I want to thank all of the readers and reviewers for Simple Feelings, it had been a good time.
Witch Shade: Thank you for the first review.
Chicwa88: Thanks for sticking with me throughout the chapters.
commontater: I refer to Haruka as a man because in the manga he's a man until he transforms into a senshi, in which case she's a girl…? I think I got that right. Thanks for reading!
Airdnaxela13: I got bored, hence this sequel!
Ame Yumeko: I'm surprised you were a Hotaru/Peruru fan before Simple Feelings, but I'm glad I'm not the only one who've thought of it!
WARNING: I don't know how often I will update. I'll probably only write it when I'm bored.
It was rather cold that morning, made evident by the fur shawl around her shoulders and the grey pelt falling over her feet. The way the it flowed across the low pedestal and onto the dark obsidian floors made her seem ever smaller, ever fragile, ever pale. The delicate amethyst barrette in her dark hair was the only decoration she allowed herself that morning, a subtle beacon of her majesty, of her perpetual light as the sixth planet in the Solar System, Queen of Saturn, Matriarch of Titan Castle and the Sailor Senshi of Death, Destruction and Rebirth.
The barrette was the only lavish trinket (also the only non-useful trinket) she had let her sixty-two maids talk her into wearing that morning, if only to distinguish her rank from the others. Any other gaudy royal jewels were left untouched and un-thought-of, for there was no need to wear (display) them. In fact, she would rather not be in this position at all. Her first idea had been to go out into the public and greet them on equal footing – no make-up, no silk or tulle, no crown or gold – but her Minister of Ceremony had insisted upon this garish… exhibit.
Tradition – and duty – came hand in hand.
"Farmer Das!" the herald at the door announced, thumping his staff twice to admit the attendance of a man in humble tyrian purple clothing.
She watched the farmer come modestly forward, moving across the long length of the grand hall with its high dark ceilings, thick dark columns and grand dark crystal chandeliers to kneel before her at a respectful distance, his eyes ever on the intricate dark floor, patterned in lilies and ivies and veined in silver.
Despite all this grandeur, she had tried to keep it modest by having her Saturnian Sentinels remain at the door in simple dark clothing. She had kept her maids out of the Greeting Hall, save for two – one at either side of her, sitting like nymphs by her throne. She had kept to only one herald clothed in a simple robe by the double doors. She had kept her other servants, guards and even ministers out. She had wanted the atmosphere to be intimate, to allow a connection to form between her and her visiting populace.
If only they were in the Greeting Parlour rather than the Greeting Hall, with simple teas and biscuits to peruse over the simple talks they would have. How much she would be able to learn. How much she would be able to understand. In such an intimate setting, there was much she could appreciate from her people, but protocol must be met. The Greeting Hall was to be used. Her ministers were adamant about it.
"Good morning, your majesty," Farmer Das murmured, nervous and humble, his straw hat in his hands.
"Good morning, Farmer Das," she welcomed with an honest smile. She could tell that he was trying very hard not to make a fool of himself.
"I am very honoured to be here," he spoke modestly, bowing low, his stutter almost inaudible. "I have brought you cheese from my farm as a gift."
One of her maids rose from her side to retrieve the basket from the farmer's anxious hands.
"Thank you," she said, honoured and delighted by the gift, and devastatingly humbled.
Farmers were rare on Saturn, for pastures were rare on the largely rocky planet dominated by the mining industry. Already she had received gifts of gold and silver and pearls – bags of opals, handfuls of green amethysts, chunks of diamonds and chests of the most beloved purple amethysts, the pride and joy of all Saturnians. A part of her had wanted to refuse such rich and expensive gifts, knowing that the working-class miners had given up quite a bit for such treasures just for her, but it would have been rude and even more unappreciative to refuse. Thus, faced with a farmer who had worked his land long and hard, in particular on Saturn of all planets, she did not deign it right to not receive his gift. In many ways, Farmer Das must have worked ten-fold as hard as the average miner, coaxing grass to grow for his cows to beget milk for his cheese… for her.
"Thank you," she repeated gratefully.
He looked up at her ethereal tone and felt his breath catch. How long had it been since he or anyone he knew had laid their eyes upon their queen at such a short distance? Her violet irises were like the darkest shade of an amethyst in the deepest mine. Her complexion like the fine porcelain worthy of the finest milk. Her hair like the gleaming obsidian of their planet's greatest export. Her very being like the delicate frame of Saturn's ring, her soul as long and deep as the planet itself, and she was every bit like the Goddess of Death she was, ghostly, otherworldly and wraithlike, but very much beautiful, modest and giving.
Hotaru Tomoe, the name of their most honourable and most beloved queen – the Amethyst of Saturn.
"I wish you a very happy birthday, your majesty," Farmer Das breathed, almost in worship, his forehead touching the floor.
Her birthday, made a spectacle for the people's sake, but she would gladly sacrifice whatever privacy, whatever simplicity she wanted for her people. If they wanted her whole morning to wish her well, then she would give it to them, even shortening her lunch if need be. If they wanted a whole afternoon of carnivals and festivities, then she would gladly spend days planning for such an occasion. If they wanted fireworks, then she would purchase them from her very own Royal Treasury as a gift from her to them. Whatever they desired, she would give. After all, today was one of the few days in the year when Saturnians allowed themselves to be selfish, every other day they went out of their ways for her, for the great dark palace sitting upon Saturn's ring revolving along the planet's gravity.
For her people, she could sacrifice anything.
"Shall we take a bite together?" Hotaru suggested warmly.
The maid holding onto the basket took out a small knife and carved two slices of cheddar from a piece of cheese nestled within the chequered cloth. Seamlessly, the second maid came forward to retrieve a slice each for her sovereign and the farmer, placing them upon delicate pearl-toned napkins. Fluid, silent, the Royal Maids moved like well-trained extensions of their queen, conveying her majesty's will as their own.
"Thank you," Hotaru murmured, taking the napkin from the maid.
The maid curtsied before offering the other napkin to Farmer Das, who appeared rather nervous at the opportunity with his queen. When, finally, the cheese was within the palms of his shaking hands, together, Hotaru and Farmer Das slipped the cheddar into their mouths, smiling at each other a second later.
Smooth and eager, the hard cheddar grazed along her tongue, leaving a satisfying taste salt along the edges of her lips. The cheese was, simply put, delicious. It was hardy and baritone in flavour, and when she chewed, what felt like heady wine spilled over her mouth in spongy ambrosia. It reminded her of the small patches of grassland on Saturn, the blue skies over the intricate mines, the comradeship among her people, her friends, her family – it reminded her of home, not Saturn home, but home home, before she had accepted the amethyst crown of the violet planet, before she had been obliged to wear hard corsets and heavy headdresses, before she was queen, when she was just a normal teenage girl named Hotaru Tomoe eating a grilled cheese sandwich her Setsuna-mama had made for lunch, listening to the violin solo her Michiru-mama was practicing in the living room and smiling when her Haruka-papa tousled her hair playfully when he passed by.
The cheese reminded her of the simple life she had left behind, the same simple life the farmer led every day of work, home, family and sleep.
"How wonderful," she breathed, savouring the feel of the cheese going down her throat.
She hadn't even known that she had closed her eyes until she opened them, seeing Farmer Das smiling bashfully at her compliment, her Sentinels at the door grinning with their eyes shining with feeling, and her maids watching her with soft expressions. It was another simplicity Hotaru had come to understand while queen. As long as she was happy, so were her people. That was why she had never allowed herself, as much as she could given the circumstances, to show any negative feelings in her expression. The year before had been proof that whenever she was feeling under the weather, her maids worried, her Royal Guards overprotective and her family and friends going out of their ways in trying to make her happy. Thank goodness things had worked out in the end.
"I cannot wait to share this with my father," Hotaru told Farmer Das graciously, feeling her face flush from feeling. "Thank you very much, Farmer Das."
Blithering, Farmer Das murmured "You're welcome" several times before he had to leave the presence of her majesty in order to allow the next well-wisher into the Greeting Hall. There was hardly a pause before the herald thumped his staff again, announcing another visitor, but Hotaru didn't mind that there were no breaks in between each guest. There were a lot of them, and they had been waiting in line for hours, the most she could give them was her time. Although, she would have preferred it if the herald stopped hitting his staff on the floor, and that the Greeting Hall would be less intimidating to the people. That was why she had wanted to do the birthday wishes in the Parlour! Sometimes she spoiled her Minister of Ceremonies.
She withheld a sigh as she greeted the next guest, and then the next, and then the next. For hours she exchanged greetings with office workers, postal workers, restaurant owners, art critics, poets, musicians, architects, accountants, nurses, teachers, blacksmiths… and accepting gifts of homemade bread, floral arrangements, embroidered handkerchiefs, scented waters, furs and pelts, vases, root vegetables, engraved glasses, lamps, lamps and more lamps. With a toast to a Saturnian vineyard owner, Hotaru shared the first sip of the gift she gave her, a rare Saturnian wine, before finally sending the last guest away with a relieved exhale, quiet and calm.
It was now three in the afternoon and she had been awake before dawn. Usually she did not wake until eight in the morning, but some of her visitors had been waiting at the palace gates since midnight – in the middle of winter – just to see her. For their sake, she had felt it right to begin her schedule early and have them out from the cold and back to their homes as soon as possible.
Silent, passive, Hotaru remained seated at her throne for a moment to gather her bearings, to rouse herself from the fatigue sunk deep into her bones. Her maids, similarly, were just as battered and beaten – her Sentinels even more so for their military training had required them to remain at their posts around her bedchamber all night in fear that an unwanted "guest" may visit her while she slept.
She closed her eyes, feeling the need for sleep, and heard the doors open again. Thinking perhaps that it was another visitor, she revived herself and saw that it was one of her ladies-in-waiting, her silk gown brushing on the stone tiles as she knelt.
"Your majesty," the maid addressed with the outermost respect. "The Dowager King has called for your presence in the Lantern Room."
Hotaru frowned. "Is something the matter?"
"Nay, milady," the maid answered. "His majesty wishes for you to rest."
"Ah," she sighed, contemplating for a moment. "Very well, I will meet him in the Lantern Room."
The maid curtsied before retreating out of the room, bearing news for the Dowager King.
Once she was gone, Hotaru pushed aside the fur pelt from her lap and stood warily, her spine straightening and her legs weak. Her bones protested against the movement after having been pressed against the hard stone for hours, but she forced herself to gather her dress beneath her and make her way down the long aisle of the Greeting Hall, her ladies-in-waiting following after. Tired and stiff, she nodded when the Sentinels opened the door for her and smoothed down her skirt before strolling down the large corridors of Titian Castle towards her own private wing.
The Lantern Room was one of her favourite rooms in the castle, next to her bedroom and the library and the sun room… and she was incredibly fond of her kitchen too. Filled with her beloved lamp collection, it was an incredibly elegant room emphasized by a Victorian grey loveseat and armchairs arranged around a coffee table; a black vase filled with white calla lilies as a centrepiece. By the bay window were soft purple patterned cushions, similar to the ones on the sofa and chairs, and gentle curtains that framed the pine trees, ice-coated apple trees and snowy bushes outside. And what made her smile most giddily was her Souichi-papa already sitting on the loveseat with a steaming tea cup in his hands.
"Papa," she said softly.
"Hotaru," Souichi-papa answered with a gentle smile, placing his tea down and motioning her to take a seat beside him. "You must be tired by now."
Hotaru nodded as she settled into the loveseat, leaning against a velvet-purple polka dot cushion, and placed her temple against her papa's ever constant shoulder. She could tell that her papa was relieved to see her in one piece. Days such as these, when a portion of the castle was opened to the public, were dangerous. No one knew, exactly, what kind of people were coming through the palace doors.
"Here," Souichi-papa offered, rubbing her shoulders and placing a cup to her lips. "Good girl."
She obliged and savoured the apple cinnamon tea washing down her throat, unhinging her jaw and relaxing the muscles of her mouth. Her papa brushed aside her bangs affectionately and kissed the top of her head.
"Sleep," he murmured, placing her gently down on the loveseat and pulling a velvet purple quilt over her.
She dreamt of cheese, of Farmer Das' cheese. She dreamt that she was on the moon and that every nook and crevice was made of mozzarella. She dreamt of a beautiful garden, where every flower, tree and bush was romano. She dreamt of a fountain filled with ricotta, of rain that was melted cream cheese. She dreamt of that kitchen back in Japan, sitting at the eat-in counter with a glass of milk and Setsuna-mama's grilled cheese sandwich. What she wouldn't give for a grilled cheese sandwich made with Farmer Das' cheese…
She stirred, slowly, gently, and felt the loveseat sink when someone decided to take a seat beside her. Blearily, she fluttered her lashes and the world came into focus: the subtle glow of her lamps against the backdrop of the dimming day, the soft candlelit glow on the intricate medallion on the ceiling – the tufts of feather-light silver-white hair framing the most soul-searching silver-blue eyes she had ever come across, and they were staring directly into hers.
"Peruru?" she breathed sleepily.
Peruru blushed, beautiful against the soothing glow of her lamps, his lips like sugared water, shining like the silver lining of a dreamy cloud. When she blinked, she could almost see the translucent wings hidden on his back, an illusionary rainbow in ethereal hues that carried a warm draft felt only in the most precious of dreams. He was dressed for the occasion, wearing a dark violet, almost black, vest over a crisp white shirt to match his charcoal grey pressed pants and a suit that cinched at his waist. For her, he had on a velvet violet cravat with a silver and amethyst broach… an amethyst that matched her eyes.
"G-Good evening, your majesty," he murmured bashfully, ducking to hide his flush, but she caught his smile nevertheless.
Carefully pushing herself up from the loveseat to mask her own skipping heart and sharp inhales, Hotaru closed her eyes to recollect her frayed nerves. Even after all these months, after the passing of two whole seasons, Hotaru still found it hard to believe that he was her… suitor. "Boyfriend" was a more modern term, but queens did not have "boyfriends." Queens had suitors… unless one was a certain Queen Minako Aino of Venus… or Queen Makoto Kino of Jupiter. But they were the only exceptions.
Usually Hotaru was quite composed in Peruru's company, aware of her own actions and choice of words – disciplined in limiting her emotions in the face of the public, and even the private. But she had not expected to wake up to his eyes, his lovely eyes, and his voice, his gentle voice. And she certainly hadn't expected her maids and guards to be absent, allowing her time to feel the warmth of his skin, to hear his breath, to take in the scent of his natural sweet nectarine perfume. If that wasn't appalling enough, she was rather too focused on the amethyst broach pressed against his neck… like some sort of collar… like some sort of collar she had placed on him.
She turned her face away, feeling the heat on her usually pale cheeks. How appalling! How horrifying! How-!
"Hotaru?" Peruru sounded worriedly, leaning in to see if she was all right for she appeared rather faint.
"Y-Yes?" she stammered, refusing to raise her gaze from her lap, refusing to acknowledge that his face was so close, that his lips were so close.
"What's wrong?" he asked, pressing his lips together.
His delicious lips.
"N-Nothing!" she burst, very unseemly for royalty. And then just as quick, she stood from the loveseat, nearly throwing him onto the ground. "I-I must get ready."
Peruru, not convinced that she was fine, stood as well, hand reaching for her arm.
"What time is it?" she cut him off, her back to him, burning for she knew his eyes were on her.
His hand dropped, confused and hurt, and replied, "It's nearing five in the afternoon," and felt it right to explain, "Your maids asked me to come wake you… Perhaps I shouldn't have?"
Hotaru felt her stomach twist. She had hurt him, she realized, and felt quite sorry for it. Turning to face him, eyes to the side and chin slightly down, she assured him, "No, Peruru, it's not you – I – I." She faltered, angry at herself, angry that she was losing all the semblance of calm she had fortified herself with over the years. Damned she'd be if she let this one moment, this one very innocent moment, to unravel all her lifetimes of training, of duty – and in her own home too! How unbecoming of her.
Hotaru took a calming breath to compose herself with, summoning the discipline, the restraint, she had learnt over the years to the very marrow of her bones to aid her. And when she finally straightened her back, lifted her chin and looked him in the eye, they both knew that she had returned to her normal self, the mask she had never allowed anyone to see under, the mask that only those near and dear to her could ever have the fortune to lift… a mask she barely let him see under. An undeniable truth they had kept silent between the two of them.
"I appreciate your being here," she confessed, granting him a small smile. "I apologize for being short, but I was worried about the time."
Peruru smiled understandably, but his eyes showed his worry and hurt. "Then you must go. Your maids are waiting for you outside."
Hotaru could tell that he was not as comforted as she would have liked him to be, and as a result, she was no less comforted herself. She had made him unhappy, an aspect she did not like on her conscience, a guilt that made her heart sink. Peruru had been, if anything over the months that they have been together, very kind and patient, understanding that she was a senshi first, queen second, daughter third and his lady very last fourth… perhaps even less than that. He had rearranged his schedule countless times to match hers, even cancelling on his own brother to catch a glimpse of her, a brief touch and a morose "goodbye." He was everything a woman could ask for and she had made him doubt himself. She was undeniably in the wrong, and not for the first time either.
Ashamed and anxious, she touched his hand briefly, a moth to a flame, and then drew back, afraid that she was asking for too much. She wanted so badly to make things better between the both of them, in particular on this day just before the celebrations, but didn't know how else to continue. A part of her didn't want to give too much, afraid to give too much, but she was torn with the desire to give him more than he could ask for, more than she was willing to give at the moment.
Before one or the other could rectify the uneasiness, a knock sounded at the door and, after a respectful pause, one of her ladies-in-waiting entered. Hotaru was sure that the two of them made quite a picture, eyes cast away, an arm's distance from the other, breaths mixing and bodies stiff. It was clear to anyone who may happen by that they hadn't had the most productive of conversations.
"Your majesty," the maid curtsied, as if there was nothing strange between her queen and her majesty's chosen sir. Bless her maids for their indiscretion, able to go about their daily routines despite whatever awkwardness or upset there was. Hotaru could never hope to function if her maids were scattered. "We have two hours until the festivities are to start. Shall we begin our preparations?"
The question was a last minute addition, Hotaru could tell, an attempt by the maid to give her a way out of the uncomfortable situation with Peruru. And she would be a fool not to take it. Perhaps some space would do them both some good?
"Yes," she said at last, smoothing out her skirt. "Is everything ready?"
"The bath has been drawn," the maid answered diligently. "We only need your approval on your style of dress for this evening, and we will be done."
"Good," Hotaru said, rather absentmindedly. She faced Peruru, who looked rather pale and self-conscious. "I will see you in two hours?"
The dream fairy nodded rigidly, unsure of himself. "Y-Yes." He coughed awkwardly. "I will escort you from your room?"
"Yes, thank you," Hotaru approved, and then dismissed, "Good evening."
"Good evening…" Peruru echoed faintly.
She turned and pretended not to see his hurt expression as she strode out of the Lantern Room and into the vast Titan hallways, her dress trailing after her like whispered death. As a queen, as the personification of Silence, Hotaru Tomoe was every bit as blank and cold as the last breath as she turned the corner and into her private bedroom, a Grecian statue of impassive grace, of a detached Goddess without pity flanked by her demigoddess maids and demigod guards of divine powers and prowess. But in sooth, she may be able to fool a passing servant or an imprudent minister, but she would never be able to fool her sixty-two ladies-in-waiting or her ten Saturnian Sentinels. They had been trained since birth to know her best, to be an extension of her body and mind. No, she could not fool them. But they would not pry into her personal matters either, and she was thankful for that.
Hotaru shed herself of the fur shawl and the intricate slippers, her priceless silk dress following soon after, spilling onto the marble tiles like useless afterthoughts. Quiet, reserved, she stepped into the bathtub, moving aside the orchid petals floating a top of the waters and settled herself against the cushion. She leaned her head back into the pillow and closed her eyes, listening to the tender steps of her maids gathering up her clothes before, finally, leaving her alone in the bathroom, quiet and calm.
She had upset Peruru. She had hurt his feelings, to be exact. But she did not go into the situation meaning to deprive him of his confidence or to strip him of his composure, or both. No, she had not. She had waked into the situation unguarded and blundered her way into smarting him, into smarting them both. Perhaps it was because she had been displeased with how the morning greetings had operated, certainly not in the Greeting Parlour as she would have liked. Perhaps it was because she had not slept enough last night, having been too restless fall asleep and having waking too soon in order to greet her visitors.
Or perhaps it was just him. Just her. Just them. Perhaps it was because they were moving along much too flawlessly to be true. Perhaps it was because they were just such an unexpected pairing. Perhaps it was because she was fearful that this was something fanciful, something that would irrevocably move to an irrefutable end. Perhaps she thought this was a waste of her time and that she really did not have enough of herself to give to him after all, too stretched thin by the words and weight of duty and loyalty, of her heart bound to both her Queen and King, her Princess, her people. She found it almost not worth the effort if all he could ever be for her was the very last fourth – fifth, for her family came before him, and she couldn't be selfish enough to ask him to be her last, and then demand for her to be his first. It was almost inconceivable.
Or perhaps there would always be that doubt.
Hotaru rubbed her left temple irritably, flinching when her palm grazed the sharp corner of the amethyst barrette still in her hair. She found no use for fanciful things if they would just hurt her in the end. How aggravating.
Reaching for the towel, she stood and wrapped the cotton around her torso, purposefully (and bad temperedly) splashing water onto the marble flooring. With a frown, she pulled the plug on the bath and stood over the tub to watch the water level recede before it spun round and round, gone forever. Emotions could be just as fleeting, just as pointless, just as gone forever and ever fast.
Sighing, Hotaru left the bathroom and stepped onto the beautiful rug of her bedroom, surveying the collection of dresses and jewels laid throughout for her inspection. Her maids, ever industrious, curtsied and stood aside to allow her better procurement of her things, but she held no interest for such ornamentation that night. Her maids knew it too, for they kept silent when she finally settled before her vanity with a vacant expression.
"Your majesty," one of her maids came forward, subtly gesturing at the paints and blushes on the vanity table. "If you are ready?"
Taking the barrette from her hair, Hotaru nodded and silently submitted herself to the whims of her maids. They came forward and opened up a variety of eye shadows, blushes, mascaras, lipsticks and various tools she never had took the time to remember. In a flurry of brushes and cotton balls, she was soon ready for presentation, slipping into her dress and shoes.
Looking into the mirror, she honestly felt, not for the first time, that her maids were miracle workers. She had on soft violet eye shadow that glimmered a slight silver when she blinked. On her natural pink lips was a clear lip gloss, highlighting the shine in her eyes, made livelier by the delicate painted blush on her cheeks. As for her dress, she had chosen a dark violet flowing chiffon strapless, empire-waist gown with a sweetheart neckline. Her maids chose to wound large black pearls down the length of her neck, like a thick choker, with the same pearls around her wrists, but of a smaller scale. Her hair was in a small bun, decorated by black pearls and a dark violet peony with a diamond at the centre, a diamond that matched the diamond chandelier earrings she had on. On her feet were black heels, threaded through with delicate black pearls and diamonds. To complete the picture, she had decided upon the black nickel tiara embedded with small diamonds and purple amethysts, with a single oval-shaped amethyst at the centre.
"Your majesty?" a maid enquired, perplexed by her silence.
Hotaru blinked, watching her maids share worried frowns from the mirror, and decided to placate them. "I'm fine. Thank you. It's all very lovely."
The lack of enthusiasm in her tone was not lost on the room, but no one said nay to it. Instead, one of her maids open the window to allow the cool winter wind wash over her queen, a cold searing that cut through Hotaru's nerves and woke her from a darkness she hadn't noticed sinking into. It was a simple breeze that rushed through her, carrying in the fresh winter scent and the freezing temperatures. If she could, she would just… stand there all night, in the comfort of her maids and the cold embrace of winter, brushing aside her heating heart and hot veins.
It was time to see Peruru.
Pressing her lips together, Hotaru stepped down from the pedestal in front of the full-length mirror and held her breath when her maids opened the bedroom door into the hallway. Of all her reactions, whether dread or shame, she had not expected relief. She had not expected him to be there at all, no matter their previous agreement, fearing that perhaps she had upset him enough for him to leave and not come back, but he was there, here, now, waiting for her.
He, too, was just as astonished, not because he had feared that she may have disappeared, but because of her appearance. By his blush, Hotaru could tell that he was pleased, and she felt her cheeks grow warm under his attentive and breathless eyes. He looked spectacular, no matter how many times she laid her eyes on him, and that amethyst broach at the base of his neck seemed to belong there, belong to her. She shivered when his eyes traced their way down her dress, along the crest of her breast and down the curve of her hip, sweeping up to her lips before piercing through her eyes. He had been caught staring, they both knew, and it was rather mortifying for him, she could tell.
"I-I," he blubbered, unable to take his eyes off her.
Her maids shared a quiet giggle, one that Hotaru hoped Peruru hadn't heard as she moved to his side, the very image of grace and flow, her dress trailing in an almost seductive hush. Embarrassed by his attentions, she stopped just short from him, not knowing how to continue after that… fiasco in the Lantern Room. But she hadn't needed to worry when he cupped her hand gently and placed an affectionate kiss on her finger like a butterfly would a peony blossom, a graze that told her that all was forgotten and that this was all that mattered, now was all that mattered.
She could only hope that her face wasn't as red as she felt it to be.
Peruru coughed, his throat having been stuck from the very moment he had seen her, and clumsily offered an arm, much too effected by her presence to be graceful. "Sh-Shall we?"
Hotaru smiled at his awkwardness, one of his endearing qualities, though she would never admit it aloud, and took his arm softly. "Yes. Has everyone arrived?"
"Yes," he answered nervously, leading them down the corridor.
His arm was firm, and she could feel the warmth of his skin from under his suit, a consoling warmth she could easily lean into. It was as if they hadn't been uncomfortable to begin with, as if there hadn't been a silence, a stiff acknowledgement from her or a conflicted response from him. Everything was resolved from seeing each other again, and knowing that not all relationships were without divergence. It was normal.
Peruru paused just before they entered the room where all her guests were waiting and whispered in her ear, a gentle breathless caress, "You look beautiful tonight."
Before she could answer, or force down her blush, he led her pass the threshold and-
"SURPRISE! HAPPY BIRTHDAY, YOUR MAJESTY!"
It hadn't supposed to be a surprise. Hotaru had known weeks beforehand while preparing for the birthday celebrations. Hotaru had been the one to finalize the decorations and food and music. Hotaru had known there would be hundreds of guests. Hotaru had known there'd be a party. But it was a surprise, for she hadn't expected her hundreds of guests to shout quite like that, or to through silver and purple confetti quite like that, or to jump in unison quite like that.
She hadn't expected for her heart to pound quite like that, or for her face to heat from the attention, or for her body to lean subtly into Peruru's frame to catch her breath. But it was her smile, she knew from her guests' enthusiasm, that caught them as breathless as their rambunctious act had caught her breathless.
Scattered throughout the large hall were the shining stars of the Solar System. There was the Venus with her kunzite stone by… the champagne fountain? Hotaru didn't remember agreeing to a champagne fountain, and thought it a tad excessive. Then there was Jupiter with her nephrite gem along with Mercury and her jadeite by that large ice sculpture made in her image – another expense Hotaru didn't remember approving. In fact, now that she had settled after the initial shock, there were several extravagant aspects in the room that she didn't quite like, such as the chocolate stream by Mars and her nephrite jewel, or that… Ferris wheel (?) she could see glittering in the gardens outside where the Amazon Quartet were buzzing around. There were so many lights and sparkles and unnecessary gadgets that she nearly missed the Silver and Gold of her Queen and King situated by… the carousel? Of course, Hotaru reasoned as calmly as possible, there would be a carousel, because it had to match the Ferris wheel!
"Happy birthday, hunny," Souichi-papa swept in for a hug, both daughter and father knowing that he did so to hide her paling features. "Let's be calm about this, all right?"
Hotaru perked a brow despite her self-control as her financial brain began adding up the expenses of this one-night celebration. She could understand if she was providing millions for the people outside the palace for fairs and parades… but she could not understand why the people inside the palace needed fairs and parades also. Most of her guests were nobles, and they had many occasion witnessed such luxury… must they have it here as well? This party should be a representation of Saturnians, of being frugal, substantial and… simple. This party should have been simple, with small cupcakes, delicate sandwiches and intimate dancing, not a make-your-own cake station, caviars and abalones or that… flurry of dresses, arms and legs. It was not representative of Saturn at all.
"Your majesty!" her Minister of Ceremonies (damn him!) came blithering with a bow. "I know that this is not what you had envisioned," for she had fought him tooth and nail against all extreme lavishness, "but it is for the people! Please, understand."
Hotaru jerked, frightening Peruru a tad, but she could hardly contain her displeasure. By "people," her Minister of Ceremonies meant "the Inner Courts." All these lights and glitter must be maintained to impress the dignitaries and nobles from the Inner Courts who were not only used to all this showy opulence, but were expecting it too. The Saturnian in her, however, rejected such… sumptuousness. Hadn't they just celebrated the New Year? Must they do it again? And so soon?
"We'll do what we want tomorrow, Hotaru," Michiru-mama promised with a concerned look.
"For now," Setsuna-mama mediated, "let's just enjoy the company, shall we?"
Haruka-papa snorted. None of the Outer Queens were impressed by the spectacle either. If they had wanted to celebrate her her birthday with fairs, festivals and parades, then they would have gone out of the castle to celebrate it with the Saturnian citizens, the people who deserved some fun once in a while.
When Hotaru didn't reply and when the Minister of Ceremonies began to sweat fearfully (she was not called the Senshi of Death for nothing), Peruru was urged to intervene. Tenderly, he squeezed her hand and gave her an encouraging smile, one she was not obliged to return, but she noticed the glare Haruka-papa was giving him and thought it better to spare him than to allow him to tremble under the gaze of the Uranian queen.
"Let us look for Princess Lady Serenity," she suggested with care.
Her Minister of Finance gave a very visible sigh of relief, but her mamas and papas knew it was far from over. The poor man's occupation was at stake, and if at any time Hotaru felt it right to relieve him of his duty, she gladly do so – indefinitely.
"Let's," Peruru agreed, helping her down the few stairs and onto the floor in search of their beloved friend.
In retrospect, Hotaru hadn't been of the right mind when she suggested they go in search of Chibiusa, for a part her was hesitant in seeing her. For when they finally found the princess and Sir Helios by the cotton candy machine (why on Saturn was that even there?), Hotaru felt her heart go rigid just as she heard Peruru's breath catch.
Perhaps it was because of the stress. Perhaps it was because of their busy schedule. Or – or – perhaps because there was still that doubt – that he still loved Chibiusa. A love harnessed and given the greatest care for so many lifetimes… could not possibly be replaced so easily, so comfortably and so irrevocably. Which was ridiculous, Hotaru knew, for she had been very clear-minded about the issue when she had first entered the relationship. In fact, she had been fearful that she would be submitting him to pain by having him with her for she was inseparable from Chibiusa's side, but now it was she who was subjected to pain… Sometimes she believed that being with him was a waste of her time and effort, for he could not possibly ever look at her the way he looked at her. For she was a fine gossamer of pink diamonds.
Indeed, her princess, the Lady Serenity, Small Lady, the Sailor Senshi of the Moon and Earth combined, was stunning, absolutely gorgeous – a shining beacon of welcome and refuge. Where Hotaru was darkness, Chibiusa was the light to be found, her eyes blue and crystal, and her hair a cotton candy pink. She was made ten-fold the beauty she already was, with her bright smile and eagerness to aid those in need, by the lovely dress she had on, light pink with lace and ribbons. Coupled by her tiara and those earrings, she shone like the diamond that was her Star Seed.
"Hotaru!" Chibiusa chirped enthusiastically, tossing Helios her ball of cotton candy to give Hotaru a bone-crushing hug.
But Hotaru could never fault Chibiusa for being herself, for being beautiful and for being the kind of girl every man wanted. She returned the hug, forgetting for a moment that she was discontented by Peruru's reaction to her princess, for she had missed Chibiusa dearly, and wanted to hold onto her, onto her warmth, for just a little longer…
"Your majesty." Helios bowed, able to juggle two cones of cotton candy in his hands and smile handsomely. "Happy birthday."
Chibiusa released Hotaru long enough for Hotaru to reply, "Thank you," before hugging her again, causing giggles all around.
Helios, the Priest of Illusion and Guardian of Golden Crystal, chuckled with a mock disapproving shake of his head. His white hair, in windy wisps, caught the light from the crystal chandeliers and reflected that same happiness in his amber-warm eyes. As light as the wind in his formal priest attire of white and golden medallions, Helios was as warm as the fire in his loving soul as he stared at his princess lovingly.
"I missed you!" Chibiusa cried out, eyes watering in proof of just how much she had missed Hotaru. Indeed, there could not be a friendship like theirs that had transcended Time and Space, not even between the Silver Queen and the Inner Queens. For Neo Queen Serenity and the Inner Senshi totalled five altogether, but between Hotaru and Chibiusa… there was, and always would be, just the two of them.
Hotaru smiled and brushed aside her princess' bangs gently, affectionately, and replied, "Me too."
She sometimes wished she wasn't a queen and Chibiusa wasn't a princess, but that they were middle school students again, walking back from school and stopping at an ice cream stand to treat themselves, only to be scolded by their mamas for ruining their appetite when they found ice cream stains on their uniforms. The sun had been warm, the air had been cool, and they had been inseparable. Such simplicity in a walk, in a laugh, in a smile – Chibiusa had taught her that, and she would never forget it.
"Let's open presents!" Chibiusa exclaimed, clearly excited and began dragging Hotaru towards the large pile of wrapped gifts. "C'mon on, Hotaru!"
Hotaru had no choice but to be pulled along, sharing an indulgent look with Helios, who knew just how boisterous their princess could be, and was startled when Peruru took her by the other hand, effectively stopping Chibiusa's tirade toward the presents. The four of them stilled at this sudden event, not knowing how to continue as Hotaru looked to Peruru for answers. The fairy's eyes showed his hesitance, his uncertainty, his fear of something he was afraid to admit, but Hotaru knew, for she realized what had happened – what was happening. While Peruru was quite confused as to just why he had taken her hand, Hotaru was more observant and not afraid to admit her own flaws. Peruru feared that what she had with Helios was what she feared him having with Chibiusa.
Knowing that he was not as strong as she was, Hotaru wound her fingers around his in what she hoped would be reassuring. As if in response, he jolted from his confused reverie and let his eyes fall to their hands quizzically, as if he didn't know how they had ended up holding hands in the first place.
"Okay, then," Chibiusa said with a nod, twining her arm around Hotaru's as if nothing had happened to stop them in the first place. "Ready to go?"
Peruru blushed, finally understanding that he had been the cause of their halting mid-way to the presents. "Y-Yes."
Hotaru sent him a smile and he flushed, his eyes bright and both bashful and delighted. She would never tell him, but she felt comforted by his actions, knowing that he had thought of her and wanted her to be with him, insecure that perhaps she would change her mind about him after all.
"Open mine first!" Chibiusa all but demanded, laughing with a bounce.
And for hours, that was what Hotaru had done: opening presents, piling the colourful wrapping paper, gleaming bows and glittering ribbons onto an ever-growing heap. In between each gift, there were surprised exclamations from her guests and delighted gasps at the wonders each box unravelled. Even more startling was that Hotaru was entitled to pause after each gift to grant several men dances and to allow Chibiusa to hand her the nearest food delight to come by – devil eggs, smoked salmon, cheese drizzled with olive oil. With all that whirl and twirl of well wishers, dance partners, Chibiusa-hugs (a thousand-fold more complicated with the Asteroid senshi jumping in), Hotaru could not begin to describe the relief she felt every time she looked over her shoulders to see Peruru just behind her, patient, enduring, willing and always ready with a glass of water for her whenever she needed to take a breath.
"Happy birthday, your majesty," Iapetus whispered, eyes shining with admiration and a fondness rarely seen in a man. "You look lovely tonight."
Hotaru gave him a gracious smile as he led her into the next step of the waltz, her dress skirting across the marble tiles. "Thank you."
She knew that there was talk among the guests, and she knew that her Souichi-papa was watching carefully even as he spun Setsuna-mama on the dance floor, but she could hardly pay them attention when she was trying very hard to be civil to Iapetus. It wasn't that he was rude or that he was obnoxious, when in truth he was the perfect gentleman and every bit the respected academic, but it was that he was persistent. He was persistent in asking her for a dance, persistent in trying to make her smile, persistent in being near or around her. She was getting quite tired of the charade.
At last, the full orchestra (again, another expense she disapproved of) played the last note and brought the waltz to an end. As customary, Hotaru curtsied as Iapetus bowed, and before he could ask for another, she turned to Peruru who was waiting at the sidelines.
"Sir Peruru," Iapetus greeted uneasily.
Peruru gave a tight smile. "Sir Iapetus."
While Peruru was usually agreeable with anybody who came his way, Iapetus was another issue. Iapetus was the only one of her suitors who had been quite open in his pursue of her, and the only one who hadn't made a quiet retreat when Hotaru was suddenly found, hand-in-hand, with Peruru. In fact, he had doubled his courtship in the light of the reveal, hoping that she would change her mind. Being the teaching assistant to her Souichi-papa hadn't helped with matters either.
"Excuse us," Peruru retreated politely.
"Of course," Iapetus returned stiffly, unhappily.
Hotaru decided to go with Peruru quietly, not willing to stay with Iapetus any longer, and felt Peruru's hand settle gently at the back of her waist to guide her through the crowd, an anchor to her directionless ship. She smiled when she realized that he was leading her out of the party hall, out of the crowd and the minimal hot oxygen, just as her guests were distracted by Minako and Rei putting on a singing concert on the podium.
"In here," Peruru said, leading her into a small room off to the side.
She could hear the smile in his voice and feel the eagerness in his touch, and was pleased when there was just the two of them in the room, away from all that chaotic affair from the party. It was a small room, a sort of room one would have a lady calm down in, and there was a small table with two chairs at either end. There was a single candle, illuminating a silver platter with a lid over it, a porcelain jug and two matching tea cups.
Despite herself, Hotaru felt a buzz of excitement as Peruru pulled a chair for her. This was it. This was the simplicity she wanted for her birthday, and he was giving it to her!
"Milady," Peruru welcomed shyly.
"Milord," she murmured, taking a seat, smiling already.
She watched him fumble nervously with the jug and pour out two steaming warm cups of milk. He was trying to impress her, she could tell, and she would be a fool to not be impressed when he handed her a cup, a simple cup with simple milk accompanied by a simple, shy smile from him.
Too jumpy to take a seat, Peruru leaned over the table and took hold of the lid of the silver platter. Looking her in the eye, a blush painted across his face, he whispered breathlessly, "Happy birthday, Hotaru."
And with a flourish he uncovered the silver platter and she gasped, her eyes wide and mouth drawn to an enchanted smile. Right there, in the middle of all that silver, was a grilled cheese sandwich made from, she took a sniff, Farmer Das' cheese!
"How did you know?" she asked, both astounded and charmed, her smile growing more girlish.
Peruru ducked his head, the very image of shame, but his smile showed his self-congratulation, "I-I may have… seen your dr-dream…"
Not at all offended, but touched that he would go to all that trouble, Hotaru told him, "You didn't have to."
His head snapped upwards, his expression incredulous. "O-Of course I have to! I want to make you happy!" She was startled, her heart beating furiously at the truth in his eyes. And then, very softly, he confessed, "I want to always make you happy, Hotaru."
She pressed her lips against the cool porcelain of the cup of milk, hoping that the cold would minimize the heat in her blush, her heart beating sensitively against her mouth. She wanted to kiss him, right then and there, but felt too shy (imagine that!) to do so when at any moment one of her guests may walk in, but to know that they could be caught only sent a thrill down her spine and a shiver. Cautiously, she lifted her lashes and gazed at him from above the rim of the cup, her breath catching when she met his heated stare, eyes like tender crystal swimming with an emotion Hotaru dared not to name.
He moved first, which thrilled her to no end, as he took hold of the cup and gently lowered it from her lips, his gaze never lifting from hers, determined and wanting, so wanting so badly that it hurt. And slowly, very delicately, he touched his mouth to hers, timidly, tenderly, and tenaciously with a nibble. Breathlessly, her lashes fell over her eyes, her lips pliant against his own as his breath fell over her cheeks and spread across her neck, hot and soothing, direct like the hand he used to trace a hot line at the back of her neck.
She may have moaned, she wasn't quite sure, as she craned her neck back and felt suddenly very vulnerable with him leaning over the table, over her, like that, and she couldn't say that she didn't like it. She couldn't say that she didn't like him being able to dominate her like that. But she did know, could even disclose it later, that she did whine when he drew softly away, feather-light and sun-glow.
"Thank you," Hotaru said breathlessly.
Peruru smiled, his eyes still shining from the tender moment, and whispered, "You're welcome."
And then he kissed her again.
She knew then, smitten and light-headed, that he was trying as hard as she had hoped to make this work, and she knew that she, too, must try as hard, if not harder. Men were, after all, weaker of the heart.