Mizuno Ami sat in her usual seat in the front row of class, pencil poised in hand and a notebook opened, her neat and elegant handwriting already having filled nearly three-quarters of the page with notes and formulae. Her chin was cupped in her other hand, and her navy blue eyes stared straight ahead as Professor Kitagawa solved a complex chemical equation on the dry-erase board at the front of the classroom. From the moment class had started, her attention had not wavered once from the lecture, enthralled as always at the prospect of learning something new, something that would push the limits of her intelligence and lead to a greater understanding of the world around her.
Her advanced organic chemistry course was among one of her favorites classes to attend. Ami had always loved chemistry, but Professor Kitagawa somehow managed to make even the more mundane areas of the subject seem exciting -- not that he was an easy teacher. In fact, he was among the more difficult professors who worked in the science department, but most of his students -- especially the girls, who were enrolling in his classes in record numbers -- admired him greatly and worked hard to please him, Ami among them. She attributed such loyalty to the passion he obviously possessed for science, which came through in every lecture he gave.
"Well, I think that's about it for today," Professor Kitagawa announced after he had finished the problem, breaking the spell he had cast over his eager students. He set down his blue marker and began erasing the board as a low groan of disappointment escaped from a few students' mouths as they began getting ready to leave. "Oh, before I formally dismiss you," he said, pausing and turning back around, "I do have one announcement to make. As some of you may be aware, in addition to my duties as a professor, I also spend much of my time in the labs performing research. I am in desperate need of a new lab assistant to help me with my current project. I can't say the pay's great, and it'll mean long hours stuck in a lab, but for anybody who is interested in pharmaceuticals or pursuing a career in medical science, it's a great opportunity for some hands-on experience."
Professor Kitagawa's lab assistant? Ami had been busy unsuccessfully trying to cram her thick notebook back into her already-overstuffed blue leather book bag, but the task was forgotten when she heard the announcement. She couldn't believe her ears: the opportunity to work side-by-side with a man she considered her idol on some important medical research?
The pimply-faced boy who sat beside Ami raised his hand. "Sensei?"
"Yes, you have a question?"
"Will this count for extra credit?"
Smiling, the professor laughed good-naturedly. "Nice try, Yuuki-kun. You know I don't believe in extra credit. The only thing 'extra' you will get out of this is the chance to be a part of some possibly groundbreaking research," he answered to another round of groans. Professor Kitagawa was notorious for never giving out extra credit assignments. "Now, are there any other questions about the position or about the test I passed back earlier?"
No other hands were raised, so after informing them that anybody interested in the job should see him after class, Professor Kitagawa announced that they were dismissed. Around her, Ami's classmates gathered their books and headed out the door until only she and the professor, who was sitting behind his desk looking over some papers, were the only ones left in the room. After taking a deep breath to gather her courage, Ami swung her book bag over her shoulder, tucked her notebook in her free arm, and walked determinedly to his desk, hoping she didn't look as nervous as she felt. She normally had no trouble talking to her other professors, but every time she spoke to Professor Kitagawa, she couldn't help but feel like a flustered groupie meeting her favorite pop idol for the very first time.
"Sensei?" she said, lightly clearing her throat to get his attention.
Looking up from his papers, Professor Kitagawa smiled and slipped off his reading glasses. "Ah, Mizuno-san, what can I do for you?" he asked. "If you're here to argue with me about Problem 21 on last week's homework, I'm sorry, but I cannot give you full credit when you failed to show all your work even if you were the only person in the class to give the correct answer."
"N-No, it isn't about that," she stuttered. "I'm interested in the assistant job you spoke about earlier."
"Really? I honestly didn't think anybody would apply after I said I wouldn't give out extra credit," he admitted, standing from his chair. "Do you have any experience working in labs outside of classes?"
Ami nodded. "A little. During school breaks, I work part-time at the lab in the hospital. My mother's a doctor there."
"Following in your mother's footsteps?" he guessed correctly.
"I hope so. She's a wonderful doctor," Ami replied.
"Well, working in a hospital lab is somewhat different than working in a research lab, but the basics are mostly the same. I presume you know all the safety rules and are well-versed in the different types of lab equipment? Do you know standard operating procedures?"
"And you can handle taking down notes and recording results?" he asked. "I'm warning you, when I'm in the lab, I sometimes talk a mile a minute, so it might be tough keeping up with me."
"I'm sure I can handle it," she said with as much confidence as she could muster.
"Good. You're hired."
For a moment, Ami simply stood in shock, her entire body as frozen as an ice sculpture. The news hadn't quite registered in her brain. She was hired? Ami hadn't expected it to be so easy. Surely there were other applicants, perhaps some graduate students, who were far more qualified for the job than she was.
"J-Just like that?" she finally managed to stammer. "I'm hired just like that? No long interview? No try-out period?"
Professor Kitagawa appeared highly amused by her reaction, his deep, emerald-green eyes twinkling as he let out a soft chuckle. "What better person to assist me in my research than my number one student?" he asked, half-sitting on the edge of his somewhat messy desk. "You're just as qualified as any grad student, maybe even more so. Your grades are fantastic and you have the kind of experience I was looking for. I know you'll do a wonderful job, Mizuno-san, and I look forward to working with you."
The compliment caused Ami's cheeks to burn a bright pink, which she managed to conceal with a deep bow of gratitude. "Thank you, sensei. I'll do my best," she vowed.
"Come by my office later and I'll get you the proper identification to get into the lab. We'll start tomorrow."
"Yes, sir. I'll be there."
With one final bow, Ami said goodbye and headed out the classroom, her chemistry notebook held tightly against her chest. The huge smile on her face was hard to hide as she walked down the halls of the science building, thinking about what it was going to be like to work with Professor Kitagawa Akira. She couldn't believe her good fortune.
"Hey, Yui, wait up!"
Hearing her boyfriend's voice as she exited Professor Kitagawa's classroom, Yokoyama Yui glanced up from the test paper at which she had been glaring and forced herself to smile as Matsuno Hideki walked toward her. As much as she loved it when her boyfriend waited for her outside class to walk her to lunch, today was one day when not even his presence could bring her out of the bad mood that had come over her like a storm cloud ever since she had gotten back the test.
"How was class?" he asked, catching up to her.
"Don't even ask," she said with a dramatic sigh.
Hideki rolled his hazel eyes. "Come on, it couldn't have been that bad."
"We got back last week's test."
"How did you do?"
Crumpling the offensive test paper into a ball, Yui tossed it in a trash can as they passed by and made a disgusted face. She couldn't even bare to look at it anymore, the proof of yet another failure. "I made a 97," she mumbled.
"A 97!" Hideki exclaimed. "But that's wonderful, Yui! Congratulations!"
"Wonderful? It's not wonderful at all. I might as well have failed," she replied, throwing up her hands in frustration. "And I studied so hard for that test, too…"
Hideki sighed, wrapping a supportive arm around her waist when he saw they were virtually alone in the hall and pulling her close. "Oh, Yui, you have got to stop being so hard on yourself," he said softly into her hair as he kissed the top of her head. "Most people consider a 97 on a chemistry test to be a good thing. I mean, you did make the highest grade in the class, didn't you?"
"I was second," she admitted, her dull blue eyes narrowing slightly at the memory of seeing another girl's name at the top of the list, the same name that always sat at the top of the list. She was surprised the professors hadn't permanently laminated her name to the top considering the blue-haired girl rarely slipped from her number one position. "That girl genius Mizuno Ami-san received a perfect score, as usual."
"Well, second is still great," Hideki insisted. "There's no shame in that."
"Maybe not for you," she shot back. "You're content with just being in the top ten of your classes."
"Is that such a bad thing?"
"Hideki, you just don't understand!" Yui said, her voice bordering on the edge of a whine. "I have to be number one. I won't settle for less than perfection like you do."
Abruptly, Hideki stopped, his arm dropping to his side as he turned toward her. There was a hint of anger in his eyes, and for a moment, Yui regretted she had made the comment. "Are you saying I'm not a hard worker, Yui?" he demanded to know. "Maybe I don't spend every second of my free time with my nose in a book, but that doesn't mean I'm some sort of slacker. I take my studies very seriously."
"I didn't mean it like that, Hideki," she protested, hugging her book and spiral notebook against her mostly flat chest. "I know you're a good student. It's just that…"
Yui's eyes dropped to study the linoleum covering the hall's floors, embarrassed. Logically, a part of her knew she was being ridiculous for feeling the way she felt. She and Hideki had been dating since the end of their freshman year at Tokyo University, and she was reasonably sure he felt the same way about her as she felt about him though neither of them had yet to say the words. They had gone through a lot together, and yet…
"Why do you settle for someone like me?" she finally asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
"You've officially lost me, Yui," he declared. "How did this conversation turn from grades to us? What are you talking about?"
Reaching up to brush a strand of hair behind her ear, Yui lifted up her chin. "You know exactly what I'm talking about, Hideki," she said. "You're a smart, kind, good-looking guy. Any girl on this campus would kill to go out with you, and yet, you chose me -- plain, boring, unglamorous me. Why?"
That was the question that had plagued Yui ever since that fateful White Day when Matsuno Hideki had reciprocated the gift of chocolate she had left on his desk on Valentine's Day in a moment of temporary insanity and asked if she wanted to meet him at the library to study for finals.
Yui wasn't fooling herself; she knew she was hardly any guy's idea of the perfect girlfriend. She was short and slightly pudgy (or so she thought, though in reality she was only a few pounds over the ideal weight for her body type), with practically non-existent breasts and a nose that was too long and a tad crooked thanks to a middle school accident involving a volleyball and a vengeful star player, who had been angry when she had refused to do the girl's math homework. The only feature of hers Yui did consider beautiful was her mane of luxurious titian hair which Hideki often compared to liquid fire, reflecting both red and gold depending on how the light hit it, but she was often too preoccupied with her school work to do much with it other than pulling it back in a braid or a low ponytail at the nape of her neck, which was how she had styled it that morning.
"Why?" Hideki repeated after a long moment of silence, reaching for her hand. "Because I think you're a beautiful, intelligent, sexy woman who can be a lot of fun to be with when she isn't obsessing over her grade point average."
"Don't say things just because you think that is what I want to hear," Yui said, yanking her hand away from his. "You don't have to spare my feelings. I know I'm not exactly a beauty queen."
"Did I ever say I wanted a beauty queen?"
"Then stop unfairly comparing yourself with other women," he said. "I like you just the way you are, Yui."
Despite his claim, Yui still couldn't let it go, the little voice in her head continuing to say he was only patronizing her. "But you deserve so much better than me, Hideki," she insisted. "Maybe I can't change my looks, but I can strive to be number one in the class. If only Mizuno-san wasn't in my way…"
"Listen to me, Yui," Hideki ordered, surprising Yui when she felt his hands grasp her shoulders, preventing her from turning away. She had no choice but to look at him and listen to what he had to say. "I couldn't care less about your class rank. If you came in dead last, it wouldn't matter to me in the least. I would still like you just the same as always, so please stop doing this to yourself."
"Really?" she asked doubtfully as he let her go, though feeling somewhat better.
"Really," he replied, smiling as they headed out the front door. "Now, how about I treat you to an ice cream sundae before your next class?" he suggested. "There's a banana split waiting with your name on it."
Though tempting, Yui shook her head, cursing her bad luck. "I can't. I'm on a diet."
Her boyfriend sighed. "Another one?"
"I read about this one in one of the leading medical journals," Yui explained, preparing herself for the usual lecture Hideki always found the need to give every time she announced she was going on a new diet. "It's supposed to be really effective. I've already lost two pounds since I started last week."
Sure enough, Hideki looked up at the clear blue sky and shook his head in disapproval. "Yui, how many times do I have to tell you that you don't need to lose weight?" he wondered aloud. "Your weight is fine. It's well within the normal range, and continually going on all these fad diets can't be healthy."
"I know what I'm doing. I am pre-med, in case you've forgotten," she huffed, offended. How stupid did he think she was? Yui was well aware of what did and did not constitute a healthy diet. "I'm not going to put my health in jeopardy."
"I just worry about you sometimes, that's all."
"I'll be fine. Don't worry about me." Seeing that they were passing the library, Yui swung a right and started up the stairs. "Anyway, I need to go check out some books for my psychology class, so I guess I'll see you later," she said.
"Okay. We're still on for the study date at my place tonight, right?"
Yui smiled, perking up for the first time since class had ended. "Of course," she replied. "If I'm going to beat Mizuno-san on next week's quiz, I'm going to have to study twice as hard."
"Right…study." The thought didn't exactly inspire the same excitement in Hideki, who had obviously had different plans in mind for the evening, but he still smiled and waved. "I'll see you then. Ja!"
Breathless as she entered the Crown Fruit Parlor, still a favorite hangout for her and her friends even after so many years, later that afternoon, Ami slid into the booth beside her roommate Kino Makoto and apologized for her lateness. Her meeting with Professor Kitagawa after her final class of the day had taken longer than she had expected as he gave her the grand tour of the research center while waiting for her I.D. to be made, and if she hadn't remembered the routine monthly meeting of the Sailor Senshi -- really, more of a gossip session than anything else, seeing as there hadn't been a new enemy since Galaxia and the Anima-mates -- chances were, she probably would have still been there, hanging onto the professor's every word.
"So, where were you, Ami-chan?" Makoto asked, scooting over to give her more room. "We were starting to worry. It isn't like you to be the last one to arrive."
"Oh, I had a late meeting with one of my professors," she explained, unable to hide a small smile. "I'm going to be his new lab assistant starting tomorrow, so he was showing me around the research complex, and I guess we lost all track of time."
"A lab assistant?" Across from Ami, a pretty blonde who wore her long hair pulled back in a red bow perked up at the announcement, her baby blue eyes twinkling with what could only be described as mischief as her lips gave a wicked smile. "Tell us, is this professor cute, Ami-chan?" Aino Minako asked, leaning across the table.
Beside Minako, her best friend rolled her amethyst eyes. "Minako-chan, honestly, is that all you can think about? You haven't changed a bit since middle school," Hino Rei groused, her usual anti-love self.
"Neither have you, man-hater," Minako retorted back, sticking out her tongue at Rei.
Makoto sighed, shaking her head. "Girls, can we please try to act like adults here?" she scolded lightly. "Besides, if Ami-chan's teacher is anything like the ones I have for my business classes, he's probably a fat, balding old geezer, isn't that right, Ami-chan?"
Picturing Professor Kitagawa Akira in her mind, Ami felt her cheeks start to burn. Though she of course admired him greatly for his intelligence, the chemistry professor's handsome looks hadn't completely escaped her attention. A girl would have to be blind not to notice.
"Well, actually, Kitagawa-sensei is rather good-looking, and young, too," she answered. "He's only twenty-eight."
Rei arched an eyebrow in Ami's direction, surprised. "Only twenty-eight? That is young."
"He's the youngest professor at Toudai, but absolutely brilliant. It's rumored he skipped high school altogether and went straight to college, earning several advanced degrees in chemistry and biology, including a doctorate."
"You certainly seem to know a lot about this Kitagawa-sensei, Ami-chan," Minako commented, again getting that familiar twinkle in her eye. "Do I sense somebody has a schoolgirl crush?"
Her blush deepened as Ami vehemently shook her head. Trust Minako to blow an innocent case of admiration completely out of proportion. "Please, Minako-chan! It's nothing like that at all," she insisted. "I just really admire him, that's all."
"Can we please talk about something else now?" Desperate for a change in subject, Ami glanced over at their princess, who was sitting on the other side of Makoto. For the first time since she had arrived, she noticed Tsukino Usagi had yet to say a word, her face practically hidden behind a study guide Ami remembered giving her as a birthday present a couple of years ago. "Usagi-chan, how's the studying going?" she asked, more than a little pleased that her friend was finally taking her studies seriously, even though Usagi was currently a ronin, meaning she had failed her university entrance exam -- twice.
Looking up at the question, the odango-haired blonde sighed and closed her book, sliding it away so she could lightly bang her forehead against the table's surface. "Terrible, absolutely terrible," Usagi replied morosely. "None of this is sinking in, even with Mamo-chan's help. I'm never going to pass Keiou University's entrance exam."
"I don't see why you can't try for an easier school, Usagi-chan," Makoto suggested. "Juuban College's exam isn't all that much harder than the one we took to get into high school. I'm sure you'd be able to pass it with no problems." Makoto was a part-time student at the college, taking some business classes in addition to her apprenticeship at a well-known, four-star restaurant.
"But I had my heart set on attending Keiou University with Mamo-chan…" Usagi whimpered, resting her chin on her folded arms.
"Face it, Usagi-chan, by the time you manage to pass that exam, Mamoru-san will have already graduated from medical school," Rei replied.
"Rei-chan, that isn't very nice," Ami lightly scolded, even though a small part of her agreed with the priestess-in-training's assessment of Usagi's situation. Usagi was far from stupid, but Keiou was one of the most academically challenging schools in the country. "I'm sure if Usagi-chan continues studying as hard as she has been these last few months, she'll pass."
"And don't forget 'Third time's a freebie!'" Minako added cheerfully.
All present groaned at yet another mangling by the 'Queen of Misquotes.' "That's 'third time's a charm,' Minako-chan," Rei corrected the blonde with a shake of her head.
"In any case," Usagi sighed loudly, bringing everyone's attention back to her, "maybe Rei-chan's right." Reaching for her book, she began flipping through the pages, a frown on her face. "Maybe I should admit defeat. Why do I need to go to college anyway? We already know that by the time I'm twenty-two, I'll be married to Mamo-chan, give birth to Chibi-Usa, and become the beautiful and all-powerful queen of Earth."
"That is, according to the old future we saw when we traveled to Crystal Tokyo…"
Ami didn't even realize she had voiced the thought aloud until she felt four pairs of eyes turning to stare at her, blinking in freakish unison. "What's that supposed to mean, Ami-chan?" Makoto asked, causing Ami to look down at her lap in embarrassment.
Ami actually found herself thinking quite a bit about the future as of late. Based on what the future King Endymion had told them, Crystal Tokyo's formation was only a couple of years away, yet they had seen nothing to suggest anything like that was about to happen. No new enemies, no battles… Even Luna and Artemis had stopped attending the monthly meetings after their high school graduation, finding that there was little to discuss related to senshi business. It was becoming very easy for the five girls to forget they had ever even fought as soldiers of love and justice, everyone enjoying the peace that had allowed them the chance to pursue the dreams they had put on hold to fight. It made Ami wonder if perhaps the future they had visited when they fought the Black Moon had changed because of what had happened and Chibi-Usa's subsequent trips back to the present time.
"I-It's just a theory I have," Ami said softly, finally looking back up to see her friends were still staring at her in expectation. "I've been thinking about how our knowledge of the future and the time-traveling we did might have affected the timeline. The future we saw might not necessarily be the one that we live."
Usagi visibly paled when she heard that. "You mean Crystal Tokyo might not exist anymore?" she asked, her crystal blue eyes widening significantly. "That Mamo-chan and I might not marry and have Chibi-Usa?"
Makoto shook her head. "That can't be right, Usagi-chan," she argued. "If our visiting the future had changed any of that, Chibi-Usa-chan wouldn't have been able to travel to our time after the battle, right?"
"Yes, but that doesn't mean that other things couldn't have changed," Ami replied, pausing for a moment as she tried to figure out how to properly explain her theory in understandable terms. "We have no way of knowing if the future Chibi-Usa-chan returned to was the original future from which she came or a new one created with our knowledge of what was to come. That means we can't depend on anything based on what we saw during our time in the future. Why do you think I'm still studying to become a doctor when according to what King Endymion-sama said, Crystal Tokyo is formed before I have the chance to go to medical school? We don't know what is going to happen or what has changed, so I'm doing exactly what Setsuna-san told us to do: Live in the present, not in the future."
"That actually makes a lot of sense," Rei admitted once Ami had finished her explanation. "Some things, like the formation of Crystal Tokyo, might be fate, but that doesn't mean that we can't change some of the other things. The future isn't completely set in stone. We still have some free will in our lives."
"It doesn't make sense to me," Minako frowned. The blonde had propped one of her elbows on the table, resting her chin in the cup of her hand. "Are you saying I dropped out of college and nearly gave okaa-san a heart attack for nothing?" she asked. "I mean, the main reason why I left was to pursue a career in show business before it was too late."
"It's really only a theory," Ami reminded them, wishing she hadn't said anything at all. Usagi still hadn't recovered from the shock of learning that the future she had took as fact might not happen, and Minako wasn't taking the news much better, probably regretting causing such a rift between her and her parents when she had decided to drop out of school to follow her dream of becoming an idol. They had only recently got back on civil speaking terms after several months of bitter arguments. "Setsuna-san probably knows more about it than I do, but I doubt she's allowed to tell us."
"Well, I, for one, wouldn't be too upset if Crystal Tokyo happened a little later than we expected," Makoto declared. "It would be nice to have some more time to ourselves to finish pursuing our dreams, maybe find a boyfriend…"
"Yeah, it would," Minako sighed, her frown suddenly reverting back into a soft smile just as the waitress walked over to take their order. "You're right; it might not be such a bad thing after all."
Arriving home at his apartment later that evening, Professor Kitagawa Akira was greeted by the sight of his beloved Corgi, Mercury, sitting patiently at the door, his tail wagging and a blue leash dangling from his mouth. It was time for his evening walk, and judging by the dog's eagerness, Akira hadn't arrived a moment too soon.
"Okay, boy, we'll go out in a minute," Akira said, affectionately petting the top of Mercury's head. In the background, he heard the telephone ringing. "Just let me answer that and change."
Heading to his bedroom, Akira grabbed the wireless receiver along the way and brought it to his ear, cradling it on his shoulder. "Moshi moshi?" he answered, reaching up to loosen the knot in his tie. Hopefully, the call wouldn't take long. He didn't know how much longer Mercury's bladder could hold. "Kitagawa speaking."
"Where have you been, young man?" a familiar woman's voice demanded, forgoing the usual pleasantries. "I tried calling you last night for our weekly chat, but you never answered."
Akira sighed. He should have known it would be her.
"Don't 'Hello, Mama,' me. You had me worried sick. Where were you last night?"
"I had a late night at the lab, and when I finally got home, I figured it would be too late to call," he explained. "I did plan to call you later tonight, though."
On the other end of the line, Akira heard what he could only assume were tsking sounds of disappointment. "You know, most young men your age would have spent Sunday night with their girlfriends, not holed up alone in some laboratory," Kitagawa Izumi pointed out none too subtly. His mother's sole mission in life lately seemed to be finding her oldest son a wife. "When was the last time you went on a date?"
"I've been busy lately," he replied, tossing his tie aside and taking a seat on his bed. He had a feeling it would be a long phone call.
"That doesn't answer my question, Akira."
"Okay, fine." Sighing, Akira rubbed his forehead, trying to think back to his last date. It really hadn't been that long ago, but the date had been nothing memorable. He hadn't spoken to the girl since then. "Lessee… The last girl I went out with was Sato-san, and I believe that was about a month ago?" he guessed.
"And why haven't you two gone out again?" his mother demanded to know.
"She really wasn't my type, Mama."
"None of the girls have been your type since you broke things off with Maeko-chan."
Akira frowned at the mention of his ex-girlfriend's name. He and Maeko had dated for almost two years and had even seriously discussed getting married, much to his mother's joy, but they had called things off last year, both realizing that a marriage between them would have been destined to fail. They were just too different -- Maeko, the aspiring fantasy writer with dreams of stardom, and he, the more level-headed scientist with equally ambitious goals.
"Mama, please don't tell me yet again what a mistake you think it was to break up with Maeko," he said, unbuttoning the first few buttons on his shirt. "I don't want to hear it. I know much you wanted us to get married, but we both wanted different things out of life."
"You make me sound so selfish, Akira," she protested. "I only have your future happiness in mind."
Akira rolled his eyes. "No, Mama, what you have is a severe case of grandbabies on the brain."
"Is it wrong for a mother to want her eldest son to settle down and finally start a family? You're not getting any younger."
"I'm only twenty-eight," he reminded her, chuckling. "That's hardly ancient."
"Well, then, your father and I aren't getting any younger," she amended. "Papa is turning sixty in a couple of months, you know. Don't be like him and wait until your thirties to get married. We want to enjoy our grandchildren."
"It will happen when it happens, Mama," Akira declared, deciding to change the subject. "So, how is everybody else? Did Junko's appointment go well?"
"The doctor said she was doing great."
"I'm glad," he replied, relieved. "And Satoshi and Papa?"
"They're fine. You know, Satoshi has a new girlfriend," she announced somewhat smugly.
"You're kidding!" Akira was surprised, but happy for his younger brother. Satoshi, a law student at Kyoto University, was known as the quiet one in the family, a serious young man who was seldom seen without a book in his hand, but though he was good-looking, he never seemed to have much luck with the fairer sex. "The nerd finally found himself a girl?"
"Akira, don't call your brother a nerd!" his mother admonished.
Akira laughed, not taking her chastisement very seriously. Ever since they were little, it was the brothers' private joke that Satoshi was the "nerd," Akira was the "geek," and Junko was the "airhead" -- though they wisely never informed their little sister of that fact. "Aw, Mama, it's a term of endearment," he explained. "Satoshi knows I only call him that with the utmost of affection. Anyway, I think it is great that he's found somebody."
"If you aren't careful, he might get married before you," she warned.
"I'm only saying…"
As Akira prepared himself for yet another lecture on the importance of marriage, the door to the bedroom, which he had forgotten to close all the way, opened wider. Mercury came inside, whimpering pitifully, and Akira slapped himself on the forehead. He had completely forgotten about walking the poor dog.
Covering the mouthpiece, he whispered, "In a minute, Merc," then interrupted his mother's ramblings. "Sorry, Mama, I need to go," Akira apologized, grateful for the excuse to get away. "Mercury's about to piss all over my carpet if I don't take him out for a walk."
He again ignored the reprimand, standing back up. "Bye, Mama. I'll talk to you next Sunday," he promised.
Pushing the "Off" button, Akira tossed the receiver on the bed and quickly finished changing into a more casual T-shirt. He considered changing into some jeans as well, but decided it was more important to take Mercury out to do his business. Kneeling down beside the dog, Akira attached the leash to his collar, feeling bad for making Mercury wait so long, and made a mental note to give him a doggie treat when they came back.
"Sorry about that, Mercury," he apologized with a heavy sigh. "You know how Mama can be. Come on, let's go."
After checking to make sure he had his keys in his pocket, Akira was practically hauled out of the apartment by the anxious dog and led toward the elevator. He pushed the down button, and a few seconds later, the doors slid open. Inside the elevator, the only passenger, a titian-haired girl, glanced up from her book in surprise as she started to get off on the floor.
"Sensei?" she gasped.
The girl looked familiar, though Akira couldn't quite match a name to her face. With so many students, it was not an uncommon predicament. However, Akira was fairly certain she took his advanced organic chemistry class, and a quick glance at the name written across the notebook sticking out of her overstuffed book bag confirmed his hunch.
"Oh, Yokoyama-san, how nice to see you again," Akira said, smiling at his number two student as he held the elevator doors open for her. Though he didn't know her face due to her quiet nature in class, her name certainly had stuck with him. Yokoyama Yui was among the brightest students, male or female, he had ever taught in his admittedly short career as a teacher. "Konbanwa."
The girl bowed politely in greeting. "Konbanwa, sensei."
"Congratulations on last week's test. You did remarkably well."
"Arigatou, but I shouldn't have made that silly mistake on the third question," she replied as she got off the elevator. "I can't believe I identified 2-methylproponal as a keytone when I knew it was an aldehyde."
"It's an easy mistake to make," he assured her. "You shouldn't beat yourself up over it. You still did well. So, are you here to meet somebody?"
"My boyfriend. We have a study date," she answered, patting her bag. "He's in apartment 520."
"Matsuno-san?" he guessed. The young computer science major who lived next door to his apartment often walked Mercury when he was running late for extra cash.
A light pink blush crossed her cheeks, giving the rather ordinary-looking girl an attractive glow. "H-Hai."
"Nice kid. You two try not to study too hard, okay? As they say, all work and no play --"
"We won't," she interrupted before he could finish. Akira might have thought her rude had she not then bowed apologetically. "I really should be going now," she explained. "Hideki is expecting me, and I shouldn't keep him waiting. I'll see you in class, sensei. Sayonara."
"Sayonara, Yokoyama-san. It was nice talking to you."
Once she had disappeared around the corner, Akira and Mercury boarded the elevator and went downstairs. They headed outside, where a brisk autumn breeze greeted them when Akira opened the door, and he smiled as Mercury lead him to "his" tree, thinking how beautiful the sunset looked that evening, "like a fire in the heavens" as Maeko had once written in one of her stories.
Coming to a stop to let Mercury do his business, Akira sighed deeply, running a hand through his dark hair. Why did his mother have to mention his former fiancée? She had been right though; ever since he and Maeko broke up, none of the girls he dated seemed to hold his interest for long. He didn't understand why.
It wasn't as if he was still in love with Maeko. Actually, looking back, Akira sometimes wondered if he ever did love her. He had held a great deal of affection toward her, yes, but love? He never even told her, "Aishiteru." And they certainly didn't have much in common, though the passionate debates they frequently engaged in made for great foreplay. Privately, he grinned, remembering the feel of her velvet skin against his and the power of her kisses, soft, yet forceful…
"Okay, enough of that," he said aloud, shaking his head to get rid of the more-than-arousing image forming in his mind.
It had been way too long.
By that time, Mercury had finished marking his territory on the sakura tree and was running around happily, trying to get his master's attention. Akira didn't feel like going back inside, though, so they continued on their walk down the block, his thoughts once again turning back to his ex-fiancée.
No, he and Maeko were never meant to be. Akira supposed he realized it even before he proposed, though he had brushed the thought aside, assuming it was only the second-guessing that came with most life-changing decisions. He had confused passion with love, and it came almost as a relief when Maeko confessed she felt the same as he did during one of their frequent arguments over wedding details -- what the detail was, he no longer remembered. What he did remember, though, was the two of them mutually agreeing it would be best to break off the engagement and Maeko giving him one final kiss goodbye before giving him back the ring. It had been an almost anti-climatic ending for a couple whose relationship had thrived on debates and disagreements. No big fight, no big tears, only acceptance that they simply were too different to be husband and wife.
Almost a year had passed since that fateful day, Akira realized with a slight frown, and yet, for some reason, he was still alone. The last he heard, Maeko had moved in with some up-and-coming artist who specialized in painting Japanese watercolors and was working on her first novel. She had obviously moved on with her life, so why couldn't he?
Despite how much he loved to play the exasperated son whenever his mother harped on him about finding a wife, Akira really did want to marry and start a family someday. Mercury was a great companion, but a dog was a poor substitute for a warm body laying next to him in bed or a beautiful smile greeting him when he came home after a long day at the lab. It was those things he missed most of all since Maeko left.
Silently, Akira laughed at himself. Who would have thought that underneath his love of science and logic, he actually was a romantic after all?
"Come on, Mercury, let's head back," he said, realizing they had reached the end of the block.
Akira had done enough moping about his lack of a love life for one night.
Meanwhile, Yui arrived at Hideki's off-campus apartment for their study date. He had been looking forward to it for most of the day, but Yui still seemed a little upset about her test grade when she arrived, barely saying more than a quick "Konbanwa" before plopping down on the floor and dumping the contents of her extra large book bag onto the coffee table he had cleared off earlier to serve as a study area. Hideki knew better than to try to talk to his girlfriend when she was in what he jokingly referred to as her "Schoolzilla" mode, so digging his laptop out from underneath the mountain of textbooks, spirals, and color-coded note cards on the table, he settled himself on the couch and got to work on the new program he was learning for class.
Soon, the only sounds that could be heard were the tapping of his typing on the keyboard and the scratching of Yui's pencil against paper as she worked on her math problems, accompanied by the occasional groan of frustration. For the most part, Hideki was able to ignore it, but by the tenth muttering of "Shimatta," he glanced up from the computer screen and frowned as he stared at the back of his girlfriend's head.
Poor Yui, he thought, sighing. She always put way too much pressure on herself. Initially, her determination was one of the first things that had attracted him to her, but the more he had gotten to know her, Hideki began to realize that it was both a virtue and a vice. He thought it was wonderful that she had such a strong work ethic, however, there were times when she let herself become too involved in her studies, to the point where nothing else mattered, including him. He could see it happening again and wished there was something he could to stop it.
"Gah!" Yui suddenly exclaimed, startling him from his thoughts. She tore the piece of paper she had been working on out of her notebook, rolled it into a tiny ball, and threw it angrily at the trash can, missing entirely. "Honestly, I think Azuma-sensei intentionally gives us these impossible-to-solve problems to drive all his students insane!"
"Yui, calm down," Hideki said. "Getting all worked up is not going to help you solve that problem any faster."
"Calm down!" By the fiery look in her eyes as she whipped her head around, one would have thought he had told her that she really did look fat in that outfit or something equally stupid. "Do you realize Mizuno-san probably got the answer to this problem hours ago?" she asked. Turning back around before he could give her an answer, Yui rested her head on the table and sighed loudly. "I'm such an idiot… Why did I ever think taking this class was a good idea?"
"You are most definitely not an idiot." Setting aside his laptop, Hideki slid over to the other side of the couch so he was sitting right behind his girlfriend and rested his hands lightly on her shoulders. "Come on, Yui, stop being so down on yourself," he said. "You're one of the smartest people I know, and one of these days, you are going to be one of the most sought after plastic surgeons in all of Tokyo -- no, Japan."
"I have no interest in being only 'one' of the best, Hideki. I want to be the best, but as long as that girl genius is around, that's never going to happen."
It always came down to Mizuno Ami, didn't it? Hideki had heard the girl's name so much over the last year, he almost felt as if he was dating her as well, though he only knew the so-called "girl genius" by reputation.
"You know, I really wish you would get over this obsession you have about beating Mizuno-san," he confessed, pulling her up from the table so he could massage her shoulders. They were definitely on the tense side. "It's not healthy."
"I'm not obsessed," Yui insisted, causing Hideki to give her a disbelieving look. "Okay, so maybe I'm somewhat fixated on taking Mizuno-san's place at the top of the class," she admitted, "but how can that be a bad thing? I'm only working hard to achieve my goals. Most people would consider that admirable."
"But at what cost? Getting good grades is important, but it shouldn't be the most important thing in your life."
"You just don't get it, Hideki." Sighing, Yui shrugged his hands off her shoulders and started to reach for the notebook laying on the coffee table. However, Hideki, sensing what she was about to do, was faster and managed to grab it just as her fingertips brushed the cover. "Hey, give that back!" she demanded as he held her notebook high above her head. "I've got to finish that problem."
"It'll still be there in an hour." Hideki said, tossing the notebook halfway across the room. It gave a resounding thud as it landed in front of the entertainment center. "Right now, we are taking a study break. You need it."
"But my work…"
Yui, determined to return to her studying, fell to her hands and knees and started crawling toward the notebook, but Hideki was having none of that. She was going to take a break from studying, even if he had to handcuff her hands behind her back, which, now that he thought about it, might not be such a horrible idea. Sliding off the couch, he managed to grab her by the waist and roll her over on her back, pinning her wiggling body underneath him.
"Let me go, Hideki!" she shrieked, her annoyance soon dissolving into laughter that made her threats seem little more than a mild buzzing. "I mean it! I really need to study."
"Not until you pay the fee."
"And what would that be?" she asked. By that time, Yui had stopped trying to wiggle free, her face flushed as she stared up at him with her large, pale blue eyes.
"One hour," he answered.
"One hour of what?"
Lowering himself, Hideki brushed his lips against hers, a teasing kiss that made Yui moan with longing. Pleased with the reaction, he then moved lower, trailing wet butterfly kisses along her jaw line as he made his way to her neck. The faint scent of her perfume -- vanilla scented -- filled his nostrils, and Yui craned her neck to give him better access.
"Oh, I suppose a short break wouldn't hurt…" Yui murmured, unresisting as his fingers found the buttons to her white button-down shirt.
Smiling. Hideki gathered the titian-haired girl in his arms and carried her to his bedroom.
DISCLAIMER: Sailor Moon is the property of Takeuchi Naoko.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Thank you to my editors I Abibde/Samuraiter and Starsea.