A Sailor Moon fanfic

By Bill K.

Sailor Moon and all related characters are ©2005 by Naoko Takeuchi/Kodansha and Toei Animation and are used without permission, but with respect. Story is ©2005 by Bill K.

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












Haruna Sakurada-Patricia Haruna

Umino Gurio-Melvin

Naru Osaka-Molly

bento-a lunchbox of sorts

Finally, Haruka and Michiru are NOT cousins.

Usagi exited Sakurada-sensei's class at the end of the day, her teacher's desperate warning that high school entrance exams were fast approaching still ringing in her ears. Waving to Naru and Umino as they left in one direction, Usagi turned and headed in the other to meet up with Ami and Makoto. There was exhilaration in the young girl's manner, for never did she feel so free as the moment classes let out for the day.

"Hi, Ami," Usagi beamed. Ami turned and smiled to her friend in return. "Got any plans for tonight?"

"Well . . ." Ami began.

"And don't say 'studying', because we both know you know everything that's going to be on the entrance exams without even seeing the test. You could probably pass the college exams."

"Did you want me to help you?" Ami asked. "I can certainly spare time for that."

"Great! There's this new dress I've been dying to try on . . .!"

"I didn't mean shopping," scowled Ami.

The pair were joined by Makoto.

"Well, I figure if I have a pretty new dress I can concentrate on studying better," Usagi reasoned.

"Only you could believe that's even remotely logical," Ami grimaced.

"Well, fine, be a stick-in-the-mud," moped Usagi. It didn't last long. "How about you, Mako-chan? Want to blow off some steam shopping?"

"Not tonight, Usagi," Makoto replied, offering her a half-hearted grin through her melancholy. Ami offered the girl a sympathetic glance.

"Got a date tonight?" Usagi asked hopefully.

"Usagi!" Ami gasped, aghast at her friend's obliviousness.

"What? What'd I say?" Usagi gaped.

"Guess you don't remember what today is," Makoto smiled sadly.

"Is it your birthday? Mako-chan, I'm sorry! I'm such a dummy!"

"It's not my birthday, Usagi," Makoto whispered. "Today's the anniversary of - - of when my parents died."

Makoto turned to leave, oblivious to whether anyone would follow. A pregnant silence surrounded the girls through the doors of the school and out into the courtyard. Ami put a supportive hand on Makoto's shoulder.

"Oh, Mako-chan!" Usagi gasped, tearing up. "I AM an idiot!"

"It's OK," Makoto replied. "I was just going to go visit the graves - - pay my respects. Nothing much."

"Do you want me to come with you?"

Surprised, both Makoto and Ami turned to her. They searched their friend's face, trying to determine if the offer was made as a gesture of apology. But Usagi's gaffe of a few moments ago was gone, disappeared from her memory as quickly as today's history or English lesson. Her only concern was helping a friend in need and it was as clear as the nose on her face.

"Don't you have things to do?" Makoto asked.

"Nothing important," Usagi shrugged.

Makoto considered it.

"OK," she said, then smiled, touched by the gesture. "They'll probably appreciate the company."

Waving to Ami, the two friends departed for the cemetery.

On the way, they stopped at a Shinto shrine. Makoto stepped up to the altar and offered a prayer while Usagi watched. She didn't speak. Her only concern was her friend. After ringing the bell, they were off. Makoto didn't say a word. Usagi saw she was lost in memories.

"Mako-chan," Usagi ventured as they walked to the cemetery. "What were your parents like? If you don't mind my asking."

Makoto smiled. "They were nice. My Dad was so strong and confident. People always say I look a lot like him. I get my strength from him - - and my height, though I'm not as tall as him. I always remember him being - - like a mountain. He was big. He could be very intimidating when you first looked at him. But he was the gentlest man I ever knew. He never seemed to get angry. If he told you that you did wrong, you believed it because he believed it. And if he told you that you did good, you believed that, too, and you were so happy. You believed anything he told you because of the force and confidence of his personality. I guess that's what made him so successful."

"What did he do?" Usagi asked.

"He was Director of Operations for Korematsu."

"The big land developer?" Usagi gasped.

"Yeah. He supervised all their projects and handled any problems that came up. He was a big success at an early age. Everybody tells me now that he would have been president of the company by the time he was forty." Makoto shrugged. "Hard to believe; to me, he was just 'Dad'."

"And your Mom?"

"She was my best friend," Makoto grinned. "Well, next to Shinozaki. She was always there for me, even though I drove her crazy when I'd come home dirty and scuffed up from playing hard. I know she wanted a 'little girl', but she let me be a tomboy for the longest time. I guess she knew it made me happy. And she always told me I could be anything I wanted to be if I worked hard enough." Makoto's expression began to cloud up with emotion.

"I'm sorry," whimpered Usagi.

"Gonna be crying sooner or later," Makoto replied bravely. "Might as well start now."

They turned into the cemetery. Makoto was struggling to hold back the tears and not succeeding. Just then a hand snaked around hers and held on reassuringly. Makoto glanced over at Usagi and caught the encouraging look on her friend's face. She offered the girl a grateful smile amid the tears trickling down her cheeks.

At the grave markers, Makoto knelt down before them. While Usagi looked on, the girl bowed her head. After an eternity of moments, she looked up. Still kneeling, Makoto reached out and touched the marker bearing the name of her father.

Five-year-old Makoto Kino stood on a grassy knoll inside the grounds of the shrine. It was cherry blossom festival and she was dressed in a colorful kimono. Though big for her age even then, the girl projected an aura of innocent serenity as she felt the warm breeze of spring waft through the blooming grasses.

A sensation on her forehead interrupted Makoto's reverie. Glancing upward, the girl found a butterfly alight on her brown locks. Reacting not with fear or annoyance but with wonder, she held perfectly still so as not to frighten the insect away.

"Oh, my!" cooed her mother after snapping a picture. "That is just SO ADORABLE!" As she gushed, Makoto's father looked on with amused pride.

Then a sound caught Makoto's ear. The girl turned to it, the butterfly forgotten and fleeing from the sudden movement. Without warning, the girl bounded off in the direction of a gathering of other children while her parents looked on. Makoto's boundless energy was a familiar sight to them both.

"Give it back!" pleaded the young boy of five. He held out his hand vainly to the other boy in front of him. He was small and thin, with a nest of brown hair atop his head and large supplicant eyes. "It's my offering!"

"Yeah? Well you just offered it to me!" sneered the other youth, older by just a year but husky and already versed in what brute force could gain. His hair was shaved close to his head and he possessed none of the inherent innocence one so young should possess.

"Please! Please give it back!" the smaller boy persisted. Several others gathered around to watch the boy. Some enjoyed his humiliation, while others were just glad it was not them.

"Beg some more!" snickered the brute. He knew from a growing list of experiences that he was in charge. He knew and he liked the feeling. He liked the power.

"You heard him," Makoto said, drawing the attention of everyone but the smaller boy, whose stare was still fixed on the hundred yen coin in the bigger boy's hand. "Give it back."

"Scram," sneered the bully. He turned away, dismissing Makoto - - his first mistake.

Makoto swooped in like an avenging angel. Her shoulder drove into the small of the husky boy's back, sending them both sprawling to the paving stones of the shrine. It was a shock only to those who didn't recognize Makoto Kino. Even at five, she was as tall as any boy her age, as strong and as fast. Moreover, she hit like a boy, as the husky youth quickly found out. Fists of righteous fury began to pound down on him. His surprise at being blind-sided became even greater when he discovered his attacker was a girl. Desperately he fought back, landing several blows that would have sent any girl and a lot of boys into retreat.

Makoto only hit harder. The pair continued to tussle and every second the battle lasted, it seemed less likely to the boy that he could win. With a strength borne of desperation, the bully extricated himself from beneath his attacker. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Makoto lunge for him and he ran, ran as fast as he could. All thoughts of the hundred yen coin and of the delicious power he'd had over the smaller boy were forgotten as he ran for any sanctuary he could find from the demon masquerading as a girl. And as he ran, he realized dimly that sometimes oppressing others exacted a terrible price.

Grimly satisfied in her triumph, Makoto picked herself up. Oblivious to the stares of everyone else, she bent down and retrieved the coin, then walked up to the wide-eyed young boy.

"Here you go," Makoto smiled, handing the coin to him. The boy took it, staring at her dumbfounded. It made Makoto just a bit uncomfortable. It reminded her that she was bigger than normal girls. "I'm Makoto Kino," she said, trying to disarm the situation.

"K-Kenji Shinozaki," the boy whispered. He acted as if he'd met a god.

"You're in class 2, aren't you?" Makoto asked.

"Yeah," he smiled. "Aren't you in class 3?"

Just then Makoto's mother ran up. She knelt down before Makoto, gripping the child by both arms.

"Makoto-chan, are you all right?" the woman cried. "Oh my, you've got a bruise on your cheek! And your new kimono is ruined!"

"I'm OK, Mom," Makoto shrugged, trying to reassure the woman. Her father knelt down and she turned to him, expectantly, proud of her triumph.

"Makoto," he began, relieved that she was just scuffed and bruised. "You shouldn't have done that, honey."

"But he was being mean to Shinozaki-kun!" Makoto protested. "Somebody had to stand up to him!"

Her father gathered the girl up in his powerful arms and hugged her.

"It's not what a lady would do," he whispered to her.

The triumph drained out of young Makoto.

Usagi watched her friend kneel before the two markers and touch them as if she could commune with the spirits of the people they immortalized. She wished with all her heart, wished until she ached that she could wave her hand and dispel her friend's grief. She had lived through tragedy in her life, but Makoto lived with it every day. Her friend was reminded of it every morning she woke up to her empty apartment. And yet, Makoto seemed to find some way to carry on, to even greet the coming day with optimism. Usagi was grateful for it, but wondered how Makoto did it. Such a thing would have destroyed her.

She reflected back on Mamoru and his similar pain. Silently she approached, unseen by Makoto in her encompassing tribute. She knelt down behind the large girl.

Makoto felt the hand on her shoulder. It was a momentary jarring surprise. She looked around and found the hand belonged to Usagi. Timidly Makoto offered her friend another grateful smile. Thank the gods that they'd nudged her into allowing Usagi to come along.

Seven year old Makoto Kino walked into the kitchen of the home she shared with her parents. The young girl's troubled demeanor was readily apparent on her face. Her mother was in the midst of putting together a shopping list. She turned to greet her only off-spring.

"You're back early from playing," the woman commented happily. "Tired already?"

Makoto was sitting at the table, staring at her knees without seeing them. Her mother put down her list and knelt next to her daughter.

"Makoto-chan?" she whispered, stroking the girl's brown hair. "What's wrong?"

"Mama," the girl whimpered as a tear trickled down her cheek. "Why does everybody hate me?"

"What makes you think everybody hates you?"

"Because they do."

"What happened?"

"I was playing soccer with some of the boys over in the park. And I was really good. I intercepted the ball and scored. Nobody could catch me. So the boys started making fun of me. They called me a freak. They said I wasn't really a girl. And they laughed and they laughed."

"You didn't fight them, did you?" her mother asked fearfully.

"No," Makoto sobbed, her pain in her voice. "Because Daddy says that's not what a lady would do. I told them I was a girl - - but they just kept laughing. And then Shinozaki-kun jumped in and challenged Yamaguchi-kun to fight if he didn't stop. Mama, Shinozaki-kun is the only boy who's ever nice to me! It's because I'm not a lady, isn't it?"

Her mother gathered Makoto in and hugged her.

"Makoto-chan," her mother whispered to her. "There's - - something you have to understand about some boys. If another boy is better than they are, they accept it and try to get stronger. But if a girl is better than they are, they don't know what to do because they think they're supposed to be better automatically. And they say and do nasty things because they don't know what else to do. That's the way some boys are and that's the way they'll always be. It's not your fault and it's got nothing to do with whether you're a lady."

Makoto sniffed loudly.

"You have to decide what's important to you, Makoto-chan. If you want to be known for your physical prowess, then be the best you can and don't worry if everyone else is jealous of you. But if having people like you is what's important, then be what they like best. If it's a sympathetic ear, be a sympathetic ear. If it's a friend, be a friend. If it's a pretty girl, be a pretty girl." Her mother brushed the bangs from Makoto's eyes. "After all, you can be anything you want to be if you work hard enough at it."

Silently Makoto nodded. Helpless to know if she'd reached her daughter, the woman leaned in and kissed the child. Makoto slid off the chair and went up to her room.

She found Makoto waiting for her when she returned from the market. All through the preparation of dinner Makoto watched her with keen interest. It was unusual, as Makoto had rarely shown any interest in housework before beyond assigned chores. This went on for several days until she finally asked Makoto why.

The girl explained she was trying to be more of a lady and, point blank, asked to learn to cook. Her mother was amused by her daughter's passion and suspected that this was a passing fancy, but felt flattered by the girl's interest. So the woman took her step by step through the process of preparing a meal. And when that meal was served and her father exclaimed his delight at the taste, little Makoto filled with the same pride of accomplishment she'd felt for those fleeting moments after scoring the goal in soccer.

She was back again the next day and every day until she grew so proficient at it that her mother allowed the young girl to prepare meals on her own. Makoto began to study cookbooks on her own, pursuing culinary expertise with the dogged determination and stamina that her mother had told her was necessary to succeed. When she mastered cooking, Makoto turned to sewing, interior decorating and other domestic arts, working hard to master them as well. While it competed with soccer and basketball for time in her life, to her mother's silent consternation, Makoto's dedication didn't waver. And as Makoto's skill grew through hard work and determination, the swell of her mother's pride in her daughter grew as well.

Usagi and Makoto sat in a booth in a restaurant. Makoto sipped soda through a straw and reflected on the gulf in her life that still existed. Usagi sat across from her, ready to help her through this time, but unsure how to delicately broach the subject. Suddenly Makoto glanced up at her.

"I'm sorry, Usagi," Makoto offered. "You must be bored out of your mind."

"Don't worry about that," Usagi told her. "I just wish I could do or say something to ease the hurt you must be feeling."

"You know, it's weird," Makoto said, staring into her cola. "This is the third anniversary of them being gone and each year it hurts just a little less. I never thought that would happen. I still miss them a lot - - but it doesn't seem to hurt as much."

"Healing's a wonderful thing," Usagi offered.

Makoto smiled to herself. "If you want to go home, you can. I won't be offended."

"Are you going home?"

"Not yet. My apartment kind of gets to feeling - - confining - - on this day."

"Then I'll stay," Usagi said. Makoto's eyes silently were grateful.

"Then I'll buy you another shake," she replied.

When he wasn't off trouble-shooting some construction site, her father would usually spend his evenings sitting on the sofa watching television. When that happened, Makoto's favorite spot in the entire universe was to be on that sofa, curled up against her father's big, strong body. When she could feel his solid frame next to hers and his beefy arm on her shoulder, Makoto felt like nothing in the world could hurt her. Nothing - - not physical threats nor the cruel taunts of jealous girls or intimidated boys. In those moments it didn't matter that she was so big - - she wasn't so big that she couldn't cling to her rock of security.

One particular evening the family was watching the Winter Olympics. Makoto watched with mild interest as skiers tore down a hill. Then the venue switched to figure skating.

Makoto's eyes grew wide. Her mouth formed an 'o' of surprise. Those women on the screen - - they were so fast, so powerful, and yet so very graceful. How did they do it? They were like nothing she'd ever seen before. Before she knew it, she'd let out an audible gasp.

"You like that, huh?" her father smiled down at her, tenderly stroking her hair.

"Daddy, she's amazing!" Makoto squealed. "Oh, I wish I could do that!"

"Do you really?" he asked.

"Oh, yes! It would be so wonderful if I could do that!"

The very next day Makoto had a pair of ice skates and a skating leotard. Before she knew it she found herself bowing to her new instructor, a pleasant and disarming Russian ex-patriot, while her father looked on. He had taken a day off from work just to be with her on her first day of the skating lessons he'd bought for her. The nine-year-old glanced back at him when invited out onto the ice for the first time on skates. Her father smiled back at her, warm and reassuring,and nodded his encouragement. And since he believed in her, Makoto knew she was all right and ventured out.

It was a revelation to her. It was perfect. Makoto could indulge her desire for physical expression and competition and still be the perfect graceful lady that society and her parents seemed to demand of her. Fulfilling those demands had been hard for her. She tried, but she kept slipping back into old habits such as pick up basketball or defending the weak. Though her parents only disapproved verbally of the fighting, deep down she felt they disapproved of all of her backsliding. If only it wasn't so hard sometimes. But this seemed like a gift from the gods. When her lesson ended, she flew off the ice and into the arms of her waiting father, hugging him gratefully. He seemed pleased as well, reveling in his daughter's excitement.

Every week Makoto would look forward to Tuesday and Friday nights, when she could take her next lesson. Her instructor was in turn impressed by the dedication of the nine-year-old and her willingness to work hard to improve, traits most nine-year-olds didn't have. She also liked how quickly the girl picked up the physical part of skating and how naturally athletic she was, easily outdistancing everyone else in the class in that regard. Though in the instructor's estimation Makoto lacked the artistic aptitude to ever compete in figure skating, she could easily achieve a technical skill that would satisfy her. And seeing the not so little girl so happy gave the woman a sense of accomplishment.

At the end of the course, all the parents were invited to view their children perform on the ice. The two best students, Makoto and a slight young girl named Nanako, were picked to skate in the leads of the production. Nanako was the more artistic of the pair and easily outdid Makoto and the others. It didn't matter to her. Makoto felt free on the ice, free to allow herself to move and leap and race - - and still be thought of as feminine. She was filled again with the pride of accomplishment and at the end when the applause showered down, her cheeks colored crimson but her heart secretly sang.

After the performance, her parents greeted her at the edge of the rink. Her father gathered her in again and hugged her while her mother doted and stroked her hair.

"Oh, Makoto-chan, we're so proud of you!" beamed her mother.

"Thank you!" young Makoto squealed. "I owe this all to you, Daddy!"

"No, you don't," he said, struggling to hide his emotion. "I only gave you the chance. You're the one who took it and succeeded with it."

"That's right, honey," her mother added. "Don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't succeed at anything. You only have to try hard enough."

Makoto hugged her father harder. Was it even possible to be happier than she was now?

"I could always turn to them when I was confused or feeling down," Makoto related absently. Usagi listened while sipping on her third shake. Makoto was still nursing her first cola. "Dad always tried to fix the problem. Even if he couldn't, it was still nice to know that he cared enough to try."

"Yeah," Usagi said sympathetically.

"And Mom was always so supportive. She'd always try to understand. She didn't always, but she tried- - hard. It was important to her. I didn't always realize it. Kids are kind of dumb like that. But that's so touching to think back on, you know?"

"They sound like they were great parents," Usagi told her.

"They were," Makoto whispered, looking down. Instantly Usagi could see her friend's emotions welling up again. "I still wonder, you know? Why did they have to die, Usagi? Why?"

"I don't know, Mako-chan," Usagi whimpered.

"Why did they have to die?" Makoto repeated, staring down at the vinyl on the tabletop. "Why did they have to leave me all alone?"

Usagi's hand reached out and covered Makoto's.

As if young Makoto hadn't had enough to deal with being as big and as strong as most of the boys- - and having a nagging sense of justice that just wouldn't allow her to turn a blind eye to a bully, much to the consternation of both her parents and her educators - - puberty came to her in her twelfth year and hit her with both barrels. To her horror, Makoto was suddenly six inches taller and her husky frame had shifted, giving her intimidating curves and arresting bulges. She could easily pass for someone three or four years older, further causing her to stand out. And though it was one more reason for the other girls in her class to regard her with envy, the boys suddenly stopped calling her 'freak'.

Her newly-found physical beauty was lost on her, though. Makoto still thought of herself as a hulking, unfeminine tomboy that intimidated boys. She had long since decided that the best way to counter the trepidation or envy of others was with a disarming disposition and a self-deprecating sense of humor, adopting an honest and guileless way of interacting with others. While it gave some of the more mean-spirited a chance to build themselves up at her expense, it also allayed the suspicion of others and won her some friends, particularly a shy young spirit named Tomoko Takase. The trait became a useful thing to have in the treacherous waters of middle school.

Through it all, though, one constant remained in her life as it had since she'd been five.

"I'm surprised you don't have more male friends," Shinozaki observed wryly. Now thirteen himself and just beginning to change, Shinozaki was at the stage where he seemed awkward and emaciated, caught between boyhood and teen years. Makoto didn't care. He was still Shinozaki-kun, her best friend in the universe.

"I probably still intimidate them," Makoto shrugged. The pair walked down the hall, headed from history class for the door to walk home, as they had done every day since grade one.

"I'm sure you do," he smiled to himself, "though not for the reason you used to."

"What do you mean? I could still take anyone in a fight - - not that I would," Makoto replied, her cheeks coloring quickly. "After all, it's not what a lady would do."

"That's not what I mean," smirked Shinozaki, glancing at Makoto's imposing chest as they walked out the door of their junior high and into the street.

"I know what you mean," Makoto smirked back. "Honestly, why is it that when a boy turns a certain age, he turns into a pervert?"

"Must be the genes," Shinozaki joked.

When Makoto didn't respond, he turned to her. The reed-thin youth found her staring off in amazement. Readjusting his sight line, Shinozaki found out what had captivated her - - or, more accurately, who.

"Ohhhh, Futabari-kun," he nodded.

"You know him?"

"He lives in my neighborhood. He goes to the high school around the corner."

"I know. Isn't he gorgeous?" Makoto sighed.

"He's not my type, actually," Shinozaki replied.

"I see him out on the recreation fields after class sometimes. And I see him at lunch. He seems like a really nice guy. And he's SO cute!"

"Wow, I've never seen you like this," Shinozaki marveled.

"I'm going to try to get him to ask me out," Makoto stated in her familiar fearless manner.

"K-Kino!" Shinozaki gasped. "He's SECOND YEAR HIGH SCHOOL! You're only thirteen! He's not going to give you the time of day!"

"Won't know until I try," she told her friend with a jaunty air.

Shinozaki looked at her curiously to see if she was kidding, but Makoto was, as usual, completely in earnest.

"What's the worst he can do? Say no?" she replied. "People have said no to me before and I'm still alive. Maybe laugh? People have laughed at me all my life and I've never let it stop me before. It's a challenge, yeah - - but I've not afraid to fail, I'm only afraid of letting someone down. If I fail here I won't let anyone down but me."

"Are you sure about this?" Shinozaki warned. "I'd really hate to see you get hurt."

Makoto turned tenderly to Shinozaki. "Thanks. You're always looking out for me. "

"We look out for each other," Shinozaki smiled back.

With that Makoto scurried off after the handsome Kogoro Futabari. She caught up with him at the traffic light.

"Um, hi, Futabari-sempai," Makoto said, standing right next to the boy. Futabari, to her relief, was six feet tall, so her height wouldn't be a problem.

"Hi," the boy nodded, then got a good look at Makoto. His gaze lingered and the corners of his mouth turned up. "Do I know you?"

"No. My friend told me your name. I'm Makoto Kino."

"I don't remember seeing a pretty girl like you around school," he said, eyes twinkling. "Am I going blind?"

"I, um, don't go to your school," Makoto replied. "I wish I did." Makoto felt herself blush from the lusty tone of the statement, but Futabari took it in good humor.

"So do I," he murmured. "Um, are you doing anything tonight?"

Makoto felt her chest swell.

"Uh, no."

"Like to go out?"

"I'd, um," and Makoto realized for the first time she was only thirteen and her parents would freak if she told them she was going on a date. "Sure! Where should I meet you?"

Minutes later, Shinozaki heard the pounding of shoe leather on pavement. He turned just in time to see Makoto sprinting up to him with the speed of a missile.

"Shinozaki!" Makoto gasped. "He asked me out!"

"That's great," he smiled.

"Maybe not! There's no way my parents would let me go! You have to help me!"


"Tell your Mom you and I are going to the library to study! I'll tell my folks the same thing. That way, if they check we're covered."

Shinozaki looked down reluctantly.

"Please! This may be my only chance at him!" begged Makoto.

"All right," Shinozaki relented.

"I'm sorry to ask you to do this," Makoto told him.

"Hey," he shrugged. "Who am I to get in the way of true love?"

So Shinozaki spent four hours in the library studying - - by himself - - and intermittently wondering how his best friend was doing on her date. It amazed him that she even had the courage to go. He was six months older than she was and the opposite sex was such an enticing, mystifying, terrifying and enthralling breed that it gave him the shakes just thinking about asking one his own age out. And she was dating a boy four years her senior - - secretly. But that was Makoto - - nothing ever seemed to scare her.

He hoped everything worked out.

The next morning he met up with her at their usual rendezvous point on the way to school. Instantly he realized Makoto seemed depressed. Instantly he feared the worst.

"How was last night?" he asked hesitantly.

"It went OK," Makoto shrugged.

"So what's wrong? Did your parents find out?"

Makoto flushed with guilt. "No."

"Then what happened? If it's none of my business . . ."

"I don't mind," she said. "Futabari-sempai is really nice. He's fun to be with, and he's so sophisticated. We went to this little restaurant, then dancing at The Hot Spot."

"Sounds great."

Makoto's mouth curled at a memory.

"What?" Shinozaki asked.

"He kissed me. My first kiss - - it was all I'd hoped it would be. I saw stars." She glanced at Shinozaki. "I forgot - - boys don't understand things like that."

"So why are you so down? Didn't he ask you out again?"

Makoto bit her lip.

"No," she confessed. "And he probably won't."


"Well," she frowned, "we were outside the club - - kissing - - hard - - and he- - his hands got a little - - personal."

Shinozaki's jaw clenched.

"I asked him to stop and he did," Makoto went on. "He wasn't happy. I think he wanted to - - but I told him I wasn't ready." She saw Shinozaki's smoldering anger. "He left it at that! He didn't force himself on me. Sempai's a gentleman, Shinozaki, don't worry. He was real nice about it. I'd go out with him again," then she looked down, "but I don't think he'd be interested."

"Sempai?" Shinozaki asked.

"That's what I call him," Makoto grinned, flushing. Then she sobered again. "I'm probably just too butch for him. He probably doesn't like big girls like me"

"I didn't see him again for three weeks," Makoto related to Usagi as they slowly ambled along a path in Juuban Park. Ignoring the bloated feeling she had from four milkshakes, Usagi listened with sympathy and intent.

"He doesn't sound very nice," Usagi offered.

"Actually, it was partly my fault," Makoto confessed. "He was interested - - he just didn't know where to find me. I didn't want him calling at home, so I didn't give him my number. And I didn't want him to find out I was only in seventh grade, so I didn't tell him what school I went to. So he had no way to contact me and ask for a second date."

"He wanted to date you again?" Usagi asked.

"Yeah," Makoto replied with a melancholy smile of remembrance.

"How did your folks feel about that?"

Makoto grew quite somber. "They never found out"

Makoto waved to her grandmother as she bounded out the door.

"Are they coming to stay with you permanently?" Shinozaki asked, spotting the scene from the street. Makoto shook her head as she joined him.

"No, they're just staying with me while my folks are away," Makoto informed him. "Dad had to fly out to Okinawa to help out one of his construction units. They ran into some problem there and he has to fix it."

"Where's your Mom?"

"She went with him," Makoto said, smirking quietly. "Dad invited her along. She's always wanted to see Okinawa, so Dad brought her along. He said after the problem's handled, they could take a few days down there - - you know, 'by themselves'."

"Second honeymoon, huh?" Shinozaki added, then glanced cynically at her. "Without the 'pesky kid' underfoot?" Makoto blushed as she smirked.

"It's kind of nice to know they're still in love like that."

"Better watch it, Kino, or you're liable to get a little brother or sister soon," Shinozaki chuckled.

"Shinozaki!" gasped Makoto and playfully swatted him.

"There you are," they heard a boy say.

"S-Sempai!" Makoto swallowed, turning and finding Futabari ambling up.

"You're a hard girl to track down," he smiled. "I was beginning to think you were avoiding me."

"Oh! I'm sorry!" Makoto gasped, bowing to him. "That wasn't - - I mean - - I thought you . . ."

"Wasn't interested?" Futabari said, grinning with amazement. "In a beautiful girl like you? How stupid do you think I am?"

Makoto's eyes changed to stars and her mouth grew with happiness.

"Doing anything tonight?"

"No," sighed Makoto.

"Like to?"


"Pick you up?"

"Um . . .I'll meet you!"

"OK. The Hot Spot?"

"I'll be there."

Futabari nodded and walked off. Makoto watched him until he was out of sight, then wrapped her arms around herself.

"Oh, Shinozaki, I am the LUCKIEST GIRL IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE!" Makoto squealed to the heavens. Shinozaki basked in her triumph.

From there, Makoto and Futabari fell into a familiar pattern. They had an evening's worth of fun, ending with Futabari pressuring her for more and Makoto insisting she wasn't ready. She could tell it was frustrating the boy and she feared losing him. On the other hand it was a huge step and some inner instinct told her to wait.

But every time her darling "Sempai" touched her, it got harder and harder to listen to that inner instinct.

The strength of her feelings for Futabari were becoming so deep and so strong after two weeks of whirlwind courtship that as Makoto arrived at the airport to meet her parent's plane, the girl reached a momentous decision. She would tell her parents about Futabari. Her grandmother had raised a fuss about her late nights. She meant well, but she was old and she didn't understand being young anymore. But she might tell her parents about it, so Makoto sensed it was time to come clean. She prayed they would understand. They might be disappointed. They might raise objections, but they would eventually come around when they saw how deeply she and Futabari were in love. How could they possibly think anything different, her thirteen year old mind concluded.

Clad in jeans, a pullover sweatshirt and a backwards ballcap, Makoto stood at a window overlooking the landing tarmac and just stared up into the sky. She missed her parents, she realized now - - now that she was out of the intoxicating influence of "Her Sempai". It was going to be great to see them again. Makoto glanced back at the arrival board. Flight 26 from Okinawa to Tokyo was due any moment. She turned back and searched the sky.

"There it is!" she thought excitedly when she spotted the airliner in the heavens. It was on initial approach to Haneda Airport. Makoto felt her heart leap. It wouldn't be long now.

And suddenly her optimism cooled. She couldn't quite pinpoint it, but something about the trajectory of the plane was wrong. Her smile dimmed. Then, before her shocked eyes, the airliner's right wing dipped dramatically. The plane arched violently, gaining speed as it did. To her utter horror, Makoto watched the airliner slam into the outer reaches of the airport tarmac nose first and burst into a gigantic fireball.

The girl stood, stunned for a moment as orange and yellow light colored her face. Then she took off down the hall at full speed amid the shocked and anguished cries of the other people in the airport, frantically searching for a door that would lead out onto the tarmac.

"I think I remember hearing about that when it happened," Usagi whispered, teary-eyed, as she and Makoto sat on a bench in the park. "But I never knew your parents were - - oh Mako-chan, I'm so sorry!"

"Yeah," Makoto replied softly, dabbing at a tear with her finger. "So am I." She breathed a heavy-hearted sigh. "Grandma and Grandpa were just devastated. They loved Dad as much as I did. It broke them, Usagi, for a long time. Grandpa never did recover. And on top of that, they were stuck with taking care of me - - and I was a basket case. If it hadn't been for Shinozaki . . ."

They met at their usual rendezvous point on the way to school. It was the last day of her first week back.

"Feeling any better?" Shinozaki asked.

"I'm beginning to wonder if I'll ever feel better," Makoto mumbled. "Life is so depressing anymore. Everyone at school is afraid to speak to me. A lot of them don't know what to say. The ones that do say nice things, but they're just words. There's no feeling behind them. It's not their fault. They've never dealt with death." She shrugged. "Doesn't matter anyway." They walked along a little in silence. "Had another fight with Grandma this morning."

"It's been hard on them, Kino."

"And it hasn't been hard on me?" Makoto demanded. "Shinozaki, I feel so lost! I don't know what I'm going to do! I don't know how I'm going to go on!"

Shinozaki stopped. He turned, gathered her in and hugged her. Makoto was surprised by the gesture at first. But it seemed to satisfy some need in her to know that someone else felt her pain and was trying to help. She clung to him, crying on his shoulder.

"Why did they have to leave me?" Makoto sobbed. She was shaking as her friend held her. "What did I do to make them leave me?"

Shinozaki searched for answers to her plaintive questions, but at thirteen he had none. All he could do was hang on to his friend until she could get hold of herself again. Eventually the crying spell passed. The two students continued on to school.

"Has Futabari-kun been to see you?" Shinozaki asked.

"A couple of times," mumbled Makoto. "He's like everyone else. He wants to help me, but he doesn't know how. He does try, though, and it's sweet of him." Makoto's lip began to quiver again. "I can't get over thinking that if I'd told Mom and Dad about him - - things might be different now. Maybe they'd be alive."

"Like what, the gods are punishing you for hiding it?" gaped Shinozaki. "That's stupid."

"I know," Makoto moaned. "But I just can't help wondering."

Weeks passed and things worsened at home. Her grandfather lost his vitality and suddenly seemed like an old and tired man waiting to die. Her grandmother grew distant. Makoto sought her out, tried to bridge the chasm between them, for she needed the love and security of family now more than ever. But the more she sought her grandmother out, the more the woman would pull away. Hurt and angry, words would exchange and tempers would flare. It was a cycle that would repeat and repeat until it threatened to consume them all. Makoto would seek the sympathy of Shinozaki or Futabari, trying to avoid the house filled with pain, but it was temporary shelter. The cycle just continued unabated.

Then one day, the cycle finally was broken.

"You're leaving me?" Makoto asked, the sting of rejection rapidly overwhelming her shock.

"I'm sorry, Makoto-chan," her grandfather whispered distantly. He seemed ancient. Her grandmother was nowhere to be found. "We tried. But we can't. There's too much - - we just can't."

"But what am I going to do?" she wailed.

"The apartment is paid for," he continued, drifting in his own anguish. "The utilities - - paid. There'll be a - - a monthly fund - - you can draw from - - live on." He seemed to vanish into himself for a moment. "Your father - - took care of you. He'll," and the man's eyes glazed over with tears, his ancient mouth quivering, "always take care of you." His eyes sought the floor. "We can't."

Makoto stared at him incredulously.

"We can't," he repeated and shuffled off. Unable to support herself, Makoto sank to her knees and stared at the empty doorway, tears streaming down her face.

"I was so mad at them for so long," Makoto related with more than a little guilt.

"Well they abandoned you!" Usagi countered.

"They couldn't take it," Makoto told her. "It hurt them as much as it did me. I was so needy back then. Grandpa didn't have anything left to give. I found out later that he just sat in front of the TV all day and stared, like he wasn't even watching. He didn't move. He didn't do anything. He just withered away and died. And Grandma had to watch the man she loved waste away to nothing on top of having her only child die. And then have to look at me every day and see him in my face. I always looked a lot like him." Makoto sighed. "It was too much for her. I get that now."

Usagi watched her intently.

"Didn't make it hurt any less back then, though," Makoto sighed.

"So," Shinozaki ventured warily as he and Makoto walked to school.

It was seven weeks after her grandparents had given up and left, a full four months since the crushing deaths of her parents. And it was just as long since Makoto and Futabari had become a couple. Over those seven weeks, Makoto seemed to revert to her old vibrant, optimistic self. But to someone who had known her for nearly nine years, Shinozaki sensed that there were still cracks under the mask she wore.

"Out again last night?"

Makoto nodded.

"Anywhere special?"

"Sempai's place. He had to practice for the school band finals. I just sat there and watched him."

"Did you get YOUR homework done?"

"Most of it," Makoto colored.

"How are you going to pass if you don't do your homework?" Shinozaki asked.

"You don't need a diploma to be a wife," Makoto replied - - a little too quickly.

They walked on.

"Missed you at lunch yesterday," Shinozaki commented.

"I , um, went to the high school. I made lunch for Sempai."

"That's happening a lot."

"Why all the questions, Shinozaki?" Makoto demanded irritably.

"I just," he began defensively. "It seems serious."

"It is," Makoto sighed. "I want to spend my life with him. He's so important to me now. I'm so in love with him."

"I guess," Shinozaki observed. The moment grew awkward, so he moved to lighten it up. "Guess you'll be 'ready' pretty soon, huh?"

The crimson that suddenly colored Makoto's cheeks spoke volumes to Shinozaki. The boy was momentarily left speechless.

"Does he love you?" he asked.

"Of course he does," Makoto responded. Shinozaki wondered.

"And it doesn't matter to him?"

"What doesn't matter?"

"That he's seventeen and you're thirteen?"

Makoto's cheeks colored again.

"You haven't told him?"

"I can't," Makoto gasped. "Shinozaki, he's all I have left!"

"You've got me."

"Oh, Shinozaki, I'm sorry! But you know what I mean! We're best friends and we'll always be best friends! But this is love - - love between a man and a woman! This is my chance to-to belong to a family again! Please don't be hurt!"

"I'm not," he smiled timidly. "I know we'll always be bestest. I just don't want to see you get hurt any more. You've been through enough all ready."

"How could I get hurt? We love each other!"

"But does he love you - - or who he thinks you are?"

Makoto didn't have an answer for that.

At lunch that day, Makoto and Futabari sat nestled under a shade tree in the high school grounds. The boy's brown hair dangled insolently in his eyes as he held Makoto's body close. Makoto held the bento she'd made just for him and plucked at a morsel of food with her chopsticks.

"I keep telling you that you don't have to do this," he said, then relented and took the food Makoto offered to him.

"I like doing it," she smiled.

"But it's been every day for the last six weeks."

"I like cooking for you. It's no trouble to do something you love for someone you love." Futabari seemed to stiffen a little.

"Well, it's obvious from the wonderful taste that it's something you love to do," Futabari told her. Makoto beamed and snuggled even closer. "But it must be a terrible burden to come here from your school on your lunch period just to feed me. I mean, I appreciate the sentiment, but the commute must be awful."

"It's not that far," Makoto smiled, then instantly wished she hadn't said anything.

"You know, you've never told me what high school you do go to," Futabari observed. "Why the big secret?"

"It's," Makoto began, "no secret."

"Then which one is it?" Futabari grew a teasing smile. "It's not Konohiko High, is it? They're our biggest rival."

"It's not Konohiko," Makoto whispered.

"Then which one?"

Makoto found herself at a crossroads. Could she tell him the truth? In her mind the words of her mother returned, telling her that she could do anything she wanted to if she worked hard enough. And then came the words of her father, spoken when he was questioning her about what happened concerning a soccer ball and a broken window - - that lying wasn't something a lady would do. And the last time she wasn't forthcoming, she ended up an orphan. Shinozaki told her and told her the two incidents weren't related, but she could never quite totally believe it.

And yet, the truth threatened everything left to her that she held dear.

"S-Sempai," she began, "I-I go to the junior high around the corner."

"Junior high?" he repeated incredulously. "Did you get left back or something?"


"Then you must be younger than you look," Futabari joked.

"I'm thirteen."

Makoto looked up at him and saw the shock in his face.

"I'm almost fourteen!" she hastily added.

"I-I thought you were," Futabari stammered, "were seventeen! You - - you look seventeen!"

"I'm sorry. But it doesn't matter, does it? I'm still me! I'm still the same girl who loves you! That hasn't changed! And I'm still the same girl you're in - - in love with. That hasn't changed!"

Futabari fell silent. He kept his arm around her and Makoto clung to him, praying that their relationship was still the same. Then the bell rang. He got up, politely thanked her for lunch, and went back inside. Makoto watched him the entire time, her eyes stinging and her heart sick with worry.

Over the next few days a nameless dread lingered inside of Makoto. She showed up at Futabari's school the next day at lunch, but she couldn't find him. She called him, but nobody answered. She went to his house, but his parents said he was busy in a manner that sounded like an excuse. Still Makoto accepted it at face value. She didn't have a choice. Because to think otherwise was to entertain the thought that their relationship was forever broken and she couldn't do that. To do that was to admit that her life at thirteen going on fourteen was completely and utterly over. So every day she would make a bento that went uneaten.

Somehow she made it through Saturday. Closing the door to her solitary apartment, Makoto leaned against the door and wondered if she should try one last time to talk to Futabari. Shinozaki had warned her that it was probably useless, but she knew that if she could just talk to him one more time, she could convince him that what they had was something age couldn't ...

The phone.

"Hello?" Makoto said into the phone after the second ring. The voice responded, a voice she hadn't expected to hear. "Sempai?"

"Yeah," Futabari said on the other phone. "I was hoping I'd catch you. Would you meet me in the park tomorrow?"

"Yes! I'll be there!"

"Good. We can meet in that little bandstand that's by the south entrance."

"Sure! I'll pack a lunch for you!"

There was a pause. "All right. I'll see you then."

Makoto hung up the phone, then spun and hugged herself, glancing up to the heavens obscured by the ceiling.

"Thank you," she whispered, too giddy to speak.

The heavens poured down rain as Makoto entered the park's south gate. She feared Futabari had been scared off by the storm and wouldn't be waiting for her. If she had any sense, she wouldn't have ventured out herself.

"But girls in love don't have any sense," Makoto chuckled to herself.

She was glad it was still warm. But she knew she would have ventured out even in a chilly rain. There was no way she could risk not meeting Her Sempai now that he was finally speaking to her again. No more concealing the truth from now on, she vowed. She would lay everything on the line, bare her soul for him and let him see just how brightly her love light could shine.

And then she saw him standing under the shelter of the bandstand. It almost brought her to tears. He did love her. She knew it. She'd told Shinozaki last night and he didn't believe it. He'd believe it now.

"Hi, Sempai," she beamed, skipping up the steps and folding her umbrella. "I'm glad you're here. I - - was kind of worried you wouldn't be."

"Same here," Futabari replied with a half-hearted smile.

"I brought lunch! We can eat it here if you want. Or if it's too wet, we can go somewhere and . . ."

"Makoto," he interrupted. "I have something to tell you." He paused to gather his strength. "I don't think we should go out anymore."

Makoto's umbrella clattered to the floor.

"But why?" she asked in a tiny voice. "Is it the age thing? Sempai, I'm still me! My age is just a number!"

"It's not just your age," Futabari said. "Makoto- - you've been through a lot in the past six months. I know that. Life's been really rotten to you and I understand and I sympathize. And everything that's happened to you has - - has made you need a lot of, of love and understanding, and I don't blame you." He searched a moment for the right words. "But you need more than I can give you. You're clinging so tightly that you're smothering me. I-I feel trapped."

"I'm sorry," Makoto pleaded. "I-I didn't do it on purpose. It's just - - you're all I have left."

"I'm sorry, Makoto," he grimaced. "I can't do this anymore. I held off telling you because I didn't want to dump more heartache on you, but - - I can't do it anymore."

"No, don't, please! I'll back off! I'll give you space - - all the space you need! Only please . . .!"

"Makoto, don't," he told her and she saw the pain she was causing him. "It's not going to work. We're not going to work." He stepped out into the rain. "Please don't call me again."

And off he walked. Makoto staggered down the steps into the rain after him, but he quickened his pace. Heedless of the soaking downpour, she stared as he disappeared into the gloom.

What was she going to do now? Futabari was her chance to belong again. He was her chance to love and be loved again. What was she going to do now? Was she destined to be alone forever?

It took a moment for her to realize that the rain wasn't pounding down on her any longer. Numbly she turned around. Shinozaki was there, holding an umbrella over her. Makoto turned and fell into his arms.

"It's over," she said, too stunned to even cry. "He dumped me."

"I know," he told her, gently folding his arms around her.

"What's wrong with me? Why wouldn't he love me?"

"Nothing's wrong with you," Shinozaki replied. "He just wasn't the one. You'll find him, someday. Believe that, Kino."

"Everybody's gone, Shinozaki," Makoto whimpered. "Everybody's gone. Everybody but you." Suddenly she gripped him tight around the ribs. "Promise me you'll never leave, Shinozaki! Promise me you'll always be there!"

"I promise," he said and the words gave Makoto the courage to live another moment.

But to Shinozaki's despair, a change took over his best friend during the coming weeks. The sunny optimism that was so much a part of her withered. Despair became bitterness. Their walks to school were often silent. Her school work, never one of her strengths, began to slide. Her fourteenth birthday came and went with just a bitter snicker on her part.

But as a present to herself, she took up the martial arts. It surprised Shinozaki, given Makoto's previous reluctance to cater to her athletic side. When he inquired, she explained in a clipped manner that it gave her a chance to hit something- - and more and more she felt the urge to hit things. Sure it wasn't "what a lady would do" - - but her parents had left her in the lurch,
so how they felt was no longer important. The martial arts practice took up much of her spare time. Her grades began to slip even more. Nothing he said to her could penetrate her wall of resentment.

Then the fighting resumed. Makoto had always skated on the edge of trouble for fighting, but before it was always to defend someone smaller. Now she was fighting for less honorable reasons. A misunderstood word, a perceived insult or a phantom crime were all the provocation she needed now. And she didn't fight to defend now. Now she fought angry and woe to the fool who crossed her path. Neither bruises nor administrative admonitions nor the intimidated distance given her by her fellow students stopped her. Shinozaki pleaded with her to snap out of it, for he was the only one who dared approach her, but she continued on as if in a trance. Why should she care, she reasoned. No one else did - - and it was one more way to hit something.

She continued in this manner until one day her wake up call finally arrived.

"Kino," the school principal said, staring at the girl across from him. Her brown hair dangled into sullen eyes and her shoulders were defiantly hunched as she crossed her arms over her chest. "This is the final straw. I've warned you and warned you. Maybe this will get through to you. You're expelled from this school. Collect your things and go."

"Whatever," Makoto snorted rudely. She shoved her lanky body out of the chair, stormed down the hall to the lockers and emptied it. With a violent shove, she pushed through the door and out into the school grounds. She was out the gate before it hit her.

She'd just cut one of her major links to Shinozaki.

Hours later the bell rang. Shinozaki searched the halls and the grounds, but Makoto was nowhere to be found. His concern worsened into fear. Sprinting for the gate, he figured heading for her apartment was the best place to find her.

"Expelled?" Shinozaki gasped, inside her apartment. At first he was relieved, because the apartment was immaculate as usual, but that didn't last very long.

"Uh huh," Makoto said, staring at the wall as if she could burn holes through it. "Who needs it anyway? I don't have to work. Dad saw to that. This way I don't have to listen to people stare and point and whisper about the macho girl who can't," and Makoto choked up momentarily, "can't keep a boyfriend."

"Who's been saying that?" Shinozaki scowled.

"Pick someone. Shinozaki, I've been hearing that all my life. Well I'm sick of it. Who needs school?"

"Ever think that it's not all they're saying?" Shinozaki asked. Makoto glared at him. "I'm not saying people don't say it. I've been around you enough to know better. Sure, there's a lot of people, guys and girls, who have a certain picture of what's beautiful and if you don't fit that picture, you're not beautiful. I don't exactly fit the picture, either. But Kino, there are a lot of guys out there who do think of you as beautiful and who'd love to go out with you. I hear the talk in the changing rooms." He flashed her a nervous grin. "They don't ask you out because they're afraid you'll beat them up."

Makoto didn't laugh.

"I'm just saying don't give up, Kino," Shinozaki continued, "please?"

"It's too late," Makoto whispered. "The world already gave up on me."

"That's not true!" Shinozaki said, but Makoto wouldn't listen. Her friend released a deep sigh. "So what now? You just going to sit in this apartment for the rest of your life?"

"I could do worse."

"You could do better, too," he retorted. Getting no response, the boy got up. "I'll stop by tomorrow and see if you're feeling any better. And call me if you feel like it, any time. You know the number."

With the feeling that something precious was slipping through his grasp and he had no way to stop it, Shinozaki stepped out into the hall and closed the door behind him.

For three weeks Shinozaki stopped by his friend's apartment after school. Some days she let him in and they talked. On those days he noticed that her deep melancholy hadn't lifted. He tried listening, he tried talking, he tried bringing her presents or luring her out to favorite places, but nothing worked.

On other days she wouldn't answer the door until his incessant pounding forced her to respond. Usually it was an angry rebuke and a demand to leave. During one stretch, she went six days without seeing him. Only a timid phone call on the seventh day brought him back.

At the end of a month, Shinozaki found a girl who was still beaten and demoralized, but with one more burden: she was lonely. Hopefully he offered to treat her to a sundae. After an agonizing pause for consideration, she finally surrendered and ventured out with him. As they walked, Shinozaki tried to observe her without seeming to stare. It didn't matter. Makoto's eyes were a million miles away anyway.

"I hoped you'd come around," he said cautiously. "You're too much of a social animal to hole up in that apartment forever."

"Yeah," Makoto whispered. She seemed so - - beaten. It was hard for him to take. "It was my own fault, too. You warned me - - but I was too dumb to listen. Just like I was too dumb to listen about the fighting. I was just so angry at everything for dumping so much on me. But the world doesn't care if you're angry at it. It just keeps going whether you want to ride along or not." She sighed. "I wish I knew what to do." She sniffed. "But there's no one around to guide me."

"It doesn't have to be the end," Shinozaki offered. "You were doing pretty good there for a while. You just got off course. Breaking up with Futabari-kun just knocked your gyroscope off balance. You've just got to get back in with people again."

"I think it's too late. Look at those two," Makoto nodded. Shinozaki glanced across the street. Two girls from their school were whispering and pointing. When they realized they were being observed, both girls hushed and hurried off.

"They're idiots," Shinozaki proclaimed.

"They're scared of me," Makoto persisted. "And it's my own fault. It's all my fault. I drove Sempai away. I drove my grandparents away. I've torpedoed my school career- - shamed the memory of my parents - - and even cut myself off from you now. What am I going to do?"

"Go on."

"How? Why?"

"Because if you leave my life, it would really be letting me down," Shinozaki told her, "and you never want to let anybody down."

"I think I already have."

"You've been dealing with a lot of stuff," Shinozaki offered. "I think I can give you a pass."

A timid smile crept onto Makoto's face. It faded quickly.

"Kino, you can either curl up and die or keep going. Please keep going. I know it's hard and, yeah, you've made it a lot harder. But you're strong, Kino. You're the strongest person I've ever known." She wasn't reacting the way he hoped and it pained him. "Kino, it's not your fault that your folks died. It's not your fault you couldn't keep Futabari-kun. And it's not anyone else's, either. Life's like that. Stop expecting just the bad. There's good all around you if you look again. You used to be able to see it. Please see it again. Please go back to being the Kino I used to know."

"I'm not sure I know how anymore," she mused.

"You know how. You just have to want it bad enough."

The words her mother always told her suddenly echoed in her mind.

They walked on in silence.

"Take a few days, Kino. Find some things that you really love doing and do them. Talk to your martial arts sensei. There's more to martial arts than just hitting things. Get back into school and be with people again. I think Crossroads Junior High School over in Juuban is the closest one. You'll have a clean slate there. You can start over and start being the person you used to be- - the one your folks were proud of."

"I can't do it, Shinozaki," Makoto shook her head. "How am I supposed to go to a school that you don't go to?"

"Maybe that's the plan," he shrugged. "Maybe that's the only way you can be who you really are again." Makoto looked down in despair. Shinozaki grasped her hand. "I'm just a phone call away, Kino. I'm not on the other side of the Earth. The minute you need me, you know I'll be there. But I know you can do this. You pretty much don't have a choice. It's this or die - - and you can't die on me."

"OK," she sighed. "I'll try. Hope I can do it. But I'm probably going to be on the phone to you every night."

"Won't mind a bit," he replied, a tear in his eye and a smile on his face.

Makoto was snapped out of her reminisces by the sounds of Usagi sobbing.

"Oh, hon', I'm sorry!" gasped Makoto. "I didn't mean to upset you!"

"Don't apologize," Usagi sobbed. "Oh, it's so sad! You've gone through so much! I wish there was something I could do! Something that could ease the terrible burden you have!"

Makoto's hand closed on Usagi's shoulder. The blonde girl looked up and saw the gentle, grateful smile on her friend's face.

"Usagi," Makoto told her earnestly, "you've already done it"

First day in her new school. Makoto approached the schoolyard with trepidation. How would she be greeted? Could she fit in? She was already having unnerving deja vu because the school didn't have a uniform big enough to fit her. She was forced to wear her old one. Big old lummox, that was her.

"Don't think that way," she told herself. "This is a new start - - a clean slate. Just like Shinozaki said it would be. Keep believing that."

But as she entered the school, the whispers began.

"Look at how big she is!"

"I've never seen anyone as tall as her!"

"Gurio-kun told me she was expelled from her last school."

"For what?"

"For fighting!"

"Wow! She's a monster! No way I'd mess with her!"

Grimacing, Makoto silently placed her shoes in her locker.

So much for the clean slate.

At lunch, Makoto sought out the shade of a tree in the school yard. Everyone avoided her. Makoto sighed. She missed Shinozaki. She missed her parents. She missed Futabari-sempai. Sitting under the tree reminded her of the times they'd shared lunch.

Life seemed so lonely now. Shinozaki told her getting back into school would help end the loneliness, but he was wrong. She was in a school full of people and she was just as apart and just as lonely as ever. How was she ever going to bear it?

It wasn't fair. It just wasn't . . .

Suddenly the girl sensed a presence behind her. She glanced over her shoulder and found a girl with wide blue eyes and golden blonde hair done up in odango-style gathers. She was staring at Makoto's bento with poorly concealed lust.

"Hey, you're that girl from this morning," Makoto said. The blonde flinched at being caught staring, but didn't retreat.

"Uh, yeah," the girl giggled. "That bento is just so fantastic! Your mom must REALLY love you!"

A twinge passed through Makoto's heart.

"Um, I guess," Makoto replied. "Thanks. But aren't you afraid of me?"

The girl looked at Makoto with the earnest innocence of an angel and smiled the gentlest of smiles.

"Should I be?" she asked.

And in that moment, in Makoto Kino's beaten and withering soul, hope was reborn.