Chikaru Minamoto smiled across the bar at her friend Nagisa, both laughing as they exchanged stories. "You didn't!" Nagisa sounded scandalized.
The Strawberry was busy tonight, women in various outfits talking and drinking merrily around the nightclub. Ami Mizuno and Tamao were having their third or fourth date, and seemed to be getting along lovely. Several other regulars were at the various tables, and the mood around the club was light.
"I did," Chikaru admitted. "And leaking that I wanted Rei as the prince worked like a charm, she caved in a few days."
"You are evil," Nagisa chuckled, refilling her glass.
"That's what Rei Hino says," Chikaru agreed. She took a drink, savoring the cocktail as she mused, "I hope I haven't scared her away."
Nagisa looked at her thoughtfully, remembering Chikaru's long reputation as the only straight girl in their school days. "So," she said cautiously, "you like her?"
"Not like that," Chikaru waved that off calmly, "but she'd be a incredible actress, if I can convince her to continue with it."
"I'm not sure blackmail was quite the way to start," Nagisa noted wryly.
Chikaru nodded, conceding the point. "Still, I think she's been enjoying the rehearsals. If I can just get her more interested...," she mused.
Nagisa smiled, moving off and letting her plot in peace.
Ami Mizuno smiled at Tamao as they talked, once again finding the slightly older woman quite charming. She was a writer, primarily fiction and poetry, and had recently gotten her third novel published. Not wanting to ask her for a copy Ami went out and bought it, and was faintly surprised at how good it was.
"So how did your friends react?" Tamao asked curiously. The two of them had been out together when they ran into Ami's friends, who had been rather startled at her dating a older woman.
"Not too badly," Ami chuckled, stirring her soda with the swizzle straw. "I think it helped that we've known Michiru and Haruka for years," she added thoughtfully.
"I'm still nervous about meeting your mother," Tamao admitted ruefully.
"She took my coming out quite well," Ami offered.
"As a mental excersize,' Tamao nodded, "but I'm the woman who is considering having carnal relations with her daughter. That's a entirely different thing."
"Carnal relations?" Ami looked amused.
"So I have a vocabulary," Tamao chuckled.
"Speaking of vocabulary," Ami hesitated then said, "I read your books."
"Oh geeze," Tamao sighed, blushing.
Ami bit back a chuckle at how cute Tamao looked, blushing. "You're very good, I think," she said honestly. "I was rather surprised at your having two women as a couple in the second book of your series," she added.
'I wanted them to have a bigger role," Tamao admitted as she fiddled with her own drink, "but the publisher wasn't happy about it. A writer friend of mine suggested not pushing too hard until I had a few more books under my belt."
"That kind of compromise wasn't easy?" Ami asked perceptively.
"No it wasn't," Tamao agreed with a slight shrug, "but on the other hand I got my books published, I have a second trilogy in the works, and this time I get to have more freedom in what I write."
"Good," Ami smiled, "I'll be looking forward to reading them."
"I'll let you look at the first drafts," Tamao promised. She paused, "God, that sounded like would you like to come up and see my etchings."
Ami snickered, "We're both too young for that line." She finished off her soda, "And that reminds me, when am I going to see where you live?"
"It's not like we've had much chance yet," Tamao protested. She smiled slightly, "Besides, I thought it was better if we met somewhere neutral to start with."
"Then maybe you should take me up to see your etchings?" Ami winked.
Tamao finished her own drink and waved for Nagisa or another waitress. "Let's settle up the bill and go, then," she decided.
Shizuma Hanazono took the request herself, the naturally white haired woman smiling at them both. "Did you have a good time tonight?" she asked as they rang up the bill.
"Yes, I did," Ami agreed cheerfully, while Tamao was a bit more guarded.
Shizuma bit back a sigh, but kept the cheerful smile on her face. Tamao had forgiven her for winning their mutual love, Nagisa, but there was still a stiffness between them. Shizuma would have liked them to be friends, but it seemed that was harder than she hoped.
"Thank you for coming," Shizuma said as they left, watching them go with a certain degree of satisfaction.
Shizuma liked to dabble in matchmaking, when she could, and this time she felt she had hit on a good combination. Ami and Tamao were both smart and perceptive young women, the only difficulty being their different ages. And from what she had seen, Ami's maturity was making up for that.
Turning back to the club Shizuma did the rounds, greeting regulars and smiling at those she considered friends. As popular as this club was for being refined and civilized, a large chunk of it's popularity came from the warm, friendly atmosphere, one she and Nagisa worked hard to maintain.
"Hey, Shizuma," Nenene Sumerigawa smiled, the brown haired author nodding to the older woman familiarly. The young woman liked to drink at the club in between times her girlfriend, Yomiko, was in town.
"Nenene," Shizuma nodded politely, "I read your latest. Good work."
"Eh, it was okay," Nenene waved it off. "Did I just see Tamao in here?"
Shizuma hesitated but didn't see the harm in answering, "Yes, I think so."
"Good kid," Nenene noted even though she was actually younger than her. Still, Nenene had been published a lot longer. "And it's good to see her dating someone, even if it's cradle robbing," she said cheerily.
"I think some people would call you and Yomiko cradle robbing," Shizuma teased, "with her the cradle robber."
Nenene snorted in amusement, "Hey, I had to kiss her first! And it took months to get through to her that I was serious..."
Shizuma laughed, nodding. She'd MET Yomiko a few times, a more sweet and clueless woman you couldn't find. "Well, have a good night," she told her, and headed up to the bar.
Nagisa was serving drinks as she talked with a black haired woman, and her face positively lit up as she saw Shizuma. The white haired woman once again felt that happy flutter of joy in her gut, honored that it was her inspiring that expression. She reached the counter then Shizuma leaned forward to press her lips to Nagisa's.
"Hmm," Nagisa leaned into the kiss a moment, then seemed to realize they were in public and pulled back with a blush.
"Missed you," Shizuma murmured to her quietly.
"Don't let me stop you," Chikaru noted, smirking.
"Good to see you, Chikaru," Shizuma nodded to her respectfully. They hadn't exactly been friends, back in their school days, but she respected the woman immensely. They hadn't called her the 'Shadow Empress' for nothing, after all.
"And you," Chikaru nodded with a sly smile. "It's nice to see you two so firmly in love, it's a inspiration for us all."
Shizuma tried to decide if she was being sarcastic or not, but her tone was entirely mild. "Thank you," she decided to answer. "And how goes the teaching?"
"I was just talking to Nagisa about it," Chikaru acknowledged with a sigh, "I think I may have messed up badly."
"Oh?" Shizuma asked, and Chikaru filled her in on her encounters with the sultry Rei Hino.
Listening to her talk Shizuma wondered if Chikaru realized the kinds of words she was using to describe the girl. Sultry, smoldering, dynamic, striking and so on and so forth. It seemed the young woman had struck quite a chord, even if Chikaru was seemingly unaware of it.
'Maybe Chikaru is just vulnerable to the tall, dark and handsome type?' Shizuma mused to herself whimsically.
(Another universe over Hazuki Azuma sneezed suddenly.
"Are you all right?" that universe's Chikaru asked, cuddling beside her on the bed.
"I dunno, I guess someone was talking about me?" Hazuki shrugged, smiling shyly.)
"So what do you think?" Chikaru asked as Shizuma sat beside her at the bar.
Deciding putting it in different terms might be good Shizuma answered, "I think you went for a short term goal without realizing it might hurt you long term."
"Tricking Rei into acting," Chikaru nodded, "but my tricking her may have put her off for good. So how do I fix this?"
"It's not going to be easy,' Nagisa noted quietly as she poured a drink for her lover.
"She's right," Shizuma agreed, nodding. She leaned forward, "Are you serious about patching it up with this girl?"
"I am," Chikaru nodded, waiting for Shizuma's suggestion.
"You're going to have to win her over gradually," Shizuma said seriously. "No tricks, no manipulations, but positive reinforcement and support," she shrugged.
"You have to convince her that tricking her was out of character," Nagisa saw where she was going, "and that you have a good character."
"That's not going to be easy," Chikaru said quietly, "I'll be fighting against the force of habits developed over years."
"Is she worth it?" Shizuma challenged her.
Chikaru looked off into the distance, her expression thoughtful. "I think so..."
To be continued...
Notes: The Hazuki/Chikaru bit is a shout out to Suzume CA's stories on Fanfiction dot net. Red Bows in her Hair, Hand Me Downs and Strange Fire are all excellent fics, and I strongly recommend them.