Disclaimer: Kannazuki no Miko and all its characters are properties of TNK Studio and GeneonEntertainment. They do not belong to me. This work is purely fiction and only meant to be a token of love and gratitude toward an anime series, a masterpiece that I truly love.
CHAPTER ONE: REUNION.
Himemiya Chikane was born into a family where love and wealth existed in great abundance. She was gifted with good looks that not many young women her age possessed. She was fortunate in that her well-nurtured talent had filled her rather inexperienced life with fame and world-wide appreciation. She had spent the first nineteen years of her youth believing that there was nothing she could not have. Her world was turned upside down and her naïve assumption violently rebuked, however, when a wingless angel wreathed in the blinding light of the sun shot an arrow wrought purely from alien emotions into her once inert heart. For the first time since gaining recognition of the world at large, she felt the tendrils of fear writhing in her mind, telling her it was possible that this very stranger, who had come into her life the way a bolt of lightning streaked across the rainy heavens, was beyond her reach.
Rising from her comfortable armchair, the high back of which faced a massive thick glass pane allowing her to enjoy the view of Downtown Mahoroba from a height of a thousand feet, she quietly crossed the room. Earlier in the morning, she had checked in at the registration counter of Grand Central Hotel, the luxurious presidential suite of which was afforded to her by her celebrity status in certain circles. She had been rather impressed in the beginning by its spaciousness, its ridiculously expensive furniture as well as state-of-the-art entertainment facilities, and the impeccable aesthetic sense with which it was designed and decorated. The suite did not seem all too extraordinary now in her eyes, not when she was standing by the immense bed and beholding in great amazement the same wingless angel who had graced Chikane's life more than half an hour gone with a radiance noonday could barely top.
Lying on her back upon the soft mattress that would conform to every inch of a human body was a girl no older than her whose consciousness was immersed in a deep slumber. Many boys and quite a few girls had bared their hearts at Chikane's feet and asked for her love in return. None of them had managed to stir her heart the way this stranger girl did.
"Yes, Father," Himemiya Chikane spoke quietly into the Motorola Shinken-6 cell phone she was holding against her right cheek. "I have arrived safely." The people around her were either engrossed in their own wireless conversations, making vexed sounds at their wristwatches, or staring impatiently at the red traffic light barring them from crossing the junction just so they could get on with their business. To their dismay, cars remained cruising past them from either direction, showing no immediate sign of slowing down and letting them pass. "No, Father, I have little need of bodyguards," she repeated for the thousandth time. Much as Himemiya Aoki would like to think, she was not an insanely popular idol who was stalked left and right by her rabid fan base. "It will only draw attention to me," she reminded him. "That is not what I want."
"Well, if you say so," Aoki muttered in a resigned manner on the other side of the phone. "Keep yourself out of trouble, then." She still did not understand why her parents were ever so fond of giving such advice even though it was pointless. She had not gotten herself into trouble once. If she had, perhaps her life would have been a little more interesting. Maybe she should. "And I am sure you will have lunch with us tomorrow, as scheduled and promised?"
Chikane sighed. "Yes, Father." She had been doing her best to get away from it. She had tried to convince her parents that whatever deal they were bringing to the table would not sit too well with her, if at all. They always refused to listen. Now, they even decided to fly to Mahoroba from London, where they were taking a vacation, just to corner her in a "lunch with the family." She hated it when Himemiya Aoki and Himemiya Sanae were this insistent on deciding the course of her life.
"At least try to sound a little more cheerful, Chikane," said the man soothingly as though able to sense her apprehension. "You will not regret it."
"Perhaps," she murmured noncommittally.
"And I am sorry your mother and I cannot celebrate your birthday with you today," apologized the second-most powerful member of the Himemiya, his voice full of genuine regret. "I truly am."
"You should not be," she said in her unchanging tone. "I am used to it." It was not sarcasm. It was a statement of fact. Aoki and Sanae had ever been occupied with their own business as well as the affairs of the Clan. They truly did not have much time to spend with their daughter, and she understood that. Understandably enough, she never resented their usual absence in their life, but guilt was always in their voices whenever they mentioned the fact. Perhaps that was why they insisted on doing what they would be tomorrow afternoon. "In any case, I will be waiting for your call tonight." The light had just turned green, and the people around her had started milling forward. "Yes, you take care too, Father."
She hung up and strode forward. All thoughts took wing and left her mind blank the moment her eyes dawned on a mysteriously endearing figure approaching from the other side of the street. Her feet planted her immovably at the heart of the junction like a tree deep-rooted into the soils. Her breath caught and her pulse picked up its pace. Time froze, the earth stopped turning, and the people around her became as solid as a mirage conjured by the desert's heat.
The little angel, who had come to an abrupt halt an arm's length in front of Chikane, was beautiful yet not in the way that dried men's throats and filled their hearts with darkest desires. What Chikane saw on the other girl's face were delicate features that suggested untainted innocence and invoked thoughts of adoration from members of either sex. Her shoulder-length golden hair possessed the luster of the precious metal and was adorned with a snowy bow tie at the back of her head. Her slim and petite body was graced by a shamrock-green sleeveless jacket that bared her slender arms, the skin on which was smooth as the surface of a pearl, an inner shirt atop which hung a pink seashell that looked surprisingly similar to the pendant attached to her metal necklace, and a white pleated skirt not long enough to hide the lithesome shape of her lower thighs.
A slight movement from the little angel – Chikane had not met a single person that deserved the title more – had her snap back to reality in a flash. The golden-haired girl, amazingly enough, was crying in silence, her round and shiny tears rolling incessantly down her gorgeous face. Then all of a sudden, she hurried forward, spread her arms, and closed them around Chikane's neck the next instant. There, she wept and wept and wept.
Fire roared from the pit of Chikane's stomach and threatened to incinerate her. As if they had gained a will of their own, her arms had risen without her command and slipped around the other girl's waist with the same tightness and intimacy. Feelings she did not know she harbored exploded in her heart. Tears she had held back during the last nineteen years roared past her shattered restraints and streamed freely down her face.
Her Kyou Oji-sama often joked that there was one kind of disease that even mankind at the height of its civilization would never be able to cure. That disease's name was love. During the first nineteen years of her life, she had never been acquainted with its universally known symptoms.
Now, she was.
A soft beep interrupted her recollection. The sound came from the intercommunication device placed on the wall to the right-hand-side of the door, signifying that someone was standing outside and waiting for her to answer. She sighed and walked to the door, where a look at the LCD screen revealed that the person who just decided to disturb her blissful reverie was the concierge she had met down at the lobby a few moments ago. She believed he had introduced himself to her once, when she first checked in earlier in the morning, but his name escaped her now. Not that she cared. There was only one name she wished to learn at the moment, and it was not his.
"How may I help you, sir?" she asked. The device only allowed one-way image transmission, so he would not be able to see her or learn anything that was happening in the suite.
"Himemiya-sama," he greeted respectfully and bowed where he stood even though a door stood between them. "Forgive me, but I am worried for your... companion." The quick pause was noticeable. He sounded as though he had intended to use a different word. "I would like to inform you that Grand Central offers a wide range of medical services to the guests residing in our presidential suites. A most competent medical team can be here any moment should you require their aid."
The meeting on the street between Himemiya Chikane and the little angel had apparently put too much strain on the latter's fragile body, for she passed out shortly after putting herself within Chikane's embrace and crying her eyes out atop Chikane's shoulder. Shocked, worried and afraid at the same time, Chikane had taken the golden-haired girl into her arms and brought her directly to Grand Central. This very same concierge, who had been among those serving at the registration counter, was the person who came to ask her whether something was wrong. He had nodded along as though convinced when explained that the unconscious beauty was a friend who fell victim to the afternoon's heat. He had asked politely if he could help carry the girl to the hundredth floor and acted as though he had not the moment he met Chikane's sapphire eyes. The man was very smooth and quick-witted, though, as he immediately offered to get the elevator for her and open the door to her presidential suite. His assistance had been much appreciated.
"I do not think there my friend is in any immediate danger," she replied. The coma had already departed, leaving in its place a deep sleep that had the little angel's chest rise and fall in an even and quiet rhythm. She did stir a few times, though, and made some impossibly cute sounds in her throat. Whenever she did, Chikane sensed her breathing slow down and her heart pulse speed up while eagerly waiting for this dazzling being to open her eyes and talk. She had been disappointed again and again, for the other girl always mumbled some incoherent phrases and drifted back into the land of the dark. Chikane had never thought watching someone sleep could be this nerve-racking. Despite the fact that she currently wished for nothing more than to rouse the little angel and ask the thousand questions she had, she was going to let the girl wake on her own. It seemed a crime... No, it was a crime to disturb her when she was so soundly asleep. "Should I need help," Heaven forbid if Chikane would, "I will give the help desk a call."
"It shall be as you wish." The concierge bowed his head in acquiescence and left.
Heaving another sigh, she went back to the bed. Deciding that sitting down would be a better idea than standing up for only heavens knew how long, she settled down on the edge of a mattress at least three arms in width and twice as many in length. Very gently, she brought to her nose a handful of the unconscious angel's fine golden hair, which possessed the luster of the precious metal. She recognized the lingering pleasant smell of shampoo as well as what she was sure the natural fragrance scent of the sleeping beauty.
Still slightly dazed, Chikane laid her hand upon the sleeping stranger's warm forehead. From there, it glided softly down her silken-smooth cheek, traced her jaw line, trailed down the crook of her neck, and arrived at the pendant that lay atop her modest bosom. Her mind spun at the contact with the little pink seashell. It seemed to have come from the same clam as the one hanging on her neck. It gave her the same sense of familiarity that hers did the first time she touched it one late night on the island of Oahu of Hawaii ten years in the shadows of the past. She was only nine then, yet the unusual encounter had been forever etched into her memories in a most mysterious fashion.
"What did you think of the food, Chikane?" Himemiya Aoki, a tall man in his thirties with a mustache that did not do much to make his baby face more mature and a pair of eyes with irises that could have been carved from obsidian, asked not too long after they had walked out of a Hawaiian restaurant near the Waikiki Beach. His right hand was holding her left, and her Mother's left was engulfing her right as they treaded leisurely on the moonlit sidewalk toward their hotel, which was but a few minutes of walking away. "Good, no?" he said and answered his own question.
She happily nodded her agreement. The food was good. While simple, the dishes served to her and her parents at their table offered exotic flavors that silenced all conversations they liked to have during meals and forced them to focus on indulging their taste buds.
"What do you say we come here again tomorrow, dear?" suggested Himemiya Sanae. She was quite few years younger than her husband – he swept her off her feet when she was in her first year in college and he already in his late twenties – but appeared a little older thanks to his baby face and in defiance of the money she had spent on cosmetics. Still, she was so beautiful with her straight short hair and elegantly applied makeup that every man walking in the opposite direction shot her husband envious looks. He pretended he did not see, but Chikane would have to be blind to not see the twitching at the corners of his lips.
"That sounds great," said Aoki. "Their menu has so many interesting dishes, and we have tasted so few." He sounded ready to go back for a second helping of the delicious food. "What do you think we should try tomorrow, Chikane?" he prompted.
She kept quiet and pondered carefully while continued walking beneath the gentle luminescence of the full moon and the twinkling phosphorescence of the ocean of stars surrounding it. Although deep in thought, she was still aware of the sounds of vehicles running in both directions to her left, the merry but indistinct chattering of the natives around her, and the sight of an old woman sitting a few yards ahead. Her long hair was white as snow, her cloak sewn together from a thousand colorful patches. In front of her a large cloth was laid, atop which stood many hand-made accessories and cheap souvenirs she probably counted on to buy food.
The very moment Chikane and her parents arrived at where the old woman was sitting and surveying the surrounding for potential customers, who seemed determined to ignore her wordless pleas, Chikane's sapphire eyes caught sight of something placed at the very center of the cloth. She stopped walking, consequently forcing Aoki and Sanae to pull to a halt. Her attention, she found, was being drawn helplessly to a pink seashell attached to a metal necklace like a moth to a light bulb. She did not know why, but the far from valuable or even eye-catching accessory had stolen her gaze and refused to give it back.
For the first time in her childhood, she desired something. Not pretty dresses, not useless dolls that other girls were ever so fanatically fond of, but a little seashell she could have found anywhere on the beach.
Silently, she bent down and laid her hand upon the object currently keeping her spellbound. The first touch surprised her with a mild electric jolt that had her shy back slightly. A second touch brought her a powerfully endearing and inexplicably familiar sensation that compelled her to pick up the pendant and held it tightly in her tiny hands. The old woman made no move to stop her. She gazed at Chikane expectantly with a pair of lightless gray eyes and tremblingly brought up a wrinkled hand as though demanding a payment. Chikane lifted her head to look up at her Father, who scratched his head in evident surprise.
"Do you truly want this?" he asked, confused.
She nodded and tugged beseechingly at her Father's vacant hand, deathly afraid that he might not grant her sincere request. He loudly cleared his throat in response, looking like he was going to squeal. Adults were so strange, she thought.
"But why?" Himemiya Aoki said and glanced at his wife, who appeared at a loss for words. "Your generous Kyou Oji-sama and Kimika Oba-sama got you a crystal necklace a hundred times prettier last year and you never touched it." It was probably lying in some corner of her room back home, along with the presents her relatives heaped on her every birthday and Christmas. They never appealed to her despite the fact another child could only possess them in his fondest dreams.
She tugged harder and looked pleadingly at her Mother, who immediately caved in. "I will buy it for you, Chikane," she said indulgently and reached into her purse. Aoki gave her a look but he, too, melted at Chikane's unblinking sapphire gaze. Neither of her parents had any experience in dealing with her when she wanted something this desperately. The reason was simple – she never did. In fact, she could not recall ever asking them for anything her entire life.
"Here you go," said Sanae, who slipped a twenty dollar bill into the bony hand of the quiet vendor. The much older woman scrutinized the green slip of currency for a few seconds, flashed a toothless grin that spoke volumes of disbelief, and finally shoved it into her pocket as though she was afraid Sanae would change her mind. Chikane guessed that meant the payment was more than sufficient.
"Thank you, Mother," she said belatedly and beamed at Sanae. Her Mother smiled broadly and ruffled her blue hair in return.
"Put it on," Himemiya Sanae urged her daughter.
Chikane did. During the last ten years, she never once took it off.
"Did you get it from that old woman too, little angel?" she murmured in a voice so soft and affectionate it nearly startled her. Her hand moved back up and arrived at the sleeping beauty's lips, which she caressed lovingly with the tip of her forefinger. They were small, they were soft, they were delicate, and they were just like a pair of sakura petals. Afraid of what was going to happen should she continue to touch a pair of lips even another girl would have a hard time refraining from kissing – or maybe it is just me, she thought ruefully – Chikane pulled her hand upward and brushed a few strands of stray golden hair off of the other girl's forehead.
Images flashed violently in her mind.
Under the ominous light of the violet orb high in the clouded heavens, Himemiya Chikane held the girl currently nestled in her loving arms a little bit closer to offer protection and comfort. The little angel's name was Kurusugawa Himeko, she was someone Chikane had only met a few months ago but felt like they had been friends since birth, and she was the person who had taken Chikane's heart captive the moment the she discovered the secret Garden of the Roses in the back of Ototachibana Academy. Her clothes were all torn thanks to the violent God Machine Take no Yamikazuchi – she knew not how she learned the name of the demonic titan, but she did – and his assault on Himeko's dorm room. Her gorgeous face was slightly bruised, her dry lips opened, her left hand engulfed in Chikane's right, her consciousness completely drowned in the ocean of the dark. "Please wake up, Himeko," Chikane whispered to the girl she loved. "Please... If you don't... I..." She squeezed her sweetheart's hand more tightly in fear. She would never be able to survive Himeko an hour, if not a minute. The little angel was ever her whole world.
Himeko stirred. "Chikane-chan..." she mumbled. Her voice was soft and low, yet to Chikane, it was a gunshot. Relief poured out of her pores like a river in a flood, love roaring from her heart and racing to the furthest corners of her existence. The thunderous clashing of the colossal Take no Yamikazuchi and Yatsunou no Koshizuchi, another giant with lightning-spewing metal tentacles whose name she had no idea how entered her ignorant mind, in their deathmatch suddenly dimmed to the buzzing of a bee. All she heard at the moment was the ragged breathing of her first love. All she saw was the fragile figure of a girl who had uttered her name even when unconscious.
Quietly, she brushed a few strands of stray hair off of Himeko's forehead, feeling her own cheeks coloring at the thought of what she was going to do. The urge was too strong, its voice too persuasive to resist.
She lowered her face to that of the girl she loved.
"Happy Birthday, Himeko," she whispered. Her trembling mouth found that of her sweetheart in a deep kiss she had dreamt of receiving for far too long and far too often. Heat rushed to her brain, sweetness invaded her sense of taste, unshed tears welled in her eyes, and moisture struck her nostrils in what undoubtedly the most blissful moment of her youth. Blinding light blazed and Take no Yamikazuchi's voice resounded deafeningly in the cold air in what resembled a triumphant roar, yet their presences quickly slipped off her mind as her eyes drew shut, her arms fastened around the angel's fragile frame, and her own body melted into the meeting of their lips. I love you, Himeko, the words rang melodiously across her mind.
She barely registered that the other girl's arms were very tight around her own waist.
Kurusugawa Himeko's eyes fluttered open. In a heartbeat, she realized that she had woken up in a place she didn't recognize. The ceiling of this huge chamber was decorated with a crystal chandelier compared to the cheap fluorescent tubes she had on hers, the bed she was resting on so soft it would have made the thin mattress she had back home seem a slab of concrete, and the scenery beyond the huge glass pane at the far end of this immense rectangular space suggested a dizzying height that the second-floor apartment she was renting did not possess. She did not have time to panic, which she invariably did anytime she found herself in a strange place, for her amethyst gaze had dawned on a slender figure of a girl who had just walked out of the bathroom.
She was the same girl Himeko had met at the heart of that crowded junction only Heaven knew how long ago. She was easily the most beautiful creature ever engineered by the Gods. She took Himeko's breath away with but a look.
Her knee-length hair possessed the color of a cloudless azure sky, her large eyes were sapphires polished by the best jewelers, and her face was so gorgeous a photographer would pay any possible price to have it captured by his camera's lenses. Her frame was graced by a snowy one-piece dress that was fastened at her slim waist by an elegant belt, her neck adorned by a seashell pendant attached to a metal necklace that would have seemed too... ordinary to belong on a person who undoubtedly had been brought up in a wealthy family. Yet... a more careful inspection would convince any pair of eyes that it belonged on her the way her elegant limbs did her well-proportioned and breathtakingly curvaceous body.
It suddenly struck Kurusugawa Himeko that the seashell was the trigger to her odd behaviors on the street. She blushed hotly. She could remember very clearly that it was she who had literally jumped into the other girl's arms and cried her heart out atop her shoulder right after she gained a glimpse of what was hanging beneath the other girl's slender neck. She couldn't give any other explanation except the fact that a powerful impulse had seized her and made her do what she did.
It was certainly not an excuse she wanted to say to this beautiful princess – had she been a few years older, Himeko would have called her a queen – who had graced her life in such a way that she found herself offering her gratitude to the Gods. Since her first year in Ototachibana Academy, she had prayed that they would let her meet the one person whose face she could not imagine and whose name she never knew but whose presence always occupied her heart. Finally, her prayers had been answered. Now, Kurusugawa Himeko had found the other half of her existence. Now, she had learned how helpless a girl would feel when caught in the throes of love.
Dazed, she sat up straight on the bed, her eyes still glued on her first love, whose face turned in her direction and her eyes widened slightly upon seeing that Himeko was awake. Her heart gave a powerful clench at the sight and threatened to squeeze tears out of her eyes like it had on the street. Hastily drawing a deep breath, she tried to calm herself. It would not do to burst into tears in front of this blue-haired princess again, for she might just think that Himeko was crazy. Hardly a good first impression, of course.
"Are you feeling well?" the beautiful girl inquired. Her crystal-clear nightingale voice was a little uneven, Himeko noticed.
"Um... I'm okay... I think..." she stuttered and swallowed audibly in nervousness as the other girl settled down on the edge of the immense mattress. The elegance with which she carried herself revealed a careful upbringing in a wealthy family. The light perfume she wore reminded Himeko of a garden full of flowers. The beauty she possessed, which was augmented by the close proximity, dried Himeko's throat with heartfelt admiration. "Um... if I may ask... where am I?" She gave the chamber a surveying look.
"This is my room in Grand Central Hotel," the princess replied. "I do not know if you remember, but you passed out on the street."
"I do," Himeko said gratefully. "Thank you, and I'm sorry for the trouble."
"It is what anyone would do in such a situation," replied the princess. "My name is Himemiya Chikane." She extended her right hand, the lack of a ring on which was most noticeable. Although it only meant that she had yet to be engaged or married, Himeko hoped it, too, suggested that she was not currently involved romantically with anyone else. Otherwise, her own heart was going to break. "Would you mind telling me yours?"
"Himeko," she offered happily, mentally marveling at the perfection with which the syllables of the other girl's name string together. "Kurusugawa Himeko." She took the princess's hand and shook it lightly. She had to exert a considerable amount of willpower to let it go in the end. What would she not pay to be able to hold it a little longer? What would she not give to have this soft and warm hand against her cheek for while?
Nothing, she decided.
"Such a cute name," the princess mused. "I like it very much." Himeko blushed, having overheard the undisguised fondness in this familiar stranger's dulcet voice.
"Um... thank you..." she began fiddling with her fingers, declaring to anybody who had been observing her behaviors that she was very nervous. No one had paid her such a compliment and managed to sound so sincere about it. She did not doubt for one second that the other girl meant what she said.
"Is it okay for me to call you by your given name?" the princess inquired.
Himeko was surprised. Even her best friend Saotome Makoto had addressed her by her family name for the first few months they were roomed together in the Ototachibana Dorm. The auburn-haired athlete had refused to call her otherwise until they finally brought down the invisible wall separating them, a wall built from her innate shyness that was still stood between her from the rest of the world, and a wall that never existed in the first place between her and the inhabitant of this luxurious hotel room. Still, Himeko's surprise did not last too long and was swiftly replaced by an eagerness to grant permission. To her, it was a first.
"Please do," she invited.
"Thank you, Himeko," whispered the princess, who uttered the last word as though she was savoring its syllables with her lips and tongue. Himeko had always thought that there was nothing special about her name. Her first crush had just proved to her how wrong that was by saying it in a manner fit for lovers whispering words of honey into each other's ear while enjoying their precious intimacy in bed. Her cheeks burned. They were in bed... and alone in a chamber where anything could have happened without the knowledge of the outside world. "Of course," the other girl added, "I would be very happy if you would address me in the same way." She sounded almost afraid that Himeko was going to refuse her heartfelt request.
"Yes?" she answered with a smile that would have pulled any man or woman to their knees in adoration and worship.
"Um..." She racked her brain for a decent response. She definitely wasn't going to tell Chikane-chan – the name tasted so... natural on her tongue it was as if she had been saying it numerous times prior to this fateful meeting – that she called the latter's name just because she wanted to. She found it. "How long have I been unconscious?"
"A little more than half an hour," her first love answered.
She glanced at the wristwatch on her left hand. It read one thirty in the afternoon. She panicked.
"Oh no!" she exclaimed. "I'm supposed to be home by now!"
"Someone expecting you?" the princess asked quietly. "Your romantic interest, perhaps?" The casualness of her tone hurt.
"No, no!" Himeko waved a hand frantically. "I don't have one! Please believe me!" She clamped her mouth shut at the amused smile that crossed the blue-haired beauty's lips, realizing finally that she had answered the question with much more intensity that she had intended. She wanted to pinch her own cheeks to remind herself to think before she let her tongue flap. If she went on like this, she might just destroy a budding friendship she was hoping would turn into mutual love. She cleared her throat loudly at the thought. "Um... a few friends are coming over for a visit... That's all."
Worries clawed at her stomach. Two of these friends happened to be her former roommate Saotome Makoto and her childhood friend Oogami Souma, both of whom harbored an over-the-top protectiveness toward her. Unless she got home soon, they were going to make a fuss and start calling the police to look for her. They always seemed to believe that Himeko was a child who needed to be looked after every step she took regardless of how hard she tried to convince them otherwise. It was just that she couldn't talk back when they mentioned the fact that she was at the height of clumsiness and prone to the most silly accidents. Sometimes she wished she weren't such a hopeless klutz.
"Where do you live?" Chikane-chan asked.
"Shoubara City," she answered. It was a forty-five minutes of bus ride away. "I... I should go." Despair and sadness filled her to the brim. She had no wish to leave the company of the blue-haired princess now, if ever, but unless she came home soon, she might find police at her door when she did. Calling her apartment was out of the question, for the phone lines had been damaged by the storm that ravaged Mahoroba two nights ago. The owner of the complex had yet to repair them despite the complaints that he received every single day from his other tenants.
"I will give you a ride," offered the moonlight of her heart as she gracefully rose from the mattress. Somehow, she reminded Himeko of a full moon with its majestic and gentle luminescence, only that this particular moon, in her eyes at least, was much more brilliant than the noon sun beyond the thick glass pane. "Will you come with me? My car is in the parking lot."
Kurusugawa Himeko did not bother to hide the broad smile that split her face into two. It appeared that they didn't have to part after all.
"I was born in Tokyo," said Himemiya Chikane in response to a question from her precious angel as the silver Mercedes MNK 1010, a sleek Convertible that her father had rented and made available to her the moment she stepped down from the family's private jet in Mahoroba International Airport, rolled out from the basement parking lot of Grand Central. The roof as well as the wind shield and the windows were up and the air conditioner turned on to prevent the heat of day and the noise of the outside world from invading the comfortable space within the luxurious vehicle. Chikane was good driver by normal standards, but today she handled the MNK 1010 with much more care and surveyed the roads far more often. The last thing she wanted was an accident that might harm the fragile life of the girl she loved. She would die before she let that occur.
"This is the first time I am here," she confided. Despite not knowing where was where in the modest metropolis, she did not have much difficulty navigating through its maze-like streets. The GPS of the Mercedes told her everything she needed to know to take the golden-haired girl home.
"Are you on vacation?" the little angel inquired.
"More like a business trip," Chikane clarified.
"Are you..." Himeko hesitated, "on this trip all by yourself?"
Chikane concentrated on safely merging into the fast lane of a Mahoroba highway before answering the sunlight of her world. "Only for today," she disclosed. "My parents are coming here straight from England tomorrow. They are taking the earliest flight back to London the next morning, though."
"Why?" The other girl sounded baffled by the very idea.
Chikane sighed. "I am supposed to attend an omiai with them tomorrow. I think they are setting me up with some wealthy person from this city." She was only nineteen, yet her Father and Mother were quite worried about the fact that she was absolutely uninterested in being romantically involved with anyone else. That was why they had been doing their best to introduce to her boys of prominent families whom they thought to be a good match. Unfortunately for her, her insistence in turning every single one of them down did not manage to douse her parents' ardor one bit. They only tried harder, to her dismay. She had even lost counts on how many omiai sessions she had been "persuaded" to attend despite her tight schedule. She constantly found herself wishing they would just stop.
"You don't want to, right?" the golden-haired girl observed.
"Of course not," Chikane confessed. "If I want a romantic interest, I will find one myself."
"Then that means you... haven't yet?" her passenger ventured. "Overjoyed" hardly described the emotion overflowing in her words.
"Not yet," she confirmed, sensing her heart picking up its pace. A quick sidelong glance revealed that her response had brought a smile to Himeko's delicate lips. Chikane did not think that it registered to the golden-haired beauty that this was not a conversation she should not be having with someone she met less than an hour ago. Not that she had any objection, of course.
"That's strange," the other girl murmured.
"What is?" Chikane asked, slightly amused.
"You still being single. I mean... you're so beautiful and kind..." Honesty rang true and clear in her voice. Chikane found her cheeks being warmed up by the hesitant praise.
"I am not sure about the beautiful part, and I do not think 'kind' describes me very well." She could not speak for others and it might have been the bias one had when one was in love, but she believed Himeko was the prettier between them. As for the "kind" part, it was far from accurate. She knew better than anyone that she would have behaved in a far less caring manner had it been another person who collapsed on the street.
"You're too modest." Himeko chuckled softly. "I'm sure the boys didn't leave you alone while you were in school."
"No," Chikane admitted. They, all of whom were from prestigious families, sent her a mountain of love letters a month during her years in a high-class private high school in Tokyo. They pestered her with surreptitious stares they thought she would not notice. Still, irritating as those boys were, most of them paled beside some of the girls in terms of obnoxiousness. They had been the type who would incessantly declare their eternal devotion to Chikane, vow to obey her absolutely, and then forget all they had heard. More than a few students had fallen prey to injuries as a result of the fanatics' insistence on preventing anyone from getting too close to the one they idolized. Her eyes glanced sideways to Himeko. None of them could compare to this sweet little angel who sat next to her now, attentively listening to her every words and with her amethyst gems – so shiny, so rare! – locked on every movement of her lips.
"And none captured your eyes?"
She shook her head.
"Then I'm glad..." the golden-haired girl said, her voice a breathless whisper that would not have been audible to Chikane had she sat another inch away. Her slender, ringless fingers brushed upon the seashell pendant on her puffing chest. "I guess I still have a chance..."
"A chance?" Chikane repeated, feeling a little dazed by the suggestive words and thinking that perhaps the sunlight of her world had not meant to be heard. A light start that the latter gave immediately confirmed her suspicion. Himeko's cheeks turned a scarlet shade.
"I... I mean..." she stuttered, then took a long pause as though pondering what she should say while her forefingers drew circles around each other's tip and her complexion continued to darken in deathly embarrassment. "I mean," she spoke up finally, "I still have a chance to... introduce you to someone you... may be interested in, Chikane-chan."
The other girl made a terrible liar.
"And you think that someone would meet my standards?" she asked in amusement. Expertly she parked her silver Mercedes in front of a tall building labeled with the phrase "Kanagawa Apartments" in unlit neon signs. They had arrived at their destination. She switched the MNK 1010 into parking gear and turned off its computerized system. The elegant driving machine fell silent in a heartbeat.
"I... don't know your standards," Himeko professed timidly. "What kind of person do you like?"
"Someone like you." Chikane turned to her first love and smiled meaningfully at the latter.
"There's nothing good about me," the sunlit angel said in a diffident voice touched with happiness. She did not sound averse to the idea at all despite what she said. "I'm too plain for you. We don't really match." Amethyst eyes regarded Chikane with adoration.
"I do not think so," she disagreed, smiling inwardly at how the girl she loved had translated the phrase "Someone like you" into just "You" in her magnificent head. People always heard what they wanted to hear, of course. In this case, however, it was exactly what Chikane desired. "None I have met was as cute as you. I am honest." The truthful compliment brought a wonderful glow of delight and embarrassment to Himeko's face. She lowered her amethyst eyes to her feet and kept it there while a happy smile blossomed on her lips.
"But I'm a girl," Himeko said after a moment of silence.
"Makes little difference to me," Chikane announced softly. To demonstrate, she leaned over and placed a quick peck on the other girl's burning cheek. She gave a small start and blushed a sunset atop the leather seat. Not a sign of rejection was on her gorgeous face. The joyous gleam in her eyes suggested that she liked it.
Chikane chuckled softly to herself and climbed out of the vehicle. Quickly she circled the sleek Mercedes and held the passenger door open for the girl she loved.
"Thank you," the golden-haired girl offered and awkwardly got out. "Um... would you like to come up for a while?" She peered up at Chikane – she was shorter by half a head – with a pair of puppy eyes. She knew that a "No" would definitely pool tears in that beautiful pair of amethyst gems and a "Yes" would have a smile blossom on these beautiful lips. Even if she did not have any intention of visiting the other girl's apartment, she would never do anything to make Himeko sad.
"I would love to," she assented, her hand giving the passenger door a push. The thing locked into place. A press on a button on the car key turned on the alarm system.
The smile she had been expecting was brighter than the noon sun.
"My friends would love to get acquainted with you, I'm sure," her sweetheart said in the tiny and nearly obsolete elevator, which was empty save for the two of them. At least it was clean, Chikane noted, albeit rising toward the second floor with the speed of a snail. On second though, she decided that she preferred it this way. She certainly welcomed a chance to spend more time alone with the sunlit angel. In fact, she would not mind at all should some electrical abnormalities occur and...
Her train of thoughts cut off abruptly at a powerful tremor that rocked the slowly climbing car and grounded it to an abrupt halt. The light went out. Darkness blanketed her vision and robbed her of the sight of the girl she loved. Now this is freaky, she thought. She had not expected that her whimsical wish would actually come true.
"Chikane-chan?" called the little angel, sounding at the verge of panic. "Chikane-chan? Where are you?" A note of fear entered her breaking voice.
Despite the lack of vision, Chikane could sense Himeko's warmth and footfalls drawing nearer step by step, each quicker and more urgent than the last. Prior the blackout, she was standing in a corner at the front of the elevator, near the navigation pane, and the golden-haired beauty standing at the opposite corner. Now, her own body, sensitive and attuned to that of the latter for some mysterious reason, informed her that the little angel was within her reach.
"I am here, Himeko." Her arms closed around the darkness and found in its midst a soft body of a girl who was trembling within an inch of her life. "Do not be afraid," she whispered soothingly. "I will keep you safe." Gently, she settled cross-legged down on the elevator's floor, lowered her first love onto her lap, and had the latter rest her side against her own heaving front. There, she tightened her arms protectively around Himeko's fragile frame to show her she meant what she said. There, her lips found the skin on the other girl's forehead again and again and again in soft, loving pecks meant for physical comfort.
The closeness helped. The shaking eventually ceased.
It was as though the absence of light had taken away Himeko's innate shyness. It was as if the lack of vision had made her bolder. She let Chikane offer her comforting kisses and sighed very softly, almost inaudibly, at each in contentment. The first time Chikane embraced her in the middle of that crowded junction, her senses were paralyzed by the torrential currents of emotions raging in her veins and clenching her heart. Now, she was aware of the other girl's body as though it was hers. So soft, she marveled. So warm. The way the other girl had fitted so perfectly in Chikane's embrace gave her reasons to believe that the former must have been engineered specifically for her to hug.
"I'm sorry," Himeko murmured. Chikane could not see her, thanks to the darkness, but her image was alive in her blackened vision. Her mind even simulated the movements of the angel's irresistible pair of lips to match the words being strummed from her vocal cords. "I'm really afraid of the dark," she intimated, the different pitches she placed on her words formed a magical symphony in Chikane's ears. She was reminded of a time when she spent a perfect evening in the great Walt Disney Concert Hall, enjoying the performance of the inimitable Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was a sign that she was too deeply in love with the sunlit angel to even think about living without her. "If I don't keep a dim light on at night, I can't sleep."
"Maybe..." she whispered, "the presence of another person in your bed can help." Her arms tightened a little more and brought the breathtakingly soft girl in her embrace closer to her heaving front. The sudden rise in her little angel's body temperature informed Chikane that the former was blushing.
"I'm not too sure about that," confided the golden-haired beauty. "I shared a bed with Mako-chan a few times before... but it didn't really help."
"Who would this 'Mako-chan' be?" Her words were still as civil as any school teacher could have wanted, but Chikane heard her voice grow cool at the unexpected name. "I thought you did not have a romantic interest." That came out a little icier than she had intended. She winced. Only more than an hour of acquaintance and she had already developed a jealousy toward someone who she did not even know. Ruefulness struck her.
"Oh no! We aren't like that!" Himeko said hastily, probably having sensed the change in Chikane's tone. "Mako-chan was my roommate in high school. She's," she swallowed audibly, "a track-and-field athlete. Sometimes she was so exhausted after practice that she crashed in on the wrong bed." A soft and fond chuckle gained voice in the confined space. This time, it conjured the memories of a wind chime in her head. "I didn't have the heart to kick her out, and she held onto me really tightly," envy staked Chikane through with its blunt blade, "so I let her sleep with me."
"I see," she said simply.
"There's nothing between us, really!" A pair of soft hands was laid against Chikane's cheeks. Hot, fragrant breaths invaded Chikane's nose. Her heart went wild. Unless her senses failed her, the angel's face was no more than an inch away. If she moved in, she might just be able to claim that cherry petal mouth. The urge, which was there since the beginning, only grew stronger after the violent storm of images in her presidential suite. "I only thought of her as a best friend! And... she's getting married two days from now. So, please, don't be..." An audible click of teeth. Another several degrees rise in temperature. A quickening of breaths. Don't be jealous, okay? Chikane finished mentally. No confessions had been exchanged, no declaration of love made, yet already they behaved like a true couple completely crazy about each other. A good thing, I guess, she mused.
"Do you know the groom?" she asked. Somehow, this dark elevator had become as comfortable as a table in a coffee house... or maybe even the comfy mattress in a Grand Central suite.
"Yes. He's my childhood friend. His name's Oogami Souma." Affection rang in her words.
"You must have been overjoyed."
"Of course!" Himeko gushed. A gust of hot breath caressed Chikane's skin, reminding her that the morning light of her world had not increased the intimate distance between their faces. She did not want her to. "My heart almost burst when they suddenly told me they wanted me to be the bridesmaid at their wedding the day after tomorrow."
"I... see," she muttered, unable to keep the dejection out of her voice.
The girl she loved heard it.
"Is there something wrong?"
"I am feeling envious and spiteful," she confessed to the warm and sensual darkness sitting atop her lap. The tip of her nose nuzzled against that of the little angel. She did not shy back. She only hesitated for a split second before she reciprocated with the same affectionate action. Chikane thought she almost tasted the sweetness of the golden-haired beauty's lips.
"Toward whom?" Puzzlement colored her words.
"The best man who is going to stand beside the groom at the wedding."
"Did Oogami Kazuki-sensei do something to offend you?" She sounded surprised and doubtful. "The High Priest is a very nice and generous man."
"I do not know him," Chikane allowed. "In fact, I do not know his name until you said it."
"Then why?" She detected amusement blended with curiosity from her sweetheart.
"Because he can be there with you at the altar," she whispered. "Because he can look at you. Because he can see you smile on the happiest day of your friends' life. That does not exactly get him into my good book."
A pause. A deep intake of breath. A crisp rustle of clothes. A shift in position.
Himeko's arms wrapped quite lovingly around Chikane's waist. A side of her unseen face rest comfortably on Chikane's shoulder. Her nose was buried in the crook of Chikane's neck. Her modest bosom pressed against Chikane's chest in a very innocent yet seductive fashion. She could feel the curves very well with her heaving front. She could hear the blood roaring deafeningly in her ears. She could sense her heart trying to climb up her throat. If Heaven existed, it would be a place like this elevator.
"He's old enough to be my father," the darkness-clad angel whispered, her lips nuzzling the pulse on Chikane's throat. "He's like a father to me. It's him who's sponsoring my education in college." She said no more, but what was left unsaid was clear as crystal. He's not a threat to you, Chikane-chan, the dark sang in quietness. Her heart hummed along in a glorious rhythm.
"Speaking of which," Chikane brushed her sweetheart's fine golden tresses. "What school do you go to? What are you studying?" Excitement flooded her voice.
"I'm a Photography Major at the Izumo Open University," Himeko revealed. "What about you? Are you still going to school?" The name of the school tugged at the back of Chikane's mind, but at the moment, her brain was not functioning at all. After all, it was too busy processing the sensual feelings that every inch of her body in contact with the sun of her world was receiving. After all, she was too engrossed in enjoying the blessed presence to think about anything else.
"I finished school a while ago," Chikane said. "I have a job now."
"Oh, really? What do you do?"
Chikane did not have a chance to answer, for the light overhead had flashed back into life, causing her eyes to squeeze shut. When she could open them again, her breath caught. A fraction of inch from her face was the girl she loved, her cheeks reddened to the color of a sunset, her amethyst eyes widened as far as possible, and her lips almost on top of Chikane's. She had not imagined that they were so close in the dark.
"I'm sorry!" the golden-haired beauty squeaked and literally jumped backward, her deathly shyness returned to her whole.
Sighing deeply in regret and the depressing absence of the other girl in her arms, Chikane gracefully rose to her feet moments before the elevator made its way up once more.
"I think it's because of the storm two days ago," said Himeko as she dry-washed her hands. "Even the phone line was damaged."
"I see," Chikane muttered glumly. What seemed to be guilt stole across the angel's gorgeous face.
The elevator's door slid sideways and the navigation pane beeped aloud, announcing that they had reached the second floor of the Kanagawa Apartment complex.
"Let's go, Chikane-chan," the little angel invited. Unexpectedly, she threaded the fingers of her right hand with those on Chikane's left, held it tightly, offered her a shy look, and led her out of the confined space where they spent the last few minutes in darkness and heart-warming intimacy. By the time they stopped in front of the golden-haired girl's apartment, which was only a few seconds away from the elevator itself, a huge smile was adorning Chikane's lips.
Saotome Makoto had been waiting in the darkness for an hour. She was about to give up and turn on the light in this apartment, the glass double doors at the far end of which had been curtained shut to prevent the sunlight from passing through, when she heard the metallic sound of a key being inserted into the lock. Letting out a hiss to silence the other lurkers, who had been chatting to one another in a low voice to relieve one another's boredom, she inched forward and held her breath.
"HAPPY BIRTHDAY!" every mouth there was bellowed at the same time the door swung open and let the light of the late afternoon flooded into the apartment. Applauds generated by all five pairs of excited hands cut the air like thunder.
Kurusugawa Himeko, once her roommate in the Ototachibana Dorm, stood dumbfounded at the entrance, her hands clutched at her mouth, her amethyst eyes accumulating moisture at a neck-breaking rate. The golden-haired Photography Major was not alone. Standing next to her, seeming equally surprised, was a person who was undoubtedly the prettiest girl in all of Mahoroba. Have I seen her somewhere before? Makoto thought. She seems so familiar.
"You guys..." The rest of the sentence was swallowed up by a loud, emotional sob. It took her a few moments, during which her queenly companion surveyed Makoto as well as her fellow lurkers with a pair of icy sapphire eyes, to find her tearful voice back. "I didn't even remember..."
"You forgot your birthday every year," Makoto teased good-naturedly. "I think it's become my permanent job to remind you. You never paid me, by the way."
The people whom she brought along to this very apartment laughed heartily at the remark. The Photography Major blushed. The blue-haired girl standing next to her confined herself to a quiet chuckle, her sapphire eyes riveted on the golden-haired girl's reddening face in such a fond and affectionate way that Makoto was reminded of how her beloved fiancée always looked at her when they were only boyfriend and girlfriend. Something's amiss, she decided. Don't tell me...
"Hey, don't keep your guest at the door!" she chided. "It's your apartment, for pity's sake!"
"Oh, right!" Her former roommate gave her companion an apologetic look, which earned her a smile that said none was needed. "Come in, Chikane-chan!" The name rang loudly in Makoto's head yet failed to remind her where she had heard it from. One thing was clear, though. As soon as the blue-haired girl set foot in the living room, she dominated the small apartment like the moon would the nocturnal sky. Makoto could sense her friends, most of whom were chatterboxes, quiet down and marvel internally at the regal presence of Himeko's guest. How the heck did this scaredy cat "befriend" someone this impressive? How long has she been hiding her?! Another thing to pester her former roommate with when they were alone.
"This is Himemiya Chikane-chan," the Photography Major introduced, her hand gesturing at her queenly companion. "And this person here is my best friend, Saotome Makoto."
"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance," she said and offered her hand to the queenly girl, meanwhile pondering whether this stranger was related to Himemiya Kyou, the wealthiest businessman of Mahoroba. She had actually only intended to say a simple "Nice to meet you." It was beyond her why the thought was transformed into the utterly formal greeting by the time it reached her lips.
"And mine," Himemiya greeted as she took Makoto's hand and gave a gentle shake. Her voice was as beautiful as her appearance, albeit a little too formal and cool for Makoto's taste. "Congratulations on your wedding two days from now. I wish you a lifetime of happiness." Her eyebrows lifted in surprise. It suddenly dawned on her that her former roommate must have been the one who spilled the beans.
"Oogami Souma," Himeko's hand moved to Makoto's immediate left, "her fiancé."
Silence. The blue-haired girl's facial expression never changed that Makoto saw, but suddenly a cloak of cool disinterest draped over the former and an air of apprehension embraced the tall, blade-slender frame of Makoto's sweetheart. A staring match ensued, during which Himeko looked like a fish in hot water.
Souma cracked under the pressure first.
"Hello," he said stiffly, but not impolitely. He didn't even seem to know why he was so unsettled.
"Good afternoon," said Himemiya Chikane in a voice that bore the power of an arctic blast. No handshake was exchanged. Makoto's hackles wanted to rise. They looked like a pair of wet cats that found themselves trapped in one small room.
"Um... this one right here is Kouzuki Takako," Himeko said hurriedly and diverted the blue-haired girl's attention to a flame-haired one standing to Souma's left as though wanting to defuse the time bomb waiting to explode. Pleasantries resumed being exchanged in a very civilized, if a touch too formal, fashion as the rest of the gang was introduced. All of them had been classmates and friends during the three years of senior high school although they each went their own way since graduation. Takako decided not to attend college just so she had time to learn to manage her family business, a bridal shop. It was her who had chosen Makoto's gown and Souma's tuxedo for the wedding the day after next. It was her who had provided the thousand details that would make it work. They were eternally grateful.
The other four, including Makoto and her fiancé themselves, chose to pursue higher education. Awarded with a generous scholarship, she came to Izumo University as a star athlete in track-and-field. Souma figured that since he liked the idea, he enrolled in the School of Business Administration of Izumo and studied as hard as he ever did. Igarashi Aiko, a bookworm whose nerdy glasses failed to diminish her beauty, went to a different college in town. There, she elected Chemistry to be her focus in life and shut herself inside a laboratory, where rumors stated that frequent maniacal laughter and occasional screams could be heard. Nakashima Miho, a girl with the oddest taste in color – she dyed her hair green, wanted to become a Physics professor, so she went to the same school as Aiko, also her best friend and her current roommate.
"So you have been keeping contact since high school?" Himemiya Chikane inquired, her deep blue hair gathering the illumination of the sun beyond the uncurtained glass double door at the other side of the room, which would open to a large balcony.
Once the introduction was over, she had settled down, quite gracefully and regally Makoto might add, on the smallest of the three couches surrounding a glass table. Sitting next to her was the golden-haired scaredy cat, seemingly torn between keeping her distance from her obvious target of affection and reducing it to nothingness. In the beginning, Makoto had wanted to "inconvenience" her best friend by trying to sit between them. She failed. A cool look from Himemiya Chikane had banished her to the opposite couch with her fiancé, where she wondered how she had been cowed with such contemptuous ease. Unaware of the byplay, the rest of the gang all took seats.
"Yes," the flame-haired Takako confirmed. "We would gather around at each other's birthday and celebrate. Kinda strange how she," dark eyes swiveled to Himeko's face, "never failed to remember ours while kept forgetting hers." The Photography Major flushed slightly.
"Strange?" the bespectacled Aiko scoffed playfully. "Don't you remember how many times she forgot bringing her homework while in high school?"
"I had always thought that it was just an excuse so that she could copy ours." Miho laughed.
"Hey, she's lazy, but not that lazy, okay?" Makoto defended her former roommate, pretending not to notice a weak "Mako-chan!" from the latter. "She did like to read magazines and manga excessively, but she did stay up late every night try to finish her homework despite the fact that she often got them wrong." Laughter erupted while the golden-haired girl's complexion became red enough for a tomato.
"Well, I believe the staying up late part," said Takako judiciously. "But I don't buy the 'studying' one." Mischief flashed almost maliciously in her eyes. "You know what, girls? I bet Makoto and Himeko did many interesting things at night, seeing how close they were."
Makoto swallowed audibly. Now this is new, she thought, already regretting poking fun at the Photography Major. It was a well-established fact that Kouzuki Takako loved to tease any who had given her an opening. She never held back even with her close friends.
"What?" Miho feigned a scandalous gasp. The three of them were on the same couch. "Taka-chi, are you suggesting that Hime-chi and Mako-chi went at it like rabbits in their room behind our backs?"
"I think so too!" Aiko chirped in excitedly. "I heard they slept on the same bed! That had to be why they nodded off in class every morning!" What she said were all true, but in a twisted kind of way. It was undeniable that Makoto sometimes crashed in on the wrong bed and that both she and her best friend could not control their sleepiness, but that was only because Classic Literature and History often fell into the first period slots.
"Souma, you better pay attention to your future wife," the young mistress of the bridal shop warned. "Don't let her out of your sight. Never let Himeko sleep over, okay?!" The three girls hooted into laughter at that.
The only boy in the room turned to Makoto and smiled as though assuring her that he was not going to believe a word they said despite being aware she once harbored a huge crush on her best friend. Like her, he had known Takako for too long to not know that she had developed her teasing into an art.
"And you told me your Mako-chan was just a friend, Himeko," remarked Himemiya Chikane, her playful tone the proof that she, too, realized that Aiko, Miho, and Takako were just having fun.
The golden-haired girl let out a sigh of relief of enormous proportions. As far as Makoto could see, the panic painted all over her face while her friends were taking turn jabbing verbally at her as well as the anxious looks she shot her queenly friend indicated that she was afraid the latter would misunderstand her and Makoto's purely platonic relationship.
The door bell rang, announcing the arrival of a guest. Slightly puzzled, Himeko bounded to her feet and went to open the door. A few seconds later, she brought into the living room a person who happened to be a fellow student from the dance class that Himeko, Makoto, and Souma took to fulfill their General Education in college.
Renna Akemi, a very pretty girl with short black hair, was the daughter to Mayor of Mahoroba. Before becoming a successful politician, the kind and well-loved middle-aged man was the head of a law firm that amassed an amazing number of skillful attorneys. Now his only son, older brother to Akemi herself, managed the firm and continued to make more money than the rest of Mahoroba's population, of course with the sole exception of his Mightiness Himemiya Kyou, the C.E.O. of Himemiya International. Despite being born with a golden key in her mouth, Akemi was a serious person who did her best at everything she put a mind to. A very talkative girl and a formidable debater, she was perfect to follow her father and brother's footsteps. When she graduated from Izumo's Law School, she was going to be a lawyer who could bend the truth to her will.
Another round of introduction went on before Akemi sat down next to Makoto and Souma on the couch. Makoto was under the impression that the future lawyer had considered the seat by Himeko's side first but rejected the idea for some mysterious reason.
"I thought you said you couldn't make it, Renna-san," Makoto stated. She herself had invited the girl to this surprise party for a reason, which she never revealed, no longer valid. She regretted it now.
"I did," affirmed the mayor's daughter. "I was supposed to go to the airport with my father and brother today to receive some important guests. As it turns out, they got the date and time wrong." She laughed and turned to the Photography Major. "Happy birthday, Kurusugawa-san." She produced from her bag a small box gift-wrapped in golden foil.
"Oh, thank you!" Himeko exclaimed happily and accepted it. Next to her, Himemiya Chikane was very still, her sapphire eyes locked on the face of the unaware Renna Akemi as though trying to puzzle out what the latter was planning. Uh oh, Makoto thought in ruefulness. She noticed. The girl's sharp!
"And here's our present, Hime-chi," Nakashima Miho gushed as she took out from beneath the couch a big box in red foil. Pinned to the very top were a snowy ribbon and a small card with the names of all five people in the gang. Inside was a state-of-the-art camera that was just released into the market a few days ago. It was so expensive that all five of them had to pool in the cash to afford it. Worthwhile, in any case. It was high time her former roommate say goodbye to her obsolete camera, which gave her crappy picture quality although her choice of subjects and her skills were top-notch.
"I am sorry I do not have anything for you," Himemiya Chikane told the golden-haired girl ruefully. "I did not know."
"Oh, no, please don't say that!" Himeko said hurriedly. "I haven't even thanked you enough for what you've done for me today."
"What did she do?" Miho asked curiously. Aiko and Takako shot her a chiding look for being nosy, yet neither could they hide the fact that they wanted to know.
"I collapsed on the street earlier," Himeko professed. "Chikane-chan brought me back to her place," the full blush on her cheeks told Makoto that there was something fishy about "her place" her former roommate elected not to mention, "and looked after me until I regained consciousness. She also gave me a ride home."
"Nothing worth mentioning." The blue-haired girl smiled indulgently.
"That's not true!" Makoto's best friend shook her head vigorously. "It means a lot to me. I'm just a stranger you met by chance, but you took care of me so thoroughly even though you could just leave me to my own devices." Himemiya fell quiet.
Makoto and the rest of the gang blinked repeatedly in shock. What the...?
"Pardon," said Renna Akemi in a voice racked with disbelief, "but did you just say that you two just met for the first time today?" The daughter to the mayor had just voiced the question that Makoto was about to ask. Judging by her high school classmates and fiancé, it was theirs, too. Personally, she had thought the two girls had been dating in secret for years.
"Um... yes," answered the Photography Major. "Is there something wrong?"
Akemi clammed up.
Makoto could guess why the short-haired girl was puzzled. She must have been wondering why Himemiya Chikane, someone who had only known Himeko for less than a day, received the special treatment, meaning the intimate "-chan" added to her name, while Akemi herself was still being addressed with her family name despite their four-week acquaintance in the ballroom dancing class. Although it was indeed unfair, she had no reason to complain. Himeko was ever a deathly shy girl. Makoto herself had had to try her best in cultivating friendship with her for one whole year before she, too, was awarded the given-name basis and that childlike suffix.
So is this the love-at-first-sight thing? she speculated in amusement. And here I am, afraid that she'll never find love.
Akemi cleared her throat, her facial expression firming in determination. "In any case," she spoke with a serious tone, "can I have a few words with you, Kurusugawa-san?" Glancing briefly at Himemiya, she added, "In private."
She's desperate, Makoto thought. This isn't good. She turned to her future husband. He sighed and shook his head. Now if something bad happens, it's my fault.
"Yes, of course," Himeko assented in a wondering voice before she rose to her feet and went with the future lawyer to the balcony. The walk was short, for they only needed to climb two steps of stair to the far end of the room, where a single-sized bed was placed, and open the double doors to get to their destination. With the large glass panes and a fair distance in the way, the people in the living room could not possibly hear what was being said.
"So you invited her over, Makoto?" Takako said offhandedly and continued at a hesitant nod, "You had some ulterior motive, didn't you?" A wide grin decorated her face.
"Well, yes," Makoto admitted, wishing that Himemiya Chikane would take her sapphire eyes off of her. They made her really uncomfortable. "Don't you guys remember how Himeko turned down everybody who asked her out with the same ridiculous excuse every time?" The gang nodded.
"Ridiculous excuse?" the blue-haired girl repeated.
"Um... I forgot the exact wording..." Makoto hesitated. "Souma, help me out?" She gave her fiancé a wry look that made the handsome boy wince. She always joked about it despite its being one of his sore spots. He never got mad at her though, for he had already gotten over it. He was hers now, in heart and soul.
"I have a person I want to wait for," he quoted in a solemn voice, "I don't know who... but it's someone in this world who's waiting just for me. I believe that we can meet someday, that we will meet. So I want to wait for that person." He sighed and began to sweat under the blue-haired girl's unblinking gaze, which seemed to demand a more elaborate answer he was definitely not going to give. Makoto couldn't guess why he acted so peculiarly in front of Himemiya Chikane, but she knew he would not tell her that he had been rejected by the same devastating lines by his first love.
"You remember very clearly, Sou-kun," Miho teased. He gave her a look that spurred her on to laugh aloud. Quickly, Takako and Miho, who flanked her on the couch, joined her mirth. They all knew the story. Not a one of them was gentle when they mentioned it.
"In any case," Makoto interjected, "she's been quite lonely for a while now, so Souma and I talked her into taking a ballroom dancing class to keep her company. Renna Akemi happens to be in the same class. I think the girl's taken a liking toward Himeko on the first day. Luckily, or maybe unfortunately, they were usually paired up, so Himeko eventually opened up to Akemi. I thought they looked good together... so I..." Her voice trailed off. Beyond the glass double doors, the two of them were still talking, the golden-haired girl getting more flustered by the minute and the dark-haired one growing more emphatic with every gesture she made with her hands.
Then it was done. As soon as Himeko opened her mouth and spoke, the future lawyer was deflated. Makoto knew what that meant.
"Another victim of that ridiculous excuse," opined Takako.
Makoto disagreed, but she kept her tongue in check.
The double doors swung open and Renna Akemi stepped inside dejectedly, leaving Himeko standing by herself at the balcony and gazing into the distance with guilt splashed all over her saddened face. Quietly, Himemiya Chikane rose from the couch and went to where the Photography Major was. She only paused to give the daughter to the mayor a look of the sympathy when they passed by one another on the way.
"I thought you said I had a chance, Saotome-san," said Akemi as she plopped onto the empty couch. Her voice was so quiet and low in spirit it was rather difficult to imagine she was the same person who could not stop talking during breaks in the ballroom dancing class.
"I'm sorry, Renna-san," Makoto apologized. The short-haired girl didn't seem to have heard.
"Please tell me I haven't been working up my courage to confess to her just to be told that she already found someone she loved," she muttered darkly.
Makoto exchanged a look with Takako, whose eyes tried to climb of her scalp. Souma appeared dumbstruck. So I'm right after all. Although she was feeling very sorry for Akemi, she couldn't help feeling a rush of joy for her former roommate.
"I shouldn't be staying." The short-haired girl stood up. "You all have a wonderful evening." She left with an air of a soldier who had lost the most important battle of her life. The door closed shut.
"That was really awkward... but I think we should get on with the party," Aiko suggested, her fore and middle finger adjusting her square glasses. The other two girls nodded in agreement. There was definitely no need to dwell on such an awkward experience, after all. "Let's get to work!"
When Himeko and her queenly companion returned from the balcony, the couches had been pushed to the edges of the living room and a large piece of cloth had been laid on the tiled floor. On it sat dishes full of food, bought before hand and was just now warmed up in the kitchen's oven, seven empty bowls, and equally many pairs of chopsticks. Makoto was surprised, however, seeing how her best friend looked as though nothing had happened between her and the mayor's daughter. Her eyes fell on Himemiya Chikane in a newfound respect. She did not know how the blue-haired girl managed it, but it was obvious she had helped the Photography Major recover from the guilt of rejecting the confession of a girl who had always been nice and caring toward her. Normally, such process would not take less than a full day.
The feast began, laughter rang endlessly in the modest apartment, and all woes they might have of the world and college life were cast away. What remained was only happiness. The party took a step astray, however, when Miho brought out the bottle of red Bordeaux she had bought on the way here and poured every one a glassful each. Souma declined his, for he was responsible for driving everyone back home safely with his car. Himemiya Chikane, who had offered Makoto's fiancé a look of newfound respect, did not drink a drop because she, too, had to drive home later. Himeko had looked so crestfallen hearing that.
Not letting the bubble burst, the Fanatic Trio, the memberships of which included Takako and Miho and Aiko, downed one glass after another. Even Himeko and Makoto herself were infected by their good mood and helped themselves to a few sips of the wine. Her fiancé and Himemiya simply sat there and watched with amusement painted on their faces. They looked a pair of adults who were only there to make sure the children didn't cause any mischief. It irked Makoto somewhat.
"Don't drink too much, Himeko," she remembered telling her best friend, who seemed to be liking the alcohol too much. She rarely drank, but when she did, she did a lot. Every drop of the liquor was like a nail on the coffin of her self-restraints. "You have an assignment tomorrow, remember?"
"I know, I know, don't worry," said the Photography Major, her face a little red, her voice overly cheerful. Makoto groaned inwardly and glared sideways at the Fanatic Trio, who was hooting at some joke that Takako told. They either were too drunk or elected not to notice.
"Assignment?" Himemiya Chikane asked. "What kind?"
"I'm a member of the Izumo Weekly, Chikane-chan" Himeko intimated proudly. "I'm their photographer." She gave a loud hiccup that brought an indulgent smile to her queenly companion's face.
"A relatively well-known vocalist named Korona is going to perform at our university tomorrow," Makoto elaborated. "The newspaper staff is responsible for an article on the performance. She's supposed to be providing them with pictures."
"I see," the blue-haired girl said simply.
"We should bring out the cake," Souma whispered into Makoto's ear. "Wait anymore and your best friend will be too drunk to hold the knife." She agreed and went to the fridge in the kitchen.
Taking the cue, the Fanatic Trio and Souma began singing the birthday song as soon as Makoto entered the living room with a huge ice cream cake in her hands. By the time the final verse was uttered, Himeko had already burst into tears. She did that every time. Smiling gently, Himemiya Chikane comforted her with words too soft to be heard by any other ears and even stroked her back in such a loving manner that Makoto eyed her future husband in an attempt to have him relieve her enviousness. He laughed and shook his head. He was ever a prude, Makoto conceded to herself. No way in hell he would display his affections toward her in public.
Once Himeko's onslaught of emotions had died down, she blew off the two candles, shaped like a one and a nine, and proceeded to cut the cake into uneven slices. The largest of them, bearing the most strawberries on top, she dedicated to the blue-haired girl despite the good-natured protests of the Fanatic Trio. The cheerful atmosphere once again settled into the living room until Igarashi Aiko, whether she just wanted to or was under the influence of alcohol, shuffled over to the stereo system, which happened to be the birthday present from two years ago, and put on some slow instrumental ballades, the kind of music that Himeko liked the most.
"Sou-kun, Mako-chi!" hollered Nakashima Miho. "Dance for us! You're taking that ballroom dancing class, aren't you?" The other two members of the Trio wolf-whistled aloud.
"No room," Souma said simply, his hand indicating the occupied floor.
"We'll make room for you!" cried Kouzuki Takako.
They did. Despite the alcohol in their blood, the Trio was most impressive in clearing up the mess they had caused earlier. In almost no time at all, the dishes had been put inside the dishwasher, yet another birthday present from last year, the cloth inside the washing machine, and the floor perfectly cleaned.
"Now dance! Dance! Dance!" the Trio chanted as one.
Souma relented. He never had a chance to do as requested, though, for Himemiya Chikane had already spoken up and stopped him in his tracks. "Would you allow me the first dance, Oogami-san?" The room quieted down.
"With whom?" he asked apprehensively.
Not answering, the blue-haired girl rose most elegantly to her feet and put herself in front of the golden-haired girl. "Fair lady," she asked and bowed to the Photography Major in the same manner that a man would in front of a woman in the class, "would you favor me with a dance?" She looked up, offered a hand toward the other girl, and smiled a smile that would have had most men kneel at her feet.
"Yes," Himeko answered breathlessly as she took her queenly companion's hand. Princely now, Makoto corrected herself mentally. Himemiya Chikane had just proved that she was more suited to be a prince's role than that of a queen. A look at the Trio's face affirmed that they shared the same thought.
Makoto watched in silence as the two girls moved to the center of the floor. The stereo system switched to a new track. Musical notes filled the air. Himemiya Chikane, who seemed to have decided to become the leader, placed her hand on Himeko's back and clasped her hand between their heaving chests. Gingerly, the Photography Major laid her vacant hand on her princely companion's shoulder and allowed the latter to take the first step. The most sensual dance Makoto had ever witnessed graced this modest apartment.
With her shyness subdued by the liquor, the golden-haired girl put forth her heart and soul into the slow but mesmerizing Viennese Waltz she learned a week earlier. Beat by beat they glided atop the floor in their closed position, their hands clasped tight, their noses drawing in one another's breaths, and their eyes locked in an emotional perpetuity. It was like their bodies had been melted into one. It was as though their hearts were connected. It was as if each of them knew exactly how the other was going to move next. It was a flawless rhythm. It was a perfect dance only Makoto's teachers, married for years now, could perform in front of the class.
Whether you can dance well depends on how much you trust your partner, they had lectured, how much you are attuned to each other's movements, and how strong your mental connection is. A dance is like a marriage. Without love, patience, and trust, it's not going to work.
Their words had never rung truer now.
Makoto decided to, as Aiko would put it, add a little catalyst to the chemical reaction of love between her best friend and her prince on the white horse. Silently she moved to where the stereo system was, picked up the remote control, and punched in the number of a song at the end of the music CD. The slow ballade was quickly replaced by an upbeat song that was more than just sensual in nature. Nobody noticed it. Souma and the Trio were placing their full attention on the beautiful movements of the two girls. Himemiya Chikane and Kurusugawa Himeko themselves were too engrossed with each other they seemed to have adapted to the music without thoughts.
The distance between the two widened and shortened according to the tantalizing beats. Graceful turns were made atop the floor, each raising its temperature a few degrees despite the coldness of the night oozing in from the opened doors of the balcony. Body parts took a more active role in the quickening rhythm. Hands stroked cheeks, palms caressed backs and arms and waistlines and hips and even behinds, fingers combed through blue and golden tresses, noses rubbed lovingly together, chests embraced and kissed more often and lingered on each other for longer periods of time.
Makoto was amazed. She had never imagined that the clumsy Himeko could perform so well with a girl she only met earlier on the street. She had never thought her best friend could be so daring in front of other people. She had never expected that the Photography Major could look so happy in a dance.
She did not realize that she had tears in her eyes until her fiancé dabbed at her face with the sleeve of his button shirt and draped an arm across her shoulders. "Why are you crying?" he asked soothingly.
"Why shouldn't I?" she said quietly. "One of my dreams has just come true."
"What might it be?"
"Seeing Himeko find happiness," she answered. "I couldn't bring it to her no matter how much I tried. Now, someone else has done it for me. I'm really glad, Sou-chan."
"So am I," he whispered. Both of them used to be head over heels in love with the golden-haired girl. None of them wished to see her living on without someone to make her smile and care for her the way a true lover would. "So am I."
Eventually, the music died down and the CD stopped. Once they did, Kurusugawa Himeko and Himemiya Chikane found themselves standing with their fronts pressed firmly together, both breathing hard. The blue-haired girl's arms were tight around the golden-haired one's waist, and those of the latter wrapped about the former's neck. Their noses were issuing soft but ragged breaths, their sapphire and amethyst gazes filled with each other's vision, and their lips slightly opened as though wanting to offer one another kisses on the mouth. They appeared to want to very much, but something was stopping them.
It's us, Makoto thought. They're still very conscious of the surrounding. She laughed quietly to herself. She could very well imagine what would have happened had they been alone in this living room.
The amazement that had fastened its arms around the Fanatic Trio finally departed, compelling them to applaud as loudly as thunder. Reluctantly, the two dancers broke apart and bowed to the audience. Suddenly, the blue-haired girl blinked as though she just realized that she had forgotten something she shouldn't have. Her face firmed in determination.
"I forgot my cell phone in the car," she told the birthday girl, her voice loud enough to carry to where Makoto stood, "My parents should be frantically trying to reach me by now. I will be right back."
Makoto spied apprehension on Himeko's beet-red face and unshed tears in her amethyst eyes when the moment the latter's princely companion stepped out of the door. An explanation came to her like the breaking dawn. She knows the time to say goodbye is approaching, Makoto thought. She wants Himemiya Chikane to stay for the night but can't bring herself to say it. The Photography Major had always had a hard time voicing her wish, for she never wanted to inconvenience anybody.
I'll be your fairy godmother today, roommie, she decided. I'll grant your wish.
Earlier, she had learned from Himemiya Chikane that the girl drove a Mercedes MNK 1010, the best car money could buy. She had seen it in a magazine once. It was improbable that two of them could be simultaneously parked in front of the Kanagawa Apartments."Sou-chan," she whispered into her future husband's ear. "As soon as your natural enemy," he winced at both the words and at her wicked grin, "I want you to go down there and deflate the tires of that damn Mercedes by whatever means you can come up with. Himemiya Chikane is not going anywhere tonight."