Usagi leaned back in her chair, balancing her weight on the back two legs, contemplating a Very Serious Question posed to her by Naru during English class. The grammar target they were practicing was "enjoy with" and their native English-speaking Assistant Language Teacher was clearly highly amused by everyone's exciting hobbies.
"I enjoy with my friend Haruhi!" one of the boys announced enthusiastically, while Haruda-sensei praised his excellent pronunciation and the ALT's eyes teared up. Probably with pride, Usagi thought, trying to ignore Naru.
"Ne, Usagi! Answer yes or no! Do you enjoy with Chiba-san?" Naru probed again.
"Naru-chan, can we talk about anything else?" Usagi pleaded, not wanting to discuss Mamoru and all the conflicting feelings that swirled about them. "Or should I ask if you enjoy with Umino-kun?"
Naru shrieked, attracting a disapproving glower from Haruda-sensei, who tried not to discipline too harshly when the foreigner was present. Usagi lowered her chair to all four legs and tried to look innocent and shocked by Naru's outburst.
Ami just shook her head, aware that the "enjoy with" structure was rife with innuendo in real-life English, but too embarrassed to try to explain why. She simply complied with the textbook's requirements during the school day. One day, many of her classmates would graduate to the more complex "have fun" structure and "enjoy with" would hopefully fade away.
Ami pushed grammar thoughts aside and contemplated her best friend. While she truly hated the cacophony and chaos of English games and activities, she did enjoy the chance to observe her fellow students stepping out of their comfort zones to experiment with expressing themselves in another language. Usagi was particularly fascinating to watch, because she would really throw herself into the sound and fury of 26 students all trying to speak at once. Her eyes would glow with joy, though she was often using the cover of her more studious peers to have a free conversation with Naru instead of conscientiously completing the assignment.
Ami was not ashamed to admit that she envied a great deal about Usagi. She was vibrant, energetic, loving, kind, and enthusiastic. She was very empathetic, was enthusiastically supportive, and generous with her time and energy. She didn't necessarily want all of those attributes at the intensity Usagi possessed them, but she did want to be more open and to improve her ability to connect with others.
Naru sent a conspiratorial grin Ami's way, as Usagi squirmed under more Mamoru-centered interrogations. Ami's envy melted away as she returned the grin. It may have taken a while, but she felt like some of Usagi's out-going nature was rubbing off on her. She was even inspired to make a heart with her hands behind Usagi's back, just to watch Naru's eyes widen, knowing Naru would press her for details at lunch.
Mamoru probably wished he was being interrogated by Naru. Instead, he was facing a very determined Motoki. "I don't really think there's anything to tell you," he deflected, staring intently at a carpal tunnel syndrome diagram.
Motoki yanked the book away and stared at his best friend, eyes narrowed sharply. "My sister saw you and Usagi in your car last night. After 9 pm. How is there nothing to tell?"
"Because you already know all there is to know, Toki-kun." Mamoru tried to coax his best friend out of his innuendos and speculations. "I'm helping her with a school project. Why wouldn't I give her a ride home? Do you want me to send the poor kid out, defenseless, into the night?"
He really hoped his friend didn't notice how uncomfortable he felt dismissing Usagi as a "kid". But he had to keep reminding himself that the age gap was currently kind of dodgy.
Motoki latched onto the word, just as Mamoru had hoped. "I suppose I am getting carried away. I forget you're such an old man." He laughed and passed the book back, seemingly content to accept Mamoru's argument.
But a moment later, he changed tactics, "But what about when she's 16? That's only a little more than a year away. School year's almost over."
Mamoru scrubbed his face with his hand and sighed heavily, "You never stop, do you?"
Motoki just laughed, pleased with himself for reasons Mamoru didn't quite understand.
Akemi was in a rage. Somehow, both her horrible mouse of a stepdaughter and that vilely arrogant peasant-loving vigilante nut job had vanished.
Her platoon of were-dogs had been routed; not one had reported back. A scout she had dispatched had returned, describing some killed by the sword; some by falls; and others swaddled in giant web cocoons, drained of all fluid.
The report of spiders worried her. She vaguely remembered a girl, many years ago, that she had turned into a spider-thing. Could that girl have somehow survived the horde that had hunted her? She had gotten distracted after inciting the villages to hunt the monster she had created, but surely she would have heard if the girl had escaped. No one would protect such a monstrosity. It had to be coincidence. No one knew all the terrors of that stretch of woodland, she told herself.
Akemi continued trying to scry her stepdaughter's dreams, but all she got blank whiteness, like a sheet of paper held up before her, blocking her sight. The girl had gotten beyond her range, which was not a positive sign. If the brat found some help, she might dare to return and cause trouble.
She stared at Nobuo's stone body, anxiously noting the thinness of the stone in some places. He was still fighting her spell, clinging to life. Someone must be feeding him hope, she surmised. But whom? She allowed no one but her trusted advisers in here. Even the servants were kept away, as their loyalty could never be truly relied on. She'd have to purge the lot of them once she had firmly grasped power.
The council was only a few more members away from stripping Hanako of her right to the throne and installing Akemi as Queen. Not Queen Consort, not Queen Regent, but Queen. King Nobuo could die the moment the ink dried on that order and there would be nothing Hanako could ever do to depose Akemi, short of regicide. And she would find herself very short of support should she make an attempt on the Queen's life. Akemi was quite confident in her successful reinvention of the both of them. Polls showed that she was now widely viewed as the gentle, devoted care-giver to her beloved, dying husband and Hanako was being derided as a willful, selfish child who put her own desire for Lord Takeshi above her father, her family, and her kingdom.
What Akemi didn't really take into consideration was that "widely supported" really only meant the vocal wealthy who liked this viewpoint. The vast bulk of the population - the poor, the middle class, the more cautious lords and ladies - were inclined to take these characterizations with a grain of salt, if not a whole pillar. Hanako's devotion during her mother's long illness was still well-remembered. The love and affection between father and daughter had always been evident to anyone who cared to pay attention. Those people worried about Hanako and found the excuse of a selfish elopement to be highly suspect. But they were silent, because Akemi was growing in power, and they wanted to stay alive.
After school, Usagi encountered Mamoru outside Crown. He suggested that they skip the usual hour she spent socializing, as her deadline was looming. She acquiesced, as she really should be getting home earlier. Her father's stony silence and inscrutable looks the past week when she came home after 9 pm were beginning to unnerve her.
"I'm beginning to get concerned about the story, Usagi," Mamoru told her as they walked. "I really hate to say this, because we all enjoy what you are creating, but the scope seems to be growing beyond your assignment. We haven't met Gaelph, or found the White Mage. I think we need to talk about an ending and figure out how we're getting there in the next few days."
Usagi was silent for several blocks, contemplating his viewpoint.
"I don't want to cut your story short, you know," Mamoru finally ventured, concerned that he may have offended her.
Usagi waved her hand, "I know. It's just kind of overwhelming. I have so much to say, so much I want these characters to do. I'm not ready to jump to the final page." She sighed heavily, "But if I don't turn a complete story in, this will all have been a waste of time."
Mamoru's jaw clenched, but he bit back a protest, telling himself she meant the energy and time focused on a missed goal, not the creation itself, or the side effect of their friendship.
Usagi continued talking through her thought process, "Not that this is a waste of time in the grand scheme of things. But a year of my life pretty much rides on turning in a complete project. Repeating the year would be humiliating."
Mamoru wanted to comfort her, to chase away that dark thought, but he didn't really know how. Finally, as they walked through the doors of his apartment building, he decided to take her hand, giving it an affectionate squeeze, which earned him a blindingly beautiful smile.
They continued holding hands until Mamoru ushered her into his apartment and began getting their work space ready. While Usagi booted up the computer and fished out the binder she was keeping meticulously organized by draft, he rounded up some drinks and snacks.
He partially opened the balcony doors, letting the brisk March wind chase away some of the stuffiness of his apartment. Usagi stole his porch slippers so she could take in the view of Azabu-Juuban, admiring the play of light and shadow and the dark clouds that dotted the sky. Mamoru leaned against the door frame, studying her profile. At moments like this, he could barely remember the age difference between them. She just felt like she belonged here. The artless intimacy of her shoe theft would have been unthinkable just a week ago.
She sensed him watching her and she glanced back at him, smiling peacefully, before leaning a bit further over the railing, peering down at the bustling streets below them. "Sometimes," she confided, "I feel like your apartment is slightly out of sync with the rest of the world. Like a sanctuary from the demands and schedules of daily life."
He stepped out on the cold concrete, ignoring the small mental shriek at not having shoes on, and leaned over the railing beside her. "I think of it as a sanctuary, too. But I think we mean in different ways."
Usagi nodded, not trusting her voice at the moment. His experience with the world was so much darker than hers, though there were strong parallels. They both knew what life was like as outsiders; both had experienced rejection, but she'd been blessed with a number of people who loved her despite her lack of conformity, and even some who loved her because of her differences. She settled for resting her head on his shoulder for a few moments, before she started to shiver in the increasing wind and Mamoru hustled her back inside.
The affectionate moment passed, and Mamoru was back into tutor-mode. "Alright, Usagi, we need to talk about taking what you've written and shaping it into a short story. Rearranging events could tighten up the beginning, for example. Perhaps the story could open with the ball scene, and then the attack in the woods could follow."
Usagi thought about his idea. "Perhaps, when Hanako's carriage is sabotaged, Lord Mask could both rescue and recruit her. They could gain assistance from the farmers for traveling clothes." Mamoru took notes as she brainstormed. "Hanako and Takeshi could have to take the horses that usually pull her carriage. They could raid the bandits after having the encounter with the were-bear. Instead of crossing fields to cross the border, the forest could transition to the northern mountains."
"Perhaps, if I cut Akemi's dream-scrying, the were-dogs, and Kumoko for now, then we can have them recruit the White Mage after only a two-day journey. It feels a bit rushed, but surely time is not on their side, if her father's being turned into a statue."
Mamoru read back his notes, "Rachet up the tension, tighten the storyline, avoid optional side questing." He tapped his pencil on his notepad, "What about your ending? How do you see your characters finding resolution? Does King Nobuo survive? Does Akemi? Are you killing off Takeshi after all? Or marrying off Hanako? Is there a happily ever after headed their way?" A soft teasing light danced in his eyes.
Usagi scrunched up her face, conflicted. Had she written this story without him, without the revelations of Tuxedo Kamen's identity, without revealing her own crush on the mysterious hero, then she probably would have been gung-ho for a happily ever after. That wish fulfillment wouldn't have embarrassed, or confused, her nearly as much as it would now. Now, it seemed almost trite, and expected, and all too rushed. It would seem like a confession that she secretly wanted to date Mamoru, a thought which was still as ridiculous as her flying to the moon, if for different reasons that she would have given a month ago. "I know the stereotype would be happily-ever-after, true-love-at-first-sight, and all that, but I don't like it. If they're going to have a relationship, I think it needs time to grow. They don't know each other, and having intense heart-to-hearts while galloping across the countryside doesn't seem realistic."
Mamoru grinned, amused by the mental image of two people shouting into the wind, jarred by the bouncing of the horses, and punctuated by the clatter of iron horseshoes striking stones. He was also impressed with the note of caution he discerned running through her justifications. Usagi sounded quite mature, wanting to grow a healthy relationship, not just trust that a passionate attraction would build to a long-lasting bond. "So, is that a no to marrying Hanako off or just a no to marrying her to Takeshi? Her dad could still decide on an arranged marriage for her."
Usagi vehemently shook her head. "No way! Her dad adores and loves her! He wouldn't hurt her like that! I don't think King Nobuo would actually let Akemi marry Hanako off. It's more like he thinks that letting Akemi organize this ritual will keep the peace in his family, maybe even lead to Akemi and Hanako finding common ground."
"He's daft, if he thinks that!"
Usagi shrugged. "I guess I'm projecting my dad a bit. He's over-protective, prone to freak outs about boys, and kind of terrifying at times if Mom insinuates I might date sometime in the next decade. But I know he's like that because he loves me."
Mamoru felt that familiar tingle of worry as she talked about her dad. No one had given him any details about what her father was like, just multiple warnings to avoid him. It would probably be okay, he told himself, if they met. How bad could it really be, if he'd raised such a warm and caring daughter?
They lapsed into silence, working on their respective assignments, and just enjoying each other's companionship.
AN: Did you think this story was dead forever? I admit, it has taken an inexcusably long time to get another chapter out. I am working on another chapter or two at the moment.
Some points of clarification here:
When Motoki is teasing Mamoru about the age gap: Usagi's school year ends in March. She will be entering the third year of middle school (US 9th grade) when April rolls around, but will still be 14 until the end of June.
Classroom scene: "Enjoy/enjoy with" was the worst thing I had to teach during my years as an Assistant Language Teacher, but the grammatical, English-as-a-dead-language approach that the school system uses doesn't introduce "have fun" in middle school. I cringed in agony every time my students simply "enjoyed with" their friends. But I was banned from teaching them "enjoyed dancing with/enjoyed playing soccer with" as those wouldn't be on the tests.
The Language Games chaos was one of my main duties, and I think I spent more time trying to gently coax and/or shame my kids into actually completing the work than I did anything else. But don't let that make you think I didn't love my job. It was an amazing experience and the chaos did give my students a chance to show off their unique personalities.
Hanako and Takeshi: Let me know in the reviews if you would want me to write up Usagi's ultimately submitted short story, just continue with the secondary story as it is, or do both. I plan for Usagi to continue writing her story, as a hobby, and I don't – as yet – have an end plan for the primary story. So, I'm interested in input.
Possible notification warning: I'm going to be fixing editing issues on a number of my stories, including this one, as time allows. Apologies in advance if that leads to false alerts of new chapters!