"So the cat belonged to the late Kojima-san?" Himemiya Hayate asked.
"That's what we think. Her tag had his name and the address of the groundskeeper's cottage," her daughter answered.
"The story you told me mentioned that he had a cat," Himeko added.
"I still can't believe that you girls went prowling through the school late at night like that," Himeko's mother chimed in. "It's completely inappropriate. Possibly even criminal, if the administration wanted to press charges."
"Which they won't," Hayate reminded her. "Your word 'inappropriate' sums it up quite nicely. I'm guessing Alice-chan had a hand in the planning, Chikane?"
Chikane didn't answer; she'd avoided responding to all the variations of "Whose crazy idea was this anyway?" that had been tossed in her direction since the necessity of bringing the cat and kittens to the vet's had made it impossible to simply sneak out and back home without explanations.
"That's a yes, by the way," Hayate told Eiko. "Though I have to say, it's much easier with Himeko-chan, here. Such an open and honest person is easy to read."
"You're kind to credit it as a virtue, but it would be better to not get into trouble in the first place instead of being too honest to hold back confessing afterwards." Eiko did not see Himeko's involvement quite in the same light as her fellow mother did. She gave Hayate a look of appeal. "Are you certain that there won't be any official censure?"
"Quite certain. The girls, or at least Saya-chan, Himeko-chan, and the Kisaragi girl, were doing something related to a legitimate club project; they didn't cause any damage or disturbance; and, well, the Himemiya, Ohgami, and Nanase children were involved—the three most influential families in Mahoroba and the three largest contributors to Ototachibana Academy's school fund. Chikane does have good sense as to where the official lines are drawn. Of course," she added, "very few mothers have donors to stay on the good side of, and I don't find myself particularly awed by the Himemiya family's authority just now, do you?"
Eiko returned her smile.
"I must say that right now I'm not feeling at all cowed by them."
"It's probably the hat." Hayate waved her glass of iced tea in the general direction of her husband. While the women were clustered under a large patio umbrella at the picnic table where they'd eventually eat, the men were manning a large Western-style barbecue grill in the custom of husbands worldwide. Himemiya Seiji was completely into the process, wearing not only an apron but a puffy chef's hat. The Kurusugawas had not, it was true, been quite sure of how to greet this apparition, but now he and Kurusugawa Hajime were gleefully debating the best way to prepare a steak.
"I must admit, it wasn't quite what I expected from your invitation. It was very nice of you to call yesterday."
"Well, if you'd arrived in a cocktail dress expecting some kind of semi-formal affair, I think Shiro-kun would have been the only one in both families not blushing like Himeko-chan. But with luck, in a few months we'll all have a better idea of what each other thinks and expects."
Chikane didn't miss Eiko's momentary startlement. Hayate's casual assumption that the girls would still be dating in "a few months" (that being the only reason why the families would be likely to have any kind of ongoing relationship) was not something Mrs. Kurusugawa could quite fit into her world-view. Hayate's smile increased by a fraction when she saw her daughter's reaction; Chikane was definitely a bit impatient after having waited her entire life, apparently for Himeko to show up.
But then again, Hayate thought patience wasn't one of the usual qualities of any teenager in love. Glancing over at her husband—whom she thought looked so cute in his chef's get-up, the reason she'd bought it for him in the first place—she reflected that when it came to love, patience was actually one of the most useful tools for insuring happiness.
"And in the spirit of cooperation between families," she said to Eiko, "shall we settle on one week for the girls, Kurusugawa-san?"
"Well, if you're certain about there being no official trouble, then I think that would be about right. I think Chikane-chan bears more responsibility since she took many of the steps needed to get into the school at all—but on the other hand, she also knew what the likely consequences would be, which Himeko did not."
"I trusted Chikane-chan," Himeko said at once, which was very sweet but Hayate could have told her it wouldn't help her case.
"That's all well and good, Himeko, but as we discussed last night there is a time and place for it." Hayate could tell Eiko was aching to openly say something like "You can't just go do something that could get you arrested on the strength of the word of a girl you've known for less than a month!" but she couldn't due to the Himemiyas' presence. Hayate certainly would have in her place!
Of course, that wasn't taking into account the unusual bond between the two girls. Whether past-life memories or whatever else was the cause, it was quite evident to Hayate that more lay between them than just teenaged passion, or indeed more than true love. It was the way they relied on one another, turned to each other—they were holding hands under the table just then, in fact—and had an easy, absolute trust in one another that went beyond faith to the point that it seemed proven fact.
In truth, the people the girls most reminded Hayate of were her own parents and Seiji's, in the way that long decades of happy marriage had tied each of those couples together. Chikane and Himeko still had the interests, the energy, and yes, the immaturity of their age, but as for how they were with each other...
She was surprised that Eiko didn't see it. Or perhaps she did, and was just wrestling with trying to find a way to fit it into her own view of the world.
"Then," Hayate said out loud, "starting tomorrow, the two of you are grounded for one week. We'll expect you to come home immediately following club activities—no going out with friends, no stopping off for ice cream on the way home, no dates—and no spending three hours on the phone or the Internet together, either." She looked over at Eiko. "Does that sound about right?"
"Very much so, Himemiya-san."
Himeko raised her hand hesitantly.
"What about Chikane-chan helping me study?" she asked. "That's for school, after all."
"I think we can allow that...provided that the studying goes on at the living room table so we can be sure you genuinely are studying."
"Or if Himeko-chan comes here, they can use the library...properly chaperoned, of course," Hayate chimed in. Though she had a feeling the simple fact of being able to be together would mean more to them both than any missed chances for kissing and snuggling.
The only difference in the girls' "Yes, Mom" replies was Himeko's -san versus Chikane's -sama.
"Good. And now that that's out of the way and the grounding doesn't start until tomorrow, let's get back to the mystery! We got a bit sidetracked when you were telling us about the cat. Chikane?"
"We're quite certain it was Kojima-san's pet, as I said. After that, things get speculative, but...since he apparently didn't have any family or close friends, after his suicide we believe no one properly concerned themselves with his cat. I suspect that she was allowed to run free somewhat, so she might not have been underfoot when the administration had his things packed up. If anyone took note of dishes, litterbox, cat food, or the like, they probably assumed that the cat had run away."
"I see. And it stayed around the school?"
"Actually, I suspect that it remained right at the groundskeeper's cottage as a source of shelter, and while doing so was the source of the noises and the apparent poltergeist effects. Kisaragi-san is going to interview Shinonome-san on the point on Monday, but she thinks that it was his remodeling that blocked up any crevices or holes or stuck windows by which she might have been getting in or out of the cottage. That ended the haunting, especially since he wasn't superstitious so if he heard an animal in his attic, his first thought would be of an animal, not a ghost."
"So the cat moved to the school building to better find food and shelter?" she asked.
"And started a new story, becoming the 'Hungry Goblin'!" Himeko finished up. "Saya-san thought it was neat how that story got going in just three years, but it seemed like it had been around forever."
"It's the high turnover of students in school. After all, it's the students who pass on these urban legends, and even if a third-year is telling the story, they only do have two previous years of personal knowledge. There's some crossover with the elementary and junior high divisions, of course, but not as much as you might think," Chikane explained. "Of course, the cat's actions might also have been conflated with an older story, as well."
"So what's going to happen to her and to the kittens now?" Eiko asked.
"We took them to the veterinarian's in town."
"That could have been dangerous, holding a strange animal."
"We got a box, then Arrow and I put on coats and heavy gloves from the janitor's closet so we wouldn't get scratched," Chikane explained. "And someone needed to do something."
"Anyway, we took her to a vet Arisu-chan knew so they could all be checked out," Himeko chimed in. "And Saya-san and Kisaragi-san will put something about the cats in the paper on behalf of the local animal shelter. Arisu-chan thinks that the story will help get attention for Goblin and her kittens."
"Goblin?" Hayate asked.
"Her name wasn't on the tag," Chikane explained. "The new one was a bit obvious, but..." She shrugged. "Maybe she'll bring her new owner good fortune on tests?"
"Do you think I should adopt her?" Himeko suggested playfully. "I could use all the luck I can get. Though Kuro might not like it if we got a cat."
"Get a cat? Ew!"
The speaker was Himeko's ten-year-old brother Shiro, who'd come running up to where they were sitting. His puppy, Kuro, trailed along behind him, panting happily; the grounds of the Himemiya manor house were basically a park and just perfect for a boy and his dog to run.
"We're not getting a cat. Your sister was just talking about a cat that she and her friends found last night."
"Oh, okay. So when do we eat? I could smell the meat grilling, so we came back."
As if he could hear the boy's question, Himemiya Seiji turned and waved to the families. "Dinner's ready! Come and get it!"
Chikane hopped up, then reached for Himeko's hand.
"Come on; you need to try one of Otousama's grilled rice balls."
"Can you make rice balls on a Western-style barbecue?"
"No," Hayate said with a grin, "but it doesn't stop Seiji from trying."
~X X X~
At least so far as the "dinner" portion of the get-together went, things had turned out to be a complete success, Chikane decided. Everyone was replete (or in non-Miya-sama phrasing, stuffed to the gills) with their choice of steak, shrimp skewers, potatoes, vegetables, and yes, the infamous rice balls, which Himeko's father had joined Chikane in enjoying, all washed down with iced tea, lemonade, or beer as the drinker preferred.
The ulterior motives were going pretty well, too.
"Everyone seems to be really getting along," Himeko said happily as she watched the two fathers work off some of the calories by playing catch with Shiro. The mothers were still at the table talking, while the girls had ensconced themselves under a shady tree on a slight rise so that they had a good view of the first hints of a golden sunset in the western sky. "Your mother had a good idea."
"I'm very glad about that. It's a lot easier to trust the relationship when you come to know the other family as people. And it helps to confirm to the subconscious that there's nothing strange about our romance just because we have a partner of the same sex."
"I think our romance actually is kind of strange, though," Himeko said.
"Oh?" Chikane asked. She realized that in the previous life, that kind of statement from Himeko probably would have made her flinch, afraid that it presaged some kind of rejection. It felt surprisingly good to be able to just sit back and be confident that Himeko didn't mean that being gay wasn't "normal."
"Well, we met centuries ago, and we've had lots of lifetimes together and meetings and partings. And I don't think a lot of people have fought demon-gods together, or had most of our important love confessions while one of us was dying and still got to do something about it afterwards." She touched her fingertip to her lower lip. "And there was the twins thing, too. That wasn't really normal."
Chikane chuckled at that,
"You have a point, I must say."
She shifted herself on the grass, snuggling closer to Himeko so that their hips and shoulders were firmly pressed together. After all, they'd be missing out on some of that snuggle time next week. She wondered what the other parents might do; Arrow probably wouldn't get punished at all, Alice would likely get the same treatment as Chikane and Himeko, Otoha she didn't know at all, and Saya...well, there was a reason they'd sent Saya home before delivering Goblin and the kittens to the vet's. If the school administration tried to make a stink Saya would certainly stand up beside them at once, but with only parents involved...
"Speaking of our relationship, did you know that Okaasama was asking about our wedding plans yesterday?"
"Uh-huh. She was wondering if we plan to get married right after high school or wait until we're done with college, so she can start laying the legal groundwork."
"Seriously? She's on our side that much?"
"She believes me. After all, I've been letting my parents know about you since I was four. Plus, she likes you."
"I like her, too. Though she's so cool and collected all the time, I'm always afraid that I'm going to fall over on my face because I get so flustered. It's like when I first found out how important you were when we first met, except of course that wasn't when we'd actually first met so it was easy to relax around you because I could trust right away that you wouldn't be upset if I was clumsy or an airhead."
"Okaasama won't mind that either, you know. Actually, she'd never have married Otousama if he didn't have a goofy sense of humor."
Himeko looked at her in amazement.
"Your father? But he always seems so straight-laced and stern!"
Chikane arched an eyebrow at her.
"The same man who was wearing a chef's hat?"
"Well, okay, but—"
"He takes serious business seriously, and my love life is definitely serious business from a father's perspective. Okaasama tends to be more able to find the absurd even when things are most intense. The more Otousama gets to know and accept you, the more he'll relax and let you see that side of himself." She then changed the subject back. "So, do you see me in a bridal gown or a tuxedo?"
"I...I think you'd look great in both. You'd be gorgeous in a dress with oceans of white lace, but you'd look really nice in a tux, too, and kind of...I don't know, edgy? Because it'd be really obvious you're a girl. Which is good, because I like you as a girl. Don't you have a preference?"
Chikane shook her head.
"I only have one wedding-day dream."
"Oh? I've had all kinds. I'm not even sure if I'd rather have a Western or Japanese ceremony. I mean, as a miko, I ought to have a traditional wedding, shouldn't I? But I just know I'd mess something up or drop something and probably make the gods mad at me, and besides, wedding gowns are so pretty and..." She broke off, no doubt aware that she'd been reduced to babble. "What was your dream, Chikane-chan?"
Chikane reached out and took Himeko's left hand in hers, cradling it gently. She then ran the tip of her right forefinger down the length of Himeko's ring finger from nail to base.
"I dream of sliding a wedding ring onto this hand," she said softly. Himeko blushed, glancing down shyly.
"Chikane-chan..." she murmured, then suddenly lifted her face and leaned in, her lips easily finding Chikane's. Her kiss was soft and gentle and it left a lingering warmth behind when they broke it off.
"That was so sweet, Chikane-chan."
"It's just how I feel. I love you so much, Himeko; getting married to you isn't really about the day, or how we arrange it under the law, it's about being able to stand up in front of the world and pledge to be yours alone, for all of time."
"I love you that way too, Chikane-chan." She smiled sheepishly. "I wish I could be so poetic about it." She reached up with her free hand and gently cupped Chikane's cheek. "You always know just what to say to make me glow inside."
"It's all because of you, you know. I just bask in your warmth and it makes me come alive. I can't help but speak in poetry around you." She returned the kiss, claiming Himeko's lips for her own again. Her lover's kisses were like water in the desert; no matter how many Chikane got, her desire for them was never sated. This time they only broke away when the kisses grew too urgent and passionate, Chikane's mouth flowering open beneath Himeko's. They pulled back, staring at one another, the naked desire in Himeko's gaze matching what Chikane was feeling.
Then they broke into laughter, bending forward so that their foreheads touched.
"Now that would be ferociously inappropriate!" Chikane admitted. "Though the idea of lying with you in the grass, feeling the warm sun and the cool breeze on our skin as we—"
"Stop that!" A blushing Himeko swatted her playfully on the shoulder, and they dissolved into giggles again, before snuggling back together, Himeko nestling her head in between Chikane's neck and shoulder so that her hair seemed to stroke against Chikane's cheek.
"Chikane-chan," Himeko said quietly, "I'm sorry that you got grounded for helping me."
"It was Alice's idea."
"I know, but...you made it possible, and I know you only did it for my sake. You certainly didn't do it for Kisaragi-san's."
"Well, when you consider the things I've done for your sake in the past, which I believe you were just teasing me about on this past Tuesday, I don't think that slightly misusing my student council position for the sake of helping you with a club project will cause me a crisis of conscience."
"I'm going to miss you this week, though."
"We do sit together at school," Himeko pointed out. "And we weren't forbidden to talk together or anything like that."
"True. I'm just selfish. I've spent quite enough time in my life not being with you. It's time to try it the other way now." She ran a forefinger along the line of Himeko's cheek. "I guess you're just better at waiting patiently than I am."
"I do have more experience," Himeko agreed. The allusion to the times she'd spent sealed in the Lunar Shrine between resurrections made Chikane's heart clench sharply, only to relax when she looked down and saw that the strawberry blonde's face held a sweetly contented smile, not at all angsty or troubled by the past.
It never seems to bother her, Chikane marveled. Whenever she worries about the past, it's always on my behalf, never her own.
"It'd probably be against the spirit of the thing to skip class and sneak off together," she mused, "but I have a feeling we should tell Alice, Arrow, and Saya to eat lunch without us. It'll be just like old times, the two of us slipping off to the rose garden to be alone together."
"Only with more kissing," Himeko said brightly.
"And hopefully no interruptions by Sister Miyako!"
Himeko giggled cheerfully, then gave Chikane a quick peck on the cheek.
She took Chikane's hand, then hopped to her feet, pulling her girlfriend up after her.
"Come on, let's go!"
Himeko waved her hand at their families. Chikane's father dropped the ball and Kuro, who'd been chasing around after the throws, seized his chance and ran off with it. Shiro took off in hot pursuit, which of course just convinced the puppy that this was the start of a game of "chase."
Hand in hand, the two girls ran laughing down the grassy slope to rejoin the party.