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Autumn's Bounty

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Chapter 13

 

As soon as Mei hung up the phone, she set it down and began taking inventory of all the food she still had to prepare for Hideki's coming home party.

 

Earlier in the day, she'd placed an order for a large deluxe sushi platter with a nearby, highly rated restaurant and was expecting it to be delivered within the next couple of hours. While this cut down on much of her cooking time, Mei still had a lot to do and was beginning to feel the pressure. Although it wouldn't be her first time preparing one of the items they would be eating, Mei was starting to seriously consider asking Yuzu to help her with the chicken winged gyoza she was planning on making. 

 

Though the directions weren't complicated, Mei had never made the dish and had only eaten it once. That one time being back when Yuzu and Udagawa had asked her to try them out as they were thinking of adding it as part of their expanded menu for the weekends and under their skilled hands they had turned out to be quite delicious and Mei felt it would suffice as a party dish for their son's return.

 

Initially, Mei thought the recipe she found wasn't too complicated, but as she read it, she began to have second thoughts. Not only because she was worried about the skin breaking on her, but also the fact that preparing the dish would require her to remove the bones and joints before she could even begin cooking it. 

 

Deciding that that step could wait, Mei turned her attention to chopping the cabbage, garlic, pork, and a few other ingredients before turning her attention to the large wing she'd placed in front of her as her test subject. 

 

Picking the wing up, Mei took a deep breath and pulled down on the bone and tried to prepare herself for what was to come.

 

After a couple of moments of struggle, there was a loud, echoing snap, and Mei let out a small scream of surprise, amazed that something so tiny could make such a noise.

 

"Airi and Hideki made far more noise when they were babies," she said to nobody as she began fumbling with the scissors and knife so she could remove the bones as the recipe instructed. "Now that I think about it,  they still do."

 

Sighing, Mei shook the cobwebs from her head at realizing she was speaking out loud and removed the bones.

 

With a grunt of satisfaction, Mei tossed the bones away and tried to salvage the bit of the skin she'd punctured as she looked out at the living room and the remains of Airi's playing, the unfolded laundry, and the remnants of their lunch and sighed at the mess that awaited her.

 

Despite the hiccup that was her unscheduled meeting, Mei's plan of working from home and take care of Airi while Yuzu worked had, for the most part, been successful.

 

Airi had been more than helpful in helping with the laundry, hadn't made any fusses, did most of her remaining school work, and had managed to take a short nap on the couch with her head in Mei's lap while her mother folded clothes and listened to some news reports while occasionally taking a break to go through the notebooks she'd brought home from the office.

 

It had been a peaceful day, and after finishing what little work she had brought home by one o'clock, she was ready to wake Airi up so they could go to the store and buy what they needed for dinner.

 

But like most best-laid plans, Mei's were interrupted by the necessity of her having to head to the school to deal with finding a replacement English teacher for both the middle and high schools as one had ended up going into labor , and the other one had ended up in an unfortunate car accident on his way back from a trip and they weren't sure when he would be available to come back, if ever.

 

Thus Mei's seemingly peaceful afternoon was spent digging possible candidates and after combing through them and making sure the rest of the staff were aware of her expectations in how they treated their new co-workers. Once she was sure that they would do as she requested, Mei left her final choice of candidates with Watanabe and went to run her errands and though she tried to resist it she felt herself growing more and more anxious the closer it got to finally having her family back under one roof.

 

"Ouch." Mei winced, as a small piece of bone from the chicken wing poked her finger. After taking a moment to make sure it wasn't bleeding, Mei put on a sterile glove as a precaution and began filling the wing before seasoning it before putting it in the oven.

 

"I really should add in some spice," she said aloud before rolling her eyes at once again, talking to herself and headed to the spice rack and pulled out a bottle of red pepper flakes. After returning to the counter, prepared to begin separating the meat into two bowls when she heard the sound of the front door opening and a familiar voice start shouting.

 

"Mommy! I'm home!"

 

"Mei! Mei, are you here?"

 

"I'm here," replied Mei, pulling off her glove and washing her hands before walking to the entryway just in time to have a barefoot Airi come barreling toward her. 

 

Bending down, Mei barely managed to open her arms in time for Airi to embrace her mother in a warm hug. 

  

"Mommy," squealed Airi, nuzzling her face into Mei's neck and hair. "I missed you."

 

Picking her daughter up, Mei held her close, her eyes momentarily closing as she hugged Airi before kissing her on the cheek. "I missed you too, so much. Mama said you had fun today, is that true?"

 

"Yep." Airi nodded and wrapped her arm around Mei's neck and kissed her mother's cheek. "Something smells good. What are you making?"

 

"I am trying to make stuffed chicken gyoza," explained Mei, taking Yuzu's hand and pulling her in for a quick kiss before leading the two of them into the kitchen. "But I'm not sure how it will turn out, I've never made it before."

 

 "I'm sure it'll be fine," said Yuzu before letting go of Mei's hand once they were in the kitchen and putting the box on the top shelf of the refrigerator, far out of Airi's reach. "You got this covered, Mei." 

 

 "You don't want to help," asked Mei, setting down Airi and settling in next to her to stare into the oven just as the combination of the onion, garlic, and ginger hit their noses, causing their stomachs to rumble. "And here I thought you'd jump at the opportunity to help me."

 

"How many times are we going to have this argument?." Snickered Yuzu as she blew Mei a kiss before getting herself a glass of water from the fridge. "I trust you not to burn down the house."

 

"I have never once almost burnt down the house," huffed Mei, standing up and splitting some of the mixture into another bowl and adding in the pepper flakes. "I may have burnt a few pans, but never the house or the apartment."

 

"What about that towel last week," asked Airi, turning away from the oven.

 

"I thought we agreed we wouldn't discuss that," snorted Mei while Yuzu tried not to choke on her water. "And I would appreciate it if you didn't encourage her. It's not as if you've never made a mistake in the kitchen. Besides, the towel was an accident. I didn't mean to leave it that close to the flame, and I wouldn't have if you two hadn't distracted me."

 

"I never said it was intentional." Yuzu reached out and took Mei's hand and kissed the top of her hand. "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings, and I mean it when I say that you're a heck of a lot better in the kitchen than when we first met. But if you want me to help, I'll help. Unless you want me to put away the rest of the groceries and clean up the living room."

 

"Let's wait until after our taste test," suggested Mei while she headed over to the pantry and pulled out a brown paper bag and grabbed a stool. "But first, Airi, I need some help finishing getting the ingredients for dinner ready. Can you get on the stool, please?"

 

"Why?" Airi looked down at the stool and then up at Mei, her eyes narrowed in suspicion.

 

"Because Mommy has a surprise for you."

 

"What surprise," asked Yuzu, setting down her glass and taking the bag from Mei, her mouth dropping open in shock. "When did you buy this?"

 

"While I was out shopping for dinner." Mei raised her nose and smirked at the look of anguish on Yuzu's face.

 

"But I thought you said we were going to that together?"

 

Mei chuckled at how similar her wife's face looked like their daughter's in that moment and quickly placed a kiss on Yuzu's nose, calming her instantly.

 

"That was dirty," snorted Yuzu, her face turning beet red as she rubbed her nose and looked away. "I'm still mad at you."

 

"I understand," whispered Mei leaning in and giving her another kiss on the ear before continuing. "And I'll make up buying these without you later, I promise. But if you're not too upset, would you like to help me give her her present?"

 

"I guess," answered Yuzu with an exaggerated sigh and kissed Mei on the forehead. "But I want to help her get dressed."

 

"Dressed for what," sighed Airi from her place on the stool looking dejected. "What present? Why do I gotta get dressed? I am dressed."

 

"All right," grunted Mei in defeat and gestured at Airi. "Airi, please turn around and Mama and I will give you your surprise."

 

"Are you trying to trick me?" Airi started to turn, but turned her head around and glared at her mothers in expectation. "Why can't I open the bag?"

 

"Because it's a surprise," explained Mei while Yuzu turned around to hide what she removed from the bag. "But I can promise you that we aren't going to trick you."

 

"Okay." Airi gave her mothers one last skeptical look before turning her back to them. "Do I have to close my eyes?"

 

"Yes, please," requested Yuzu, after peeking over her shoulder to make sure Airi wasn't looking, her smile beaming as she held up what she'd removed from the bag while Mei took the bag.

 

"Okay," sighed Airi. "They're closed."

 

Taking the lead, Mei hid the bag behind her back and looked over Airi's shoulder, to confirm that Airi's eyes were clamped shut and nodded at Yuzu.

 

After getting the okay, Yuzu unfurled what was in her hands and draped it over Airi's head.

 

"What is that," asked Airi after the straps around her neck and Yuzu's hands begin tying something to her back. "Is that a bib?"

 

"Sort of," chuckled Yuzu as she finished tying a neat little bow. "Okay, turn around and open your eyes."

 

With some help from Yuzu, Airi slowly turned around on the stool and opened her eyes and looked at her mothers then down at her chest, and raised an eyebrow at the green cat-shaped apron Yuzu had fastened to her body.

 

"It's an apron," said Airi, unsure of what to make of the gift. "Why'd you buy me an apron?"

 

"To go with these." Mei pulled a set of children's cooking knives out and handed them to Airi, whose eyes grew a little wider as she began slowly running in place on the stool.

 

"I get to help?" Airi's voice caught in her throat as she stared at the knives. "I get to help cook? And with my own knives?"

 

"Only when an adult is with you," said Yuzu as she helped Airi open the container. "Right Mei?"

 

"That's right." Mei nodded and began removing the next batch of ingredients after separating the pork and adding the chili flakes to one. "And just because we bought you these, the rule about not touching the grown-up knives still stands. Do I make myself clear?"

 

"Yep." Airi nodded, her face all smiles as Yuzu placed the plastic knives down on the counter while Mei set out green onions, flour, and several more ingredients along with a few bowls. "What kind of knife is that?"

 

Yuzu watched Airi's finger point at the biggest one and said, "That's a chef's knife. You use it for all sorts of things."

 

"And this one?" Airi pointed at a smaller, narrower one.

 

"That's a paring knife," explained Mei. "You use it for peeling ingredients or cutting things while you hold them. But for now, Mama is going to help you use the chef one to chop up some of these."

 

Mei handed Yuzu a large pile of freshly washed green onions and some cheese.

 

"What are you gonna do Mommy," Airi asked as Yuzu helped her wash her hands.

 

"I'm going to start getting the ingredients for the batter ready," explained Mei as she began mixing some dry ingredients. "We're having okonomiyaki to go along with the chicken wings."

 

At hearing they were having one of her favorite dishes, Airi's hands flew excitedly into the air, nearly hitting Yuzu in the face only to calm down seconds later thanks to the cold look Mei was giving her and the frightened look on Yuzu's face.

 

"Airi," said Yuzu after several deep breaths while Mei did her best not to scold Airi. "You can't do things like that when you're helping in the kitchen. If you'd have been holding your knife, you could have poked me in the eye or cheek. Or if Mommy was cooking something and you hit a pot handle, you could have burned her or worse. You need to be careful."

 

"I'm sorry." Airi lowered her hands and stared at her feet. "I wasn't trying to hurt you. Am I still allowed to help?"

 

"As long as you promise to be careful." Yuzu pointed at the plastic knives. "These are not toys and you need to remember that. As long as you you promise to be safe, Mommy and I will let you help. Right, Mei?"

 

"Correct." Mei set aside the bowl of dry ingredients and then turned to put the chicken wings and pork into the fridge. "But, if you do something you aren't supposed to, then Mama and I won't allow you to help us until we think you're ready to try again."

 

"Got it." Airi nodded and waved Yuzu toward her, and once her mother was close enough, wrapped her arms around her neck and squeezed. "I'm sorry, Mama and Mommy. I promise I'll be safe."

 

"Good girl."

 

Yuzu kissed Airi's cheek and messed up her hair before washing her hands again. Once she was ready, Yuzu began guiding Airi through cutting the onions while Mei pulled out bacon, some shrimp, and a few more vegetables and joined her wife and daughter, but not before taking a quick picture of them.

 

After saving it to her phone, Mei could see Yuzu give her a peripheral glance and a quick smile. Returning it, Mei watched and smiled at how focused Airi was on Yuzu's lesson and despite her desire to help, remained content sit back and observe.

 

Mei knew that if she or Airi said something, Yuzu would have no issue with letting herMei help Air,  but the younger woman thought it best to step back and let Yuzu take the lead this time. Thanks to Yuzu's previous job, Mei was well aware of how disappointed she was in missing out on those moments when Hideki was growing up so Mei had no qualms in letting Yuzu take her time in teaching Airi. 

 

As she watched them, Mei smiled as she remembered some of her early cooking lessons with Yuzu and how she used to huddle against her, guiding Mei's hands in a similar, albeit more intimate way than she was with Airi's and the way Yuzu would smile and exclaim how delicious the meals were, even when some of them ended up being complete catastrophes.

 

Luckily for Mei, Yuzu was gentle with her criticisms which, giving Mei the confidence she needed to continue improving not only her cooking skills but also her ability to ask for help and even use it as an excuse to spend time some much needed alone time with the blonde.

 

That time alone together was something Mei wouldn't trade for anything as she felt it was one of the critical components in making their relationship stronger.

 

Even if the meal didn't take long to cook, the preparation, the planning, the shopping, each step in the process got the two of them talking and learning more about each other, and Mei had the notes to prove it, though only Yuzu was aware of it.

 

While Mei had no problem showing off pictures of them after their reconciliation, their wedding, dating, or the kids births, the notes she kept of the things she and Yuzu had learned together and the growing pains they went through were something she wasn't willing to share with anyone; at least not yet.

 

Though Mei had stopped taking notes shortly before she and Yuzu had decided gotten married, they were kept in a small box up in the attic where should either of them find it necessary, they could go and grab them to use as a way to help the kids through some problem they might have with a person they were dating.

 

Thankfully with Airi, they were still years from having to give out such advice, but in Hideki's case, they knew that at some point, he would come to them or his father for help, and they wanted to be ready.

 

But, as she sat there watching her wife and daughter, Mei swept those thoughts away and focused on the smile that had taken over Airi's face as she held up a plastic bowl containing a series of mostly evenly chopped green onions and asked, "How do they look, Mommy?"

 

"They look excellent," replied Mei with a soft smile. "Now, what do you want to try next? The bacon or the cheese? Or how about the shrimp?"

 

"I want to try the chicken." Airi pointed at the oven as she patted her stomach. "My tummy is growling, and it smells really good. Can we eat it?"

 

"I'm not sure. Let me check."

 

"It does smell good," sighed Yuzu after grabbing the bacon and cleaning off Airi's chef's knife. "Seriously, Mei, I think you outdid yourself this time."

 

"Thank you, Yuzu. That means a lot coming from you."

 

"You're welcome," said Yuzu, blushing as Mei kissed her cheek after grabbing a meat thermometer from the drawer.

 

Smirking at her wife's reaction, Mei opened the door to the oven and was instantly assaulted by a wave of warm air, garlic, soy sauce, pork, and ginger flooding her nose, causing her stomach to rumble and remind her of just how hungry she was.

 

"Is it ready," asked Airi, stopping her cutting of the bacon and watching as Mei put on an oven mitt and begin pulling out the small pan.

 

"Not yet," said Yuzu, gesturing for Airi to focus on the bacon. "Mommy's making sure it's cooked enough so we don't get sick."

 

"But it smells so good," whined Airi while she allowed Yuzu to continue guiding her.

 

"I know." Yuzu laughed and smiled while Mei kept her eye on the thermometer. "But remember how Hideki got sick when we went to Hawaii last year?"

 

"Yeah." Airi's face immediately turned to one of revulsion after hearing her mother's words. "He made the bathroom stinky and took a lot of showers. He also plugged up the toilet and I had to use your bathroom."

 

"A simple 'yes' would have been enough," sighed Mei after putting the wing back into the oven to allow the skin to crisp a little more while Yuzu tried not to laugh. "But what you said is why I'm being careful Airi. It's one thing if I made a mistake and made it taste bad, it's another if I didn't cook it properly and you got sick. You don't want to get sick, do you?"

 

"No." Airi's head whipped back and forth as she spoke. "I don't like being sick."

 

"Neither do we," agreed Mei as she turned the broiler on, her ears perking up at the sound of the skin sizzling. "That's why we take our time, make sure the ingredients are fresh and clean and cook them properly, so as not to get sick."

 

"Then I'm gonna do that too when I cook," declared Airi before she and Yuzu returned to her cutting and began singing.

 

"Yummy, yummy, tummy, tummy, gonna make good food for Mama and Mommy."

 

Mei and Yuzu both exchanged a smile at Airi's song and listened to her continue to sing as she and Yuzu continued their preparations, only stopping to take a break once Mei had declared the food was ready for testing, much to Airi's delight.

 

"It looks so good," exclaimed Airi as she watched Mei cut the chicken into individual chunks for them to test. "The skin's all crispy too."

 

"That was the idea," sighed Mei, plating each of them a small serving. "But it won't do if it doesn't taste good."

 

"Quit doubting yourself," chuckled Yuzu grabbing her plate and a fork and turning to Airi. "Come on, Airi. Let's show Mommy that..."

 

Before she could finish, Airi stabbed her serving and crammed it into her mouth and began chewing vigorously, her face glowing as she devoured the chicken and pork, the garlic and ginger washing over her tongue as the sound of the skin and cabbage crunching filled her ears.

 

"gff 'ughd," she exclaimed through a mouthful of food while Mei and Yuzu rolled their eyes.

 

"Honestly," sighed Mei before popping her portion into her mouth with Yuzu following right behind her.

 

While Yuzu and Airi were all squeals of delight, Mei chewed more slowly, trying to figure out if there was anything she screwed up.

 

The pork and chicken were both cooked through enough, and the garlic, ginger, and other accompanying ingredients all blended in well together, but she wasn't sure she was satisfied with the results.

 

Swallowing, Mei reached out for another portion and noticed that the only piece remaining was a small portion of the wing and turned her attention to Airi who was in the middle of double-fisting a couple of servings while Yuzu made do with a piece even smaller than the one she'd left on the plate for Mei.

 

"I guess that means the dish is a success," sighed Mei as Airi licked her fingers clean while Yuzu tried to get her to wash her hands in the sink

 

"I guess so," Yuzu smirked and finally managed to get Airi to clean her hands and face appropriately before putting her back on the stool so they could continue their lesson.

 

"And your thoughts," asked Mei as she began putting away the sliced bacon, cabbage, and shrimp for later. "From the look on your face, it seemed like you enjoyed it. Do you have any suggestions?"

 

"Not really," said Yuzu, taking a moment to keep a careful watch on Airi's hands as she finished cutting up some onions for her serving of okonomiyaki. "All I can think of is that it needed a bit more kick to it."

 

"I've already taken care of that." Mei removed the bowl of ground pork she'd prepared with some of the pepper flakes that Yuzu and Hideki had both grown fond of over the years. "So, don't worry about it, you will have plenty of kick when it's time to eat."

 

"Told you you had nothing to worry about," chuckled Yuzu before giving Mei a kiss that caused the younger woman's ears to burn bright red once again.

 

"Thank you for your confidence."

 

Mei gave Yuzu a shy smile, and once they finished their preparations, Mei tried to return to her extra chores, only for Yuzu to tell her to sit down on the couch and relax while she and Airi finished the work.

 

Knowing she would be fighting a losing battle, Mei turned on the television and by the time Airi and Yuzu had finished, Mei had finished two episodes of a documentary series she'd meant to watch and once it was over she finally took notice of the time and rushed to check her phone for any messages from Hideki, but grew disappointed when she didn't see any.

 

"What's the matter, Mommy," asked Airi as she approached with a bottle of juice and offered it to Mei. "You look sad."

 

"It's nothing." Mei sighed and picked Airi up and pulled her into her lap before opening the juice. "Mommy was expecting a message from somebody, but they didn't send it. But it's not a big deal; I'm sure I'll hear from them soon enough."

 

"Is it a friend," asked Airi after taking a sip of the juice while Mei turned on a children's anime for her while Yuzu sat next to them and finished some paperwork on her laptop.

 

"In a sense." Mei could hear Yuzu chuckling from her computer and smiled along with her. "They're supposed to visit and I'm beginning to get worried about whether or not they're going to show up."

 

"Oh." Airi took another sip of juice and kicked her feet gently while the main characters of her show began playing a game of dodgeball. "Is that why we're cooking so much food?"

 

"Yes." Mei wrapped her arms around Airi's waist and smiled. "Not only that, but I took the time to order something extra special to go along with  dinner."

 

"Is it like the cakes Mama made," asked Airi, bouncing excitedly in Mei's lap. "Or is it something yummier?"

 

"I don't know about that," chuckled Mei, as she made sure that Airi didn't spill their juice. "Mama is one of the best cooks I know, so that would be difficult for me to do. But I think you'll be happy with what I ordered. But it has to be a surprise, so don't ask me what it is."

 

"What if I gave you some juice," asked Airi holding up the large bottle and grinning. "Would you tell me if I did that?"

 

There was a snort from Yuzu and Mei chuckled at Airi's gall and said, "Airi, we're already sharing the juice. It doesn't make sense to offer me the juice if I'm already drinking it with you."

 

"What if I gave you all the juice." Airi's eyes narrowed, and she extended the bottle to Mei again, her smile growing even wider as she tried to wiggle her eyebrows. "If you had all the juice, then would you tell me?"

 

"That's very tempting," answered Mei before taking another sip. "But I'm content with sharing with you, so you will have to wait until it arrives."

 

Airi let out a groan and leaned back into Mei's chest while her mother smiled and caressed her hair as the show continued to play.

 

It wasn't particularly impressive, mostly fluff and flashy animation, but it kept Airi's attention, and before long, Yuzu shut down her laptop and rested her head on Mei's shoulder and let out a contented sigh that echoed the way Mei felt as the sun slowly began to set, and the sky shifted from a pale blue to a calming orange.

 

"So no word yet," asked Yuzu after Airi slipped off the couch and ran toward the bathroom.

 

"No," said Mei as she grabbed her phone and checked her messages. "But it's most likely due to him being tired or forgetful. I'm used to it by now, though, you should be as well."

 

"Oh, I am." Yuzu's head shifted from Mei's shoulder to her lap and her body proceeded to stretch out along the couch. "You get the same way when you're focused on your work."

 

"Yes, but I'm working," explained Mei as she stroked Yuzu's cheek. "He's more than likely goofing off."

 

"It's either that or he forgot to charge his phone, or he just didn't turn it on," suggested Yuzu, turning Mei's gaze toward her and gave her a reassuring smile.

 

"You're probably right," replied Mei, though she hardly sounded confident in her wife's suggestion.

 

"I wasn't trying to be right," grunted Yuzu as she sat up and pressed her forehead against Mei's. "I was trying to be comforting. But somehow, I think I'm not doing a good job."

 

"I'm sorry." Mei closed her eyes and massaged her forehead against Yuzu's and let out a loud sigh. "I'm just worried. You're doing an exemplary job, Yuzu. I'm sorry if I made you feel like you weren't."

 

"It's okay." Yuzu kissed her wife's forehead and smiled. "If you want, we can check online and see if his flight landed, would that help?"

 

"No." Mei took Yuzu's hand and pressed her lips against it and smiled. "But thank you for helping Yuzu. I suppose the only thing we can do right now is to wait and see what happens and if he calls, he calls. Though he better get home soon because I don't think we're going to be able to keep Airi out of the fridge much longer."

 

"Yeah, you're right about that," grunted Yuzu as she stood up and stretched. "But do you mind telling me what you ordered? I promise I won't tell."

 

"I will politely decline," answered Mei as she began cleaning up the small mess that had somehow managed to form around them as they watched television. "You're going to have to remain in the dark just like Airi."

 

"You're such a buzzkill," grumbled Yuzu as a knock came from the front door and heard Airi came speeding down the hall who was for some reason already dressed in her pajamas.

 

"I'll get it," she screamed, turning toward the entryway.

 

"Airi don't..."

 

But Mei's warning came too late and there was a loud thud followed by a clattering noise, and both Mei and Yuzu bolted to where they heard the noise and found Airi disentangling herself from the umbrella rack and the shoes, her face flushed in embarrassment.

 

"Are you okay," asked Mei while another knock echoed from the door. "Give us a minute."

 

A muffled voice said something that sounded like, "All right," and Mei continued to help Airi out of the mess while Yuzu cleaned it up.

 

"Airi, Airi, are you hurt," asked Mei again as she lifted the legs of Airi's pajama bottoms and looked for cuts only to see a few red spots that would probably end up bruising.

 

"I'm fine," said the girl quietly as she rubbed her elbow. "Am I in trouble?"

 

"No," said Yuzu in relief. "But stand back with Mommy while I answer the door, okay?"

 

"I wanna answer it," said Airi stepping forward and pointing at the door. "I wanna see if it's Mommy's surprise."

 

"It's fine, Yuzu," said Mei with an air of defeat. "No matter what, it seems inevitable that any secret I try to keep today will eventually get spoiled."

 

"You can help me, Mommy," said Airi taking Mei's hand. "Mama, can Mommy open the door?"

 

"Fine." Yuzu groaned and stepped aside, extending her arms like a butler welcoming someone into the home. "Your wish is my command."

 

Airi giggled while Mei shrugged apologetically and reached and removed the locks on the door.

 

"Go ahead," urged Mei, motioning toward the handle. "Mama and I will be right here with you."

 

Airi nodded and approached the door, her small hand extending outward until finally it came to rest on the handle and pushed down.

 

There was a small click and the sound of the door creaking open as Airi slowly opened it to reveal a frustrated looking teenage girl with black hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, wearing a pair of worn shorts and a faded tee-shirt and in her arms she was holding a large black plastic bag and did her best to smile when she saw the three women in the doorway.

 

"Yui-chan," squeaked Airi stepping out of the way to allow her brother's best friend to enter the house. "Hi, Yui-chan!"

 

"Hey, Airi," grunted Yui holding up the large bag as she used her feet to take off her shoes. "Some delivery guy was on his way up and I took this from him. I hope you don't mind."

 

"Not at all," answered Mei as she felt her stress melt away upon having her delivery and her son's best friend standing in their house. "Thank you so much for your help...is everything all right? You look upset?"

 

"Considering the hell he put me through, let's just say he's lucky to be alive." Yui ran her hand across her face and let out an exhausted sigh before nodding at Yuzu. "Yuzu-san, it's good to see you."

 

"It's good to see you too," said Yuzu hugging the younger woman. "I know she doesn't look it, but you just made Mei's day. Where is he?"

 

"He should be coming up any second now," grunted Yui with a lazy wave at the door. "Mei-san, where do you want me to put this? KItchen table or the fridge?"

 

"The fridge please," said Mei as she peered past Yui, hoping to catch a glimpse of her son. "You'll be staying for dinner of course?"

 

"You better believe it." Yui smiled and winked at Airi, who was clapping her hands excitedly. "I'll probably spend the night too if that's okay? My parents are gone, and the house is empty, and I kind of want to spend the last few days of break having fun."

 

"You're more than welcome to stay tonight," said Mei with a polite smile. "We'd love to have you, and please feel free to make yourself at home. There are drinks, and we'll be starting dinner soon. We'll be having okonomiyaki if that suits you along with stuffed chicken wing gyoza."

 

"That sounds delicious," said Yui before making the turn toward the main living space.

 

"Yui-chan's gonna spend the night," cheered Airi, jumping up and down in excitement, oblivious to the comments Yui and her mothers had made. "Can she sleep in my room? Can we share a futon? Can we stay up and watch movies?"

 

"We'll see," said Yuzu, placing her arms on her daughter's shoulders in an attempt to calm her down. "But we need to eat dinner first before we decide any of that."

 

"Okay!"

 

Without a second thought, Airi reached for the door and practically slammed it, resulting in a loud banging noise and a voice shouting, "Ow! What the hell was that for?"

 

Letting out a frightened squeak, Airi ran to Yuzu and hid behind her legs as a large hand reached through the crack and pushed the door open to reveal a baggy-eyed, jet-lagged Hideki dressed in a red t-shirt and shorts with his left knee wrapped in a brace. His eyes were red, most likely due to a lack of sleep, and his face had a hint of stubble to it. But all in all the sight of him standing in the doorway had Mei and Yuzu on the verge of tears.

 

"Jeez, I'm sorry okay? I didn't mean to leave my phone on in my suitcase. It was an accident and I forgot about it. That doesn't mean you have to..."

 

Before he could finish, there was a flurry of movement as Mei, Yuzu, and Airi all scrambled to embrace him. 

 

"Okay, okay," grunted Hideki as he felt Mei and Yuzu's arms tighten around his chest while Airi clutched his right leg while his left twinged in pain. "Come on, you guys, seriously, this is embarrassing. What if someone walked by?"

 

"They'll just think it's cute," chuckled Yuzu, kissing her son on the cheek as she clutched him tightly. 

 

"Cut it out, Mama. I'm not a little kid any more," grumbled Hideki just as a flash filled the entryway. "Not funny, Yui!" 

 

"Ah, quit your whining," cackled Yui before snapping a few more pictures. "Think of it as payback for making me wait for two hours because your dumb ass forgot to call me and tell me you landed, on top of the money you owe me for all the power you wasted in my car."

 

"Two hours," snapped Mei, lifting her head and scowling at her son. "You left her waiting for two hours?"

 

"It was an accident," said Hideki with an air of annoyance. "I forgot about my phone and wanted to let it charge a bit before I made any calls, that's why she had to wait so long, and I'm going to pay her once you guys let me go." 

 

"Have it your way," snorted Mei, reluctantly letting her son go, followed by Yuzu, who pouted but knew that in spite of his protests, he enjoyed the attention.

 

"You gonna let me go, Airi," asked Hideki, pulling out his wallet and tossing a couple of thousand-yen bills to Yui. "Or are you gonna hang onto me all night?" 

 

"Welcome home, Hideki," announced Airi as she looked up at her brother, making him blush.

 

"Thanks, Kiddo." Hideki smiled and patted his sister on the head before looking at Mei and Yuzu expectantly. "Don't you guys have something you want to say?" 

 

"No," said Mei, crossing her arms and turning her gaze away from her son. "You said it was embarrassing, so why should I say anything?" 

 

"Come on, Mom," groaned Hideki, picking Airi up and putting her on his shoulders. "I know you've been dying to do that and if it means that much to you, you can hug me as much as you want. Mama, you can too." 

 

"You sure," asked Yuzu stepping next to Mei while Airi leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Hideki's cheeks and clasped her hands under his chin. "You aren't worried about how embarrassing it'll look in case someone you know walks by?" 

 

"I promise I won't get embarrassed," yawned Hideki before rubbing his eyes. "I'm just tired and you guys caught me off guard. I'm happy you guys missed me. I mean it." 

 

"What do you think, Mei," asked Yuzu tugging on her wife's hand. "Do we believe him?" 

 

Mei took a deep breath and, after a few moments, looked at Yuzu and then at Hideki and saw the sincerity in his eyes and the smile, so very much like her own, staring back at her while Airi's big toothy grin beamed at her from atop his shoulders. 

 

Sighing, Mei nodded and shrugged before saying, "I suppose so." 

 

"Good," giggled Yuzu pulling Mei toward Hideki and unlike earlier, hugged him gently. 

 

As their arms wrapped around him, Mei and Yuzu felt Hideki's arms do their best to return the gesture, and without meaning to, the two women quietly said, "Welcome home, Hideki." 

 

"Thanks, guys," said Hideki, ignoring the pain in his leg and instead allowing himself to get momentarily lost in the warmth that was spreading through his body. "It's good to be home.