Warning: Implications. Enough said.
Commentary: Here's the epilogue. =) I hope it surprises you. I hope it delights you. I hope it makes you laugh—or, at the very least, I hope it makes you smile.
As always, I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.
EPILOGUE: SHINE—In which everything works out for everyone
No one answered.
Ami waited a few astonished seconds. Gloved hand trembling, she tried again, the knock this time more of a hammer. She bit her lip.
"Oh," she said. She eased tentatively forward. She pressed both palms to the door, then her cheek, and finally an ear. The shock of the frigid surface against her flesh sent her breath out in a low whoosh, but she kept close to it regardless. She listened.
"She's not here," Ami informed no person in particular. Her voice came out crisper than usual, cracked. A lump rose in her throat. She jerked away from the door, her vision misting miserably over. She blinked rapidly in an attempt to clear it. The damnable fog returned once, twice, thrice.
Can I do this again? she wondered. Am I really brave enough to do this again?
To stave off the encroaching tears, Ami sucked in a sharp, wobbly breath, squeezed her eyes shut, and reasoned, "She's probably out grocery shopping. Or maybe she's taking that Italian cooking class she was talking about signing up for, yes—that could be it."
The lump in her throat grew and she went on, desperate to find comfort in rationale, "Maybe she went to meet someone!" Her stomach clenched at the thought. She fiddled with her scarf and hazarded, the pylons beneath her resolve crumbling and her nostrils were on fire and oh no don't cry Ami don't cry don't you dare cry don't no stop it no please no don't don't don't, "Maybe she—"
"Had to pay an electric bill," finished Makoto from the edge of the stairs.
Ami pulled her scarf so tight that her exhale sputtered into a startled gag. Tugging the inadvertent noose free, she turned.
Stomping her booted feet to rid them of slush, Makoto took the small staircase to the door in two easy lopes. She unzipped her jacket partway on the first stride and had it dangling from her wrist by the second. She landed on the doormat, twirled the jacket over an arm: her toes touched Ami's. She said, "Geez, it's freezing out here! I'm really sorry. Have you been waiting long?"
There was snow in her hair, small flecks of it. Ami reached up to brush it away before it could melt. Her lips parted. Her mouth worked, crafting syllables of soundless greeting. She shook her head.
Makoto beamed. "Hey," she murmured, "that's good. Come on inside, Ami-chan. I'll make hot chocolate." She stuck out a hand. It was ungloved, Ami saw, its fingers all chapped crimson calluses. Makoto used it to flick open the top button of Ami's coat. Her keys jingled. "Sound like a plan?" she asked.
Ami's voice resurfaced. "Yes, that—" she started, a mumble into the scarf. Makoto's persistent fingers tugged it down too. The taller woman grinned. Flushing despite herself, Ami continued, "That would be nice." She licked her lips. She managed before her courage could crimp and die, "Mako-chan, I came to talk to you about something. It's really important."
Makoto dropped her keys. She cursed. She bent and groped for them along the building's frozen molding. "I thought it might be," she grunted. In an unconscious echo of her princess, she observed, "You usually call."
She rose again, keys clutched. Her knees popped and she cleared her throat, and she finally—after taking a deep breath of her own—sought Ami's eyes. She caught them, held them. Ami let her.
"You came here once earlier too," said the lightning soldier.
The sudden shade of red on Ami's cheeks rivaled polished ruby. "How did you know?" she demanded, horrified and shamed at once. She tacked on, "I didn't knock."
"You left footprints on the mat," her friend said. Her voice dropped, hoarse with—with nerves? The start of a cold? Ami couldn't be sure. "Little ones," Makoto finished.
"How did you know they were mine?" Ami ventured.
"The tread on your boots has a particular patter—uhm." The other girl grasped for the words she wanted. She missed them. "Listen," she urged Ami, "I think—I think I know what this is about." She motioned to their surroundings, the gesture halfway helpless, and summated, "Let's… I mean, if you want. If it's okay. Let's go inside and talk about it. It really is cold. That hot chocolate will taste good."
Colder dread trickled in Ami's chest, pooled in her belly. She forced herself to nod. "That's fine," she lied.
Makoto offered her a small smile. "Fine," she agreed. The sentiment of the word never quite made it to her eyes. She fit her key in the lock, turned it, and nevertheless nudged open the door. She stepped aside. "After you, Ami-chan."
Ami took up the invitation and slipped into the hallway. Makoto followed. They brushed hips as they took off their shoes, and Ami allowed herself a quick glance at Makoto's footwear. The taller girl's boots loomed next to her own—shaded them, dwarfed them.
Hands brushed her shoulders and Ami jerked from them instinctively. She hunched. "Hey, sorry," Makoto apologized, "I was—your jacket, I was just going to—"
"No, it's my fault! I'm not—I'm not used to—"
"Hot chocolate!" Makoto volunteered, tone trebled into an awkward falsetto. "Nearly forgot!" The woman jerked off her own coat and threw it haphazardly over the doorknob. She instructed her guest to, "Make yourself comfortable, Ami-chan—anywhere. I'll, uhm. I'll be back in just a sec."
She disappeared off the hall into the apartment's small kitchen. From within came the sound of pots crashing together: the porcelain patter of plates, the tinkle of silverware too. Ami winced and called, "Is everything all right, Mako-chan?"
"Who put this dish drainer here?" she heard the other soldier mutter angrily. And then, "Yeah, everything's fine! Marshmallows?"
Ami blinked. "Sorry?"
"Do you want marshmallows with your hot chocolate, Ami-chan?"
Ami smiled. Even with her heart crowding up in her throat and her friendship on potential tenterhooks, she couldn't help it, and she moved on quiet feet to the edge of the kitchen. She looked in on Makoto, the other girl's efforts a flurry of elbows and anxiety. Mugs clinked. A warming burner ticked quietly.
"Please," Ami affirmed. She stepped into the kitchen. Her socks slid a little on the tile. In the next second she slipped under the taller soldier's elbow, pulled open a drawer. She rifled shamelessly through it, found a spoon, and delivered it into Makoto's startled clasp. "To stir," she said.
Makoto grinned—honestly this time. "Thanks." She spun the spoon expertly, tapped Ami's nose with it. "You sure you don't wanna go relax? Making hot chocolate's not necessarily a two-person task."
"Can it be this time?" Ami requested. She dropped her hand back into the drawer and found another spoon. She brandished it like a small sword. She professed, "I think I read somewhere that hot chocolate is enhanced if it has more than one apparatus to add to its centrifugal momentum."
"It tastes better," Ami translated, "if two people stir."
"You know," Makoto laughed, "I've never heard that before myself, but since it's coming from such a respected authority, you're officially my stirring second. I'll also put you in charge of the milk." She made a serious face. "Mind getting that from the fridge for me?"
Ami saluted her friend with the spoon. She retrieved the milk—she watched Makoto carefully chop up the chocolate that was the soul of their eventual beverage. Together they added both to a pot on the still-warming burner, and as they dipped their spoons into the mixture to blend it, Ami chanced a glance at Makoto and said, "So, Mako-chan…"
The other girl returned her glance—looked away again. "Ami-chan," she allowed. Her spoon scraped the side of the pot.
The water soldier attempted, "You said you thought you knew what this was about."
"Mmhm." Makoto's sienna brows fell together in a consternated knit. "Well," she began, "there's only so much it could be, I guess. You—you came to visit twice today. The first time you didn't even say anything, so it must be something that's really… really hard to talk about at all, right?"
Deductive reasoning—one of Ami's favorite things prior to this conversation. "Right," she admitted.
Their spoons clicked, jousting lances in the half-melted mixture. Makoto chuckled and cautioned her friend, "Don't let it stick to the sides—yeah. Scoop it away gently. Like that!" She demonstrated. "Good." Her mouth twitched. She went on, "You went somewhere to think about it a while. And if you had to think about it after coming here, where you weren't able to say anything the first time, it must be that you want to tell me something that could hurt our friendship. And you were trying to think of the best way to—to phrase things."
Her spoon stilled. Her shoulders sagged. She persisted, forest-green gaze fixed upon the contents of the pot on the stove, "Right?"
"I know," Makoto interrupted. She tried on a smile. Brittle, it gave way at the corners. She reached up with her free hand to rub it away. Her fingers were trembling. "I know," she repeated.
"You do?" What felt like an invisible fist compressed Ami's stomach, merciless knuckles grinding into her guts. Luna was right: love wasn't painless. Love was all the hurt in the world congealed into a small, throbbing knot at her center, and that knot was her heart, and it was breaking into shivery little bits and—
"I'm sorry," Makoto whispered. Instinct urged her spoon into motion again. Mechanically, Ami mimicked her. "I—I tried. But I guess I just can't, and—I am so sorry, Ami-chan." Her chest hitched. So did her arm. She sent a line of half-melted chocolate streaking over the stovetop.
"No, it's fine," Ami protested, even though it wasn't fine, not at all, and maybe it never would be again, would it? "Mako-chan, please—"
Ami reached: for a napkin somewhat, but mostly for her friend. She dropped her spoon. It left its own edible artwork on the stovetop too.
Makoto shook her head. Her ponytail bobbed as Ami's hands, both of them, curled over her arm. "I know," she said a third time. "You don't want me to come see you anymore. I know, I know."
Ami stared, stunned. Makoto jiggled the pot a little—the chocolate in it bubbled, hissed. The knuckles of the fingers curled about the pot's handle were snowdrift white.
Makoto assured the blue-headed girl miserably, "I tried to do it, I don't know, carefully—coming to see you, I mean. I'm just—I guess I'm just not that careful when it matters, or I don't know how to be and I botched it and I'm—I'm sorry, I'm not even sure what I was trying to do, but I think just wanted to show you that I—you—I—"
She moved with a sudden dancer's grace: flicked off the burner, brought forward two mugs previously retrieved from the cabinets. She poured the results of their shared stirrings into each—threw the emptied pot into the sink.
She concluded, moisture beading in her lashes, "Damn. It's done. But you know something, Ami-chan? I think I'm all out of marshmallows."
Ami considered: the day's advice. The woman in front of her. The apparent lack of marshmallows.
Reaching up, she pulled off her glasses, folded them, and settled them on the countertop. She requested, "Mako-chan, look at me."
Makoto did. Ami looked back: squinted. She was fairly farsighted—the olive oval of the other soldier's face was all fuzz. Still, she was certain she saw in it what had to be a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person. Noting something similar on Ami's end, Makoto sucked in a sharp breath: let it out again, the sound entirely awe.
They glanced away from each another as one, both flushed—both almost smiling, shy and startled.
"Oh," the taller of the pair realized.
"Yes," Ami agreed. She groped for her glasses again, cheeks burning. She whispered as she nudged them home, "That's what I wanted to talk to you about." She added, "Please don't stop coming to see me, Mako-chan. In fact, I was wondering if I could… come to see you too, maybe. S-sometimes."
The burner ticked in the trickling quiet between them. Ami stared at her feet, unable to lift her eyes—too afraid, too anxious, too hopeful.
A mug full of their fresh hot chocolate drifted into her vision. She cupped her hands around it: looked up too, because Makoto's fingers were under her chin, pushing insistently. The other soldier grinned at her and promised, "Marshmallows."
"Aa?" Ami asked.
"Marshmallows," Makoto repeated. "The next time you visit, I'll make sure I have marshmallows." She leaned against the countertop, her hip tucked to Ami's, and took up her own mug. She blew foam from the surface: sipped. Sampled. Swallowed. Her arm crept secretively about the smaller soldier, folded her gently near.
"Hm," she decided. She smiled. "You were right, Ami-chan. It does taste better if two people stir."
Purple shadows stretched long fingers over the stone steps leading up to Hikawa Shrine. A huffing, determined blonde in flats took them two at a time. Nearby the staircase's summit, a patch of new snow caught her foot and sent her sprawling. The crows in the surrounding cypress and pine chuckled their raspy amusement at her expense.
Moments later, Minako burst into the sacred fire chamber, one cheek bloodied, and howled, "REI-CHAN!" Her chest heaved. Her eyes glimmered eagerly.
The shrine's miko stuck her head from an adjacent broom closet. "Minako-chan?" she asked, surprised. "I thought you weren't coming until tomorrow. I don't have your money yet—"
"I," announced Minako impatiently, "have experienced an epiphany. It couldn't wait." She kicked off her flats. Remnant slush spattered over the freshly-swept floor.
Rei frowned. "An epiphany? What kind of epiphany? And what happened to your face?"
"Your steps," Minako sighed. "They happened to my face. My beautiful, wonderful f—"
"Spare me." Rei pulled the door of the broom closet closed and stepped around the sacred fire. "I've salted the staircase twice today. It's no one's fault but your own if you slipped. You weren't looking, were you?"
Minako evaded loftily, "I never miss anything."
Rolling her eyes, the miko took her friend's ear, pinched it scoldingly, and led her from the prayer chamber toward her bedroom. "That's Minako-speak for no, absolutely not, you weren't looking," she muttered in their joined stalk down the covered wraparound porch. Minako yelped in protest at both the ear-pinch and the temperature of the floorboards. Rei, who had walked those floorboards since childhood in all forms of weather, took no notice of the cold.
She jerked Minako into her room, closed the door, and continued, "The steps are dangerous if you aren't paying attention. How many times am I going to have to tell you that? Do you really think I want to go out to sweep them in the morning and find you with your neck twisted at the bottom?" She released Minako—threw up her hands in exasperation. She ordered, "Sit."
The backs of Minako's knees brushed Rei's mattress. Obedient, she sat. She observed with a smirk, "So good to know you care, Rei-chan."
"You moron," muttered the priestess affectionately. She disappeared into the adjoining bathroom: emerged again moments later with a bottle of peroxide, a cotton ball, and a bandage. She soaked the second in the contents of the first and leaned in to dab at Minako's torn cheek. The blonde hissed, closed an eye—but stayed still.
"So," Rei prodded as she worked, "what sort of epiphany is worth marking up your apparently beautiful, wonderful face?"
"You were listening!" Minako fawned.
"You're too loud to block out," Rei denied.
Providing Rei a generous view of her tongue, Minako raspberried the miko. She related next, "I came to the realization that we're the only ones left."
Her friend blinked. "Hm? What do you mean?"
"I mean we're the only ones," Minako lamented, "who aren't partnered. Out of everyone. In the group. Just us." She scowled, thunderclouds building in the blue gale of her gaze. "Usagi's got Mamoru. Haruka's got Michiru. Hotaru's still a kid so she doesn't count yet. Ami-chan finally admitted that she likes Mako-chan, and Mako-chan is definitely not going to turn her down, so that leaves…"
"…Setsuna?" Rei queried pointedly.
The blonde blanched. "I'm not counting her either."
"Kind of cruel, don't you think?"
"No. I'm not saying she doesn't deserve someone. Ssst!" Minako swatted the cottonball away. "That hurts, you jerk!"
"It's better than a broken back." Rei nevertheless tossed the soaked swab into the trashcan beneath her desk. "What are you saying, then?"
"There are just—factors that keep her from being included in this sort of thing," Minako argued. "Like, you know, Hotaru's a kid—Setsuna's the Guardian of Time. Those factors."
"That's not fair," Rei observed. She admitted, "But I see your point."
"Because it's an excellent point," exulted the blonde. "Are you done?"
"Not quite." Peeling the protective flap from the bandage's adhesive, Rei murmured, "Here. Turn your head a little. Uh-huh—so." She smoothed the white square over Minako's cheek. "We're the two remaining bachelorettes. How is that an epiphany?"
"That wasn't the epiphany. Are you done now?"
"Yes, you impatient brat." Rei tossed the remnants of the bandage's packaging the way of the cottonball. "What was your epiphany, then?"
Minako looped her arms about Rei's neck. The miko stiffened. Her friend purred, "My epiphany was that," and she fluttered her eyelashes too, for good measure, "we can fix being the two remaining bachelorettes."
"I'm not going speed-dating with you again," Rei said flatly. "I had tea spilled in my lap twice. I really liked that skirt, you know. That stain is never coming ou—"
"No, no—see, that's what's beautiful about this," Minako disagreed. "I'm not suggesting we go on dates with random strangers. I'm suggesting we go on dates with each other."
Rei opened her mouth: realized Minako's statement. Gaped. A sound like a rusty hinge emerged from somewhere deep in her chest.
"Think about it," Minako encouraged the miko. "We have a ton of things in common—I mean, we both love shoes and we eat at the same places, and I know you'd never flake out on me and you've got to admit we'd look good together, and—"
"We," Rei stressed, "are both," and she leaned back in the hook of her friend's arms, eyes enormous, "women."
"It's in vogue!"
"It's—it's—what? I—no. No, Minako-chan." Rei curled her fingers about Minako's arms, pried them away.
Minako pouted. "What's the problem? Do you not think I'm pretty?"
"You're very pretty, but—"
"But nothing. I'm beautiful." Minako mimed flipping her hair over her shoulder—her face, however, held significant sincerity. She continued, "You are too. And your disdain for men could drown a whale, Rei-chan, for God's sake. Your disdain for me, on the other hand, is minor at best and only comes in spurts."
Incredulous and red-cheeked, the soldier of fire protested, "You are unbelievable."
"I'm sorry. Was that a reason this wouldn't work?"
"It—it was the truth. And… and you couldn't pay me enough to even try—"
"Five thousand yen," Minako offered.
"You owe me," the blonde reminded the priestess, "five thousand yen. I told you Ami would cave before Mako-chan. But, that aside"—and Minako imperiously studied her nails—"if you want to, say, keep the five thousand yen, come with me to dinner and a movie this Thursday. I'll call it even."
Rei surveyed the other soldier, eyes narrowed. "You're joking," she tried. She paused. She understood, "…you're not, are you?"
"Not even slightly," Minako affirmed.
They stared at each other, startled violet eyes to smug sapphire. Minako smirked. Rei flushed—and looked away first.
"Fine," said the miko. "On one condition."
"You," Rei insisted, "are buying."
Minako rose, bumped foreheads with her friend, and spun away on a satisfied heel. She agreed, "I'll pick you up at seven, then. Will you wear that black dress you bought last month? If it's not snowing?"
"Why?" asked Rei suspiciously.
"I like it," Minako professed. She blew Rei a kiss and slid the door open. "Think about it," she requested. Stepping outside, she shivered, straightened her shoulders, and set off. She had the courtesy to pull the screen shut behind her.
Rei gazed hard at the door for several minutes. Eventually she rose and rifled through the pens on her desk—applied one to her calendar next. She marked the coming Thursday.
Studying the small red circle, Rei capped the pen and smiled.