enough to resist when I pull and she probably doesn't want to at the moment. We hug and begin to cry on each other's shoulders. It's kind of cathartic.

But not enough - - not nearly enough. Oh, San-san, I miss you so.

Once we're through crying, Akiko tells me the other senshi have been asking about me every day, especially Ami. It's not news. They're always asking about me, especially Ami. Ami asks every day if she can see me. But I still don't want to see them. I don't want to see anyone except my children. I know I'm hurting them and that's a terrible thing to do to your best friends, but I just can't face them. Akiko's mad at me, again. Some day she's not going to stop by. Some day she's going to get fed up with me and just abandon me.

She should. They all should. I'm just a broken old woman in a young woman's body dragging everyone else down.

That pattern goes on for a month. A month since the funeral I'm still wondering why. Why did he have to leave me? Why did I have to be the one to survive? It's selfish, I know - - it's probably a good thing he went first, if only to spare him this emptiness and grief. I could probably endure it if it was just a few years. But it's going to be a thousand years - - a thousand years without San-san by my side! Without anyone by my side; children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren - - I'll outlive them all! And don't even think of loving again! How could I risk enduring this heartache ever again, because any lover I might take I'll outlive!

So I'm facing almost a thousand years alone. How am I going to do it?

Akiko's back the next day. I'm happy to see her, even though I dread facing more of her anger - - but not as much as I dread the day she'll follow her father into eternity. Anymore my days are filled with San-san's pictures and recalling memories that always seem to lead back to hearing those nails being pounded into his coffin. It's almost like I'm torturing myself for outliving him.

Somehow this is different from when my parents died. Their deaths were such a sudden shock, I didn't grieve for a long time. I was too busy being angry, angry at fate for having taken them from me, and angry at the world for going on with life and ignoring my loss. I felt life and society had cheated me. I picked fights, lashed out, rebelled against anything and anyone, trying to make someone pay for the emptiness I felt, for being alone in the world. If it hadn't been for Usagi, I probably would have continued down that path until I self-destructed.

San-san's death wasn't a shock, though. Ami warned me when he first contracted kidney disease that renal failure was a possibility. It was a fight and I spent months wondering if every day would be our last. Then when he began to rally, we all thought - - I thought - - he was going to beat it. San-san was always so strong. But the rally took all of his strength. When that was used up, he sank so quickly. It was just a couple of days later that he was - - I still can't say it.

And we both knew for decades that I was going to outlive him. The news seemed to make San-san just that much more attentive - - like he knew one day he'd be separated from me and he wanted to experience as much of me as he could. Good for him, but it makes me miss him all the more now.

My thoughts go to Usagi. She's Serenity now. Maybe she could do something for me. She helped me back then when we were teens. I know she'd say 'yes' without hesitation - - but I can't. I can't burden her with this. I can't let her wondrous power become a crutch. Otherwise every time a member of my family dies - - oh why couldn't the gods have taken me?

When did being a senshi become a curse?

Was it two days since Akiko's last outburst or three? I can't recall and after a moment give up. I think she was here yesterday trying to get me out of bed. I hear footfalls in the next room and assume its her. I wish she'd go on with her life and just leave me alone with my misery. I hate saddling her with me.

"Man, and I thought I slept late," Minako said. I turn because I wasn't expecting her. Did Akiko let her in? I find Rei with her. Great, they're going to double-team me. "You ever getting up?"

"Why?" I mumble.

"Because we miss you, dummy!" Rei spat, kicking the futon. "Is this going to be your tomb for the next thousand years?"

"And if it is?"

"Then you should redecorate," Minako quips, "say an Egyptian motif."

"Makoto, I know what you're going through," Rei said. "The hardest day of my life was the day my 'Kaa-san' died. The second hardest was the day my grandpa died. But three and four were the first days after, when I had to go on living without them. A day hasn't gone by when I haven't missed them, but we go on."

"I don't want to go on," I whisper.

"That's crazy talk," Minako replied. "You have to go on, Makoto! That's what living's all about: experiencing that next day and all the new things that happen and all the old familiar things that happen again. You used to love that! You used to just jump over whatever hurdle life put in your way and grab for the good. You used to never quit fighting."

"I'm tired of fighting."

"Well too bad!" snaps Rei. "You're going to be here for the next thousand years, so you better suck it up and start living again!"

"Why?"

"Because we love you and we miss you and we want you back in our lives!" Rei fumed. "Do you know what you're doing to us? Do you know what you're doing to Serenity? She can feel you, you know! Do you know what she's been like the last month? And Ami's killing herself worrying about you!"

"Sorry."

"Don't be sorry," Minako said. "We're not here for an apology. We're here for our friend. We're not the same without you."

I didn't reply. What was the use?

"Damn it!" Minako swore. "Ami, you talk to her! She'll listen to you!"

Ami's here, too? For the first time in a long time, I'm suddenly ashamed of the way I look and the way I'm acting. I peek over, dreading how she's going to look. It's worse than I thought. She's practically in tears now. She looks like she's been crying for weeks.

"Makoto," Ami said, with a plaintive voice that sounds like she's begging for her life. Why did they have to bring her here? "Believe me, Makoto, we understand what you're going through. I understand most of all. I've dealt with the death of my father, then the death of my mother, and then my dear Hayami. I know what you're feeling. You don't know where you'll find the strength to go on. You don't know why you should even go on if it means going on alone for a thousand years. Makoto, you're not alone!"

"Yes, you've still got your kids," Rei prompted.

"And a whole gaggle of grandkids and great-grandkids that are breeding like rabbits," Minako added in her oh so diplomatic way.

"But I'm going to have to watch each one of them die," I sobbed.

"Yes, you're right," Ami told me. "But we won't die. Serenity and Endymion, Rei and Minako and I will all be by your side to help you get through it." She caressed my cheek gingerly. "Just like they were all there to help me get over Dad and Mother and Hayami. The future's not always going to be easy, Makoto. But you'll only face it alone if you choose to do so. I promise I'll always be there if you want me there."

"We all promise," Rei said.

"Pinky swear," Minako added.

"Oh, grow up," Rei muttered to Minako.

A loud snort escaped me, followed by the giggles. Even as tears streamed down my face, my chest shuddered with laughter. I looked over at them through tear-filled eyes, my cheeks reddening. Ami seemed both embarrassed to be smiling, but ecstatic that I was capable of doing something other than mourn once more. It's almost like she's desperately holding back from hugging me. Rei was trying to smother a smirk and failing and didn't know whether to cuff Minako or surrender to it. Minako was acting mystified by what was so funny, but I knew better. Even if she hadn't intended the joke, she was reveling in the effect.

"I'd almost forgotten what laughing was like," I said at last.

"As long as you've been cooped up in here, I imagine you've forgotten what a lot of things are like," Minako shot back. "Come on, get up! Go outside! Did you know the sky's pink now?"

"Don't push it, Blondie," I said, almost ready to chuckle again.

I look up at them - - Minako hopeful beneath her brash exterior, Rei encouraging and expectant, and Ami almost ready to jump out of her skin if I wither now. And even though she's not here, I can feel Serenity watching me, hoping and waiting for me to return. Didn't I used to think of them as family once? I guess I got so wrapped up in my nuclear family that I forgot. But they didn't forget.

"OK, I'll get up."

As I came to rest on the side of the futon, bracketed by Ami on one side and Rei on the other, I noticed Akiko in the other room. She looked at me with such hope and pride, emotions I hadn't seen in her face in that degree since I finally approved of her relationship with Kimiko.

I glanced over at Rei, then up at Minako, and finally over at Ami. I wasn't alone. And I didn't have to be - - ever again.

"Thanks," I muttered. "I love you guys so much. Losing San-san still hurts a lot. But with your help, maybe I can make it after all."

"Those sessions I recommended are still open," Ami told me. "If you feel uncomfortable meeting in my office, we can meet in a restaurant or anywhere you like. But talk this out, Makoto. Don't keep your feelings bottled up. It's easier to deal with grief when it's out in the open."

"You learn that in one of your head-shrinking classes?" Minako teased.

"No," Ami smiled knowingly and I suddenly remembered why. "A very wise and caring woman taught me that once when I was trying to deal with my own grief." And she looked directly at me as she said it. She remembered - - all these years, even after I'd forgotten it, she remembered the words I told her to get her out of her tailspin when her mom died.

Impulsively I hugged her. I just knew her cheeks were getting red even if I couldn't see them. Then I threw an arm around Rei and hugged her while I still held Ami. Finally I held out a hand to Minako while I still held Rei with that arm and she took it.

It's nice to have family to lean on when you need it, San-san. I think you told me that once.

* * * *

It's been six months since San-san - - died. There, I said it.

For five of those six months, Ami and I have met to talk about things. First we met in her office, which I found very stuffy and antiseptic - - and which reminded me of San-san's last days. She sensed this and changed our next meeting to a restaurant. That was a mistake because I just couldn't resist critiquing the cooking or the wait staff and Ami ended up giggling at me. Now we occupy a bench in Naru Park and talk, when the weather's nice.

At first we talked about me: how I was coping with life, how I was coping with San-san being gone, how I was coping with the grief, both mine and the kid's grief. Ami listened very carefully, very intently, but not with the professional detachment you'd expect from a doctor. I got the sense she cared and it made me feel good. If that's her professional manner, she's an even better doctor than I thought.

We went through everything. We covered my dislike of being alone. Looking back, I think I was punishing myself for outliving San-san. For me to crawl into a hole and make my life everything I hated - - well, there's no other explanation, I thought. Ami suggested a different explanation, though. She proposed that I was actually afraid of having a life after San-san, that being able to go on would somehow diminish his memory. Maybe - - Ami always was smarter than me.

We covered my concern for how the kids were taking it. Ichiro was the one I was worried about, but he's so smart and so stable. He accepted it was a part of life. He misses his dad a lot, but he's glad San-san died quickly rather than linger for years and suffer. That's a perspective I never thought of. I suppose there are worse ways he could have died. At least he's not suffering.

Akiko was the one who fell apart once she didn't have to take care of me anymore. She went on a three day crying jag, according to Kimiko, and broke about a third of their furnishings. Kimiko finally called Ichiro and me in and together we got her through it. Ami said Akiko was probably relieved to feel her mother's strong hand once again in a time of crisis. I don't know about that. The important thing is she's past it.

As time passed, our talks began to drift away from my loss and on to other subjects. I began to look forward to our talks. I've always liked being around Ami. I've always had such huge respect for her. And I've always been able to say things around her than I couldn't say around the others, as much as I love them. I always know that she won't judge me or make fun of me. She's always so considerate of my feelings. Since she didn't do anything to end the sessions, either she was being polite or I was still sick in the head - - or maybe she enjoyed them as much as I did. Which is good - - the last thing I want to be to Ami is a burden.

We talked about a lot of things: Atsuko's little boy is a year and a half now and she's pregnant again. Kenichi's dating and Yomiko wants to get married to someone Setsuko absolutely hates. We talked about Ami's regret that she and Hayami never had children. I make her read her latest poems to me. They always embarrass her and I never know why because she's so good. And I tell her how good she is and the grateful smile she gives me just makes me feel like a saint. We talked about her ambition to someday find a cure for Micro-biotic Toxic Syndrome, all by herself - - I don't understand a word she says when she talks about it, but I love the way her eyes light up when she does.

And we talked about the others, too, because I remember now that they're as much a part of my family as the kids are. We talked about Minako's latest comeback. We talked about the man Rei was seeing and we speculate why she suddenly broke it off. We talked about Rei's sudden budding career as a songwriter - - Minako swiped one of her songs and recorded it and it hit big, so now everybody wants one from her - - and how she's paranoid that no one will want them if they learn a priest wrote them. And Serenity found ANOTHER orphan to adopt. I jokingly asked how many this made and Ami knew the answer immediately: eighty-seven kids given a home and love over the last fifty years, with five currently in residence at the palace.

We talk about so many things, from intimate family anecdotes to plain old current events. I've so come to love our times together. It's almost like I've come to depend on them. They're such an important part of my week now that I find myself looking forward to them and I'm sorry when she or I have to go back to work. It's so much fun being with her. We just always seem to connect. It's like we're tuned to the same wavelength. There aren't two more completely different people in the universe than Ami and me, but it's so comfortable being with her - - as comfortable as it was with - -

No. . .

* * * *

"My Mom the homophobe is in love with another WOMAN?" Akiko gasps - - rudely.

"I am NOT a homophobe!" I reply.

"Yeah, that's why you welcomed Kimiko with open arms that day I brought her home." After all this time, she's still bitter about that.

"It was a shock," I retorted. "I was raised to believe that women fell in love with men! I got over it. You were perfectly right. Kimiko is a wonderful person and you two love each other very much."

"And that's why you were always so polite to Uncle Haruka and Aunt Michiru," Akiko continued.

"My issues with Haruka and Michiru had nothing to do with their sexual preference."

"Rrriiiight."

"Akiko!"

"I heard the stories about how you used to beat up guys in school when they said you weren't feminine."

"That's - - that's not true!"

"Lie to yourself if you have to, but don't lie to me."

"You are such a brat!"

"Face it, Mom! You've been a borderline dyke since you were fourteen! There's no shame in it! Its' who you are!"

"I was married to your father for fifty-eight years! Happily married, I might add!"

"I said 'borderline'." Akiko scowls and grunts - - she always does that when she becomes frustrated with me. "Mom, I'm not saying you didn't love Dad. I'm not saying you don't love guys. But there's a part of you deep down inside, a part that you've always denied, that likes girls, too. Take it from one who knows. It's been there as long as I've known you."

I didn't answer. Was she right?

"Who is she?" Akiko asked, a devilish grin on her round face.

"I'm not saying!"

"Aw, come on Mom! I won't tell anybody!"

"Akiko, I'm not even sure what I'm feeling! I-I think about all the things I did with your father, all the feelings I had, everything about 'us' that made it love and the thought of doing them again with anyone, let alone with another woman . . .!"

"Can't wrap your head around it? I understand. I'm just glad you've become open-minded enough to acknowledge the possibility."

"I wasn't being narrow-minded. It's just - - there's a certain way things should be done."

"Right," Akiko scowled and got up out of her chair. "I've heard this speech before."

"And even if it is somehow - - love, I'm not even sure she feels the same way."

"Well," my daughter grinned, "there's one way to find out."

Oh, yeah, like it's that easy.

* * * *

I spent the first twenty or so years of my life being unafraid of the pain of rejection. Sure, when a guy dumped me, it hurt. I always figured it was because I was too 'butch' for his tastes, too tall, too imposing. But I kept trying, tossing the sting over my shoulder and giving the next guy a shot. And there was a long line of guys, too - - it's odd, but I always seemed more concern with how tall I was or how aggressive I was than they were. The minute I was free, there always seemed to be a new contender waiting despite my 'defects'.

Maybe they were too busy looking at my big chest to notice my height.

Then I met San-san and I realized I was able to move on from all those other guys because I didn't really love them. I didn't know what love really was until I met him. Because the thought of being rejected by him scared me down to my socks for every one of our fifty-eight years together. Is that the true test of love? Is being petrified of driving that person away a sign of how important that person is to you?

If so - - no, it can't be! Women aren't supposed to love each other that way!

Immediately I thought of Akiko. She'd been with Kimiko for thirty-some years now. Wasn't that proof otherwise? And being with Kimiko does so much for my little baby girl. She's honestly better for it. I hope Kimiko doesn't die first, because Akiko is going to unravel worse than she did when her father passed. It's obviously love. Would something that's wrong produce something so right?

And I think of Haruka and Michiru. They're not the most likable people in the world, but one thing is obvious: they're nuts about each other. Always have been and probably always will be. They're the most stable couple I've ever seen. Even Serenity and Endymion have disagreements now and then. But Haruka and Michiru seem like the living embodiment of yin and yang - - opposites completing each other.

Yet they're not opposites in one very important way.

My head hurts.

Besides, even if by some amazing miracle I am in love with a woman, how can I be in love with someone else at all? San-san was my one and only true love. I know that! I won't believe otherwise! How could I fall in love again this quickly?

I wish I could ask Ami these questions. She'd be smart enough to figure it all out. But she'd be smart enough to figure out the truth, too. And it might insult her. And I couldn't risk that.

God, I am in love with her. Maybe I always have been - - even before I met San-san and realized what true love was.

* * * *

Our talks end, mainly because I'm too afraid Ami will realize the truth and be hurt or offended. So I avoid her and probably manage to hurt or offend her in a different way - - Makoto Kino Ikegami, queen of the social klutzes. It's hard for me not to see her. I miss those talks. I miss her. But the thought of her being insulted or repulsed by my feelings - - I'd rather face a firing squad. Ami notices my withdrawal, but she's too polite to say anything. I didn't think anyone else would notice, though. As usual, I didn't think.

One day I'm at my regular post, supervising the palace orphanage. Serenity picked me because I'm the only one in the 'inner circle' with any experience raising children. We all pitch in - - Ami somehow finds time to supervise the educational curriculum, Rei runs the counseling and spiritual guidance and Minako coordinates recreational time. Serenity provides the mother figure and loves them all to death, something she's real good at. My job is to hire the teachers, housekeepers and attendants, supervise their meals, and keep them from killing each other or jumping out of the third story window because they saw it on a vid. The work is routine, but the routine helps me fill the void that San-san left and that Ami doesn't fill anymore.

The only time it hurts is when I have to coordinate with Ami. She's polite and tries to cover up that I've hurt her, but I know better.

It's just another day. Serenity's managed to sneak away from affairs of state and is playing with Touga. He's an absolutely adorable five-year-old who lost his parents when their sky car exploded en route to Okinawa. The kid was a wreck when we got him - - and believe me, I understand why - - but he fell under Serenity's spell just like everybody else does and now he can't bear to be away from her. A lot of people think a head of state down on her knees playing 'bounce the ball' with a five-year-old brings that head's competency and dignity into question. But Serenity doesn't care and I love her for it.

"Mako-chan," she said out of the blue when it looks like Touga is tiring, "can you spare a moment? I need to ask you something."

"Sure, Serenity," I replied, not suspecting anything.

"I think it's time for your nap, Touga," Serenity smiled at him. Touga gives her an exaggerated sigh and she hugs him. "Oh, we'll play again. But you need your rest so you can grow up big and strong and move mountains to get to the girl you love the most."

"Girls - - yuck!" he scowled. Serenity giggled and hugged him again. "OK, Usagi-Mama." He scampered off as we watched him, both of us with ear to ear grins.

"He's such a cutey," I said. "So what did you need?"

"Well," she began, sounding no more mature than Touga, "is there any chance you could make one of your famous chocolate pudding cakes? I think the kids would love it."

"Are you sure they'd get a piece?" I smirked. Serenity kind of shrunk with guilt. "OK - - anything for 'the kids'. I'll even let you lick the bowl." Serenity grinned at me.

"Mako-chan," she continued - - I was totally off guard now, "don't you think you at least owe Ami an explanation?"

I was going to ask how she knew, but I suppose it was obvious to everyone who knew us. My shoulders bowed, the weight of my dilemma crushing me.

"How do I explain?" I asked, at once consumed with the guilt I'd been repressing. "I can't even explain it to you and you wouldn't be hurt by it."

"You don't have to explain," she smiled. "I know you're in love with Ami."

"How? Is it that obvious?"

"Just to me. You have to remember, I've always had a sixth sense when two people are right for each other. After all, who introduced you to Sanjuro? And who nudged Ami into going out with Hayami in the first place?"

"I don't know how you still manage to amaze me after all these years." I got real introspective. "Even if I am, San-san's only been dead six months."

"You feel like you're being disloyal," Serenity said. "I understand. That's so you: respectful to the end. But would Sanjuro want you to spend the rest of your life alone just out of respect for him? I don't think so, but you knew him best. Am I wrong?"

I thought back on my long life with San-san. It seemed like all he ever did was try to make me happy.

"Maybe not," I murmured. "But I've known Ami for years! How could I suddenly fall in love with her now?"

"Maybe you've always been in love with her. You just didn't let yourself notice."

"But I loved San-san! Can you be in love with two people at the same time?"

"Oh, yes," Serenity said with a finality that got me to wondering later if she was speaking from experience.

"Besides, we're both women," I offered up lamely, because I wasn't sure I even still believed that rule of life anymore.

"Mako-chan," Serenity smiled warmly, grasping my hands, "love doesn't see gender. Anyone who lets gender stand in their way - - isn't being fair to themselves." And just like that, she crushed the last bit of life out of that argument.

"I guess," I shrugged. "But does she feel the same?"

"Why don't you ask her?" Serenity said with an impish smirk. I started to protest, but she held up a finger and stopped me. "Ah, ah," she admonished. "Who was right about Sanjuro?"

How are you going to argue with that?

I think it was easier facing the Frost Giants than it was walking up to Ami and speaking to her right then, given the wall of emotional baggage I'd flung between us. But I didn't back down.

"Ami?" I ventured while I felt my heart trying to hammer its way out of my chest. "Um, can we talk?"

"Certainly," she said quickly. She must have sensed the gravity of my mood. "We can go to my off - - um, no." She must have remembered my discomfort over her office. "Serenity's garden?"

"Yeah, that sounds like a good place," I smiled. Always concerned with someone else's feelings at the expense of her own - - that's one of the things I love about her.

Love . . .

We got out into the garden. It was still nice, even this late in the year. While I tried to find the words to communicate my whirlpool of emotions, Ami spoke up.

"Makoto," she began tensely, "I know you wanted to say something to me, but please let me say this first. I want to apologize for whatever I did to make you pull back from me."

"What?"

"Well, I must have been getting too close - - intruding into your privacy or becoming too intimate. Well, perhaps not intimate - - um, that is - - you lost someone very dear to you and I must have seemed like I was trying to take his place. That was never my intent, never! I value your friendship very much and I'm, well, sorry I made you pull back. Please forgive me."

"You didn't do anything Ami," I said quickly. "You were just trying to help me get through it. You helped me more than anybody - - and I wasn't very grateful. If anybody should be apologizing, it should be me."

There was an awkward pause between us. I was afraid to go on - - but Dad always told me you can't let fear rule you.

"Ami," I forced myself to say. "I-I think I'm in love - - again."

"Really?"

It almost sounded like she was more scared of me going on than I was. God, she's going to hate me! Oh please, strike me down before I say this! "You don't seem as happy as I would expect you to be," Ami said, her concern for me superseding whatever she was feeling.

"Yeah, I feel guilty as Hell. I feel like I'm betraying San-san's memory. I told Serenity and she said San-san would understand, wherever he is."

"He would," Ami told me with eerie certainty. "The Sanjuro I knew wouldn't expect you to lead a lonely existence after he was gone - - particularly if it could last over nine hundred years. You're not betraying your vows to him, Makoto. You're taking the next step in your journey."

"Thanks."

I wanted to say more, but I couldn't make myself.

"There's more, isn't there? Forgive me if I'm prying, but you seem so troubled."

"Yeah, there's more. I don't know if the other person feels the same way about me. It might be an insult - - to that person."

"Anyone who thinks love is an insult doesn't deserve it," Ami said with a passion I'd expect from Serenity. "If this person isn't attracted to you, that's one thing. But your love could never insult anyone worthy of you, Makoto."

"It's a little more complicated," I added. "This person . . . is a friend of mine. Falling in love with a friend - - kind of changes things - - and not always for the better."

"A friend?" Ami asked, almost as a whimper. She knows! I can feel things changing between us already! "Well, romantic feelings would change - - the, um, dynamics of-of an interpersonal relationship. Perhaps it might not be a good thing to tell him unless you're sure he would reciprocate."

Just what I've been - - wait a minute, 'he'?

"Ami," I said quickly, "I'm in love with another woman."

"You are?" Ami gasped. It wasn't a gasp of shock or horror or revulsion. It almost seemed - - hopeful. "Do I know her?"

Get it over with. "It's - - you."

She hates me.

"Oh my," she whispers. It's not what I'm expecting. "You were worried I wouldn't return your feelings?"

She almost seems giddy.

"I was worried you wouldn't return mine."

Huh?

"Makoto," she began, a light in her eyes that usually only appears when she's discussing dissecting micro-thingies, "I've always felt a closeness to you. I think only my feelings for Serenity equal them and that's completely different. I just didn't realize it was attraction until after Hayami died. I think I've been in love with you for years."

"Well why didn't you say something?" I asked.

"You had Sanjuro," she replied, "and you were happy. And you've always been - - uncomfortable - - about subjects that bring your sexual orientation into question. I was afraid - - afraid you'd react negatively."

I look down, ashamed for what I unintentionally put her through all these years. "I probably would have. Akiko actually called me a homophobe."

"I don't think it's that pronounced. But you do have phobias about your gender identity - - forgive me for saying so. But I'm so very glad that you feel the same way I do. It must have taken a lot to get you to finally admit them. In a way, it's very endearing that you summoned this courage up - - just for me."

"Yeah. I, um," I mumbled, things skidding to a stop.

I felt so stupid - - but not as stupid as I was about to feel.

"Um, what now? I've never been a lesbian before."

Ami tried to smother her laugh.

"I don't think being in love with one woman makes you a lesbian," Ami giggled, "unless there are some things about you that you haven't told me."

I could feel my cheeks burning. She grasped my hand, ready to remove it if I shied. I didn't - - I was suddenly grateful for it.

"This is as new to me as it is to you," Ami told me. "I don't know what comes next, but as long as we're together it doesn't matter. We can be whatever you're comfortable with, Makoto. If we're nothing more than close companions for the next nine hundred plus years, that's fine with me. Because I have to confess that, after Hayami died, I wasn't exactly enamored with the prospect of facing nine hundred plus years without a companion to love. But the prospect of falling in love again with someone I was destined to outlive was just as painful a proposal."

"I know exactly what you mean," I nodded.

"But I can face it now," she smiled and grasped my hand harder - - and it felt good, "because I know you'll be there for every one of those nine hundred plus years." She looked down modestly. "And, if you decide one day that you're ready to become - - more intimate than just companions," and she looked up into my eyes with a tender expression, "that's all right, too."

"Ami!" I gasped in mock surprise.

"I'm eighty years old!" she barked, her mouth unable to keep from screwing into an impish grin. "I stopped blushing about sex a long time ago!"

I look down into her beaming face and the world seemed to lift from my shoulders. Serenity was right again. How does she do it?

On impulse I gathered Ami in and hugged her. She feels different from you, San-san. Not better, not worse - - just different. I haven't stopped loving you. I'll never stop loving you. I'm only continuing down my path. I've just got a new partner to walk with.

Ami looks up at me and she's so contented and her smile looks so cute. I've got to kiss those lips some day, just to see what it feels like. Who knows? I might even like it as much as I liked kissing you, San-san.

But not today - - this is already way beyond anything I ever thought I was capable of doing. I better not press my luck.

THE END - - AND THE BEGINNING