Himeko was surprised. Chikane's father had gone and said it straight out, with little preamble or beating around the bush. The uncomfortable formality of the discussion thus far meant—to her—politely circling an issue instead of approaching it. Then again, she supposed that one could be straightforward in formal speech as well.
"We understand, Himemiya-sama," her father said. "Rest assured that we will take steps to make certain your family is no longer bothered by Himeko's unseemly affections."
"Pardon me," Hayate replied, "but it is quite clear that you do not understand."
The Kurusugawas looked puzzled.
"Himeko will of course make a formal apology to you, but I don't understand what more we can do," Himeko's mother said. "If there's a way we can set these rumors to rest, please tell us."
Himemiya Seiji let out his breath in a short, almost fierce exhalation that reminded Himeko of a martial artist in a samurai movie just at the moment when a blow was struck.
"The point we are making is that we aren't demanding that the girls separate."
Himeko's eyes widened as she gasped in surprise. Admittedly, she'd believed—hoped—that this was possible, from the way Chikane's parents had treated her at dinner and from what Chikane had told her, but to hear it said outright, actually put into words, sent a thrill through her. Chikane smiled at her from across the table.
"Forgive me, Himemiya-sama, but...you are correct. I do not understand. These appalling rumors..."
"They are offensive, I agree. And from the standpoint of a business executive, unfortunate. But from the standpoint of a parent, I feel my ultimate concern must be my child's future happiness."
"But this must surely be a passing crush," Eiko replied. "It's not at all unusual for a young girl, with no experience of boys, to form an affection for another girl." She blushed faintly. "I...I once had a crush on one of my upperclassmen myself, when I was only a year younger than Himeko is now. But these things pass in time." She looked at Chikane's mother, perhaps in an attempt to appeal woman-to-woman to her. "Surely that isn't a reason to expose the girls to the attention and stigma of being homosexuals."
Hayate, however, did not seem to accept that reasoning.
"I have to admit, protestations of deathless love over a girl that Chikane met only two days ago would make me cynical as well. Seiji and I are not interested in watching our daughter's name blazoned across the tabloid headlines as she careens from infatuation to infatuation. I think that if we believed that was the case, we might well agree with you, simply because of the lack of judgment Chikane would have showed."
She glanced down the table at her daughter.
"You do realize, Chikane, that while we don't demand that you in any way conceal your sexuality or your relationship, we do expect that you conduct yourself with the same amount of discretion and propriety as we would if you were dating a boy?"
Hayate turned back to the Kurusugawas.
"Now, you're probably wondering why we can be certain that this is not just a phase Chikane is going through, or more to the point, since we accept that Chikane is indeed a lesbian, why this particular affection is genuinely love, not just a crush on a cute transfer student?"
"I certainly am," Hajime responded.
"Indeed," Eiko agreed.
Chikane's mother set the accordion file on the table, undid the closure, and opened the flap.
"Seiji said that we'd come back to this," she noted, then riffed through the contents and took out a page which she placed on the table.
It was a drawing in crayon, done in a child's crude, inexperienced hand, the kind of thing that decorated the fronts of refrigerators throughout the industrialized world. This one showed a house—some kind of building, anyway—with a large prayer gate over on the left-hand side. On the right were two people, little more than stick figures. Both seemed to be female, since they had long hair and skirts; one was blonde with red clothing, the other hand been drawn with dark blue hair and a violet outfit. The blonde appeared to have bright red cat ears which Himeko realized belatedly were the corners of her oversized bow. It was a picture of themselves as Solar and Lunar Priestesses on the moon. She had purple dots for eyes, and just to remove all doubt, the names "Himeko" and "Chikane" were written beneath their respective figures in clumsily formed kanji.
"Chikane drew that when she was four," Hayate explained. "When we asked her who Himeko was, she replied, 'my lover.'"
Himeko blushed furiously, since with the brutal honesty of a child, Chikane's word choice had definitely implied a sexual relationship.
"When I asked her what she meant, she said, 'when we grow up and meet each other again.' Of course, I put it down as an imaginative child's fantasy, combined with accidental exposure to an inappropriate vocabulary. However..."
She began to remove other pages: finger-paintings, watercolors, sketches, showing an evolution of time and talent as the four-year-old girl became five, six, eight, eleven, and fourteen. Himeko and Chikane in miko vestments, or in normal clothing, standing close or holding hands or, in a couple of scenes, with their hands bound together by red cord or string.
"Chikane never claimed that this Himeko was someone she actually spoke to, like a child's imaginary friend or something, just that this was the person she was going to meet one day in the future and fall in love with."
"But that's unbelievable," Hajime marveled, not actually expressing disbelief but just his amazement at the concept. "How could a child that age know something like that?"
"I...don't understand," Eiko said, looking through the various artwork, then up at her daughter. The later art, done in Chikane's teenage years, skillfully showed Himeko's features as if they'd been drawn from life, and even the earlier ones featured obvious things like her unusual eye color or her ubiquitous bow that she'd worn since she was ten.
"We treated the matter as a bit of a family joke," Hayate continued to explain, "as we supposed it could have been. But when the very real Himeko-chan appeared..." She shrugged. "In all honesty, my primary reason for running a background check on you, Kurusugawa-san, was not to examine your work records but to verify that, indeed, this wasn't an elaborate game that Chikane was playing on us. You must understand that when Himeko-chan walked into the dining room last night I had to suppress the urge to look for hidden cameras." She smiled sheepishly.
"I don't mind saying that I would have preferred that," Seiji spoke up.
"I'm not going to lie about it, Chikane. I would have been happier if my daughter didn't have to face the social stigma involved, dealing with the insulting comments and, more significantly, the practical prejudice in business dealings occasioned by the bigots and fools of the world. To say nothing of the consequences of the Himemiya family succession, given that you are not merely my eldest but my only child. So yes, I'd have preferred you choose a boy. Failing that, I'd have preferred a girl from a socially significant family, one with which we could have reached some mutually beneficial association." He shrugged. "But, you were right all along. I'm not stupid enough to try fighting something that was apparently settled when you were in the cradle."
"What I think my husband is getting at is, if we spend our time complaining about the girls' relationship, then we make ourselves part of the problem, the social stigma he talked about. I really don't want Chikane to be looking back on her life one day and think of her mother as 'part of the problem.'"
Himeko's gaze flicked from the Himemiyas to her parents, who didn't seem to know precisely what they were supposed to say. Not that there was much to say at that point, given how neatly they'd been pinned. If they objected to the girls' love on moral grounds, they were declaring themselves to be what Seiji had labeled outright as "bigots and fools." If they tried to fall back on other issues, then they moved into Hayate's "part of the problem." Except that, Himeko realized, they might not even be aware of all of that. They both kept looking at Chikane's pictures, then at Himeko, then back at the pictures.
It was her father who spoke up first.
"Himeko, did you know about this?"
"Chikane-chan didn't tell me that she'd drawn anything. I didn't even know she could sketch! But I knew she'd told her parents about us when she was young."
"That isn't what I meant, Himeko. I was asking, did you know about her before we came here?" He picked up one of the pages, a watercolor of the girls together in what might have been the Ototachibana Academy rose garden.
Oh. I should have realized that was what he was talking about, Himeko thought, feeling a little foolish at having missed it.
"Um...yes, I did."
"You're saying that..." He looked at her, then down at the painting, then over at Chikane, then back at Himeko.
"But you never said anything, Himeko," her mother protested. "You never mentioned Himemiya-san..."
"I thought it would sound crazy," she admitted in a very small voice.
There were times when being an awful liar was actually a good thing. Before now, it was possible she could have talked about Chikane and her parents could have believed it was a delusion (which would have technically not been lying, since a deluded person thinks they're telling the truth), but now, in the face of evidence...
Hajime let out a heavy sigh.
"I suppose that isn't unfair. I can barely believe all of this even now. The idea that two girls could be tied together by fate or destiny—that anyone could, really. It's like something out of an old legend, not the modern age. And yet..." he waved his hand at the table. Then a thought seemed to strike him and his eyes lit up.
"My God! When I discussed the move to Mahoroba with Eiko, we had to weigh many factors about uprooting our lives. Shiro was worried about leaving all his friends, and the only life he had ever known. But you...you were happy and excited, Himeko. You didn't have a bad word to say about the move once you were told where it was we were moving to!"
"That's right," her mother agreed. "Himeko was completely happy about this move."
"I knew, or at least I assumed, that Mahoroba would be where I'd meet Chikane-chan."
They both shook their heads in disbelief.
"I just don't know what to say," her father marveled. "All this..." He sighed. Hajime was a plain man used to the plain, ordinary life he led. Finding out that his daughter was involved in a lesbian romance—with the heiress of one of Japan's wealthiest families—in a way that had, apparently, been somehow preordained—was completely outside of his experience. Himeko felt sorry for both her parents. Nothing about her had gone as expected, from the relationship itself to the Himemiyas' acceptance and support of it to their reasons for doing so. Himeko could barely keep up with it all herself, and she knew the reasons for it!
"Himeko," he began, taking his wife's hand as he did, "your mother and I are still very disappointed in your allowing this matter to become a public scandal before you informed us about any of this. It caused a great deal of unpleasantness for your family. Though Himemiya-san has accepted the blame for that, there are nonetheless two of you acting together and I will expect proper behavior from you in the future."
"Nonetheless, in light of what we've seen her, and as the Himemiya family graciously is offering its support of this unconventional relationship, your mother and I"—he paused and turned to Eiko, who trembled a bit before nodding, clearly still unsure of herself—"will withdraw our objections."
Joy surged over Himeko like a cresting wave.
"Otousan, Okaasan, thank you very much!"
He shook his head.
"I think you should save your thanks for whatever deity is clearly watching out for the two of you."
Chikane's mother began gathering up her daughter's artwork.
"Now, with that settled, I believe that we need to discuss some of the practical aspects of how the families will address the various rumors that have begun. If we can agree on a united front, I believe that it will be easier on all of us. Perhaps Chikane and Himeko-chan would prefer to spend some time together while we talk?"
"Thank you, Okaasama; I believe that would be an excellent suggestion," Chikane said, directing a warm smile at Himeko.
~X X X~
The sound of the back door opening took Kuro's attention away from the game. He ran over to greet the girls as they came out into the yard, then dropped his ball at Himeko's feet and began to hop up on her legs. He barked happily, perhaps sensing her own mood.
"He reminds me of that puppy who once introduced us," Chikane said, "except that he's all black."
"His name is Kuro," Himeko said. "He's my little brother's dog."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Kuro-san," Chikane said with mock formality.
"You'd better get used to her, Kuro," Himeko said; "she's going to be here an awful lot."
"Mmn! Now that it's settled that my father's not going to lose his job or anything from us being together, I'm going to make sure that my parents come to learn just how wonderful you are for me."
Chikane smiled wryly.
"I think that may prove to be a tall order, particularly where your mother is concerned. Your father at least seemed to accept that we are fated to be together, but she seems to genuinely dislike the idea."
"It's a little hard for her," Himeko said gamely, making Chikane chuckle. The dark-haired girl picked up the ball, waved it under Kuro's nose to get his attention, then flipped it back towards Shiro. The puppy went barreling pell-mell after it, nearly tumbling over his own feet, before pouncing on the ball and shaking it vigorously. Himeko giggled at the sight.
"Don't you think it ironic, what your father said?"
"My father? What did he say?"
"About thanking whatever deity was watching over us." She chuckled softly, not without bitterness. "If only he knew the half of it."
Himeko raised her eyes to the sky. Though it was still early afternoon, she imagined she could see the moon there, looking down on them.
"I don't know, Chikane-chan."
"Well...I don't remember that far back, and I don't think you do either, but...according to the legend, when Yamata no Orochi arose for the first time, we were the ones who prayed to the gods for help. I mean, it's called Kannazuki, right, the 'godless month,' so there shouldn't have been anyone to listen to those prayers. But...Ame no Murakumo did answer us, and granted us power to fight Yamata no Orochi like we still do. And then when Yamata no Orochi is beaten, it's Ame no Murakumo who revives the world through our sacrifice, and who stands sentinel over it forever and ever. I don't know if a god can feel pain or get lonely, but...it can't be easy, existing like that, can it? I can't hate Ame no Murakumo because I was too blind to see your feelings and you were too scared to tell them to me for so long." Himeko smiled at Chikane. "Besides, it's Ame no Murakumo that gives us the chance to be together, through life after life and between times, too."
Chikane chuckled again.
"So you think the God of Swords was looking at us and thought, 'Finally! It's about time they figured it out!'"
Himeko grinned back.
"Well, why not?"
Chikane let out a long sigh, then she smiled too and, like Himeko had, looked up at the sky.
"Why not, indeed?" she murmured. "Maybe you're right, Himeko."
The breeze stirred her bangs, and she combed them back out of her face with her fingers.
"I wonder how one offers a god an apology."
"You're a shrine maiden, Chikane-chan. I think Ame no Murakumo will hear."
"I could always mention it the next time we fight Orochi. Though, I think that may be a long time in coming."
"It's just a feeling I have. Something seems...different...about this lifetime, somehow."
"I don't really understand," Himeko said, frowning. Chikane shook her head.
"That's all right. It's probably nothing, anyway. Though if I'm ending up the optimist about something, then destiny is not only kind, it also has a sense of humor."
"Well, that's certainly true."
Himeko giggled. They were interrupted, then, by Kuro, who had finally figured out that he was supposed to retrieve Shiro's latest throw, but wasn't quite clear on just whom he was supposed to bring it to. He scampered up to Himeko and dropped the ball at her feet.
"Hey, Kuro, come back! You're supposed to fetch it to me!" He ran up to the girls and picked up the ball, then took a second look at Chikane, recognizing that she'd been standing with Himeko for a while. "Um, you're the girl from that limousine, aren't you? Who are you?"
"This is Himemiya Chikane," Himeko introduced her, then added with a happy smile, "She's my girlfriend."
Shiro's eyes widened.
"You mean like kissing and stuff?"
"I'm very partial to 'and stuff,'" Chikane teased.
Shiro looked at them suspiciously. "Aren't you supposed to do that with a boy?"
"No," Himeko said firmly, "I am very definitely not supposed to do that with a boy."
Then she turned to Chikane and amply demonstrated her point with a long, warm, loving kiss.
~X X X~
A/N: Just for the record, when in describing the crayon drawing Chikane's hair is shown as "dark blue," the meaning is that Chikane used dark blue crayon to draw it. Sharp-eyed readers will also observe that when I had Himeko quote the legend of the miko, that was the version from the anime rather than the manga (because, well, that's the version that suits the point I was trying to make in the story!). I defend myself on the grounds that it is, after all, a legend, rather than a precise recording of historical facts, and therefore is subject to exaggeration just like any myth. Both versions, after all, conveniently omit the "and then one kills the other to restore the world" part.
Thank you all very much for reading this far! It's been fun to deal with Himeko and Chikane in a fairly low-key (although occasionally melodramatic) situation, although it also made me realize just how much their characterization is based upon the extreme situations they normally exist in; having Chikane enjoying normal school days is a little like having Jason Bourne as the next-door neighbor in a sitcom!
As I noted in the opening author's note, "Red String" is the first story in the hypothetical ongoing sequence of Ame no Murakumo ga Miteru. This series isn't a "braided novel" or the like with a specific plotline, but just a developing sequence of slice-of-life moments featuring the cast of canon and original characters. Will there be a second story? Probably so; I've got the idea outlined, at least, but if it happens it'll be at some random time in the future when the Kannazuki bug bites me again. Which it seems to do on a regular basis...
Finally, before you leave (No! Don't run off yet!), I'd like you to stop by my profile and offer your opinion on how I used honorifics and other Japanese forms of address in this story. As you've probably noticed, I did not do so in Kannazuki no Shimai, but decided to give it a shot here. Did it work to help illustrate the atmosphere and the changing relationships between the characters? Or did it just get in the way and/or call attention to my ignorance? There's a poll up and everything.