Chapter Six: Benzaiten's Alchemy
by Ivy Rangee

Detective Soichiro Arima slipped silently from bed. He'd watched his wife sleep, having kept his promise to not abandon her on this momentous night – the commencement of his second chance. But now dawn seized the sky, and he could no longer resist his restlessness. Donning his robe, he made for the bathing room where he showered and then soaked in the tub, hoping it would relax him so he might sleep. Exhaustion should have claimed him after the romantic encounter he'd just shared with his very inventive wife – first as a policeman and then as a tengu. Oddly, the latter had not been a stretch.

He laughed at himself. The ease with which he played a tengu shouldn't surprise him; a darkness lived within him. Perhaps it had taken possession of him when, as a small boy, he lay dying, but he'd first become aware of it as a discrete entity in high school. He looked forward to repeating the demon fantasy with Yukino; something about it felt liberating. Poor Yukino, she was perfect, though it was not reciprocal; she could have done so much better than him. Whereas he rose into the light on her warmth and love, she was drawn into the depths of darkness, dragged down by his neediness and fear. She would be fine without him; he'd be in prison without her. Only tonight, the abyss had opened before him when he'd jumped to the conclusion that she suffered from a terminal illness or, worse, found another man. He growled at this evil thought. How could another man be worse than death? At least Yukino would be alive, but he knew the answer, as a double murder followed by his own suicide flashed before his mind's eye.

Divorce was not uncommon among his fellow officers, but none of them had committed murder. Why did he have to possess Yukino? And, damn it, why did she not feel the same? What gave rise to her absolute confidence in herself? Through some mysterious means she had attained wholeness. She loved him; she did not need him. But for Soichiro, without Yukino, there was only the abyss. Just the thought of being without her panicked him. Even when he was with her, he lived in fear of losing her. Was this why she found sleep, while he found only an all-consuming restlessness? No matter how much she gave, he always sought more. Obviously, Yukino maintained possession of the missing ingredient he lacked.

Rising from the tub, he finished his morning ablutions and dressed. Quietly making his way to their living quarters, he opened the drapes to survey the snow-covered city. On the roadway below, tire-tracked snow had been subdued into lumps of pale translucent mush, turning the flat gray tar to patent leather black. Restless, he made a pot of green tea, poured a cup and pulled a chair to the living room's large picture window where he sat down to watch the sunrise create rainbows through the ice prisms that hung from the lintel above. Staring into the infinite sky emptied his agitated mind and within minutes he fell into dream sleep.

Alone, Soichiro found himself at the edge of a forest in winter. Under the blinding rays of a setting sun the snow held an orange cast. But soon orange turned gray-blue as twilight rose. In the growing darkness, a ragged boy child beckoned, and he obeyed, following it into the forest. Without question, he trudged deeper into the wooded wilderness, trying to catch the little one, but it always thwarted him, flitting ever out of reach. After a while the lad disappeared completely, but Soichiro kept walking until he arrived at a frozen river.

From the other side came a voice. "You may cross; it is safe."

On the far bank, a shrouded woman stood, her long flowing hair waving in the light breeze. For reasons he did not question, he found he desperately desired her approval, and so like a moth to flame he flew to her. But as he reached the halfway point, she laughed, touching the frozen river with a long, bending willow wand. Before his eyes minute cracks spread over the glassy surface which creaked and groaned like an entity in tortured agony as it broke into pieces. In horror, Soichiro watched her wave the wand over her head, stirring the air, whipping it into a frenzy which in turn roiled the water, sending huge waves in his direction. Wavering, the ice flow he stood upon capsized, and the dark cold river swallowed him.

Lost beneath the water, Soichiro drowned; however, though blind in the darkness, calm resignation took hold. The water should have been cold, but, instead, it warmed him like a blanket while he sank deeper and deeper in dangerous waters. He wondered at the depths of the waterway and whether he should try to swim, but he had no will to fight so he drifted. After an unknown time, he saw a speck of light in the darkness – a globe of yellow light surrounded by ring of brilliant blue. It seemed to dance in the water, and he felt sorry for it; it looked so lonely. At this thought the globe stopped its cavorting, rotating as if in focused observation. Then, moving fast, it swam toward him, growing in size until he saw it was not a globe at all, but a sea nymph with flowing black hair and large yellow cat-like eyes.

The strange but lovely nymph examined him closely, her innocent eyes wide with curiosity. When she completed her investigation, she gazed at his face and slowly blinked. Utterly charmed, he smiled; she smiled back, showing sharp pearly white teeth as she shook her head. Taking his hand, she pulled him through the water on what seemed to be tour as they swam among swarms of white diaphanous jellyfish, forests of swaying kelp, and a school of darting silver sardines after which they surfaced. Surrounded by a pod of dolphin, she pulled him toward land as they entered a narrow bay. There the nymph stopped as the dolphins swirled about her; together she and the mammals of the sea sang to the lustrous, midnight sky that shown with brilliant, twinkling stars.

Thrilled by the beauty of the scene he witnessed, Soichiro felt like an explorer discovering a new and wondrous world. Never had he seen such a clear star studded sky; the sheen upon the nymph and the dolphins' skin gleamed under this remarkable light, and, as they rode the currents of the dark blue-green sea, the gleaming waves crested white with a filmy foam that shown like fine lace. The song, though chanted in an unknown language, spoke to him of an abiding bounty bound round with love and compassion. Something uniquely his – yet ungraspable. Moved deeply, he wept at the scene he beheld.

The nymph swam to him and gently touched his cheek. "It is not time."

"Please don't leave me."

"I shall wait an eternity if required." With that she waved, gliding backward as she sunk beneath the surface. Bereft, Soichiro stood alone among the dolphins who nudged him into shore where the child he'd followed earlier awaited him.

With a sense of ominous foreboding, Soichiro walked ashore; he'd encountered this battered toddler many times and the child's appearance always spelled ordeal, for the little boy demanded the best from Soichiro. Taking hold of Soichiro's somehow dry pant leg, the little one led him across the sand to a stone stairway that climbed through caves of rocky arches, rising farther and farther above sea level. As the strange pair ascended out of the cave, dark emptiness encapsulated them. The once rough hewn stairs became lustrous, lacquered black slippery tile. Soichiro knew this dark place and halted, but the toddler forced him to continue as the dark stairway both widened and elongated into infinity before them. Fearing where the stairway ended, Soichiro stared at its shiny steps; this way led to darkness and the absence of Yukino. Yet he climbed; the child next to him insisting upon it.

After a while the stairs seemed to move beneath, he stepped simply to keep his place, the black stairway stretching unending before him and behind him. Finally, after hours, the elegantly tiled stairway gave way to a set of chipped concrete steps of the sort that lead to second story walkups in shabby apartment buildings or motels. Soichiro had climbed the like hundreds of times in his duties as a police officer. These, however, seemed familiar as snow began to fall, and patches of ice crunched beneath his feet. Finally, the child stopped outside a dingy door which Soichiro did not wish to open, but the child commanded it, and Soichiro could not deny this little boy anything. Shivering, but not from cold, he turned the knob and entered a squalid apartment. As Soichiro entered, the child ran into the shadows and brought forth a cushion which he placed beneath the room's one and only window. Pointing to it, he signaled Soichiro to sit, after which the child disappeared as a scene unfolded.

A pale, thin, bedraggled boy played with empty food containers, building ever higher with them, even using a chair when he could no longer reach the top. Soichiro examined the structure; it was really quite ingenious, for the base of the boxes was narrow compared to the height of the tower, yet the child had constructed it so it would not fall under its own weight. When the boy finished he went to the cupboard, taking out a pot which he placed on his head like a helmet. Then he crossed the room and grabbed a long handled dust broom. This he placed across his shoulder as he marched like a sentry before his building. Several imaginary battles took place, but the tiny boy held the enemy at bay.

Soichiro became so engrossed in the child's play that it seemed as if his awareness had transferred so that he saw all through the boy's eyes. When suddenly the door flew open and a beautiful woman entered, Soichiro stared at her, startled. He felt the boy's adoration for her; the child thought her a queen or a princess with her long flowing hair, sweet scent and elegant clothes. He ran to her so he could show her what he'd built. Taking her dress, he tried to talk to her, but she tripped. Blaming the child she spoke harshly, slapping his little hand away as she walked to the structure, taking box after box and throwing them at him. She worked herself into a frenzy, screaming at him, as she kicked the clever construction, toppling it. Then she took the pot from his head and tossed it away after which she ripped the broom stick from his hand and hit him with it. Finally spent, she went into her room and slammed the door.

He'd heard the lock click, but still the boy ran after her, twisting the knob which refused to turn. Dejected, he stumbled to the kotatsu where he kneeled on a worn, stained cushion. Leaning on the table, he folded his hands and rested his head upon them, weeping. His little, round cheeks grew red and wet. In despair he wailed; so bitter was his disappointment. The child had done all this in honor of her who he loved. But he remained as ever deficient; she had found him wanting as usual.

The scene faded, but quickly refocused, apparently it had ended too soon. Still at the table, the child stood, wiping tears from his dirty face. Now, rage replaced remorse. He walked to the woman's door where he commenced pounding on it. When no answer came he toddled across the room, and picked up the pot, placing it defiantly on his head. Then making his way to the fallen structure, he rebuilt, muttering a string of baby curses under his breath as he did so. However, this time he stood within the structure, making it wider, thicker and more solid than before.

Once again the scene faded; and Soichiro sat in the squalid room alone. It sickened him; he had almost died in this place, deserted by her, Ryoko. Why, he wondered? What made her leave him to die? He avoided memories of this place; but what he'd seen - small Soichiro protecting himself from that cruel woman - heartened him. If what he saw described the reality of his early years then he had not been simply a victim. He'd been born with a warrior spirit which he'd focused to save himself.

Out of the darkness a harsh voice whispered. "It was not simply about love, was it?"

The shadows reassembled themselves as once again Soichiro watched the toddler. There had been an altercation; the child's hands and legs were discolored; he could clearly see the outline of purple-blue fingers marks on the boy's skin. Surveying the room, Soichiro noticed letters, numbers and pictograms in red and black covering the lower walls. The boy had copied them from magazines to begin with, but then had moved on with his own embellishments. In fact the child had been swept away within the sheer joy of drawing the story he'd told himself while he worked.

He'd been too preoccupied to notice the presence of his mother, and, when Ryoko had grabbed him by the hair, yanking him to his feet and out of his dream world, he felt ill like a diver pulled from the sea too quickly. She'd made him pay for using her lipstick and eyebrow pencil in the interest of his art. In his defense, the boy had asked for the same colored chalk he'd watched the neighbor's children draw with on the parking lot tarmac. He wanted to draw and write so badly; he'd begged her. But she refused, calling him a greedy little pig. Thus, while she lay passed out in bed, he had gotten carried away. He'd watched her apply makeup, and, being a genius, he realized he could use those tools for his artwork. Soichiro examined the child's markings closely, but before long his attention was drawn away by a new drama.

Sitting facing a corner, the child held his bruised hand; it ached with an intensity only a child can feel. Feverish, the child seethed as visions of revenge ran through his head. Soichiro had repressed this behavior entirely; he thought his child self ugly, weak and needy. He'd always believed his dark side resulted from the shame and humiliation of being the rare child that even a mother could not love. Meanwhile at the open door, the woman, his mother, stood; she wore her coat with the soft fur collar. This meant she would leave, probably for a long time, abandoning him once more. The child hated being deserted more than anything else she did to him. He feared it with all his heart, and this fear spurred his rancor. The pure hatred in the child's heart shocked Soichiro.

"Yes," said the voice. "You hated her."

When she stepped out the door the toddler panicked, abasing himself as he begged her to stay. In truth, at that moment, he despised her, but in his fear of loneliness he'd do anything to get her to stay. And thus he despised himself as well. Of course she laughed at him, slamming the door behind her. The child fell into a fiery rage fueled by his humiliation; he stumbled into her bedroom, went to her closet and ripped her beloved clothes from their hangers. Taking up her scissors, he made small cuts in her expensive silk wardrobe. Then he took her makeup and painted marks of hatred upon each piece of clothing.

Breathing hard with the effort, the little boy crossed the room to her vanity where he climbed onto the soft upholstered bench from which, he clambered onto the table's surface, knocking her combs, brushes and perfumes to the floor. His fury unabated, he set to work drawing on the mirror before which she sat admiring every detail of herself for hours on end. With the dawn, the child stopped, surveying his work.

Curious, Soichiro stood and approached the mirror, for the child blocked his view, and he sorely wanted to view what the little one had drawn. When he finally made his way through the ether of the dream, what he saw shocked him; the child had drawn a portrait of Ryoko. In fact he had caught an astonishingly accurate caricature of his mother in her true guise as a tengu.

"Did this happen?" Soichiro whispered. "I don't remember ever being able to draw this well."

"You renounced the ability in order to bury this memory," said the same voice, now right behind him.

Soichiro turned to face the being he believed had disappeared from his life. Fear coursed through him; he'd always seen his shadowed doppelganger as a sign of psychosis. People with early childhoods like his were prone to multiple personalities. However, Soichiro recalled the words of Doctor Kawai regarding the shadow figure, and forced himself to converse with this autonomous complex.

"Does that mean the faculty lies dormant within you?" asked Soichiro, gazing at his dark twin.

"Within us," corrected his terse double.

"Is that what I'm missing?

"In part."

Soichiro examined the dark figure he'd referred to as Evil Arima when still a teenager. Having aged at the same rate, Evil Arima was indeed still Soichiro's twin, though his eyes gleamed with a light resembling madness. Possessed by the desire to turn and run, Soichiro forced himself to remain rational. In truth, this shadow figure was the personification of a function that held all he'd abandoned so others would judge him good. Now it screamed for attention. If he did nothing this thing would continue to humiliate him with its outbursts during which Soichiro was held prisoner by the strange paralysis it wrought. After each incident Soichiro was left to clean up the mess, either with his family or fellow officers. It was a wonder he still had his job, for he'd gotten seriously out of control more than once, especially with accused perpetrators, beating them senseless. It was time to show compassion; if Evil Arima was psychotic it was certainly with good reason.

"Is this why she left us to die?" asked Soichiro, shivering.

"Yes." The shadowed figure stepped closer.

"You were very brave." Soichiro's voice faltered, but he stood his ground.

"So are you."

"And you were talented."

"True, but 'were' is the wrong state of being; I still am, as are you – we." Evil Arima crossed his arms and smirked. "Yes, I said we."

"That drawing of Ryoko we did; how did she react?" asked Soichiro, swallowing hard. Never had he been so intimidated.

"You do not remember?"

"No."

"She went berserk," said his twin with a smile. "We scared the shit out of her; I guess she was not ready to see a portrait of her own soul."

"You don't think the horns were a bit much?" Soichiro smiled back, trying to calm himself.

"No."

"What about the fangs?"

"Fucking. Metal," said the shadowed figure. "Do not call me Evil anymore; I am not evil."

"Then why do you cause so much hurt?"

"When I want your attention, I cannot hold back."

"What do you want me to call you?"

"Call me Evel - like the daredevil, Kenievel. I am edgy, and I have guts. But that does not make me evil. If I were we would be the head of a criminal organization or on death row, given our brain."

"Agreed, I'll call you Evel. Why can't you hold back?" Soichiro asked, becoming engrossed in the dialog.

"You are ruining our life with this good boy act."

"But I'm the opposite; that is how I fight my impulses."

"You are police officer, for Gods' sake."

"I chose that work so I would stay on the straight and narrow. That is why I have avoided you."

"All your efforts to be only good have failed," said Evel, dropping his sardonic tone. "Such a goal is not possible."

"Stop!"

"Ignore me at your own peril."

"How can goodness not be possible?" demanded Soichiro.

"Let us say your definition is too narrow. In truth, you are neither a good boy nor a bad boy. You are a little bit of both. You need to give up your obsession with always needing to be in the right. It is driving everyone around you away."

Soichiro stared at Evel, shivering at the truth of his shadow's words; Soichiro excelled at putting on the face of perfection, like a classical Greek statue of Apollo. Even when in serious trouble he got away with minor reprimands; his demeanor was so intimidatingly impeccable. Who would want to hang around such a boring, seemingly faultless person? Evel's words were absolutely true; he'd have no friends if it wasn't for Yukino and Asapin. "What must I do widen my definition?"

"Stop ignoring me."

"How?"

"Meet with me like this," replied Evel, his countenance lightening slightly. "You will find that, to your detriment, you have narrowed your path in order to protect yourself. It is time to man up, Soichiro, so you may reach your goal for the sake of the children."

"What you said earlier about a natural artistic ability – may we start there?"

"You wish to resurrect our artistic bent?"

"I do."

"If that is your desire that is where we shall begin. You will find that most of what you rejected as a child has nothing whatsoever to do with good or evil."

"Evel, I must know. What exactly did Ryoko do when she returned and found her things destroyed?"

"Another time," said his shadowed other self, turning away.

"Tell me."

"We were already sick, but still, she beat the crap out of us and left us for dead. She came back a few days later to get some things we had missed; that's when she checked our breathing, and we fell, following her down the stairs."

"No, what did she do when she saw her portrait on the mirror?" asked Soichiro.

"I shall show you another time, but not this day," replied Evel, backing away.

"You have carried these memories alone for too long."

"A little longer will not burden me. Ask Reiji about the mirror." Evel bowed his head; he seemed bemused.

"Reiji saw it?"

"He did."

"What did he say?"

"His exact words – 'Sotatsu could not have gotten a better likeness'."

Soichiro actually laughed as his shadow self smirked back at him. "You understand Reiji better than I do."

"Maybe, but you will come to a better understanding as you gray, and I fade."

"Gray?" said Soichiro.

"Indeed, the in-between."

At this Soichiro woke; he leapt to his feet and grabbed a piece of paper, quickly noting down all he remembered of this remarkably lucid dream. He even drew the things he'd seen in the dream, including the childish portrait of Ryoko. When he'd completed the task, he walked to the window, finding he no longer shook with fear when contemplating his shadowed twin. Even if it possessed him he would no longer fight it; he'd simply make amends, and move on with the dialog. At that he whispered the word gray.

"Gray?" said Yukino, coming up behind him. "Oh, you mean those dark clouds. The weather channel predicts another foot or two of snow." She pressed her body against his in a tight embrace, adding, "You know, you really are a stud."

"A stud, is it?" laughed Soichiro, returning the hug. As he smiled down at her, he felt light as if gravity no longer bound him.

"A red hot tengu stud."

"Do you have to go to work today?" he asked, as an idea hatched. He would begin work immediately on changing his life.

"What would the neighbors say if I didn't go to work? And what about the hospital staff and my patients?" asked his wife, pulling away. She was clearly shocked that he would suggest such heresy.

Neither Soichiro nor Yukino ever missed a day of work for any reason. Thankfully their old friend and next door neighbor, Asapin, had a flexible schedule and willingly took on the duties of a nanny. It was Asapin who cared for Sakura and the twins when they were sick, in distress or needed advice. It was he too who showed up for their school and athletic activities, even parent-teacher meetings.

"I don't care what anyone thinks," said Soichiro, grabbing her shoulders, his eyes stern and determined. "I have three hundred sixty-five days of earned off time. I'm taking one today. I have no doubt that you have accumulated just as much. Are you with me?"

"Like when we skipped school?" asked Yukino.

"Yes."

"I'm in; it's an administrative day, so I have only a few patients. Let me call the office and see if Doctor Hijikata will cover them. He owes me one."

Letting her go, Soichiro growled as he turned away.

"Now, now, I know you dislike him, but he's my friend." Yukino followed him, taking his hand in hers.

"I don't like the way he drools when he looks at you," he grumbled. "And I don't understand why you trust him. He's a butcher."

"Just because he had that little accident when he stitched up your forehead after you were attacked by that delinquent does not make him a butcher. He's exceeding skilled with sharp things."

"He left a scar," complained Soichiro, bringing his hand to the offending mark just above his temple.

"It only adds to your mature sexiness."

"You like it?" he asked, turning to her; she pulled his hand away, admiring the manly flaw.

"Very much. Think Captain Harlock."

"About that attack, Yukinon," said Soichiro, deciding to come clean about his aberrant behavior.

"What about it?" she asked, walking to the stove.

"I was not quite as innocent as I led you to believe." He followed her with his eyes, wondering how she would react to one of his lesser sins.

"I know that; I'm not an idiot, Soichiro." Saying this Yukino filled the tea kettle with water and placed it on the stove.

"What do you mean?"

"When you get angry you're scary," said Yukino, matter-of-factly, opening the refrigerator, and staring into it. "I expect you went ballistic when that young man attacked you. Remember the time you flattened the boy from Ishiyama High, when we on our school trip to Kyoto? You only got out of that one because you'd won the Kendo title."

"Am I that predictable? Do you find me boring?"

"No." She began to unload food. "I'm starving, Soichiro. Must eat! Help me."

"Be truthful." He joined her at the kitchen counter as she opened a glass storage container full of hardboiled eggs and removed one.

"Well, maybe sometimes – but not last night," she mumbled, her mouth full.

"I meant what I said; I'm going to change, Yukino." Soichiro rinsed the rice and threw it in the cooker. "And I want to take care of our children. We rely on Asapin too much. He can help out in a pinch, but from now on I want to be the one who is there for them."

"But Soichiro, they love Asapin; we can't just pull them out of that relationship at this point. It would be cruel. Besides…" She stuffed another egg in her mouth.

"Besides what?" demanded Soichiro, taking a soup pot from a low cabinet, and placing it on the stove. He filled it with broth, turned on the heat, and took the hardboiled eggs away from Yukino, handing her an orange.

"Asapin is patient; he listens to them without judging their every word and action," declared Yukino with harsh intensity. "Plus he is the one who has put in the time."

Tightlipped with anger, Soichiro stared at his wife as she gulped down orange slices. This was the point where he would usually explode; he could see the tired dread in Yukino's eyes. No doubt, she replayed innumerable similar scenes, but he'd not ruin another romantic evening; he'd made her a promise to change and with that recollection he hesitated, choosing to distance himself for just a moment. Turning on his heels, he crossed the room to the couch where sat down, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees as he rocked, holding his forehead. Everything Yukino had said pissed him off, but she was right. Acting like a defensive jackass as he usually did when he did not want to hear the truth was not the answer. Staring at the floor, he took the time to consider what he should say.

"Yukino, when you say Asapin is patient and nonjudgmental I know you are contrasting him with me." He looked up to see Yukino was back into the eggs; she tried to interrupt, but he stopped her. "Let me finish. As I tried to explain last night, I know have mistreated Sakura, Ai and Sao. I have seen them only through the prism of my own childish attempt to be perfect. This is why I've distanced myself from them by working all the time; I know the way I am is harmful to them. Everything you have said is true, and I accept your judgment on this. I'll not insist they separate from Asapin, but I want to be more involved. I am their father. I will not force you, but I'd hoped you would help me."

Yukino sat down beside Soichiro, the container of hardboiled eggs cradled on her lap. She ran her hand gently down his back. "Thank you, Soichiro, for calmly considering my viewpoint. I would like nothing more than to help you. But there is something I must confess as well. Since you praised my mothering skills, I've been feeling guilty. You exaggerated, of course; I did the usual traditional things for our kids like those memory boxes, but I have not been there for them in any way that really counts either. Your praise made me think about my failure, and what I really want. Like you I wish to be more involved; I'm relieved you feel the same," said Yukino, her eyes brimming with tears. "I want us to raise Benika."

"All that has happened is entirely my fault," said Soichiro, brushing sticky bright yellow egg yolk from her cheek. "I have been as demanding of you as I have of the children, forcing perfection on you. All I thought about was what the Arimas would say if you did not run the hospital properly. I'm so sorry; don't cry."

"Don't be sorry," she whispered. "It's the hormones. This is not entirely your fault; we are both to blame. You know how I love running things, and showing the Arimas I could make the hospital hum like a well oiled machine thrilled me."

"Then it is agreed; we will work out a way to spend more time as a family?"

"Yes. Thirsty, Soichiro!"

"Now, about the kids, where are they?" Soichiro kissed her forehead and made his way to the kitchen, where he poured her a glass of orange juice.

"Shizuni called," replied Yukino, following him. "School has been canceled - snow day. She wants to know what we want her to do." She grabbed the glass and gulped down the contents.

"Maybe they could stay with her for the morning?" Deciding he'd better get some decent food in his wife before she got too grumpy, he cut up some vegetables, throwing them in the bubbling golden brown broth.

"Soichiro, we just pledged to spend more with our children." Yukino leaned over the pot and breathed in the tempting scent. "That smells delicious, but it needs kelp flakes."

"Just for the morning? There are plans to be made."

"I suppose - Shizuni would love that," she said, shaking the translucent green flakes into the soup.

"Then it's settled. We'll take the whole day off. Now, how we will tell them about Benika?" Soichiro steeped the tea, and then decided he'd better prepare some honeyed toast. Yukino was eyeing the hardboiled eggs again. He hoped this would not be a repeat of her egg fetish during her last pregnancy. That had been impossibly trying in so many ways, the worst of which had been the special tea she required to offset the constipation caused by her diet. Because he worked close to the herbalist shop, Soichiro had been enlisted to bring the special mixture home. He wondered if his wife understood the hit his reputation had taken with his fellow officers, for whenever the shop proprietor or his assistant delivered the package of tea to his office they would declare loudly its contents and what it treated, obviously enjoying Soichiro's embarrassment, smirking knowingly as they took his money. For six months he had suffered humiliating remarks about the nature of his bowel movements.

"I think we should tell them over a nice dinner of their favorite foods," declared Yukino, cuddling the eggs.

"What are their favorite foods?" He handed her the toast with one hand while prying the eggs from her with the other.

"Well, I've heard they love pizza," she muttered as she ate.

"They had pizza last night."

"I'll call Shizuni."

"That would be an embarrassing admission. Hell, Yukino, we don't even know our children's favorite food," said Soichiro, clearly disappointed in his ignorance and hers.

"Maybe it would be more diplomatic to ask Asapin…" Yukino stared at the container of eggs as Soichiro returned it to the refrigerator.

"Yes, and, while you're at it, find out the name of their favorite dessert." Saying this Soichiro gave her another orange. He watched her eat it in amazement; she really was voracious when with child. "And I suppose you had better invite Asapin as well; he has to find out sometime. Maybe he could…" Soichiro stopped, staring at Yukino suspiciously. "Or does he already know about Benika?"

Yukino gazed at him, biting her lower lip. "It might have slipped."

"Seriously! You told Asapin before me." Soichiro stirred the soup furiously.

"I needed advice." Yukino inched her way to the refrigerator.

"Advice?" asked Soichiro, blocking the door. He opened a cabinet and took out soup and rice bowls.

"On how to tell you." She reached behind him grabbing for the refrigerator handle.

"You were afraid to tell me about the baby?" He removed her hand and gave her the bowls, as he pointed to the kotatsu.

"A little." Yukino walked to the low table and knelt, setting out the dishes.

"Please tell me you did not discuss your plans for last night with him."

"Only in the sense that we thought a romantic night alone might be the best way."

"Jeez, Yukino, I can't tell you how much that hurts," said Soichiro, his voice low.

"You can be unstable at times, and you have been moody lately. I'm so sorry I distrusted you, Soichi."

"I deserve it. But next time please give me the chance to show you I can handle things."

"Soichiro? What is going on?" asked Yukino, returning to the kitchen.

"Going on?" Soichiro feigned innocence.

"Yes, whenever it comes to Asapin you throw a fit." She made a break for the refrigerator again.

"I have treated Asapin unfairly," said Soichiro, blocking her maneuver, and diverting her with a tray of soup spoons, tea things and chopsticks. "He…he was the only support I had during my high school years and look what I did to him."

"Asapin understands the concussion you caused him was an accident, after all you were under a lot of stress at the time." Yukino marched to the kotatsu to finish setting it. Soichiro signaled her to sit down.

"But look at how we've relied on him all these years, and really, Yukino, all I do is dump on him. Why does he stick around?"

"You throw him out a lot too. Then there was that time you choked him, and that other time you tazed him."

"The tazing was an accident. And what the hell was he doing in our apartment in the middle of the night?" he asked, carrying the food to the table; he'd relented and sliced an egg for her.

"He was feeding the guinea pigs for the boys when they were at sailing camp; you know Asapin keeps strange hours." Yukino took the little flowered plate that held the egg pieces and gazed at it lovingly.

"I want to take care of the guinea pigs next time the twins are away." Soichiro took a seat adjacent to her, so he could serve her.

"Of course, dear, but the guinea pigs are long gone; now they have hamsters. Honestly, Soichi, you forgot the burial ceremony?"

"Hamsters? Are you sure?" he asked, ladling the soup.

"Yes."

"Oh. Should we feed them now?"

"No, they're fine; I checked on them this morning."

"What are their names? I want to be able to ask the boys about them."

"Sheeda and Pazu. Now, you were saying…about Asapin?"

"Yukino, you have no idea how I relied on him during my darkest days in high school," said Soichiro, filling her rice bowl. "I was so close to suicide; he understood without asking questions. It is a measure of my selfishness that I have never treated him as I should. I will try to make amends. He's like one of our family."

"I am relieved to hear you say that," said Yukino, sipping her tea thoughtfully. "I hope you will keep this in your heart no matter what the future brings. I would prefer you not spend your life in prison."

"What are you talking about?"

"Oh, well nothing in particular, you know, pregnancy brain. Back to the subject, once again I ask you what is going on? What has brought on this transformation?"

"This morning I had a remarkable dream." Soichiro beamed at her, the love of his life.

"Tell me." Yukino leaned close, resting her hand on his arm, waiting.