Author's note: I apologize once again for the significant delay to the final chapter. My only excuses were that it was twice as long as the third one and that the family member who visited two months ago only came back to oversea a week and a half ago. That was why this one took almost three weeks to finish. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I have while written it.

My heartfelt thanks to all who had stuck with me to the end. You are the source of my strength and my motivation for writing this story. You have my deepest gratitude.


CHAPTER FOUR: SHIZUKA.


"Himeko..." Himemiya Chikane lifted a hand and tugged playfully at a few strands of her first love's lustrous golden hair, fine threads of liquid sunlight being brushed adoringly by the ocean breezes carrying the salty smell and flavor of the sea and harrying the waves landward, where they crashed merrily and endlessly one after another upon the private beach of the Himemiya. Sitting atop the white sand with her legs stretched comfortably in front of her was the little angel in the same clothes she had been wearing since the morning, her amethyst eyes gazing straight ahead at the enflamed horizon, where half of a blood red sun had already gone under the vast and uneven water surface.

Her head resting upon the utterly comfortable lap of the Photography Major and back straight atop the dry sands, Chikane was dressed significantly less. All she had on her at the moment was a coral-pink bikini top that kept most of her bosom decently covered, a white shirt with buttons left undone and hem tied into a neat knot over her toned and slightly muscled abdomen, revealing a fair amount of skin of her body through its gaping front and quite translucent fabrics, and finally a pair of jeans-shorts that left most of her firm thighs and legs to the mercy of the cool air and the dwindling light of the sunset.

Her lover had blushed furiously seeing her in this rather revealing outfit, but she could tell that the girl enjoyed watching. She herself had felt a gush of delight and even mild shyness – she believed she also colored slightly, which had not happened for quite a while – as the sunlight of her world sat on the mattress in the bedroom and admired her from head to toes with an amethyst gaze filled with awe and love.

"You're so pretty, Chikane-chan," her sweetheart had intimated, voice mirroring the emotions in her eyes. Strangely proud of herself and awfully conscious of the fact that the love of her life was studying her flimsily clad body so openly, she had settled down next to the golden-haired girl on the bed. There, she put an arm around her and claimed her lips. It was meant to be a thank-you gesture for the flattering compliment. It was swiftly blown into a passionate make-out session in which hands roamed free over each other's sensitive and heated regions. Eventually, Chikane decided that they needed to get out of the room before the dim and almost lightless atmosphere, saturated to the brim with heartfelt desires as well as innocent seductions, completely melted down her restraints. The disappointment that had flashed across Himeko's lovely face was most endearing.

"Himeko," Chikane called again, noting that her cute girlfriend had not heard. Mouth twitching into a smile, her hands converged on the hollows of the little angel's hourglass waist and tickled her.

She gave a start and burst into laughter. The musical notes she made with her vocal cords could have been struck from the strings of the grand piano. Somehow, they blended with the tunes of the waves, rolling and crashing and receding, as well as the chorus of the winds, cradling the twilight-tinted clouds across the heavens and carrying the cawing seagulls wherever they wanted to be, into a perfect symphony.

"What's that for?" she chided playfully. Amethyst eyes focused on Chikane's face, searing the little space in-between with the amazing flames of her love. Cherry petal lips blossomed into a fond smile, radiating sweetness like a real flower at the prime of its life would its fragrance.

"For ignoring your lovesick girlfriend when she was calling you," Chikane answered breathlessly, becoming drunk just from the sight of her wingless angel. Gods above standing witness, she could never get enough of watching the girl she loved.

"I'm sorry." Himeko bent down and kissed her. Dazed, Chikane laid a hand gently on the back of the golden-haired girl's head and applied just enough pressure to let the latter know that she did not want their lips to part so soon. The message got through. For a couple of minutes the kiss lingered, allowing her to savor the sweetness and indulge the moistness of her lover's mouth, giving up her ragged breaths as well as occasional whimpers. Face flushed with delight, Himeko offered her a smile bright as a day in spring when they pulled apart.

"Why are you so spaced out?" Chikane inquired, amazed at how such a simple gesture like a kiss could have her so overjoyed while the most expensive presents one could think of always failed to invoke from her the smallest tinge of happiness.

"Well," her beloved hesitated. "Remember what happened when we went down to the living room?"

"Nothing came to mind," she answered, smiling a little ruefully. How would one expect her mind to register anything when she was accompanied by a girl this cute? "Why?"

"Um... your dad... he smiled to me and asked me if I slept well..."

"And what is so disturbing about that?" She chuckled.

"I was sure that he disliked me," the other girl confessed. "Didn't you see how he looked at me during lunch?" She shivered. "He was so scary then. But now..." She trailed off. Her thin and delicate eyebrows furrowed together in confusion.

"You must have misunderstood," Chikane murmured, her sapphire gaze directed upward, past the gently rising and falling chest, wonderfully cute and curvy despite its moderate size, and locked with her sweetheart's amethyst. "I am sure my Father adores you." For the conniving and ruthless businessman that he was at work, Himemiya Aoki's heart was younger than his baby face. Dealing with him was simple.

"I'll be very glad if he does," Himeko said, blushing.

"You are thinking too much." Chikane lifted a hand up to the little angel's face and teasingly pinched her cheek. "No one in this world could dislike you," she cupped Himeko's chin gently and slowly drew her down for another deep kiss, "my love," she whispered into her girlfriend's ear afterwards.

"I can think of one." The sunlight of her world placed a very soft, slender hand upon her cheek and caressed it lovingly. Her vacant one raked through Chikane's flowing blue hair, occasionally bringing a handful to the Photography Major's face, where she simply held those long shiny strands against her nose and lips. "Renna-san must be very angry with me right now. After all, I did something horrible to her yesterday, didn't I...?"

"You did nothing wrong," Chikane pointed out. "Besides, she loves you very much. I doubt she can get mad at you for any reason." Spots of color marred her angel's cheeks. "It is I she is angry with. I should know. She and I had a long conversation back in the Ichihana Diner, remember?"

"What did the two of you talk about?" Himeko asked curiously.

"She warned me to leave you alone." Chikane winked. "She did not believe I am in love with you. She was afraid I was just playing with your innocent heart. I think she told me that partly because she was jealous... but it was clear at day to me that she was more concerned for your sake." Of course, Renna Akemi's sentences were not that kindly phrased. Her distant cousin had been heated to the point of outrage. The anger each of her words contained was enough to boil eggs.

"She's a very nice and caring person," the adorable girl on whose lap Chikane was resting her head murmured in gratitude.

"She is," she agreed. "That is why I felt sorry for her."

"Did something bad happen?" Himeko asked apprehensively.

"I would not say 'bad'. She did all of the talking and I listening. In the end, she left."

In truth, the conversation between her and the daughter to the Mayor had been nowhere near as peaceful. Each of the words catapulted from Renna Akemi's mouth was imbued with the force of a war hammer and the sharpness of a butcher's knife. Half way through her furious tirade, her inner turmoil swallowed up the better of her. Her sentences started to jumble up, and she choked on her own words more than once. In the end, she became too overcome with emotions – she looked like a time bomb a second prior to the explosion – and ran off. Her behaviors were rather surprising, seeing how Himemiya Sanae often described the girl as someone strong and unflappable. Maybe Chikane's Mother was wrong this time.

"It's going to be awkward seeing her in my dance class from now on." The golden-haired girl scratched her magnificent head.

"It cannot be helped," Chikane comforted. "But at least I will be there for you when you come home," she whispered, her voice dropping to a low, alluring caress that she had employed last night, right before she and Himeko fell onto the bed and made love again and again until physical exertion forced them to stop and pulled them into the land of the sensual dreams. "You can always find solace in my arms, my little puppy." The effect was immediate. The adorable Photography Major, probably trying to fight the memories of their amorous excursions, reddened within an inch of her life. Heat rolled off of her in waves. They were pleasant. They were most arousing.

"What kind of solace?" she asked shyly. The hand she had placed on Chikane's face was hot.

"The kind that..." she rolled onto her side and shifted her body inward so that her face ended up an inch away from her first love's tee-shirt-clad abdomen and her left cheek rested atop the place were the golden-haired girl's thighs joined her lower torso, "may require you to wear less than this." She was extremely conscious of the strong, billowing heat the coarse fabrics of the jeans had failed to conceal. She was acutely aware of a faint but sweet scent invading the air she breathed. It was more intoxicating than the smell of the strongest wine.

"You said the strangest things sometimes, Chikane-chan..." chided the little angel's musical voice. It was soaked in embarrassment. It has no sting.

Chuckling softly at her lover's bashfulness, Chikane closed her eyes and lay still with her head on the former's lap, allowing herself to indulge in the blessed present and permitting her ears to drink in all the sounds played by the scenic nature surrounding her and the girl she loved. She cooed softly in contentment, too, when she felt a hand stroking her head and another clasping tightly with one of hers. It lifted her hand up to meet a pair of soft lips. There, the sunlit angel took Chikane's fingertips into her mouth one of a time, kissing them briefly, licking them gently, sucking on them seductively, and occasionally biting on them lightly enough to inject an overdose of pleasure into her veins without causing any pain. The warmth of her girlfriend's mouth and the moistness of her tongue promised to send her over the edge.

A cell phone just had to interrupt her blissful moment by its irritating rings.

Giving her a rueful look, her girlfriend took out a small wireless from a pocket, flipped it open, and murmured a slightly exasperated "Hello."

Odd, Chikane decided, frowning. I do not recall that she has a cell phone.

"Yo," Saotome Makoto's voice rang merrily from the speaker.

"Oh, hi, Mako-chan!" the wingless angel greeted her best friend warmly.

"Don't you 'Oh, hi, Mako-chan!' me!" Even though her voice was crackling due to poor reception in this area, the mischievousness in her tone could not fail to be heard. "Have you any idea how long I waited for you in the Court? Why did you ask me to drive you home and then vanish without a trace?"

Himeko's face paled. "I'm sorry! I forgot! I left with Chikane-chan through the backdoor so..." Her voice was racked with guilt.

Laughter rang through the wireless device. "Hey, don't sweat it. I'm just pulling your legs."

"You were?" The Photography Major blinked.

"Of course," Saotome's voice declared. "As soon as I saw your girlfriend's poster in the Reception Hall, I already knew that there was no need for me to stay. I left as soon as you went in, in fact."

"I see..." Himeko's voice trailed off. A scarlet color spread across her lovely face.

"You know, even though it's important that I call you and let you know what was going on, I was pondering whether I should at all," said her former roommate.

"Why?" she asked curiously.

"Because you might be in bed and too engrossed with your precious Chikane-chan to pick up the phone." Chikane could not see the auburn-haired girl through the wireless, but she knew the latter was grinning. "Hey, for all I know, you might have already turned it off to avoid distraction!"

"Mako-chan!" her first love exclaimed. There was no indignation. There were just shyness and deathly embarrassment. Even louder laughter answered her.

Assaulted by wave after wave of amusement, Chikane moved closer to her sweetheart, the frictions she caused atop the latter's lap elicited from her a soft gasp and spread a light tremor across her curvaceous frame. Smiling now, Chikane took hold of Himeko's red tee-shirt on her waists and pulled it out from beneath her faded jeans. The shy girl gave a small start and hurriedly scanned the vicinity for anyone who could have seen what Chikane was doing to her. She heaved a deep sigh as soon as she was certain that there was no other soul on this private beach of the Himemiya.

"Chikane-chan..." she called weakly, her modest yet beautiful chest heaving faster and her nose issuing more and more rapid breaths. Even so, she made no move to resist as Chikane lifted the hem of the shirt well above her navel, rubbed her face most lovingly against the silky skin of her flat tummy, and slipped her hands beneath the thin fabric, allowing them to run up and down the golden-haired girl's stiffened back and explore the shallow trench of her spine.

"What was that, Himeko?" the track-and-field athlete's voice crackled in hesitation. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch it."

"It's... it's nothing! What... did you call me for, anyway?" Her voice faltered and dwindled into quietness as Chikane's fingertips rose high enough to brush upon the strap of her bra and fumble teasingly around the hooks. She seemed torn between disappointment and relief, however, once the hands had traveled back down and rested firmly atop the back dimples just above her petite and fully concealed bottom. The tip of her nose exploring the cute depression that was her lover's navel, she deposited slow, moist kisses upon the soft, warm flesh of her sweetheart's smooth abdomen. Her tongue left wet trails across her girlfriend's velvety skin, forcing her to clutch at her mouth with her vacant hand to prevent it from uttering any more embarrassing gasps.

"Ah well... I wanted to let you know that Kazuki-san had caught a horrible cold earlier this afternoon," Saotome announced. "He can't be the best man tomorrow."

Breaking the contact between her lips and her sweetheart's skin, Chikane turned her head and placed a deep kiss upon the rough jeans fabric concealing Himeko's most private treasure. Her action caused the golden-haired girl to draw air through gritted teeth. The heat between those lithesome thighs flared into life stronger than ever. The sweet aroma rising from beneath the jeans was no longer faint. Fire bloomed beneath Chikane's skin and warmed her rapidly in defiance of the cool air of the twilight. A couple more kisses ensued, all on the same spot, each lingering a little more. Her lips recalled the silky texture of a precious rose none other than her allowed to kiss. Her tongue remembered the delicious moistness and the unrivaled sweetness of its flower petals during her sweetheart's most intimate moments. The memories drove her wild.

"Please... stop... Chikane-chan..." her first love whispered, her voice the fierce battlefield between exasperation and physical delights. Her hand fell gently upon Chikane's head. She was sure it originally meant to push her away. What it ended up doing was stroking her and brushing her flowing blue hair in a manner more suitable for encouragement than opposition. Chuckling softly, she lifted her face from between her girlfriend's long, slender thighs and quietly lowered the latter onto her back upon the white sands. She crouched on all four atop the adorable Photography Major, who gazed up at her with a pair of pleading amethyst eyes while her hand trembled around her wireless. Her other arm slipped about Chikane's waist, pulling her down and reducing the distance between their insufferably heated lower torsos, even though her lips were desperately mouthing the word "No." She did not look able to make up her mind whether she liked the tender attention or not.

Quick kisses connected their mouths and stole their breaths, silencing all words the golden-haired girl could have uttered. When they were not, though, soft whimpers escaped into the air and inevitably reached the cell phone.

"Are you... okay, Himeko?" the static-tinted voice from the wireless demanded. It was filled with apprehension now. Saotome Makoto seemed to be catching on.

"Yes..." the sunlit angel managed between the frantic meetings of their lips. In the beginning, she did make a few attempts at resisting by feebly and quite reluctantly dodging the kisses. Yet, she ultimately surrendered herself to the throes of passion and soon kissed her back in equal enthusiasm, if not more. The hand she placed on Chikane's back trailed downward and placed itself on her posterior, squeezing her tentatively and touching her intimately through her jeans-shorts, eliciting from her gushes of pleasure and contented gasps that were quickly swallowed by her lover's eager mouth. The cell phone, held by loose fingers now, looked ready to fall off her hand. Chikane doubted her girlfriend would mind were that to happen.

"So," Saotome Makoto cleared her throat on the other side of the cell phone, "I need someone to replace Kazuki-san... and Tsubasa-san refused to do it, giving no reason whatsoever. And that brings us to the point," she spoke more hurriedly now as though wanting to get it over with, "Himeko, will you ask your girlfriend to stand in Kazuki-san's place at the wedding tomorrow?"

The kisses stopped. Chikane blinked in shock. Himeko looked astonished.

"I know," her former roommate continued, "I know it's supposed to be a man. But I don't care, really. All I need is for you to be happy standing in front of the altar with me on the most joyous day of my life, Himeko. Don't deny it. You'd be thrilled if you could have your precious Chikane-chan up there with you."

Amethyst eyes regarded Chikane shyly, confirming that the golden-haired girl's best friend just claimed to be the truth. A fluffy sensation welled in her as she lowered her mouth to that of the girl she loved, offering a light kiss meant for gratitude. The smile she was rewarded with was brighter than the two-day-old moon on high that had come to reign atop the starlit heavens. Smiling in return, she rubbed her forehead lovingly against the angel's and simply gazed at her, admiring her charming face.

"What about your parents, Mako-chan?" the sunlight of her world asked. "They're not going to sit well with her standing next to Souma-kun at the altar. I'm sorry," she grimaced, "but I've always thought they were sticklers for traditions."

"They are," affirmed the athlete. "But they don't know yet. Neither will they until you two show up." Even the static noises were crackling with mischief and glee. "It'd be too late for them to complain then. But hey, stop thinking and ask her already! Don't you want to see her in a tuxedo?"

Chikane's first love fell quiet and gazed up at her face in wonderment.

"Do you?" she whispered fondly. The cute girl lying beneath her nodded vigorously and blushed so hard her complexion glowed bright red in the moonlight. "Tell her I will do it, my little angel."

"She said yes, Mako-chan!" her girlfriend murmured into the wireless device, unable to hide the excitement in her nightingale voice.

"Awesome!" the auburn-haired girl exclaimed. "Just ask her to come to Takako's shop tomorrow morning before coming to the wedding..." A long pause. "Wait a minute, she's there with you?"

"Um... yes..." the golden-haired girl admitted.

"Then those noises earlier..." Another pause. An impish cackle. "Don't tell me... I guessed it right from the beginning...?" Her voice suddenly adopted a playful tone. "Since when did a night owl like you go to bed this early, Himeko?"

"No, it's not like that, Mako-chan!" she denied hastily.

"Whatever you say," the cell phone taunted. "I'm going to stop interrupting your... fun and hang up now."

"Mako-chan! Listen to me!" Frustration touched Himeko's voice.

"Don't stay up too late or exhaust yourself, roommie" Saotome Makoto refused to relent, sounding like she was enjoying herself immensely. "You know the wedding is early tomorrow and that it lasts a long time. You need your strength. See you then." She hung up.

"You're a naughty girl, Chikane-chan," scolded Chikane's first love as she slipped the phone back into her pocket. She hardly sounded irritated, or displeased. A little embarrassed to have made these kinds of sounds on the phone with her best friend, maybe. "What did you have to do that for?"

"Penalty for bringing your phone here," she murmured, shifting her lower torso atop that of her sweetheart in such a way that the latter had to clear her throat loudly to keep an embarrassing whimper from being released into the night air. "I left mine back in the bedroom for a reason, you see."

"I forgot," the little angel answered apologetically. "It was in my pocket since the morning, when Mako-chan gave it to me. She insisted that I had it until she had the chance to buy me one in case some emergency happened."

"I see." Chikane chuckled, rising from the wonderful pillow that was her lover. Once she stood firmly on the ground, she extended a hand and helped the golden-haired girl to her feet. "Let us head back to the summer house. It is getting chilly out here." Himeko nodded in agreement, eyeing Chikane's flimsily clad frame in concerns. "Besides," she continued, her hand gesturing at the structure standing more than half a dozen yards away, from where a silver limousine had just departed, its red and orange taillights streaking into the descending darkness, "my parents have left."

The sunlight of her world lowered her amethyst eyes to the sandy ground, flushing lightly at the allusion in her words.

"I am cold, my little angel." Chikane draped an arm across her lover's shoulders, pulling her closer and placing her lips next to the golden-haired girl's ear. "Will you warm me up when we are back inside?" she added meaningfully.

"It'd be my pleasure, Chikane-chan," Himeko whispered, smiling up bashfully at her.

Smiling, Chikane led her toward the summer house, where she hoped she could spend a wonderful evening uninterrupted and receive once again the mind-numbing earthly delights denied to her since the previous night, when fatigue had compelled her and her sweetheart to cease their innocent yet passionate exchanges of kisses and touches and go to sleep. It was not going to happen anytime soon now that they had taken a little nap before coming down to this beach and watching the sun returning to the watery cradle of the world. This time, the night was theirs.


Kouzuki Takako had only been to a bar once despite being old enough to legally enter one and liking to drink as much as her fellow members in the Fanatic Trio. It was partly because she thought it only fun downing liquor with the people she was intimately acquainted. It was also partly because her very first experience was pretty much a disaster. It had happened one evening half a year ago, when Nakashima Miho and Igarashi Aiko, her best friends, took her to a pub in Downtown Mahoroba just to have fun. Ten minutes after they finished their first bottle of beer brought to their table a gang of three drunken men, who looked more like thugs in their black leather vests and metal chains around their necks. The three had started with flirting to her and her friends and finished with one of them grabbing Takako by the wrist and trying to drag her along.

She was sure he thought she was helpless against his muscles and his chains. He was sorely mistaken. She had taught him that a girl's "No" didn't imply "Yes, keep hitting on me until I agree" with her fists. The man had learned first-hand that the black belt awarded to her at the end of her Karatedo training wasn't just for show. He and his lecherous companions had ended up on the floor with broken arms and significantly fewer teeth, surrounded by a mess of smashed tables and broken glasses. Miho and Aiko had planned to take her and leave immediately, but they were too late. The pub owner had called the cops the moment the fight started, and for once, those good-for-nothing arrived quickly enough to bring the whole lot to the nearest station. The hassle Takako had to go through in the aftermath had helped strengthen her strong dislike for bars and pubs in general. She had thought that she would never set foot in one ever again.

Little did she anticipate that she eventually would. Never once did she imagine that when she did, she would be in the company of someone as unlikely as the girl sitting next to her at the flat, marble-topped counter, studying the empty martini glass in her hand like a child would her first birthday present. It was already her fourth glass, consumed in the very same way she did the first three. One quick gulp. One quick word to the bartender to immediately have it refilled. It was not how Takako thought someone like Renna Akemi would act.

Pausing mentally, she retracted the thought. In light of what she had seen a couple of hours ago, when she encountered the future lawyer in the basement parking of the Himemiya Plaza, she shouldn't have been surprised at all.

"So that brings the total to... excuse me, Taka?" a deep, throaty voice pulled Kouzuki Takako out of her daydream in a flash.

Flushing slightly, she focused her attention back on the man standing in front of her. Holding in his hand a huge calculator that could have been a relic from the Second World War era, the owner of the Fumiko Flower Shop, named after his wife, was a man in his late seventies with virtually no hair on his head and an impressive gray beard extending all the way to his chest. In defiance of his age, Kakihara Noboru fully enjoyed the health and agility of a man twenty years younger. The dark eyes behind his half-moon spectacles were still sharp, his back straight, and his appetite strong as ever. Takako often hoped she'd be as healthy when she grew old.

"Sorry, jii-chan." She scratched her head.

"You've been spacing out the whole time you're here, child," the florist peered at her, every wrinkle of his welling with curiosity. "I've rarely seen you like this before. Has some boy managed to tangle your wits?" The Kakihara and the Kouzuki were ever close friends. Noboru himself saw Takako as a granddaughter he never had – he was childless – so he never hesitated to speak his mind in front of her.

"No!" she denied hastily. "I'm... just not feeling well, that's all," she lied.

"If you say so," said the elderly man as he shot her a quick glance that very well demonstrated his disbelief. She felt her cheeks warming. Gods, but she did need to keep her acts together before the rest of the world became suspicious of her unusual behaviors. Earlier this morning, her mother had asked why she spent more than an hour immersed in the bathtub just to walk out of the bathroom later in a dizzying daze. That afternoon, her little brother had wondered aloud, much to her embarrassment, why she walked out of the house with a sneaker on her left foot and a sandal on her right. Her father hadn't said anything to her since she woke, but he did eye her oddly once when he passed her room and saw her sitting on the bed and staring blankly at the empty wall straight ahead.

She was afraid that she was going to come home today to a formal family gathering, where they sat down in the living room and demanded why she hadn't traded playful verbal jabs with a one of them since daybreak. She imagined that a horrible hangover wouldn't be good enough an excuse to satisfy their curiosity. Especially when she knew that they could sniff out lies as soon as they were said. In that aspect, her family would have made excellent interrogators.

"Anyway," Kakihara Noboru cleared his throat, "this will be the total amount for your order." He showed her the number on his obsolete calculator. She checked the items in her head, did a few mental calculations, and nodded to herself. It looked about right. Of course, she trusted that the old man wouldn't charge her over the actual price. It was his calculator that she couldn't put her faith in. Goodness, but the thing looked like it was going to fall apart anytime soon. "We'll deliver it to the address you specified within the hour."

"I love your service." She grinned.

"Only because it's you." The florist winked behind his half-moon glasses. "We charge extra for this kind of speed delivery." He put down the calculator on the register counter and began writing neatly on a piece of receipt. "So, how's the role of a wedding planner going for you, child?"

"Terrific," Takako answered as she surveyed the interior of the shop. It had been a while since she came in here in person – she often did phone orders – but everything seemed to be the same as her last visit. Situated on the highest floor of the Himemiya Plaza, a couple of left turns away from the famous Ichihana Diner, the Fumiko Flower Shop boasted a great variety of flowers that would certainly satisfy any customer who walked beyond its friendly and nicely decorated doors. "I think I'm doing an awesome job over all. I must be a natural." The comments drew from the old man a throaty laugh.

Jokes aside, being the planner for her best friend's wedding was a very fulfilling and amazing job.

"Modesty is a great virtue, Taka," he replied.

She feigned a vexed sound in her throat. "My ego is still growing, jii-chan. Modesty doesn't feed it very well."

"Your ego is big enough for an adolescent boy already." Noboru ruffled her hair with a bony hand. Then he suddenly paused and peered at her again with his head tilted and one of his eyebrows raised. "Child, I might've discovered why you're still single."

"Enlighten me." She eyed him wryly in response. This should be good.

"The only thing girly about you is your appearance," he declared. "Except your clothes, of course." He glanced at her white jeans, black tee-shirt, and simple Nike sneakers. The man often made his points known to everyone in her family, herself included, that she dressed too masculine. She once told him a Takako in a dress was a cat under water. Death by suffocation was inevitable, she had added. A derisive snort from him was what she got in response. "You're a boy clothed in a girl's body." This part wasn't new. He wasn't the first person to tell her this. "You like to watch sports, drink beers, and punch people around with that Karatedo of yours." He was undoubtedly referring to the bar incident.

"Things any self-respecting tomboy would do," she elaborated, her feet taking her to a corner of the shop where the man had put quite a few of his rose species. She herself would like to see a black rose, but it was the one thing Kakihara Noboru didn't have. Maybe she should ask him to find her one.

"That's how you turned the boys away!" exclaimed the elderly florist, who refused to let the argument die. "You can't keep doing this!"

"Who needs them?" She waved her hand dismissively, chuckling.

"You do!" Noboru lifted an eyebrow in obviously feigned indignation. "Don't you want to be married to some nice guy, settle down, and maybe, I don't know, have some kids?"

"It'd be a disaster," she remarked, her hands picking up a small pot atop which a violet rose was blooming proudly. It looked very nice. She pondered buying it. "We'd be arguing from sunup to sundown, go out to eat every meal," she couldn't cook even an omelet for her life and absolutely loathed instant noodles, "and drink beers with one another instead of looking after the kids. Wait, we'd be bankrupted and divorced before we could have any kids." She laughed at that.

"You're right," he relented. "Maybe you don't need a husband... but a wife."

Her hands slipped, and the flower pot crashed onto the floor. It was already too late when she realized that the man was making a joke.

"Leave it there, Taka," commanded Noboru as soon as she bent down and attempted to gather the broken pieces. "Jun, lend us a hand here, won't you?" he hollered toward the open side door leading to the storage room.

"Right away, boss!" replied a much younger voice. A few seconds later, Matsueda Jun, a good-looking man in his late twenties shuffled out and smiled as soon as he saw Takako. He was a very nice guy. "What do you want me to do?"

"Clean this up, please?" Noboru gestured at the mess on the floor.

"Sure!" He went back inside and swiftly returned with the appropriate cleaning tools.

"Step over here, child." The florist led her to the counter. "You know," his bespectacled eyes bored at her, making her nervous, "I suddenly remember the friend you used to bring here during the weekends a few years back. Where is she? And what's her name again?"

"Misaki," she supplied in a quiet voice, her hands clenching at her sides. She quickly hid them behind her back. "She was... a classmate in senior high. I... lost contact with her a long time ago, after she moved out of town." Bad memories.

"I see." The man stroked his long gray beard ponderously. "I remember how close you two were. Always holding hands, always laughing together." A long pause came. "You never forgot to buy her some flower whenever you came in. You must miss her a lot."

"Not really," she answered almost defensively and far too quickly than she had intended. "In any case," she continued, "I think I should go. The bridal shop is rather understaffed right now." That was an outrageous lie. The establishment was currently manned by enough employees until it closed at nine in the evening.

"Okay." Kakihara Noboru nodded. "Come home safely." He chuckled and added in a much more cheerful tone, "Taka, are you still driving that unseemly SUV, by the way?"

"Yes." She offered him an awkward smile. It was another one of his gripes. The florist once inquired why she didn't buy a sedan like normal girls instead of a black Highlander IX-465 that consumed more fuel and was harder to maneuver. She told him that her ego enjoyed a higher view. That earned her another snort.

"Too bad," he murmured.

It was the last thing from him that she heard before she walked out of the Fumiko Flower Shop. Yet, the nerve-racking conversation with the old man soon departed from her troubled mind as her amber eyes dawned on a slender figure approaching in a pace well in the middle of walking and running. This person boasted a curvaceous frame clad in a violet satin dress and a face any man would look twice. Takako remembered her. The girl's name was Renna Akemi, daughter to the Mayor, who was introduced to her yesterday at Himeko's birthday party. Less than twenty-four hours ago, the short-haired girl's facial expression was a pond in winter, cool, calm, and collected. Now, it was bristling with emotions that warred with one another to gain dominance over her lovely face.

Takako's heart skipped a beat as the future lawyer missed a step and almost fell. Regaining her balance in a quick and flustered manner, she hurried down the stairs and vanished. The sounds of her high heels clattering on the steps soon faded into quietness.

Worried, Kouzuki Takako dashed after her.

The unexpected encounter resulted in her holding in her arms a trembling and weeping Renna Akemi in the basement parking lot of the Himemiya Plaza. After about half an hour, during which she did nothing except trying to comfort the girl through hesitant strokes on the latter's back, Akemi shed her last tear and tried to wriggle out of Takako's embrace. Although rather unwilling, she had untied her arms and helped the girl with tear-drenched face to her feet. It was rather obvious that she was no condition fit to drive without crashing into another car on the freeway, Takako had offered to take her home in the black SUV. The Mayor's daughter, perhaps realizing that a step into her own car was a step into the coffin, agreed.

Soon afterwards, the Highlander IX-465 had rolled out of the Himemiya Plaza and made its way across Mahoroba. To her surprise, her passenger had requested that she parked in front of a bar in Downtown. The elegantly dressed girl, who had cleaned up her face with a handkerchief before stepping out, then offered the security guard a familiar nod, which was responded to by a warm "How you doing?" and walked inside. Having hurriedly activated the alarm of her Highlander and completely forgotten her dislike toward such facilities, Takako hurried after the girl.

That was how she ended up sitting next to Renna Akemi at the counter and watching the girl downing glass after glass of martini like she would water. At least no one had come up to their place and bothered them. As expected from a high-class bar, its customers were polite people dressed nicely enough for a formal party. All of them confined themselves to quiet conversations at their own corners and paid virtually no attention to what was going on elsewhere. There was not a single wisp of smoke, not a loud sound of bantering, or any behavior that was out of line under the mild orange light spilling down from the ceiling.

Maybe bars weren't all so bad.

"Do you come here often, Renna-san?" Takako asked, intending to break the uncomfortable silence that had been shrouding them for the last fifteen minutes.

The short-haired girl turned to look at her with a pair of beautiful dark eyes, the clarity of which suggested no signs of intoxication despite the amount of alcohol she consumed, and spoke, "I used to. Haven't been here for a while, though. I'm surprised that the security guard outside still remembered me."

"We all do," the bartender interjected politely. "It's rather hard to forget a customer as beautiful as you, you know." He chuckled. "Especially when you came here every night for more than five months straight. We missed you when you disappeared for the last four weeks, though."

Four weeks? Something tugged at the back of Takako's mind. Wait. Isn't that exactly how long Himeko's school term has lasted?

"Don't worry," Akemi mumbled. "You'll be seeing me more often from now on." "Bitterness" failed to fathom the depth of the emotions in her voice. She put the long-stemmed glass on the countertop and demanded, "One more."

"Did something bad happen?" the bartender asked, frowning at his resplendent customer. He made no move to refill her empty martini. "You sounded exactly the same as the first day you walked into this bar."

"Do I?" She chuckled. Settling a side of her face upon her arms, folded atop the counter, she tapped slowly on the rim of the glass and peered curiously at her own distorted reflection. She chuckled again at the man's firm nod. "Well then, why don't you do the same for me? You'd be doing me a great favor."

"Not a chance." The bartender shook his head vigorously. "You were so wasted that night you didn't even remember your name or where you lived. The manager and I had to let you sleep over in the bar because we didn't know what to do with you. Haven't you realized the dangerous situation you were in, missy?" He sounded annoyed, concerned, and exasperated at the same time.

They're close, Takako noted. No normal bartender would dare talk this way to his customer unless they were in quite an intimate level. But how close? She felt a pang of... something in her heart.

"Dangerous?" Akemi scoffed. "You're the type that will kill yourself before you did something unfaithful to your boyfriend, and your manager shares your taste in men. Too bad, she's kinda cute."

A sigh of relief escaped from Takako before she knew what she was doing. Thankfully, neither the man nor the short-haired girl noticed.

"You hardly knew us then," he muttered, "and that's beside the point!"

"Come on, don't be stingy," Akemi pouted at him. "One more couldn't hurt, could it?"

"Just one more," the bartender warned. At an eager nod from the future lawyer, he took her long-stemmed glass and began preparing a new one. She beamed at him like a child who had managed to persuade her parents to give her ice cream right before a meal.

"Something on my face?"

Kouzuki Takako didn't realize that the question was addressed to her after a few seconds. Neither was she aware that she had been staring openly at Renna Akemi in what must have been disbelief.

"No." She shook her head, refraining from telling the Mayor's daughter that she wasn't acting the way Takako thought she would. When she swept inside Himeko's apartment in a manner so regal and dignified perhaps the only person in this world could best her was Himemiya Chikane, Takako had thought that Akemi and the birthday girl's newfound friend were similar. Outwardly, they both seemed refined and courteous, they both carried themselves with impeccable grace, they radiated a sense of maturity seldom seen on girls their age, and their collected exteriors gave out the impression that they were strong enough mentally to bend others to their will.

Now she knew with a certainty that not all of these details were true.

"Here you go," said the bartender as he produced a fifth martini glass and put it in front of the future lawyer. She once again downed it in one quick gulp. Disapproval was plain in the man's eyes. "Anyways," he cleared his throat, "what happened this time that got you so depressed you needed to find solace in this bar, missy?"

"Something similar to last time... but not quite as bad." She sighed.

"May I remind you that you never told us what happened last time either?" he pointed out.

"Don't be nosy," Akemi scolded, not quite unkindly. Her obsidian eyes fell upon the rim of the empty martini glass. There, they paused momentarily before they were once again colored in anguish. "Not something pleasant for me to relate to you. I'd rather forget about it." Her tone had such a note of finality that the bartender simply nodded in acquiescence and fell quiet.

Kouzuki Takako, on the other hand, had no such intention.

"Why don't we trade?" she proposed. "My story, for yours."

Renna Akemi and the bartender eyed her as if she were a dinosaur.

"Tempting," the short-haired girl commented politely after a while. "But... no thanks."

"Would you give me a martini too, sir?" Takako turned to the handsome man standing behind the counter. "I'm rather thirsty." It was true. She hadn't even had a glass of water since stepping inside this high-end bar. Plus, her fondness of alcoholic drinks was demanding that she found something strong to satisfy her thirst.

"As you wish," he said in a voice much cooler than what he had employed while speaking to the Mayor's daughter. Smiling inwardly, she watched as he mixed up the ingredients and swiftly produced a long-stemmed glass filled to the brim with the transparent liquid her pretty companion had been consuming from the start. He placed the thing in front of her, then spread his hands professionally. "Enjoy." The lack of warmth in his words was noticeable.

"Thank you," she murmured gratefully, took the glass into her hand, and turned to the future lawyer. "Say, how about this for an incentive? You know your friend won't give you any more."

"Hey!" the bartender protested indignantly but quickly shut up at startled glances from his other customers. He then confined himself to scowling darkly at Takako in a way that reminded her of a dog who had seen a cat in his territories and was determined to remove it. She was suddenly thankful for the wide counter standing between them.

"Persuasive, aren't you?" Akemi opined, her delicate mouth blossoming into a little smile as she took the glass from Takako. "I agree." She blinked. "Are you sure there's nothing on my face? Why are you staring?"

"First time I see you smile," Takako said quietly, not bothering to stop her vacant hand from rising and her forefinger from brushing across the other girl's lips. They were very soft. They felt as smooth as a velvet cloth. They were very warm. "You're very pretty... but you're beautiful when you smile." She withdrew the hand, watching under the weight of a deafening silence, in which she heard her heart pick up its pace, as a light pink color spread like wildfire across Renna Akemi's cheeks. It erased the remaining traces of her cool façade. It brought out the more delicate and adorable features of her already lovely visage. It injected a lethal dose of wine into Takako's blood.

"Anyways," the future lawyer cleared her throat and averted her dark gaze down to the rim of the martini in her hand, obviously embarrassed, "you said you were going to trade your story with mine. Why don't you... start?" Those shy words were underscored by a strange meekness none would have associated with the cool, queenly, and self-possessed Renna Akemi who had entered Himeko's apartment.

"From when I was just a snot-nosed kid, I've rarely thought of myself as a girl," Takako began, smiling at the memories. "I often got into fight with the bullies in the neighborhood and once beat them up so severely their parents came to my house and screamed at my mom." That gave her enough trouble to forget about the horrible bruises she had accumulated. "I liked to play soccer or baseball with the boys everyday and ended up either covering my clothes in dirt or ripping them badly at the seams. I considered boys easier to deal with than girls, for they didn't cry at any given chance, they considered me as one of them as soon as I proved I was capable of playing their games, and they helped me take my minds off of things I didn't want to think of on more than one occasion."

"They did?" Renna Akemi asked curiously, seemingly unaware of the full martini in her hands. She had yet to take a sip. It's a good sign, Takako decided, smiling inwardly.

"They did," she confirmed. "In fact, they made my life somewhat easier during the first year of my senior high, when I caught myself thinking more and more about one person in my class. Her name's Misaki." She folded her arms atop the countertop and rested her face on the crook of one. Her amber eyes remained riveted on the Mayor's daughter. Other girls would have called her rude. This particular one, despite blushing lightly at her, didn't seem to mind. "It scared me, you know," she confessed. "Up until that point in my life I'd never been attracted to even the most popular boy in school. I'd never imagined that I would keep thinking about a girl every waking moment." She chuckled, hearing the bitterness and the fondness in that one single sound.

"What's so special about her?" inquired the future lawyer, seeming very interested now.

"Quite a few things." Takako tapped her lips thoughtfully. "She stood out from the girls in my class. She was sophisticated, she was pretty, she was proud enough for a man, and she never went giddy at the sight of a pretty boy like her classmates. In the beginning, I thought I simply admired her for the amazing person she was. I knew that assumption wasn't true one night, when I was doing homework at my desk and ended up writing a lengthy love letter addressed to her."

She shook her head slightly. "I was so horrified I tore it up and buried the shreds in my backyard, which resulted in a few broken fingernails and a night without sleep. Looking back, I'm really embarrassed at myself. You wouldn't have thought that a person as dry as me could write something cheesy like 'Dear Misaki, I was looking at the night sky tonight when suddenly the stars reminded me of your eyes and the moon, your face.' Of course, sucking horribly in grammar class as I was, I might've mistakenly exchanged 'stars' and 'moon,' but you get the idea."

Akemi's mouth tightened, obviously refraining from twitching into a smile.

"In any case, I didn't want to accept the very idea that I was into girls at that time," Takako continued. "In the end, my feelings for Misaki became so violent I had to come to terms with the fact that a boy might be the last person I'd fall in love with. It was rather... agonizing... and unsettling, too. I was constantly afraid what my family would do to me should they find out."

"They were that strict?" Sympathy tinged her resplendent companion's voice.

"Not quite." She shook her head. "It was just that I feared they'd disown me and kick me out to the street." She laughed. "I was afraid of rats, you see, and my neighborhood had an abundance of them. Those disgusting things always crawled out when the street lights went off. My dad always threatened to put one in my room whenever I was in a rebellious mood."

The revelation drew from Renna Akemi an amused chuckle that was quickly swallowed by the ensuing quietness. "I'm sorry," she apologized, blushing hotly. "I shouldn't have." Suddenly, she grinned, her dark eyes twinkling mischievously under the dim light bulbs on the ceiling. "But hey, should you really be staying here and talking to me? I was born in the year of the Rat, you know." She gave a small start. "I'm sorry," she muttered. "I did it again. The alcohol must have tangled my wits." She stuck out her tongue at the bartender behind the countertop, who sniffed loudly and went to serve another customer.

She's a year older than me? Takako thought.

"You're a cute Rat, so I don't think I'll be afraid of you anytime soon," she stated with a smile, mentally marveling at the deep color her comment had brought to Akemi's cheeks. "Besides, I know your weakness." She eyed the martini glass. "When I got you drunk, you'd be the one who has to be afraid." She winked meaningfully and made a scary face by rolling her eyes and baring her teeth.

The Mayor's daughter laughed aloud. The sounds she released could have been the crystal chimes made on a windy evening. She caught herself quickly, though, and eventually managed to fall quiet despite the hilarity still featured very prominently on her face. "What happened next?" she inquired.

"I think the Gods decided to put me into a rollercoaster," Takako replied. "You see, a guy friend of mine worked part-time for the post office. One weekend, he called me up and asked if I could cover him for just a day. Since he needed to take his mother to the hospital for a check-up, I agreed. He left a page of instructions for me, and I started being a clerk at the local office. Just several minutes before my lunch break, Misaki waltzed in." She paused for dramatic effects, pleased to see that the Mayor's daughter was fixing her eyes on her, imploring her to move on with the story.

"She was surprised to see me too," she said, "but she quickly got to the point. She showed me a piece of paper that the mailman usually left at people's door when they needed to deliver some signature-required shipment but there was no one home. She said that the mailman missed her twice in a row, and she had called in to rearrange a drop-off date, which happened to be that morning, but he didn't come by either. Frustrated, she decided to pay the post office a visit.

"I checked her tracking number on the computer and saw that her arrangement was entered wrong. The date for the redelivery was off by a couple of days. I was about to say that to her that when I suddenly had an idea." She laughed softly at her own plot, her mind reeling back to that fateful day.

"My records showed that someone called in earlier and asked that the item be shelved for future pickup," Kouzuki Takako told her secret crush. It was a blatant lie, but she was never a person who paid much attention to such a trivial detail. Her goal was far more important than her negligible conscience, which could stay in hell for all she cared.

"Really?" Abe Misaki said, surprised. "My family members are oversea at the moment so... who could that be?" She scratched her head, frowning.

"Your boyfriend, perhaps?" Takako suggested, refraining from swallowing nervously.

"I don't have one." Her classmate shook her head.

Fireworks went off in Takako's soul.

"If not, it must have been your girlfriend." She flashed her unlikely customer a smile, trying to make it sound a joke. "I couldn't tell whether it was a man or a woman on the phone, so..." She knew it wouldn't offend Misaki. Since the girl was very good-looking and did extremely well in class, she was popular with her female classmates. Every once in a while, she'd get a love letter from some third-year girl who didn't have the nerve to talk to her directly. When her friends teased her about it, she always laughed.

"Don't have one either," came the casual reply. The girl looked like she was still trying to figure out who the mysterious person was.

"Are you looking for one?" Takako asked, sensing her hearts doing somersaults in her chest.

The thoughtful expression vanished off Misaki's face. A wry smile crossed her lips and comprehension dawned in her eyes. "And why do you ask?"

"Because I know a very nice, pretty girl who's madly in love with you."

"Who might that be?" Abe Misaki propped her elbow atop the counter and placed her chin on her interlaced hand. She looked infinitely amused.

"Myself," Takako said. "Will you go out with me?"

"You're one pushy person, aren't you," Renna Akemi observed, chuckling. "And how horrible of you to deceive her like that."

"Thank you." Takako grinned. "But hey, it did the trick! She agreed."

"Good for you," the future lawyer said.

"Maybe not." She shook her head. "Dating Misaki... turned out much more difficult than I had imagined. It was true that we had a lot of fun together... and she kept me warm and occupied during wintry nights," she flashed a mischievous look at her companion, who blushed and took up a serious study of her wine glass, "but we had our shares of bad moments. Although I used to love her very much, I eventually came to the conclusion that we weren't meant to be together. Her personality and mine were too similar while our tastes were heavens and earth apart, which led to us arguing heatedly about the smallest things. We both wanted to take charge of our relationship and refused to back down. We clashed more often than we kissed, and we quarreled as often as we would sit down and talk like decent human beings. In the end... we broke up and she moved oversea with her parents, forever out of my life." She sighed. "It was a horrible experience."

"I'm sorry to hear that," commiserated Renna Akemi, her sincerity loud and clear.

"Thank you," Takako murmured gratefully.

"Did you ever tell your friends? You know, Kurusugawa-san and the ones I met at the party?"

"I only became close to them after breaking up with Misaki. But no, I didn't reveal it to any of them. It's over, and I'd like to keep those kinds of things to myself."

"Then why did you tell it to me?"

Takako smiled. "Because I wanted to hear your story. By the way, I think it's your turn."

"Compared to yours, mine isn't so clear-cut," Renna Akemi confessed. "Even now, I still don't know why things happened the way they did." A long pause. A deep sigh. "About a year ago, I became smitten with a classmate in college. Naoyuki... was my first love. At first, I only admired her from afar, not daring to confess my feelings. One day, she suddenly came to me and asked to be my girlfriend. I was so overjoyed I nearly went mad." She rubbed along the stem of her glass absently with her fingers, her dark eyes growing distant and bearing the depressing hues of anguish. "And so we became lovers. Adoring her with all my heart, I did everything in my power to make her happy. I sacrificed everything I had to stay by her side. I was even willing to give up my future if necessary. Somehow... it wasn't enough.

"I noticed that Naoyuki didn't like my touches. I mean... she was okay with holding hands or even kissing in public... but any attempt of going further in private invariably led to her shying away." She gave Takako a rueful look. "You probably wouldn't believe me, but she wouldn't even let me sleep in the same room as her or let me be around when she changed her clothes. I didn't have the heart to press her, however, so I held myself back, thinking that things surely would change." A deeper sigh. A tighter clutch on the glass. "They didn't. Against my efforts, our relationship deteriorated. She spoke to me less despite my attempts to initiate the conversations. She answered fewer and fewer of my phone calls. The number of dates we had a week plummeted until I could only see her during the weekends."

Kouzuki Takako felt her heart clench. The daughter to the Mayor had related her tale so casually... but hidden in her words was enough pain to make Takako herself choke.

"The lightning came one day, when I came back to Mahoroba early after a legal seminar in Tokyo." Her lovely face darkened. "Eager to see Naoyuki, I rushed to her house. What greeted me at her door were a pair of shoes I didn't recognize and odd sounds echoing out from her bedroom. Even though I was fairly certain at that point, I decided to go in and make sure that I wasn't misunderstanding anything." Her voice showed signs of breaking, and her dark eyes shone with moisture under the dim light. "Through the gap in the bedroom door, I saw her with a strange man on the bed. I fled the apartment immediately, nearly killing myself on the way home. The very next day, she called me up and said everything was over between us. Not giving any reason, she hung up. I never saw her again."

She said no more. Tremblingly, she placed her martini glass on the counter as though afraid she was going to crush it with her own hands and stared blankly ahead. A tear emerged from the wells of her eyes and silently streaked down her cheeks.

"I'm so sorry, Renna-san," Takako whispered in regret as she gently pulled the twenty-year-old into her arms. "I shouldn't have made you talk. I shouldn't have been so selfish." She brushed the other girl's short, glossy black hair and hugged her more tightly, ignoring the bartender's sharp-as-knife look and the other customers' surprised stares.

"Selfish?" She felt Akemi rub her face against her heaving chest. Her voice was low, her breaths hot enough to sear through the black tee-shirt Takako was wearing and caressed her skin. The Mayor's daughter made no move to wiggle out of the curves of her arms. Another good sign, she thought.

"I wanted to learn more about you," she confessed. "The only thing that I knew earlier was your name... and it kinda irked me. I didn't think it'd hurt you so much. I apologize." She released her lovely companion from her embrace. "Forgive me?"

"Get me one more martini... and maybe I will..." Akemi murmured.

"Don't be greedy now." Takako laughed. "You've yet to finish that one."

"No." The future lawyer flashed an impish grin. "But I'm curious how you could trick him," her dark eyes swiveled to a grimacing bartender and lingered there almost fondly for a brief moment, "into making you another drink."

"I can," she declared, "but I'm sure he'd sic security on me the next time I tried to get in here."

"Hell yes!"

The man stuck out his tongue at her, drawing from both her and Akemi an amused giggle. The sorrows of the Mayor's daughter seemed to have melted away. The conversation grew far lighter from that point onward. Paying no attention to the secrets they had exchanged, they talked about a wide variety of topics, ranging from how tiresome it was to stay in school to how fun it was to actually learn the ways to manage a bridal shop. Takako, being the witty person that she was ever proud of, easily made Akemi laugh whole-heartedly by telling her jokes about the latter's future profession. She thought she could do it all night.

Yet, the hearty atmosphere was soon ruined by an unexpected arrival. She noticed that something had gone wrong the moment Renna Akemi fell deathly quiet and stared at the entrance of the bar. There stood a couple roughly of Takako's age. The boy was fairly handsome, finely dressed, and in possession of a smile that clearly portrayed an ego as big as the building itself. Hanging tightly on his right arm was a girl with long hair that was of more or less the same shade but much less shiny than that of Kurusugawa Himeko. If Takako's best friend's hair was fine strands of pure sunlight in spring, this one's was simply threads of bronze after a long period of exposure to the air and corrosion. It was lackluster.

"Are you okay?" Takako laid a hand on her companion's shoulder. Her face was very pale.

The newly arrived couple, unaware of Akemi's presence, chose a corner to sit down and began calling drinks for themselves. The girl's mouth was constantly moving, her eyes twinkling, and her head turning in what seemed excitement, yet her arms were always tied around one of her boyfriend's as though glued. The other customers in the area were obviously unhappy with the noises the two had caused, for some of them simply rose from their chair and left while the rest frowned in their direction at least once and ended up trying to ignore them. In the background, Takako heard the bartender muttering something about "unruly brats." She was inclined to agree.

It was then that all the pieces of the puzzle clicked in her mind. So that's how it is, she mused.

"I'm sorry," squeaked Renna Akemi, hastily getting to her feet. "I'm... going to the restroom." She hurried away before Takako could say a word.

Surprised, she exchanged glances with the bartender, who turned his head and looked at the bronze-haired girl, who was frowning in Takako's direction, probably having noticed Renna Akemi leaving her seat in a hurry. Comprehension dawned on her.

"Speaking of the devil," the bartender muttered, evidently irritated.

"Do you think she is who I think she is?" Takako asked, glancing at the newcomers.

"Who else could she be?" he scoffed. "I don't think there's anyone aside from her who could make um..." he glanced toward the ladies' restroom, "her so flustered."

"Her?" She blinked at him. "You don't know her name?"

"I never asked." He shrugged. "This is a high-end bar. It's for people who have money or social status and want a place to relax without having their identities exposed. In here, you simply don't ask for people's names or try to find out who they are." He made it sound the most obvious thing in the world.

"I see," she responded, not seeing at all.

All of a sudden, he hissed, "She's coming over!" Out of a corner of her eyes, she saw the bronze-haired girl rising from her seat and walking toward the counter. Naoyuki – Takako didn't want to refer to such a questionable character, even mentally, by her given name, but since her family name wasn't given, it would have to do – had deep suspicions creased into her rather pleasant face.

"Hello," she greeted the girl politely despite the disgust souring her stomach. "What business have you with us?" The bartender looked like he had reserved some choice words himself, but for now, he held his peace.

Naoyuki didn't answer the question. "So, are you her new lover?" "Rudeness" failed to describe her tone. "Insolence" might be a better word.

"How does it concern you anyway?" Takako asked coolly.

"Because she swore up and down to love me forever," the brat said. "It seems she didn't keep her word after all." A sneer decorated her petulant mouth. Takako's hand itched to slap her. She kept it still at her side.

"Why should she?" She tilted her head and eyed the creature standing before her in unconcealed disdain. A dark shadow clouded the girl's face. "I'm glad she actually managed to get over you. A jerk like you isn't worth brooding over, of course." The bartender nodded at her in approval. Perhaps what he wanted to say wasn't all that different. She suddenly had an urge to reach over and high-five him.

"What the hell did she say about me?" Naoyuki demanded heatedly. The sheer volume of her voice drew her boyfriend from his chair and compelled him to plant himself stiffly at her side. He was probably trying to look menacing, but he failed miserably at that. "She must have, right?"

"She didn't say anything about you in particular aside from the fact that you cheated on her." Takako smirked. "But hey, I think I know more about you than she ever did."

"Nonsense!" the other girl spat.

"Wanna bet?" She chuckled. "Feel free to interrupt me if you think what I say is wrong, okay?" She cleared her throat and focused her amber eyes on Naoyuki. "You approached her from the beginning because you were drawn to her cool façade and seemingly strong personality. You stuck to her because she, like a man, spoiled you silly and heeded your every little whim." The bronze-haired girl went slightly pale in the face. "Yet you eventually realized she wasn't the person she was trying so hard to be. She tried to act tough, she pretended to look strong, but deep down, she was a frail girl who needed comfort and assurance like most other girls would. Perhaps it was then that you knew what you truly wanted was a man." Naoyuki's lips compressed into a thin line. "Of course, I wouldn't blame you for that. It does take some of us some time to come to understand what we have made the wrong choice. However," Takako's eyes narrowed, "I despise you because you chose to linger by her side for your selfish purposes and ended up hurting her more than you could think. Say... do you love her money and social status so much you could only sever the relationship after being found out?"

"Hah!" exclaimed the bartender.

Naoyuki's hand rushed up from her side and swung forward in a wide arc as it aimed for Takako's cheek. Shaking her head lightly, she caught it by the wrist. "Violent little brat, aren't you?" She smirked. "I know why she liked Himeko, but I honestly do not see what she saw in you." She let go of Naoyuki, who staggered back a couple of steps and stared at her boyfriend in indignation.

"No one talks like that to my girl, you hear?" He rolled up his sleeves, exposing muscled arms, and strode forward. "You'll regret this."

"Some guy you are." Takako laughed softly. A swift gesture of her hand delivered the full martini glass into her grasp. Without hesitation, she hurled its content at the boy's face, halting his advance for one split second, which she didn't waste. Clad in a tough Nike sneaker, her foot came up quickly as lightning and struck him dead between his legs. His mouth letting out a guttural groan, he collapsed into a puddle on the floor. "Get a better boyfriend next time," she hollered after the retreating figure of the bronze-haired girl, who had made for the door at the instant of her boyfriend's defeat.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," she said and bowed to the bar's customers who had risen to their feet and applauded her aloud. A wide grin was plastered on her face when she sat down at the counter.

"Good job." The bartender was having his thumbs up. His voice was much warmer now. "But hey, why don't you take her," he gestured at an amazed Renna Akemi who was standing nearby from the Gods knew when, "somewhere else and let me clean up the mess? I think she has enough drinks already, too." He shook his head vigorously as soon as he saw her reaching for the wallet in her pocket. "No need for that. My treat tonight." He suddenly grinned at her and lowered his voice to a whisper. "You scored a lot of points tonight, I'm sure. Don't let them go to waste."

"I won't," she replied and gave him a smile before she took a still dazed Renna Akemi gently by the hand and led her out of the bar.

Comfortable silence accompanied them all the way to the black Highlander, standing majestically in the parking lot and beneath a sky where the sun was retreating toward the western horizon. Thirty seconds later, the IX-465 was cruising along one of the busy roads of Downtown, where the neon signs of the shops on either side were lighting up in a warm welcome to the arriving night. In the S.U.V, atop the leather passenger seat the Mayor's daughter sat, her head turned in Takako's direction and her dark eyes fixed upon Takako's face, watching her steer the utility vehicle toward the green hill west of Mahoroba.

"How much did you hear?" Kouzuki Takako asked quietly as the Highlander snaked along the paved two-lane road. The headlights were on, yet they never showed any car coming in either direction. They were all alone, just like Takako would have it. At the moment, Renna Akemi's pleasant company was all she ever needed.

"Most of what you said about Naoyuki," the future lawyer confessed. "I'm... impressed."

"By what?" Takako inquired, her eyes scanning the road.

"By... how you managed to figure out in fifteen minutes what I couldn't during last year."

"The bystanders always see more clearly," she quoted. "Besides, you were in love. You were as good as blind." She winked at her passenger. Akemi cleared her throat.

"By the way, you have horrible taste in girls if that one was your first love," she teased.

"Now where did that come from?"

"Come on, she isn't worthy of you. Didn't you see that?" Akemi blushed. "You're better off with someone like..." she swallowed down the word that had risen half-way in her throat and supplied another, "Himeko." The future lawyer didn't seem to have noticed.

"That reminds me." Her long index finger tapped her lips thoughtfully. "You said you knew why I was attracted to Kurusugawa-san, didn't you?" She continued at a nod from Takako. "Tell me how?"

"Well, I guessed you were the faithful type... and Himeko does resemble your former girlfriend in appearance. She only happens to be a much prettier and far nicer version of that creep. Obviously you'd be attracted to her."

"I think you're right," the Mayor's daughter confessed.

"But you know what that'd suggest, don't you?" Takako said.

"Yes..." Her lovely passenger sighed and looked at her window, beyond which the darkness was slowly descending, blanketing everything in sight. The Highlander smoothly continued its serpentine uphill climb, which was guided by its far-reaching headlights. "Maybe... maybe I was just chasing Naoyuki's shadow all along. Maybe I've never been in love with Kurusugawa-san to begin with. If that's the case... I'm going to feel very bad toward Himemiya-san. I said so many nasty things to her."

"You can always apologize to her tomorrow," she pointed out. "I'm sure she'd accompany Himeko to the wedding." Renna Akemi was on the invitation list, and there was no way in hell Himemiya Chikane would let her girlfriend out of her sight.

"I guess," murmured the twenty-year-old.

"We're there," Takako announced, pulling her S.U.V to a smooth halt at the left side of the serpentine road.

"Where are we?" inquired the Mayor's daughter.

"Somewhere nice." Takako got off the utility vehicle, circled it, and opened the door for her finely dressed passenger. Murmuring a thank-you, she climbed down the IX-465 and let herself be led through a green thicket. Once they had pushed past the dense growth of shrubs and bushes, they arrived at a large clearing completely isolated from the road leading to the very top of the hill. Letting out a soft gasp, Akemi promptly became speechless at the scenery filling her vision. In front of her lay the modest metropolis named Mahoroba, urban and suburb, in all of its grandeur. Downtown, blessed with high-rises that nearly touched the skies and clothed in the bright illumination coming from the lights dotting the streets, stood proudly beneath the starry heavens that was dominated by a two-day-old moon. The air was cool and crisply fresh, the atmosphere quiet and nice. Up here, the sounds of the busy and fast-paced world could not reach them. Up here, time itself seemed to freeze.

"This is my secret hideout, if you will" she disclosed to an awfully impressed Renna Akemi. "Whenever I'm in a bad mood, I'd drive up here and stay until it departs. Usually, it does."

"Does that mean you're a bad mood now?" Her companion turned and smiled at her.

"Of course not. In fact, I've never felt better in my life." She sat down and rested her back upon the grassy ground. The bright stars twinkled at her.

"May I ask why?" Renna Akemi asked as she followed suit and lie down next to her.

She chuckled and didn't answer. Silence passed between them.

"Um... Kouzuki-san?"

"Taka," she corrected. "I dislike being addressed by my family name." She purposefully omitted the fact that only her family members, or those close enough to be considered so, called her that way. For now, her pretty companion didn't need to know that.

"Um... okay..." Akemi hesitated. "Taka?"

"Yes?"

"Why... are you so nice to me even though you don't me that well?"

She pondered the question in her head for a minute. "I'm not nice," she professed truthfully. "What I do, I always do for my own sake. When I commit a good deed, you can be sure that some ulterior motive is involved."

"What ulterior motive could you have for being nice to me?" Sheer curiosity tinted her voice.

"Because I want you to like me." Takako smiled at her lovely companion.

Akemi blushed. "And why would you want to?"

"Because I like you very much," she confessed after a moment of silence. "Since meeting you yesterday... I couldn't get your image out of my mind. That was why I ran after you to the basement parking lot of the Plaza. That was why I chose to remain in that bar with you. That was why I wanted to make you laugh."

"You... are very honest," the other girl opined. Her face was scarlet now.

"Only to the people I cherish. To everybody else, I'm a horrible liar."

The future lawyer sat up straight on the grass, face painted with the color of regret. "I'm very sorry," she began. "Please understand. This is very abrupt for me. After all, I just met you yesterday... and I just got rejected by the person I think I love. I can't get into another relationship so easily... or quickly, Taka..."

"I do understand." Takako smiled softly, feeling only a small pang of sadness at the polite and considerate rejection. "I didn't really expect you to say yes, you know. But Renna-san, I'm not going to give up. At least not until you've become my girlfriend, that is."

"You're very pushy," Akemi commented. The smile on her lips was as dazzling as the scenery of Mahoroba. "But... I think I like that side of you... a lot." She bent over and placed her gorgeous face an inch above Takako's own. "Taka, I'm sorry I can't make myself love you immediately... but at least I'd like to thank you for what you've done for me today."

Their lips met. It started out as a mild kiss pure as spring water. Through incremental, barely noticeable changes, it grew into something else along the way. By the end, it had transformed into a kiss passionate enough for lovers. As their lips parted, Akemi stared at her for a long while in plain disbelief. She could tell that the twenty-year-old had not meant for such a thing to happen. She could also see flames bursting into life in those shiny pupils that could have been well-polished obsidian in the dark. That was why she wasn't in the least bit shocked when their owner opened her delicate mouth and murmured in a voice that betrayed her utter confusion, "Can I...?" She paused as if not knowing how to proceed. "May I...?" She swallowed audibly. "Will you...?" Her face was as red as it could be.

"Of course," Takako whispered.

Another kiss just as deep brought their mouths together, lasting twice as long and stealing her breath away. A third kiss was initiated the very instant the second broke. This time, their hands announced their active participation, however hesitant at first, by roaming all over each other's enflamed body. This time, Takako wrapped her arms around Akemi and refused to let her leave. The strangest thing was... the Mayor's daughter never had any intention of doing so. In her embrace the beautiful girl remained as article after article of her clothing left her breathtaking frame, all delicious curves, and every inch of her naked flesh became acquainted to the tips of Takako's trembling but curious fingers. She was gentle and she was kind, yet she was persistent and passionate in her quest to bring her unlikely lover to the plateaus of pleasures the girl never had a chance to visit. Waves of earthly delight rose, crested, and crashed in rapid successions over the future lawyer until she decided to return the favor by working her inexperienced yet magical hands on Takako's sensitive body parts.

Her cries of pleasure, muffled more often than not by the fervent kisses, echoed into the night.


Although Kurusugawa Himeko liked water as much as the next girl, she rarely took long baths. It was mostly because she was constantly short on time, she guessed. After all, her full-time classes, her club activities, and her part-time job had practically deprived her of the ability to enjoy life like many people in this placid town of Mahoroba. That was why she was always in a hurry. That was why she liked taking a quick but thorough shower before she crashed into bed and snoozed away until the sun popped up from the horizon. That was why she seldom found herself lounging in a bathtub and luxuriating in the hot water many claimed able to dispel the fatigue spawned by a long day of work.

Now, she did.

The bath chamber on the first floor of the Himemiya's summer house was about half as spacious as the huge bedroom in which she had spent quite an enjoyable time last night. Tiled in expensive materials and equipped with things one could rarely see in a commoner's bath, it even had a Jacuzzi large enough for at least four people to climb in and stretch their arms and legs as far as they wanted.

Only two occupied the whirlpool tub now.

Immersed and relaxing in the device's bubbling hot water, its temperature kept constant by the numerous jet streams circulating in through the numerous openings along its inner surface, were Himeko and the moonlight of her world. Bare as the day she was born, the beautiful musician had her back straight against one of the hot tub's walls and her arousingly slender legs stretched in a vee-shape upon its flat bed. Clothed in nothing more than her skin, Kurusugawa Himeko reclined most comfortably upon her princess's curvaceous front, the back of her head on her lover's left shoulder, and her slim waist snuggled by a pair of loving arms.

Even though the Jacuzzi's water was hot, it failed to distract her from the amazing source of heat that was the princess of the Himemiya. Even though the jet flows constantly massaged her mostly submerged body, they couldn't divert her attention from the firm and ample bosom gently grazing her back, the stiff rosebuds nuzzling her skin, or the delicious softness affectionately kissing her posterior. Even though her amazing lover wasn't touching her now, even though she had spent most of the previous night in Chikane-chan's arms and subjecting herself to the latter's passionate ministrations, she couldn't help but feel the embers of desire slithering across her body, refusing to be extinguished by the water streams.

Her heart was beating so fast and erratically she wished she was still in bed with the girl she loved.

"We should get out, Himeko," the genius musician proposed, her hot and moist lips nibbling along the helix of her ear. She nearly melted Himeko into a shapeless puddle. "It is regrettable... but time is not on our side."

"Stay with me a little more, please?" she pleaded. Her hands converged on her girlfriend's own, folding atop her abdomen, in the fear that her first love was going to get out of the tub. "Once we get out of the house, we won't be back until nightfall." She slowly slid backward and eased herself deeper into her sweetheart's embrace, blushing furiously at the intimate contact between her skin and a pair of shapely breasts, between her lower back and a succulently taut tummy of a girl who regularly spent her time keeping herself in shape, and between her small behind and a beautiful rose blossom she liked to kiss. She sensed Chikane-chan tighten her strong yet slender arms around her waist and heard the girl gasp in unconcealed pleasure. That very sound, soft but clear, induced a sharp rise in her body heat.

Clearing her throat, she continued in a breathless voice, "I mean... I'd feel horrible if I had to spend such a long period of time without being able to hold you, touch you, or kiss you." Her face burned at the honest words. She wouldn't have had the nerve to say this in front of a third person. She would have blushed herself to death first.

"I did not know you were so needy, my little angel," whispered her first love, her voice tinted by amusement, mild embarrassment, and on top of all, joy. "But... I think it very adorable of you when you are like this." She took an earlobe between her lips and suckled on it playfully, striking a chord composed entirely of soft coos out of Himeko's throat. The princess's skin made the water feel rough. Her flesh made Jacuzzi's content seem cool. "Just ten more minutes, okay?" she mouthed her words slowly around the small flesh, the warmth and moistness of her lips igniting the fireworks and summon the lightning in Himeko's soul. "I am sure you do not wish to be late to your best friend's happiest day."

"Thank you, Chikane-chan," she whispered in gratitude and sat back to enjoy the physical intimacy with the girl she cherished. Within the curves of those slender arms, she was at peace, protected, and loved. It was amazing how someone who had wallowed in insecure her entire life like her could feel this way in an embrace with a girl she chanced upon two days ago in a bustling crossroad of Downtown Mahoroba.

"Himeko?" the genius musician prompted. "Would you happen to know if my cousin is attending the wedding ceremony?"

"Well," she hesitated, "Renna-san is on the invitation list. But to tell you the truth... I'm not sure if she'll come. She probably doesn't want to see... us."

"Such a shame." Her gentle lover sighed and shook her head slightly. "I would have liked to speak with her today. Last we met, she was not exactly in the mood for listening, you see."

"What do you want to talk to her about?" she asked curiously.

"I simply wish to cheer her up a little." The princess offer quick butterfly pecks along her naked shoulders, pausing ever so often to suck softly at her wet skin. It felt really good. It reminded her of the deep kisses her amazing lover had showered all over her body last night, some places more frequently and passionately than others. Bringing her thighs together, she felt herself blush hotly enough to boil the water in the rectangular tub.

Unaware of the strange and unladylike thoughts in her head, her girlfriend continued smoothly, "I may not show it," she feigned a cough, "but I do feel bad and sorry toward her. After all, I am thankful for the fact that had it not been for her, my parents would never have summoned me to Mahoroba. I would have never met and fallen in love with you, dear sunlight of my heart." She kissed her deeply on the nape of her neck, her warm and fragrant breath caressing her skin.

"I hope she'll meet someone who loves her soon," Himeko murmured in appreciation. "She deserves someone better than me."

"You are wrong about that." Chikane-chan chuckled. "There is none. I am very fortunate in that an angel like you agreed to be my girlfriend. I must have committed some good deeds in my past life."

She blushed. The girl she loved claimed to be clumsy in putting her thoughts into words... but she was very adept at flattering.

The next couple of minutes she spent in comfortable silence until she realized that the blue-haired girl was caressing her flat stomach with delicate fingertips only meant for striking heavenly chords off the piano's one hundred and eight keys. They sent tremors rippling to even the most distant corners of her mostly submerged frame.

"It tickles, Chikane-chan," she whispered breathlessly, partly wanting the moonlight of her world to stop and partly desiring her to ease her wonderful hands a little further down, where her innocent strokes had managed to rouse emotions and sensations only suitable to enjoy in the sanctuary of their bed chamber.

"Ah... Sorry." The hands went still.

"What were you thinking about?" she inquired, trying to catch her breath.

Pearly teeth scraped gently along her shoulders. Moist tongue and lips teased her earlobes. A pair of hands traveled up and down her sides, causing goosebumps to rise all over her body. She became more and more aware of the excitement surging in her most sensitive regions, ever reminding her of her constant desire for the blue-haired princess. Two blissful nights in a row had failed to diminish her ardor. Countless visits to the apex of earthly delights never succeeded in satisfying her need. "I was thinking that I loved your abdomen more than any other place on your body." Shyness flowed in her words.

"Why?" she asked curiously. "Why does it get the special treatment?"

"Because one day..." the lower Chikane-chan's voice became, the more heat her curvaceous body accumulated, "you are going to carry my child inside it. Of course I love it the most."

Those honest words filled her to bursting with a warm, fuzzy sensation. Blushing harder than ever, she turned around, hugged her lover tightly, and buried her face in the steep valley between the latter's firm, ample breasts. She sensed the seashell pendant the princess wore kissing her softly on her forehead. She heard the musician's heart going wild.

"Who's going to bear your child?" she muttered in overflowing joy, her lips moving adoringly against her lover's perfect cleavage. "We're not even married yet." The conversation she had yesterday with Himemiya Sanae surfaced in her mind, reminding her how she had bawled like a baby in front of so many people. But... that is a nice word, isn't it? a fond voice opined at the back of her head. I'd want nothing more than to be married to Chikane-chan. And to have her kids. The thoughts strummed a crescendo of higher and higher notes from the fibers of her existence.

She knew it was possible. The Himemiya International had recently announced to the world that it was capable of awarding a same-sex couple with a child purely of their own and without necessitating any other source. The only problem with that, of course, was the sky-high price ones had to pay up front to have their wish made reality. Himeko... didn't think it was any difficulty now. After all, her beloved princess was a member of the Himemiya. She doubted they were going to charge the blue-haired girl for it.

"Does that mean you will bear as many as I want after we get married?" Her sweetheart snuggled closer to her. A hand ran soothingly up and down her naked back.

"What, you intend to have more than one?" She giggled. "So greedy."

"I think two are great," a dreamy voice answered her. "One would be too lonely, because our first child needs someone to play with, right? Our second will want someone to look up to, to be protected by, and to love. My little puppy, you are going to make that miracle possible."

"Why me?" she feigned disapproval, her lips enjoying the strong and even pulse on Chikane-chan's throat. "Why don't you bear the children?" She didn't mean it. She loved the princess of the Himemiya so much the very idea of her suffering the pain of childbirth terrified her.

"I will do it for our second kid," her lover proposed.

"Why not the first?" Amazement seized her upon the realization that both of them were taking the conversation very seriously. Undiluted bliss blossomed like fireworks in her.

"Because I am a little selfish," Chikane-chan professed honestly. "I... cannot watch Shizuka enter the world if I am to bear her, can I?"

"Shizuka?" Himeko gazed up at her beautiful girlfriend, who surprisingly was blushing hard enough for a sunset. "You chose a name... already?" she inquired, listening to love roaring madly in her veins. The genius musician nodded softly. "Is there any special reason why you chose it?" Himeko's arms made their way around her lover's neck as she shifted her body up to claim Chikane-chan's full, moist lips. Their bosoms, too, met in a loving embrace that significantly quickened the pace of their already racing hearts.

"Guess," the princess urged.

An explanation came to Himeko without much difficulty. "Because you made your confession in the Shizuka Concert Hall, right?"

"Bingo." She was rewarded with a second kiss, which was deeper and much more passionate. It stole all the air in her lungs.

"You're very thoughtful, Chikane-chan," she whispered into the crook of the musician's neck. A question popped up in her mind and had her tap her lips in thoughtfulness. "But how do you know we... are going to have a daughter?"

A moment of silence passed between them.

"I... am not sure," the blue-haired girl murmured in hesitation. "I just... knew."

For some reason, that uncertain answer was enough.

"I see," Himeko murmured and fell quiet. The words they just exchanged replayed like a beautiful song in an endless loop in her head. She was not going to forget them, ever.

"Say, Himeko," the princess spoke up suddenly, grinning like a child at a festival. "Do you want to know my next favorite part of your body?" This time, mischievousness pulsed like a heart in her voice.

"What is it?" She knew she probably shouldn't have asked... but curiosity already got the better of her. It was then that she felt a small hand slide down her front, cross her flat tummy, and slip between her legs. Her heart tried to rise into her throat as slender fingers curled around the most sensitive mound of flesh on her body. A soft and involuntary whimper pried its way out of her lips.

"Right here," her first love whispered her sultriest voice, her hand working a wonder beneath the water surface, "where you are going to give birth to our first daughter." Her grip tightened, affectionately squeezing Himeko where she was most vulnerable to the touch.

"No, Chikane-chan..." she protested weakly. She didn't even sound like she meant it. "We... ah... don't have time for this..."

"No, we do not," the princess agreed, her hand withdrawing from Himeko's private part. A smile formed on the genius musician's lips. "Let us get out of here." She cradled Himeko in her arms and slowly rose to her feet.

"You were teasing me again, weren't you?" Himeko whispered weakly, already missing the more than delightful pressure on where she was weakest.

"I am sorry," the moonlight of her world answered as she placed Himeko on the rim of the Jacuzzi and reached for a dry towel. "Let me make up for you, ne?" Amusement twinkled in her sapphire eyes.

The way she dried up Himeko's soaked body would make a rock blush.

Even about fifteen minutes later, her cheeks were still burning as she sat atop the passenger seat of the Mercedes MNK 1010, which was cruising along the eastbound fast lane of one of Mahoroba's newer highways. Dressed in the clothes she wore upon leaving her apartment yesterday – they had been washed and laundered earlier in the morning – she sometimes would steal a surreptitious glance at the elegant driver of the Convertible. The princess of the Himemiya no longer wore the snowy dress in which she had appeared on stage roughly twenty-four hours ago. In its place were a long-sleeved button shirt in amber with golden threads lining her cuffs and a long pleated skirt bearing the color of driven snow. She quickly came to the conclusion that her lover looked would look gorgeous in just about anything.

"Where are we going, Chikane-chan?" she tried again. When the blue-haired girl checked her cell phone a little bit ago and was told that she had a new voicemail message, she had smiled mysteriously at Himeko and announced they were going to have to stop somewhere along the way first. No matter how hard she tried to pry the information out of her first love, the girl refused to disclose even the smallest detail.

"Meeting up with someone important, my curious angel." The pianist flashed her unreadable smile again. Elegantly, the silver vehicle left the fast lane and entered an exit that Himeko knew to lead to a neighborhood near the campus of Izumo Open University.

As the Mercedes sped smoothly along a nicely paved road flanked on either side by ancient trees with far-reaching branches and cascading shades, the peaceful city of Isesaki began to unfold in front of Himeko's amethyst eyes. It was a place for the wealthiest of Mahoroba, the elderly who had once headed multi-billion corporations, and famous politicians who had retired from their public services. Isesaki was well-known for its picturesque seaside scenery, its crime-free environment, and its quiet but friendly neighborhood. It was everybody's dream to own a house in this area.

Who could this person be? she wondered. An old acquaintance of hers?

The Mercedes eventually pulled into a gentle stop in front of a beautiful two-story house that boasted a frontyard luxuriantly green with neatly trimmed lawn as well as a merrily gushing fountain, clean walkways paved with worn-out stone slabs, a portico of shiny marble steps, and a pair of large mahogany doors with gilded knobs. The air of the early morning was crisp and fresh, permeated with the pleasant scents of nature. Himeko smelled the grass, the barks of the tall oak trees lining the road and casting their cool shades over the car, and an aroma too faint for her to identify. She wondered what it was.

"Come in, Himeko," the princess invited once they had climbed off the car. "He is expecting us." Not waiting for an answer, she took Himeko's hand and led her toward the house, the former's high heels clattering pleasantly on the pathway wrought of stone slabs that extended all the way to the portico.

"Welcome! Welcome!" an old voice greeted them warmly as soon as the double mahogany doors swung open and admitted a short man dressed in a button shirt, a pair of simple black trousers, and a sweater that draped across his frail shoulders. Having long bushy eyebrows as white as snow but no beard at all, he seemed to be at least in his eighties. His gray eyes were no longer sharp, his hands leather stretched over bones, and his back reminded Himeko of a turtle's shell.

"Good morning to you, sir." The Himemiya princess gave the old man an incline of her head. "Let me introduce you to my girlfriend." A smooth, delicate hand gestured at Himeko, who offered him a deep bow. "Her name is Kurusugawa Himeko, a student at your school." Sapphire eyes regarded her with love.

She blinked. Your school? As in Izumo Open University?

"I know who she is!" he laughed. "Come on, I was in the Concert Hall yesterday! At the front row, no less!" He clapped the genius musician's shoulder familiarly. "You have a good eye, Chikane-kun."

Heat flourished on her cheeks. So he saw everything! She had a sudden urge to cover her burning face with both of her hands.

"Himeko," her princess tapped her on the shoulder, "this gentleman is Doctor Ichigaya Kazato, the current chair of the Music and Theatrical Arts department at your school. Also an old friend of my family."

"Good... good morning to you, Ichigaya-sensei!" She hastily bobbed her head one more time.

"Hello there." He flashed a toothless grin at her. "And I'm only chair until eight in the morning tomorrow. In case you haven't heard, Kurusugawa-kun, I'm retiring." He pounded a fist on his palm. "And yes, silly me! Come in, both of you. How rude of me to keep you at the door!"

The department chair led them into a living room as large as Himeko's entire apartment and a hundred times better furnished. The sofas, the burgundy carpet, the fireplace, the wall-mounted plasma TV, the large wooden table polished to the point its surface shone like mirror, and the china tea set that sat atop it proved that the owner of this house had an expensive taste.

"It has been a long time since my wife's passing that I had a guest in here," the doctor intimated in excitement. "Come. Let this old man give you a tour around the house."

The house, according to the elderly chairman, had four bedrooms and three bathrooms, one of which was built inside the master bedroom on the second floor. It was built fifty-two years ago and had seen three owners come and go before the Ichigaya couple acquired it a quarter of a century in the shadows of the past. A fire burned it down a few years back when they were off having a vacation in Western Europe, but their sons and daughters pitched in money from their own pocket and had it rebuilt swiftly even before they came back. Ichigaya Kazato professed in awe that aside from the missing albums and personal belongings, he didn't detect any difference at all. His wife even thought that the news of the fire was a joke.

"The architect, who happened to be my eldest daughter, had photographic memories," he disclosed proudly while turning the door knob to the master bedroom. "She remembered every detail!"

The door swung open, introducing Himeko and the moonlight of her world to a very large room furnished with a bed no smaller than the one they had spent last night on in the Himemiya's summer house, a huge walk-in closet, and an air conditioner that would be very much appreciated when the heat of the unholy summer sun converged on Mahoroba. Yet, none of these minor details mattered to Himeko now, for her amethyst eyes had dawned on something that dwarfed the rest in terms of beauty.

Mouth gaping wide, breath caught, and heart pounding like a drum in her chest, she felt her feet move of their own accord and moved her silently across the mater bedroom. They planted themselves upon the carpeted floor as soon as they arrived at the other side of the rectangular vastness, where she found herself placing her hands on the glass sliding door that would open to a half-moon balcony. Beyond it was a scenery so beautiful she thought it could only exist in her fondest dream.

On the backyard lay a swimming pool the water of which reflected all the glory of the morning sun into the master bedroom, decorated its walls and ceiling with waves of light. Embracing the oddly shaped body of water – all curves, it was thin at one end and wide at the other – from all sides could have been the rainbow made flesh. Roses, thousands of them blooming at the prime of their transient life, filled the large backyard as well as her awe-struck vision, every shade standing proudly in their own section. Every species of rose of the shades of red dominated the north, the white ruled the east, the golden reigned in the west, and the violet governed the south. Most astonishing of all, a significant amount of glossy black roses formed together with the pool a perfectly round disc that bore a striking resemblance to the Chinese yin-yang circle. It was a rose garden anyone would kill to have.

She turned to the chairman. "Sir, can I open the door?"

"Go ahead, child," Ichigaya Kazato assented. Standing by his side, the genius musician simply looked in her direction while wearing a fond but secretive smile on her lips.

The moment she pulled the sliding door sideways was also the one in which fresh air streamed unchecked into the room, bringing along the pleasantly powerful fragrance of the thousand roses. The very essence of the flower garden invaded Himeko's nostrils and pulled her forward. Standing on the balcony with her hands firm on the tall balustrade, she feasted her eyes on the marvelous scenery beneath. She had always adored roses. It was only regrettable that her financial ability didn't permit her to spend money on flowers, or she would have bought them regularly to decorate her room.

"They are... so beautiful," she exclaimed earnestly. So this is what I smelled earlier!

"Aren't they?" Ichigaya Kazato echoed his agreement. "My second son is a botanist specialized in plant genetics. Did you see the black roses down there? It took him five years to find a way to breed them. It was kinda amazing to see how much money he raked from it."

The elderly man's voice faded away in Himeko's ears as she admired the miraculous work that was the garden beneath. Although she liked red roses the best, she couldn't help but feel attracted to the Maiden's Blushes, white rose blossoms round as a full moon and blessed with a pale, almost imperceptible pink color on its smooth petals. Its sublime beauty reminded her of her beloved Chikane-chan during the rare instances when her face became flushed in embarrassment. She felt heat rise in her cheeks at the powerful current of memories coursed through her mind. Those moments happened mostly during the first night they spent together, when they were still in uncharted territories, when she discovered in complete ruefulness that perhaps... she wasn't very shy while in bed with the girl she loved. Oh all the things she had done and said while losing herself in the heat of pleasure.

Gods, but why do I keep thinking about doing... that with her? she berated herself mentally and reluctantly dispelled the unladylike thoughts.

"You are blushing, my little puppy," the melodious voice of her target of affection poured into her ear while a pair of arms snaked beneath hers and pulled her into a warm, intimate embrace. "What mischief could you be up to?"

"Nothing," she denied quickly, her eyes scanning the room for the elderly man with the long and bushy eyebrows. He was nowhere insight. "How long... have I been spacing out?"

"I am not sure," answered her blue-haired princess. "I was rather... engrossed in a conversation Kazato-sensei myself before he left. But ten minutes, perhaps?"

"Why did you bring me here?" She placed her hands atop those of the genius musician and rubbed their back affectionately. Her nose reveled in the natural scent rising from her first love. The princess smelled no less fragrant than the roses in the garden. And looked even more beautiful, too. She turned around and hugged the other half of her existence tightly. With Chikane-chan here, the garden could have been empty and she would never have noticed. Perhaps... it wasn't an exaggeration to say that the pianist was a rose and Himeko was a bee that couldn't help but be drawn to her honey. The mental image made her blush.

"First of all, I need to ask him about an important issue. His house is on the way."

"Important issue?" Himeko repeated, gazing up to find a pair of sapphire shining with love.

"Regarding his retirement from his position at your school." The other girl chuckled softly. "I am going to fill it for him. The official announcement will be made tomorrow, at eight in the morning."

Himeko's jaw tried to drop to the ground.

"I had a chat with him moments before my performance yesterday," explained the princess, obviously amused by her reaction. "He was lamenting the fact that none of his faculty wanted to chair the department and that one of them just left for the prestigious Himemiya Music Academy on the other side of town."

Himeko was aware of the Academy's existence, for it was renowned as the best place in the nation to nurture artists. Since it was founded and backed by Himemiya International, its financial capabilities far surpassed those of the young and quite frugal music department of Izumo Open University. Her school... simply couldn't compete.

"So," the pianist continued, "that was why he was overjoyed hearing that I would like to join his department and, if he so wished, even agree to chair it for him."

"But..." Himeko stammered, taken aback, "but why?"

"Because I am in need of a job in Mahoroba." Her girlfriend bit her gently at the tip of her nose. It quickened her heart. "I intend to keep it too, at least until you graduate." Clear sapphire gems gazed into her amethyst. In them, she saw determination. In them, she perceived an endless ocean of love.

Tears welled in Himeko's eyes. "You didn't have to do it for me, Chikane-chan," she whispered, her voice threatening to shatter like stepped-on glasses.

"For both of us," her lover corrected in a whisper. "You told Mother you were willing to sacrifice your happiness so that I am free to travel the world." She cupped Himeko's chin and raised it gently. "I, too, am ready to give up my career to be able to stay by your side." She kissed away the round drops of salty water rolling down Himeko's cheeks. "It is always a mistake to assume that I can live without you by my side, my love." She claimed her lips and held them in a soft kiss for what seemed to be a century, during which joy broke out from her every pore like water from a burst dam. Since speaking to Himemiya Sanae, she had been trying not to think about the fact that she might have to part with her lover soon. Now, she didn't have to worry anymore. Tears thundered down her face as she wrapped her arms around her princess's neck and rose on her toes just so she could better receive the sweet moistness of her mouth.

Quite a while later, she found herself sitting at the edge of the bed, by the side of the one and only complement. Their hands were joined.

"Your uncle is not going to be pleased about this, is he?" she murmured. "I think he would have liked to have you teach at his school."

"No can do." Her lover chortled. "I want to enjoy a life where I can drive you to school every day and bring you back home once classes are over. I need to be able to see you during breaks, have lunch with you somewhere nice on campus, and maybe steal a few kisses from you when none is looking." Crystalline laughter echoed in the room. Himeko blushed. "I cannot do that while teaching at my uncle's place, can I?" She pinched Himeko's cheek. "And my Kyou-Oji-sama will not care. In fact, I think he will manage to find some pleasure in the fact that it is a challenge toward his precious Academy. Nothing could have him fired up more than that."

"Your family is odd," she said, chuckling.

"Indeed we are," the pianist agreed, her lips decorated with a beautiful smile.

"Well, now that you've settled it with Ichigaya-sensei, shouldn't we leave?" Himeko requested. "We need to get to Takako-chan's bridal shop don't we?" she reminded the love of her life.

"I thought you would like to remain here a little longer," Chikane-chan pointed out. "You seem to like this house a lot." There was a strange note in her melodious voice. It sounded like satisfaction... and mischief.

"I do," Himeko affirmed. "It's beautiful, it's nice, and it has a garden I'd kill to have. I'd feel a little sad if I had to leave it but..." She sighed in regret.

"Do not be sad," comforted the moonlight of her world. "We will come back here in the evening."

She blinked, perplexed. "Why?"

"Because we are going to spend tonight as well as the next couple of years in this house, Himeko," Chikane-chan whispered.

"I'm sorry?" was all Himeko managed.

"It is now yours." The blue-haired princess retrieved from her pocket a small ring of keys and slipped it into Himeko's grasp. "All paperwork will be done within two days. Once they are, you will officially be its owner."

"I... I don't understand" Her eyes tried to pop out of their sockets.

"I forgot to mention, but Kazato-sensei is moving to the United States to live with his sons and daughters," explained the genius musician. "When I made a call yesterday to a real estate company and informed them of my requirements, I honestly did not expect that it would deliver me to his doorsteps. I guess it is destiny. I am glad you like it, though. I would kill myself before letting you spend another second inside that rundown and unsafe apartment."

Next Himeko knew, she was weeping furiously into her palms in happiness and her lover was running a hand up and down her back to sooth her. "You are bad, Chikane-chan..." she sobbed. "You kept making me cry." She buried her drenched face in the warm bosom of the girl she loved and wept harder than ever. She was glad Ichigaya Kazato wasn't here to see this.

"I am sorry," her lover apologized. "I am also sorry because... I think I may make you cry again soon, Himeko."

"There are... more surprises?" She gazed up at the Himemiya princess while moisture continued to soak into her cheeks. Her breathing was uneven, her voice a tattered cloth.

"One more." Her lover smiled tenderly at her as she withdrew her arms and rose from the mattress. Himeko stared in stunned silence as the love of her life unbuttoned her cuff and rolled up her left sleeve. Himeko's heart stopped at the sight of a thin, seemingly fragile bracelet encircling the wrist of the taller girl. The accessory, carved from Chinese jade and meticulously crafted into an elegant pattern of roses and vines, bore the shade of lavender and could easily be the most beautiful object she ever laid her eyes on.

"Himeko," her sweetheart called in a love-soaked voice that made her weak. "I know I should have given you a ring for this special occasion, but there is no ring in this world that is worth more or records a richer history than this." She slipped the bracelet from her wrist and held it in front of her. "Its name is the Thornless Rose, a five-hundred-year-old heirloom of the Renna Clan handed to me by my mother. She often joked that it might need to be renamed, for she claimed such a thing did not exist." She paused and took a deep breath. "She is mistaken. You are the one and only rose in the world that possesses no thorns."

The other half of her existence sank to one knee. "My precious rose, will you marry me and make me the happiest woman in the world?" The world stopped its perpetual spin. Time deposited its final grain into the bottom chamber of the hourglass.

Himeko's hands flew to clutch at her mouth. Heat rushed to her head, threatening to incinerate anything enclosed within. Her ears buzzed madly with the words she just heard. Her muscles wanted to turn into jelly. Then as reality crashed in on her, she saw for the first time the serious expression on the princess's gorgeous countenance and the hopeful gleam in her sapphire gems. Chikane-chan wasn't making fun of her. Chikane-chan wasn't teasing her. Chikane-chan truly wished to wed her, build a family with her inside this beautiful house, and take their time raising a couple of kids.

Trembling, she fell onto both knees on the carpeted floor and hugged the beautiful full moon of her life as tightly as she could. On her sweetheart's gentle shoulder, she cried and cried and cried until she managed to pause for a few seconds to utter a strangled, nearly inaudible yet heartfelt "Yes." As soon as the word left her mouth, she knew the most important decision of her life had been properly made. Still overwhelmed by the tumultuous rage of emotions in her heart, she sensed the genius musician embraced her and, shockingly enough, burst into joyous tears while brokenly repeating only one thing for the next several minutes.

"I love you, Himeko."


"Ojou-sama!" the voice of the head butler called beyond the door of Renna Akemi's bedroom. "Ojou-sama! Is everything okay?" The man had yet to say anything different since he followed her all the way to the second floor and refused to leave. A decade older than the Mayor of Mahoroba himself, the man had watched her grow up and cared for her like a father when her biological one wasn't nearby. She liked him, she respected him, and she often heeded his words. Only that she wasn't exactly keen on doing so at the moment. In fact, she wanted him to get the hell away from her room right now.

"Leave me alone!" she yelled.

Still in the violet dress she had worn to attend lunch with the Himemiya and reeking of sweat, she was lying on her stomach atop her bed with her face buried in a pillow, desperately trying to calm herself down. The problem was that she couldn't possibly do so with a persistent old man standing outside her door and demanding that she opened it just so he could be ascertained that she was alright. She couldn't blame him for being worried – he did see her trip three times on the hem of her dress – but she wished the man would just give her time to... get a grip of herself and recover from the events that had transpired last night.

Gods above, look at the mess I've made! she groaned exasperatedly in her head, ignoring the furious banging on her door. Annoying as he might seem at the moment, the old head butler was actually the least of her woes. How could I... how could I have done such a thing to her?! Her hands tightened around the linen beddings, ready to rip them into pieces.

Two days ago Renna Akemi was introduced to Kouzuki Takako at the birthday party of the girl she believed she loved. Yesterday, she ran into the flame-haired tomboy at the basement parking lot of the Himemiya Plaza, where she lost control over herself and cried her heart out in the curves of the girl's arms. Next she knew, she was sitting in a bar in Downtown and disclosing her painful story to someone she was barely acquainted. One thing leading to another, she... she and her boyish companion were lying beneath the starry skies and doing things she never even dreamed doing with her ex-girlfriend.

In defiance of the coolness of the air in her room, heat suffused her cheeks and continued to gather there to the point she thought the pillow beneath her face was going to burst into flames.

She didn't regret meeting Kouzuki Takako. The flame-haired girl was a kind person with a nice sense of humor. She managed to lift Akemi's spirit when she was still wallowing in self-pity and sadness. She made Akemi laugh when she thought happiness had forever passed her by and would never come back. She defended Akemi's name when she was insulted by the person who had cheated on her and destroyed her hope. She brought Akemi to her "secret" hideout and presented to her a view of Mahoroba she never thought existed.

There, her boyish companion had confessed to Akemi her deepest feelings, what she herself jokingly named "ulterior motive." There, she had received from Akemi a kiss on the lips that was meant to be a gesture of gratitude and appreciation, but not acceptance. How was she to expect that the meeting of their lips would revive the memories long buried in the darkest depths of her heart? How was she to predict that a simple touch of their mouths would allow her to "see" just how intense the feelings Takako harbored toward her were? And how was she to know beforehand that the urges she had since dating Naoyuki, not once sated, would take control and compel her to do what she did?

She sighed.

With all said and done, she didn't regret relinquishing her maidenhood to the flame-haired girl. The experience... had been more than just satisfying. She had seen it numerous times in various forms of the media, she had heard about it often enough from her classmates, and she had caught herself wondering about it more than once. Yet, she had also failed to fathom how wonderful it was to make love to a person of the same sex. In fact, it was so amazing that she couldn't help but ask for more – vocally even! – as she and her boyish companion became drawn helplessly into the raging whirlpool that was the pleasures of the flesh. More than once she thought she would die from the unending rush of pure physical bliss. More than once she was lost in the heat of the moment and forgot that the two of them were in a place where they could have been seen.

Renna Akemi bit on her underlip so hard she nearly drew blood. No what she was brooding over wasn't the fact that she had gone at it for hours on end with a girl she barely knew. No, it was the fact that what she had done in the aftermath was unforgivable.

The light of the morning sun rising at the eastern horizon drummed on the eyelids of Renna Akemi and instantly woke her up. Eyes fluttering open, she found herself lying on one side atop the smooth grass bed of Kouzuki Takako's secret hideout... and cuddled tightly in the latter's loving arms, neither wearing a stitch.

Her heart shot into her throat as the recollection of their reckless abandon filled in the holes of her memories. Panic seized her. Before, when she started dating Naoyuki openly, her father's enemies had bombarded him on the media with ruthless criticism. Every time she saw them targeting him just because of a choice she made, she felt her heart clench. Her guilt only became worse in light of the horrible break-up six months ago, for she realized that she had made her beloved father suffer for completely nothing at all. She had vowed to never repeat her mistake. She had sworn to the Gods that never again would she bring shame to her family.

But she just had to go and do this

Dominating her mind now was the fear that some passer-by would discover her in this unclothed state and unleashed the firestorm anew on the Mayor's political career. She could see it already in the headline of the Mahoroba Daily, a conservative newspaper that was deeply critical of her father's job. "Mayor's daughter committing indecency in plain view." "Mayor's daughter in yet another scandalous same-sex relationship." "Mayor's daughter at it again." She could hear the crumbling sound of the Renna's dignity, its fatal blow dealt by her primal impulses.

Trembling in fear within an inch of her life, Akemi quickly pried herself out of her boyish companion's arms, jumped into her rumpled clothes, and ran away as though hell was on her heels.

It was a lucky thing that the Renna's manor was on the other side of the hill and that it was still too early in the morning for her to encounter unwanted attention along the way. She managed to get back home without any incident or accident. A few servants caught her walking into the manor in a tired fashion that didn't really fit her usual image, but they simply bowed to her and went about attending to their own business.

She had been very relieved... until she stepped inside her room and sat down on her bed. The emptiness of her private chamber summoned the guilt and the horror that eventually staked through her heart.

I should never have left her there alone! a voice screamed at the back of her head. It's very chilly around this area in the early morning. What if she caught a cold? I should have found something to put over her before I left!

Her hands curled into fists. A strong shiver rippled across her existence. A chill slithered down her spine. From that point onward, her mind began convoluting into the realm of graver and far more disturbing possibilities.

What if someone found her when she was still sleeping? The train of thoughts sped forward into the darkness. Akemi's vision grew bleak. Her blood ran cold. What if it were a man? What if he saw how beautiful she was and... A lump of something got stuck in her throat, crushed against her cartilages, and suffocated her.

"Oh Gods, no!" She bound to her feet and hurried out of her room. Although she had left her Lexus in the Himemiya Plaza, which she intended to retrieve soon, she had others waiting for her in the garage. She meant to hop on one of them, raced down to the same spot Kouzuki Takako had parked her Highlander last night, and made sure that nothing had happened to the one to whom she had yielded her maidenhood.

Her journey, however, was cut short at the entrance of the manor by the head butler himself.

"Ojou-sama, a girl who claimed to be your friend you came by," he announced.

Akemi blinked. "Who is it?"

"She left no name," said the old man in the butler suit. "If it is of any help for identification, miss, her hair is red. And she dressed like a boy!" Disdain rankled in his words.

Kouzuki-san! She exhaled deeply in relief. She's okay!

"Oh, and she wanted to give you this." He produced a purse from his pocket. "Said you forgot it in her car. Then she left. Rather hurriedly, I'd say."

A strange emotion came over her. Last night, the pretty tomboy had claimed that she liked Akemi. For goodness's sake, she had spent a great deal of effort cheering Akemi up. She couldn't have just come by to deliver the purse and then driven off without saying a word to Akemi. Something was wrong. She sensed an invisible hand fastening around her throat.

"Did she have... any message for me?" she asked the butler.

The old man shook her head. "No, Ojou-sama."

"How... how did she look when she handed the purse to you?"

"Funny you should ask." He eyed her curiously. "I would say that she seemed a little shaken. Maybe depressed and a little angry, perhaps? She wasn't very polite, mind you." He sniffed loudly.

Depressed? Her heart sank into her stomach. Angry? Gods... it's because of me, isn't it?

Dazed, she walked back inside, not really watching where she was going.

She hates me now... Akemi realized, depressed. The only girl in the world who likes me for who I am... hates me now... She cried silently into her pillow. The banging on the door had stopped, indicating that the head butler had finally given up. She should have been glad that he did. She should have welcomed the absence of the source of her irritation. The only problem was that she couldn't bring herself to. She was so empty inside at the moment she would prefer having the man pounding on her door again. What's happening to me?

The brief yet meaningful conversation Kouzuki Takako had with Akemi's first love surfaced in her mind.

Rather ironic that someone I was introduced to two days ago knows me better than most people did, she thought bitterly. Her boyish companion couldn't have been more correct when she said that despite her strong façade, Akemi was just a fragile girl who needed love and comfort just like other girls did. To the people around her, she was first and foremost the daughter to the current Mayor of Mahoroba, the only person to have held the office for six consecutive terms. She knew everything she did would reflect on her father, so she had always done her best to act in such a way that she wouldn't bring dishonor to his name and high office.

It had been difficult. Renna Akemi was born fragile and emotional. She entered the world without the ability to confront and subdue her inner tumults. Even so, she tried to grow into a person she was not. The mask of composure she wore on her face everyday concealed a nature completely unsuitable for the legal world. The strong personality she tried so murderously to promote was in fact a flimsy paper armor that guarded an unstable heart. Her public image was that of a man, unflappable in the face of adversary, but her soul was a girl who simply wanted to lead her life the way she truly wanted.

It was the same in love. During the time she went out with Naoyuki, she had always felt like a man as she conformed herself to suit the girl's taste. She loved her... but she couldn't deny that her own needs were being ignored and forgotten. The relationship with Naoyuki had left her at best unfulfilled. She didn't want to play the role of a man. She needed something fundamentally different. She wished so dearly to be pampered, to be spoiled, and to be adored by the person she loved.

Her first love never cared to give her these things.

Unlike Kouzuki Takako. The flame-haired girl, who seemed to be strong at heart, made her laugh so easily, she cheered her up so effortlessly, and she spoke about herself so honestly that Akemi knew the pretty tomboy was everything she had tried to become without much of success. For the first time since... forever, she felt loved.

But no more, she grieved. Kouzuki-san probably doesn't want anything to do with me now.

She sat up straight on the bed.

I have to apologize to her, she decided. She may not forgive me... but I must tell her I'm sorry for what I did. She knew where the pretty and boyish girl was today. This very afternoon, Oogami Souma and Saotome Makoto, her friends from the dance class, were going to get married in a church. On the invitation they gave her was the address of the place. If she could find it now...

Overwhelmed with emotions, she rummaged through her belongings. She knocked everything out of their places, she emptied her bags and purses and briefcases, she made a mess out of her closet, and she eventually turned her room into a battlefield just to remember in ruefulness that she had placed the invitation inside a drawer of a table by her bed.

Once she had secured what she needed, she came to the conclusion that she couldn't leave for the wedding like this. Her clothes were rumpled, her hair looked like a bird's nest, and she smelled as though she had just come back from a five-mile marathon.

She needed a bath.

Quickly stripping down to her skin, she crossed the room to get to the bathroom. She froze midway, however, as she saw her reflection in the tall mirror hanging on the wall. She blushed. Decorating her body were red marks that were the result of last night's abandon. They were there on the skin on her throat, her shoulders, her full breasts, and her cleavage. They even trailed all the way across her flat abdomen, heading lower still toward the sensitive region between her thighs, where her ardent lover had spent a significant amount of time adoring and worshipping her precious flower. She blushed harder at the images streaming through her head and the amazing sensations that every inch of her skin could still recall. Kouzuki Takako was quite gentle during the lovemaking... but she had proved that she could be as rough and passionate as Akemi could have wished her to. The love-bites, which had sent her into pleasurable spasms at the time of their creation, were the proof.

Her gaze fell to her hand. This very part of her had learned more of that pretty girl's curvaceous frame more than any other. It knew very well the firmness of her chest, it was deeply acquainted with the arousingly taut muscles on various parts of her slender body, and it was intimately familiar with a place where tight and well-defined abdomen gave way to delightful silkiness and softness.

Her breathing quickened and shortened at her thumb inadvertently traced the contours of her fore and middle fingers. These had measured her boyish companion's amazing depth, they had reveled in the liquid flame that eased their access, and they had discovered that deep inside, Kouzuki Takako was weaker than water, smooth as silk, and tighter than a man's grip.

Hastily clearing her head of the images, she went inside her private bathroom and took a scalding-hot shower. Emerging from the steam-filled chamber fifteen minutes afterwards, she chose a dress fit for a wedding and quickly put it on. Not bothering with the make-up, she brushed her hair, took what she needed, and went straight to the garage.

No more than ten minutes had passed when a silver Audi left the mansion and cruised down the serpentine road that would lead her to town. With the windows down and the winds streamed unchecked into the car, she felt her heart throbbing in excitement and at the prospect of meeting the flame-haired girl again. She wasn't sure whether she was falling in love. She only knew for a certainty that she needed to see Kouzuki Takako as much as she had wanted to come to the dance class just so she could admire Kurusugawa Himeko's natural charms. As the car emerged from the lower end of the empty road, she gently guided it into the highway, where she pressed on the gas pedal and had it speed into a silver streak toward where the wedding was being held.


"No, Miho, I can't leave the shop for one whole week," Kouzuki Takako flatly refused a pair of overly excited Nakashima Miho and Igarashi Aiko, her fellow permanent members in the Fanatic Trio. The three of them were standing in their shoulderless dresses, each of a different color, in front of a Catholic church in the west side of Mahoroba. It had a name, but since she wasn't chummy with the either the religious folks or their establishment, she didn't really mind forgetting it. They were all the same anyway, so why should she bother? Besides, she had heavier... issues occupying her mind.

Tiredly, she eyed the stream of guests, all dressed formally for this special occasion, milling into the church. Balloons of every possible shade filled her vision. Nylon strings hanging from the church's highest point to the grassy ground hung just as many colorful tiny flags that happened to be an idea from the bride's mom. On the left breast of the clothes of every visitor pinned a fresh rose that was distributed at the entrance to this very old religious establishment. White designated relatives on the groom's side, yellow the bride's, and pink for friends of either or both. Because the Trio held a special place in Saotome Makoto's heart, they were allowed the privilege of the purple roses. Since Kurusugawa Himeko, who should be fussing over the bride at the moment, occupied an even higher position in the favorite list, she was awarded the vivid red rose that only the soon-to-be-married couple had.

A red rose! Takako resisted the urge to laugh. As if I didn't know it signified that both of them were head over heels in love with her at one time. The only difference between them was that Souma's devotion to the golden-haired girl was out in the open for all to make fun of and Makoto's so well hidden the Photography Major was never aware. Takako's mouth tightened at the thought. Perhaps I should never have revealed it to her, either. She sighed and pushed the bad memories out of her head.

The air was cool, the sky a seamless cerulean blue, and a sun even gentler that it usually was. Everything promised a beautiful day without any weather-related mishap waiting to happen. It was going to be a perfect wedding for the track-and-field athlete. She had wanted one. Takako would give her one despite the fact that her horribly sour mood was completely unfit for it.

"But why not, Taka-chi?" the green-haired Miho whined. "Let's go and relive the fun we had in high school! You, Ai-chi, and I didn't get to hang out often anymore now that you're so busy with your family business." Aiko nodded so vehemently in agreement her nerdy glasses nearly fell off her face.

"Of course, by fun you meant 'ruining their honeymoon'," Takako pointed out. "There's a limit to jokes, you know. I'm sure as hell not tailing them all the way to Paris just to be an eyesore! Leave the poor couple alone!"

"But it's only for one week, Takako!" Aiko insisted. "Their honeymoon lasts one whole month! They can take it! Besides," she added judiciously, "they can't be having fun without us poking a stick in their wheel, can they?"

"You leave me out of this," Takako said in a dry voice. "I don't want our newlywed couple to run all three of us into the ground. Literally."

"You'll be okay." Miho giggled. "You have a black belt in Karatedo. Mako-chi can't do anything to you, I'm sure. Don't you think so too, Ai-chi?" the girl with the hideously dyed green hair turned to her roommate, who grinned back at her. They both looked like teenaged boys about to cause mischief.

"Kouzuki-san?" a soft, familiar voice spoke from behind her back. Without turning, she knew that the voice belonged to Renna Akemi, the girl who had spent a night with her back in her secret hideout. "May I... have a word with you?" She sounded hesitant, anxious, and afraid.

So I'm back to being just Kouzuki-san now? she thought in bitterness. She didn't move. Her fellow Trio members exchanged surprised looks.

"Kouzuki-san?" A note of desperation entered the future lawyer's voice now. "Please?"

"Um... Taka-chi?" Miho decided to speak up, her words racked with uneasiness. Suddenly, Takako heard a sharp intake of breath that could've come from none other than the daughter to the Mayor. "Ai-chi and I are going to check on Mako-chi for a little bit. See you later." As soon as she finished, she grabbed her bespectacled roommate by the wrist and practically dragged her toward the church, leaving Takako stranding stiffly where she was and not knowing how to proceed.

A very soft hand slipped around one of hers. "Taka?" That one simple word melted her resolve. Sighing, she turned and found a Renna Akemi dressed in a black satin dress that conformed elegantly to the curves of her body and an undoubtedly expensive white jacket that had long sleeves but no buttons whatsoever. The twenty-year-old didn't have any makeup on today... but somehow she was even prettier without them. She smelled of shampoo and body lotion. Her short black hair was still soaked with moisture. She looked like she came straight here from a bath.

"Yes?" Takako murmured finally.

"Um..." the girl she liked hesitated. "Um... you look very nice today. This indigo dress suits you."

"Thank you," she said politely.

Uncomfortable silence ensued.

"I... I'm sorry about this morning," the short-haired girl spoke finally, her shiny black eyes scanning the surrounding for anybody who might eavesdrop. She took a deep breath and continued once she was sure that none on the church's ground was interested in their conversation, "I know you're angry with me, and I don't really deserve forgiveness, but I just want you to know that..."

"Hold on," Takako interjected gently. "Why am I angry with you?"

"You aren't?" Akemi blinked at her, shocked. "But... but why aren't you?" She flushed slightly. "I mean I would understand if you were." She sounded like she was repeating herself. "I shouldn't have left you there by yourself. I should have stayed until you woke. I could have said goodbye to you at least. But I didn't..." She trailed off. "I'm a horrible person, Taka." She gazed up at Takako with a pair of sad puppy eyes.

So she came here to apologize for that? She chuckled softly. How cute! "Don't beat yourself up because of it," she said. "I'm not mad at you." She gave a reassuring smile to the daughter to the Mayor, who was currently dumbfounded by what she just said.

"But my butler said you looked a little angry..." Renna Akemi managed.

"With myself," Takako clarified, her smile unwavering on her lips. "I thought that I scared you away because I moved too fast. I blamed myself for not having any self-control at all. I was so ashamed of what I did that I didn't even have the nerve to speak to you directly when I drove by your house. I just... assumed that you didn't want anything to do with me anymore." She grinned ruefully. "To tell you the truth, I thought you came here to tell me that you wanted me to stay away from you forever."

"No, no!" The twenty-year-old shook her head vigorously. "That isn't true! Please believe me!"

"It's not?" Takako repeated, sensing her muscles soften in relief.

"No!" the other girl reiterated fervently. "I... ran away this morning because I was afraid someone would see me in... such a state. I was afraid it was going to hurt my dad's career. I was in such a panic I didn't stop to think. I'm sorry I made you think that you were at fault. Please forgive me, Taka."

"There's nothing to forgive," she pointed out, amused. "I'm really surprised, though," she took a step forward, reducing the distance between them to a mere few inches. The scent of freshness and the fragrance of shampoo and body lotion filled her nostrils. The sight of a flustered but irresistibly cute Renna Akemi filled her vision. The way the girl who was one year her senior gazed up into her amber eyes quickened her heart. "I didn't think you'd get so worked up over the possibility that I might be mad at you."

"I couldn't help it," the short-haired girl replied in ruefulness. "You were so nice to me."

"Only because I want you to like me." Takako smiled.

"Well..." the Mayor's daughter swallowed, "you succeeded." Her dark eyes were lowered to the ground. "I didn't know when it happened... but it's true that I've become very fond of you, Taka."

"Really?" Wonderment seized her.

"But Taka," said the girl she liked, "I'm not even sure that the feelings I have for you are what I might have for a friend... or something more than that." Noticing the shadow of disappointment that stole across Takako's face, she added hurriedly, "But if you don't mind, Taka, why don't we start out as friends and get to know one another first? Given time, I... I may just fall in love with such a charming person like you. For all I know... I might already have..." Toward the end, her voice grew so low Takako had to strain her ears to make out what was being said. Once she did, she blushed hotly enough for a piece of coal in a furnace.

"I'd love to be your friend, Renna-san," she murmured.

The future lawyer pouted. "Don't call me by my family name, Taka."

"I'm sorry," she whispered, "Akemi."

"That's better." The girl she liked beamed up at her. "Say, have you ever visited my school?" She paused and continued at a slight shake of Takako's head, "Then, would you like to um... have lunch with me there tomorrow? I have a two-hour break between classes so... I'd love to show you around."

"That sounds wonderful," Takako said, already looking forward to having lunch with the pretty girl. Good thing that the wedding and the feast that followed it were going to last until late in the evening, or it would become a very, very long day.

"Someone's calling for you, Taka." The girl one year her senior gestured toward her left. For some reason, her face was red and her dark eyes were shining with a strange light.

"Oh?" She turned her head and looked just to find an emptiness surrounding a tall oak tree. The moment of surprise had barely passed when she felt something soft and moist press again her left cheek, linger there for a brief second, and vanish as swiftly as it had arrived. Turning back, she saw the pretty future lawyer standing with her back facing her. The girl's ears were very red.

Did she just... smooch me? Her hand rose to touch her cheek. It still remembered the pressure very well. She suddenly had an urge to squeal.

"What's that for?" she asked breathlessly.

"Nothing," answered the future lawyer in a soft, affectionate voice. "I... just felt like it. Besides, friends... kiss one another often, don't they?" Hands folded behind her back, she slightly turned her head and glanced at Takako shyly over her shoulder. Never before had she seen more adorable. Never before had Takako felt so drunk.

"Depends on how you define 'often'," she declared quietly, "and also where you kiss. Personally, I don't have any objection if a friend of mine kisses me on my lips. In every five minutes, for that matter." She took a step forward and placed her hands on her friend's shoulders. Slowly, she turned her around and smiled down at a beautiful beet-red face. "Do you?"

She never got her answer.

"Taka-chi!" hollered Nakashima Miho, who was standing at the entrance to the church. "It's time! Come in!" She sounded giddy with excitement.

"Well, I guess we'd have to put off the debate then," said Akemi, her voice racked with relief.

"You could have just said 'Yes,' you know." Takako grinned at her.

The future lawyer turned her head sideways, refusing to look her in the eye. "But I don't want to." Her mouth's movements were almost imperceptible, her voice so soft that had Takako stood an inch further away from her, she couldn't have caught it. She didn't think that was meant to be heard.

Laughing, she took Akemi's hand and led her toward the old religious building. Half way there, she found her arm linked with that of the Mayor's daughter and her lips wearing a blissful smile. It might be her wishful thinking at work, but she believed that their "friendship" was going to change into something more... sooner than Renna Akemi had imagined.


Although Himemiya Chikane always exuded a cold exterior that very well reflected her personality and displayed an icy face only softened in the presence of her first and last love, although she was often "praised" by the odder members of her Clan that she was strong enough in willpower for ten men, she never felt like one. She certainly did so now, wearing this kind of outfit and standing in front of a large assembly of people old and young as well as unattractive and pretty, many of which were staring in her direction in what she was sure to be undisguised interest. Eyeing the clothes she wore up and down, she resisted the urge to sigh.

Since she was the "best man" of this wedding ceremony, most of the feminine details of her body had been eclipsed by the tuxedo suit she wore. With her ample chest bound tight, uncomfortably so, and hidden beneath a snowy pleated shirt that was worn over by a black jacket with stiff shoulders, with the curves of her lower frame carefully concealed by a trouser of the same color, made from expensive satin like the jacket, she looked a blade-slender man. The fact that her face was now extremely icy due to her sizzling irritation and that her flowing blue hair was tied into a tidy tail only enhanced the masculine effect. Kouzuki Takako had called Chikane an overly beautiful man and declared in absolute hilarity that she was going to steal many, many hearts from the people attending the ceremony.

She was not too sure about the stealing part, but it was evident that a great deal of women, young and middle-aged alike, were eyeing her like cats would a saucer of milk. The men, on the other hand, were eyeing her as though she were an enemy.

Luckily enough, there were people who paid virtually no attention to her, and they all sat at the front row. One of them was the High Priest of the Oogami Shrine, whom she identified through his affable countenance and his constant sneezing and coughing into a handkerchief. Two other men flanked him, one of them possessing a demeanor even colder than hers and the other looked like a gorilla with his huge muscled upper body and his unruly hair. Seated to his right was a diminutive girl with an unfading feline grin on her lips who could have been fresh out of middle school.

Himeko's friends were seated on the other side of the aisle. The green-haired Nakashima Miko was whispering something into the bespectacled Igarashi Aiko's ears while Kouzuki Takako, the planner of this wedding, was conversing with a person Chikane did not think she would see. Renna Akemi, her distant cousin, was sitting to the flame-haired girl's immediate left, listening attentively and smiling affectionately. She did not seem to notice that Chikane was standing just a few feet away.

These two barely knew each other, she mused. When did they become such good friends?

Filing the question away, she turned her attention back to the closed doors of the church and sighed. Why are they not here yet? She had grown so accustomed to Himeko's presence during the last two days that her absence irked her like a needle would.

"I know how you feel... but do calm down, Himemiya, please," advised Oogami Souma, who was standing in his snowy bridegroom suit with her at the altar. "You'll be able to see her soon."

She gave the man a cool, but impressed look. He had hit bull's eyes. He had figured out why she was so restless. It all came down to the fact that she had not been able to be close to, or even see, her precious fiancée – the word pumped a staggering amount of heat to her face – since arriving at this church. She blamed Kouzuki Takako for this. The flame-haired girl, a mischief maker to the core, was the reason to her almost insufferable irritation. Using the excuse that the best man must tend to the groom while the Maid of Honor, the bride, she had ensured that Chikane and the sunlight of her world stayed out of each other's sight for the last two hours.

I agreed to wear this tuxedo because I wanted Himeko to see, she thought in dismay. I did not expect it to turn me into a painted target in front of these... people. She swallowed down the adjective she had intended to describe the hungry-looking females in the audience. Gods, but it would seem that they really thought Chikane was a man. She intended to stay away from them once the ceremony was over.

"It is time," the minister declared coolly. "They should be here any moment."

In her opinion, this wedding was peculiar in that not only did it have a girl for the role of the best man, it was also presided over by a female minister. Girochi Miyako, now imperious and dignified in a white robe in front of the wooden altar, was a woman in her late twenties with a dark tan, a pair of rectangular glasses, and a hammer-strong golden stare that could knock a man off his feet at ten paces. Oogami Souma claimed that she was a close friend to his blood brother, Tsubasa, but shut up upon being inquired as to how close. He had seemed embarrassed for some reason.

"And they're here at last," said Miyako, whom Chikane was not sure how to address.

"At last," echoed Oogami Souma, anticipation plain in his voice.

The vaulting double doors to the church creaked open at the same time the string quartet seated to the right of the altar began playing the first notes of "The Wedding March." In the solemn atmosphere brought upon this assembly by the stream of music, a somber procession was ushered inside. Leading it was a flower girl, no more than seven of age, who sprinkled rose petals into the air after every step she took. Following her closely was a middle-aged man with more gray than black in his hair and the bride herself. Her right hand held like a fragile egg by her father, Saotome Makoto looked a different person in her snowy wedding dress, with a bridal train held by a page boy no older than the flower girl, and a near-transparent veil over her face.

Chikane's heart stopped beating, realizing that the emotions welling up so rapidly in her should be no different from those of the groom.

In her tuxedo, she watched in amazement as the Maid of Honor, also the girl to whom she proposed this morning, appeared at the entrance to the church. Since the golden-haired girl already fitted her dress long ago, Chikane never had a chance to see her in her designated outfit while they were in Kouzuki Takako's bridal shop. Maybe it was a good thing... for had she seen the sunlight of her world then, the last two hours would have been far more agonizing and much more unbearable.

She is so... beautiful! she marveled silently. She felt drunk from the mere sight of her fiancée, she felt overwhelmed with admiration for her first love's transcending beauty, and she felt a powerful daze grip her and refuse to let go.

Her first love was clad in a coral-pink velvet dress that sensually hugged her body, showing off her every curve in an extremely elegant way. Low-cut, the outfit left the angel's arms and shoulders bare yet fully embraced her chest and revealed no cleavage. Her face, marred by the shade of shyness at the moment, was angelically stunning even in the absence of makeup, eyeliner, and lip gloss. Her hair fell like a waterfall made entirely of sunlight over her shoulders, mesmerizingly stirring in the kind winds blowing in from the entrance and blessing the solemn atmosphere residing over the assembly with their quiet song. Her slender neck was graced by a choker of the same color and material as her dress and bearing a small garnet that could not really compare with the amethyst in her eyes in terms of brightness or size. Her seashell pendant hung in front of her chest, next to a striking red rose and staying very still as she followed the procession toward the altar. Hands holding a big bouquet of various kinds of flowers, she stood out from the rest of the assembly like the sun amidst the wandering clouds.

Gods above, if she is already this gorgeous in the outfit of a Maid of Honor, Chikane thought, amazed, how would she look in a wedding gown? The very image blinded her imagination, intensified the heaving of her chest, and turned her breaths into ragged puffs of hot steam that seared the insides of her nose.

When she finally snapped out of her reverie, the string quartet had stopped playing and the bride's father had already delivered her to the altar and taken his seat next to his wife at the front row. The little angel now stood one step below that of Saotome Makoto, her face deeply flushed, her amethyst gems gazing in Chikane's direction in unconcealed admiration and eternal longing, her lips curved up into a shy smile that greatly augmented her natural beauty. Her body suffused with love, Chikane placed a hand on her heart and offered in her beautiful fiancée a bow deeper than any she ever gave.

The guests were clearly surprised, judging from the soft gasps they voiced, but they raised no objections to Chikane's unprecedented behavior. They looked more or less curious, in fact, as the golden-haired Maid of Honor held the bouquet with one hand, slightly lifted the hem of her coral-pink dress, and dipped a curtsy more awkward than graceful yet utterly adorable nevertheless. Blushing hotly and glancing at the guests in mild embarrassment, she straightened up in a manner no more elegant but no less lovable. She made Chikane's heart race. She only regretted that she could not cross the altar so that she could pull the love of her life into her arms and gave her a kiss.

She tried not to. Since all her attention was on the sunlight of her world, she never knew how the bride and the groom reacted except that both were looking at her with unreadable faces. She paid them no mind and returned to thriving in the loving amethyst gaze of her first love.

The entire chamber fell quiet as the sacred moment came upon them.

"Lambs of God," intoned the female minister, her voice ringing loud and clear beneath the vaulted ceiling of the church, "you have gathered here today to act as immortal witnesses to the holy matrimony between Oogami Souma and Saotome Makoto, the couple blessed by divine will who stand before you now in this house of God. Before the sacred ritual takes place, I shall ask those who objects to their union to stand and speak. Raise your voice now or forever hold your peace."

Miyako scanned the rows of guests, her golden stare a force unto itself. None even dared even breathe hard. The woman nodded in satisfaction and turned to the soon to be wed couple standing in front of the wooden altar. Atop its surface stood seven tall candles that were lit and radiating a faint fragrant scent. On the back wall of the chamber hung a large cross with Christ crucified to its arms. From the windows on high, the light of the noon sun was streaming in unchecked and gathered itself along the outline of the hallowed founder of Christianity and the cornerstone of the Church. The entire scenery invoked in Chikane an alien and inexplicable sense of reverence.

"Answer me in earnest, Oogami Souma and Saotome Makoto," commanded the minister. "Have you come here today of your own free well to give yourself to one another in marriage?"

"I have," spoken the groom. His bride took no longer to echo the same answer and with a voice no less reverent.

"Will you honor yourselves as husband and wife for the rest of your life?" recited Girochi Miyako. "Will you accept the children given unto you from God, love them, and raise them according to the laws of Christ and the Church He built?"

"We will," answered the couple in unison.

"Give me your right hands." The darkly tanned woman held out hers for Souma and Makoto to place theirs on, their fingertips touched. Her golden stare settled on the boy in the white tuxedo and made him swallow nervously.

He took a deep breath. "I do." The answer came out strong, confident, and full of conviction. He brought a smile to his bride's lips. Beneath the veil, she seemed to be swelling with pride and happiness.

Miyako turned to the girl in the wedding dress. "Saotome Makoto, do you take Oogami Souma as your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for worse, in sickness or in health, for richer or poorer, to love and cherish until death do you part?"

"With all my heart, I do," she proclaimed in a voice that matched her words.

"Maid of Honor, will you bring us the rings?"

Himemiya Chikane and the other half of her existence stepped forward and met each other half-way at the altar. Smiling, she produced from her pocket a small box that was entrusted to her before hand. With her vacant hand she gently took her girlfriend's outreached one, drawing from her a surprised gasp, and placed the box into Himeko's grasp just before she closed the latter's fingers. She then surprised the witnesses by bending down and placing a light, solemn kiss on her lover's hand.

Chikane stepped backward in the ooh's and aah's of the guests, allowing her blushing fiancée to open the box and present its content, a pair of simple gold bands, to the minister. The bespectacled woman eyed the Photography Major wryly as she dipped her hand lightly into a small porcelain bowl of holy water on the altar and gave her blessing by sprinkled the liquid over the couple's hands as well as their rings.

"You shall exchange rings," she intoned.

Oogami Souma took one from the box. The gleam in his eyes saying more about his commitment for the girl than his words ever could, he slipped the gold band around the ring finger of her left hand, smiled tenderly at her, and gave her his. Uttering no more, she took the remaining band and placed it around his finger.

"What God has joined, none shall tear asunder," Girochi Miyako declared. "In the blessing of the Lord, I pronounce you husband and wife." Her face and voice softened considerably as she offered the couple an indulgent smile. "The groom may kiss the bride."

Oogami Souma stepped forward, lifted the veil, and drew Saotome Makoto into a kiss in the thunderous cheers and applauds of the guests. Oogami Kazuki, who had managed to hold back his sneezing during the ceremony, shed his happy tears without reserve. The cold-faced man next to him looked like he was trying his best not to. The gorilla of a man was clapping as hard as he could, producing noises that resembled gunshots, while the diminutive girl to his right jumped up and down and thrust her tiny hands up in the air.

Face brimming with unspeakable joy, the groom swept his bride into his arms and carried her toward the entrance of the church. The guests, still cheering and applauding, rose from their seats to follow them.

"You must be very happy for them," Chikane told a silently weeping Himeko, whose delicate hands were scrubbing ineffectively at her eyes.

"I am," the golden-haired Maid of Honor confirmed in a sob.

Smiling indulgently, Chikane pulled the sunlight of her world into her arms and hugged her tightly. "You are more beautiful than ever today," she whispered into her ears. "I can hardly wait for you to don a wedding dress." She kissed her forehead lovingly, eliciting from her a low coo full of delight. "I can hardly wait for the day I become yours in both name and heart."

"Me too, Chikane-chan," her fiancée whispered back before she rose on her toes and bestowed on Chikane's lips a deep, passionate kiss that curled her toes.

"Now," she breathed once their mouths had parted, "shall we come out to see who it was that had caught the bouquet from the bride?"

"Gladly." The sunlight of her world smiled at her and walked arm in arm with her toward the entrance of the church.


Two years later.


"I think leaving my hair down like this is fine, Mako-chan," Kurusugawa Himeko, brimming with joy in her wedding gown, told an overly excited Oogami Makoto, who was sitting on a couch to make it easier for her and the twenty-four-week-old spark of life residing in her belly. Her doctor had informed her and a mad-with-joy Souma a while back that it was a healthy boy. Although the young master of the Oogami Shrine swore up and down to his wife that he would love his first kid regardless of the gender, it was clear to Himeko that her childhood friend, like Himemiya Aoki himself, wished for a male child much more than he did a female one. Sometimes she caught herself wondered why they did. The answer still eluded her, though.

"No, it's not," Kouzuki Takako decided while pacing the waiting room in the same church in which the former track-and-field athlete had recited her marriage vows. The flame-haired Maid of Honor – Himeko originally wanted Mako-chan to assume the role, but her pregnancy made the task impossible – and her fellow members in the Fanatic Trio, also Himeko's bridesmaids, had been examine her hair even from the previous night and pondering as to what hairstyle might make her look best despite her insistence on just letting her waist-length hair down like usual. "Say, Miho," Takako turned to Nakashima Miho, who was sitting next to Mako-chan on the couch and tapping her lips in a very thoughtful fashion, "what do you think about a braid?"

"Nah," rejected Igarashi Aiko. The pretty woman with the nerdy glasses – she refused to wear contacts for reasons Himeko couldn't comprehend – was lounging comfortably atop the armrest of the same couch the auburn-haired and the green-haired woman, who was still her roommate in graduate school, sat. "I say we make it into a hair tower on her hair. It's rare! It's refreshing!" Mako-chan and Miho giggled aloud.

"Why are you guys doing this?" Himeko asked wonderingly, slightly amused and irritated by her friends' relentlessness. Her hands were folded atop her abdomen, her amethyst eyes gazing forward at the mirror atop the makeup table and carefully making sure that there was nothing wrong with her appearance. Today... was going to be the happiest day of her life. She, like any woman about to be wedded to the person she loved most, wanted it to be perfect. "You know I don't want to change my hairstyle. Why bother?"

"Because we know your precious Chikane-chan likes your hair this way. That's why you grew it back to how it used to be during high school, no?" The owner of the bridal shop cackled. "How can we not take advantage of this occasion to make her life harder?" Miho and Aiko flipped their thumbs up, signaling their approval. The auburn-haired woman confined herself to a smile behind a raised hand.

Himeko blushed slightly at Takako's bluntness.

"May I remind you that the three of you already made her life hard enough?" she pointed out. "You didn't even let me call her cell phone." The day prior to the wedding, the Trio had "kidnapped" her to Takako's apartment and kept her there in "house arrest." With the excuse that they needed to throw her a bachelorette's party, which entailed nothing more than a pillow fight between the mildly intoxicated Trio members, they managed to separate her from the woman she loved. She knew they were only trying to have their usual dose of fun, but it was true that they had made her miserable the whole day, during which she couldn't see or even listen to the voice of her beautiful pianist. She barely slept a wink last night for the same reason. She... was slightly mad at them for that.

"Oh come on." Takako gave a dismissive wave of her hand. "You were with her twenty-four seven for the last two years. A day of separation ain't going to kill her."

"So you said, Takako-chan, but how would you feel if we didn't allow you to see Akemi-chan for one whole day?" she countered. Miho and Aiko put on interested looks.

"I didn't see her yesterday," the pretty woman in the red velvet dress said defensively. "Nor have I seen her today. I'm still fine, aren't I?"

"Lying is bad, Takako-chan." Himeko giggled. "She came to your apartment last night."

"How did you know?!" Takako gasped and shut up once she realized what she just blurted out.

"Akemi did come over?" Aiko said dubiously. "I never knew."

"Because you and Aiko-chan were snoring in the guestroom, Miho-chan," Himeko explained. "I couldn't sleep, so I decided to go to the living room and watched some TV." Takako began to shake her head hurriedly and signaled for Himeko to stop talking, but she ignored her. She had spent her life making fun of others. It was time she had a taste of her own medicine, of course. "I just left the room when I saw Takako-chan standing at the door with Akemi-chan. They were making out so intensely they didn't notice me at all." She stuck her tongue out at the owner of the bridal shop.

"Hi... Himeko..." the flame-haired woman begged. Sweat was beading on her forehead.

"Don't mind her, Hime-chi," Miho commanded. "Now, how long did she stay?"

"Exactly?" Himeko grinned wickedly, adding much more color to Takako's cheeks. "Three hours and fifty-three minutes." The Maid of Honor swallowed audibly and slapped her forehead.

"Were you peeking?" Mako-chan asked, scandalized.

"Of course not!" she denied hastily. "I slipped back into the guestroom as soon as Takako-chan carried Akemi-chan inside." Another grin. More sweat. "But what else could I do in the room except looking at the clock and wondering when the noises echoing out from the other bedroom were going to stop?"

Nakashima Miho and Igarashi Aiko hooted in laughter. Even the former track-and-field athlete laughed aloud.

"Now what did you have to do that for?" the flame-haired woman muttered indignantly.

"Payback, Takako-chan," Himeko answered sweetly and smiled at her friend. "Payback." An idea popped up in her head. "And by the way, unless you'd let me see Chikane-chan immediately, I'm going to blurt out, intentionally of course, what you and Akemi-chan were talking about last night."

"Ooh!" exclaimed two of the three bridesmaids. Mako-chan herself blushed hotly and kept her mouth shut. "Do tell! Do tell!"

"You wouldn't have the nerve," her Maid of Honor challenged.

"You shouldn't be too sure." Himeko laughed softly. "I miss Chikane-chan so much there's nothing I wouldn't do to be able to see her right now."

"Don't agree, Taka-chi!" commanded the green-haired bridesmaid. Takako turned and flashed her a silencing look. It was met with absolute hilarity.

"Bite harder, Akemi," Himeko taunted, unable to keep a straight face.

The flame-haired woman panicked. "Okay! Okay!" she shrieked, face as red as her dress. "The rest of you, follow me!" Not waiting for an answer from the other bridesmaid, she marched to the couch and grabbed Miho and Aiko by their ears. Ignoring their cries of anguish, she dragged them out of the room. Before she vanished, though, she shot Mako-chan and Himeko a scathing look each for emphasis.

"I see Chikane has rubbed off on you somewhat, roommie," commented the former track-and-field athlete as she rose from the couch, her hands offering her belly support. "You handled Takako well."

"Thanks." Himeko grinned at her best friend. "I'll see you out, Mako-chan."

"No need." The auburn-haired woman waved off her offer. I'll call Souma right away. You stay here and wait for your beloved." She gave a sudden laugh. "Just don't jump her when she comes in like Takako did Akemi last night, okay? You'll have plenty of time for that later."

"Mako-chan!"

Still laughing, her former roommate left the room and closed the door behind her. A couple of minutes later, it swung open again and admitted a sight that melted her heart. Standing at the entrance to the waiting room was the moonlight of her world, her slender body now graced with a bridal gown the elegant silhouette of which was fashioned after the mermaid style. Crafted in satin, blessed with a distinct sheen and smoothness, the gown fitted nicely to her sweetheart's hourglass figure all the way to the knees, and then flared outwardly at her feet like the tail of a real mermaid. Its hemline was floor-length, forming a bridal train that would trail stylishly after her with every step she took. Strapless and shoulderless, the dress had a neckline in the shape of a heart, which embraced the curve of her full bosom, and was heavily laced from the top to the dropped waistline with elegant patterns of vines and leaves.

Himeko's heart nearly burst in pride and joy at her first love. "Photogenic" barely scratched the surface of the sublime beauty currently radiating from the pianist. "Picturesque" would spend an eternity chasing after her but never caught up. "Breathtaking" would be shamed to death. Even though, Himeko was wearing the same gown, she couldn't really compete with the Himemiya princess in terms of beauty and elegance. She doubted anyone could.

"How did you manage that, my little angel?" the genius musician murmured in amusement as she closed the door and glided toward where Himeko sat. The air around her seemed to glimmer, the seashell pendant on her chest gathering the light spilling down from the ceiling of the waiting room.

"Sincerity accompanied by a well-intentioned threat works wonders, Chikane-chan," she answered and smiled up at the other half of her existence. "I didn't want to do it, but they insisted on not letting me see you..."

"I am glad you did." Her beautiful bride fell onto her knees in front of her and took Himeko's hands into both of hers. "I missed you so." She kissed each knuckle lovingly, then gently laid a side of her face atop Himeko's thighs.

"So did I," she whispered back, hand brushing her bride's glorious azure tresses.

"Have you been feeling well since yesterday?" The blue-haired girl rubbed her face softly against her lap. "No morning sickness, I hope?" Her voice, like always, was frighteningly gentle and saturated with love.

"Little Shizuka has been behaving, Chikane-kaa-san," Himeko whispered to the other mother of her unborn child, her vacant hand very still on her stomach, hoping she could feel her baby stir. "She didn't mess me up at all. I think she's going to be a very sweet and kind girl when she grows up."

Everything still seemed like a dream to her, and sometimes she couldn't believe that she had been pregnant for three months with the child of the woman she loved. The special treatment she received at the Himemiya's R&D Division had turned out to be nothing less than miraculous, and the doctors had assured her that everything was going extremely well with her pregnancy. Of course, they had seemed skeptical at how she and her companion assumed that the spark of life inside her womb was going to develop into a girl, but at least they didn't say anything.

There had been nights Himeko stayed awake in bed, crying her eyes out in ever cresting joy while her sweetheart held her tightly and soothed her by slow, loving strokes on her back and gentle kisses all over her tear-soaked face.

"She'll be just like you, then, Himeko-kaa-san," her stunning bride told her. She blushed. "And I just spoke to Father and Mother earlier. I think they already scheduled a long vacation that would start as soon as you delivered our child." The musician chuckled. "They said they were going to stay home for maybe a year or two and help us take care of Shizuka." Her chuckle grew into melodious laughter. "Kyou-Oji-sama is going to have a lot of trouble managing the business of his corporation for sure."

"How kind of them," Himeko remarked, still a little disappointed that she never felt her unborn daughter stir. Although she knew it was still too early for that – her belly had not even grown in size – she had hoped... "Did Mom and Dad say anything else?"

"Well, we were having a little chat," answered her first love, "when Father suddenly wanted to make a wager with me. He said you were going to give birth to a boy."

"He's going to lose for sure." She giggled.

"I know." The other mother of her child joined her mirth.

"But you know, Chikane-chan," she tapped her lips ponderously, "sometimes I couldn't help but wonder about a few things. You know, like how I managed to know your eating habits without you telling me." She cupped her sweetheart's face with both hands and gently lifted it up for a brief kiss. "Or how I fell so madly in love with you the first time I saw you."

"I wish I could answer you, my little angel," said the pianist.

"You do not have to wish, Priestesses of the Godless Month," a powerful female voice, familiar yet alien at the same time, resounded from overhead, making them jump. "It is time you get back your memories."

A torrential current of fire and lightning rushed across her mind as soon as the last word was uttered, and she started to scream. The world roared in her ears, her blood boiled in her veins, and a storm of images exploded in her vision.

When her head finally stopped hurting from the grippingly powerful visions and her tears had stopped flowing altogether, she found herself on her knees and gazing at the moonlight of her world, seeing her in a completely different light. Her first love was no longer wearing the stunning wedding gown. Gracing her curvaceous upper body now was a snowy kimono shirt called chihaya with the borders of its long, wide sleeves lined with indigo velvet. Hugging her lower frame was a hibakama skirt of the same shade. Her hair remained in a tidy tail bound by a snowy ribbon, the composure usually cloaking her gorgeous face no longer there. Her eyes were shining with moisture and widened by surprise, her lips a perfect O that mirrored the emotions in those sapphire pupils.

Kurusugawa Himeko, in the exact same outfit except for the red velvet lining her sleeves and her red hibakama, knew exactly what her faithful companion was feeling in her heart. Gods of Heaven above... I remember! An emotional epiphany seized her, squeezed her heart, and summoned yet another deluge of moisture in her amethyst eyes.

"Chikane-chan..." She threw her arms around the Priestess of the Moon and wept openly on her shoulder while years of pent up memories and suppressed emotions continued to roar and rage from the darkest depths of her mind. "I... I remember you now, Chikane-chan..." Calling the name of her precious moonlight over and over again, she tightened her arms around her body and tried to absorb more of her warmth and softness. "I'm not letting go of you ever again, Chikane-chan..." She shed her tears harder than ever.

"It has been lonely..." whispered her first love in a broken voice as she slipped her gentle arms around Himeko's waist and held her tight. "It has been so lonely in the Moon Shrine all these years without being able to see you, Himeko..." A painful sob escaped her mouth. "But finally... finally..." Another sob. "I am back, my little angel. I am back..."

Unable to utter a word in this heart-rending moment, in which she was truly reunited with her love, Kurusugawa Himeko continued to cry while her memories, now free of the vicious bindings that kept them sealed, surged in her mind like the waves of a stormy sea. Everything had come back to her, including the recollection of how they first met in the Garden of the Roses in what now seemed a different reality, how she became friends with the princess of the Himemiya, and how she fell helplessly in love with her but didn't realize it until it was too late. She now remembered the pain she had inflicted upon her most important person due to her mistaking her physical attraction toward Oogami Souma for love. She could even recall the tragic event taken place in that dark night in the Himemiya Mansion, where the other Priestess severed her link with humanity and physically violated Himeko in the hope that the inexorable gears of destiny could be halted.

Chikane-chan had succeeded in the end, where she traded her life for Himeko's and became the ultimate sacrifice to the Gods. In the aftermath of the holy war, the princess was yanked mercilessly from her moments after they confessed their true feelings and for the first time in their young life, experienced the joy of being loved. The separation caused by divine will had been devastating. Himeko was forced to watch in tears as the girl she loved was hurled into the sky in a flurry of flower petals and the merciless howling winds. Even though the experience hadn't last more than a few seconds, although a powerful spell immediately kicked in afterwards and wiped her mind blank, she could still remember how close her heart had come to stopping because of the unbearable anguish.

But it didn't matter anymore. The Priestess of the Moon had come back to her side, her memories and feelings intact. The "how" and the "why" weren't important. All she cared about was the fact that she had fulfilled the promise she made to the moonlight of her world instants before the latter was taken away from her. "Looks and memories don't matter!" she had shouted tearfully while desperately trying to hold on to the Moon Priestess's hand. "I'll definitely find you! Definitely!" Her words were honored three years ago at that crowded junction, where the two halves of the same existence were brought together and the flame of their love kindled anew.

Tremblingly, Kurusugawa Himeko laid her hands on either side of her eternal companion's gorgeous face and gently caressed it with the tips of her fingers. Her eternal lover allowed her to do as she wished, gazing intently at her all the while with sapphire eyes stained with moisture.

"So they trapped you in the Moon Shrine for all these years?" she asked quietly, her sentence cut into pieces by her sobs. "Did you escape from it, Chikane-chan?"

"I do not know." The beautiful blue-haired princess laid her forehead against that of Himeko and placed her hands upon the backs of Himeko's own. "Day by day I sat in that dark chamber, always thinking of you and fearing that they would erase you from my mind." She shivered. Himeko's heart throbbed. "One day, the gates were suddenly opened. Next I knew... I was already reborn into the world."

"And I am sorry I could not release you sooner, Priestess of the Moon," a familiar female voice said from every direction at once. "Forgive me."

It was only then did Himeko realize she was no longer inside the church where they were about to be wed. She and the mother of her child were actually kneeling on the wooden floor of a place her past-life memories identified as the inner sanctum of the Moon Shrine. The only thing that differed from her recollection, however, was the fact that its walls and ceilings were translucent at the moment, allowing her to see beyond them... and find the colossal figure of a humanoid machine. Its body seemed to be made from pure gold, its back decorated by a ring of ice and fire. Her breath caught. Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi! It was nothing other than the physical manifestation of the Immortal who was summoned to defeat the eight-headed Serpent God.

Fear clutched her heart and fastened around it. Does she want to take Chikane-chan from me again? Frightened by the possibility, she held on to her fated lover more tightly than ever, determined to protect the light of her world from divine grasp. "No!" she heard the Moon Priestess whisper in panic.

"Calm down, children of the Moon Shrine," said Ame no Murakumo's powerful voice. "I am not here to separate you." In a flash of light, the divine titan vanished and reappeared inside the Shrine in a completely different form. The deity looked like a mortal now with her pretty face and platinum hair cascading all the way down to the wooden floor. She was wearing a hagoromo that sparkled like pure gold without any source of illumination. A fully sheathed katana hung at her waist. Although a woman, often thought otherwise by her worshippers, her presence was no less imposing than that of any male deity Himeko had a chance to encounter in her past life.

"You aren't?" She heaved a sigh of relief.

"I would not have the heart to do such a thing." The Goddess of the Sword smiled tenderly at her. "Besides, I spent years trying to get the Ruler of Heaven to free her. Why would I reverse my efforts?"

"You did?" Chikane-chan whispered wonderingly. "Was that why... I was reborn?"

"Yes," confirmed Ame no Murakumo. "I managed to free you, but it took a great deal of time and energy." She sighed. "Izanagi no Mikoto was furious that you abandoned your foreordained duties, so he was dead set on imprisoning you in this very Shrine forever." She made some disgusted sounds in her throat. "Luckily, there were Immortals in his Court who were moved by the love you two shared. Together, we devoted quite as few years trying to persuade the Ruler of Heaven to have mercy on you."

"And you finally moved him?" Himeko asked, amazed.

"Of course not!" the Goddess scoffed. "That creep does not listen to reasons."

"Then how?" She blinked, thinking to herself that it was rather disturbing to hear the Lord of Heaven being talked down in such a way. Her lover clearly agreed, for she gave Himeko a rueful look and slightly shook her magnificent head.

"We struck his weak point," announced the deity, "which happened to be his competitiveness. We challenged the creep's personal belief that love could last forever. We told him if he wanted to make a wager with us. Should we lose, we will never pester him again. Should we win, he would promise that he would release the Moon Priestess from her prison."

"What were you betting on?" the genius musician inquired curiously.

"The fact that even after he had erased your memories, your love never died." Ame no Murakumo smiled. "He agreed to temporarily let you leave the Shrine and staged a "chanced" encounter between the two of you in Downtown Mahoroba. The wager was meant to settle the moment the two of you met. Should either of you fail to recognize one another, the Moon Priestess would immediately be taken back inside the Shrine."

Warmth flooded Himeko's chest as she turned to her first love and saw in those beautiful sapphire gems an emotion mirroring that which was currently energizing her heart. Love. It was as though she had fallen in love with her all over again.

"It was as we expected," continued the Sword Goddess, "you did not disappoint us. Thanks to you, Izanagi conceded his defeat and agreed to the terms we had put forth beforehand."

"But you said he released me three years ago..." Chikane-chan hesitated. "What about the nineteen years worth of memories I accumulated prior to our meeting? Are they... fabricated?"

"No." The woman in the golden hagoromo waved her hand dismissively. "As soon as the outcome of the bet had been settled, we immediately turned back the flow of time and had you reincarnated into the Himemiya family. Then we slowly guided the course of your life toward the meeting at Downtown Mahoroba. Did not take much work, by the way."

"I am eternally in your debt, hallowed one." The blue-haired princess gently eased herself out of Himeko's embrace and bowed down so low toward the Goddess that her forehead touched the floor. Her voice was racked with gratitude. Knowing that she owed the reunion with the love of her life to Ame no Murakumo, Himeko herself followed suit.

"No need to thank me," murmured the Goddess as she lifted a hand. A gentle gust of wind helped Himeko and her beloved fiancée to their feet. "We were simply doing what is right. Besides, your love moved every single one of us. You deserved this, children of the Moon Shrine." A satisfied smile graced the deity's lips. "And yes, children, I came down to the Mortal World today firstly because I had already gotten permission from the creep to give your memories back. And secondly, I want to give you a wedding gift."

"None is necessary, hallowed one," the other mother of Himeko's child said hastily. "Your presence already honored us more than we could ever hope." She nodded in a fervent agreement.

"But I insist."

Ame no Murakumo held up a finger the tip of which immediately became aglow with a brilliant golden aura. The light then pulsed like a heart as it condensed into a small sphere before it left her fingertip and shot straight toward Himeko. She never had a chance to react before the golden sphere dissolved into a bright flash at the contact it made with her belly. Warmth seeped into her, slowly migrated across her existence, and finally vanished.

"It is a little spell, Priestesses," explained the Goddess of the Sword. "It will stay within you throughout your pregnancy and ensure that nothing happens to the precious spark of life that you carry in your womb. Your daughter," she winked at Himeko and her first love, "will be delivered safely into this world. This I assure you."

Himeko was at a loss for word.

"I... I do not know what to say, my Lady," her princess stammered.

"Then do not bother." The Immortal laughed. "For now, just relax and enjoy the most joyous day of your life. Please forgive me that I cannot attend your wedding." The divine one smiled ruefully. "Izanagi would give me an earful if I linger a second longer than I must in this..." she gave her head a light shake, "establishment. Farewell, children of the Moon Shrine."

She swung her right sleeve and summoned a blinding flare of golden aura. When it faded away, Himeko and her bride was back in the waiting room of the church and the Goddess nowhere in sight. Her face was dry, as was her sweetheart's, and without a trace of the tears they had shed.

Overwhelmed with emotions, she pulled Shizuka's other mother into a tight embrace and tried her best not to cry. Chikane-chan tremblingly hugged her back.

Someone pounded on the door. "Hey, it's time!" It was Takako's voice.

"Get back to the altar, Chikane-chan," Himeko whispered. "I'll be there soon."

"Do not take too long, Himeko-kaa-san." The blue-haired woman gave her a quick kiss on the lips before she opened the door and hurried away.

"Are you ready, Himeko?" said the owner of the bridal shop as she stepped inside, her hands holding a bouquet. On her heels was the High Priest of the Oogami Shine, a perpetual smile decorating his lips and brightened his fatherly face.

"I am," she confirmed, feeling a surge of excitement at what was going to pass.

"Then let us go, Kurusugawa-san," proposed the leader of the Oogami. He offered her his left arm. "I am honored to be in your late father's place on this glorious morning," he intimated.

"The honor is mine, sensei." She smiled up at the middle-aged man who had sheltered her to the day her first love came back into her life and once again stole her heart.

"The time has come, my child," he said. "Your bride awaits."

Gently, he led her out of the room. Moisture continuously stung in her eyes as she relished every step she took beneath the hallowed hallway of the church and upon the path that would lead her to the sacred altar, where one of her life's dreams was going to come true. Thinking to herself that her unborn daughter was going to be one of the witnesses for the wedding, she felt the anguish she had to suffer in her past life and the pain of separation that nearly destroyed her before reality was rewoven and history remade begin to fade into nothingness. They mattered no more now, when Himeko and the moonlight of her world were already beyond the grasp of tragedy, when the cogs of Fate no longer encompassed the course of their life. The chains had been broken, and they had obtained their freedom... for time without end.