Twinkling of Young Stars

by Naia Zifu

"I dare you to go talk to her," a deep, harsh-sounding voice taunted. "Pretend you wanna ask her out or something!"

"I dunno, Hikari," her companion said, "she seems harmless enough to me. And it'd be awfully mean to trick her; she's never done anything to us!"

"That's just it-- she never does anything but sit around and read by herself. She's asking for it!" Hikari said. "Go on, I double dare you."

"All right, I'll do it," her friend conceded. "You know I can never turn down a double dare. . . though I know I'll hate myself for it in the morning. . ."

A shadow fell across my page and I looked up into the deep-blue eyes of a handsome raven-haired jock. But even as she tried to smile, there was a dark cloud across her eyes which betrayed her reluctance to go through with the prank.

"Uh, hi, I'm Seiya," she introduced herself. "I, um, thought you were kinda cute, so I was wondering if you'd like to--"

"Save it," I said curtly. "I've heard all this before. Your friend dared you to ask the nerdy girl out, right? But even if I said yes, you'd never go through with it. It's just a game you popular types play. I don't fall for it."

Seiya laughed nervously and scratched the back of her head, a guilty look on her face.

"Yeah, something like that," she admitted. "But I didn't mean anything by it. I didn't even wanna do it, but she double-dared me! You probably think I'm a terrible person now."

"I think you have a weak mind and are too easily influenced by others," I said with a sigh. "But if you were really bad, you wouldn't have stuck around to apologise, so you must have some redeeming qualities." I closed my book and offered a hand. "I'm Taiki Kou."

"No kidding?" Seiya said, pumping my hand furiously. "Kou's my given name, too, but everyone just calls me Seiya. Wanna be friends, fellow Kou? I promise it's not a trick this time!"

I was surprised someone like her would want to befriend me, but she seemed serious enough.

"All right," I agreed, "but if I find out you're just using me for study help, the deal is off!"

"You're awfully cynical for someone so young, Kou. What makes you think I'd only want you for a tutor?"

"Because I'm not athletic, popular, or particularly attractive. My lone asset is my mind. That's the only reason anyone wants to be friends with me."

"I think people just don't talk to you 'cause you sit alone all the time wallowing in self-pity," she retorted. "Just stick with me; I'll have you feeling cute, popular, and full of self-esteem in no time! Now, just for starters. . ."

I flinched as Seiya reached for my face, but she asked me to trust her. Despite my naturally suspicious nature, I did, and saw the world go blurry as she removed my nerdy, horn-rimmed black glasses and pressed them into my hand.

"I can't see a thing without those," I protested.

"Well, they look really bad on you," Seiya said. "You should get nicer ones. . .like from this century. . . It'll look better."

Then Seiya untied my customary pigtails and smoothed my mousy brown hair back from my face. She took the red elastic band from her own ponytail to tie back mine, and used the yellow plastic clips that had fastened the ends of my braids to pin my perpetually overgrown bangs out of my eyes. Finally satisfied, she took a mirror from her pocket to show me the results.

"See? You have a pretty face and really nice eyes, when you let people see them."

I squinted at the blurry face in the mirror and touched my large forehead self-consciously. I had never been without my veil of shaggy bangs, and felt exposed without them. With nothing left to hide behind, I looked like a completely different person.

Somewhat reluctantly, I replaced my unflattering glasses and returned her mirror. I intended to return her elastic as well, but she refused it.

"Keep it. I've got more elastics at home than I know what to do with, anyway."

"Thanks," I said. "I've never put much thought into my appearance before; it just never seemed that important. My only real concern in life has always been learning."

Seiya sighed. "Yeah, I noticed. That's part of what gets you so much ridicule. I tell you this as a friend, Kou, you really need to loosen up! Study less, play more. It'll do wonders for your popularity."

"And wreak havoc on my grades," I replied. "No thanks."

"I don't think anything short of total brain failure could hurt grades like yours!" she opined. "But just stick with me; I'll get you loosened up and having fun in no time!"

"I don't need loosening up," I said curtly, and returned to my reading.

Seiya slapped her own forehead. "See? You've just proven my point for me! It's called 'recess,' Kou. Perhaps you've heard of it? It's the time when kids go out to play and enjoy the sunshine."

"I am enjoying the sunshine," I protested. "It provides light and warmth for me as I read."

"But what about fun?"

"Reading is fun!"

Seiya looked horrified. "You think sitting around with your nose in a book is enjoying recess? Well, we'll just have to try to break you of that. Stick with me and you'll be running around playing like the rest of us in no time!"

I felt a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Did I really want to "stick with" one so determined to change everything that makes me who I am?

Nevertheless, I bounced home in unusually high spirits, eager to share my good fortune at having finally found a friend. I was so excited that, rather than neatly hanging my coat and stacking my books as usual, I dropped everything the moment I was inside. I hardly even remembered to close the door before I bounded through the apartment in search of my mother.

"Koko, you know better than to leave things lying around like this," she scolded. "What's got you in such a rush today, anyway?"

I skidded to a stop, and hurried back up the hall to find my mother gathering my scattered schoolbooks.

"Sorry, I was so excited I forgot. Guess what? I made a friend at school today! Her name is Seiya and she's really popular and pretty and she has curly black hair and blue eyes and she's a big jock and we met because her friend dared her to ask me out but she didn't really want to and since I never really fall for that anyway there was no harm done and I dunno but a popular girl like her might still just be using me for study help but she seems sincere so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt because I really don't think--"

"Whoah! Pause a moment and take a breath, Koko, you're babbling!" my mother interrupted. "So you've finally made a friend at school? That's good; you should have friends your own age. And you say she's pretty and she asked you out? Could it be my little Koko's got her first crush?"

I rolled my eyes. "Seiya and I are just friends, Mother! She didn't even ask me out for real-- it was only because her friend dared her."

"Wishful thinking, I guess," she said with a sigh.

"I'm only nine years old, Mother," I pointed out. "Why are you in such a hurry for me to grow up?"

"Sorry, I guess I forget sometimes. You don't usually act like a nine-year-old, Koko, and you certainly don't look like one. . . especially today. . . New hairstyle?"

"Seiya's idea. She likes it better like this."

"Very nice. Although. . ." She indicated my high forehead. "I'm afraid you have the infamous Taiki forehead, dear. Maybe you shouldn't wear your hair off your face like that."

For some reason her remark really insulted me.

"Well, if it's all the same, I think I'll trust Seiya's opinion instead," I retorted, "and she prefers it like this. She doesn't like these glasses on me, either. She finds them outdated, and I agree. It's time for a change."

"Oh, I see, you've finally reached the age when you're concerned about your looks, eh?" my mother assumed. "You're worried you don't fit in."

"That's not it! I don't care if I don't fit in. In fact, it's my pleasure not to fit in! It's just that Seiya--"

"Oh, I can hardly wait to meet this Seiya, Koko," my mother interrupted. "She seems like such a good influence on you!"

"Oh, all right, I'll bring her around," I promised, but was careful not to specify a time frame.

I didn't want to bring Seiya around at all; I just knew my mother would embarrass me in front of her! But Seiya herself was thrilled at the idea, and said she couldn't wait to meet her.

"Your mom really wants to meet little me?" Seiya asked the next day at recess.

She'd been hanging upside-down from the monkey bars for fifteen minutes already, trying to outlast the playground record of twenty-five. Her skirt was tied between her legs so her panties wouldn't show, her long black ponytail hung almost to the ground, and her face was as red as her uniform, from the blood rushing to her head. Fortunately, her mind was still clear enough to hold normal conversation. It was, however, very distracting trying to talk to her while she hung upside-down. I sat on the ground nearby so at least I would be talking to her face instead of her feet.

"I told her all about you, and for some reason she thinks you're a good influence," I replied, "though I'm sure if she saw you like this she'd change her mind. . ."

"Yeah, she just doesn't know how much trouble I can be!" Seiya said proudly.

"You know you don't have to come if you don't want to."

"No, I do!" she insisted. "I'm curious what kind of mom raises a kid as cynical as you! Er, no offence intended. . ."

"None taken."

"So, do you just live with your mom or what?"

"My father's around, too, sometimes. But she's in medical research, so she's at the lab a lot. I don't get to see her as much as I'd like."

"You're so lucky to still have both parents!" Seiya said. "My mom died last year, and now my dad's working two jobs just to keep up the bills."

"So you're stuck at home alone all day?"

Seiya laughed. "In my house there's no such thing! I have four little sisters to look out for!"

"You have four little sisters?" I asked in disbelief.

It was hard for an only child like me to even imagine such a full house!

"Yeah, but two of those are twins," she said. "Let's see. . . there's Kiyoshi, she's seven; Mai and Mieko are almost six; and little Hoshi, she's the baby, she just turned three."

"And you have to look out for all of them, all by yourself?"

"Of course, I'm the big sister; it's my job!" she said proudly. "I don't mind, though-- they're great kids. And being in charge definitely has its perks!"

I laughed. "So you like to boss people around, eh? I'll have to remember that about you."

"I'm starting to get dizzy," Seiya complained. "How long has it been?"

I consulted my watch. "Not even twenty minutes, I'm afraid. But if you're dizzy, maybe you should come down and try again tomorrow."

"Uh-uh! I've been trying every day for a week and never even got past ten! I'm gonna make it this time, Kou, or die trying!"

"You'd die for a playground record?" I cried. "Where are your priorities? If you die, who'll take care of your little sisters?"

Seiya sighed and flipped herself back upright.

"Oh, all right, I'll give up for now," she conceded. "You're so overprotective! I can tell I'll never get to take risks with you around!"

"Why don't you try something nice and safe for once?" I suggested.

"Like what? You expect me to read with you?"

"We don't have to read if you don't want to. If you'd like, I could teach you to write poetry."

"Poetry? No way! I'm gonna make you have fun today whether you want to or not!" She scanned the playground for a suitable group activity, and found it in a group of girls choosing sides for a ball game. "We'll meet again, dreaded monkey bars!" she muttered, and dragged me off to the playing field. "Hey! You guys got room for two more?"

"Depends," a violet-haired girl called back. "Is your friend any good?"

Seiya looked to me, but I just stared back blankly. I'd never even played ball before!

"It's easy," she said. "All you have to do is get the ball in the other team's goal without getting tagged. You can use any part of your body except knees and elbows to move the ball, but you can only tag somebody with your knees or elbows. But if you get tagged, you're out the whole rest of the game. The first team to get twenty-one points wins, unless either team gets down to three players or less, in which case they lose no matter how many points they've got. Understand?"

I tried not to laugh. "What kind of silly game is that?"

Seiya looked hurt. "I made the rules up by myself! Don't you like them?"

"Yeah, Seiya Ball is the best!" a red-haired girl close to my height declared, and the others agreed.

"All right, I'll play," I said reluctantly.

"Great! She's in, guys! But go easy on her, okay? It's her first time."

I took off my glasses and set them, along with my poetry notebook, on a bench near the playing field so they wouldn't get lost or broken.

I was assigned to the opposite team as Seiya, forced to try to score goals against my friend, who shone as her own team's goalie. Nothing could get past Seiya, least of all me. But I surprised myself by not getting tagged at all in the first half of the game. I even made it through most of the second half untagged, but eventually I was kneed in the groin by the enthusiastic redhead and limped back to my bench to sit out the rest of the game, as per Seiya's rules.

But as I approached my bench, I found it taken over by someone new. She was small, pale, and delicate-looking, and only seemed paler in contrast to our school uniform of a crisp white blouse, red pleated skirt with matching vest, and black ribbon tie. The new girl's skin was the colour of parchment, her plaited hair as white as snow, and her big, round eyes were a clear, pale green. She was actually quite pretty, though she barely looked old enough to be in school yet at all.

I wiped the sweat from my palm and introduced myself.

"Hello, I'm Taiki Kou. I don't think I've seen you around before. Are you new here?"

"Yaten Kou," the pale girl replied. "I just transferred in today. I don't know anybody here yet or anything!"

I put on my glasses to get a clearer look at her and had a seat beside this pretty new girl.

"Don't worry," I assured her, "most of the kids here are nice. A cute girl like you should have no problem making friends."

"I did at my old school," she replied. "The kids there were always mean to me, They teased me, saying I'm an albino, or that I'm old 'cause of my white hair. They made fun of me for being so weak at sports. And they'd get scared of me 'cause sometimes. . .sometimes I get a little. . .psychic."

"No-one will tease you for that here," I insisted. "We're all special here, in one way or another. I, for one, was selected for intelligence and unlimited learning capacity. What about you? Was it your mind-reading skill that brought you here, or are you skilled in other areas as well?"

"I'm not a mind-reader!" she shouted. "I'm so sick of everybody always assuming that! I got empathy and the occasional intuition, and that's it. But even in a school like this I just know I'm gonna get teased for it! I'm sure they tease you for your brains, don't they?" I didn't answer, but she continued anyway, "See there? You can't tell me this school's any nicer than my old one just 'cause you wear these dumb uniforms and call yourselves gifted. It's just like any other school, no matter how fancy it looks on the outside!"

But it wasn't just like any other school! Ours was a small private academy for only the most gifted students, hand-selected by the royal family themselves. Most alumni go on to serve the royals in some capacity, and all our Sailor Senshi attended here, dating as far back as official records were kept. Just being selected to attend was one of the highest honours a young person in our society could achieve!

"Well, I think you have a wonderful gift," I said, "and our royal family must agree, or you wouldn't even be here!"

"Yeah? Well, I don't think it's much of a gift. I know what every kid in this school is really feeling right now, no matter how much they try to hide it. All that emotion coming at me from all sides, all the time, and I don't even know how to control it!" she complained. "And then, whenever someone dies, that's just the worst! I can literally feel their star go out-- poof!-- just like a candle, and it's almost like a part of me dies at the same time. The people who call it a gift just don't know what I go through every day. I wouldn't wish this 'gift' on my own worst enemy!"

"Then that must be why you're here, to learn to control those powers."

"I can only hope so."

"So," I said after a long, awkward moment of silence, "if you know what everyone in school is feeling, what signals are you picking up from me?"

The new girl stared at me for a moment. . . stared through me. . . until finally she answered, "Sympathy. . . compassion. . . gentleness. . . I think you're feeling sorry for me and wanna be my friend or something."

"Well, I wouldn't exactly say I feel sorry for you," I began, "but I certainly know what it's like to be different, and I know what it's like to need a friend. I think two wounded souls like ours should probably stick together. Don't you agree?"

"Fine with me," she said with a shrug. "At least you're not afraid of me like most kids are, that's something! But what should I call you? Having a friend with the same name as me could get confusing."

"Well, my mother calls me 'Koko,' " I said. "I guess you can, too, if you want."

"I am not calling you Koko!" she said. "With this hair, if I start calling you Koko, the other kids'll call me--"

" 'Koko-nut?' " I guessed. "Good point. I hadn't thought of that. But I have another friend named Kou, whom everyone calls by her family name, 'Seiya.' I guess you could call me 'Taiki' if you had to."

"That'll work," she said with a shrug. "And, in that case, I guess that would make me 'Yaten.' "

"It'll take some getting used to, but I can learn to like it."

"Me too, I guess."

"So it's settled, then," I said. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Yaten."

"Here's to the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship."

"Agreed. So, do white-haired empaths run in your family?"

Yaten shrugged. "How should I know? I'm an orphan," she replied. "My parents died when I was a baby."

"So you're adopted?"

"Not yet, anyway," she said. "Wouldn't you know it, white-haired empaths are just as unpopular in the orphanage as we are in school?"

"I'm sorry."

She shrugged and turned her face away. "Not your fault I'm a freak," she said. "I'm sure I'd have more luck if I just dye my hair black and keep quiet about my intuitions."

"Oh, don't do that!" I insisted. "If you deny everything that makes you unique, you won't seem special anymore. Besides, covering up that stunning hair of yours would be a minor tragedy!"

"Well, I like your hair," Yaten said, "nice and normal. Is it all right if I play with it?"

"Sure, if you don't mind my writing poetry at the same time."

"Fine with me," she said, "and just tell me if you get stuck. Maybe I can help you out!"

Soon a great cheer rose up from the field, and Seiya's rambunctious teammates carried her all around the field, chanting her name.

"That's your friend?" Yaten asked. "She's not one of us."

"Well, no, but she's a nice girl anyway," I said. "You'll like her."

"A popular, sport-loving girl like her? I dunno. . ."

Seiya broke away from the celebrations and ran to my bench, shouting, "We won! We won! We won, Kou! We won!"

"I was on the other team," I reminded her.

"Oh, yeah. I forgot," she said sheepishly. "Sorry about that."

I just shrugged. It didn't matter if my team lost; I hadn't expected to beat Seiya's team anyway. I was just glad I lasted as long as I did. I had proven myself not completely useless at sports, which was more than I ever expected going in.

"You know there's a strange girl playing with your hair?" Seiya asked.

"My new friend, Yaten Kou," I replied. "She's here for her empathic and intuitive abilities."

"Neat," Seiya said, and introduced herself, "Seiya Kou, here for leadership skills and for my roguish good looks."

Seiya winked and offered a hand, which Yaten reluctantly accepted.

"You're kidding about that last part, right?" she scoffed.

"What? You don't think I'm good-looking?"

"You're too full of yourself!"

"Oh yeah?" Seiya said crossly. "Well, you're too. . .empty of yourself, just like Kou!"

"That doesn't even make sense!" Yaten shouted, and in her anger she accidentally pulled my hair.

I winced in pain. "Can't you two at least try to like each other?" I pleaded.

"I do like her!" Seiya insisted. "She's got spunk!"

"Well, I like her, too!" Yaten said. "She's got cool hair!"

"Well, if you both like each other so much, why can't you try to get along and be friends?"

"I just don't like her attitude!" both said at once.

I sighed. Apparently, whatever similarity they lacked in interests, they more than made up for in disposition!

"Then why not concentrate on what you have in common?" I suggested. "Find something you both can agree on, and discuss that."

"Okay," Seiya said. "So you really think I have cool hair?"

"You can't get through one sentence without talking about yourself, can you?" Yaten retorted.

"Can too!" she insisted, and demonstrated, "You've got really cool hair, too! I just love the colour! Is it natural?"

"All my life," Yaten replied. "I wouldn't mind so much, but the other kids tease me for it all the time, and 'cause it's hard for a white-haired psychic orphan to get adopted."

"You're an orphan?" Seiya said. "Gee, I didn't know that. That's rough. But now that you go here, someone's sure to see how special you are and want to adopt you!"

"You think so?" Yaten said, looking at her uniform with a new appreciation. "I should dress like this more often. . ."

"So now that we're all gonna be friends together," Seiya said, "what should I call you two? Big Kou and Little Kou?"

"You do and you die," Yaten threatened. "How about just Taiki and Yaten?"

"All right, all right! No need for violence! Taiki and Yaten it is!" she agreed. "This is so weird, three friends with all the same name! Three Lights! We could start our own band!"

"Great!" Yaten said. "As long as we don't have to go onstage in matching suits and haircuts like that old band 'Kabutomushi. . .' "

Seiya made a face. "Yeah, that gimmick is so played out!" she said. "How about you, Taiki? Are you in?"

I shrunk in my seat and just shook my head quickly.

The others were upset, and demanded to know, "Why not?"

"Because I can't sing," I admitted quietly.

"I'm sorry, I didn't quite hear you," Seiya said. "What was that?"

"I said I can't sing, all right?" I repeated. "I'm tone-deaf and I can't hit the high notes."

"Come on, you can't possibly be that bad!" Seiya said.

"And even if you are," Yaten added, "we can teach you!"

"Thanks, guys. I can't promise I'll be any good, but I'll do my best to learn," I said. "And if you need someone to help write the lyrics, remember, I'm a poet!"

"Great!" Seiya said.

Seiya hugged me from the front, and Yaten joined in from behind.

"Three Lights, eh?" I tested the name out. "I like the sound of it."

"Three Lights," Seiya said, "friends forever!"

Yaten drew away from the group hug and made a gagging sound.

"Eew! You guys, don't hug me when you smell like sweat!" she cried.

"So you don't like the smell of sweat, do you?" Seiya said. "I'll show you what sweat really smells like!"

She then tried to force her smelly armpit on Yaten, who in an attempt to get away fell off the back of the bench. Seiya leapt over the bench after her, and soon the two were wrestling around on the ground, getting their clothes and hair terribly dirty in the process.

I turned around to watch, finding the argument strangely amusing.

"Smell it!" Seiya insisted, trying to force her armpit on Yaten's face.

"No! Never!" Yaten protested, struggling against her bigger, stronger friend.

"Smell it!"

"No!"

"Smell it!"

"Aargh!" Yaten yelled as Seiya succeeded at making her smell her armpit. "That's the worst thing I've ever smelled! Get it off me!"

"Not until you say, 'Seiya's the greatest!' "

"I'll never say that!"

"Go on, say it!"

"No! Stop it! Get off me, Seiya!"

"Not until you say the words!"

And this was the girl my mother thought was such a good influence on me? I was beginning to rethink ever introducing her to my family. . .

"Taiki, help!" Yaten called. "Get her off me!"

"It's no use! Nobody can help you now!" Seiya said with a fake evil laugh.

I knew if I went down there I'd emerge a dirty, scraped, and tangled mess, but Yaten needed my help. No-one deserves sweaty armpit torture like that! So finally I set aside my glasses and notebook, dove over the back of the bench, and joined the scuffle in spite of the dirt.

"I forget, which one was this Seiya again?" my mother asked the next weekend. "Is she the one with the good influence, or the one who gets you in trouble every day at recess?"

"Actually, she's both," I replied.

"Then which one is Yaten?"

"That's the psychic orphan girl Kou tried to talk us into adopting," my father said.

"That one's not coming over, too, is she?"

"No, just Seiya," I said, "and maybe her sisters, if she can't find a baby-sitter. But I've met them, and I swear they're not that rambunctious at all!"

My mother looked frightened already.

"Well, I hope they won't be too much trouble," she said warily. "My, you certainly do make. . . interesting friends, Koko."

"Just remember, it was you who insisted on meeting her!" The door chime rang, and before I answered it I said, "That'll be her now. Try not to embarrass me!"

The moment I opened the door, four raven-haired little girls slipped past Seiya and immediately started running around the room touching everything. Seiya gave me a small, wrapped gift as she entered, and set about catching her sisters before they did too much damage.

Once she got them all calmed down, she lined them up in front of my parents for introductions.

"Hi, I'm Seiya Kou," she introduced herself. "Just call me Seiya. I hope you don't mind I brought my kid sisters over, but I had nowhere else to take them. I promise I'll keep them out of trouble!"

"That's fine, Seiya," my father said. "We're actually very fond of children."

"Great! Well, let me introduce everyone." She indicated the tallest girl, who had closely-cropped black curls, a freckled face, and a mischievous gleam in her big blue eyes. "This is Kiyoshi. You have to watch out for her; sometimes she goes a little klepto. Right, Kiyoshi?" Seiya held out a hand, and her sister reluctantly handed over my mother's prized golden dragon figurine. Seiya returned the figurine to my mother and made her sister apologise.

"Sorry I took your lizard, Taiki's Mom," Kiyoshi said. "It's just so pretty and shiny, I thought it would be good in my room."

Taking that figurine was about the worst first impression Seiya's sister could've made on my mother-- there was nothing she hated more than a thief, even the cute, freckle-faced, seven-year-old variety!

"She won't do it again, Mrs. Taiki," Seiya promised. "I'll keep a close eye on her."

"Yes, well, see that you do," my mother said sternly.

Seiya next introduced the twins, identical-looking girls with huge green eyes behind thick, round, wire-rimmed glasses, and long black curls worn in high ponytails tied with ribbons.

"This is Mieko, and this one is Mai," Seiya said, though the embroidery on their jumpers said the opposite. "Their favourite game is to trade clothes and see how many people they can fool."

"How come you always know who we are?" Mai asked.

"Yeah," Mieko added, "we can even fool Daddy sometimes, but never you, Seiya!"

"But if I told you how, you'd learn how to fool me, wouldn't you?" Seiya said, patting the twins on their heads. "Nah, I'm keeping my advantage, thank you very much!"

Seiya spotted her youngest sister wandering off and had to physically pick her up and carry her back.

The wriggly toddler had black ringlets to her chin and shining blue eyes. Like most kids that age, she also had a perpetually dirty face no matter how often Seiya scrubbed it.

"And this little rascal is Hoshi," Seiya said while carrying her. "She's my favourite one! You know why? 'Cause she's still little enough for me to do this!"

Seiya shifted the little girl in her arms so she could play air guitar on her belly. Hoshi burst into giggles, but made no attempt to squirm out of her big sister's arms. Being Seiya's air guitar was one of Hoshi's favourite games!

When Hoshi's face was red and Seiya's grip was failing, she put her little sister down. But after taking a moment to recover from the giggle fit, Hoshi tried to climb back up for another go.

"Give me a while to recover first, kiddo," Seiya said. "I swear you're getting bigger and heavier by the day!"

"Taiki Akihiko," my father introduced herself, and this is my lovely wife Mika."

Both of my parents were unusually tall and physically strong, but where my mother was blonde, curvaceous, and classically beautiful, my father was brunette, plain-looking, and built like a stick. Of course, aside from the violet eyes, I was a dead ringer for my father. Lucky me. . . But at least I'd inherited my father's sharp mind as well! My mother wasn't exactly the brightest crayon in the box.

"Koko's told us so many nice things about you, Seiya," my mother said.

"Don't believe a word of it!" Seiya joked. "I'm pure evil!"

"Excuse me?"

Seiya sweatdropped. "Uh, never mind," she said.

My mother adopted a wary look and took another seat across the room from my self-proclaimed "evil" friend..

Not only was my mother a bit dim, but she didn't have a funny bone in her body! Unfortunately, before I could explain the joke, Seiya's four little sisters mobbed me all at once.

"Open your present, Taiki!" they insisted. "It's good; we helped pick it out just for you!"

They couldn't even wait for me to find a seam from which to open the gift; within seconds, four pairs of chubby little hands started tearing at the paper. The box lid was ripped off and a layer of tissue torn away, revealing a fancy journal with a floral design embossed on its white cover, and a satin ribbon bookmark.

"Seiya said you like to write stuff, right?" Kiyoshi asked.

"And she said that's your favourite flower," Mai added.

"Do you like it, Taiki?" Mieko asked. "Is it pretty?"

"It's very nice, you guys," I said, and group-hugged them all. "Thank you."

"It gets better," Seiya said. "Open it."

The inside front cover was signed, "To the brightest Light, May you never stop shining! Love, Seiya." The facing page contained autographs, squiggles, and childish sketches of me by all four of Seiya's little sisters. The girls gathered around to point out their sketches and inscriptions. They were all so adorable, especially Hoshi's sketch, done entirely in green crayon, which barely even resembled a living being!

I thanked and hugged them all again for such a special present. It was so good to have friends who supported me in my writing; my own parents certainly didn't! Of course, the more my parents insisted I become a scientist, the more determined I became to be a poet.

"Hey, Seiya, I've started writing a song for our band," I said. "Would you like to hear it?"

"Sure!" she replied. "Just let me get my guitar ready. . ." Seiya picked up Hoshi like a guitar again, and the toddler giggled in anticipation. "Okay, whenever you're ready!"

"Come on, Seiya! This is serious!"

"Oh, all right," she said, pouting, and put her sister down.

I took the sheet of paper with the lyrics I'd written so far from my pocket.

Then I cleared my throat and began in my best singing voice, "What if everyone got to see a planet explode? What if it were our own? What if the total eclipse of the sun signalled the end of the world? Say it isn't so! I don't know! If the world were to end tomorrow, would you be happy with the way you've lived? If I were to die tomorrow, would you remember what I've said? Oh--"

"Stop! Stop! You're depressing me!" Seiya shouted. "What kind of song is that for a group of nine-year-old girls? Nine-year-olds don't think about the end of the world, silly!"

"They don't?"

"Of course not-- the world's not gonna end in our lifetimes! Write about something cheerful instead!"

"Cheerful?" I repeated, blinking. Now there was a word that had never been associated with me before! "Like what?"

"Well, how about this?" She picked up her sister to use as her guitar and sang, "I wanna live in the toy shop and play with the toys! They all come alive at night and dance around in the aisles! Dolls and cars and soldiers and animals, too; they all wanna play with me and they'll play with you!"

I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing aloud. What fantasy world did she live in to sing such an idealistic song?

Her little sisters, however, just adored it! For the next hour they danced around singing it incessantly, and even after Seiya got them settled down with their colouring books, one would occasionally blurt out a line and it would start all over again.

"Looks like you've got a hit on your hands there, Seiya," my father said cheerfully.

I was furious! I spent hours working on my song lyrics, but it was Seiya who stole my father's approval with lyrics made up on the spot! I glared angrily at my friend, but she smiled back so charmingly I couldn't bring myself to hate her.

It wasn't Seiya's fault, after all, I decided. She wasn't trying to upstage me or steal away my parents' affections; she was just naturally talented and charismatic. Seiya couldn't turn that charm off any more than I could my intelligence or Yaten her intuition. I had to learn to accept that if we were ever going to get along as best friends. But there was an upside; even after the ill-received "evil" joke, by the end of the day Seiya had charmed even my suspicious mother. If that isn't proof enough of her abilities, I don't know what is!

We'd only known Yaten for a couple of weeks, barely enough time to even learn her usual behaviours, before one day we noticed she was acting weird. It was like, one day she was perfectly normal, and the next she came flouncing into school with her nose in the air and a superior attitude as if she owned the place. She looked different, too-- her uniform was starched and wrinkle-free, and her hair was free from its customary plait, held back from her face at either side with fancy new clips. She even smelled different, perfumed with a sweet scent that reminded me of flowers and my favourite candy. Worst of all, she was actually
snubbing us! After a whole day of such behaviour, Seiya and I finally cornered Yaten at recess to find out what was going on.

"Hey, Yaten," Seiya said cheerfully, "you're sure looking dapper today! What's the occasion?"

She pretended not to know us. "And you are?"

"Girl, what's up with you today? It's like you're too good to talk to us anymore all of a sudden!"

"Oh, that?" Yaten said, tossing her hair. "Well, I'm afraid I have no time for all you little people now."

"Little people?" I repeated, raising an eyebrow.

"Yeah," Seiya chimed in, "who're you to call anybody little?"

"And why so uppity today?"

"Haven't you heard?" Yaten said, tossing her hair again, "I'm getting adopted!"

"That's great!" Seiya and I cried, hugging her.

"By whom?" I thought to ask.

Yaten wriggled free of our hug and tried to smooth her now-rumpled uniform.

"By none other than the Bhotan family themselves," she replied as if the name should mean something to us. When we just stared back blankly, she got really exasperated. "You know, the heirs to the Akina clothing fortune! They're on close terms with the royal family themselves! Geez, don't you poor people know anything?"

"That's it!" Seiya shouted. "I've tried to be nice, but you've become way too much of a snob, Yaten Kou! Time for a reality check! Let's get her!"

Seiya pounced on Yaten and tickled her sides until the smaller girl was red-faced and gasping for air. Yaten tried to get away, but when I joined the tickle fight we all fell to the ground in a pile. We were having so much fun wallowing on the ground tickling each other, we didn't even notice everyone else had stopped playing.

Three shadows fell over us, and we immediately ceased all tickling. Standing above us was a beautiful teen-aged girl with long red hair in an elaborate style, with fiery eyes to match. She wore a tall, regal hat and a flowing gown made largely of a gauzy, transparent material. Flanking her on either side were two of the Queen's personal Senshi; tall, attractive, but intimidating women in revealing black leather fuku, accented with their Senshi colours of pale-pink and -yellow, respectively.

"Princess!" the three of us exclaimed, scrambling into a respectful bowed posture.

"Please forgive us, Highness," Seiya said, "we had no idea you were visiting the campus today."

None of us were in any shape to meet royalty after out little tickle fight; our clothes were wrinkled and dirty, our hair tangled and full of twigs, and our faces were scraped. Not only was it embarrassing to meet our princess looking so bad, but I was sure she would declare us barbarians and have us thrown out of school, as well!

"Names and areas of expertise," the Senshi in yellow demanded, her lupine eyes glowing faintly with disapproval.

"S-Seiya Kou, Your Highness," Seiya stammered, and added sheepishly, "Here on leadership."

"Yaten Kou," Yaten croaked, "for intuition."

But when my turn came, I found a lump had formed in my throat and I had temporarily forgotten my own name. I fumbled for the answer until Seiya scowled and hissed, "Taiki!"

Yes, that was it!

"Taiki Kou," I announced. But even if I forgot my own name, I could never forget my specialty! "Here for my high intelligence."

The Senshi spoke quietly to the princess for a moment. I couldn't make out what she was saying, but her harsh tone of voice frightened me.

The young princess, however, smiled and said, "Well, I rather like them." Her bodyguards seemed as surprised as we were, so she explained, "They're so unaffected!"

The other Senshi nodded and said, "We'll begin testing immediately."

Then the princess and her bodyguards left without further comment.

"I wonder what that's all about?" I asked.

Yaten's green eyes were shining. "Kakyuu-princess took an interest in us!"

"But for what? Friends? Advisors? Lowly servants?"

"Or her own personal Senshi!" Yaten guessed.

I raised an eyebrow. "Is that a wish, or another intuition?"

"Not sure," she replied. "Maybe a little of both."

"Theories, Seiya?" I asked our friend, who had gone uncharacteristically quiet. "Seiya? Seiya!"

"She's wonderful, isn't she?" Seiya said with a sigh. "I wonder if she's betrothed already?"

"Hello? Reality check!" Yaten said, bopping Seiya on the back of the head. "She's our princess. You are a nobody. You haven't got a chance with her!"

"I know, I know," Seiya replied, "but I can't help it! I guess I've always been a sucker for lost causes."

"Well, that explains a lot," Yaten deadpanned.

"Yeah," I replied with a giggle, "like why you continue to hang out with losers like us!"

"Aah, fret not, my friends; you're not completely hopeless! After all, even if we can't become Senshi," Seiya said cheerfully, "we'll always have Three Lights to fall back on!"

©2001/2006 (revised HTML version) Naia Zifu all rights reserved.
Three Lights and Kakyuu are SM characters I don't own rights to, but Taiki's parents, the Queen's Senshi, Seiya's adorable sisters, and anyone else I might have neglected to mention, are my own original characters. As always, I'm not trying to make money off anyone else's ideas.
I started this fic a couple of years ago, but abandoned it, and only recently did I rediscover its charm and decide to finish it. Chibi Lights are so kawaii, don't you think :-) ?
Unfortunately, a lot of my ideas about the Lights' childhood and what Kinmoku might be like have changed since then. I changed as much as I could to the new view, but a lot of the gags were dependent on the old view, so I couldn't fix it as much as I wanted. So if I contradict this fic in any later ones, at least you'll know why! Hopefully the fic is good enough on its own to overcome any such contradictions.