Chapter 22 – Détente, Danger and Dating Games
From his position, seated cross-legged before the fire like a fat little Buddha, the senior Hino watched with wise eyes, following Jed's path as he restlessly paced the matted floor. He took a quick bracing sip of warmed sake, mentally counting down.
"Why?!" the younger man burst out on cue. "Explain it to me! Please!"
"What can I tell you?" Rei's grandfather said with a resigned shrug, waving at a spot on the floor where Jed was to sit. They had retired to the old man's private meditation room for privacy. "Shigeo may be the son of my flesh and my Rei-chan's father and I will always love him and be grateful to him for giving her to me, but my son is not a man with whom I otherwise have anything in common anymore. He is a senator and I…I am a past he wishes no part of anymore."
He sighed and for the first time he looked every bit of his age. "He was not always as he is now. When he was younger he intended to succeed me as the priest to this temple. He married a girl, Risa, who was well suited to such a life. Her father, another priest, had recently passed on, leaving her alone in the world. She was kind and demure and gentle, content to let him make the decisions."
The old man's lips twisted in a wry parody of a grin. "My son has always had a talent for making decisions, knowing as he does that his decisions are always right. In any case, I believe they were, at that time, very much in love."
The idea of the ice-cold man he'd seen being in love with anyone was hard to believe, but Jed bit his tongue. "Please go on."
"The problems started when they wished to begin a family. Shigeo was certain that his wife would bear him the son he wished to have and Risa did became pregnant quickly. Sadly, though, she lost the child. All the doctors explained that this was surely just a fluke and that they could try again, of course, and they did. But to no avail. Poor Risa miscarried several times in a row, each time taking its toll on her health, though she remained hopeful. I believe it was then that my son, to avoid dealing with the pain and loss, ran for and won his first civic post. He threw himself into his work and advanced rapidly. He was ambitious and hungry. Eventually he gave up all thoughts of taking over the Hikawa shrine and decided to go into politics full time."
"But Rei…" prodded Jed, wondering where this was going.
"Patience," chided the old man. "I'm getting there."
When Jed fell silent, he continued. "Shigeo was advancing politically. However, as you may have seen in your own country, it is difficult to attain truly high office without appearing to have a stable family unit. My son now truly needed a child, preferably a son, to appeal to his conservative voting public and complete the picture of a perfect family man. So, although the doctors advised against it, he and Risa decided to try once again. The pregnancy was a tremendous ordeal for Risa, who was never overly strong, and she was bedridden much of the time, but there was much anticipation as her due date drew near for none of the other pregnancies had ever come so far. And in the spring when the cherry blossomed, Rei was born, healthy and strong, red-faced and screaming her lungs out. Risa was elated. Shigeo, however, was not."
Jed stared at Grandpa Hino. "For heaven's sake, why not?"
The priest clasped his fingers together, looking sorrowful. "Because Risa nearly died bringing her daughter into the world, and to save her life the doctors had to perform an operation that ensured she could never have any more children. So while my son now had a child, it was only a girl and not the son he was convinced he should have had. Dear little Rei-chan was a disappointment to her father from the moment he learned her sex."
A look of pure disgust crossed Jed's face. "That's sexist hogwash! He ought to have been grateful to have had any healthy child at all."
"I agree, but alas…" –The diminutive priest shrugged wearily– "…some traditions die very hard. In any case, although my son may have been disappointed, Rei did not lack for love for her mother and I adored her. And my son played the part of the doting father, in public, at least. However, in private he had, by then, withdrawn from everyone who loved him, becoming like ice almost, or a stone statue."
"And when Rei-chan was just four…" A long drawn out sigh echoed up from the depths of the little man's chest.
"Yes..." Jed urged him on.
"When Rei was four, her mother became ill. Very ill. This was during my son's first major push for public office and Shigeo, though he saw to it that Risa had the best of care, was rarely present."
"Even when she was hospitalized, wasted and dying, he could scarcely spare the time to be with her. Perhaps staying busy and away helped him numb the pain. I really don't know. What I do know is that when Risa called for him, Rei-chan, young as she was, went to her father and cried, begging him to come and be with her mother. You don't know how it cost her to leave her fragile mother's side even for that short time. It was the only time Rei left her at the hospice. Even the nurses and doctors couldn't make her leave, because even then Rei's will was too strong."
For the first time, Jed began to perceive where this was going and he didn't like it. "He didn't come." It wasn't a question.
Grandpa Hino shook his bald, round head. "No. My son did come…but he was too late. I believe he was at a political rally that night and Risa, though she struggled to hang on…lasting far longer than her doctors ever expected she would, died before he arrived. Rei-chan had to watch her mother die without her husband, his name the last word on her lips."
"My son was able to play the grieving widow with a motherless daughter card to the hilt and was elected in a sympathetic landslide, but I believe any spark of filial affection my granddaughter may have had for her father was extinguished then and there. Rei never quite forgave him for abandoning them for political reasons. They have been estranged ever since."
The oath Jed uttered just then was short, coarse, and spoken in a language of Terra that had died out more than a thousand years before. Rei's grandfather cocked an eyebrow upward. "I don't know what you said, boy, but somehow I think that about covers it."
"Sorry," said an embarrassed Jed. "So your son was swept into office and…"
"Rei became what would be best described as a…difficult child. Shigeo hired nannies, au pars and housekeepers, but Rei actively fought each and every person her father hired to care for her. He could not do so, obviously, because he was so busy with his high office."
Jed grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest as he stared balefully into the heart of the fire. "I'll just bet he was."
"Do you want to hear the rest or not?" rebuked the old man sharply.
"Probably not," replied Jed, through gritted teeth. "I know it'll just make me mad. But I need to, so please finish it."
"Very well. Needless to say, my son was appalled at the amount of staff he was going through and knew that sooner or later the press would catch wind of the situation, which would reflect badly on him and cause him to lose face. At a loss with how to deal with this wildly hostile child, Shigeo finally brought her to me. It played very well in certain circles, the story that his dear daughter was being raised up to be a proper, old-fashioned, docile Japanese lady, though it wasn't true, of course."
Rei's grandfather chuckled as the mental picture came to him of his little granddaughter, her hair disheveled, her picture-perfect kimono dirty and torn, her parasol and fan broken beyond repair, grinning triumphantly from ear to ear and over her shoulder the baseball bat that she'd stolen from a nasty boy who'd been teasing her. She hadn't been much of a lady, perhaps, but she'd always been one heck of a firecracker, and he loved her for it.
"Still, I, of course, was happy to take Rei in. And she was happy to come. I regret, though, that I was unable to do more for her. Her father would swoop in every so often when he needed her for a pretty photo op and force her to comply with his wishes by threatening to remove her from my custody altogether if she refused. He knew it was the one threat that would always work on Rei. My son is not above using emotional blackmail, I'm afraid. He still does, on occasion."
He waited a breath for his words to sink in. "So now you know."
A sick look marred Jed's face. "I wish I didn't."
The old man gave the younger a not unsympathetic glance, then twisted the knife. "I gave you answers. Now you give me some, boy." He watched as Jed shifted uneasily, preparing himself for the hard questions.
"Alright," was the cautious response. "What do you need to know?"
"What about Kaidou?"
"Who?" Jed looked puzzled, then he realized and blinked, looking confused. "You mean my look-alike in the bad undertaker's suit? What about him?"
"I know who Kaidou is to my son and to Rei. But who is he to you?"
"Why in the hell are you asking me?" Jed burst out, exasperated, "He's your son's flunky, I guess. I don't know."
The priest's eyebrows snapped together over his nose. "Is he your older cousin? A half-sibling perhaps?"
"No relation at all." Jed huffed. "I never saw him before in my life before today. And he's not related to me. The start of the term was the first time I'd set foot in this part of the world in the last thousand yea…"
He broke off on a sudden cough as Rei's grandfather sat bolt upright, looking intensely interested.
Jed hastened to fix his mistake, fixing his best innocent expression in place, though the back of his neck and his ears burned red. "I mean, my people may have been from here generations ago, but not for years and years and years."
Now the elderly Hino was not fooled one whit by the lie, but he let it go, tapping his index fingers together as he filed away the tidbit of information. "Interesting. Very interesting how fate works. So it is just coincidence then, that the man who loves my granddaughter and the one she now hates, who was her first love, share a face. Fascinating."
"What?!" burst out Jed as the words, 'First Love' thundered in his ears. The man, Kaidou, had to have been a grown man when Rei was little more than a girl. He tried to ignore the jealous flame that shot through him, concentrating on feeling disgusted instead of betrayed. Of course, if that man with his face had taken advantage of his Firebird in any way, he, Jed, was going to have to turn him into a eunuch. "Rei-chan and…him?"
Grandpa Hino smiled in grim satisfaction and picked up a poker, jabbing at the fire and scattering glowing blue-white coals. The trout had set up the bait on his own and still swallowed it in one gulp. Now to reel him in.
Toward the end of the dinner portion of their date, which Zarek and she had decided to do prior to heading to the museum, Ami had come to the conclusion that she was, surprisingly, really enjoying herself.
The surprise wasn't because she'd not liked him, because, of course, she did, but when Ami had first conceived of her plan she had mentally placed the date more in the category of an inoculation: a necessary but slightly unpleasant sort of vaccine to produce immunity against a specific disease, in this case, the effect that one particular Shitennou produced in her. And from the moment that the handsome lab tech had accepted her invitation, she'd struggled with the guilty knowledge that she was using him for her own ends…because it was the truth, as far as it went. Her own dirty little secret.
Yet somehow the situation had changed. Yes, Ami realized with a twinge of regret, she was still using Zarek, but she no longer saw the date as something to be endured solely for the proper outcome, but as something she was really relishing. It was a revelation.
Ami had never dated extensively, and those few she had gone out on had tended to be a bit uncomfortable, a condition for which Ami had wholly blamed herself and her shyness. After all, her experiences with men, aside from Mamoru (who was safe because he was already taken), were very limited. She tended to get tongue-tied and red-faced in such situations. She also hadn't gotten many second dates because of it.
However, in this case there was none of the dreadful awkwardness that she'd experienced in the past. Perhaps, she thought, it was because they'd worked together. Veridian Zarek was charming and bright and witty, which she'd already known, but he was also possessed of surprisingly deep insights about the world at large.
They'd chatted animatedly throughout the meal, discussing everything from their favorites in music and art (he'd even once seen some of her father's work!), to the advancing state of medical technology, to the incident when Zarek's older cousin Zenaida had, when he was just a toddler, dressed him up in a frilly gown and bonnet and paraded him down the boulevard he'd lived on, calling him by her favorite doll, Zinnia's, name. The fact that he'd related the last unselfconsciously impressed the ever-shy Ami more than she could admit.
In fact, all in all, Ami was thoroughly enjoying herself with him.
And best of all, since she'd picked Zarek up, she hadn't thought more than once or twice about the vexing, green-eyed king who plagued her.
The phantom image of those piercing, cat-like orbs danced through Ami's brain and she unconsciously frowned.
Oh drat…she was thinking about Zoisite again! Darn it all!
Zarek had thought it was all going very well for a first date. Ami had been laughing and even reaching out and touching his hand and arm, though he doubted she was aware of it. He certainly was, though, and enjoying every minute of her soft touch. But as he watched, quite abruptly his date had fallen silent. He realized at once she was lost in thought. He'd seen the signs before and could only wonder what it was she was pondering so intently all of a sudden.
Her deep midnight eyes were unfocused and vague, like they had been the first time he'd seen her in the library of Mariner Castle on Mercury, lost in a book. Chopsticks were still clutched in her hand, forgotten and hanging in space. Her forehead had creased as she lapsed into deep concentration, and her rosebud lips were puckered into a gentle scowl that made him want nothing more than to drop a light kiss on them.
"Ami…" Instead of the kiss, Zarek was forced to settle for giving his date a gentle nudge to bring her back to Planet Earth. "Yen for your thoughts?"
"Eh?" She started, blinking and dropping her chopsticks with a clink, then smiled shyly.
"They're hardly worth that much, I'm afraid," Ami admitted.
She realized, to her embarrassment, that he had finished the last of his meal while she'd been wool-gathering, and even sent the waitress off with the check. What kind of clod must he think her to have neglected him so? Especially since she'd invited him instead of the other way around.
She stammered around for a moment, trying to find something properly apologetic to say, but finally had to settle for, "Are you ready to go?"
The embarrassed flush of pink that had suffused her pale cheeks and warmed the tip of her nose made her look adorable, Zarek decided. Also, imminently kissable.
Although he was enjoying himself and in no hurry for their date to end, that thought made him smile with anticipation of at least one aspect of the date's finale. She'd always had tasted as sweet as she looked. He was quite sure she still would.
With an encouraging nod, he rose and held out his hand for her and, arm in arm they left, though they hadn't far to go. They'd deliberately chosen the restaurant nearest Ueno Park and the museum for its convenience. Ami fought the urge to run ahead when they got there. She loved the museum, part science museum, part natural history, always interesting. It was so peaceful and there was invariably something new to see. She hoped Zarek would enjoy it like she did.
Zarek frowned as they entered the building. Though they hadn't noticed it as they'd ascended the stairs outside, once inside the place was something of a mob scene, a fact that was brought to his attention as Ami was jostled and nearly knocked over by a rude man with a large video camera who was pushing past her, headed in the direction of a huge crowd which was filling the main hall of the museum.
"Watch it, lady," snapped the man, shoving by.
Zarek caught her arm to steady her and sliced a vicious glare at the pushy jerk. The newsman, intent on his goal, never noticed.
"Are you okay, Ami-chan?"
"Fine," she murmured. "It certainly is packed, though."
"Huh. I wonder why." Zarek voiced the thought aloud, thinking Ami had a certain rare gift for understatement. It was a madhouse.
Ami pursed her lips as she studied one of the explanatory banners that swagged from the ceiling to just above an eye-less, bony skull the size of a barcalounger and back again.
"Oh heck," she fussed. "I've been so busy at school that I completely forgot they were opening a big new dinosaur expo here. I read in the paper, though, that they were even bringing Sue, the T-Rex's, bones here from America and that it was going to be extensively covered by the media. And, unfortunately, it looks like today's the day."
She looked crestfallen as she apologized. "I'm so sorry, Zarek-san. It's bad timing on my part." She gave a wistful glance at doors, feeling as if her private sanctuary had been invaded and overrun by camera-toting troglodytes. "If you want to go elsewhere, we can."
He glanced over at the milling crowd, then through the nearest adjacent set of doors to the sprawling area beyond. By contrast to the central hall, that wing was practically empty. Probably so were the others that surrounded the main gallery. And, he realized after a quick glance at the museum map, fortuitously they all connected, one to the next to the next. They could avoid the crowds and peruse the other exhibits for hours, in near total privacy.
The thought made him grin roguishly. He'd have plenty of chances to be alone with his little blue-haired bluestocking, even with the chaos and dino madness going on outside. He had no idea what exhibits were featured in any of the other halls, but the idea of Ami and he alone, away from prying eyes was his idea of a perfect date, no matter what they would see.
"Nonsense," he said with a winning grin, taking her arm again and squaring his shoulders. "I've always wanted to learn about the…" Zarek paused and glanced at the sign next to the door. The exhibit sounded incredibly dull to him. "…life cycle of the pearl oyster."
The grateful and approving grin Ami flashed him, however, made it all worth while.
Zarek and Ami's wasn't the only date starting off well that night.
Makoto's first public outing as a married woman was going rather nicely also. Although she'd fretted from the time they'd left their room until they gotten to Demeter's Garden (partly about how his professor would take the knowledge of their 'elopement' and partly about the suitability of wearing pumps with the one good dress she'd been able to find. Neil had assured her over and over that they were fine on both scores.), once they'd arrived, she'd been on Cloud Nine.
The restaurant was everything she'd imagined in her most romantic daydreams, both elegant and refined, yet somehow welcoming at the same time. Soft strains of classical music floated through the air while flickering candles created a warm, cozy ambiance. The aroma of rich French delicacies and fresh flowers perfumed the air, making Makoto's nose twitch in appreciation. Neil's quick eyes had noticed and he grinned broadly at seeing her so pleased.
Both Makoto and Neil had been a bit shocked when, as they were arriving, they spotted a very peeved-looking Rei leaving on the arm of a flirtatious young man in a conservative suit. The man wrapped a too-eager arm around the brunette, who stiffened and stepped away to get her coat. Following behind them, as if chaperoning (though he was doing a poor job of it), was a blond man whose face was set in an impassive mask.
Neil did a disapproving double take when he realized that the man was not Jed. Makoto though, who had met Kaidou before and recognized him, was coolly polite to both men as they exchanged pleasantries, but her eyes communicated total sympathy to Rei, for Makoto recognized the stench of Senator Hino's handiwork all over his daughter's 'dinner date'. She did not care for the smell.
That, however, had been the only real bump in the road.
To Makoto's surprise and delight, she'd enjoyed meeting Neil's professor and his wife. Not at all stuffy as she'd feared, they put her immediately at ease. They were generous and unexpectedly friendly, and the wife and Makoto shared a mutual passion for traditional Japanese home cooking that had made conversation over their meal easy and congenial.
There had been one potentially awkward moment at first when, upon introduction the rotund little man had looked up to meet his student's Amazonian bride…and had to keep looking up and up, since she towered over him in her heels. But then an impish grin had crossed his face and he'd murmured appreciatively to Neil, "Ah, she suits you." He then kissed Makoto's hand with continental flair. "My dear, if only I were twenty years younger…"
"You'd have to be a half a head taller too," said his petite little wife elbowing him in the ribs and laughing lightly. "Pay him no mind whatsoever, my dears. He's an incorrigible flirt."
She then welcomed Makoto and Neil with what Makoto thought was incredible graciousness, complimenting Makoto effusively on her cocktail dress, a fluttery thing of delicately beaded, palest gold organza, against which Makoto's auburn curls glowed like an autumn sunset.
The gown had been a gift from Setsuna several years back and Makoto, having never had occasion to wear it, had forgotten about it until she had, in desperation rooted through the closet for something, anything to wear. The professor's wife apparently had something of a fashionista's eye and had recognized its design as a trademark of the 'House of Meiou' and been duly impressed. As they all walked to their table, Neil had whispered in Makoto's ear that it closely resembled the gown she'd worn on their wedding day. And that she looked just as beautiful now. The appreciative, almost reverent tone in his voice as he'd said it made her stomach feel as fluttery as the organza that danced at her hem.
Throughout the meal, of which Makoto savored every bite, the older couple, who had been married for many years, peppered Neil and Makoto with questions about their lives and relationship. Makoto and Neil had answered as best they could, fudging where needed on the answers. The older couple had been most sympathetic when they'd heard about Makoto's parents, but also managed to lighten the mood by imparting humorous marital advice, which they stated that her parents would have enlightened the couple with if they could have.
Some of the suggestions relating to Neil's passion for astronomy were true gems, including one to Neil from his professor's wife, who phrased it more in the order of a commandment.
"Thou shalt not deceive thy spouse into thinking that ye are taking them for a romantic Saturday night drive when indeed thou art heading for a dark sky site. No, never." The way she grinned when she said it and her husband's abashed look proved that he had been guilty of the sin.
As Neil laughed out loud, Makoto cocked her head to one side, puzzled. 'Dark sky site? Why a dark sky….?' Then she realized. 'Ooooh. Right.' Dark skies equaled better star gazing which, apparently, equaled not romantic. She thought back to Valentine's Night when she and Neil had watched the stars together from Rei's temple and came to the conclusion that was probably not a mortal sin. Though she'd never had an interest before, with Neil it had certainly been romantic enough in her book, at least until that wretched wraith had shown up.
However, that was the point at which Neil's professor broke in with, "No, the real commandment is that thou shalt not store thy telescope in thy bedroom, lest thou be sleeping with it full time."
When both Neil and Makoto turned red at that, the couple laughingly changed the subject. The professor's wife waved over the waiter and whispered an order to him before turning back to their meal. They only discovered what had happened.
After their table had been cleared, the waiter swooped in bearing a silver tray upon which rested a fluffy, lighter-than-air vanilla soufflé, its ramekin nestled inside a crisp white napkin folded like a swan, swimming through a sea of snowy rose blossoms. This he placed before Makoto, who gasped, grabbing Neil's hand. He in turn kissed her hand, his lips brushing over her wedding band.
"Every woman, no matter how small her wedding, deserves a wedding cake," the professor's wife said by way of explanation. "I do hope this will do."
The vision of epicurean artwork made tears come to Makoto's eyes. "It's beautiful," she gulped, her voice quavering. "It's perfect." And so, Makoto thought, was the evening as a whole.
Aino Minako, had she the chance, would have begged to differ with her friend. Of course she felt like she was being nibbled to death by a flock of mongeese…gooses…or was it duckbilled platypuses? She wasn't sure. But at least in her case it was a single nagging puss.
"Yes, Venusian Soul Bonding. That's what she said he said. No, of course I don't know what it means. How am I supposed to know? Hrmph…well, your memory wouldn't take any prizes either, fuzz face. That's why I told you to dig into it with Luna. Maybe together you can fill in the holes in each other's memories."
Minako, her hair up in a messy top knot secured with two pencils, sat cross-legged in the middle of her wildly disarrayed bed (wallowing her mother would have called it), alternately sucking thoughtfully on her ice-cream spoon and crossly answering the endless questions put to her via phone from her overly-chatty guardian, who'd apparently been storing them up all day until he could get a hold of her.
All the while she clutched a ratty looking sock monkey in the crook of one arm as she attempted, for once, to get off the line quickly so that she could get back to trying to sense of the few notes she had taken in class and the others she'd managed to get by a combination of borrowing (from the males, who were happy to grant them for nothing more than a half-smile and some batted eyelashes), and begging and pleading (with her female classmates only).
After all, if she didn't buckle up and study at least a little bit of the time, she'd flunk out of college and there was no way she would allow that to happen now that HE was around to twit her about it. So, despite the fact that she felt most academics were a pure waste of time, she studied. Or, rather, she would have if she could ever get Artemis to leave her alone.
"Stupid cop probably got straight As in cop school," she mumbled grumpily to her monkey, shoveling in a spoonful of frozen chocolate solace. "And I'm sure he never cut class."
"What was that?" hissed her guardian feline suspiciously. "Who are you talking about? Is there someone there?"
"Nothing. Nobody. And no way. In that order." Minako sighed gustily, staring at the crisp, jet black service cap dangling wickedly from her roommate's bedpost. Nobody was there, that was, except for the specter of Kazuhiko Kane, who, even in his physical absence was firmly present in her thoughts. Damn cop. "Look, I've gotta go. No. I'm not going out. I'm studying because I've got a test tomorrow."
The fact that, after paying to fix Motoki's hair, she would have no money to spare for going out also probably had a little to do with her unusual studiousness that night, she reflected. And that was all Kane's fault too, Minako thought uncharitably. She'd be stuck in for a month, paying off that tab. It would be his fault if she got good grades.
Minako's attention snapped back to her guardian when Artemis made a very rude, "Pshhht," sound and voiced his not unfounded doubts about her truthfulness. Minako, however, was understandably offended.
"No. Of course I'm not lying. Auuuugh! Just find out what you can and call me back, Artemis! I've got to STUDY!" Minako finally exploded when Artemis continued nattering at her. She knew that the latter would be the only reason to which the little feline might listen. Even so, he was still spitting out questions as Minako snapped her phone shut, cutting him off and, with a frustrated shriek, hurled the device into her overflowing laundry hamper where it promptly sank out of sight, drowning in a multi-colored sea of clothes.
Minako had just inhaled another jangled-nerve-soothing spoonful of ice cream when the telephone shrilled, though this time its sound was muffled. Minako let out a groan. It could only be Artemis. This time she was forced to rummage around through a tangle of sheets and clothes until she unearthed her hidden phone.
"Damned cat's as persistent as a plague of fleas and twice as annoying," she muttered, flicking aside the tank top and sheer socking which had wrapped themselves around the phone. She could only be grateful that her roommate, who wouldn't understand, was out.
"I told you I had to study, so stop calling me!" she commanded rudely, with the air of a high-maintenance diva to a particularly lowly associate.
"AINO MINAKO!" an all too familiar voice shrieked, making her flinch, all pretext of diva-dom fled in an instant.
Merciful Aphrodite, it was her mother!
"Is that any way to talk to your mother?! And how could you think you could hide something like this from us?! We're your parents. We deserve to know these things!"
Minako's heart rate sky-rocketed. She could actually hear the blood pounding in her ears. Okay. Somehow her parents had found out about her recent legal mishaps. She took a bracing breath and tried to keep her voice from squeaking. "We-ell, it was like this…"
"You get your backside home this minute, missy!" demanded her mother not waiting for an excuse or an apology. "You are expected in this living room in twenty minutes. Not one minute more."
The buzz of the severed connection drilled through Minako's skull like the sound of a swarm of angry killer bees, and she clutched the sock monkey convulsively. Dear goddess! Her mother knew! Now she was dead meat. All things considered, she'd have rather faced the bees.
Twenty five minutes later, silently practicing the words she'd prepared for her apology and mea culpa, Minako was inserting a key into the lock. She was, as always, late. Yet another thing for her mother to ride her about, although what she could have done about the bus delay today was beyond her ability to comprehend.
It wasn't her fault that the bus driver had been more interested in flirting with her than in driving…well, not exactly her fault anyway. At least, she thought as she twisted a lock of bright gold around one finger, it wasn't something she had control over these days. Being beautiful was a curse to bear sometimes.
She was completely unprepared for the apron-clad, hugging dervish that set upon her as she stepped foot into the foyer. Before she could blink she'd been hugged tightly, hugged tighter, stripped of her coat, and then bear-hugged again.
"Darling," squealed her mother in a tone that Minako devoutly hoped never to hear from her parent's lips again. "You've done it this time. You've hit the jackpot!" All-seeing eyes drifted down her daughter's form from head to toe, taking in the sight of the pencil-styled hair, ragged blue jeans and the cropped, chocolate smudged 'Sweet Thang' T-shirt that she knew to be part of Minako's pjs, not outdoor wear. Mrs. Aino smacked her forehead as her enthusiasm drained away like water from a cracked glass. "Oh lord!"
Bewildered, Minako rolled her eyes and pushed free, headed for the living room. If she was going to have to grovel, which she most likely was, she wasn't going to do it in the front hall as performance art for all of her parents' neighbors. "I haven't the mistiest idea what you're talking about moth…"
She froze in the doorway, nearly suffering instantaneous heart failure at what she saw there. "…er."
There, opposite her father, sat Kazuhiko Kane in her family's living room, definitely not in regulation uniform and looking almost indecently male in spite of being sprawled on her mother's über-feminine, beruffled chintz love seat. He was flipping idly through a book.
He glanced up and nodded, then rose politely, making Minako's mother, who had come in right on her daughter's heels, beam at the gentlemanly gesture.
To Minako's extreme horror she recognized the satin-covered album in his hands. It was her life in pictures: The book in which her mother had pasted all her photographs, from those with her in diapers and smeared with baby food, to those of her as a nearly bald toddler wearing a bow as big as her whole head, held on with a garter, and clutching a wispy feather boa. Further on there were a succession of gap-toothed, gangly limbed school photos, including one of her grinning ear to ear wherein she had managed to convince the photographer to let her wear a cowboy hat and flash a V for victory sign. And then there were the Sailor V movie publicity shots.
Minako cringed, fighting the urge to snatch away the photo album and burn it. And then fling herself on the flaming pyre afterward.
"Your little to do canceled, honey?" Kane asked quietly, though wicked laughter danced in his eyes. Minako seethed. She'd been neatly outplayed by a master. She never would have figured him for a rat, though, at least not unless it concerned his prince.
"Sit down, darling," gushed Minako's mother, dropping down into a chair, "and you too, Officer Kazuhiko, please.
"Please call me Kazuhiko-san," he requested. "I'm off duty."
"Of course, Kazuhiko-san." Mrs. Aino turned to her daughter. "Darling, your friend dropped by to introduce himself to your family. So thoughtful, don't you think?"
Minako couldn't seem to formulate an answer. If Kane hadn't ratted her out to her parents, then what on Earth was he doing at her parents' home? And why had her mother demanded her presence anyhow?
Reaching out one hand, Kane caught Minako's arm and tugged her down to sit beside him where she couldn't help but notice the warmth of his body pressing close against hers on the short couch, the crisp scent of his aftershave, and the subtly sexy unbuttoned collar button of his shirt. When the warmth of his hand drifted down the skin of her back exposed by her midriff-baring shirt, Minako felt a sizzle go up her spine and then some part of her brain stem seized up.
She could only bite back the moan that rose in her throat and thus was completely unable to answer when her mother chirped, "So, tell us, how did you two meet and how long have you been seeing one another?"
"Oh, we first met through mutual friends. One of her closest friends is married to one of my oldest friends, you see. From the first, I found your daughter fascinating, Aino-san," Kane answered easily, managing to smile warmly at her mother, who beamed. "We've been seeing one another ever since."
Minako's jaw nearly fell on the floor. "Urk," she managed to gasp in wonderment at his audacity. No one noticed. Her mother was too busy beaming at Kane and her father was grumbling noisily behind his evening paper.
"I seem to recall a man with a family name of Kazuhiko who was in the Diet some years back. From one of the old samurai clans. Are you one of those Kazuhiko's, Officer?" burbled her mother tactlessly. Minako winced. She'd been too well raised to call anyone a fame-whore, but there was no denying that her mother enjoyed basking in reflected glory, and it was just so embarrassing when others noticed. Her mother had social climbing aspirations and Kane had just handed her prime fantasy material.
He smiled blandly in response, not only not offended, but seemingly unaware of the reasons behind her mother's probing, though Minako was unconvinced. He couldn't be that oblivious. He was too sly for that.
"My father, Kazuhiko Masanori. He went in to politics after retiring from the family business. Before he passed, that is. Now, I'm afraid, I'm all that's left, save a few very extended family members."
"So you run your family's business AND work as a police officer? However do you have the time?"
"Capable finance managers. The company is well managed and my family's money properly invested. Thus, I've been freed to do what I always wanted to do. I believe protecting our society is a calling of the highest order," Kane announced, his voice ringing with conviction, shocking Minako, who hadn't known the normally stone-faced warrior could show such human emotion, even if it was, in her opinion at least, probably false.
Minako's mother nearly swooned. Handsome, wealthy, connected, and principled. Had she ordered him out of a catalogue, her daughter couldn't have done better.
Her normally mild-mannered father bristled slightly, however, and gave his paper a sharp flick, dropping one corner so that he could glower at Kane.
"I hope you won't take this the wrong way, Kazuhiko-san," he began, his gaze flickering suspiciously over the man's pale mane of hair, "but aren't you a little old for my daughter? You understand that no father wants someone playing around with his child. She deserves someone who's serious about her."
'Yes daddy! Thank you, daddy!' Minako unreservedly was mentally cheering on her father. 'Go all overbearing father-figure on him and throw the wolf-in-geezer's clothing out of the house! Tell him he can never see me again. Pleeeeease!!'
Suddenly sober as a judge, Kane leaned forward. "Aino-san, I understand and respect your concerns. They do you credit. Any right-thinking father would be protective of his little girl." Unexpectedly, he caught up an unsuspecting Minako's hand in his own and lifted it to his lips, making her squeak. "However, sir, you wrong me if you think my intentions are dishonorable or not serious. I believe that were you to ask those who know me, you would find that I am the most serious person they know."
He lightly touched his silvery-white hair with his free hand and shrugged. "Actually, despite what it may look like, I'm not that much older than your daughter. It's not age, sir. I'm afraid my hair has always been this color." His lips twisted ruefully as he asked, "Do I really look that old?"
"Not at all!" Minako's mother flew to his defense, shooting her husband a withering look that fairly dared him to voice further objections. "Your appearance is ageless, young man. And I'm quite sure our daughter is in excellent hands with you."
'Not yet, but soon.' Kane wisely kept the anticipatory thought to himself, running his thumb lightly over the back of Minako's hand. He could hear her soft intake of breath and smiled.
His one weak argument crumbling in the face of Kane's explanation and his wife's gimlet stare, Minako's father slumped back into his chair and muttered uncertainly, "Ah…well…then I guess that's alright."
'Weak as water!' Minako's shoulders drooped as she groaned and jerked away from Kane's hand, shaking her own as it seemed to tingle at from his touch. Something suspiciously like laughter seemed to dance in those glacial grey eyes of his, though his face remained impassive, a slab of granite.
Her hand was free only a second. "Honey," he said, drawing out the endearment and ignoring the glare she shot him, "I thought maybe, after getting to know your folks some, you'd like to go for that walk I mentioned earlier."
"Oh, that sounds nice," Mrs. Aino said. "So romantic, even if it is a bit cold out."
"It's also getting late." Again Minako's father bristled. "It is a school night for her," he pointed out.
"Don't worry sir," murmured Kane silkily. "I'll have her in bed by midnight at the latest."
Minako's mother sucked in her breath for a long moment, then let out a sound that was somewhere between a titter and being strangled as Minako's father's eyeballs bulged and a vein began to throb in his forehead. "What did you say?!" he demanded, dropping his paper.
Minako stifled the inappropriate urge to laugh out loud, wondering if her father was suddenly planning a shotgun wedding or just to commit mayhem. If Artemis had only heard that, Kane would have been a mass of bloody scratches.
The younger man did manage a creditable job of looking disconcerted at what had come out of his mouth. "I'm terribly sorry…I meant that I would get Minako back home at a decent hour, of course."
"Of course you meant it that way," wheezed Mrs. Aino, eyeing Kane very much as though she'd like to eat him up with whipped cream.
"You'd better have," growled Minako's father, grabbing up his paper which he opened with a resounding snap.
While neither of her parents was looking, Kane caught Minako's eye. Heat flared between them and in an instant she knew that the outrageous words had been fully intended. Every last one of them. Her face went as scarlet as her trademark bow.
In a desperate attempt to break the tension, Minako blurted out, "Uh…Mother…I think I'd like some coffee?"
With some difficulty, Mrs. Aino ripped her gaze away from Kane. "Really dear? I thought you hated it. But if you're sure, Minako darling, I can get that for you. How about you, Kazuhiko-san?"
"That would be lovely."
Dear? Darling? It was amazing, Minako thought with a mental snort of disgust, how she'd gone from pariah to princess just by bringing the man into her mother's orbit.
"No, mother. Let me." Anything to get away from his touch for a moment. Heck, she'd cook an eight course feast while she was at it. The more involved and time-consuming, the better.
In one quick motion, Minako bounced off the couch, taking the photo album with her, and fled into the kitchen, cringing as she heard her mother coo, "So tell me some more about yourself, Kazuhiko-san…"
Minako stayed in the kitchen as long as she could, though it took her far longer than it ought to have to make the coffee, for her trembling hands made a mess every time she tried to pick something up. She scattered the filters far and wide, and spilled the coffee grounds everywhere. She spattered the water on the counter. She dropped the cups, which, luckily for her, did not break (except for her favorite old mug, which had already been slightly chipped).
When, as the coffee finally began to bubble and perk in the machine, she attempted to pick up the broken pieces, she sliced her finger on one of the jagged shards. Sucking in a pained breath, she stood there staring at her fingertip as a single ruby droplet welled up on the pad of her finger. "Damn you, Kunzite."
Apparently just speaking of him conjured him up like an evil spirit, for in the next second he was there, looming over her. "There you are. You've hid in here long enou…"
He broke off, scowling darkly as he spotted the blood. "Are you okay?" Kane demanded, catching her small hand in his broad one. Without waiting for an answer, he plucked from nowhere, a twin handkerchief to the one he'd given her the previous night for her lip. Methodically he wrapped the wounded digit, neatly tying the linen off when he was satisfied. "There."
Minako gave her finger an experimental flex, but it didn't move much and it didn't hurt. He'd bound it well. There was only one thing left to do.
"This is for lying to my parents and upsetting my father, you jerk!"
Her palm cracked across one high-bladed cheekbone, turning his head. He hissed as blood flooded the newly bruised flesh, making for a vivid handprint there.
Challengingly, Minako held out her wrists at arms length, both hands cocked downward. "Going to cuff me now, officer?"
Silently, Kane fingered the hot spot on his cheek as he stared her down. Minako, however, refused to be cowed. She shook her wrists expectantly. Finally he grunted. "I suppose I deserved that."
He didn't even have the simple decency to look embarrassed, Minako thought angrily. She gave a proud toss of her head, retorting, "You certainly did." Her action lost some of the intended power of its impact, however, as one of the improvised hairsticks in her topknot came loose, allowing a sunny hank of blond silk to fall to her waist. She squealed, grabbing the pencil before it hit the floor.
Almost as if in a trance, as if his hand wasn't in control of his body, Kane reached out and plucked the other pencil free, allowing the rest of Minako's luxuriant mane to tumble down and form a glowing bell-like curtain around her.
She bared her teeth, growling a warning.
Just then her senshi communicator shrilled an alarm and mere seconds later, his cell phone chimed in, breaking the tension.
The two glanced down at their respective devices, grimaced, and picked them up to listen. When they hung up, both Kane and Minako shared a strangely unsettling look of communion.
Minako tossed aside the writing instrument in her hand. Pulling out a distinctive orange pen instead, she leapt into motion and, on her way out the door she bellowed, "Mother, sorry to leave before the coffee, but Kane and I've gotta dash!"
Out in the living room, Mrs. Aino hid a smile from her husband, who scowled fiercely when his wife called back, "Have fun, and don't do anything I wouldn't do, darling."
A particularly vicious slam of the back door was her daughter's only reply.
Pearl oysters had turned out to be a lot more fascinating than Zarek had ever imagined.
Ami, Zarek knew, was the reason for it. It was hard not to learn when he couldn't tear his gaze away from her lips as she read aloud to him the placards that explained the items exhibited. The lilt of her voice was musical to his ears. And her unbridled enthusiasm for acquiring knowledge also made everything she was interested in more interesting to him, though he doubted she fully realized the effect she had on him.
He trailed along in her wake, grinning roguishly as she bent over displays cases, taking her time with each one. She didn't have the first clue either, he realized, just how enticingly her slim-fitting orchid-colored skirt tended to ride up when she bent over the displays, revealing the sensitive, pearl pale skin behind her knees and further up.
He thrust both hands firmly into his pockets, ruining their fine pleats, but ensuring that he wouldn't do something that would shock Ami out of her mind and ruin their date. Glancing back at him to make sure he was with her, Ami realized for the first time that Zarek's glance was fixed on her legs, not the bubbling aquarium tanks filled with live Chinese freshwater mussels and Pinctada maxima oysters.
She flushed and tugged at her hem. Zarek, caught, gave her a sheepish grin. He did not, however, proffer an apology, and Ami didn't ask for one. Her senshi sisters would have recognized it for the telling detail it was.
"I believe these would suit you," opined Zarek, searching for a tension breaker, tugging her toward a case chock full of the oysters' end product. Before them was a magnificent, gleaming display of some truly spectacular pieces of pearl jewelry from all around the world.
Ami let out a soft gasp.
Moonlit ropes of the lustrous ocean gemstones from Ceylon, some longer than Ami was tall, were draped across the display case shelves in dramatic Baroque splendor. Local 'Akoya whites', perfectly matched and set in platinum, shone on black velvet pillows. There were heavy bracelets and hair combs displayed, set lavishly with rare, South Seas golden pearls and other glittering jewels. Orbs of black and chocolate pearls gleamed with darkly iridescent grandeur in glittering diamond ring settings. Fat teardrops of perfect peach and lilac alternated with rose gold pendants to form a splendid collar, fit for any queen.
His eye happened to fall on a stunning piece that was a perfect confection of creamy pearls interspersed with rich sapphires and clear, bright aquamarines arranged in a whirlpool swirl. "That one, particularly," he said, pointing at the broach dubbed 'The Nixie's Eye'.
"Oh no," Ami hastily denied, shaking her head. "It's far too grand."
Zarek's gaze locked with hers. "And so are you," he told her huskily, brushing back a tumbled azure lock of her hair. His knuckles brushed gently across her cheekbone.
The display had sparked a memory. A very long time before…a lifetime before, the European king had once commissioned a custom-designed kokoshnik, or Russian-style tiara, petite in size and set with exquisite peacock pearl 'lace', perfectly suited to play up Ami's delicate beauty. Ignoring old-wives tale warnings that 'pearls meant tears', it had been intended as a betrothal gift, but he'd never gotten the chance to ask for her hand or give it to her. Zarek couldn't help idly wondering where it was now.
Under his rapt gaze, the soft rosy color of a pink pearl bloomed in Ami's cheeks. All thoughts of a particular Shitennou had gone, and the rest of the world fell away as she focused in solely on her date. "Thank you," she said very seriously.
"Don't thank me yet." He smiled wolfishly, lowering his head to bring his lips to hers. His arms wrapped around her slender waist. Ami strained upward on her tip toes. Zarek nibbled lightly on her full lower lip before taking full possession of her mouth.
She ought to resist, she knew. Such behavior was very inappropriate. But the part of her that yearned for knowledge would not be denied. Suddenly she had to know what flavor of kiss Zarek had, and wouldn't rest until she did. So in spite of the public place, for once Ami let herself go, brazenly throwing herself into the kiss, which was, in her opinion, perfection…until, with a colossal bang, the whole building shook.
Startled, Ami let out a yelp and stumbled backward, sitting down hard. Her limbs sprawled every which way and she couldn't help but wonder if there'd been an earthquake…a major one.
Zarek clenched his fists and bit back his foremost urge, to growl and curse fate for ruining their first kiss this time around. It wasn't fair, dammit! The urge, though, faded away rapidly as the room shuddered again and again and he heard the sound of terrified screams echoing from the main hall.
Ami struggled to tug her skirt down to some semi-modest length and still stand up, waving away his hand. She'd just gotten her feet back under her when the room again shuddered and pitched, more strongly this time. 'Aftershocks!' she deduced, as she toppled forward and landed on her knees, banging her skull hard against the nearest oyster tank.
A fine but growing crack appeared in the glass, allowing water to seep out and begin to pool on the floor. Having been only momentarily stunned, Ami palpated her head experimentally, assessing her symptoms as her mother would have. There was a growing bump and she felt slightly woozy, but there was no cut and no blood. It was a good sign at least.
"Stay down and wait here," Zarek warned Ami, running unsteadily from the pearl room to scout out the source of the chaos. The ground continued to heave and rumble beneath his feet. He never heard her soft-spoken, "Wait. We need to get under cover."
In spite of her dizziness, she scoffed, almost hearing Rei's scornful voice ringing in her ears. 'Stay down and wait? Not likely.' Ami dragged herself behind a display case, giving herself a second for the rushing sound in her ears to cease before she attempted to haul herself up. Now she could hear the screaming and past experience made her sure. Whatever it was, it wasn't an earthquake that was going on.
Zarek had just figured that out the hard way. "Blood Hel!"
The Old Norse oath that burst from the European king's lips was not unwarranted. In his wildest dreams he'd never have imagined the sight that met his eyes and halted him in his tracks. In a scene straight out of hell, or a Jurassic Park movie, rampaging thunder lizards, the terrors of primordial world, roamed again. Only this time the creatures who were like as not to end up crushed underfoot or crushed between fearsome jaws were not primitive mammals the size of cats, but a larger though only slightly more advanced species, Homo Sapiens Newsreporticus, and their screaming camera persons too. The crowd surged toward the emergency exits as it became a case of every man for himself. Then the horror-stricken cries went up as all the doors in the place began, on their own and with nary a visible hand to guide them, to slam and seal shut.
"The doors are locked! There's no way out! We're trapped!!"
Feeling a bone-deep chill, Zarek spun about to reassure himself that Ami, at least, was alright, only to finally give vent to another ear-blistering antique curse. He'd had only a split second to digest the sight before the doors to their chamber, like all the others, shut and locked themselves fast. However, the scene chilled his blood. Within the pearl room where he'd left his Ami there had remained only the faintest hint of familiar magic 'static' in the suddenly frigid air and, on the floor below the oyster tank, a puddle…frozen solid.
Ami, however, was nowhere to be found.