I originally had the idea for this story more than six months ago. Unfortunately, when I was about ten pages in, my computer crashed, and took this story with it. I gave up on it for a while, but I finally discovered that I hadn't lost it after all – I had saved a copy to my e-mail.
Although I had intended for it to be a relatively short story, I ended up adding ten more pages, bringing the grand total up to twenty pages and ten and a half thousand words.
I hope you enjoy it.
The Perfect Cinderella
Mamoru idly leaned against a pillar towards the rear of the crowded ballroom, frowning as he scanned the crowd.
"Motoki, remind me again why I'm here," he demanded, turning to face his friend, who was occupied whispering into his giggling girlfriend's ear. Annoyed, Mamoru snatched a flute of champagne from the tray of a passing waiter, downing the drink quickly. Motoki, who had finally turned to respond, pulled the empty glass away from Mamoru with an expression of distaste.
"That's expensive champagne, Mamoru. You'd fire me if you knew what it cost," Motoki said, placing the glass on a nearby table. Mamoru's expression didn't waver.
"You know as well as I do that you'll find some other area to hide the cost. Now, please tell me why I'm still here. I've got better things to do than stand around in a tuxedo all evening," Mamoru insisted.
"It's your company's first annual Masquerade Ball. You're the President. You have to be here. Besides, you didn't even dress up," Motoki complained, settling his arm around his girlfriend's waist. Mamoru rubbed his temples in frustration.
"First annual Masquerade Ball? Are you telling me I have to do this once a year?" Mamoru scowled at Motoki.
"Yes, you have to do this once a year. You should try to be more personable, Mamoru. You've never had very many friends. Now's the time you should make them. For God's sake, smile for once in your miserable life and go have a good time!" Motoki insisted.
"Motoki, if I had wanted friends, I would have made them when you still worked at the arcade and I was putting myself through college. I'm perfectly happy with..." Mamoru turned towards his friend only to realize that he was talking to thin air, as Motoki and his girlfriend, Reika, had escaped onto the dance floor. Shoving his hands into the pockets of his slacks, he leaned back against the pillar. Like hell he was going to have a good time.
He scanned the ballroom, his gaze finally coming to rest upon a group of people entering the ballroom via the grand staircase. It seemed to be four couples, and one young woman who looked companionless. The people she was with were dressed as notably famous couples, Adam and Eve, Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Scarlet O'Hara and Rhett Butler. The young woman who had no partner was dressed in a sparkling white formal ball gown, a glittering silver mask obscuring much of her face, and her blonde hair curled into an intricate hairstyle, tumbling down her back almost to her knees. He couldn't identify who she was supposed to be, but she looked lonely...almost as if she regretted coming. Her eyes met his for a second, and Mamoru felt electrified by her clear blue gaze. She seemed almost as startled as he was, and her gaze darted away nervously. Without even thinking, Mamoru pushed away from the pillar, beginning the weaving path through the crowd to get to the girl with the beautiful eyes.
"Rei, he's coming this way!" Usagi whispered nervously to her friend, dressed as Cleopatra.
"Talk to him, then," Rei said, handing Usagi a glass of champagne. Usagi held it delicately while trying to reason with her friend.
"I don't want to talk to him! Rei, he and I were always at each other's throats just a few years ago! I'd rather not relive that stage of my life in front of half of Tokyo, if you don't mind!" Usagi pleaded.
"Usagi, he's the president of the company that's giving this ball. I don't think he's going to risk his professional reputation by insulting you here. Besides, you haven't even seen each other in years! You're twenty-three years old. There's no reason for him to treat you like a child and no reason for you to act like one," Rei insisted.
Usagi might have appealed to another friend for assistance, but Mamoru was quickly approaching, and she didn't want to risk being overheard. She smiled weakly as he approached. He appeared almost nervous.
"I, uh, noticed that you didn't seem to have a partner," He said awkwardly. Usagi shook her head, nervously waiting for the inevitable insult.
"Well, ah...I'm Chiba Mamoru," he supplied helpfully. Usagi's eyes widened as she realized that he didn't recognize her. He didn't recognize her! Mamoru Chiba (alias Mamoru-baka) didn't recognize her as his nemesis of years past! Of course, they hadn't seen each other in years...why should he recognize someone he only tolerated in days of old?
"Well, ah…I...I'm Usako," Usagi said, hesitatingly. She could feel Rei's curious gaze as she observed the byplay, and silently willed her to keep out of it. Finally, she had a chance to correct misimpressions and perhaps make a friend out of Chiba Mamoru.
"Usako. That's a nice name," Mamoru said. Finally, he extended his hand. "I came over here to ask you to dance. Would you like to?"
She gifted him with a brilliant smile that made those lovely blue eyes of hers sparkle.
"I'd love to," she said, placing her gloved hand in his. He led her out onto the dance floor, settling one hand on her waist, gently clasping one of her hands with his other. She placed one hand on his shoulder, and they swayed to the soft music that floated through the room.
Another couple bumped into them, forcing Usagi up against him for a brief moment.
"I'm sorry," she murmured. Mamoru caught the telltale signs of a blush creeping across her face, where it wasn't covered by the mask.
"It's okay. To tell you the truth, it's a little embarassing. I've never been that good at dancing. I always feel like I'm making an idiot of myself," Mamoru admitted. Usagi smiled.
"I've never danced before," she said, "and really, it could be so much worse. You could be her," she said, indicating a couple on the far edge of the dance floor. Mamoru choked back laughter as he watched the couple struggle across the floor, hindered by the flailing legs of the man's horse costume.
"I make it a rule never to dance with anything that has more legs than I do," he responded, smiling. "I meant to ask you, who are you supposed to be? I didn't recognize your costume."
An impish grin crossed her lips, as she withdrew from his arms long enough to lift the skirt of her gown just enough to expose her bare feet.
"I'm Cinderella," she said, smiling cheekily.
"I thought she only lost one slipper," Mamoru said, laughing.
"I've never been one to do things by halves," Usagi responded, grinning. Mamoru found himself unable to stop smiling. This woman made him feel alive, as only one other young woman had ever made him feel. The thought of Usagi had the smile fading fast from his face. He hadn't seen her in years. She probably thought he hated her, when in reality he'd insulted her to keep her from guessing the truth - that he'd had a crush on her.
"What's wrong?" Usagi asked, confused by the far away look in Mamoru's eyes.
Mamoru jerked, the unexpected question startling him from his train of thought.
"Nothing, nothing. You just remind me of a girl I used to know," Mamoru said, smiling. Inwardly, Usagi panicked. But she smiled wanly, trying to appear nonchalant.
"Do I?" she inquired politely, silently praying Mamoru wouldn't pursue the subject. She was out of luck, though, as Mamoru continued, not recognizing Usagi's distress.
"Yes, a little. Her name was Usagi. I haven't seen her in years. She was always so clumsy, and she had the worst grades I've ever seen," Mamoru recalled, smiling fondly in memory, "I've seen her run into more people and lampposts and walls than anyone else I know. I'm surprised she never seriously hurt herself, since she was so careless. But at least she had a way with people. She always had a lot of friends."
Usagi was mortified to hear Mamoru relaying her faults to someone who, to him, was a perfect stranger. She managed to will the flush from her cheeks. Mamoru wasn't really paying attention to her, anyway, lost in relating his memories of Usagi. Usagi was no longer listening to him, either. She'd tuned him out to spare herself the embarrassment of having him recount all her faults to her. Swallowing down the lump that seemed to have formed in her throat, she willed her lips to form the words she desperately needed.
"I…I have to go. I'm sorry." Usagi jerked out of his arms, gathering her skirt in both hands as she fled towards the staircase.
"Usako, wait," a stunned Mamoru called after her. But Usagi had never lost the fleetness of foot that she'd been known for in her school days. She was up the stairs and out the door before anyone could stop her.
But unlike the fairy-tale princess she'd been playing, she had no shoes to leave behind.
Usagi sat in her bathtub, still in her ballgown, hair bedraggled and make-up smeared. She held a tissue to her red nose, and blew loudly. She'd long since cried herself out, unprepared for how much Mamoru's condemning words would affect her.
"You look terrible." Usagi jumped, startled by Rei's voice.
"Don't abuse the house key privileges, you meanie," Usagi muttered, wiping her face with a cloth to remove her streaked make up.
"I think I had a right to worry about you, seeing as how you left the ball like the very hounds of hell were at your heels," Rei said smartly. "Besides, you weren't answering your phone. I figured Mamoru must've said something to upset you, and I felt guilty because I virtually forced you to dance with him." Rei helped Usagi up out of the tub, sliding the zipper down the back of Usagi's dress, and steadying her so she could step out of it. She turned the shower on, allowing it to warm up while she plucked pins from Usagi's bountiful curls. Unceremoniously, she shoved Usagi into the shower, leaving a towel on the rack nearby.
By the time Usagi was out of the shower, Rei had a bowl of soup and rolls ready for Usagi to eat, along with a mug of hot cocoa. Rei glared at Usagi's surprised expression.
"I'm allowed to be a good friend every once in a while!" She defended indignantly. Sheepishly, Usagi sat down on the couch to eat. Rei took a seat beside her and switched the television on to a station playing a sappy romantic movie. When it became apparent that Usagi was crying much more than she ought to at the heart-wrenching bits, Rei switched off the program.
"Want to tell me what happened?" she asked. Usagi launched herself into Rei's arns, all at once sobbing on her shoulder.
"He didn't know it was me, Rei, and he still insulted me! He mocked me to someone he thought was a complete stranger! I just couldn't listen to it anymore," Usagi wept. Rei patted her back, offering a box of tissues.
"I'm so sorry, honey," Rei said, mentally cursing the man who'd crushed her best friend's heart once again.
"Dammit, Motoki! I blew it with her, and I don't even know what I said to offend her!" Mamoru threw up his hands, despairing of ever having a normal relationship.
"What did you say to her?" Motoki asked, understandably interested in the plight of his best friend.
"I don't know. Something about Usagi, I think. You know how I get when I start thinking about her," Mamoru said. He leaned against the windowsill, absently peering down at the busy sidewalk.
"Come on, Mamoru. You haven't seen Usagi in years! You've got to be over her by now. Maybe your mystery girl thought you were interested in Usagi?" Motoki supplied helpfully.
"No, no. I'm sure she didn't. I mean, I really didn't get that far before she ran off. I think I mostly just remarked on Usagi's penchant for less than amazing grades and her alarming habit of running into stationary objects," Mamoru said sheepishly.
That perked Motoki's interest.
"This girl…what did you say she looked like?" Motoki asked cautiously.
"She was beautiful," Mamoru sighed, smiling in remembrance. "She's got blue eyes and blonde hair. She was wearing a white dress, and she said she'd come as Cinderella. She comes up to about here," Mamoru indicated a level a few inches below his chin.
"Well, maybe we'll get lucky. Tokyo isn't known for its extensive network of blondes. How many can there be? I'll see if I can't find out who she is. Your ball was invitation only, you know. She has to either work for you, or be the guest of someone who does," Motoki pointed out.
Mamoru brightened visibly. He'd had no idea what the ball had entailed, as Motoki had arranged it.
"Motoki, remind me to give you a raise. I'll be damned if you aren't the best friend I've ever had," Mamoru said, clapping his friend on the back. "Now, you find that girl, and I'll make you vice president. Interview everyone in the company if you have to."
"I'm perfectly content where I am, thank you," Motoki said on his way out the door of Mamoru's office. "But I'll take the raise!"
He shut Mamoru's office door before Mamoru could respond, and on a hunch, he made his way down to the front desk. A dark-haired woman was seated at the desk, finishing up a phone call. As soon as she put the phone down, she looked up at Motoki.
"What can I do for you, Furuhata-san?" she asked, blinking striking violet eyes up at him. Motoki leaned against the desk, lowering his voice so the other two women working nearby wouldn't overhear.
"You were at the company masquerade ball, weren't you, Rei-san?" At her nod, he continued. "Since your husband also works here, you didn't use your guest pass on him. Did you bring a guest?"
"Yes, I brought a guest," Rei said, eyes narrowing as she realized where the line of questions was leading.
"Who did you bring?" Motoki asked. Rei pursed her lips and lowered her eyes, thinking on how to answer the question.
"Where are you taking the answer, Furuhata-san?" she asked finally. Motoki shrugged.
"Nowhere. Mamoru doesn't know who I'm asking for information yet. I came here on a hunch. I just want to see if I'm right," he explained.
"You know you are," Rei said, "but if I find out you told that idiot that I brought Usa-chan, I swear to you, on my honor as a priestess, I will gut you like a fish. He's hurt Usa-chan enough. She can't take anymore. I won't let him hurt her again; not if I have anything to say about it."
Motoki noticed how white her knuckles has turned from gripping the black countertop before her, and immediately sought to reassure her.
"Rei-san, Mamoru has been in love with Usagi-chan as long as I can remember. If he knew that it was Usagi he'd danced with at the ball, he'd be overjoyed. And probably mortified, judging by what he's told me he said to her," Motoki added thoughtfully.
Rei's violet gaze darkened to almost black. She stood up, glaring at Motoki.
"If you're under the misguided notion that continuously insulting and berating someone could possibly constitute love, please allow me to correct you," Rei hissed. "Usagi has been hurt by that man time and time again. You have no idea how hurt she was that night."
Motoki touched her shoulder gently, easing her back into the chair.
"I didn't say he'd acted like a man in love, only that he was a man in love. She was years too young for him, and he didn't want her to know that he was infatuated with her. He was afraid of what she would say or do if she knew. So he pretended to dislike her so she wouldn't find out what he really felt. He thought she was far too good for him," Motoki said. Rei didn't bat an eyelash.
"She is too good for him," Rei replied stubbornly. Motoki sighed, leaning against the desk on his elbows.
"Please help me, Rei-san. Mamoru is obsessed with the girl he met at the ball. He's been in love with Usagi since she was sixteen. That's seven years, Rei-san. That's a long time to have been in love with someone who hates you," Motoki pointed out.
"Usa-chan doesn't hate him," Rei replied softly. "She's always had a crush on him. She pretended she didn't, but I always knew. I wouldn't be surprised if Mako, Mina, and Ami knew as well. She denied it so fiercely, but…it just sort of showed." She touched a hand to her forehead, and Motoki could see from the look in her eyes that she was years away.
"That's great! If they've both got feelings for each other, we can get them together," Motoki encouraged, smiling. Rei's eyes snapped up to his, narrowed and hostile.
"No," she said firmly. Motoki sighed.
"Rei-san, if they both want-"
"No!" She snapped. "Chiba-san's not interested in Usagi, he's interested in the girl he met at the ball!"
"But they're the same person!" Motoki insisted, frustrated by the absurd logic of women.
"No, they're not. Not in the way that counts. If Chiba-san really wanted Usagi, why would he go slavering after some girl he'd only just met? No, Furuhata-san, until Mamoru finds out who it is he wants, he'd better stay away from them both of them," Rei said, snatching up her purse. "I'm on my lunch break. I don't want to waste my time continuing this pointless discussion. And if you tell Chiba-san that Usagi was at that ball, I promise you'll live to regret it," Rei said as she walked towards the door.
Motoki shivered at the threat. Having known Rei-san for several years, he knew exactly how capable she was of following through.
Sighing, he took the elevator down to the parking garage, and went to find the only other person who could possibly help.
Usagi opened the door wearily, still in pajamas. Her eyes were red, and she looked pale and tired.
"Good morning, Usa-chan!" Motoki said, grinning.
"Motoki-chan? What are you doing here?" Usagi asked, surprised.
"Oh, I'm just here to talk. I got your address from your mother. I haven't seen you in months, Usagi-chan! Mind if I come in?" Motoki assumed a look of pure innocence, one Usagi saw right through. Nevertheless, she opened the door wider to allow him entrance.
"You look terrible, Usa-chan. Are you okay?" Motoki said, concerned, once they were seated at her kitchen table. He rummaged through her cabinets until he found some tea, and put a kettle on the stove while he filled the infusers.
"I've been getting that a lot, thanks," Usagi replied wryly, when he set a steaming mug in front of her. She took a sip, and sighed. "Now why don't you tell me why you're really here. Does Mamoru-san know I was at the ball?"
"Not yet, he doesn't. I spoke with Rei just a while ago. She told me she'd kill me if I told him. Only she was very…descriptive about how." Motoki decided that being honest would probably benefit him more than trying to hide his true agenda.
Usagi nodded, smiling wryly.
"Please don't tell him," she said softly.
"But, Usagi-chan, you don't even know-"
"I don't need to," she said firmly. "In fact, I'm certain I'm much better off not knowing. I couldn't bear it if Mamoru-san knew it was me. Please, Motoki-san. I'm asking you as a friend. Don't tell him."
Motoki gave up gracefully. He didn't want to upset Usagi any more than she already was. She appeared as though she might burst into tears at any moment, and he didn't doubt that she'd spent much of the day in tears, already.
"All right, Usagi-chan," Motoki said. "I won't tell him it was you. But I wish you would. He'd like to know. Really, he would," Motoki said. She nodded, eyes closed. Motoki let himself out, hoping to spare himself the sight of her tears and Usagi the embarrassment of giving into them in front of him.
A scant three days later, Usagi emerged from her apartment to get groceries. She'd pulled on a pair of jeans and a white tank top, covered by a black button-up over shirt, yanked her hair into a high ponytail, the inevitable stray wisps curling around her delicate face. As she entered the grocery store, she shivered. A sense of unease skittered over her.
She grabbed a shopping cart, drifting through the aisles, snatching items she needed from shelves. She paused to check the sodium in a can of chicken soup, when a familiar figure walked past the end of the aisle, probably less than a hundred feet away.
Mamoru squinted, unable to see clearly from such a distance, but the woman's gasp gave her away. Blonde hair, blue eyes…Usako.
"Usako!" he called, starting towards her. Usagi forced her feet into motion. She turned and ran, abandoning her cart. She turned into another aisle, hoping he would be too far behind to catch her easily. As a precaution, she yanked the rubber band from her hair, wincing as it caught a few strands. She dug an additional rubber band from her pocket, and wound her hair into the Odangoes which had, until recently, been her preferred hairstyle. Luckily, she'd had plenty of practice since her frequent late starts to school had often required that she fix her hair on her morning dash to reach the school in a timely manner.
She could still hear him calling for her, so she turned at the end of the aisle, heading back to the aisle she'd encountered him on. She unbuttoned the black over shirt she was wearing, tossing it into a nearby cart. Nearly out of breath, she returned to her own cart and shopping, praying he would give up looking for her. Luck was not on her side, however, as she very nearly bumped into him as she turned to toss the can of chicken soup into her cart. She cried out in surprise, and he reached out to steady her.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you, I thought you were someone…Usagi-san?" Mamoru's eyes widened in shock, the mystery girl immediately forgotten, and Usagi mentally sighed her relief that he hadn't caught on.
"Mamoru-san," Usagi said in response, "it's been a long time, hasn't it?"
"Yes, years," he replied. "You're not at work? It's Wednesday."
"It's summer vacation," she said matter-of-factly. "I'm a teacher."
"I own my own company," he replied, grinning, "there's no one to yell at me if I take too many breaks."
Usagi smiled, pushing her cart a little, hoping he'd leave. He didn't, choosing instead to walk beside her as she shopped.
"Listen, I know this is kind of sudden, and we haven't seen each other for years…but could I take you to a movie, or dinner, or something sometime?" Mamoru asked after a minute or two. Usagi stopped, turning to look him in the eye.
"Is that supposed to be a joke?" Usagi asked, unsmiling. Mamoru was surprised.
"What? No, of course not," he said sincerely. "I'd really like to take you out sometime, Usagi-chan. If you'd like to, that is."
Usagi hesitated. It was her secret dream come true. She'd regret it forever if she didn't take the chance.
"If it's not a joke…then, I'd love to, Mamoru-san," she told him, smiling.
"Great!" Mamoru enthused, digging a business card out of his wallet. He fumbled through his pockets for a pen, finally finding one and jotting a number on the back.
"That's my personal phone number. Call me anytime," he instructed, handing it to her. Usagi, in turn, wrote down her own phone number, and handed it over to him. He tucked it into his shirt pocket.
"Thanks," he told her, smiling. "I've got to get back to the office, but I'll call you soon to make plans, okay?"
"That's fine," Usagi said. They parted awkwardly, with Mamoru walking away slowly, glancing over his shoulder every few moments to wave, as if assuring himself it was really her.
Usagi shook her head, confused by Mamoru's odd behavior. Hopefully he hadn't been joking. She didn't think she could take that cruelty again.
But as it was, she had no need to worry. When she walked in the door of her apartment, she heard the phone ringing noisily in the kitchen.
"Hello?" she said breathlessly into the receiver, dropping her keys onto the counter, and placing her bags beside the refrigerator.
Mamoru's voice came over the line.
"You sound out of breath," he said.
"I just got back from the store," Usagi replied, "I didn't expect you to call so quickly."
"Sorry, is it a bad time?" Mamoru apologized. Usagi laughed.
"No, of course not," she replied.
"Great. So there's this dinner I have to attend on Friday. It's a fund-raiser that Motoki harasses me into attending every year. Would you like to go with me?" He asked.
"That sounds great," Usagi said.
"Fantastic! It's formal dress. Is that a problem?" Mamoru asked.
"Not at all. I've got plenty of dresses. The only problem will be choosing one," Usagi replied.
"So I'll pick you up at seven on Friday?" Mamoru asked.
"It's a date," Usagi responded, and immediately blushed. She hadn't meant to say that, and it made the rest of the conversation awkward. Fortunately, Motoki saved Mamoru from embarrassing himself.
"I've got to go, Motoki's being his usual irritating self," Mamoru explained.
"I'm not irritating," Motoki shouted loudly enough for Usagi to hear, causing her to giggle.
"All right, all right. I'll see you Friday, Usagi," Mamoru said.
"Okay. Say hello to Motoki for me," Usagi responded.
"I will." Mamoru hung up the phone, turning his attention to Motoki, who looked thoroughly confused.
"Did you say that was Usagi?" He asked, stunned. Mamoru fought the urge to laugh at his befuddled expression.
"Yes. We ran into one another at the grocery store. I thought I saw Usako there, but I ended up running into Usagi. Did you know she's a teacher? Who would have thought," Mamoru said, grinning.
"Yeah, how about that," Motoki scratched his head, wondering how to proceed. "Listen," he began, "I'm not having any luck interviewing employees,"
"Oh, don't worry about it," Mamoru interrupted, "I think I liked Usako because she reminded me of Usagi, you know? And there's no use trying to pursue someone who's obviously not into you, is there? Besides, Usagi's consented to go out with me on Friday. It would be pretty lousy of me to keep looking for one girl while dating another, right?"
"Wait…Usagi actually agreed to go out with you?" Motoki asked.
"Yeah. You know I always thought I was too old for her, Motoki," Mamoru said, "but now she's twenty-three. It's not so much a difference, now. You should have seen her, Motoki. She's beautiful."
"I'm sure she is. Look, I need a break. Mind if I take the rest of the day off?" Motoki said.
"No problem. I've just got a meeting in thirty minutes, and then I'll probably head home, too. Why don't you let Reika off early, as well? Go catch a movie or something." Mamoru instructed.
"Thanks, Mamoru. I owe you," Motoki said, walking out the door. He shook his head, as if trying to make sense of the whole situation.
- - -
Mamoru rang the doorbell to Usagi's apartment at precisely seven o'clock on Friday night. Inside, he heard a thump and an exclamation, and Usagi shouted through the door.
"Coming! Just a minute!"
He chuckled, and the door opened a moment later. Usagi ushered him in.
"I'm sorry, I'm running a little late. I just have to go change," she explained, blushing. "I was trying to choose a dress when you rang. I'll only be a minute, I promise."
"Would you like help? I've been told I have good taste," Mamoru offered.
"No!" Usagi surprised them both with her vehement refusal. "No, thank you." Her blush deepened. "It's just that my room is sort of a mess."
He accepted her excuse with grace, and she retreated to her bedroom, closing the door softly behind her. If he had taken a look inside her closet, he would have immediately seen the white gown she'd worn to his ball. He was a smart man. He definitely would have made the connection. Sighing, she slid a black evening gown off hanger and replaced the blue dress.
When she emerged from her bedroom a few moments later, she was amused to see her cat, Luna, draped across Mamoru's lap, purring loudly. Mamoru stroked her fur absently as he studied the apartment.
"What?" he asked defensively, when he saw Usagi's grin. "I happen to like cats."
"It seems she likes you, too. She's not exactly a lap cat."
Mamoru lifted the euphoric kitty off his lap, setting her back on the sofa as he stood. He stroked her head fondly.
"Watch the house and be good," he told her, turning to face Usagi. "You look wonderful. Are you ready?"
"Yes, of course. I'm sorry I took so long. I didn't mean to make us late."
"Not at all. It's just a fundraiser banquet. And anyway, I'm their largest contributor. No one would dream of mentioning it."
"Oh, so you're one of those power-abusing types," she remarked wickedly as he opened the car door for her.
"Not at all," he replied. "I can't help it if people fall all over themselves to impress me. It's such a pain."
"Poor baby," she mocked as he started the engine. "I'm sure you're so intimidated by all the attention. And, if you're not the power-abusing type, what type are you?"
"Oh, I'm sure you'll find out. Eventually," he replied.
- - -
The food was delicious, but the event was decidedly boring, Usagi decided. She knew now why Mamoru had wanted company. Everyone in attendance was at least fifteen years her senior, and the table conversation consisted largely of politics, a topic that had never held much interest for Usagi. She started when Mamoru touched his hand to hers beneath the table.
"You know," he whispered, inclining his head a little towards hers so only she could hear, "seven years ago, I had the biggest crush on you."
It was the last thing she'd ever expected him to say. Her face flooded with color, and she turned, wide-eyed, to face him.
"You did?" Her incredulous expression caused him to chuckle.
"Yeah," he smiled fondly, and for a moment his gaze was so far away that Usagi knew he was reliving the past.
"Well, why didn't you ever say anything? I swear, I thought you hated me. Especially since…" she trailed off as she realized she'd just been about to expose herself as the mystery girl at his ball.
"Since…?" he prompted.
"Nothing," she said swiftly, "I…I forgot what I was talking about." Hastily, she turned the conversation back towards him. "Why didn't you tell me?"
He gave a short bark of laughter.
"As if I could have. I was pretty sure you hated me. You were sixteen. I was twenty-three. How would that have looked? I was seven years older than you."
"You're still seven years older than me," she pointed out rationally.
"Yes," he sighed, reclining in his chair. "But there's not as much social stigma now that we're both adults. It makes a difference."
"Oh," she said, still reeling from the shock. "I…never considered it. Not once. You always berated me."
"Defense mechanism. Also known as kindergarten syndrome. Little boys always pick on the girls they like." He grinned. "You're blushing, Odango."
"Don't call me that," she responded automatically, blushing even brighter. She brought her hands to her cheeks, hoping to hide her embarrassment.
"Why not? I think it's cute. Everyone thinks it's cute but you. Think of it as a term of endearment, like 'honey' or 'sweetheart', or something."
"Then why don't you just call me 'honey' or 'sweetheart' instead?" she shot back. Immediately she realized what she'd said and averted her gaze, while Mamoru threw back his head and laughed.
"My God, Odango, I didn't think you could get any redder," he said.
"Take a picture, it'll last longer," she invited snidely.
The night passed swiftly, full of laughter and a little more embarrassment on Usagi's part as Mamoru discovered more and more about her. She discovered he'd already known quite a bit about her…enough to make her certain that he hadn't been joking about having had a crush on her so many years ago.
All to soon she found herself and Mamoru standing awkwardly at her doorstep.
"So," he said, rocking back on his heels. His dress shirt was unbuttoned at the throat, and he'd long since discarded his jack and tie. "Did you have a good time…honey?" He grinned as she gasped and floundered for words.
"Too late," he said, pressing his fingers to her lips to still what surely would have been a reprimand. "You already said I could call you 'honey'. You can't take it back now."
"That's not what I meant!"
"That's how I intend to interpret it. Or would you prefer it if I called you 'sweetheart'?"
"All right, all right. You can call me Odango," she relented at last.
"But I like 'honey' better," he argued. She rolled her eyes.
"I just can't win with you, can I?" She asked.
"No way. I always win. You'd better just learn to put up with it." And he bent down to kiss her. Right on the lips, a perfectly executed, subtle brushing of his lips against hers, and nothing more. He would have pulled away, but as he did, she rose on her tiptoes to follow him up. Her fingers slid over his shoulders to lock behind his neck, and pull his head back down to hers. She touched her lips to his, and his hand spanned her waist, pulling her against him.
By Mamoru's standards, it was a very innocent kiss. He'd known Usagi most of her young life, and, with the way she blushed at every turn, he'd stake half his company that she'd never gone beyond kissing with anyone. She didn't know to open her mouth to his, and he was sure she wasn't aware that the way she was pressing her breasts to his chest was making him a little crazy. So he did the gentlemanly thing and slowly pulled away. He laid a soft kiss on her forehead and nuzzled her throat, breathing in the delicate scent of her perfume.
"Can I see you again?" He asked finally, touching his forehead to hers. She smiled, and Mamoru thought it was the end of the rainbow.
"I'd like that," she said softly.
"How's tomorrow for lunch? I have a meeting at nine, but I should be out by eleven, and I know a great French place downtown."
"You work on the weekend?" She was horrified.
"Sometimes," he said. "Occasionally, being the president has its downsides. And, anyway, I should probably get some rest so I can make it to work tomorrow. Is that a yes, then?"
"Of course," she said.
"Fantastic," he enthused. "I'll pick you up at eleven-thirty. Will you be awake by then?" he teased. She shoved him playfully, smiling up at him to let him know she hadn't taken his jab seriously as she opened the door. Her face glowed with such light that he was momentarily taken aback with her beauty.
"Go, go," she urged. "God knows you need your beauty sleep." She stuck her tongue out at him and closed the door behind her with a snap.
- - -
"You've been seeing an awful lot of Mamoru lately," Rei remarked casually, as she and Usagi shared a plate of scones at a downtown café.
"Yes," Usagi agreed. "You might be surprised, but I liked him for a long time when we were kids. But I thought he hated me."
"I knew," Rei replied. "It was pretty obvious. I think maybe we all knew, except for Mamoru. I'm happy for you. You're the only one of us left who's not married, and we were all sure you'd be first. You'll let me be your matron of honor, right?"
Usagi made a face. "Don't think so far ahead; you'll jinx me." But she smiled conspiratorially. "But just between us, you can be my matron of honor…as long as you promise not to trip me when I come up the aisle."
Rei snorted. "I won't need to. You'll trip yourself. If there's one thing you haven't outgrown, it's your clumsiness." She emptied her coffee cup, tenting her fingers and she rested her elbows on the table. "So. When are you going to tell Mamoru that you're his mystery girl?"
Usagi set down her cup unsteadily, with a nervous laugh. "How about never," she offered.
"You should tell him. It's not like it's a big deal or anything. He just didn't recognize you. Stuff like that happens all the time."
"Yeah, and then I ran from him in the grocery store when he recognized me as the girl from his ball, and even changed my hairstyle to throw him off," Usagi said.
"How did I not hear this story? I thought I'd heard it all," Rei complained. A waitress came by with fresh coffee, and Usagi launched into a quick explanation.
"Well, I was doing some shopping. Really, the last person I expected to see there was Mamoru-san. But he was there, and he recognized me. So I did the only thing I could. I ran like a bat out of hell, changed my hairstyle, and took off my shirt."
"You took off your shirt?" Rei was incredulous.
"It was a button-up blouse. I was wearing a shirt under it." Usagi fluttered her fingers as if waving away Rei's astonishment. "Anyway, he stopped when he saw me, we talked for a while, and he ended up asking me out." A little laugh gurgled up in her throat at the thought. "Now that I think about it, it was kind of funny. I never thought-"
Rei cleared her throat, cutting Usagi off mid-sentence. She jerked her head a little to the side, and Usagi turned to look over her shoulder in the direction Rei had indicated. Mamoru stood, dark and forbidding, just a few feet behind her. Usagi was suddenly aware of the silence in the crowded café. She didn't have to look around to know that everyone was staring at them.
"So," he said finally, breaking the tense silence. "That's how it was the whole time. I should have known." His voice was harsh, merciless. "You were laughing at me. God, I was such an idiot."
"No," she quickly denied. "I wasn't laughing at you. Why would I laugh at you? I liked being around you. I just didn't-"
"Enough, Usagi," he bit off. "You lied to me. You made me think you were someone else. You made a fool out of me." His eyes narrowed. "Did you have fun these past few weeks, showing all of Tokyo you'd caught Japan's most eligible bachelor? I wasted weeks on you. Please," he said sarcastically, "tell me. What was the ultimate goal? Were you trying to get me to propose, so you could laugh in my face? Who else knew about this? Rei-san?"
"No, Mamoru, that's not how it was at all," Usagi pleaded, white-faced and shaking. His venomous words wounded her, stirred old memories of harsh insults and nights of crying in her room. "Please, just let me explain."
"Spare me," he said. "I came here for a cup of coffee. I was on my way to your apartment to ask you to a movie." His rough bark of laughter made her cringe. "I'm glad I found out now. But for the record, you would never have gotten me to marry you. You were a pleasant diversion, but you're not worth keeping. I'd have gotten tired of you eventually." He shook his head as if to clear it, and snorted. "Some Cinderella you made. You didn't even leave a shoe when you ran off that night. God, I even made Motoki interview employees, trying to find out who you were."
"Fine!" Usagi's temper sparked to life. Still trembling, with a few helpless tears streaking her cheeks, she reached down and jerked off the sandals she was wearing.
"Here's your goddamned shoes, you bastard!" She flung the sandals at him, catching him off guard. One hit him directly on the forehead, and the other sailed past him, landing on the floor near the counter.
"Ouch!" He grappled with the shoe that had hit him. Dimly, he registered Rei shouting.
"Usagi! Usagi-chan, wait!" Rei tossed a few bills on the table and took off running after Usagi, who'd fled the restaurant while Mamoru was distracted.
"Here you go," the waitress dropped the other sandal into his hand, smiling sympathetically at him, as if she witnessed such debacles on a daily basis.
"I don't want them," he said in disgust.
"Well, you can't leave them here," she told him primly. "This is a restaurant. It's unsanitary. Maybe you should just throw them away."
But he couldn't seem to make himself do it.
Usagi nursed two blistered feet and a broken heart. It hadn't been a long run home, but the hot pavement and gravel walkways she'd run over had taken their toll on her, and she'd been soaking her feet in a tub of warm water for fifteen minutes.
"You have to cry sometime," Rei said from a few feet away. Usagi jumped, startled.
"Don't abuse the house key privileges," she muttered. "I'm sure I've said that before. You could say 'I'm here' when you come in, or something."
"Don't change the subject. It's not like you to not cry. See, after all these years I've figured it out," Rei explained, setting her purse down on the bathroom counter. "You need to express your feelings and have them acknowledged. As your best friend, I am here to help you vent your frustrations and get over him."
Tears sprung to Usagi's eyes instantly. She wiped her cheeks futilely. Rei dabbed Usagi's cheeks with a warm, damp cloth. With a shuddering sob, Usagi laid her head on Rei's shoulder and let her friend pat her back comfortingly.
"I loved him," she whispered. "I loved him so much."
"I know," Rei murmured sympathetically. "I know you did, honey. I'm so sorry it turned out this way." She held Usagi at arms-length for a moment. "But don't worry. If he ever comes near you again, I'll lay a curse on him so hard, he won't know what hit him." She hugged Usagi tightly, stroking her hair.
"Rei-chan," Usagi sniffled, "Thank you for coming. I love you."
"What else are best friends for," Rei countered. "You took care of me when we were kids. Now it's my turn."
Motoki slammed the door behind him as he entered Mamoru's office. Mamoru looked up from his morning paper, arching his brows curiously.
"Mamoru," he began angrily, "did you know that Usagi got fired?"
Mamoru flicked the paper to the next page, scanning it briefly.
"Did she?" he asked uninterestedly.
"Yes," Motoki seethed, slamming his fist on Mamoru's desk. "You know she did. I talked to her just a few minutes ago. She said that the superintendent of her school requested that she not return after the summer break. He was sorry to let her go, of course, but he'd gotten a call from an 'influential individual' who made it clear that certain contributions the school district relies on would not be made if they kept her on. Who could that have been, I wonder?"
Mamoru had the distinct impression that Motoki desired nothing so much as to plant his fist in Mamoru's gut.
"She called you, then?" Mamoru queried.
"No. Her phone's been cut off. So have her electricity and her water. And, coincidentally, her landlord suddenly found it necessary to break her lease. She's got a day to be out. Her mom called me. Usagi's going to move in with Rei and Yuuichiro for a while. Just in case you were curious. I'm pretty sure Yuuichiro owns his house outright, in the event you were considering paying off the bank and kicking them out."
Mamoru met Motoki's furious glare with a sneer.
"You think you know everything, don't you?" Mamoru asked. "Allow me to enlighten you. Your precious Usagi turned out to be nothing but a lying-"
"Shut your goddamn mouth, you asshole, or I will be more than happy to shut it for you," Motoki hissed. "The only thing Usagi ever did wrong was to fall in love with an idiot like you. You hurt her again and again and again, and she still forgave you and loved you anyway. You don't deserve her, and one day you're going to realize what a wonderful girl you've lost. At first, when she saw you at the ball, she was terrified you'd come to insult her, an opinion you reinforced when you talked about her to someone you thought was a perfect stranger. She was humiliated; that's why she ran from you. After you two started dating, she thought you'd be embarrassed if she admitted she was your mystery girl, and that you hadn't recognized her." Motoki took a deep, steadying breath. "She figured it was all a big misunderstanding, anyway, and best forgotten. She's always been so forgiving of you. And you always find a new way to hurt her. I'm sick of it."
Mamoru looked like he was sick. He shoved his chair back and blew out a breath.
"If all of that is true, then I think I've made a mistake." He sounded bewildered, as if he wasn't quite sure what had happened.
"Several," Motoki agreed, "and big ones. I don't know if there's a happy ending in this for you anymore, Mamoru. It might be best to fix the havoc you've wrought and let her go."
"No," Mamoru said. He glanced down at the little white sandals he'd stashed beneath his desk for safekeeping. He hadn't been able to get rid of them. "No, I can't do that."
"Mamoru, I don't think you could have hurt Usagi any more if you'd run her over. Rei said she cried for hours. She's not okay, Mamoru. You can't just apologize and wish it all away. You can't go back."
"I know," Mamoru sighed. "But with a little luck, and a really fantastic apology, maybe we can go forward."
The lights came on at some point in the afternoon. Usagi wasn't sure what time it was; all her clocks ran on electricity and blinked 12:00 when the power went on. She heard the hum of the refrigerator and the steady whirr of the air conditioner. Usagi lay on her bed in the dark. The hallway light shone under the door, but the light in Usagi's bedroom stayed off.
Someone was walking down her hallway, towards her bedroom, and she smiled wryly.
"Don't abuse the house-key privilege, Rei-chan," she called, hating the telling hoarseness of her voice. "I know I asked you to tell me you were here."
The footsteps halted outside her door. Usagi hoisted herself to her feet, sidestepping boxes and packing material on her way to the door.
"Rei? What are you…" her mouth went dry and she made a strangled, choking sound as the open door revealed an obviously masculine silhouette.
Mamoru leaned one arm against the doorframe. "Can we talk?"
"How did you get in here?" Her voice broke, and she hated herself for the tears that automatically sprang to her eyes.
"The landlord gave me a key," he said. His voice was warm and low, a voice someone might use to soothe a child or a wounded animal. She hated him for using it on her.
"Go away. Please."
"Usagi," he shouldered away from the doorframe, blocking the doorway. She couldn't see his face with the light behind him, and she thanked God for small blessings. "Please. I just want to talk. To apologize."
"You had me fired. You cut off my electricity, my water, and my phone line. And you had my lease broken," she said dully. "I fail to see what there could possibly be to talk about."
"I fixed it all. I'm sorry. I overreacted. Please, can we talk?"
"No." She took a shaky breath, retreating a step, back into the darkness of her room. "No, no, no. Just…no." She closed the bedroom door in his face.
"Usagi, please talk to me." Mamoru tested the handle, not surprised to find it locked. "Won't you just let me apologize? I just want to few minutes. Just let me explain."
There was no response from within. He hadn't really been expecting one.
"Usagi," he rested his head against the door. "I love you."
"What are you doing here," a furious voice asked. Mamoru jumped guiltily.
"I just came to talk to her," he defended. "She won't even answer me."
Rei pushed past him, yanking him away from the door.
"Get out," she said. "Before I call the police."
"What officer in Tokyo is going to arrest me," he scoffed. "I'm your boss, Rei-san. Don't you think it's in your best interests to help me?"
"I am seeking other employment," Rei told him brusquely. "Consider this my resignation." She slammed her elbow into his gut. His breath whooshed out, and he sucked in a few desperate lungfuls of air before he finally regained it.
"Okay," he wheezed. "Maybe I deserved that."
"You deserve a lot more than that," she shot back, "but it would go against my principles as a priestess to give it to you."
"What would you call knocking the wind out me, then?" He mocked.
"Divine retribution," she countered. "Now get the hell out. You've done enough damage. You had your chance, and you blew it. Just don't-" her voice broke, and she swiped her hand across her eyes. "Don't hurt her anymore."
"I don't want to hurt her," Mamoru said. "I only wanted-"
"Out!" she shoved him down the hall. "Now!"
Thank you for the flowers. Please stop sending them. Furthermore, please refrain from sending me cards, clothes, jewelry, tickets to the opera, tickets to the symphony, tickets in general, or singing telegrams. ESPECIALLY stop sending singing telegrams. I really cannot accept any gifts. I would also appreciate it if you would stop taking ads out in the paper and buying commercial time on television.
P.S. Please stop visiting me at the school. My children are starting to grow accustomed to your visits, and it disrupts their lessons.
Mamoru scowled at the stilted phrases on the generic card for a moment, then tucked it into a file drawer in his desk. Irritated, he picked up the receiver of his phone and punched an extension.
"Motoki," he sighed as his friend picked up, "she sent me a card."
"Oh?" Motoki sounded vaguely interested. "What'd it say?"
"She asked me to stop sending her things," Mamoru growled in irritation. "And to stop visiting her classroom. She says it disrupts her kids."
"Well," Motoki hesitated. "I told you it wouldn't be easy. You don't have anything Usagi wants. She's not materialistic. She doesn't care about what you can give her. If you really want to reach her, you'll have to do better. You deliberately hurt her, and that's not something she can just forgive and forget. She wants something from the heart."
"From the heart? I love her! I've done everything but crawl on my knees. For God's sake, I've begged her to just listen to me," Mamoru exclaimed. He thrust his fingers through his hair, ruffling his black hair in frustration.
"Maybe she wants you to crawl," Motoki suggested. "And you'd still deserve it if she made you crawl and didn't accept your apology. You were supposed to be her prince charming. She offered you her love, and you hurt her. What reason have you given her to trust you again? What have you really offered her? What have you done to make amends?"
"Prince charming," Mamoru echoed absently. "Hm. You may have given me an idea. And I may need your help."
"Sensei, when is that funny man coming back to visit us?"
Usagi paused - chalk poised mid-character on the blackboard - unprepared for the fierce rush of emotion that gripped her.
"He isn't coming back, Akiko-chan," she said.
"Why not, Sensei?" There was a murmur of displeasure throughout the room.
"Because I asked him not to," Usagi said abruptly, setting down the chalk and wiping the dust of her fingers.
"But why? I like him. He's a nice man. He says he loves you."
"Seven times," Touji interjected, "I counted. And that was only on Wednesday."
Usagi pressed her fingers to her eyes, her back still to her students.
"God save me from precocious seven-year-olds," she muttered.
"What did he do to make you so mad?" Ayu asked.
"It's complicated," Usagi said with a sigh. "He hurt me."
"Did he push you down? My mommy says that we shouldn't hit because it hurts people's feelings."
"No, honey, he didn't push me down. He said some things that made me very sad. He hurt my heart." She sat down swiftly at her desk, resigned to the inevitable long and drawn-out discussion that surely was coming.
"Didn't you love him?" Ami asked.
"I do. I mean, I did." Usagi hesitated. Were even her own students against her?
"He said he was sorry. My daddy says it's good to forgive people when they say sorry. Are you going to?"
"It's not that simple," Usagi said, "sometimes someone hurts you so bad that it's really hard to forgive them. And if you love that person, it's even worse, because it makes you sad that they don't love you as much as you love them, or they'd never have hurt you in the first place."
"But he wants to marry you. Don't you want to marry him, if you love him?"
"Where on Earth did you hear that?" Usagi gaped openly at the child.
"He told us on Wednesday when you were trying to get the principal to make him leave. Besides, I heard it on the television last night."
"Oh, no, not again," Usagi dropped her head into her hands, rubbing her temples furiously.
"My mommy says he's handsome and rich and you're really lucky," Fumi supplied helpfully.
"I don't care that he's rich," Usagi said. "Money doesn't matter. Love matters."
"But you love him."
"Yes. I mean, no. I mean…I don't know. I just don't know anymore." She shook her head in an attempt to clear it.
"Look! He's here!"
Usagi jerked her head to the side in time to see Mamoru moving past the window, striding purposefully to the door of her classroom. It opened a moment later, and her breath caught in her throat. She hated her reaction to him; she hated that everything else seemed trivial and unimportant when he was around. Even more she hated that although she had told him to leave, she wanted him to stay. She wanted him to ignore the angry words she spoke and listen to the desperate pleas her broken heart made.
Wide-eyed, she stared up at him, searching for the right words.
"You look ridiculous," she said finally.
It was true. She'd never seen a more ludicrous sight than the way Mamoru looked now. He wore an embroidered doublet that had gold buttons down the front, the ruffled sleeves of a white lawn shirt frothing at his wrists. His form-fitting trousers ended just at his knees, and white hose with high, black boots completed his ensemble.
"Why on Earth are you wearing…" she gestured helplessly at him, "that."
"Would you believe I'm supposed to be Prince Charming?" He raked a hand through his hair. Usagi snorted.
"I would not," she said tartly. "You make a lousy Prince Charming. And I believe we've already established that I make a lousy Cinderella."
"I do not make a lousy Prince Charming," he countered. "I'll have you know the lady at the costume shop said I looked dashing, and not half as ridiculous as Motoki-"
"Motoki!" she interrupted. "You dragged Motoki into this? This I have to see."
Mamoru whistled, and Motoki trudged grimly into sight, giving a long-suffering sigh as he entered the classroom. The children broke into fits of laughter, and Motoki rolled his eyes. His coat-tails nearly reached the floor, and his powdered white wig lent an air of peculiarity that Mamoru had been unable to attain. And he carried a pair of white sandals on an embroidered cushion before him.
He gritted his teeth into a bizarre semblance of a smile as he stood beside Mamoru.
"You," he said tightly, "don't pay me enough for this."
"Shut up and do what we rehearsed and I'll give you three months' paid vacation," Mamoru whispered back. Usagi fought a smile and lost.
"Motoki, you look fantastic," she said, turning her smile on him in a vain effort not to appear to be weakening in front of Mamoru.
"Oh, I see how it is. He looks fantastic," he complained. "I just look ridiculous."
"Yes," she snapped back, "that's exactly how it is."
He blew out a breath in frustration.
"I'm sorry," he said while moving in, trapping Usagi behind her desk. "I'm so sorry I hurt you, honey. I was stupid, and you scared the hell out of me. I've been alone all my life, and then suddenly I had you. It was like everything I'd ever wanted just fell into my lap, but I was terrified you weren't as serious as I was, and when it looked to me like you weren't, I cut and ran. I'm ashamed of that, Usagi, and I'll spend my whole life making it up to you if you'll let me." His hands came down against the wall on either side of her head, leaning. She was still seated, her nose three inches from his, but her head was angled downward far enough that he couldn't see her eyes.
"Please, Usagi, say something. Anything."
A hiccup escaped her tight throat, and a tear rolled off the end of her nose. Horrified at the thought of giving in to tears here, in front of him, in front of Motoki, in front of her class, she wiped her face frantically.
"Shh," he said, pulling her hands away from her face. Startled, she looked up. He pulled a handkerchief from his pants pocket, dabbing her face gently. The tears kept coming. She couldn't seem to make them stop, or force herself to break eye contact with him. "Oh, honey," his voice was warm and soothing. "Don't cry. Please."
"Don't call me that," she whispered, pulling away from him as far as the chair would allow. He looked hurt, and she regretted ruining the moment. But how could she tell him that? If she gave an inch, he'd take a mile.
"What can I call you, then?" he asked hesitantly. "You won't let me call you Odango."
She shrugged noncommittally. He cupped her chin, turning her face upwards so she would meet his gaze.
"Have I really ruined everything?" He asked huskily. "I love you. I really do. I dressed up in this ridiculous outfit and risked public ridicule so you'd see how much I care about you. I'll gladly do whatever it takes to prove it to you. Are you really going to turn me away again?"
Her lips trembled.
"You hurt me. You did it on purpose. You wanted to hurt me." Her voice sounded pitifully high even to her.
"I know I did. I'm so sorry. I promise you," he sank to his knees in front of her, clasping her cold hands in both of his, "I will never, ever hurt you again. I only want to make you happy. I know you're still hurting, and I know it'll take a while for me to prove myself to you, but I'll wait as long as it takes, however long you need. I love you, Usagi. I'd marry you today, if you'd have me. I even brought you a ring," he rifled through his pockets for a moment before turning to Motoki.
"Please tell me you've got the ring," he said desperately. The expression on his face was comical, and Usagi surprised herself by giggling.
"I've got it," Motoki replied, with a look of consternation, "somewhere." He dug in his pockets.
"Enough," she said, "I don't want you for what you can buy me."
"I didn't buy it," he replied. "It was my grandmother's ring. It's been in my family for years. I wanted you to have it."
"Oh," she said. "Oh." Motoki found the ring, holding it aloft. The light hit the diamond, shooting sparkles dancing across the room. He tossed it to Mamoru, who slid it onto the ring finger of Usagi's right hand.
"So what do you say?" he asked. "Can you forgive me for being a complete ass? Can we start again? I promise never to walk away mad when we fight, and I swear I'll tell you I love you at least twenty times a day."
She believed him. Of course she believed him. She loved him just like she'd always loved him. Nothing would ever change that. She'd forgiven him a long time ago. Trying to deny him was hurting her as much as it was hurting him.
"Okay," she said softly. "We'll start again. Now please," she said, "please change out of those ridiculous clothes. You really do make a ridiculous Prince Charming."
He surprised her by sweeping her into his arms and kissing her breathless. The man knew how to kiss. A girl could certainly get used to that.
"Sensei, does that mean you're going to get married?"
Heat flooded her face as she realized her entire grade one class had just quietly, patiently witnessed the entire scene.
"Yes," Mamoru answered firmly. "We are. Sooner or later. Probably not until the school year's over." He grinned down at her. "You did want to finish out the school year, didn't you, honey?"
"Of course I do, you big jerk!" she gasped, "And don't think you get to go deciding whether or not I'm going to marry you! You haven't even asked me yet."
"Usagi," he said patiently, "I asked you four-hundred and eighty-nine times. All of Tokyo knows I asked you to marry me."
"Oh," she said sheepishly. "Care to make it an even four ninety?"
He grinned, dropping to his knees again. "Usagi," he said, taking her hand and holding it against his heart, right over the scratchy embroidery of his doublet, "I love you. Will you marry me?"
"Yes," she said. "Now will you please go change? If the principal finds out you were prancing about in that ludicrous outfit in here, disrupting my class, he'll fire me for sure."
"All right, Motoki, let's get out of here before we cause any more trouble than we already have," Mamoru said, ushering Motoki towards the door. He brushed his lips across Usagi's cheek at the door. And she couldn't help the smile that lit her face as he whispered in her ear,
"Honey, I may make a lousy Prince Charming, but I've got to tell you…you're the perfect Cinderella."