Warning: Implications. Enough said.
Commentary: This is me trying to write what Ami deserves. Expect three smallish chapters and an epilogue altogether. =) I started this back in September with the intent that it would be short, sweet, and funny—but after dropping it and letting it sit a while, I revisited the idea. It's become something far longer, far more sincere.
As always, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Chapter ONE: SHIVER—In which Ami looks in all the wrong places
Outside, it snowed.
The world was all white crystal and whippoorwill wind, the window that led to it glazed in a skim-sheen of spiderwebbing frost. Hunched at her desk with her glasses only just balanced on the brim of her nose, Mizuno Ami traced her fingers over the chilled pane, her chin tucked into her free hand. A sprawled-open standard dictionary supported the knob of her elbow. Her gaze, cerulean circlets fathoms deep, fell sightless on the scene outdoors.
She sat thus for the better part of fifteen minutes, unsurprisingly lost in thought. Only the jarring sound of the heater coming on in the crook of the hallway brought her back to the fringe of awareness.
Whmmmm, said heater opined. Tongues of warmth snaked under Ami's desk, stirred pins and needles into her cold-numbed feet. She rubbed them together and dropped her eyes to her desk.
To the dictionary.
Such a comforting thing, a dictionary. A roadmap of word meanings: a tome of answers, of could-bes and usuallys and definitely-sos. A rhapsody written in rationale. A fail-safe consultant in times of uncertainty, doubt, and skepticism. A logical lexicon of here-it-is, one-two-three.
Ami shifted her elbow to stare again at the word she had taken the trouble to find in the sheaf of the book's thin, flip-worn pages.
Love, it read. Noun. A profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person.
Ami was not one to curse, to tear at her hair, to throw books across rooms. Still, she weighed the potential satisfaction of each action, dismissed them all, and closed her eyes instead. She sighed. She determined, a puff of frustration unveiled in a single murmured word: "Vague."
And it was. The definition was vague. She tried breaking it down piece by piece, but how profound was profound, exactly? Was it my-heart-flutters-at-an-accidental-touch profound? Was it I-dream-dreams-of-us-together profound? Was it I-compare-the-shades-of-their-hair-to-coffee-shadows profound?
Ami reconsidered throwing the book. Briefly, of course.
Tender she understood. Tender was tender, the end. Okay, no problem. But passionate? Ami was passionate about her studies. Passionate about her dream to become a doctor. Passionate about the 100-meter butterfly: the pulse of poolwater, the slosh of pseudo-currents through her fingers. Passionate about flipping her pillow to the cold side just before the shade of sleep fell over her in the night. Passionate about always, always, always having a packet of Kleenex on her person and a pouch of chocolate hidden in the back of her sock drawer. The darn things—both of them—came in handy.
She was not passionate about affection—or she didn't think so, anyway. She was… she was capable of it, and possessed it: for her parents, yes. For her friends, absolutely. She hooked arms with them, laughed with them, fought for them, breathed blood and battle and brine for them. Her care was subtle, though, misted and minor in terms of tone, a lone bassist's contribution to the concert of an otherwise brass band. It came in packages of homework help, heartfelt sincerity—it softened reminders of looming exams, made bearable desert-stretch study sessions.
Could her attitude really be called passionate?
Ami had an idea looking up passionate and affection in the dictionary wouldn't answer that question. Her ideas were usually good ones.
Lifting her arm from the spine of the small book, Ami nudged it closed and said aloud, carefully, "A profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person." She hesitated. She tried out, "Love."
In the private chambers of her own mind, she asked herself: Am I in love?
Snow stuck in stockpiled regimental lines along the windowpane. The heater in the hall stuttered. Ami looked sideways at the mirror on her vanity and saw that her face was a tomato bisque-y shade of maroon.
She answered her question mentally with a scarce-whisper: I could be.
"I," she realized aloud, "need advice."
Given the nature of her problem, Ami went to Minako first.
She was received warmly, ushered inside in the lee of the storm. They discussed the matter over tea in Minako's room. Winter's slow afternoon light fell in through the blinds, made snow-shade blades of brilliance over their laps. The blonde sat across from her nervous friend and listened to Ami's every stammer and stutter intently. She even passed Ami an encouraging cookie when the shy young woman choked and found herself temporarily bereft of speech.
After nibbling the buttery biscuit, Ami collected solace from its saccharides and finished, a hinge-squeak hiss, "Th-that's how it is."
"I see," Minako observed, sage.
Quiet persisted a moment. Ami took another bite of the cookie. She chewed it, swallowed. Minako twirled a trailing end of her hair ribbon. On the bed, Artemis scratched himself, groaned a low dreaming-kitty groan, and rolled over. His whiskers twitched.
"Well?" Ami pressed at last.
"It's simple," Minako said. She rose with a flourish, flounced to her bureau, and jerked open its topmost drawer. She rifled through it. Her eyes blazed in premature victory; her mouth made a triumphant, dazzling curve. Misgivings grumbled low in Ami's belly, but she steeled herself and bit the bullet. Surely, she reasoned, Minako would know best how to help her.
The self-proclaimed Goddess of Love tossed a pair of scarlet satin panties onto the table between them. They were missing what most human beings might have termed vital portions.
"Something like that should do the trick," Minako professed.
She tried Rei next.
"You want to what?" the miko asked incredulously after Ami's spluttered explanation of her dilemma.
"Well, it's—I mean. You know," Ami attempted.
"Actually," Rei denied, wide-eyed, "I had no idea. …okay, I wondered. I really did. But I didn't think you honestly liked…"
Ami clenched her hands over her knees. The fabric of her slacks wrinkled. Sweat stood out on her pale brow. "I—"
Rei held up a hand. Ami blinked at it: studied intently the fire-fanned skin and the burnblains embedded in the flesh of the miko's palm. "Wait," Rei insisted. "Wait just a second. When did you reali—no." She paused. She watched Ami through her lashes, chewed her lip. Her hand fell again. She curled it over a knee and ventured, "I don't need to ask that, do I? When it all started, I mean."
"It's not important," Ami agreed. Relief made her joints watery.
Rei nodded. Her violet-dark eyes nevertheless kindled, ablaze in a curious kind of hunger. "Of course," she said, and she actually meant tell me everything.
Ami's cheeks nudged toward nuclear. "Rei-chan," she protested.
The miko giggled, anxious, and waved her hands. "Sorry, sorry!" She rocked sideways a little, nudging one leg out to flex her toes in their closeted tabi. "It's just—I mean, it's startling. You do know that, right?"
Miserable, Ami nodded. "Is it…" she began, and faltered. She licked her lips. She went on, "Is it a terrible thing?" And then, hoarse, "Do—do you care?"
The concern in the bookworm's voice could crack concrete. Rei heard it, bristled: she reached between them and took the petite soldier's hands, weaving their fingers together. Broom handle calluses rasped pen divots. Rei smiled. Clicking their thumbnails over one another, the dark-haired girl muttered, "You're a genius, Ami-chan. You have to know that's a stupid question."
Shy guilt squirming in pink-blossom vines over her cheeks, Ami lowered her eyes and objected, "You just said it's startling."
"You showing an interest in a person and not a display of the new semester's textbooks? Well, yeah! It is startling!" Rei jiggled their joined hands emphatically. "But so is Usagi passing a math test, and she's been doing that more and more recently—give it a while and we'll barely notice the difference. Right?"
"Right," Ami confirmed. Considered. Insisted softly, a smile hitching the corner of her mouth upright, "…it might be a long while."
Rei beamed. She gave the other soldier's hands a final squeeze before releasing them, dropping her fingers to her hakama to worry the tips over wrinkled seams. "Really, Ami-chan," she asserted, "I don't care. And I don't think anyone else will either. Startling things are often good things."
"You think this is good?" asked Ami gingerly—hopefully.
"I think," Rei said stoutly, "it's excellent. I'm so glad you're comfortable enough to come talk to us about thi—"
"That's not—!" Ami interrupted. Rei stopped, surprised. The shorter girl gagged on her words, mangled them in her mouth, spat out finally, "…that's not quite what I meant."
"Mm?" nudged the miko.
Chewing her lower lip, Ami surveyed her friend of over a thousand years—give or take massive amnesiac gaps and the odd reincarnation or two—through her lashes. She whispered when she felt she could, "Comfort isn't an issue. Any problem I have, Rei-chan, when it's like this… I'm going to tell you about it."
Rei frowned, disbelieving. "You've been pretty quiet about this kind of stuff before," she reminded the other girl. "Germany. Mm?" She thought about it. She pressed, "When you were stressed out tutoring us. When you felt weak. And that one time at the carnival, Ami-chan—you let Usagi stuff you full of that saltwater taffy even though you hated it and you never said anything until you threw up by the fence. Don't you remember? We had to nearly carry you home—"
"Things are different now," Ami conferred. Her voice was a quiet, thready frost beneath the crackling hiss of the fire nearby. "You don't have to worry about that anymore."
"Why?" Rei demanded.
"We died," Ami said, and Rei shut up. Her jaw snapped closed. She stared at the girl across from her, a blue-browed bespectacled waif in a brown peacoat and snow-flecked boots. Ami's eyes swam in a sea of shimmer-sincerity behind her lenses. Rei drowned, or nearly did. Sensing her struggles, Ami blinked and the waves in her gaze went away again. Rei drew in a sharp, shuddering breath.
"We died," Ami repeated. She rubbed her face with the sleeve of her coat. The wool left stippled imprints on her cheek. "We've done it before, I know. But this time, we… we fell into nothing. We dissolved and there—there wasn't anything, and it was cold, colder than D-point, and then it was over, and I remember thinking…"
Her mouth twisted. The deep dimple in her left cheek wrinkled and it was her turn to struggle, forehead agleam in the shrine's fortune-flaying firelight. "I remember thinking," she continued, "how terrible it was to die being the person who still, after years of friendship and fighting weird creatures and—and… all of it, Rei-chan, after all of it… I was dying and I was still the person who was afraid to tell my best friends how I really feel all the ti—"
"Ami-chan," Rei cut in, tone all gentle teasing, "your sappiness is leaking all over the floorboards. I just swept them a few minutes ago."
Despite her flaming face and the flush crawling up her throat, Ami giggled. Rei added in her own chime. They looked at each other. The miko huffed—the genius nibbled her lip. Their high, heady laughter echoed over the snow-covered shrine, and icicles in the courtyard's weeping cypress tink-tinked their blizzardly approval.
"Really," Ami wheezed after their shared fit, dabbing the corner of an eye with her scarf, "I'm serious. Look at my face. Look at it!"
"Your cheeks are chapped," Rei observed.
"Fine, don't look at it." Ami mimed closing a book. "I mean—I'm sick of being that person. So I won't let myself do that again. I won't hide how I feel if it's this important." She hesitated: gestured to herself next, a sweeping motion from head to toe. It was a little defensive. "I'm here, aren't I? Asking for…" She lowered her voice, countenance the color of smashed brick. "…romantic advice? Love, uh. Pointers?"
"You're here," Rei opined, reaching to embrace the smaller woman, "being as brave as anyone I've ever seen."
Ami squeaked into a billowy sleeve—hid her face there. She accused Rei in a smile-shadowed whisper, "Sappiness! You just swept, remember?"
Rei withdrew, beset by more giggles. "Right, right. Well! Okay—you're not just here because you're comfortable talking with me about romance. I get that. What else is there, Ami-chan?"
"I do need advice," Ami admitted. "About my… err. My… plan. Is that what it is? Is it a plan?"
"It's totally a plan." Rei sounded sure of this.
Cupping her hands over her cheeks in an effort to cool them, Ami flexed her fingers. "Why does saying it that way make me feel dirty?" she wondered.
"I'm not the brainiac in the room," Rei hedged, "or a Goddess of Love, but I'd say it has something to do with your subconscious desire to, oh, I don't know—implement a pair of fur-lined handcuffs."
"…or it could be you being a prude."
Peeking out at the fire soldier through her fingers, Ami pursed her lips and stated, "Really. My plan."
Rei grinned. She held up her hand, ticking off points one by one. "You want to put yourself out there." Her index finger fell. "You want to get noticed." Her thumb folded. "You want to see if there are any… what's the word?" She tapped her chin, thoughtful. Her grin widened into a wicked smirk—she wiggled her pinky, dropped it down with its sister digits. "Ah. Sparks. You want to see if there are any sparks—"
Tomato-hued again and tormented to boot, Ami wrapped her scarf tightly about the lower half of her face despite the heat in the room. She agreed, muffled, "Right. Sparks. Fine. Is it a good plan, Rei-chan?"
"It's a perfect plan!" the other girl enthused.
"Not quite perfect," argued Ami. "No plan is." The scarf fluttered under the gust of her next question. "How… how do I put myself out there? How do I get noticed? I'm used to resembling the wallpaper."
Rei started to respond—stopped again. She rolled her head on her shoulders, dropped her cheek into a palm. Outside the March wind shuddered and shimmied; the shrine creaked around them, a hundred years and change audible in its wintry woe. Its maiden squinted and put forth at last, "You know…"
Ami leaned forward, eager and hopeful. The scarf drooped. Her sapphire forelocks fell over her brow in a wink of skysong shine. "Yes?"
Rei replied, "Minako has this particular pair of panties…"
An abrupt shuffling of feet—a scuffling of shoes too. A slammed door. A shrine sans genius, suddenly.
Rei sat alone for a moment in front of the scry-fire, staring at the spot formerly occupied by her friend. She waited. She contemplated. She heaved a great sigh, stood, and stepped from the sacred chamber. Her feet carried her outside, down the shrine's wraparound porch, and back into her family's ancestral living quarters. She wiped her feet delicately on the tatami just inside the door, reached for the thick black telephone poised on the nearest shelf. Dialed a familiar number. Put the receiver to her ear, resigned.
"Hello?" a breathless, ribald voice piped up after the third ring. And then, superior, "Is that you, Rei-chan? You owe me—"
"Five thousand yen, Minako-chan," sighed Rei. "I know, I know. Cash or check?"