“Okay, so where should we start looking,” asked Mei glancing around the living room for any sign that Airi may have been hiding under a blanket or inside one of the cabinets.
“I’m going to check the front door real quick.” Yuzu gave Mei a quick kiss before patting her on the cheek. “It’ll be okay; she’s just tired and had a rough day.”
“Then why do you look so worried?”
Mei traced a line with her thumb along Yuzu’s chin, refusing to break eye contact.
“Same reason as you,” answered Yuzu before removing Mei’s thumb and kissing her wife’s fingers. “Our little girl is hurting, and I’m not sure I can help her feel better.”
“So you’re thinking the same thing I was,” sighed Mei before breaking contact with Yuzu and heading to the kitchen to see if Airi had hidden inside one of her favorite cabinets to use when she, her cousins, and Hideki would play hide-and-seek.
“I'd be a horrible mother if I weren't thinking that,” said Yuzu dryly as she headed down the hallway that led to the front door.
“Yuzu,” said Mei ashamedly as she followed her wife. “You’re a great mother. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m not upset.” Yuzu’s voice was distant, but only because she was sifting through the mass of shoes near the front door. “At least not with you. I’m upset about what happened to our little girl and I don't know what to do about it."
“We’re doing the best we can.” Mei bent down and gave Yuzu a consoling kiss on the temple. “We’ve had similar problems with Hideki, remember? Unless you forgot about that time we fought before you left for London?”
“I remember," snorted Yuzu while rubbing her head against Mei’s chin. “I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t told me to go back and say goodbye to him or you.”
“You would still be sleeping on the couch,” explained Mei, earning her a gentle elbow in the stomach. "Or at least the guest room given your back problems."
“Don’t joke about that,” sighed Yuzu before she returned to investigating the shoes. “I still feel bad about that night. It was the first time I ever felt like I wasn’t fit to be his mother.”
“I’m sorry for my part in that,” said Mei pointing at the pile of jackets that the kids had left on the ground before rubbing Yuzu’s back. “I should have been more understanding of what you were going through and how much stress you were under."
“Neither of us was at our best that night,” laughed Yuzu before sighing in relief at finding Airi’s shoes hidden beneath the pile of coats, “but we learned our lesson and at least you don’t have to worry about me just up and leaving anymore.”
Hanging the jackets up, Yuzu smiled and turned to Mei and pulled her off the ground into a brief, but loving kiss before stepping away and cupping Mei’s cheeks as she looked her in the eye and said, “It was tough, but at least we're home together at night.”
“It’s a benefit.” Mei nodded and pressed her forehead against Yuzu’s and closed her eyes in an attempt to center herself.
“You okay, Mei?” Yuzu could tell that Mei was frustrated and had an inkling as to what it was but wanted to make sure they were on the same page before pressing.
“I’m just worried.” Mei’s voice was almost a whisper, and she felt a strong pain spread throughout her chest. “Are we going to talk to her about it?”
“We’re gonna have to,” said Yuzu stepping away for a moment to open the front door to see if Airi was sitting on the front step only to shut it, satisfied but still worried about where their daughter had gone. “You know how she gets when she bottles things up.”
Mei noticed the smirk on Yuzu’s face and gave her a gentle nudge and a disapproving scowl before walking toward the stairs that led up to the bedrooms and said to her wife, “I suppose that’s supposed to be some vaguely veiled insult about how I become frigid when it comes to me having to discuss my feelings.”
“If this were back when we first started dating I would say you hit the nail on the head,” chuckled Yuzu as they entered their room with Yuzu checking the closet and bathroom while Mei checked under the bed and behind their curtains. “But I was talking about what happened outside. You two, well you three if we include Hideki, have the same issue. Well not so much Hideki, but you and Airi are pretty similar when it comes to stuff like that. Makes me wonder why I ever bothered giving birth to her? She’s got more in common with you than she does with me.”
“I don’t think that’s true.” Mei looked down on the backyard and saw everyone doing their best to laugh and have a good time while eating cake and whatever frozen confectionary Reo had made. As she watched them, Hideki looked up and waved, a big smile on his face before pointing at his mother and then at the table.
Mei shook her head, and Hideki nodded just as Ume and Rena looked up to see Mei. When Mei gave them a similar answer, Rena pointed at herself then at the house, but Mei declined her before gesturing for them to stay there and returned to helping Yuzu and headed across the hall into Airi’s room.
“I guess we’re just going to have to agree to disagree,” chuckled Yuzu, lifting Airi’s comforter off the bed while Mei carefully moved several of Airi's belongings, most of which were clothes, away from the closet so she could get into the closet only to find it empty.
“I don’t think we have to,” said Mei disappointed at not finding Airi huddled inside her closet, her headphones as she sang and hummed along with some new song she’d discovered. “Airi is her own person and even though she’s biologically yours, as her mother she was bound to inherit personality traits from me, just as she was bound to inherit genetic and personality traits from you. It makes sense considering we all live in the same house.”
“I still think she’s more like you,” Yuzu grunted and stretched her back before helping Mei with putting the instruments back and groaning at how messy their daughter had left her room and pointed at all the toys and clothes that were thrown all over the floor. “Though I don’t know where this came from. I mean I have a lot of stuff, but I never let it get this bad.”
“Neither do I,” grumbled Mei at finally seeing the state her daughter’s room was in and making a note to spend an afternoon making sure Airi cleaned it properly. “But as I said, she’s her own person, and I guess that living in squalor is a part of her personality.”
“I’ll say,” said Yuzu picking up a few empty juice boxes from Airi’s desk and made a detour to throw them away in hers and Mei’s bathroom before heading back to their daughter’s door and pulling Mei close. “But I’m glad she takes after you.”
“Why’s that,” asked Mei, savoring their connection but keeping her eyes focused on the doors down at the end of the hallway in case Airi opened one of them.
“Because I’d probably go nuts if she were like me.” Yuzu chuckled and turned her head in the direction Mei was looking and sighed. “I always did wonder how you and Mama didn’t manage to go crazy with all the crap I pulled.”
“It wasn’t easy,” said Mei jokingly making her wife whine and try to pull away only to be stopped by Mei increasing her grip on the shorter woman and kiss the top of her head. “But luckily, in spite of your overbearing nature, I managed to survive with my dignity intact.”
“Oh very funny,” huffed Yuzu, breaking Mei’s grip and frowning. “I may have been overbearing, but you were just difficult; you’re still difficult, but you don’t see me complaining.”
“You’re right; you don’t.” Mei kissed Yuzu on the cheek before patting it and softly saying, “Which is why I rarely say anything about how you act unless I find something that concerns me. Things like your back or how loud you are. Or the fact that we’re supposed to be looking for our daughter instead of standing in the hallway pointing out one another’s flaws to name a few examples.”
“You got me there,” chuckled Yuzu with an embarrassed grin. “Sorry about that; guess I got a little self-absorbed.”
“You’re not the only one to do that,” answered Mei crossing her arms and staring down the hallway at the doors, noticing that the door to the office and Hideki’s room both had light shining through the cracks in the frame. “It’s good to spend time self-reflecting on our flaws; it’s the timing that’s the problem.”
“Yeah,” said Yuzu focusing her gaze on the cracks between the doors and the floor. “We’ve always had bad timing; that’s for sure.”
“Agreed,” answered Mei out of reflex, her eyes peering for any hint of a shadow, “and since we’ve resolved that issue, I think it’s now time we decide which room to inspect. Any suggestions?”
“Well we can either split up, or we can divide and conquer,” offered Yuzu. “But given her mood, I think we should do it together. You?”
“I think together is best as well.” Mei took Yuzu’s hand tilted her head toward the guest room. “I think we should check in here first since it’s easier to hide.”
“Sounds good,” said Yuzu before extending her hand toward the knob and carefully opening the door and peeking in and flipping the light switch.
A lamp lit up in the corner, illuminating the room and showing no immediate sign of Airi. The bed was bare, and there were no blankets hidden in any of the edges. Letting go of one another, Mei and Yuzu searched Airi’s usual spots but found no sign of their daughter and after a few discouraging moments of investigation checked Hideki’s room which yielded similar results.
“Guess it’s the office,” said Yuzu after helping Mei up off the floor.
“I suppose so.” Mei dusted off her skirt and followed Yuzu out the door, shutting the light off and approaching the office door. “How do you want to approach this? Should we open the door or knock?”
“Knock,” answered Yuzu with a cautious nod. “I don’t want to scare her, and it’s not like she can run away, but yeah knocking is probably the best bet.”
Yuzu raised her hand and moved it toward the door before stopping and turning her eyes to Mei.
“Is it okay if….”
“Of course.” Mei gave Yuzu a consoling nod and placed a comforting hand on the blonde’s shoulder.
Even though they considered each other equals as parents, there were moments that they both knew it was more important for one of them to let the other take the lead and this happened to be one of those moments.
“Thanks.” Yuzu lifted Mei’s hand and kissed it before turning back to the door and gave it a gentle knock.
“Airi? Airi, it’s Mama. I’m out here with Mommy, are you in there?”
They both waited in silence, and when she didn't answer, Yuzu knocked a little harder and said, “Airi, honey, please answer me. Mommy and I are worried, and we want to make sure you’re okay.”
Again they were met with silence or at least that’s what they thought before they heard the muffled sound of Airi’s voice through the door.
“Well she’s in there,” said Yuzu, nearly collapsing in relief. “Do you think she’s ignoring us on purpose?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time.”
Like Yuzu, Mei was barely able to remain upright upon hearing the quiet sound of her daughter’s voice through the door and she couldn’t help but smile at how much Airi’s face reminded her of Yuzu’s when she was upset or the way her eyes would light up when Mei surprised her or returned her affections. At the same time, however, Airi, like Mei and Hideki, had a tendency of becoming aloof when annoyed or when she wanted to be left alone, and Mei wouldn’t be surprised if their daughter were giving them the cold shoulder.
“Do you think we should just go in?”
Mei could see the conflict in her wife’s face and shrugged as she said, “If it were me then I would go in. It’s clear Airi is either intentionally ignoring us, or she’s listening to a video on the internet and has no idea that we’re out here. But I do know that the only way we’re going to find out is by either checking to see if the door’s unlocked or we bang so hard on it that she hears us over the music. I also know that if we don’t test either of those options, we’re going to be spending our evening waiting to see if she’s going to come out.”
“I’m fine with that,” said Yuzu with a nervous chuckle. “I mean she’s going to have to go to the bathroom at some point so if we wait maybe she’ll come out on her own?”
“Or we could test the knob and see if it’s unlocked,” offered Mei nodding at the door. “If it turns out it is then we can talk to her and begin finding out what’s wrong.”
“You’re right,” said Yuzu, shaking her arms and letting out a couple of groans as she began to prepare herself for what was about to come mentally. “You ready?”
“Hardly,” answered Mei, with a careful wave at the door, “but since when have we ever been ready for anything?”
“Ya got me there,” replied Yuzu with a dry laugh and with a cautious reach, turned the knob and when she found it unlocked she pushed it open and nearly burst into tears in relief when she saw Airi on the floor with her back to the door.
“Oh thank god,” said Yuzu as she and Mei tiptoed inside the door, leaving it open a crack so in case someone came upstairs they could hear their voices. “For a minute I thought my ears were playing tricks on me.”
“How could you believe that,” said Mei pointing at Airi’s back and noticing the large dent in her hair where the wireless headphones were resting. “Who else do you know in our family sings songs like that?”
Yuzu had to admit; Mei had a point.
Even if Airi was beginning to discover her musical talent, they never got tired of hearing Airi’s enthusiasm whenever she found a song she liked and always wondered where it came from.
With Hideki, his love of dance had been sparked at their wedding and even though he didn’t have the natural talent of many of his peers. He worked hard to get where he was, and the fact that he was being scouted by two of the most prestigious dance schools in the United States was a testament to that along with him teaching part-time at Abby’s dance studio.
Airi, on the other hand, had the natural talent that many people would kill for which was why Mei and Yuzu had enrolled her in the arts academy where Hideki practiced dance, on top of enrolling her in a kindergarten that had a focus on developing artistic talents.
But even with all the hard work the kids put into their studies and hobbies, along with their experience involving Mei’s past, they always made sure took a couple of days out of each week to spend time wasting time with their friends. Though with Airi that usually involved Hina and when Hina wasn’t available it wasn’t unheard of to find Airi in the same position she was now; sitting alone in one of the rooms coloring, reading, playing one of her instruments, playing in the backyard, or sitting on the floor with her headphones on, tablet in her hands, and singing to herself.
As they stood there, relieved to see that Airi had found a way to calm herself down they weren’t surprised to see her begin swaying back and forth on the pillow she was sitting on as she clapped and
You had your time, you had the power
You've yet to have your finest hour
All we hear is radio ga ga
Radio goo goo
Radio ga ga
All we hear is radio ga ga
Radio blah blah
Radio, what's new?
Radio, someone still loves you!
When she finished the verse, Airi jumped to her feet and began strutting in place, moving her arms and hips in a manner that Mei and Yuzu were all too familiar with.
They knew exactly what video she was watching as almost every time they allowed her time on the tablets or the computer, Airi had them load up the video and had even watched it a few times with her. On top of that, every time they watched it, they could see something in Airi’s eyes whenever she watched the singer strut around in his white jeans, tank top, and studded bicep strap.
There were times Mei and Yuzu wished Airi would look at them the same way she looked at the performer, but they also understood that the admiration their daughter held for him was completely different from the way she viewed them and they had accepted it and loved that she had found a person to admire.
In addition to her admiration, any time Airi watched the man perform, it made Airi want to perform and gave Yuzu and the other shutterbugs in the family ample opportunity to take pictures and record video of said performances, which Airi was usually more than happy to allow. That’s why, despite her concern for her daughter’s mood, Mei couldn’t resist smirking when she saw Yuzu begin recording Airi ’s dancing as she sang along with the video and why she didn’t protest when her daughter started to mimic the man’s movements in a way the manner she and Yuzu had approved.
After a few more moments of watching Airi sing and move around, her hair bobbing as she moved across the floor in an awkward attempt at mimicing the performer, Yuzu nearly dropped her voice when she heard Airi belt out the final note of the song. Though rough and undeveloped, there was a sound to it that Mei and Yuzu found comforting, almost as if they could feel their daughter’s happiness and as long as she was happy, for the time that’s all they cared about.
When Airi finished and began catching her breath, Yuzu forced herself to blink back her tears while Mei moved in next to her and locked their arms together.
“She is unique,” chuckled Yuzu just as Airi started to shout.
“HEEEY OH,” echoed throughout the room, making both of them jump and shake their heads at how loud their daughter’s voice could get, but before they listen to the rest of it, Airi stopped and let out a growl as she picked the tablet off the floor and began staring at and tapping the screen in frustration.
“Most parents believe that about their children,” said Mei, hoping that Airi’s frustration wouldn’t cause her to break the tablet accidentally. “But I would be lying if I said I didn’t believe it. However, I’d like to focus more on her mental state and that should we talk to her about what happened we take it slowly. She’s doing better, and I don’t want her to react as she did outside.”
“I know,” whispered Yuzu, keeping her phone aimed at Airi in the hope that she’d start singing again but was rewarded by more growls from her daughter.
“You suck,” grunted the girl when she finally managed to turn the screen back on only to have it die and show off a battery symbol with a big slash through it and stomp toward the dresser while gently smacking the tablet against her hand. “Stupid battery. It was at the best part.”
“We better stop her,” said Mei worriedly as Airi began gently slapping the side of the tablet.
Without hesitation, Yuzu put her phone away and walked up behind Airi, tapped her gently on the shoulder and said, “Airi.”
Mei’s hands flew to her ears as Airi let out a loud ear-splitting scream, the tablet tumbling to the ground as Airi’s hands shot into the air, smacking Yuzu in the eye before starting to run toward the closet only to trip over her own feet and go rolling across the ground.
“That was a bad idea.” Yuzu pulled her hand away from her face, instinctively checking her fingers for blood, even though there was no need. “Am I bleeding?”
“No, you aren’t bleeding.” Mei stopped and picked up the tablet and pressed the power button, unsurprised to see a giant battery appear with a slash through it. “But you’re right; you shouldn’t have done that. Normally she responds just fine to someone stamping on the floor or clapping loudly to get her attention.”
“Well thanks for the heads up,” snorted Yuzu as she sat up and looked at the closet, smiling when she saw Airi pick herself up and crawl under the desk and hide in a corner.
Crawling toward it, Yuzu waved at Airi who was picking at her through the mountain of curly brown hair that was cascading over her face before burying her face in her arms and turn around, so her back and posterior were facing her mother.
“Come on, sweetheart,” begged Yuzu pulling the chair out and allowing Mei to sit before crossing her legs and grab Airi by her hips and pull her into her lap.
Airi struggled briefly, trying to find purchase by grabbing the floor, only to fail and become the victim to her mother’s efforts. For a moment, she found relief by grabbing Mei’s leg but was met with resistance when her mother removed her fingers and allowed Yuzu to pull her into her lap, though not without opposition.
Yuzu tried to cradle Airi, but the child wasn’t having it and kicked at her mother, resulting in Airi’s upper half and head remaining on the floor while her legs rested in Yuzu’s lap.
“Airi, please don’t do this,” yawned Yuzu reaching over and after a quick struggle, managed to pull the headphones off and bit back a snort when she saw the indentation it had left in the girl’s hair. “Sweetie, can you please talk to Mommy and me?”
Airi grumbled and shook her head, and pushed further back against Yuzu’ her feet digging into her mother’s thighs.
“Airi that’s enough,” commanded Mei softly when she saw the look of discomfort on Yuzu’s face. “I know you’re upset, but right now you’re hurting Mama. Is that what you want? Mama and I to hurt because you’re hurting.”
“Yes,” came a muffled voice from beneath the piles of hair.
“Why,” asked Yuzu as she patted and rubbed her daughter’s back, fighting through the discomfort so she could look at Mei. “Why do you want Mommy and me to hurt?”
“Because you’re mean.” Airi’s feet shifted, thankfully away from Yuzu’s body but her mother knew better and pulled her back, though adjusting herself to avoid getting kicked. “I don’t wanna be around mean people.”
“What did we do to make you think we’re mean,” asked Mei, trying to see if she could see her daughter’s face again. “I know sometimes we are strict, but Mama and I have never been mean to you.”
“Yes you are,” huffed Airi managing to wiggle away from Yuzu and back under the desk, but this time facing her mothers. “You’re mean cuz you don’t want me!”
“That’s not true,” said Yuzu blinking back several tears as Mei slipped limply from the chair and next to her wife. “Airi, where did you hear something like that? Did someone at school say that to you? Or is it because we said we said no to Hina or about us not saying yes to you sleeping with us because we haven't figured that out yet."
Airi said nothing, her eyes focused on her mothers before lifting the collar of her shirt over her face and curled up into a ball, and when Yuzu reached for her, she didn’t react causing the women’s worry to grow when they heard her crying.
“Airi,” said Yuzu softly, pulling her daughter gently toward her. It was difficult as Airi refused to help, forcing Yuzu to do most of the heavy lifting until it came time for Yuzu to pull Airi into her lap.
Thankfully, Mei was able to help shift Airi into her wife’s lap and proceeded to stroke her hair while Yuzu attempted to cradle their daughter’s limp, sobbing form.
“Airi,” whispered Yuzu as she felt her daughter’s shaking form, “Airi I’m gonna pull down your shirt, is that okay?”
“No.” Airi jerked her face away from Yuzu’s hand before pressing it against her mother’s breast. “I don’t want you to see me.”
“How come?” Mei’s voice was a little louder than Yuzu’s but just as comforting, and she couldn’t resist moving around to where Airi was so she could help Yuzu. “Airi? Why don’t you want Mama and me to see you?”
“Because,” sniffed Airi fidgeting in her mother’s lap as she tried to make herself comfortable.
“Because why?” Yuzu squeezed Airi tight against her and kissed her forehead as she continued to pat her daughter’s back. “How come you don’t want us to see your pretty face?”
“I’m not pretty,” screamed Airi rolling over so that even though she was still in Yuzu’s arms, she was facing away from her. “I’m ugly, and no one wants me.”
“I don’t believe that,” said Mei, cautiously patting the thick mound of hair. “I don’t believe either of those things about you, so why are you saying them?”
“Cuz I’m an ugly kuronbo that’s why.”
“Airi,” whispered Yuzu, her hands shaking and eyes burning as she watched Mei’s hand move from their daughter’s hair to her face so she could begin wiping her eyes while Yuzu somehow managed to find the strength to lift her daughter and cradle her against her shoulder and kissed her through her tee-shirt. “Airi can I see your face please?”
Yuzu lifted her eyes to look at Mei and wasn’t surprised to see her eyes had grown red from crying and as much as she wanted to hold her, could tell by the way Mei was looking at her that she had to focus on their child.
“Be..because I want to look at you,” said Yuzu risking, pulling down the shirt enough to see the edge of Airi’s eyebrow. “Is that okay?”
“I dunno,” grumbled Airi, not moving away, but not allowing her to move forward.
“How about your eyes,” suggested Mei, her voice cracked from the strain of fighting back her tears. “Can Mama and I see your eyes?”
Airi squirmed and grumbled before shaking her head, doing her best to blindly find somewhere against her mother’s body to hide her face.
“I don’t wanna.”
Yuzu kissed the top of Airi’s head, her eyes still burning as her hands continued to hold her daughter against her while Mei slowly moved closer to them. There was the sound of voices coming from the hallway and Airi began to wiggle, but with a quiet reassurance, Mei got up and headed to the door. While Mei handled explaining the situation to the people in the hallway, Yuzu continued trying to break through Airi’s defenses, as she had with Hideki.
“Airi, why can’t Mommy and I look at you? If you don’t want us to look at you, it’s fine, but I’d like to see your face.”
“No you don’t,” grunted Airi, no longer fighting her mother, but she wasn’t truly engaging with her either. “No one wants to look at me; I’m ugly.”
“Why do you keep saying that?” Yuzu’s voice was soft, hoping that Airi would at least give her a reason. “Is it because you believe that or is it because someone said that to you?”
“It’s because I am,” sniffled Airi, her body curling up against Yuzus. “You guys don’t want me to sleep with you because people don’t want ugly kids like me.”
“That’s not true,” said Yuzu as Mei finally excused herself from her conversation and shut the door. “Mommy and I want you around, and so do Grandma and Grandpa, and your cousins. We love you, and we don’t think you’re ugly.”
Airi pulled down her shirt, exposing a red eye up at her mother and quietly asked, “Then why can’t I sleep with you?”
“We never said you couldn’t sleep with us,” said Yuzu with a smile at finally seeing part of her daughter’s face and feeling Mei’s hand on her shoulder. “We just said you had to take a bath before bed and if you were good, I think Mommy and I would have let you sleep with us.”
“Is that true Mommy?” Airi pulled her shirt down a bit more, exposing her other eye and looked at Mei who was standing behind Yuzu staring down at her.
“I think that’s still possible,” smiled Mei patting Airi’s hair. “But we need to talk about that before it happens because Mama and I are worried about you.”
“Is it cuz I said I'm ugly,” asked Airi fidgeting in Yuzu’s arms while making sure her eyes remained the only things they could see.
“There’s that,” said Mei sitting down next to her wife and daughter. “You know that we don’t think that about you, but there’s the other word you said and we’re wondering where you heard it.”
“Why?” Airi’s sunk into her shirt as if trying to protect herself from an unforeseen punishment. “Am I in trouble?”
“No,” answered Yuzu, thinking Mei would confirm the girl’s suspicions but was relieved when Mei’s answer echoed her own. “No, you aren’t in trouble sweetheart, it’s just that...”
Yuzu stopped to catch her breath and took a few deep breaths to try and control her shaking, and only began to calm down when she felt Mei’s shaking hand grip her shoulder, but it didn’t stop the tears that had started flowing down her cheeks.
At the sight of her mother crying, Airi finally pulled her shirt down, her green eyes burning with worry as she hugged Yuzu’s chest.
“Did I make you sad, Mama?”
“No,” said Yuzu, clutching Airi tight to her chest as Mei awkwardly wrapped an arm around them. “No, you didn’t make me sad, Airi. Mama’s just upset that someone made you feel that way and we couldn’t stop it.”
“They made Hideki feel bad too,” said Air, trying to sound strong while nuzzling Yuzu’s face and tickling her with her large bushy hair, “that’s why he punched them.”
“I take it this ‘they’ you’re referring to are the boys that Hideki got into a fight with?” Mei’s voice sounded firm but slow, a clear sign that she was doing her best to control her emotions.
“Yeah,” said Airi, hugging Yuzu tighter and struggled to breathe as Yuzu held onto her, her body shaking. “They were saying mean things to him, and I told them to stop. But they didn't, and then they started teasing me, and Hideki told me to leave it alone, but they kept making fun of us. Then they kept calling him names and then I kicked at one and said they shouldn’t pick on my brother but when I did that they…”
Airi’s voice grew quiet and she buried her face into Yuzu’s neck and refused to continue.
“Is that when they pushed you,” asked Yuzu, finally recovering enough to speak, “because you protected your brother.”
“They said he wasn’t my brother,” answered Airi with tears in her voice. “They said no one would wanna be my big brother because I was an ugly kuronbo and I should go live in the zoo with the other monkeys. Then one of them pushed me, and Hideki tried to help but the other guy pushed him, and when I got up, I got pushed again, and then Hideki punched them, and then it got really scary.
Airi stopped talking, afraid that what she was saying was hurting her mothers but managed to quietly say, "I don’t remember a lot after that except my head and knees hurting. I'm sorry."
“Oh, sweetheart.” Yuzu’s voice grew to a high pitch, and from behind her, she could hear Mei sniffing loudly. “I’m so sorry.”
“Why,” asked Airi feeling guilty at seeing her mother’s reactions to her story. “I was mean to you and Mommy so you why are you sorry and not mad at me?”
“Why would we be mad at you,” answered Mei, trying to give Airi a reassuring smile. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“But I was mean to you and Mama,” said Airi, pointing at Mei’s tear-stained face before squeezing Yuzu’s neck, “and I got Hideki in trouble.”
“That’s not true,” said Yuzu, pulling Airi off of her and setting her on the ground and smiling as she moved the hair out of her daughter’s face. “You stood up for your brother and tried to defend him, and he did the same for you when those boys were mean to you, so why would we be mad at you for that?”
“But we went to the police station,” said Airi as she tugged on the bottom of her shirt, “and Hideki got hurt before his trip and you and Mommy and Uncle...”
“Airi,” said Yuzu before pressing her finger to her daughter’s lip and gave her a tearful smile. “Airi, I know you’re feeling guilty, but none of that’s your fault so please believe me when Mommy and I don’t blame you for anything that happened tonight, okay? Can you do that?”
“Is that true?” Airi looked up at Mei who nodded back stiffly, though the girl could see the concern in her mother’s eyes. “Are you really not mad at me?”
“Yes it’s true,” answered Mei as she cupped her daughter’s cheek. “Mama and I aren’t mad; we’re just hurt that all of this had to happen today and that you and your brother got hurt in the process.”
“Why’d they want to hurt us?” Airi continued tugging at her shirt, her lower lip in her mouth as she avoided making eye contact with her mothers. “We didn’t do nothing, so why’d they say and do that stuff?”
“Honestly sweetheart, I wish we had a decent answer for that,” said Yuzu, taking both Mei and Airi’s hands and squeezing them tightly. “But the truth is that there are people who are always going to be like that. People who like making other people’s lives miserable just because they hate their lives or because other people are different. It might be their clothes, or their hair, or the things they eat…,”
“Or because they dance,” asked Airi with a hopeful smile, “or play instruments and are good at them?”
“Do people not like you because you’re good at your instruments,” asked Mei, following Yuzu’s lead and taking Airi’s other hand.
“Sometimes.” Airi shifted and sat with her legs crisscross and shrugged. “Some of the kids don’t like me cuz I play better than them, but there are lots of kids at music class that are better than me, but they don’t get picked on.”
“What do these kids do,” asked Mei, seeing that Yuzu was once again becoming too distressed to ask the questions they needed. “Do they push you or hit you?”
“One time a girl pulled my hair,” said Airi feeling the back of her head, “and sometimes they call me a weirdo or flick my ear or hit my arm and make me mess up when we do orchestra.”
“Do you tell the teacher,” asked Yuzu with a strangled voice. “Or have they seen any of this?”
“Sometimes they do.” Airi shrugged and sighed loudly. “But the kids always say it’s an accident when they hit my arm. But the teacher doesn’t see the other stuff, and the kids said that if I told they’d break my violin and cello and you and Momy said I had to be careful because instruments are expensive and I didn’t...”
Airi’s voice devolved into cries, prompting Mei and Yuzu to move next to her and once again embrace her as they tried to calm her down.
“Why don’t people like me,” sobbed Airi as she pressed her face into Mei’s side. “I’m nice, and I’m not mean to people so how come they don’t like me? Is it because my daddy doesn’t love me?”
“You have a daddy,” said Yuzu as she rubbed her daughter’s back consolingly, “a daddy that loves you.”
“Then how come he doesn’t want me,” cried Airi collapsing into Mei’s lap. “How come he’s not here? Is it cuz he’s in jail?”
“Your daddy isn’t in jail,” said Yuzu, moving some hair out of Airi’s face to reveal her daughter’s pouting lip and couldn’t help but smile. “Your daddy just lives far away and...”
“He is too in jail,” sniffed Airi as she began tugging on her hair. “Those boys said that if my dad looked like me he’s a bad guy and if he’s a bad guy he’s in jail.”
“Airi, you can’t believe everything people say,” Mei grunted as she lifted Airi and sat her down in her lap while Yuzu got up, wiped her eyes and headed over to a bookshelf. “The boys that picked on you and Hideki don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know our family, and they don’t know a thing about your father because if they did, I can guarantee you they wouldn’t say that about him.”
“How do you know,” huffed Airi as she crossed her arms. “You and Mama weren’t always married, so maybe she met him when you weren’t married.”
“You are right in that regard,” sighed Mei, fighting through the painful reminder that Yuzu had been with other people besides her. “Mama and I weren’t always married, and she did date, other people, just like I was married to Hideki’s father. But when it comes to you, your Mama and I made the decision together as to who would be your father, and we took our time in making sure he was someone you’d be proud of.”
“But what if he did something bad,” asked Airi struggling to process what it was her mother was telling her. “If he was a good person he’d be around, right?”
“In most cases, I think you’d be right.” Mei smoothed back some of Airi’s hair and smiled down at her. “But sometimes there are reasons a person can’t be around that don’t involve jail. Things like work or medical reasons can keep people from being together and when it comes to jail. Well, on most parts of the world, sometimes good people go to jail because they did something bad to help others and sometimes bad people don’t go to jail because they couldn’t prove in a court they did something bad.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Airi looking confused. “Why would a good person go to jail but not a bad person?”
“Because sometimes that’s the way things turned out,” said Mei, sounding almost as confused as her daughter. “Sometimes the world doesn’t always work the way we think it should, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to make it better.”
“I guess,” sighed Airi as she pulled out Mei’s ring and began to play with it, much like Hideki used to do. “But if my daddy's a good person and isn’t in jail, why are people mean to me and say that I’m ugly? Is it cuz I don’t look like you and Mama?”
“That is a big part of it,” confirmed Mei rubbing Airi’s cheek and giving her a sad smile just as Yuzu reappeared with a thick and worn out tome. “Some people don’t like the fact that you look different from us, but if you think about it, unless they’re identical twins, everyone looks different from everybody else. We all have different eyes, and fingers, ears, and toes, but if you want me, to be honest, all of these things on you are the same as your mama's.”
Airi giggled as Mei caressed each one of the aforementioned body parts, making both of them smile at finally hearing her laugh.
“But,” said Mei as she lifted Airi and placed her between her and Yuzu, “that doesn’t mean people should pick on you for it and if they do, they’re the one who is the problem, not you. And Mama and I won’t get mad at you if you defend yourself physically, but only as long as it is necessary. Mama and I won’t get mad at you as long as you do it as a last resort, are we clear?”
Airi nodded and turned to Yuzu who was smiling at her and holding up a book that had the characters reading “Aihara, Airi” on the front of it and pointed at it and asked, “What’s that?”
“This is your book,” said Yuzu placing it in Airi’s lap and opening it the first page that held a piece of paper. “See this? Can you tell me what this says?”
Airi nodded and slowly began reading, “Cer...ce...certif….icate...Certificate? Does it say ‘certificate?”
“That’s right,” said Yuzu smiling with proudly at Airi being able to make out the word while Mei chuckled and rubbed Airi’s back. “It says ‘certificate.’ Can you read the rest of it.”
“Uh huh!” Airi stared at the top of the paper again and read, “’Certificate of Live Birth.’ What’s that mean?”
“It’s your birth certificate,” said Yuzu kissing Airi’s hair and messing it a little. “It says that you were born in a hospital, see, right here that’s your name and your birthday.”
“I know that,” giggled Airi, “Those characters say that my name means ‘love’ and ‘pear.’”
“Good job,” said Mei before pointing at the place where Yuzu’s name was written. “Can you tell us what this says?”
“It says, ‘mother’ and ‘Aihara Yuzu,’” answered Airi proudly and pointing up at Yuzu. “That’s your name, Mama!”
“It is.” Yuzu looked up to see Mei smiling at her and couldn’t resist giving her a surprise kiss, chuckling at the look of shock on her wife’s face before pointing at the spot next to her name. “Now what does this say?”
Airi stopped for a minute, confused by the odd lettering and squinted her eyes before shaking her head and saying, “I dunno. I can’t read it. Is this English?"
“That’s okay,” said Yuzu, patting Airi on the head and nodding, “and yes it’s English. I told him to use his Japanese name and kanji, but he insisted on writing in English.”
“Who?” Airi’s eyes green eyes grew wide in wonder at what her mother was talking about. “Who wrote his name in...”
“Airi, calm down,” said Mei as she pointed at a spot that held the unfamiliar name, “calm down and think. You know who wrote this, don’t you?”
“I think so.” Airi screwed up her face and stared at the word next to the unfamiliar letters and slowly asked, “That says ‘father,’ right?”
“That’s right,” said Yuzu squeezing Airi’s side, “and if that says ‘father’ then what do you think the letters next to it say?”
“My daddy’s name,” whispered Airi bouncing excitedly. “That’s my daddy’s name! What’s his name?! I wanna know his name!”
“Okay, okay.” Yuzu chuckled and pointed at the page with a manicured nail and said, “Now since your daddy isn’t from Japan he wrote his name first and his family name second so...”
“That’s silly,” giggled Airi at her mother’s explanation. “Why’d he do that?”
“It’s just how he was raised,” answered Mei calmly. “In many countries, it’s common to address people by their given name instead of their family name, and since your father is only part Japanese and was raised in America it’s how he's always written his name.”
“My daddy is part Japanese,” exclaimed Airi excitedly, “and he’s American!? Wow!”
“Settle down,” ordered Mei, though she was smiling almost as much as her daughter. “But you need to stop interrupting or else Mama, and I won’t be able to answer your questions.”
Airi smiled and covered her mouth and turned to her mother and said through her hands, “Can you tell me his name, Mama?”
“Of course, sweetheart,” said Yuzu smiling at her daughter’s reaction and pointing at the name. “Well if we were to go by how we use names, his name would read ‘Davis, Kenneth’ or if we were to go by the Japanese name some of his family calls him ‘Kensuke’ using the characters ‘to serve” and ‘help someone’.”
“Oh,” said Airi staring at the name. “That’s a nice name.”
“It is,” said Mei turning the page to revealing several pictures of Yuzu throughout her pregnancy, including a picture of a very tired and pregnant Yuzu asleep on the couch, wearing, Mei’s old watermelon tee-shirt, and resting her head in the younger woman’s lap as she read a book. “It suits him very well.”
“How come,” giggled Airi pointing at the shirt Yuzu was wearing in the picture. “Mama how come you’re wearing Mommy’s shirt?”
“Because I was pregnant,” giggled Yuzu with a wink at a blushing Mei, “and it’s a very comfy shirt which is why Mommy never lets me wear it.”
“Got ya,” said Airi turning the page, revealing several pictures of Airi and her family visiting them in the hospital. Though contained an unfamiliar man with dark skin similar to Airi’s, brown eyes, short, cropped, black hair, and nervous smile on his face, dressed in jeans and t-shirt, holding a sleeping Airi who was wrapped in a blanket while Yuzu smiled tiredly for the camera.
“Is that my daddy?” Airi’s finger traced along the man’s face, her gaze fixated on the unfamiliar eyes staring up at her from the page.
“Yeah,” said Yuzu, kissing the top of her daughter’s head while Mei remained silent. “That’s him. He came to visit you a couple of days after you were born once everyone else got a chance to meet you.”
“Is that because nobody liked him,” asked Airi pointing at Hideki’s scowl. “Cuz Hideki looks like he’s mad.”
“Hideki was just uneasy about meeting your father,” said Mei chuckling as she remembered how Hideki had refused to let Ken out of his sight through the duration of his visit. “It was a difficult week Aand we were all tired, and your brother wasn’t sure of what to make of him, especially since he showed up at the last minute and we didn’t have time to prepare your brother.”
“Okay.” Airi nodded without really understanding why and turned the page to show several more pictures of her playing with her cousins, parties, holidays, her first steps, and taking baths and stopped when she saw another picture of her with her father, this one still including Hideki, but this time her big brother looked much more relaxed around him, despite Airi’s screaming face. There was also the familiar appearance of a twelve-year-old Hideki glaring intently at the man. “What’s this one?”
“That’s your second birthday,” said Yuzu giggling. “You’d just woken up from a nap and weren’t awake yet, but your daddy wanted to hold you since it’d been a long time since he saw you.”
“How come he doesn’t visit,” ask Airi staring up at her mothers. “Is he dead since he’s not in jail?”
“No he’s not dead,” said Yuzu turning the book away from the picture and toward the back where a thick stack of letters and birthday cards were resting. “You see all this? These are letters from him to you that says your daddy loves you very much and everything he's doing. But he’s very busy with work and when we met him, he made it clear that he wasn’t ready to be a daddy, but he knew that he wanted kids and that there were people like me and Mommy who wanted kids and decided to help by donating the thing that men….contribute…. when it comes to making babies.”
“That’s sperm, right,” asked Airi loudly making Yuzu laugh and Mei scowl.
“Where’d you learn that word,” asked Mei through gritted teeth, "and please don’t tell me that it was Hideki.”
“It wasn’t,” said Airi trying to hide her smile only to make Mei groan.
“Just when he was getting back in my good graces,” sighed Mei while Yuzu patted her back.
“Yes, that’s what your daddy contributed,” laughed Yuzu before tapping Airi’s nose, "and even though you used it correctly, we don’t want you saying it so casually. Am I clear?”
“Yes, Mama.” Airi nodded and fidgeted before asking, “Umm was that word those boys called me a word I’m not supposed to say either?”
“It is,” said Mei quietly. "That’s a cruel word that people use when they want to make people who have skin like yours and your father’s feel inferior because they’re different. There’s nothing wrong with the way you look and your Mama, and I want you to understand that it is a horrible word and you should not say it about yourself or anyone else.”
“Okay.” Airi leaned in and nuzzled Mei’s arm before picking up one of the letters sealed in a crisp, clean envelope, amazed to see their address and her name in very neat kanji written on the front of it. “Why does my daddy send me letters? How come his work doesn’t let him see me?”
“It’s because your daddy travels all over the world like Grandpa and I used to,” explained Yuzu with a shrug at Mei who was looking upset at Yuzu’s comparison.
“So he’s a teacher,” asked Airi excited at how much her mom might have in common with her dad. “What’s he teach? Or does he work for hotels?”
“He’s not a teacher,” said Yuzu taking the letter and closing the book. “He works for a video game company, and he has meetings all the time, and he ends up traveling for work all the time. He goes to conventions, press events, he knows a lot of famous people, but his work keeps him busy and sometimes he doesn’t get a day off for months so that’s why he can’t visit. He also does a lot of charity work that takes him out all around the world too. But that book has all the letters he's ever written you, and we used to read them to you when you were a baby, and this one is one he sent a couple of days ago and Mommy, and I will let you read it after everything’s calmed down.”
“Okay,” said Airi, beaming up at her mother. “Umm does he have pictures of me?”
“Too many,” snorted pointing at the computer. “He and your mama have one of those….drop box things on the internet, and she sends pictures to him all the time of everything we do. Even the videos she took of you at your concerts and competitions.”
“He saw all that?” Airi’s face darkened, and her face disappeared into her shirt again as she fell into Yuzu’s side. “Why’d you show him?”
“Because he bought you your instruments,” said Yuzu pulling down Airi’s smiling face. “So why wouldn’t I show him those videos?”
“He bought me my violin?” Airi bolted upright and stared at her mother. “My cello too?”
“He did,” answered Mei happy to see that Airi was slowly getting back to her old self. “That’s why we want you to be careful with them, not just because they’re expensive, but because we wanted you to succeed with them and because he wanted you to know he supports you. I thought we’d told you this and if we didn’t, I am very sorry we didn’t.”
“It’s okay, Mommy.” Airi got up and kissed Mei’s cheek before wiping away a stray tear. “It was an accident.”
“We should have told you sooner,” sighed Mei as she felt the tears continue to slide down her cheeks. “Maybe if we had you wouldn’t have questioned the fact that we love you.”
“I love you,” said Airi squeezing Mei’s neck and kissing her again. “You’re a good mommy, and I like you. You’re my best friend.”
“What about me?!”
Airi turned to see Yuzu sitting on her knees, her lower lip sticking out in a mock pout.
“I thought I was your best friend.”
“You can be my best friend too,” said Airi, stretching her arm in an attempt to wrap it around Yuzu’s neck but only managed to reach the collar of her shirt.
“I can deal with that,” said Yuzu moving closer and pressing Airi between them as she pulled Mei into their group hug. “But if Mommy and me are your best friends then who do you like more?”
“Hina and Hideki,” said Airi with a giggle before causing both her mother’s to stare at her in shock and begin tickling her.
“That’s not fair,” said Yuzu her fingers rubbing against Airi’s stomach.
“How can you have four best friends,” grumbled Mei tickling Airi’s cheeks and neck. “You’re only supposed to have one best friend, how can Mama and I be your best friends but you like Hina more?”
“Because,” laughed Airi through their assault, “you and Mama are best friends, and you have best friends, so I want lots of best friends!”
“I think that’s fair,” said Mei stopping her tickles while Yuzu lifted her off the ground and helped straighten her clothing. "Very well, you are allowed to have four best friends."
Airi’s hands shot up in the air, nearly hitting Mei in the nose while Yuzu barely managed to avoid getting smacked a second time.
“Settle down,” said Yuzu after making sure Airi was presentable but glad to see she was smiling again. “Are you feeling better?”
“A bit,” said Airi, staring at the book Yuzu had left on the floor. “I still feel sad though, and my heart hurts a bit. Will that go away?”
“It will.” Yuzu took her daughter’s cheeks in her hands and smiled at her. “It might take a couple of days or maybe a lot longer, but I promise it will stop hurting. But if it doesn’t remember that you have me, and Mommy, and Hideki, and everyone else to help you feel better, okay?”
Airi nodded and went to pick up the book and put it on the desk while Mei and Yuzu conversed quietly to themselves and only stopped when she arrived and asked, “Mommy? Mama? Can I go apologize to everyone?”
“Of course,” answered Mei holding a welcoming hand out and smiling when Airi took it and Yuzus. “Everyone is downstairs waiting to say goodbye, so we need to make it quick so they can all go home and get some sleep before we take Hideki to the airport.”
“Okay.” Airi grew quiet, and as they exited the room she couldn’t help but ask, “Umm, do you think I could talk to my daddy? Like the way you and Mommy used to talk when you went away for work?”
“I think that’s possible,” said Yuzu as they headed toward the stairs where they could hear everyone in the living room laughing as Hina yelled at Hideki to stop putting his feet behind his head and walking on his hands. “He did say that if you wanted to talk to him, he would be okay with it, but Mommy and I have to have a long talk about it first.”
“That’s cool,” said Airi earning a smile from Yuzu and a snort from Mei. “But since I can’t talk to him tonight can I have a sleepover with you, Mommy, and Hideki?”
“Nothing would make me happier,” said Mei smiling at Airi as they descended the stairs toward the comforting sounds of the people that loved them the most.