"Do we have to do this?"
"Stop whining, this is fun, you'll like it."
Umino suddenly felt like his eight year old self again. His older cousins had always been into sports and had graciously tried to include little Umino and his two left feet into their wild and fast games. That little Umino would have much rather climbed a tree and hidden behind its among its leafy branches with a book in his hands had not been something they understood or cared for. He was their family and family did things together. Watching Hiromasa's broad back and hearing his enthusiastic laughter made him remember these carefree days of childhood. His green eyes looked around the park, finding one tree that he would very much like to spend the afternoon on, especially with the book he had hidden in the back pocket of his sweatpants. He was no longer as clumsy as he had been as a child, but ball games were still beyond him.
Hiromasa was already kicking the black and white ball, happy to have an outlet for his strength and energy and watching him wearily, Umino already knew that he would return home covered in bruises. Well, at least Ami could fix him. Squeaking sounds that wanted to be barking but weren't quite there alerted him to the puppy's presence.
"You brought Spock? The ball is almost bigger than him!"
Ears waggling, the beloved pet ran after his master and thus after the ball.
"Of course I brought him. Look, he's having the time of his life. And we both know that you're only making such a face because he ran right past you and after the ball. Apparently, he likes it better than you. Oh, how that must rankle you, to come second to an inanimate object."
Snickers behind him told Umino that the rest of their group had arrived.
It was Mamoru's deep voice that he heard first.
"Maybe you should get a pet yourself, Umino, seeing how much you like the little one."
"No pets in the flat. He can get one once he moves in with Ami."
Turning, Umino welcomed this flatmate, his prince and Takeshi, all of whom were wearing sports attire. Ando had hidden his biting green eyes behind dark sunglasses, thus making it impossible to tell what his mood was like today. He ranged from barely tolerable to outright monster and Umino had actually taken to spending as much time in Ami's guest room as possible. Had Ando been in a good mood, he would have talked about Ami as Umino's frosty princess or naughty nurse, completely ignoring that the fact that she was neither frosty nor a nurse. But his humour had left him after the night of the engagement party and he had steadfastly refused to talk about it. The philosopher had an inkling that Minako knew something, but he hadn't seen her as of late, which was mysterious in itself.
"Hellooooo, let's start, the football is waiting!" Hiromasa impatient voice cut through the sweet summer air.
Mamoru quickly surveyed their small group. "We're an uneven number-"
Takeshi immediately spoke up and only his innate authority kept his voice from sounding too eager.
Laughing, Mamoru and Hiromasa exchanged looks that didn't bode well.
"No, you won't. Ando and Hiromasa will be on one team and you, Umino and I will form another. So our team has one member more, but only one player that is actually able to hit the goal," Mamoru explained cheekily. Not used to being the weakest link, Takeshi knitted his brows and unconsciously fumbled for the tie he wasn't wearing. It was quite comical to see the always proper Takeshi Nakamura in sweatpants (brand new and never worn before) and a very white t-shirt that he would never get the grass stains out of.
It turned out that with Takeshi's and Umino's inaptness and the delighted puppy running in front of everyone's feet, a proper game was out of the question. Finally, Mamoru had agreed to Takeshi playing the part of the referee and to Umino taking care of the dog and now the three men played alone, more intent of stealing the ball from another than actually scoring goals. Miraculously, Ando had regained some of his usual spirit and surprised everyone by being a rather formidable player. That he fouled quite a lot didn't come as a surprise, though.
Scratching Spock behind his ears, Umino addressed Takeshi, who still seemed disgruntled.
"Meeting like this was a good idea, wasn't it?"
The architect looked at Ando, who had just shoved Mamoru out of the way and onto the ground and made a goal the second after. The grin on his face was contagious.
"It was. Maybe we could play tennis next time."
Biting down his chuckle so as to not offend his friend, Umino watched Mamoru and Ando squabble over whether or not the goal counted. To an outsider, Ando would have appeared happy. But Umino knew that the good mood was not even skin deep and that the journalist would fall apart again the minute he got home and shut himself in his room where treacherous solace in the form of a liquor bottle awaited him. The flat was so chaotic nowadays that Ami was as good as forbidden from entering it. Also, it had begun to smell like a tavern and Umino had moved all of his precious books to his girlfriend's flat. This obviously meant that he had as good as moved in as well (he still had a dissertation to work on, after all), something Ando would have normally teased him mercilessly about. Practically living with a girl he hadn't even slept with... But Umino didn't care about that, he only cared about being with her. She made him feel whole, she allowed him to be at peace. He had a feeling that Takeshi would understand, but then there were few things the white-haired man didn't seem to grasp. Except for football.
Closing his eyes, Umino let the sun warm his face and grinned.
Applying her make up for the third time in twenty minutes, Makoto was ready to scream. The bride was supposed to cry not sweat her make-up off.
But then it was the hottest day of the year, she wanted nothing more than a cool beer and a bikini and was instead trapped in three to four layers of chiffon, feeling like a giant meringue.
"I don't think I want to do this."
"That's just nerves, think of Hiromasa."
"No, I don't mean that I don't want to get married, I mean that I'm sick of re-applying all that make-up. It's simply too hot. Why didn't I go for a veil? Then nobody would be able to tell whether or not I was wearing any make-up."
Taking a sip from her iced latte, Minako refrained from pointing out that a veil would have made Makoto only hotter. Even with the small beads of sweat on her forehead, her friend looked radiant. She could have worn a dress made out of old newspapers and still been the prettiest bride Minako had ever seen. She even surpassed Usagi, who had been a vision in white on her wedding day. Deep down, Minako knew that she felt this way because she hadn't expected any of her fellow senshi to find love. It made this day even sweeter.
Across the room, Rei shook her head.
"Makoto, this is your day. If you feel comfortable without make-up, then don't wear any. You look very pretty anyway." All eyes fastened on her as she spoke; compliments from Rei were something to be treasured as she wasn't generally in the habit of paying any.
Ami wrinkled her brows.
"I could transform and put some cool mist in the room, would that help?"
After a moment's consideration, Makoto nodded. "Please do."
Just as Ami's slender fingers found the henshin pen and pulled it out of her soft green purse, a brief knock on the door was followed by three laughing women bursting into the room: Hiromasa's mother, grandmother and favourite aunt. They immediately latched onto Makoto, who was torn between being delighted that her new family came to see her before the nuptials and damning them to eternity because their hugs caused the dress to stick to her sweaty back. Shrugging her shoulders apologetically, Ami let the pen drop to the satin-lined bottom of her purse. Minako giggled and offered the bride the iced beverage, only to have it swatted away by Usagi, who was worried about possible coffee stains on the dress.
A soft knock at the door told them that it was time. Time to get married, time to be happy.
The small church was far from packed, despite the best efforts of Hiromasa's large family. There wasn't a single blood-relative of Makoto's present - they had all died a long time ago - so Hiromasa had quietly arranged for the mixing of both parties. Otherwise the bride's side of the church would have seemed devastatingly empty. For him, there were old school friends, fellow furniture designers, his family, his football team and countless other people that had come to celebrate his happiness. Makoto had no such luck. Her support system was smaller. In fact, her only guests were the girls, Umino, Motoki and Reika (who still hadn't tied the knot), and two old teachers from high school with whom Makoto had always gotten along especially well. When Setsuna and Hotaru arrived almost too late to make it to their places before the bride walked down the aisle, Minako wished that Ando was here to point out the irony of the guardian of time and space having poor time management. There had been no question of convincing Ando to come; he had sworn that he would stay away from Rei, and so he did. Another dearly felt absence was that of Michiru and Haruka. They had been furious upon hearing about the shitennou's return and had thus not even dignified Makoto's invitation with an answer. Hiromasa had almost driven over to their house to introduce himself and to give them a piece of his mind, but a crying Makoto had begged him not to. They just were like that; fierce, loyal, unforgiving. Usagi had secretly contacted the two and had told them to better accept the shitennou in general and the marriage of Makoto and Hiromasa in particular, or they would find themselves in a very sorry position indeed. It was another sign of her easing into the role of a ruler.
Unfortunately, Makoto had no one who could give her away. Mamoru had immediately offered himself, but it would have felt wrong. They just weren't that close. They hadn't even hugged each other until that fateful day in the park. The issue was briefed during the weekly dinner Makoto and Hiromasa had with Minako and Takeshi, and while Minako and Hiromasa had grudgingly left the room to do the dishes (a ploy of Makoto's to get them to make up), Takeshi had given the bride-to-be a long look and then solved her problem in a heart beat.
"I would do it. If you want to. I'd be honoured."
So when the architect led her down the aisle, Makoto thought once again how lucky she was to have such friends in her life.
The ceremony itself was short and sweet, and Hiromasa had managed to stay immobile during most of it, fighting his innate jumpiness. He hadn't been nervous; but still he had barely heard one word the old priest said. He had looked at the woman next to him and counted himself the luckiest man in the world. Today, nothing could bring him down. That the church was decorated with tons of roses, that all the girls were wearing matching green dresses, that Ando wasn't there, that Takeshi and Minako exchanged meaningful glances throughout the service, that his mother was crying so hard that his grandmother tutted at her; all of that he didn't even notice.
The happy couple almost missed the I do, so engrossed were they in each other's eyes. It was like the night they had met again, words were unnecessary in the face of a love that strong.
When everyone jumped up to applaud the newly-weds, Rei felt someone staring a hole in her back. She turned slowly, for she already knew who it was. In the very last row stood a man who looked like death, oozing off unhappiness to a degree that sends shivers down her spine. Their eyes met, and she wondered if in this lifetime, she was the one who had destroyed an innocent soul.
A warm hand reached for hers, and Ami pulled her back into the safe cocoon that was their mutual friend's happiest day. By the time Rei turned again, Ando was gone.
They were standing in front of a canopy bed and Minako's eyes had taken on an expression so rapturous that it bordered on loving. Feeling that someone should put a stop to this, Rei cursed her absent luck and reached for the subtly placed price tag.
"This bed costs more than a year's worth of insurance for the temple", she exclaimed after checking the offensive numbers, disdain etched into her delicate features.
Minako waved her hand dismissively and Rei was secretly glad that the blonde hadn't followed Makoto's example and had allowed her boyfriend to stick a ring on her finger. The moving in together part was bad enough.
After prodding the mattress twice, Minako threw decorum in the wind and jumped on the thick mattress with a little more force than necessary. Noticing that the bed hadn't so much as made a sound, she looked pleased. Her companion winced and not only because of the sales assistant's shocked face. Sometimes she wished she wouldn't be able to follow Minako's thoughts quite so well. Shaking the image of Kunzite and Venus in an ardent embrace from her mind, she sat down on the edge of the mattress, legs primly folded. Her days were filled with visions from past, present and future even though she hadn't been near the holy fire for months now.
"This is perfect," Minako said gleefully.
"If by perfect you mean over-priced and over-sized, then yes, it is."
"Oh, be quiet. Takeshi is ridiculously tall and you know how much space I need in bed."
"Don't be such a sour puss. You're just jealous because you sleep on the floor."
A slow smile spread on Rei's face. Everyone walked around on egg shells in her presence; everyone but Minako. Usagi was the worst one; she had practically stopped speaking to Rei in fear of saying something that made her feel even worse. So whenever Usagi and Rei went for a coffee, it was an awfully silent affair, the blonde literally biting her tongue all the time. It seemed that Minako on the other hand had simply accepted that being broken was a part of the girl that had been a priestess for so long and since it was a part of her, it was normal and to be treated as such. Minako had obviously decided to behave as if the world had not fallen apart and Rei had never been so grateful to her. For once, the convoluted reasoning Minako was so infamous for worked in her favour and while it didn't make life easier, it made it more bearable.
"Hiromasa will be offended that you didn't buy any of your furniture at his shop."
Rolling her big blue eyes, Minako moved over to look at the matching night-stand.
"Am I offended because he plays video games other than the Sailor V ones? No, I'm not. And I bought a bloody desk from him, that's quite enough."
"Has he still not gotten over you leaving for New York?"
Not acknowledging what that simple question must have cost her friend, Minako pulled open the nightstand's drawer and inspected it with a furrowed brow.
"Since the wedding, he's talking to me again, but it's not like before. We did get along quite well, but now... Let's just say that the weekly dinners are not as much fun as they could be. At least not for me. Takeshi is having a blast."
Casting her eyes to the floor, the unspoken apology hung in the room and rendered Rei speechless. She stroked the soft linens that hung from the bed's tall frame, too lost in guilt and pain to find the right words.
Once again, Minako ignored the descending gloom and continued breezily.
"Okay, now we've picked a bed, a night-stand and a dining table. A desk we already have, same goes for a chair. And we will keep my couch because they don't make them any bigger and because it's red. Hey, what do you think a about a free standing claw bath tub? That would be fantastic. Where do I get one of those?" The question was accompanied by a not so gentle shove that ironically allowed Rei to find her footing again.
Three hours, a shop assistant close to tears and an undisclosed amount of money later, Minako had found and bought almost everything she needed. The girls now sat in a sushi bar too busy for Rei's liking, but the invitation had been a small gesture of thanks on Minako's side for Rei's company and the senshi of fire found herself unable to decline.
"Are you sure that Takeshi is fine with you picking out all the furniture?"
"Well, he did reserve a veto right for the kitchen because he's the one who cooks, but other than that, it's my call."
Minako seemed blissfully happy, even more so since she had returned from the impromptu holiday she and Takeshi had embarked on two weeks prior. They had spent one week on a tropical island and had swum in the turquoise ocean, taken longs walks, looked at a dormant volcano and had quietly mocked other tourists in their often too skimpy bathing attire. If anyone would have told Rei back in January that the reincarnated and miserable Kunzite would enjoy soaking up the sun for hours on end and listen to her friend's never-ending chatter with delight, she would have sent that person straight to an asylum.
"I still need some decorative stuff, do you have nice things in the shop?"
Rei had taken up a job in an antique shop after leaving the temple. Her grandfather refused to speak to her, not because of her leaving behind what he felt was her vocation, but because she had moved out of the temple that had been her home for such a long time. The old man had taken it as a personal rejection, an insult delivered with a deadly blow to their relationship. They had always been close, drawing strength from one another, but she hadn't been able to stay and be close to what she needed to leave behind. A clean start was all that could help her. Staying would have broken her even more and the bitter truth was that there wasn't a lot left to break.
Usagi had taken to visiting her grandfather for tea once a week, making sure that he knew what his grandchild was doing and that she still cared. It was yet another thing Rei could not express enough thanks for and more than once she had wondered what she would have done without her friends. Ami had found her a small apartment within two days, Makoto had given her some of her old furniture and a surprise letter from Michiru had alerted her to the small antique shop that needed a saleswoman rather desperately. It was owned by an old lady with ailing health and the two of them got along splendidly. While she had never seen herself as anything but a priestess, she had taken to the new field of work like a duck to water. The shop held a lot of history, both of a general and a personal kind and it appealed to her more than she would have thought possible.
After promising Minako to check for items she might like, while silently doubting that her pop culture loving friend would be able to appreciate the intricate beauty of 18th century paintings, Rei had taken her leave. She was already wishing for autumn, hoping that wind and rain would blow away the doubts that had become her constant companions. Should she have given Jadeite another chance? Had her decision to leave the temple been a right one? Was finding herself again in this changed world worth alienating the only family that she had? At least missing her grandfather hurt just as much as thinking about Jadeite's cold eyes at the wedding did. She could now chose which pain to dwell on, a perverse luxury she didn't have before.
Heading home, she wondered what the word really meant and decided that she no longer knew. Her steps were graceful, always more a ballerina than a warrior, but they brought her no closer to the absolution she craved.
She filled a large glass with vodka, eyeing it apprehensively before downing it one go.
"Oh my God, what are you doing?" Makoto's eyes seemed to almost bulge out of their sockets: it wasn't New Year's, and Minako was obviously trying to get as drunk as possible as fast as possible.
Scrunching up her pretty face, the blonde remained silent for a moment before answering.
"I'm making sure that I'll be puking my heart out in about an hour. And he can't be mad at me if I'm miserable like that, can he?"
Silence reigned in the pretty new house.
"I think you might be onto something," Makoto said thoughtfully as she refilled Minako's glass.
The day started in the most wonderful manner - blue sky, twittering birds, a nice cup of coffee with her boyfriend, that sort of thing - and took a wrong turn somewhere along the lines. Now it could only be described as a complete and utter disaster. Her brilliant plan had backfired in the worst way possible and had once again proven that the road to hell was paved with good intentions. Actually, the road to her own personal hell was paved with her good intentions. Of course, as it always did, it had all started quite innocently.
Makoto had needed to go the pet shop to buy some dog food for Spock and Minako had offered to drive her in Takeshi's car, one of the many perks she was privy to since they moved in together at the beginning of the month. What they hadn't counted on was the special rescue adoption day the shop held every September 19th. So the two women found themselves lifting several heavy bags of smelly stuff and one tail-wagging bundle of fur onto the pristine back-seat of the BMW.
Their first stop was at Rei's new apartment, and the former priestess wasted no time declining the gift.
"Rei, come on! Look at his precious little face! No one wants him because apparently, black great Danes are too common and he's so cute and you need some compan-"
Rei breathed in deeply, and met the blonde's pleading eyes. "I don't want a dog! I don't have time for a dog. I don't even like dogs!"
"But I just thought that-"
Across the room, Makoto sat on the only chair Rei's tiny kitchen accommodated and examined the small gold wedding band on her finger. The black puppy was busy licking the table legs.
Trying to help Minako's case, Makoto interjected: "It would be cool if you could join Hiro and me when we're taking Spock for a walk, wouldn't it?"
Rei however was having none of it.
"Makoto, stay out of this. Minako, let me make myself very clear. I appreciate the sentiment, but no. Just no. No, no, no. If you leave him here, I'll take him to the next animal shelter tomorrow."
"But I can't take him back, can I? He'll know, and then he'll be spoilt for anyone else because he'll have these big trust issues and-"
"Then you keep him!"
That had effectively shut her up. Two hours later, Minako broke her sacred vow of never drinking during the year and hoped for the best. Takeshi had been clear on not wanting a dog, especially not in the new house and especially not now, but if she was suffering - and throwing up from lots and lots of vodka should count as such - and if Makoto would speak on her behalf (Makoto being one of the few people Takeshi listened to), then the funny looking puppy might not mean the end of her relationship.
Hearing the key turn in the lock, Minako refilled the glass and sent a silent prayer up to the heavens.
"Aren't you going to offer me one?" Minako shot Makoto a brief look of disdain - time was of the essence here - and hoped that Takeshi was in a good mood. Maybe he had built a new skyscraper today. But then again, the chance of a monumentally large building being erected in one day was rather slim.
"No, I need it all for myself."
The fourth glass was emptied just as swiftly as the first.
As soon as Takeshi entered the living room, Minako turned to look at him in a way so beseeching that it might just have saved Marie Antoinette from having her head chopped off.
Not missing a beat, he turned to Makoto.
"What has she done?"
"Emptied your vodka."
Makoto grinned and shrugged her shoulders. Hiromasa would love this. What a pity that he had to finish a dining room table for a client today, otherwise she would have called him on the spot.
Takeshi walked further into the room, not even bothering to take his jacket or tie off and sat down next to his girlfriend.
"Minako? What is going on?"
The corners of his mouth were twitching as he leaned closer to the blonde whose eyes slid out of focus with the new proximity. She was adorable. It wasn't the first time he had seen her drunk, but it was the first time that counted. By now, he was quite certain that Minako had been the woman he had seen on his lonely walk on New Year's Eve so many months ago, but since she had been in male company at the time, Takeshi hadn't broached the subject. He probably never would. Smiling, he reached out to tuck some stray hairs behind her ears as she spoke.
"I've left something for you in the bathroom, but I don't think you'll like it."
The corners of his mouth dropped immediately.
"But it's pretty. Sooo cute, really. Looks a bit like you. Only that it was the one no one wanted and everyone wants you because you're tall and handsome and... hmm, forgot what I wanted to say."
At that, Makoto burst into laughter and fell off the couch, missing the coffee table by inches.
Takeshi blinked several times.
"I think you have gone insane."
Minako began to shake her head adamantly, accidentally slapping her braid into Takeshi's face. On the floor, Makoto was frantically gasping for air only to resume laughing as soon as she got some in her lungs again.
"No, I wanted to give it to Rei, but she said she didn't have enough time to take care of it. Also, I don't think she likes the fur."
Counting to ten, Takeshi got up and fetched himself a glass of whiskey. Thankfully, Minako hadn't gotten round to emptying that yet.
"So you want me to get my present from the bathroom now?"
"Yes. But I want you to like it, too!"
He had led armies in his past life, build skyscrapers in this one, and yet, he couldn't remember ever feeling this panicky. Praying that there was a sensible explanation for it all, he opened the bathroom door.
"MINAKO! TELL ME THAT'S NOT A DOG!"
Wincing, she turned to Makoto.
"I don't think I'm dru-...drunk enough. Hand me the whiskey."
The next morning came, and Takeshi's mood hadn't really improved. Actually, it hadn't improved at all. He had shouted at Minako until the alcohol finally did what it was supposed to; making her vomit. And even though he held her hair and stroked her back, he didn't spare the puppy one glance. Not quite sure how to smooth things over, Minako decided that it would probably be detrimental to her cause if he saw that their new pet had already taken an intense liking to his expensive Italian shoes. So she sent him out to drop his old black leather couch of at Ando's and Umino's apartment, while she tried to do something about the worst hangover known to mankind. Plus, she faced the considerable task of ordering another pair of black dress shoes from Italy and convincing the shopkeepers to ship them to Japan within the next three days.
When Takeshi and Hiromasa arrived in Hiromasa's delivery van, Umino and Ando were already waiting. Umino sat patiently on the curb while Ando paced around, leaving a trail of cigarette stumps in his wake on the pavement. It didn't take long for the four men to carry the piece of furniture upstairs, but as soon as they opened the door to the apartment, Hiromasa wrinkled his nose and motioned to the others to set the couch down.
"It's smells kinda funny here, doesn't it?"
Takeshi sniffed and nodded.
Umino and Ando exchanged unconcerned looks.
"We still need to carry the old couch down to the cellar, so let's drop this one here in the hallway," Umino quipped and walked into the apartment, with Ando on his heels. Takeshi and Hiromasa followed slowly, confusion etched into their faces. Each corner of the hall held a stack of old newspapers so high that it reached the ceiling, but what confused them more than this odd decoration was the smell. What sort of smell was that anyway? A bit musty, most certainly sickly sweet and then there was the distinctive odour of alcohol. Altogether, it was very unpleasant.
As soon as the four men entered the living room, all hell broke loose.
"What the fuck!" Hiromasa exclaimed and inched closer, his mission of retrieving the old couch forgotten. The coffee table in front of it was completely hidden under a vast array of empty pizza boxes, some of which were already happily composting. The floor was dotted with several empty bottles, the occasional cigarette stump (courtesy of Ando), unidentifiable stains of every size and then right under the radiator, a soft spot of green mould was trying to turn this room into a forest.
Speechless, Takeshi turned once on the spot and took a survey of the collateral damage. He ran a mental tally of all the costs involved to return this room to its normal state and shook his head.
Hiromasa was less silent.
"YOU ARE DISGUSTING! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO THIS PLACE?"
During his outburst, he accidentally stepped into something yellow that promptly stuck to the soles of his sandals. Adding insult to injury, the yellow slime also stuck to the side of his foot. He tried to wipe it off on the battered old couch, but since more than one bottle of beer and fuzzy drinks had been spilled over it, it was by now so sticky that it took more than a little force to yank his foot off of it again. Hiromasa's flailing had woken a small army of flies that lived on the ceiling and one particularly cheeky one settled itself on Takeshi's neatly combed hair, prompting Ando to laugh.
Before he even knew what was going on, he found himself practically carried into the hallway with a phone in his hand and dialling Minako's number under Takeshi's withering stare.
She arrived twenty minutes later, puppy in tow.
Without saying a word, Takeshi took her hand and dragged her into the apartment. Her mouth fell open. By the time she had made it to the kitchen, her face had taken on a distinctly green tinge. She hadn't been here for at least two months, and while it had been untidy before, it was downright filthy now.
The counters were littered with dirty dishes, rotting fruit (Umino had the habit of eating some fruit and then dropping it randomly to return to his dissertation), even more mountains of old newspapers (Ando had subscriptions to three different ones) and countless letters and postcards, all of which were addressed to Rei. They would never be sent and yet they were the only clean thing in a ten metre radius.
Someone had built a small tower out of used coffee cups and someone else had chucked an apple against said tower, resulting in the floor being adorned with several shards of various sizes. They were practically glued to the dirty tiles. Both the ceramic glass cook top and the oven were covered with flecks of tomato sauce and the bin was so full that the boys had simply started to throw things next to it as they went.
All in all, it was pandemonium.
The dog immediately set out to follow all these exciting new smells and soon settled in a corner on some old magazines, delightedly chewing on a black sock with ominous white spots. Takeshi nudged his girlfriend and pointed to the pet. Shrieking, Minako rushed over, scooped the puppy up and took the article of clothing out of its mouth with as minimal contact as possible while fighting the urge to retch. A hangover really didn't go well with the apartment also known as the second circle of hell.
"Eight," stated Takeshi eventually, his voice flat. As always in times of stress, confusion or epic battles - all of which applied to this moment-, he turned monosyllabic.
"Excuse me?" she asked and stepped next to him again. He very pointedly ignored the unwanted animal that had wormed its way into his home and gestured to the over-flowing ashtray that stood next to the letters.
"I found eight of these, and I haven't even been in Ando's room yet."
"Have you been to the bathroom?"
His eyes widened in horror and he slowly shook his head as if to say that nothing in this world or the next would prompt him to enter what was without a doubt the epicentre of doom.
Hiromasa joined them, the state of the apartment making him momentarily forget that he was still not really talking to Minako. He bent his head to the puppy and took him from her arms, stroking its soft fur as he spoke. The dog immediately began to lick his hand, and Minako looked mildly resentful.
"I have never seen anything like that. I have three brothers, and I have never seen anything like that. Hell, I've been to college and I've NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THAT," he hollered in the general direction of the living room where Ando and Umino were still trying to find out what the problem was. Yes, things had gotten a bit out of hand and the flat wasn't really tidy, but their visitors were really exaggerating a bit, weren't they?
Met with this extreme lack of common sense, Takeshi reverted to his best battle tactics. Bring in the surprise weapon.
Ami hadn't been to the apartment since she was sure that the living room floor was able to talk to her, but she had assumed that the boys would have tidied up since then. It had been three months ago, after all.
Her response to the chaos was to blink repeatedly and then threaten Umino with not letting him back into her place until this was all taken care of. Her tone was so sincere and disapproving that even Ando turned a little red (and that hadn't happened since his nanny had caught him burning his dead hamster with his grandfather's magnifying glass at the age of five). She left quickly, fighting the impulse to do the cleaning herself just so that this would become something even resembling a safe environment again. Hiromasa, who was still carrying the dog, and Takeshi followed her quickly, leaving the two culprits and a confused Minako in the apartment of filth.
She hurried after them. "Hey! Hey, wait! Take me with you!"
The slamming of the door told Minako that this really wasn't her day.
"I just found some sweetcorn that went over to the dark side in 1999," Minako said as she stared at the can with wide eyes. "Hang on, how is that even possible? You only moved in here a couple of months ago. Why do you have ten year old sweet corn in your pantry?"
After Minako had run after Takeshi, he had told her that cleaning the flat was her opportunity of atoning for the sudden adoption of the dog. Minako Aino had returned with determination and vengeance, her eyes blazing with resolution, her mouth set in a firm line. It lasted until she kicked a stack of newspapers for fun and saw parts of it scuttle away. She decided that it was better not to think about why this inanimate object had the ability to move and sent Ando armed with a pan and a purpose after it.
Umino scratched his head, tousling his curls in the process. They had started to reclaim the apartment in the kitchen and were now throwing away everything that couldn't be saved by spraying it with Windex, nail polish remover or sanitizer which meant that most of the groceries landed in the bin, along with all of the former coffee mugs.
"My gran told me to take some food from her house."
Eyeing a container of yoghurt with more apprehension than it deserved, Minako frowned."Why?"
"Because this is the first time I'm living alone?"
From the living room came a disgruntled shout.
"Hey, I may be drunk or depressed most of the time, but I AM here!"
It was immediately followed by a banging noise and Minako assumed that it was safe to think that the mystery newspaper pet was now quite dead. If not, she would transform and use the Crescent Beam on it.
"I didn't tell my grandmother that I was living with another man!"
Ando stepped into the kitchen, a garbage bag in hand. "Why ever not?"
"Because she thinks I'm gay as it is."
Suddenly, the kitchen clock seemed to tick a little louder as Minako looked pointedly at her shoes, Ando looked at Minako and Umino stared at them both.
"Shouldn't you ask me where on earth she got that idea?"
A snort escaped Ando's lips and he turned to Minako, who was busy examining her split ends.
"Will you tell him or shall I?"
"Tell me what?"
"Ando, don't." Her voice was pleading.
"Oh Min, come on. He has to face the music sometime."
"Be nice." Her look was pleading, but Ando grinned.
"Never. I mean: always. Umino, before you cut your hair, you looked like a ruddy girl. And you suck at sports. Of course your gran thought you were a fairy."
"What? Why? No! No, I mean, Hiromasa wears his hair long. Do you think he looks girly, too?"
"Hiromasa is six foot five. He's huge; he looks like a friendlier version of Batman. You look like Robin and everyone thinks Robin is gay."
Closing her eyes and thinking of England, Minako tried her hardest not to laugh. The mental image of Umino in green tights was firmly rooted in her mind and her more mischievous side contemplated suggesting Robin's outfit as the new shitennou uniforms.
Crossing his arms in front of his chest, Umino shot back. "Robin hooked up with Batgirl."
"Alicia Silverstone. And she was a bit on the chubby side in that film. Not the best example to ascertain your heterosexuality, if you ask me."
Minako gripped the counters, the corners of her mouth stubbornly twisting upwards. Imagining Ando in the Joker's costume and Takeshi as Mr. Freeze, she felt her control slip. Her hands, however, did not slip anywhere. The sticky counter took care of that.
"Oh God, that's so gross," she shouted, interrupting the two bickering men. Her palms were covered with some brownish goo of unknown origin. It smelled like old tennis shoes, which was a bit worrying since neither Umino nor Ando had ever set foot on a tennis court.
Bringing her hands closer to her eyes, she squinted. "Do I want to know what that is?"
Umino stepped closer and carefully examined her hands without touching them. Ando (knowing Minako better and thus sensing the impending danger) stayed at a safe distance, and wished for some popcorn. Poor Umino was too oblivious to see what was coming.
"I think it's vanilla sauce."
"Then why isn't it yellow?"
"Umm, because I had it with some cake two weeks ago?"
"Did you now?"
Smiling serenely, Minako lifted her hands and slowly walked towards Umino.
"What are you doing? Minako?" The philosopher's voice had taken on a nervous edge and he stepped back until he bumped into Ando, who refused to clear the path to allow for his mate's escape.
Without hesitation, she jumped towards him and cupped his face with her hands, smearing the goo all over his his stubble-free chin.
Ando laughed until Umino escaped Minako's grip and ran towards his room-mate to successfully kick him in the shin. Hard.
When Takeshi returned several hours later to check up on their progress, his couch was still in the hallway, the flat was still a mess and his girlfriend was throwing a rotting apple at Ando who fortunately ducked just in time for the fruit to fly over his head and hit Umino straight in the face. He was cowering behind a fort made from dirty laundry and retaliated by throwing some old underwear in Minako's general direction. Squeaking, she fled into the last refuge: the one place you just didn't go to in the Apartment of Filth. The place where no girl had been before.
Looking at his watch, Takeshi stopped the time.
Minako shot out of after precisely twelve seconds, her face serious and tinged green.
"I think we will need Ami to unleash the Mercury Aqua Rhapsody in there because there's no way I'm going back in there. Ever."
Shaking his head, the architect left as quietly as he had arrived.
It was time to visit her grandfather. The leaves were falling, colouring the ground in red and gold. But Rei knew that the rain would start soon and everything would be turned into a murky brown mess - very symbolic, she thought with a wry smile. Her new life had not turned out the way she wanted it to. Granted, the new job was nice, it left her bone crushingly tired, but surprisingly satisfied in the evenings. But other than that, she longed for the easy comradeship her grandfather had provided for her. They hadn't seen each other in months and missing him didn't go away. She worried that he wouldn't dress warm enough for the cooling temperatures and wouldn't remember to take his vitamin supplements. She made a mental note to ask Usagi to check on him, maybe even send Minako over to the temple as well. But his birthday was coming up in three days and while he always claimed to not care about birthdays, she knew that every year, he had tears in his eyes when she presented him with a cake she had spent hours making. That more often than not it tasted like sand didn't matter, he always ate two slices of it and patted her head in an awkward gesture of thanks afterwards. Then they went on a walk around the temple, watching the seasons change. This year, he would be alone, unless she dared to return to her former home. The thought was terrifying. Rei worried that once she sat foot on the holy ground again, she wouldn't be able to leave and all the pain would have been for naught. Pulling her cloak tighter around herself, she walked on and watched the leaves dance in the air. She could worry about her grandfather and her fate tomorrow. Tonight she had something else to fear.
She arrived at Minako's and Takeshi's house at precisely six o'clock. It was the 22nd of October, Minako's birthday. The bubbly blonde had invited all of her friends for a dinner party, and because Minako was Minako, she had invited Ando as well. The information had been shared over a cup of coffee at Makoto's café, and while Minako had smiled in a deceptively sweet manner, her eyes were hard. The time for hiding was over.
Were it not for Takeshi, Rei was sure that she would find herself seated next to Ando because from then on, Minako had made it clear with exaggerated sighs, biting jokes and ample looks that she had had enough. No one could force them to be together again, but in a circle of friends as small and as exclusive as theirs, avoiding each other was an insurmountable task.
Takeshi opened the door, dressed to the peak in a dark grey suit that would have done Senator Hino proud. The architect smiled his reluctant smile and led her in. He took her coat while she walked into the spacious living room to greet the other guests. Ami and Umino were already there, sitting next to each other on Minako's huge red couch. By some miracle, even Usagi was on time. She was admiring some framed photographs of Minako and Takeshi on the wall. Rei remembered that Minako had told her about the appointment at the photographer's, how happy she was that she and her boyfriend would be caught on film together for the world to see. It was such a deviation from how their relationship was in the Silver Millennium: a secret coated in the darkness of the night. A quick glance told Rei that the pictures were indeed beautiful. All black and white, each picture showed a different stage of the photo shoot.
In one, the two of them stood next to each other, Takeshi looking proud and tall, Minako lithe and bubbly. Another one depicted the pair holding hands, and then there was one in which she tickled him and the photographer had managed to catch his laughter in just the right moment. The one that made Rei's heart clench a little bit was them just looking at each other, both faces sporting a look of devotion and happiness that Rei had only ever seen on Mamoru and Usagi. Rei looked at Usagi, who was smiling serenely, obviously satisfied to see the leaders of both hers and Mamoru's guard so happy.
Next to Usagi, Mamoru was nursing a glass of what looked like water, but was probably vodka. Rei knew that Takeshi had a soft spot for the drink; it was the first thing she had learned about him in this life. She briefly wondered if he still drank too much to cope with his inner demons or if Minako's presence alone was enough to keep them at bay. It had certainly worked for Ando. The birthday girl herself was notably absent, and spotting the empty dog basket near the crackling fireplace, so was her pet. Rei greeted her friends with a smile.
"Rei, can I offer you something to drink? Champagne, sparkling water, whiskey? Vodka?" Takeshi, always proper, always perfect. Once again, Rei wondered how far they had come. She was almost at ease around the shitennou now (with one notable exception, of course), and it was all due to Usagi. After the engagement party, she had made a point of arranging little meetings. If she invited Rei over for coffee, Makoto and Hiromasa might be there. If they went out to catch a film, it was in the company of Takeshi and Minako. Weekend trips to the countryside involved Ami and Umino more often than not and slowly, she had found herself accepting the men they were now. She hadn't forgotten what lingered under the surface, what they had once done, but she had acknowledged that they were more than they used to be. With a smile, she declined his offer. "No, thank you, not yet. Where's Minako?"
"She has gone to fetch Ando." Takeshi's voice was even, unconcerned, but she could see the worry in his watchful eyes. It was easy to tell that he hadn't been in favour of forcing the two of them together like this.
"I see. And she took the dog with her?" Her question caused him to press his lips in a thin line and his back went ramrod straight. It made him look so much more like Kunzite, but Rei brushed the thought aside with determination.
"Yes, she has." So they were still fighting about it. Rei almost felt guilty, but then again it was Minako who had randomly adopted a dog without asking Takeshi and not herself. A bitter thought crossed her mind: I can get as many dogs as I want to. No one will care. Benefit of being lonely.
"She got it for me, originally," she grimaced. His answer was a little fiercer than expected. Of course, it was still polite by other people's standards, but Rei was sure that she had hit a sore point.
"Then why didn't you take it?"
"You don't like it?"
"No, not much. Do you know what breed it is?"
"I thought he must be a mixed breed, seeing how she got him from a shelter."
"No. It's a Great Dane. Emphasis on great."
Behind Takeshi, Mamoru bit back a laugh. The architect's dislike for the pet was already legendary, and the source of many hours of amusement for everyone but Takeshi and Minako. Ando had taken to enquire after the pet every time he saw Takeshi, just to rile him up. It worked without fail. Every. Single. Time. Ando even rang his office every once in a while to ask about the dog's welfare, and it had already gotten to the point that Mrs. Fukuda didn't pass his messages along any more.
Having been raised to be diplomatic, Rei tried to smooth over Takeshi's visible discomfort.
"And there is no chance of her giving it away? I'm sure that Hiromasa would take him, he really likes dogs."
"I do think that Makoto is perfectly content with only having one."
The doorbell interrupted their conversation and Takeshi excused himself.
Rei's heart began to beat a little faster and her stomach clenched. She wondered if she would feel like this all evening long: tense, anxious, worried. If it were them, they wouldn't ring. Minako has a key. Calm down, calm down.
When the door opened to reveal Hiromasa and Makoto, she let out a deep breath of relief. Hiromasa was dressed in a white shirt, his sports jacket already slung over his shoulder. He really hated dressing up, and while both Mamoru and Takeshi were wearing ties, no such article of clothing would find its way around Hiromasa's neck.
Usagi had abandoned Mamoru and the pictures and popped up next to her. Her voice was sweet and smooth; it never failed to calm Rei.
"Rei, don't worry. It's just a dinner. Two hours. You don't even have to talk to him, Takeshi made sure that you are seated at opposite ends of the table."
Verifying this new piece of information, she peered into the dining room. The large oak table Minako had bought three months ago was beautifully set, lots of gold, crystal and candles. Each place was adorned with a small place card, and even from the distance she could tell that the handwriting wasn't Minako's. It was small, messy and with lots of edges; presumably Takeshi's. If Takeshi was in charge of the seating arrangements, there wouldn't be any unwelcome surprises. Relieved, she turned to Usagi again. Her friend had abandoned her signature hairstyle tonight and opted for a sleek ponytail. It was a look that suited her, and Rei secretly wondered if Usagi felt that she was now too old for the odangos. She reached for the ponytail and tugged it with playful fingers.
The beaming smile that spread across Usagi's face told her how much the blonde appreciated the compliment.
"I was going for something else, a change. Felt that it was high time, you know?"
Fingering a strand of her own hair, long and unchanged for years, she smiled.
"Yes, I know." Change was good, change was necessary. But then why did she feel as if she had lost the ground under her feet in the past months? What had started as a necessity, as something good, had turned into punishment before she knew it and now it seemed to late to reverse it. How could she have abandoned her only family like that? Rei bit down on her bottom lip, and pushed these bitter thoughts from her mind. No sense in ruining Minako's birthday party before it even started.
Hiromasa came over and hugged Usagi, offering his hand to Rei. The wedding band glinted as it caught a ray of light from the lamp. His eyes stayed on the women for only a minute before straying to the empty dog basket, his large face full of disappointment.
"Hey, where's the little one? I brought Spock so that they could play!" Behind him, Makoto snorted.
Takeshi handed him a glass of whiskey. "Little?" Hiromasa accepted the drink and grinned.
"Still haven't gotten over yourself? Your dog is nice, mate, he really is. Better behaved than mine, ask my wife." There was pride in his voice, and it endeared him to Rei. "Does he have a name yet?" Usagi quipped, but Takeshi only shook his head, making it clear that he was done talking about the dog.
"How is your business going, Hiromasa? Makoto mentioned that you secured a very wealthy customer recently who wants only your furniture in his three houses." Grinning, Usagi wandered off to Ami and Umino again. Takeshi was really nice, but he just wasn't any fun. Hiromasa however stayed, and so did the grin on his face.
"Changing the subject much? And just so you know, if your girlfriend were a little less vindictive, that customer would have been you." Clearly not willing to talk about the dog or discuss Minako's attitude towards Hiromasa, Takeshi broached a new topic.
"How do you like the whiskey?"
Hiromasa took a sip of the drink and made an impressed face. "I want a bottle of this for Christmas. And as long as you're not vile to the dog, we're good."
"I'm ignoring the thing as long as I can and consider your Christmas wish duly noted."
At that moment, Minako, Ando and the dog burst into the room. Minako was all smiles and immediately began to hug her guests while Ando walked over to Mamoru and took the glass right out of his hands. The Great Dane trotted over to Takeshi and immediately sat down on his shoes.
The dinner went... well, it went the way one would expect it to go.
Rei, carefully placed between Usagi and Makoto, had managed about three spoonfuls of her pumpkin soup, taken two full bites of the bread that rested on her plate and awaited the main course with dread. At least Minako hadn't cooked, that would have been fatal. All the food had been delivered from a five star restaurant in the city centre, but they had not hired any waiters for the evening because they had too many secrets to keep and wished to speak freely on a night like this. So Minako and Takeshi acted as waiters, with the result that the side of the table that was served by Takeshi got their food while it was still hot and the side that was served by Minako had it spilled over lovingly ironed shirts and carefully chosen dresses. Ami had offered to take over, and so had Makoto, but Minako was nothing if not insistent.
At the opposite end of the table, cushioned between Minako and Umino, Ando ate quietly. His eyes had not yet strayed from his plate, and he didn't even try to join in on the conversation. Dressed up for the occasion, he was wearing one of the suits his father kept giving him for Christmas each year in a fruitless attempt to lure him into the corporate world. That the dark blue shirt Minako had forced him to wear belonged to Takeshi was something he had only figured out when Takeshi welcomed him and murmured in his ear: "I want that back, and don't even think about throwing it on your filthy floor when you get home."
In the kitchen, Minako and Takeshi were just about to cut up the roast beef when he took her hand and pressed it to his lips.
"Minako." She was wearing a little black dress that clung to her curves in all the right places. The locket he had given her rested between her breasts; it was the only piece of jewellery she wore. He had a hard time looking anywhere but at her all night long, which had made serving a soup course considerably difficult.
"Happy birthday." And with that, he kissed her. It was the sort of kiss that left her short of breath, made her toes curl, her heart flutter, her brain melt. It was the sort of kiss that left Minako wishing that all of her friends would just leave immediately so that Takeshi could have his wicked way with her right then and there on the kitchen floor. It was the sort of kiss that had made her addicted to him when she was still a goddess and he a warrior in a magical kingdom high up in the sky.
He broke the kiss, and ran a hand through her golden curls. Stepping away from him, she straightened her dress and tried to remember how exactly one went about breathing.
His face gave nothing away.
"I don't know what you're talking about it."
"You did that thing. That thing with your tongue."
"I wasn't aware that I did things with my tongue that my tongue wasn't supposed to do. I thought the whole point of kissing was to do things with your tongue."
She swatted him with a kitchen towel, her cheeks reddened.
"Spare me the act, mock innocence doesn't suit you. And just so you know: as soon as they're all gone, you and I are going to the bedroom. And we're not coming out until my birthday is over."
"While this sounds like a wonderful plan, you forgot that your dog will need to be taken for a walk. So the bedroom will have to wait, won't it?"
And with a smirk, he took the plate with the roast on it and carried it to their guests.
In the kitchen, Minako cursed.
"Stupid, fucking dog."
The stupid, fucking dog was actually busy playing with Spock under the table, every once in a while bumping into someone's leg. Of course, Hiromasa had insisted on bringing Spock. Much to Makoto's dismay, he took him everywhere. The supermarket, restaurants, to his parents, to their friends, to the café... everywhere. But to her great surprise, Ando had also taken to the long-eared animal. He loved taking him and Minako's dog for long walks, even in the rain, and Hiromasa was beginning to get jealous. Privately, Makoto thought it was all getting a bit out of hand, but she loved her husband and was sure that she had several little quirks that he took in stride to be with her, so she smiled and petted and focused on the cuteness rather than the countless things Spock had destroyed by chewing on and slobbering all over them.
Takeshi however was not so willing to take it all in stride; not used to being defied all that often, he was seriously upset. A week into the Great Dane's residence in his house, the architect stormed outside in the garden and only returned when a perfectly adequate doghouse stood under the apple tree. Minako - deeply offended that her beloved pet was supposed to stay anywhere but near her - crossed her arms over her chest and coldly asked Takeshi to knock the construction down again. The two of them had then argued until the dog hid under the couch, scared of the angry voices.
Of course, it refused to come out until Minako dangled the steak that was supposed to be Takeshi's dinner in front of its nose. In an otherwise happy home, the dog was a constant source of friction and while taking a bite of her broccoli, Makoto wondered whether or not to suggest to Minako to give the pet away for the sake of her relationship. Then her eyes strayed to her husband, who was sneaking the two dogs under the table some bits of roast beef from his plate while pretending to listen to Umino's tale of how the bathroom in the apartment of filth had been reclaimed through magic powers only and Makoto Obuchi decided that Takeshi would very simple have to get over himself.
It was during dessert that the bombed dropped.
Ando cleared his throat, and the table fell instinctively silent. So far both Ando and Rei had been quiet, letting the conversation float around them without joining in.
"So Rei... I heard that you have a new job."
A tiny part of Rei knew that he had waited until she had finally taken the first bite of birthday cake, just so that he could see her choke on it. Whether it was revenge or his own brand of humour, she couldn't tell. Swallowing down the chocolate cake that now tasted like lead, she forced a smile on her face. Under the table, Makoto put a soothing hand on Rei's thigh and squeezed.
"I work in an antique shop now. It's different, but I quite like it."
He nodded and took a sip of his red wine before turning his overly bright eyes back on her face. Not even the other eight people in the room could make this moment anything other than their own. He was challenging her, finally casting his submissive suffering aside like an old cloak.
"And what does your grandfather make of it? He must miss you at the temple."
Her fork slid out of her hand and fell on her plate with a soft clank. Briefly wondering whether he had read her face or her mind, she closed her eyes. The image of her grandfather was so clear now, it was just as present as the pictures of Minako and Takeshi on the wall behind her. Jadeite had found her soft spot and pushed the dagger in - again. Sliding her chair back, she looked at Minako once before leaving the room in measured steps. They heard the front door close soon after that.
Umino was the first to break the silence that had settled over the table.
"And that was necessary how?"
Ando simply shrugged, and began to toy with his empty pack of cigarettes.
Sitting cross-legged on the desk in his study, Minako was talking animatedly; effectively drowning the sound of Mozart in the background. Takeshi sat on the chair in front of the cherry wood desk and eyed her with little contained impatience. That she was sitting on the first draft of the design for a new building didn't make it any better.
"She is the sort of person who kicks puppies. No, wait. She's the sort of person who eats puppies."
"Actually, she's the sort of person who takes a bite out of a sweet little puppy, watches it bleed to death and then goes to get herself some tofu for lunch. That's what she' s like."
He reached over and pushed her a little to the side to retrieve the precious sketch before she crumpled it even more. After storing it safely on one of the bookshelves on his left, his focus returned to the woman perched on his desk. "Minako, you mother can't be that bad. And right now, I don't mind meeting someone who can take Attila off my hands."
"First of all: that's not his name. And second: you haven't met her yet."
"My point exactly."
"Takeshi, please. Let's stay here. Or let's go and look at your new project. Ooh, that really big house? Shall we go there? You like houses, you're an architect."
"Minako, I want to get to know your family. Is that so hard to understand?" Meeting his eyes, she could tell that he was exasperated. This unusual look on his handsome features might have swayed her, had it not been her mother they were talking about. Taking a deep breath, she continued. "Yes, it is. There are about five million things that are more fun than meeting my family, including, but not limited to: walking barefoot over broken beer bottles, jumping off a cliff, killing a youma, being dead, being reborn, being hungry and let's not forget arguing with Rei about Ando. Or with Ando about Rei. And I know what I'm talking about, all of that has already happened to me. Some of it even more than once. So please, don't make me meet my mother."
Something in the air shifted, ad he looked as if he just had an epiphany of the darkest sort.
"Is this relationship something you're ashamed of?"
"Wait, what? No!" She nearly laughed at the absurdity of the idea, but the grave expression on his face killed the laughter in her throat before it could resonate off the cream coloured walls. "But my mother is ashamed of me and I'd rather not introduce you. The thought that she and I share some genetic make-up is scary. Really, you don't want to meet her. Trust me."
He got up and walked out of his study, hollering "Attila!" as he went. The puppy - already taller than many fully-grown dogs - raced after him and knocked over a potted plant in the process.
Stomping her foot, Minako shouted: "AND HIS NAME IS NOT ATTILA!"
When Takeshi got home, it was already dark, which wasn't saying much since it was November. He commanded the dog to its basket and climbed up the stairs to their bedroom, knowing that Minako was waiting for him there. Opening the door, he fully expected her to throw something at him, but found her sitting in the middle of the gigantic bed, nose in a picture album. She was dressed in some old girly pyjamas, their legs too short and the prints already fading. Had he been more familiar with popular culture, he would have recognised the print as Princess Peach from Super Mario.
"We're driving over to my parents on Sunday. Dinner. I'd tell you to dress nice, but then you always do, so it would be rather pointless, wouldn't it?" He placed a quiet kiss on her head. "Thank you."
Her voice was flat, and the evenness in it didn't suit her. "I don't like being emotionally blackmailed. Take that as a reference for the future and get in bed. I'm tired."
She kicked the photo album to the floor, looking absurdly pleased as she watched some pictures fly out of it and scrambled under the covers so that only the top of her head was visible.
"Minako, it's not even eight o'clock."
Torn between amusement and anger, Takeshi picked the album and the loose pictures up on his way to the bathroom and put the recovered memorabilia on a chest of dressers. While he itched to look through it to see what had made her so angry, he knew that it was not his place to do so. He took a long hot shower to get the late autumn chill out of his bones and put on a fresh pair of pyjamas. Sniffing them, he noticed that Minako had changed the detergent from the plain one he used to buy during his bachelor days to something more flowery. It smelled nice; homey and familiar. When he climbed into the bed, he reached for her and pulled her close. Her voice was muffled against his chest as she spoke.
"My mother and I don't get along."
"And she doesn't know about the whole senshi business, so we need to come up with a realistic story of how we met." It was almost no longer strange to acknowledge that their origins lay in another world and time. Both could make it sound as if they were at ease with it, and yet, in the darkness of the night, the ghosts of Kunzite and Venus in their most sinister versions came to wreck havoc on Takeshi's soul. Forcing the past away from him, he clung to their present.
"That should be easy. We were introduced by mutual friends - Makoto and Hiromasa."
"And the dog's name is not-"
"Attila. I get it."
They fell asleep huddled up against each another.
Sunday came too soon for Minako's liking. The dog had been taken over to Makoto's and Hiromasa's place, where he would stay for the evening. Hiromasa was over the moon and had taken the two pets and Ando for a long walk as soon as a visibly relieved Takeshi shoved the Great Dane into his arms. Makoto had smiled sweetly and told Takeshi that she would send him a bill for everything his pet destroyed.
Takeshi was now killing time in his study, hunched over maps and ground evaluation charts while he waited for Minako to get ready. She had been in the bathroom for at least two hours now, changing both her hair and her make-up several times before eventually settling on a bun, some barely there blush and mascara. Every lipstick she owned seemed too bright, every eye shadow too colourful. Most of her dresses seemed too bohemian, jeans were not chic enough and unfortunately, she just didn't have any potato sacks handy. Not that it mattered how she looked, her mother would disapprove anyway.
Dressed in a beige cashmere jumper her mother had given her for her birthday a few years ago and some boring black trousers and ballet shoes, she tapped her boyfriend on the shoulder.
When Takeshi's BMW came to a halt in front of her parents' house, Minako sunk deeper into the passenger seat. Her mood was already spectacularly bad, she was a volcano waiting to erupt and Takeshi was aware that she would make him pay for every minute they would spent in the quaint looking house in the Juban district. The bare trees visible behind walls and houses spoke of a winter that was already lurking around the corner.
"Shall we go in?"
"Stupid question. You were so keen to meet her, so why don't you go ahead? I'll take the time to redirect the exhaust pipe into the passenger cabin and end my misery."
"Minako, you are not eleven years old."
"And you're not fifty and yet you behave like it."
"I'm not arguing with you."
"Don't push me." It never ceased to amaze her how cold his voice could get, and how quickly at that. All that cool, calm, collected nonsense that everyone associated with him was actually quite ridiculous, Minako thought viciously. He had even more of a temper than she did, he just hid it better.
They were interrupted by a knock on the window. A woman with a blonde bob and piercing blue eyes stared into the car, her smile a tad too wide on her carefully made up face. She wore the same jumper Minako had put on with so much distaste half an hour earlier. The woman pointed to the house first, to her daughter second and then turned and walked up the driveway again.
Minako sighed and stated the obvious. "That was my mother. She wants us to get out of the car and come inside."
"We are ten minutes early." Takeshi shifted in his seat. He had calculated that he would need at least ten minutes to get Minako out of the car in the first place, hence the early arrival.
"Try telling her that, I dare you. Come on, she's waiting."
Minako's father was actually fairly pleasant, Takeshi realised. The older man had made conversation with him as soon as they stepped through the door, chatting easily about both the city and the weather, and inquiring in the most polite manner what he did for a living. Hearing that Takeshi was an architect seemed to please Mr. Aino and they delved into a long-winded conversation about a new shopping centre that was being built near the suburbs. In the kitchen, Minako helped her mother prepare the dinner. She would have rather stayed with Takeshi and her dad, but figured that ten minutes into the meeting was presumably not the right time to start an argument about how much she hated cutting vegetables.
"How are your studies going?" After five months of virtually no contact, Minako wondered whether her mother couldn't have started with another question. Frowning, she stopped hacking the carrots.
"Okay." Not satisfied, her mother pressed on while checking the roast pork in the oven. A wonderful smell wafted through the kitchen. While Minako resented many things her mother did, her cooking was not among them.
"How many classes do you take?"
"Six. No wait, seven. I have to retake one that I failed last semester."
"I always told you that you can't expect to pass your exams if you're being lazy." Mrs. Aino peeled some potatoes with practised ease, all the while looking at her daughter.
"I wasn't, I just missed too much near the end of the semester because I wasn't on campus enough."
"And why is that?" Mrs. Aino turned the kitchen light on, and it caught in the pearl earrings she wore.
"A friend of mine needed my help; I flew to New York and didn't return for two months. Do you need me to cut more carrots?"
"No, but the pieces need to be smaller, do it again. Which friend was it? Usagi? She's such a flighty girl."
"Mother, Usagi isn't flighty, she's married. And no, it wasn't her, it was another friend; one you don't know."
"Does that friend have a name?"
"That's a boy." Mrs. Aino stopped dead in her tracks.
"But not the one who's talking to your father right now."
"Minako..." There it was, the fully disapproving voice that usually made her run for the hills in seconds. Only the fact that Takeshi was sitting in the living-room made her stay put; his comment about her behaving like a child had struck a chord, so Minako decided to demonstrate patience and control.
"It's not like that. Ando's a friend of Takeshi's, too."
Huffing, her mother turned her back on her daughter. "You need to get your hair cut."
"I'm wearing it in a bun, how can you tell that it needs cutting?"
"Your hair always needs cutting, you wear it far too long. And now get going on those carrots, or we won't be able to have any for dinner."
When the small group finally assembled at the table, Mrs. Aino took the opportunity to quiz her daughter some more.
"When did you last clean your flat?" Takeshi subtly looked around, noticing that everything was tidy and very, very clean. A bit like his old penthouse, actually.
"I don't live in my flat any more, Mum. I moved." Her father smiled. "That's good for you, honey." Her mother, on the other hand, was less pleased. Her knife made a screeching sound as she cut her potato with a little more force than necessary. "Well, thank you for notifying me."
Trying to be helpful, Takeshi cut in. Since his own mother died when he was seven and his father followed her to the grave ten years later, he couldn't understand Minako's neglectful attitude towards her parents. Still, he felt the need to defend her. "Minako and I moved in together at the beginning of autumn, and since she has organised the move, she was very busy."
"You moved in together? Mr. Nakamura, how long have you been seeing my daughter?" There it was, the scandalised voice. Oh, Minako knew it so well. She looked at her father, checking that he wouldn't suddenly display an unusual surge of parental protection, but only found the older man happily munching his pork. He really did have the blithest temper.
Minako pushed the vegetables around on her plate until they formed a perfect triangle and answered before Takeshi could. "February."
Mrs. Aino looked at Takeshi. He noticed that ,very much like her daughter, the older woman had barely touched her food. She was skinny, and now that she was leaning over the table towards him, she looked distinctly birdlike. "Is that so? Minako never mentioned you."
"Might be because I never call," Minako injected sweetly. Takeshi shot her a warning glance, one that didn't go unnoticed by Mrs. Aino. The older woman laughed; it sounded bitter.
"Well, my daughter is a handful. Always has been, even as a little girl she was a horribly difficult child. But then you might be able to tame her, Lord knows I haven't been able to."
"I'm not a horse." Pushing her plate back, Minako glared at her mother.
"Of course you're not, sweetie." Her father reassured, ever so diplomatic. If only he had more backbone, she might even come to visit more than twice a year, Minako thought as took a sip of her water.
"Mr. Nakamura, I hope she contributes to the expenses. I hate to say this about my own child, but Minako can be very self-centred and I would hate to have her take advantage of you. You seem like such a nice man. Please let us know if there is something we can do."
Lowering his fork, Takeshi forced a smile on his face. Mr. Aino awkwardly waved the bread basket in front of his daughter's face, trying to distract her from carrying out the desperate wish to murder her mother. Mrs. Aino however was undeterred.
"Do you have a job?" Toying with the stem of her glass, Minako remained silent. She remembered meeting Ando's parents and wondered how she could have ever thought them to be worse than her own mother.
"I asked you whether or not you have a job."
"How did you finance your old flat?" Moving the glass around a little faster, a bit of her water sloshed over the brim and soaked the white tablecloth.
"I just did." For once, Minako wished that she could tell her mother that she was in fact stinking rich. But how exactly did you tell your mother that you were a reborn soldier goddess of a forgotten kingdom from another planet who conveniently managed to turn her alter ego into a computer game heroine? So instead, she shrugged and kept her secrets, just like she had since the day Artemis strolled into her life.
"You are infuriating."
"Do you want me to share some details of my life with you? Fine. I have a dog. Actually, we have a dog."
Remembering three pairs of destroyed shoes, the large stain on the rug in his study and dog hairs on the couch, Takeshi put on a deadpan face and nodded. "His name is Attila." Minako looked at him, jaw slack, all good resolutions forgotten and exploded, knocking her glass over in the process.
"HIS NAME IS NOT ATTILA!" Her mother followed suit.
"I DID NOT RAISE YOU TO SHOUT AT THE DINNER TABLE!"
Mr. Aino took another bite of his pork, a delighted if distant expression on his friendly face and Takeshi noted with somewhat grim satisfaction that the bloody dog had finally been good for something.
Every once in a while, you do some really strange things, move in sync with their alien beat for a little while and then suddenly, all you can think of is: what the fuck am I doing here?
It was this thought that kept flashing through Ando's mind as he looked at the giant Christmas tree in his parents' living-room in New York. He wasn't sure what was worse: the cheap beer he had had last night which induced hangover like nothing else, or the blinking pyramid of glass and crystal that dominated half of the room.
At least the parental unit was blissfully absent now, but they had been more than happy to welcome him into their house and berate him for everything from his hair cut to his choice of job and eventually his moving to Japan. Both his mother and his father had carefully avoided the topic of the blonde he had introduced to them in summer, acting as if she didn't exist. Thinking of Minako, who was probably turning her house into Christmas-central and of Takeshi, who would grumble and shout at the dog only to leave all of his scrooging behind once he saw his girlfriend's wide smile, Ando wondered whether they would have minded terribly if he spent Christmas with them in their shiny new home. He could make himself useful, he thought with a pang of hope, he could pass the gravy during Christmas dinner or something.
While pouring himself a glass of his father's oldest whiskey (as forbidden as it was delicious), Ando had to grudgingly admit to himself that they probably would mind. Those happy and in love didn't want a stinking ball of misery by their side during the major holidays. He knew that both Ami and Umino were celebrating with their respective families, and Hiromasa had taken Makoto to his grandmother. Mamoru and Usagi were at the Tsukinos` house, and that left only Rei unaccounted for and he seriously doubted that she would share the holiday spirit with him. So a week ago, Ando had made a big show out of having to fly to New York for work reasons, announcing that unfortunately, he wouldn't be back before New Year's, but that he would make up for his absence with mountains of useless presents. Minako had shot him a knowing look, but opted for silence and when she dropped him off at the airport, she hugged him a little harder than necessary and asked him not to kick the poodle too much, a plea he chose to ignore after the stupid living cotton ball had bitten him in the leg ten minutes into his visit.
Feeling more than a little relief that his parents were away at one of their many annual charity functions, Ando strolled trough the living-room, filching through boring coffee table books, looking at pictures and wondering whether his parents had any idea what they were donating copious amounts of money for. While the concept of charity was good, Ando knew that his father only agreed to go because all of his partners were there and his mother was in it for the pretty new dress. Never mind the starving children; they could take care of themselves.
Strangely, without his parents fluttering around him and nagging him, the house was too silent. It should have been peaceful, but it was just flat out unnerving. It wasn't as if Ando had nothing to do: he could do some writing, he could meet his editor, he could buy the presents he had promised his friends back in Japan, he could empty his father's bar, and if push came to shove, he could find himself a pretty girl and find some brief distraction. Not that it would work in the long run, he thought bitterly while kicking back another glass of whiskey, no woman could compare to Rei and that she resented him didn't mean that his own feelings were in any way diminishing. Of course, he had wondered more than once whether he should return to Tokyo at all. Distance made the heart grow fonder, and he was actually quite sure that Rei would accept him in time if he didn't manage to fuck it up beforehand. The thing was just that Ando began to belief that fucking up was what he did best. By asking Minako to come to New York with him in summer, he had almost destroyed her and Takeshi's relationship and while the couple was happy now, the extended trip to New York was still by no means forgotten; Hiromasa made a point of reminding both Minako and Ando of it at least once a week. And asking after her new career during Minako's birthday dinner had made Rei intensely upset, even though he only tried to make some civilised conservation. Deliberately setting his glass down on the antique coffee table without a coaster and hoping it would leave a stain, Ando left the living-room and seconds later, the house.
"Oh fuck. Oh fucking fuck!" he burst out as the cold wind slapped him in the face. Even after having been here for a week, he hadn't got used to the insane temperatures in the city. Tokyo was a solid ten degrees warmer than New York, and not for the first time, Ando wished that fate had dealt him better cards - cards that allowed him to stay in the company of his friends while bumming around in the relative warm of his new home country. But at Minako's birthday dinner, his heart had been beating in chest as if it were about to burst, and while it was the best and the worst feeling in the world to have Rei this close to him, it wasn't exactly healthy. Not until some time had passed.
Turning up his collar, he considered his options. He needed to do something, otherwise he would hail a cab and drive to the airport. The airport meant planes, planes meant Tokyo, and Tokyo meant a million conflicting emotions that no-one was ready to deal with at this point, least of all himself. Seeing a woman with shopping bags pass him by, Ando made his choice and set out to buy some presents. It didn't take him long to find the right things for his friends, and despite his threat, he made a point of getting them nice and useful things. Takeshi was the first one on his list, and he got him the finest set of pencils he could find. Umino was to be gifted with three new shirts, and since Ando wore Umino's clothes with alarming frequency, figuring out the right size was a piece of cake. It took him several shops to decide on something for Hiromasa and Makoto, and because it was so difficult, he decided to follow the Frank Xavier Cross tradition of present choosing and got them a nice set of knives. Both liked to cook, and Ando concluded that before cooking came cutting, so knives were a logical, if not brilliant solution. Ami got a new romance novel fresh from the press, and to tease her a little, he put the book in a medically themed cover. Abandoning his line of reasonable presents, he got Usagi a snow globe, knowing that the childlike woman would love it far more than anything she could actually use. Mamoru got a new watch (shiny silver, very elegant, if the saleswoman was to be believed) and finally, there were only the two women closest to his heart left to find something for, even though he had no idea what Rei liked. Other than tea and heartbreak, that was.
Since Minako liked everything, it was both incredibly easy and incredibly hard to get her something. A bubbly saleswoman tried her hardest to sell him a Kindle, and while her smile was lovely and her knowledge about the white piece of technology extensive, Ando could only shake his head in silent protest before fleeing. In an antique bookshop he used to haunt back when he still lived in the city, he found what he was looking for. It was simple, it was cheap, and Minako would love it. Nabokov's Lolita was put into his shopping bag alongside his other purchases, joined by another book before he even realised he had bought it, and off he went into the cold New York evening.
A week later, several colourful and one far more inconspicuous parcel were delivered to addresses all over Tokyo. Almost at the same time, the red, and blue, and pink, and yellow paper was ripped from the presents.
"Aww look, Hiro, Ando got us some new knives! We have to keep them far away from Usagi, or she'll accidentally cut her hand off."
"He got you a dirty book?" Takeshi asked a beaming Minako with a frown. She laughed, and began to browse through the pages. "It's not dirty, it's art. Now go and unwrap your own."
"Mamo, this is so nice! I like your watch, too. Very Tuxedo Mask, huh?"
"It's a medical textbook," Ami said to her mother while browsing through the pages. A sly blush crept up her chest, and she closed the book. "Just a medical textbook."
"Umino, why would a man send you new shirts? And what about this note? Sorry, old ones are no longer usable, they we're lying on my bedroom floor far too long See you in the new year, Ando. Ando is a male name. Sweetie, is there something you want to talk about? You know you can tell your Grandma everything, you'll always be my little Umi-bear." Burying his head in arms, Umino took a second to curse his room-mate to hell and back before smiling tiredly at his grandmother.
The only gift wrapped in brown paper was carried to the door of one Ms Rei Hino, who was alone in her flat. Christmas did not have a hold over the small apartment, but there were a few candles lit to cast a glow in the dark. Opening the door, Rei accepted the present from the delivery man, already knowing who sent it her way. She had dreamt about it, had seen him walking the streets of a city unknown to her, had witnessed his search for countless perfect present before picking the leather bound book she now unwrapped with trembling fingers. It was a collection of poems, some marked by pressed roses between the pages. She flicked the first marked page open, and picked a random pair of verse to read.
The memory of you emerges from the night around me.
The river mingles its stubborn lament with the sea.
Too soon, too close.
Quickly pushing it shut, she put the narrow book on her empty shelves, where it would be waiting until she was ready or he had forgotten her.
Fireworks exploded in the sky, and just like last year, Minako stood alone on the balcony of the restaurant with an umbrella-topped cocktail in hand while her friends were celebrating inside. And just like last year, she was pleasantly drunk. This however was were the similarities began and ended. Unlike last year, she was here with Takeshi and she was happy. The deep longing she had carried around her with herself for years and years was finally fulfilled; she had her man by her side and this time, it was to last.
"What are you looking at?" The familiar dark voice came from behind her, and Minako turned to meet her boyfriend with a smile. While all the other men had long since abandoned jackets and ties (in the case of Hiromasa not bothering with either in the first place), Takeshi was still in his suit and would remain so until they went home where he would change into his pressed and striped pyjamas. He didn't yet know that she had sneakily hidden all the top parts of his much beloved nightwear; it was her resolution to make him loosen up a bit and what better place to do so than in their home? Also, she liked to feel as much of his skin as possible when she snuggled herself close to him at night, and clothing really was just in the way. That he looked spectacular half-naked was an added bonus, she mused.
Giggling, she reached for his hand.
"See, over there, that's your office building. Last year, I was standing right here with Ami, and I was looking at that building and there was some poor fellow in there working. That wouldn't have happened to be you?"
Takeshi took his hand from hers and shoved it into his pockets. "I don't remember."
"Perhaps I am." His smile was nonchalant, giving nothing away. Of course, he remembered. He remembered the lonely night, he remembered worrying and struggling with his new and old identity, and he remembered having seen Minako in the arms of another.
Her voice forced him back into the present: "Well, this year you don't have to work, this year you get to carry me home."
Leaning down and closing the distance, he placed a quiet kiss on her exposed collarbone. "And then what?"
Her eyes fluttered shut; putting on the daring dress had definitely been a good idea, his alert green eyes had been following her all night. The cold air smelled of the new aftershave she had gotten him for Christmas, the fireworks and winter, and it made her head spin in the best of ways. Opening her eyes, she looked up at him and winked.
"Depends on how nice you are to me, and depends on how many more of these I will have." She waved the glass around a bit, not noticing that the movement caused the drink to spill right on Takeshi's shoes.
Inside the restaurant, Ando and Umino were watching the lovers through the windows. The two men were smoking cigars, having decided that they needed a New Year's tradition all of their own. Mamoru and Hiromasa were at the bar, organising them more drinks, the girls had disappeared to God knows where and ever so quietly Takeshi had pocketed his cigar instead of lighting it and walked on the balcony to join Minako. Smooth bastard, Ando thought while savouring the taste of the cigar on his tongue. He threw the couple one last glance and turned his eyes on Umino again. The youngest shitennou was wearing one of the shirts Ando had gotten him for Christmas, and it fit him perfectly.
"Haha. The shirt is good, but instead of your little ambiguous message, you could have just sent a note saying Merry Christmas."
"Why? I thought it was time to enlighten your grandmother about your living arrangements. Can she come and visit us? Our flat needs cleaning again."
"My gran will not clean our flat, she's 82 years old. But she will come to visit me on my birthday, so the place needs to be tidy then."
"When's your birthday?" Ando held the cigar between his lips and whipped his Moleskine notebook from his jacket's pocket. Flipping it open, he searched for a pen.
"First week of March." Umino smiled.
"Shit, we didn't celebrate it last year, did we?"
"No, we were preoccupied with having found everyone."
"I'll get you two presents for this year then. Which date?"
"Third. And you don't have to."
Scribbling Umino's name in the narrow margins of the calender, Ando answered with the cigar still in his mouth. "Shut up."
"Fine. How was your flight back?" Ando had arrived just in time to join them for the celebration, stowing his luggage in the kitchen of the restaurant. His clothes were rumpled, but he had made it in time, and that was all that mattered.
"Good. Long. Boring."
"You here to stay?"
Putting the notebook away, Ando feigned ignorance. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Tilting his head to the side, Umino observed his friend. "I think you do."
"Ever since when are you so fucking perceptive?"
"Always have been," Umino said matter-of-factly.
"Annoying quality, let it go."
"If it's a quality, then it's something good, so why would I let it go?"
"Fine, fine. What's taking Hiro and Mamoru so long? Can't be that hard to order some new drinks."
Undeterred, Umino continued. "So when are you leaving next? Easter?
There was a trace of annoyance in Ando's voice when he answered. "No, I'll be here for Easter."
"You have a standing invitation to come to my family for major holidays, you know? You don't need to sit them out in your parents' house."
Ando was silent for a minute. "That's... thank you, that's nice."
"Don't mention it."
They looked at each other, but averted their eyes before too long. Ando's gaze strayed to the balcony again.
"Ten quid that instead of happy-new-year-sex, he will have to hold her hair while she pukes. Girl can't hold her liquor."
Umino squinted his eyes, and looked at the two again. Minako had pressed herself close to Takeshi, and they were slowly swaying on the spot. A slow smile spread out on Umino's face. He had never thought to see the day: Takeshi was dancing, and it was awkward and completely and utterly graceless. Pushing his chair back and stubbing his cigar out, he got up.
"I've got to go find Ami. And fifty that there will be no puking. There'd rather be a baby than puking."
Laughing to himself, Umino left a thunderstruck Ando behind and set out to find his girl. Minako wasn't the only woman in need of man to dance with.
Behind the counter of her café, Makoto watched Ami turn a deep shade of crimson. Also at her table and blushing equally hard was Umino. Both were smiling, and had abandoned the cake they had ordered to hold hands. Next to Makoto, Hiromasa scratched his head. "Why are they so red in the face?" He had come to help Makoto install a second oven in the kitchen, and now that his work was done, he enjoyed a cup of strong espresso before heading to his own work space.
"It's Valentine's Day."
"I know that, wife of mine, it's why you woke up to a bunch of red roses and breakfast in bed." Makoto laughed and pinched him in the side. "The breakfast doesn't count. Spock ate most of it and I'm not too fond of toast with drool."
"He only stole it because we were too busy celebrating Valentine's Day to notice him, so it still counts. And you got another present instead, so don't complain."
At the other end of the counter, still in earshot of Hiromasa and Makoto, sat Ando, who now choked on his coffee and put down his morning paper with a disgusted expression on his face. Turning to the married couple, he shook his head. "Hiromasa, your penis is not a Valentine's Day present, even if you wrapped a bow around it." Hiromasa opened his mouth, but Ando began to wave his hands just as someone attempting to stop a train might. "I don't want to know, okay, I don't want to know! It's bad enough that Minako spent yesterday evening theorising that Chibi-Usa will be conceived on Valentine's Day, hence the pink hair."
While putting some sugar roses on a cake with the precision of a heart surgeon, Makoto laughed. "Most reasonable theory Minako has ever put forward."
In that moment, Umino leaned across the table and kissed Ami on the mouth, causing the girl to giggle.
"Oh God, that's sickening," Ando muttered.
Hiromasa reached over the counter and punched him in the shoulder. "Leave' em be, it took them long enough."
"You're not like that, and you're married."
Closely examining the cake one last time before putting it in the cooled inside of the counter, Makoto's face was serious, but her eyes twinkled. "We also live in an apartment that is moderately clean, and Hiromasa wraps bright red bows around his penis." Hiro guffawed, Makoto grinned and Ando pressed his eyes shut.
"There is not enough bleach in the world to burn this image from my mind," Ando groaned while a laughing Hiromasa high-fived his wife. "Good one, love."
The small brass bell chimed, and Umino and Ami disappeared through the doors without goodbye. Ami had forgotten her gloves, and Umino had left behind his scarf.
"Great, now I can't go home because they're sexing it up there." Ando got up and cleared the table, returning to his own seat at the counter with two plates of barely touched cake. Reaching over the counter, he fumbled for a clean fork, only to be slapped on the hand by Makoto.
Snorting, Hiromasa sat down next to Ando and claimed one of the slices of cake. Cheesecake with blueberries, he noted with pleasure. He didn't bother with a fresh fork and used Umino's instead. "Nobody would ever sex it up in your apartment. I think it repels women like wax repels water. Law of nature."
"Hey, it's not that bad anymore. And Minako and Usagi both come to visit."
From behind the counter, Makoto interjected "Not saying much, both are slobs," and handed Ando a fresh fork. "Ando, you could just order your own cake, you know?" Grinning roguishly, Ando took a bite of Ami's piece of cake. "Uh uh, too expensive, my dear. I can barely afford your coffee."
Scratching his head again, Hiromasa looked at Ando and lowered his voice. "You really think Ami and Umino are doing it?"
"They've been together for ages, of course they're doing it."
Makoto crossed her arms in front of her chest. "You don't get to speculate about that, you two. That's between Umino and Ami and no-one else, do you hear me?"
"Yes, mum, we do," Ando quipped and picked up his paper again.
"Don't call me my wife mum, that's just wrong."
"So are bows wrapped around penises." The married couple grinned again, and Ando decided that it was probably time to hide somewhere until Valentine's Day was over.
Having finished the cake in record time, Hiromasa whistled for his dog. Spock had spent the morning lying in front of the radiator, dozing and chewing on an old rolling pin. "I've got to go to work. Wife, kiss."
Leaning over the counter, Makoto obliged him. "Thanks for helping me with the oven. And take this one with me, he's scaring away paying customers."
"Now that almost hurt my feelings." Ando put on his jacket and buttoned it up before donning the scarf Umino had forgotten. "I meant the dog, but you can go too," Makoto laughed and waved them off.
Romance novels lie. For instance, they tell you that in a time of deep emotional turmoil, in a sudden crisis with more on your hands than you can possibly handle, your loved one will be there, support you through all of it and make it all better. Especially so if you broke up before the crisis actually unfolded. In romance novels, the hero will always appear and whisk the heroine away.
Sitting on an uncomfortable plastic chair in front of her grandfather's hospital room, Rei Hino was all alone. Hands folded primly in her lap, she waited to be let in. The doctor who had called her to the hospital had disappeared into her grandfather's room again, holding charts and several leaflets, and Rei suspected that he wanted to tell the old man to be more careful, possibly even to retire.
Staring at the yellow walls, Rei sighed. That's where the doctor was wrong: priests never retired. The vows made to the deities and to the holy ground itself couldn't be loosened, even if one wanted to. It was why her own heart still beat faster when she thought of the shrine she had left behind. In her heart, she still belonged there. Her grandfather had spent his entire life working at and living in the Hikawa shrine, and his very essence was tied to the place. He was as much a part of the shrine as the buildings and the trees -- he was its centre. Rei examined her hands: they were no longer as callous as they had been when she still lived at the shrine and swept the whole ground once a day. Now they were white and soft, with carefully painted nails and a decorative silver ring on her right index finger. But not so deep down, she missed the cuts and the blisters just as she missed the holy fire and her grandfather.
Guilt had been gnawing at her bones for months now. Her grandfather was too old to manage the shrine alone, and really, it had been only a matter of time before something like this happened. While the doctor had comforted her by explaining that the injury wasn't dramatic and would heal within a few months, he had also stressed that unless the old priest cut back on all the heavy work he did, chances of him injuring himself again were rather high.
Reaching deep inside her and pushing all pretenses away, Rei decided that she should help her grandfather in the few years he had left. She could work both her job in the antique shop and help out at the temple - she was a senshi, she had more energy and more life in her than ordinary humans, so this was the moment to make use of it. Leaving the temple hadn't caused the memories and visions of Jadeite to go away anyway; in fact, it had only caused them to come to her more often. Rei suspected that meditating with her grandfather every morning before the sun rose had helped her in more ways than she had realised before.
Shifting in her seat (a movement that did nothing to make her any more comfortable), she cast a look over her shoulder, but the door was still closed and no sound reached her ears. She wondered whether the old man knew that his prodigal grandchild had returned to him, whether he could feel her proximity in his bones. She hoped with all her being that when she would walk into his room in what could only be a few minutes, he would be able to forgive her for deserting him and the shrine they both treasured so much.
The past months had been so hard without a comrade to understand her, and it must have been equally as hard for her grandfather. Her duty to Usagi seemed so heavy, so unyielding. Were it not for her friend, Rei would happily banish all thoughts of Jadeite from her mind and choose a mortal life with her grandfather and her religion. More than once, the girls had tried to help her, but they couldn't understand the importance of the temple in her life. Her grandfather, however, did. He had sensed that little Rei Hino would flourish under the cherry trees on the holy ground. He had seen the priestess in the girl, and he had given her a home when her own father only wanted to get rid of her. How much easier her life would be if she were only his granddaughter, and not a senshi, sworn to protect a princess and the world.
Twisting the ring on her finger, she fought the urge to storm into his room and tell him everything. But how could she burden him any further? Today it was a broken leg that had landed him in the hospital, but Rei feared that it would soon be something far more serious. Unlike herself, her grandfather would not live forever. He aged more with each passing day. When she had moved into the shrine as a littel girl, his hair had already been white.
One day, he would be gone, moved on to another world that she could never gain entrance to. Then she would be truly alone, left on the sidelines while her friends made themselves a happy future. Usagi and Mamoru had always been a unit, inseparable even by death. Makoto and Hiromasa were happily building themselves a future, and only a few nights ago, Rei had dreamt of a brown-haired child with laughing green eyes. She didn't know when it would be born, but unless the future drastically changed course again, her dear friend would be a loving mother one day. Ami and Umino, so much more hesitant in their being together, were undeniably happy. Umino brought out a more livelier and sometimes even reckless side in Ami, and Rei knew it was a change for the better. Even Minako seemed happier now: she was finally grounded. Only Rei herself hadn't moved forward, hadn't changed or developed and she had the gnawing suspicion that she just couldn't do it, even if the part of herself that ran a hand over the book Jadeite had given her every night before going to bed desperately wanted to.
Knowing that forgiving Jadeite and taking the leap into being with him was her only option not to be lonely for the rest of her eternal life, Rei began to cry. One of the nurses walking down the corridor stole a hesitant look in her direction, but didn't pause to offer words of comfort.
Loneliness was the hardest cross to bear, and it scared Rei. She had been lonely after her mother's death, and only her grandfather had given her hope for the future. A future that he couldn't be in. Thinking of Jadeite and his pained cry on the night of the engagement party, she felt her heart constrict once more. It wasn't that she couldn't see herself falling for him again; she could. Usagi flat out adored the man, and Rei knew that her friend was an excellent judge of character. Usagi's heart was big, but if she truly liked someone, it was commendation of character nothing could exceed. The man that used to be Jadeite was different from his long dead counterpart: he wasn't as cruel, and she had seen more than once since he came back, he was far more vulnerable. He was a man she could love, if she would only let herself. But really, what did she know about him, other than the fact that he was good at giving presents, enjoyed eating brownies in the sunshine, liked to read, and had eyes so soulful that they could make her heart stop? Surely that wasn't enough to throw away two lifetimes of suffering and worry.
Her train of thoughts was interrupted when the door behind her opened. "Miss Hino, your grandfather would like to see you now."
The thing about addictions is that they creep into your life without you even realising it. One day, you allow yourself one indulgence, and the next one you don't even know how to pass the hours without it. They make you lie, both to yourself and to others. Giving in to them sends you on a high so amazing that you forget to breathe, and the crash afterwards tears at your seams, rips into you and leaves you shuddering for hours, all the while knowing that you will go back to this feeling, even if it costs you your very soul.
Ando knew a great deal about addictions, Rei knew next to nothing. It was why he stood back, seeing the currents, realising their dangerous strength, whereas she stumbled in blindly while thinking that she was somewhat safe. It happened the very same way in the Silver Millennium; drowning, surging to the surface, and drowning again, a cruel circle of love that never got close to the seamless perfection shared by people like Endymion and Serenity. It had worked up until its bitter end, but it took more energy than any human man could muster and despite knowing that he was more than just as man, Ando still felt decisively mortal whenever he so much as thought of the woman with the violet eyes. This addiction, this dangerous dance was nothing but a suicide mission and he wanted to live. Sort of.
It had started when Rei walked into the Museum of Modern Arts one day, sitting down at a table at the other end of the museum's café without sparing Ando a single glance, clutching a familiar book to her chest. Reminded of the last time she had sought him out here, Ando ran a hand over his cheek, wondering when it had stopped burning. Everyone knew that this was his place, practically his office since he did most of his writing here. Minako occasionally dropped by, knowing that she would find Ando in his chosen haunt, hidden behind a laptop computer and an unruly bundle of notes. Umino joined him at his designated table in the corner when their apartment got too filthy to read in. Mamoru came by for the odd cup of coffee after a tiresome morning shift. But Rei? After Minako's birthday party, both had gone to great pains to ensure that they didn't meet more often than strictly necessary. It was just too painful. She had even gone so far as to spend New Year's alone in her new flat, leaving Ando to celebrate the event with the friends they unfortunately had to share. Curling his toes inside his trainers, every inch of him brimming with tension, Ando pretended not to notice that the waitress went over to take Rei's order, only to be waved away impatiently. Staring at the screen and only seeing blurred letters, Ando counted to ten before he looked directly into her direction. She was already gone.
A few days later, Ando was at Minako's, playing with the dog in the garden, while Minako was preparing some lunch for the two of them. They had actually planned to do some gardening, but somewhere down the line Attila had raced outside, jumped into the flowerbeds and nicked the bulbs the friends had just put into the ground. After racing after the dog to get them back for about twenty minutes, Minako had tossed her hair over her shoulder and announced that the garden didn't need flowers, bare was the new pretty, and didn't Ando want something to eat? She disappeared through the patio's door, leaving Ando and Attila behind on the green grass. Dog and man engaged in a wild game that basically consisted of chasing each other through the garden, and when a panting Ando wondered where the promised food and a much needed bottle of water was, he looked through the glass doors only to see the Rei staring back at him. Their eyes met, and she turned and left, ignoring Minako who walked out of the kitchen with two cups of tea.
She turned up in the big bookshop in the city, browsing for volumes of Russian poetry while sneaking glances at him in the classics section. His favourite newsagent acquired a new customer, a fair and pretty girl that never read the magazines she picked up randomly and yet hugged to her chest as if they were a treasure of unknown value. But despite all of these strange encounters, she didn't speak to him and never showed up to any group activities. She was his own personal ghost, haunting him during the days, and always staying just out of reach.
When Ando threw Umino a surprise birthday party in Takeshi's and Minako's house, he knew she wouldn't show. One of the presents on the coffee table was definitely hers, its wrapping too simple and yet elegant to come from anyone else. Usagi popped up next to him while he contemplated opening the present to see what Rei would give to Umino. What did you give to someone whose very existence you weren't exactly happy about? "Opening other people's present is really bad manners," she quipped.
Ando put the parcel back on the table, noting that it wasn't heavy. "I wasn't going to."
Rolling her eyes, Usagi picked it up herself, weighing it in her small hands while grinning obnoxiously.
"Yes, you were."
"You'd make a really annoying younger sister, you know that?"
"I have a really annoying younger brother."
"Huh, I didn't know that."
"Lots of things you don't know." Underneath the teasing, a serious tone danced around, waiting for him to catch it. Ando took the bait: he had always been a curious man. "Such as?"
"The reason why Rei has started to follow you around." It was a punch to the gut, delivered with the sweetest smile. Ando thought that Usagi would make an excellent queen one day.
"You know about that?" "I know about lots of things," she said with a sly look in Ami's direction. "I know that Ami gave Umino a present that is not sitting on this table." She put Rei's present back on the table, where it rested next to the big one Hiromasa and Makoto had picked out for the philosopher. The flowery wrapping paper with the artful bow was a dead give-away.
Ando snorted. "I live in the same flat, I know about that present. I knew about that present all night long."
"Deep waters and what not."
She winked, and looked around the room, taking in the shapes of her friends on this happy occasion. Umino was beaming, talking animatedly to Takeshi while Minako shoved another piece of cake into the hands of Umino's mother, who had arrived from Kyoto early in the morning. The older woman had the shock of her life upon seeing her son's apartment, and even Ando had been more than a little ashamed when he saw the disgust on her face. They would have to tidy up again.
But what did all of that matter when there were more pressing issues at stake? Deciding that this was an opportunity likely not to present itself again, Ando burst out: "Why is she following me around?"
Usagi cocked her head to the side, coating herself in mock innocence. "Why would I tell you that?"
"Because you want me to do something, and you think I'm too stupid to do it on my own. I remember the past a little better than most, so I know how meddlesome you can be."
"I'm not meddlesome," she pouted and cracked. "And she thinks that by being around you without really being around you, she can get used to you and regain some normalcy in her life."
Ando thought about her words for a minute, a minute which Usagi used to devour a mini-quiche. "That's... that's really stupid." Shrugging, the blonde made a carefully neutral face.
"You know that, I know that, but I don't think Rei does. Personally, I don't think that's the real reason anyway. I think she loves you. Can you make her forgive you now?" Usagi picked a stray hair from her white dress and shot him a hopeful look.
Fishing for a patience he didn't really have, Ando shot the blonde an impatient look. "Usagi, it's not that easy."
"Only because you haven't tried hard enough."
"That's not true. I tried everything."
"Running away because she tells you to is not everything."
It was at this point that Mamoru joined them. The tall man had spent the last twenty minutes talking to Umino's grandmother, trying to ease the old woman's concern about her grandchild living in this big city, and now made a beeline for his wife. "Have you talked about it already?" he asked immediately while placing a kiss on Usagi's cheek.
Since there was little doubt as to what Mamoru was referring to, Ando groaned. "Oh, not you too."
Using his best and most serious doctor's voice, Mamoru prodded. "Ando, things can't go on like this. If the two of you don't deal with this in a rational manner, then you're setting us up for a fall in Crystal Tokyo."
"Well, things aren't going to get magically better if I push her now. She needs to come to me in her own time, on her own account, and not because you two are pulling the king and queen of hearts cards. So if she wants to follow me around to get used to me, which isn't going to work, by the way, because she will never get used to me, then she can do it. She needs time and if my memory serves me correctly, denying her what she wants has never been an option. And for the record, she doesn't love me. She barely knows me." Both his voice and his expression were glum, and he looked over his shoulder to beckon Minako over to save him from this conversation.
Minako however was decidedly not looking into his direction, and Ando developed a sneaking suspicion that his friend was in on it to.
Usagi tugged at his sleeves, petulantly demanding his attention. "Rei needs you to talk to her and stop this madness," the blonde insisted, almost stomping her foot, but remembering that she was no longer a teenager just in time.
Rolling his eyes, Ando straightened his sleeve. "So I talk to her. What happens then?" "You will get together, of course."
Ando snorted. "Of course." He gave both of them a long look. "Have you spoken to her about this?"
Mamoru shoved his hands into his pockets and Usagi looked down at her feet. "I thought so."
"She won't listen to us," Usagi said in a small voice that tugged right at Ando's heart. "You are her best friend. If she doesn't listen to you, then she most certainly won't listen to me. Especially not to me. Usagi, Mamoru, I'm sorry, but you have to stay out of this. Not everyone can get a happy ever after. Don't pressure us into something that we're not ready for just because it will set you at ease. And now excuse me, Umino's gran looks to be in need of some company."
A few days later, he walked into the kitched just as Umino pinned a lucky charm on the wall.
"That's ugly. I had that space reserved for a Playboy calendar."
Umino turned and grinned. "It's a lucky charm, it's supposed to give me luck and diligence."
"Both of which you need, otherwise you will never finish your dissertation," Ando replied and wagged his index finger.
"Where did you get it? If it works, I've got to get one of those, too. Lots of deadlines to meet."
Umino opened the fridge and helped himself to a can of coke. "Rei made it for my birthday. She's back to working parttime at the shrine."
Ando frowned. "Why? Minako said that she liked the antique shop."
"Her grandfather broke his leg a month ago. They made up, and now she's back. It's good, she's moving forward. Even if that means she has to move backwards, too."
Ando nodded and cast his eyes to the kitchen counter.
A moment later, he started to fill the sink with water and shot a generous amount of yellow washing-up liquid into the hot water.
"Ando, what are you doing?"
"Right." A confused Umino picked up a striped dish towel. "Ever since when do you do the dishes?"
Ando shrugged. "It keeps me busy. I can't drink all the time, you know?"
"I know that. I just didn't think you did."
Ando shot his friend a smile. "Careful, or I'll wash your hair in the sink after I cleaned the pan we used for frying eggs last Sunday."
Laughing, Umino shoved Ando and the two of them worked in companionable silence until their kitchen was clean.
They met under the cherry trees in a whirlwind of sweetened air and pink petals. During May, most of Tokyo was pretty in pink. He hadn't even noticed it last year.
The park that would one day become the very centre of Crystal Tokyo was deserted and it wasn't an accident. Magic was thick in the air, unconsciously woven, but over-overwhelmingly present. Passers-by suddenly felt the dire need to walk into another direction, and only two people remained in the vast pink space.
The young woman no longer looked like a ghost - while she was still pale, it was the alabaster skin of an ethereal being and not the sickly pallor of a woman on her deathbed. Her long hair was sleek and shiny, a far cry from the matted mess it had been almost one year ago. Her eyes were bright and burning with anticipation. Ando noticed that she had regained some of the weight she had lost due to his return as he casually walked towards her. In comparison to her, he felt like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, but then it had always been that way. Not even Minako could claim not to be intimidated by Rei's otherworldly beauty, and the blonde was Venus incarnate, for crying out loud.
He felt like a beggar in front of his former lover, but the time for begging was long past and it wasn't him who had called his meeting. Ando was a man in his own right again, no longer the sad shadow of his former self, tormented by the crimes he had committed when he didn't even know that he would one day walk the earth as a free man. Free of duty, free of obligation, but never quite free of the pain. The nightmares were still there; they would probably never go away, but he had accepted this. It was Minako who made him see that while they were unpleasant, they were also a mark of his humanity. She had told him that to this day, she would wake up in the middle of the night, trying to atone for her sins in the vague world of dreams. She said that it made her feel more alive, and it made her careful not to repeat her mistakes. Ando had resisted the urge to pry and ask whose blood she still felt on her hands, but his friend had opened her mind to him and first he saw Kunzite floating in the air, blasted into nothingness by the combined force of the senshi. Then the images shifted, and he saw Sailor V on a cliff, holding the hand of a man with blonde curls. Danburite. Adonis. The soldier's fingers slipped from hers and he fell down the abyss to his certain death, leaving only playing cards flying in the breeze, all showing the same symbol: the ace of spades. It was then that Minako's mind snapped shut, and Ando wondered if she had ever told Takeshi what tormented her in the night. He severely doubted it.
But right now, Ando stood under the majestic trees in front of the woman he loved. Rei Hino, the impossibly proud priestess. Mars, the vengeful goddess of war. Eurydice, the only one who had ever loved him just as much as he loved her. He came to stop in front of her, not even an arm's length away. She smiled, and did not step back. "Thank you for meeting me, Ando." It was the first time she had used his contemporary name, and it sounded foreign on her lips. "It's my pleasure. To what do I owe the honour?" He was on his guard, careful to hide his nervousness behind a gallant smile. She shoved her hands deep in the pockets of her elegant blazer and met his eyes with raw and unguarded honesty. To say that it took his breath away was an understatement. For Ando, the world stopped turning for a moment. "I wanted to apologise. I'm sorry." Still smiling, still careful, he answered. "Well, I would like to say that you have nothing to apologise for, but that's not quite true." His green eyes sought her violet ones, but she had already cast them to the petal covered ground. His reaction to her visible discomfort was a spur of the moment thing, and in another time, it might have cost him his life. He nudged her with his elbow, initiating physical contact, the very thing that had always caused them to fall to pieces. She looked up and saw that he had a soft expression on his face. "Rei, I'm not a saint, we both know that, so don't be too sorry. There will be a time after the memories, after the awkwardness, after the apologies and hopefully after the pain. It's just not right now. You and I, we need an utopia to be alright again and luckily enough, there's one waiting just around the corner. Be patient." It was then that she noticed the large rucksack. A hurried closer examination of him revealed brand-new hiking boots on his feet.
This was goodbye. Her forgiveness had come too late. She had taken to long to convince herself that his man was more than Jadeite. She should have spoken to him rather than following him around. She was a fool.
So Rei Hino wished for rain, thunder, wind and storm because the warm sunshine on her back had no right to be here when her world lay in ruins once again. She was on Atlantis, drowning, losing herself in the darkness of the ocean while the sun shone on her hair. Rocking back on his heels once, Ando wished that he could make this easier for her. After a moment's silence, he spoke again, each word chosen with care and uttered with complete and utter conviction. He needed her to believe him, he couldn't leave unless she did. Saying goodbye to his friends and to his prince had been nothing compared to this one moment. "I promise you, I will be back. I will be the first person knocking on the door of the eternal palace once it has been built. Look for me when Crystal Tokyo comes around, I will be there. Maybe then will be our time." One of the pink petals caught in her hair and he plucked it from the silken tresses without hesitation, stroking her cheek before he withdrew his hand again.
She wished that he would break the distance between them and allow her to hide in his arms just as she had done in another world when she was still innocent. Instead, he offered her his hand. She took it, neglecting to shake it and rather held it for as long as she dared. She knew that she wouldn't see him again until she was older than the trees under which they stood, even if she would still look every inch as young as she did now. "Where will you go?" His face was solemn. "Everywhere." Swallowing down the tears, she choked. "Can you send me a postcard?"
But he had already turned and stepped away, letting her hand go in the process. Shouldering his rucksack, he began his journey. Behind him, Rei remained rooted to the spot.
Suddenly, he turned and walked backwards, the wind tousling his golden hair. His grin was infectious, carefree, young. It was the way he was supposed to look. "I will send them via Airmail, just wait for it," he shouted.
Laughing and crying, she watched him make his way to a new beginning until he was gone and all she could see were the dancing petals in the air.