“Will she really be here?”
“She’ll be here. I’ve personally checked her flight. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“But Setsuna-san… she’s been away for months!” Usagi’s eyes darted around the airport anxiously. The future Queen had never stopped being such a worrywart even after she’d turned twenty, Setsuna contemplated with amusement.
Crystal Tokyo had yet to come, but the Senshi had seen great changes in their dear future Queen. She was much wiser now, gaining the ability to discern subtlety—the one thing everyone thought she’d never be able to do. And yet, she shocked everyone at how mature (also preferably less whiny) she had become. No matter how much she’d changed, Usagi’s greatest strength, her love for everyone, was still as abundant. It was also the reason why she was fussing and fidgeting and pacing the floor with profound worries over Setsuna’s housemate.
“You’re sure she’ll be here?” Usagi voiced her concern for the umpteenth time.
Setsuna sighed, but a flicker of mirth danced within her burgundy eyes. Usagi would have been like an old housewife had it not been for the change in her voice. While her tone had stayed the same, it had gotten sensible over the years, though it carried a softness that resembled a motherly figure.
“She will. We all agreed to spend Christmas together, didn’t we?”
“Yes, you’re right.” Her eyes went downcast, a melancholy smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “Though not all of us could keep it…”
Setsuna’s eyes strayed to the side, as if on cue. She always did that, Hotaru once told her, whenever someone from their inner circle reminded her of how one of her two dear housemates would be absent on such event. It was not on purpose; Michiru was busy with her tour, her album, her career. With Haruka it was pretty much the same but on the racetrack. It was to be expected of people with their standing. At the very least, one of them would make it for the occasion, but never both. Their jobs pretty much took up all of their time after they had begun living normal lives again.
One of the Inners once asked her opinion on this particular matter. She’d never give anything away. Setsuna would put on a smile, however wistful it was, and said it is their job; they couldn’t help it. Reflecting her own mood would be their own sombre smiles. Other than that, they seldom brought the subject up again.
This time would be no different, she thought, as they awaited Haruka’s flight to touch down. It was clear enough who wasn’t going to attend this year’s Christmas vacation.
Just as her thoughts passed, her phone buzzed. Taking it out, she noticed a message from Haruka.
“It’d be nice if Michiru-san could make it this year…” Usagi conveyed wistfully.
“Yes, it’d be nice indeed…” She tucked her phone in, pushing the thought away, “let’s go get Haruka.”
Michiru was packing her belongings into her suitcase, getting ready to leave for another tour in Paris. The Vienna Philharmonic was as majestic and demanding this year as it always was. The hours of practice and work she poured in with them was tiring, but being here was also part of her goal. At least it used to be, a few years back, when she was still a 17-year-old girl. She still loved her music. Yet, she didn’t know why she continued to play. Perhaps it was the music. Perhaps it was her being out there, pouring her heart and soul out to the world. Either way, music hadn’t had that alluring hold on her for quite some time now.
Her hands stopped. Looking out the window with a distant gaze, she searched the city below. Never quite sure what she was looking for, yet this behaviour would happen every now and then.
She would have continued for another minute or two, but her phone broke her out of her reverie. Reaching for it, she picked up.
“Kaiou Michiru here.” She answered, entering business-mode.
“Michiru? Would you mind coming down to the dining room? I want to have a word with you.” Her manager asked.
“Is it important?” Michiru inquired.
“It is for you.”
Michiru arched an eyebrow, a bit bemused at her manager’s unusual secrecy.
“Just come down, you’ll see.” Her manager assured, sensing her hesitation.
She murmured her affirmation, ended the phone call and proceeded down to the dining hall. Once she reached her destination, her eyes scanned the crowded room until she spotted her manager waving at her from quite a distance away.
“What is it?” She got right to the point once she reached her.
Her manager was munching happily away on a croissant. Patting the seat next to her, she continued eating. Michiru sat down as instructed, though she was a bit exasperated by how she was eating her food so leisurely. Her manager was a nice enough person, to say the least. Minus her sometimes unusual manners, she was devoted to her job. However, calling Michiru down to talk while they were getting ready to leave for the next tour was not one of such devotions.
“Your family called me the other day.”
Ah… She meant Setsuna.
“Is there something wrong back home?” Michiru asked casually, after she ordered Earl Grey tea. Despite her calm demeanor, she was actually worried when her manager brought her housemate up like this. She’d never interfere with Michiru’s tour unless there’s trouble.
“Actually, no. She just wanted to talk.”
“About?” She indulged.
“She asked me if I could reschedule things to make sure you can come home this year.”
Michiru went silent. The annual Christmas vacation with everybody was probably the reason. It was nice of Setsuna to think of her. Even so, the wise woman should know better than anyone, Michiru couldn’t come back, no matter how she changed her schedule. Getting rid of a fan meeting here, a tour will arise there. New things were always bound to draw her attention.
The waiter came, placed the tea down before her, bowed and left. Hot steam rose from the cup, carrying with it the exquisite aroma of Earl Grey tea. Yet Michiru couldn’t find it in her to drink anymore.
The violinist’s sudden, glum behaviour caught her manager’s eyes and she huffed in disappointment. “Are you going to accept it just like that?” She dared, with feigned apathy in her voice. Knowing full well how Michiru could perceive the hidden implication in it just as easily.
Her eyes flicked up to look at her with puzzlement.
“Either you’re not the Kaiou Michiru that I know, or you just have absolutely zero trust in your manager’s capability.” She went on, letting mock coldness creep into her tone, before she took a much too forceful bite of her croissant to make her act even more believable.
“What are you trying to say?”
Her manager cracked a toothy grin and looked at her with mischievousness in her eyes. “Didn’t you choose me to be your manager because you believe in me, Michiru?”
“Yes, of course,” she affirmed, still not catching on.
“Then you should know that, right as we speak, all your tour contracts have been dealt with.” She then took another bite, with a rather proud look on her face.
Michiru’s eyes widened. Her contracts have been dealt with? How could her manager just go ahead and decide that without her?
She was about to open her mouth and reproach her on this selfish solo act, but was stopped as her manager interjected.
“I know what you’re going to say, but I’m not hearing it. I did this without your consent and I don’t regret it one bit. Look at yourself, Michiru. You barely give yourself pause since you left Tokyo. You only went back how many times? A few times for a few days and then left for another 3 to 5 months or so. That’s hardly enough time to spend with your family! Of course, they’re going to call me about it! Yet she wasn’t even angry; she only asked me if you could come home in a really sympathetic tone.”
This was the first time she had ever been lectured on what she should do. And she was none other than Kaiou Michiru—the very epitome of elegance and flawless manners. To say she was shocked, was an understatement.
Her manager lowered her voice, having noticed she was being too acidic. “I’m sorry for raising my voice at you like that. Even I’m surprised that I would raise my voice to you of all people,” she paused, “but you’re not happy.”
Upon hearing her current conundrum brought to light, Michiru’s eyes shifted from her manager back to her untouched teacup, which had now turned cold. Her expression turned pensive.
“It’s alright, the contracts are not annulled. I only stretched the time between them out a little bit. Instead of leaving forever, you’ll have more time at home than overseas.” Her manager reached for her coffee.
“You did that?” Michiru found her voice.
“And why not? Even if you’re not tired physically, I can tell you’re tired mentally.”
Michiru observed her carefully as she finished her coffee and wiped her hand on a nearby handkerchief.
“Go back to them. Leave the rest to me.”
Michiru abruptly stood and headed for the dining room’s exit. Her heels clicking away.
Watching her employer’s retreat, the manager let out a small chuckle. Before Michiru left, she directed one last look at her. She picked up her coffee cup to sip it, only to realise she had drunk it all. She ordered another one.
She’d recognize that look every time.
“It’s so you to thank me like that.”
It was appreciation.
The place they’re always spending Christmas at was a vacation house owned by the Outers, located in Hakuba—a village in the Japanese Alps just outside the city of Nagano. Initially, spending Christmas with everyone was Usagi’s idea, which she conveyed jokingly about how it’d be nice if everyone could spend time together before Crystal Tokyo become a reality. Everyone chirped in, agreeing with her, which prompted Haruka and Michiru to take up the task of buying the house. The girls were astounded, saying it wasn’t necessary, that it was Usagi’s usual wishful thinking.
Haruka simply brushed it off at the time and said. ‘We have patrons. Don’t worry about it.’
Deep down inside, she knew it would make everyone elated if they were to spend their time together before their destinies would whisk them back to their duties. It could also make a particular dark green-haired senshi of time and a cute, animated senshi of death happy as well. Anything for family.
That was, until Michiru or her couldn’t both be there.
What a despondent thing it was, Haruka thought wryly as she sat outside, taking in the sight of this modern vacation house.
“I miss her too.” Setsuna’s voice came up next to her. Haruka was sitting on the porch that led to a vast plain covered in snow. Dusk had just arrived, along with splatters of red across the horizon.
Haruka turned her eyes toward the bleeding sky. “Can’t help it, can we?”
Her tone might have made her seem bitter and acerbic had it been one of the Inners talking to her. Except it was Setsuna who was dealing with her right now. Where had those days, where the four of them could spend time together, disappeared to? Setsuna had wondered. Surprisingly, even Setsuna could be naïve. She wished for those days to come back, prayed for it even. The time when the three of them had raised Hotaru together. When Haruka and Michiru were still together. She mused drearily.
Consequently, this quandary with their careers hadn’t only separated their family but also the two of them; they were drifting apart. Combined with the distance between them in the literal sense, they both broke it off wordlessly. The first one to fail in this bleak relationship was Haruka.,
She was drunk one night in a bar somewhere in America. Lonely, lost and full of needs, she let the alcohol take control. All it took was a pretty face with a round, supple bosom and she had thrown away the ache of missing Michiru in a dark corner somewhere in her heart.
Waking up with a throbbing hangover, Haruka had been disoriented. She was back in her hotel, with no memories of what happened the night before. Eventually, she remembered she’d met a girl from the bar, even though the details after were hazy. Horrified, she had called Setsuna afterwards, telling her what had happened. She had expected Setsuna to yell at her, rebuke her, forbid her to come home even. Yet, she hadn’t done any of the aforementioned but had gently told her to calm down.
From that point on, Haruka and Michiru barely contacted each other anymore, in part because Haruka was scared she might blurt out what she’d told Setsuna.
“It’d be nice if she was here…” Haruka whispered dejectedly.
Setsuna put a tender hand on her shoulder to give her an encouraging squeeze. Other than that, she was just as lost. Like Haruka, she wanted her family back too.
“Hey you two, we’re going to decorate the Christmas tree. Are you coming?” Minako poked her head out from the glass door.
“Yes, yes, we’re coming.” Haruka chuckled, heading for the door. There was not a single ounce of delight in it, Setsuna noted.
With Haruka gone, Setsuna turned back to the darkened sky behind her. Praying to an unknown entity, she humbly asked for her family to be whole again, even for a little while.
The attendant for passenger luggage casually leaned against the wall. Abandoning polite manners, he let a huge yawn ripple through. His eyes were already dropping and he could barely keep himself awake. Damn his boss, and probably his co-workers too. He shouldn’t have let them edge him into working overnight shifts. It was four in the morning and he’d barely caught a wink the night before.
“Ara, how unexpected to find someone so devoted to his work.” A melodic voice caught his attention.
He turned to the source of the sound and nearly lost his balance when he saw the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Aquamarine waves cascaded down her shoulders, bright blue eyes that gleamed with intelligence stared back at him. Her movements radiated nothing but pure elegance and gracefulness. He stared at her like an awestruck little boy, unable to utter a word.
She laughed, casting him a coy smile. “Would you mind helping me out with my luggage?”
It took him awhile to stutter a hasty confirmation as he staggered after her, thinking to himself that he had hit the jackpot.
The mysteriously entrancing woman only chuckled, shaking her head as she heard his seemingly silent, celebratory jig behind her.
It was second day at the Outers’ vacation house, and they were busy with preparation for Christmas. Setting up the tree the night before had been the first step. Now, Minako was barking specific orders to each individual in their team, Mamoru included. Makoto and Ami were the cooking team; Rei, Haruka, and Hotaru were decorating for the house; Setsuna, Usagi and Mamoru would be undertaking shopping for presents and other necessities. Minako, her head held high, thrust her chest out conceitedly and pronounced herself the Overseer for the whole operation—as she put it. This instigated quite a few facepalms from her friends and nervous titters from the Outers.
Forever the idol, their Minako.
They went on about their assigned jobs at seven that morning.
The decoration team was the first to finish. Probably due to Minako being so bossy and judgemental about Haruka’s taste. The nosy girl jumped in then, and with the four of them working together, they were done by 8:30. Rei suggested helping out the cooking team since they were done. Haruka, now bored, seized the first opportunity she got at bailing. Throwing some lame excuses of having an errand in town, she took her car keys and left.
“What was that about?” Rei grumbled, staring after Haruka’s car which was retreating further towards town.
Minako said nothing. She turned towards the kitchen and continued in an overly chirping tone. “Let’s help out the kitchen!”
Hotaru’s violet orbs lingered at the turn where her papa’s car had disappeared. Only when the other two had left did she turn towards the kitchen.
Running was one of the many things that provided a distraction for Haruka. Breaking the speed limit was also one of them. Despite that, she was in a place where neither of those things were possible at the moment. The snow here would drag her down, and she hated being hindered at doing what she enjoyed.
So, she resolved to try her skill at snowboarding. Again.
They’d been here plenty of times, but Haruka just couldn’t seem to excel at it. She was adequately good (as she put it), compared to others. Nevertheless, in Haruka’s eyes, she was supposed to be unbeatable when it came to any sport.
Clad in full winter gear for this particular activity, Haruka stood on the highest peak she could climb and cast her eyes down the snow-covered slope.
One beat. Two beats.
The sound of her board grazing the snow and the chilling breeze whipping by her face became the only things occupying her mind.
It wasn’t half bad.
She left behind the current nagging state-of-mind she had always carried. Free like the wind. Just like she had always been during races. Speeding up, the thrill pumped inside her veins. Ecstatic, she became. Euphoric, took over. Then the image of herself, speeding down the lane inside her race car, entered her mind.
She encouraged the image by trying to speed up. Then she saw a person cutting through the slope—right into the middle of her trajectory.
With quick, honed reflexes, she managed to maneuver her board away from said person, albeit still hitting their side, knocking them both down into the snow.
Annoyed at having her little momentary peace interrupted, she stood up without dusting herself off, about to give the obstructing stranger her piece of mind. She stopped short. A girl, perhaps in her twenties, was looking back at her.
Not too shabby. Haruka thought as she held her tongue.
Her hair dark brown, hanging low around her shoulders. Though lacking any distinctive charm, her ruby eyes shone bright. There seemed to be something swirling in their depths, yet Haruka couldn’t discern whether they carried good or bad intentions.
The girl stood up, seemingly wanting to say something, but then deciding to keep it to herself.
Alternately, Haruka decided to go first.
She held out her hand. “I’m sorry, it was my fault for not paying attention. Are you alright?”
The girl took her hand, smiled demurely. “I’m alright. It was my fault for obstructing you in the first place.”
“No harm done. Ah… though I’m sure you might have bruises from that.” Haruka scratched the back of her head, then she cracked a smile that she assumed was apologetic enough.
“It’s really alright!” the stranger hurriedly added, “this is not the first time someone has run me over.”
Haruka winced at that burbling admission. This girl was trying too hard. A bit too much for Haruka’s taste, in fact. Should she play with her?
Subtly checking her up and down, Haruka deliberated her choices.
Looks, quite nice. Not really appealing to her but she could ignore that just fine.
Haruka still hadn’t had a complete grasp yet.
The brunette spoke up again, interrupting Haruka’s contemplation. “Um… if you don’t mind, I know a really great bar in town. Would you go with me?”
And she barely had any confidence.
The girl looked like she was shaking, while asking Haruka out.
She sighed inwardly.
Might as well. It didn’t seem like there’s anything to do around here this year.
Haruka put on her most charming lady-killer smile.
“Sure, why not?”