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Autumn's Bounty

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Chapter 1

~Seven years after the end of Uncomfortable Truths~

"Excuse me! Miss! We're ready for our check!"

"I'll be right there!"

Aihara Yuzu waved at the customers who were waving her down and smiled, pleased to see the restaurant so busy.

It'd been seven years since she'd agreed to open this restaurant with Udagawa, with her running this one while Udagawa ran the other one five stops away.

It had taken a long time for them to find an appropriate spot for this restaurant finally, but when they did they both knew instantly that they'd found the perfect place. It was close enough to the train station to garner them decent foot traffic, but not so close that any noise coming from the station would annoy the customers seeking to relax and luckily for them

Like the one she'd worked at in her youth, there was a long counter with several plush chairs, along with tables, chairs, and booths for those looking to stay longer, on top of a more casual dress code. Thankfully, this change in dress code had worked to the restaurants benefit as the relaxed atmosphere appealed to many high school and college kids, ensuring that they were never short of customers or people looking for part-time time work and kept Yuzu busy most of the time.

But even with a steady customer base, that didn't mean they didn't have their slow periods, usually around the beginning of exams and for the past two months, they'd had a large enough lull in business that Yuzu had to cut her staff early most nights. Thankfully, it was summer break and since exams were over her customers now had more free time which allowed her to offer overtime to those workers old enough to stay late and a few of them took her up on it, though not enough to keep her from working the front of the house.

While she was more than happy enough to help her staff, Yuzu's back had other ideas and thanks to the twinges of pain did little to improve her mood. Thankfully, it was almost time to begin the closing prep, and she was looking forward to going home to a nice hot bath before joining her family for dinner.

Yuzu had been looking forward to this dinner for a while as they would be celebrating Hideki's birthday along with him heading away for the summer to take part in a month-long college preparatory camp. On top of that everyone from Rena, Udagawa, and their kids would be there along with her parents.

" Miss!? We're still waiting for our check!"

"Sorry!"

Yuzu finished taking the customers she'd been helping and dropped off their order before handing the noisy customers their total.

"I'm sorry about that," Yuzu said with a cheery but strained smile. "It's been a while since we've been this busy and I got a little distracted. If you'd like I can give you two each a complimentary cup of coffee to go, how's that sound?"

The man and woman both stared up at her in amazement, which wasn't surprising given that she was closing in on forty and working the front of a cafe, but it usually was because of people recognizing her thanks to the picture she kept up identifying her as the owner.

"Umm, that sounds lovely," said the woman taking the slip of paper from Yuzu and began looking it over.

"Same order to go or would you like something different? I recommend our iced latte; we have a nice bitter blend that we've been selling for a while but we have this new blend we just got in that has a hint of strawberry and chocolate somehow mixed in. It's surprising, but not overpowering."

"The second one, for both of us," asked the man to his companion. "Sounds like a nice change of pace, right dear?"

The woman nodded and handed Yuzu the money before and began looking out the window.

With a smile and a nod, Yuzu took care of their bill and coffee and thanked them before returning to the window to pick up another order, but when she went to pick up the tray a violent jolt shot up her back, nearly causing her to drop the tray, catching the attention of several customers and her employees.

"Are you okay, Aihara-san," asked a young woman named Kumiko that had been working for her the past couple of years. "Is it your back again?"

"Yeah," answered Yuzu through a series of heavy breaths. "I'll be fine just...just gimme a minute."

"No you won't," answered the woman with an icy glare while placing a firm grip on the tray, "and neither will we if Mei-san finds out that we allowed you to work in this condition. I'll tell the others what's going on so shoo."

"All right," chuckled Yuzu, feeling slightly embarrassed at the looks the customers were giving her, the owner, being bossed around by a woman several years her junior. "Just promise you'll come and get me when Mei shows up, okay?"

"Yeah, yeah," grunted the younger woman as she lifted the heavy tray. "Now go sit before I have the assistant manager drag you back."

"Fine," groaned Yuzu as she headed toward the back. When she reached the door, Yuzu couldn't resist turning to make sure the customers were okay with the change. After seeing them smile at the younger woman, Yuzu headed toward her office.

"Man, sometimes I wonder which one of us is the boss," groaned Yuzu as she dropped into her large comfy chair and stared up at the ceiling while her back continued to throb. "But when she's right, she's right."

Opening the drawer, Yuzu pulled out a small bottle containing a couple of muscle relaxers and proceeded to break one in half. After swallowing one half and bottling the other, Yuzu pushed the chair out just enough so that she could put her feet up on the desk and once she was settled she stared around her office and let out a loud bored sigh. Even though it was close to closing time, Yuzu hardly had anything to do since she'd already caught up on her paperwork for the week and needed to figure out what to do until Mei arrived.

Picking up her phone, Yuzu began flipping through all of her messages, hoping that somebody had messaged her, but there had been nothing since she'd messaged Harumi earlier that morning and she'd been too busy to talk to anyone, including Mei. Outside of a quick breakfast and a kiss goodbye, they hadn't had much of a chance to talk over the past few weeks. Usually, this would have been fine, since Yuzu normally took Saturday afternoons and Sunday off, so she and Mei had the chance to go on a date or spend time with the kids. But lately, Mei had been too swamped even to take Saturdays off, leaving the younger woman too drained to do more than read a book and take a bath when she did manage to get a day off.

I'll make us breakfast in bed tomorrow, thought Yuzu before setting her phone down on her chest and reclining once more. Maybe omelettes and fruit, I think she'd like that.

Rubbing her eyes, Yuzu let out a loud yawn and glanced at the clock and figured that since she had half an hour before she had to help with closing and to prepare for the following day, she may as well set her alarm and try and take a nap. Letting out one last yawn, Yuzu placed a spare towel on her face and closed her eyes, allowing herself to fall into the inky blackness of sleep before feeling a gentle touch on her shoulder

"What the…," shouted Yuzu when she felt a finger on her neck; her violent awakening sending her toppling to the floor.

On top of the dulled pain in her back, Yuzu felt a jolt of pain through her shoulder and head as she hit the concrete, followed by the sound of a familiar voice asking her if she was all right.

"Mei?"

Yuzu pulled the pulled the towel off her face and winced at the renewed pain in her back as well as her eyes and head.

"Mei, what...what time is it? What are you doing here?"

"It's after eight," sighed Mei helping Yuzu up off the floor. When she was up, Yuzu noticed the concerned look Mei was giving her and felt her cheeks grow warm when she felt Mei's hand begin inspecting her back and forehead. As Mei examined her, Yuzu couldn't help but notice the faint hints of gray that had appeared Mei's formerly sleek, shiny black hair, and the small wrinkles that were forming across her face, but unlike Yuzu, Mei didn't try to hide it behind make up or hair-dye and Yuzu found her all the more beautiful for it.

"Yuzu are you listening to me?" Mei's face went from completely worried to mildly annoyed, and Yuzu's face turned even redder when she realized that while she saw Mei's mouth moving she hadn't bothered to absorb a single thing her wife had said.

"Uhh, I may have gotten a little distracted," laughed Yuzu as she scratched her head. "Do you think you could repeat it for me?"

Mei gave out an exasperated sigh, but before she began speaking, Yuzu couldn't help but notice the small smile that flashed across her face before her face reset to its usual stoic look.

"I said that it's after eight and that I'm here because we agreed that I'd come to pick you up and Kumiko-san said you were back here because your back was bothering you again. I've been trying to wake you up for the past ten minutes so I could check on you, but you were rather out of it, and when I managed to finally wake you up, you fell, and you know the rest."

"Yeah, sleeping like that was a bad idea," chuckled Yuzu as she rubbed her shoulder, wincing at the pain that shot through it.

"Well that's your fault," snorted Mei as she stared around at the mess Yuzu's fall had made and began cleaning up. "I've warned you against doing that, but you can't seem to break yourself of it can you?"

"Sort of." Yuzu carefully lowered herself to the ground and started helping. "I don't do it as often as I used to, but I took a muscle relaxer to help my back and fell asleep before I could fix it."

"Then I urge you to avoid taking the pill next time," snorted Mei, though Yuzu could see another smile spread across her face. "Or better yet, avoid taking naps at work. Not only will you avoid problems like this and you'll set a better example for your employees."

"You're one to talk," laughed Yuzu as she finished placing her papers, pens, and pencils on her desk. "How many times have I come to the school in the middle of the day to find you dozing in your office? Or what about all the times when we came home from school, and I'd find you sprawled out on the bed, half dressed, or what about when you used to fall asleep on the couch in nothing but a bathrobe, and I had to cover you up before the kids saw you?"

"I never said I was perfect," chuckled Mei after putting her stack of books and papers away. She'd been to the office enough to know that while it looked disorganized and haphazard, Yuzu did have a system in place, even if it didn't make much sense to her. "I was simply offering you advice. Yuzu?"

Yuzu smirked when she felt Mei's body stiffen at the sudden sensation of her arms around her wife's stomach and couldn't resist kissing the back of Mei's neck, her nostrils filling with the familiar floral scent of Mei's shampoo urging Yuzu to bury her face into the silky black strands.

"Yuzu, we're in the restaurant, what if someone comes in?"

"Just for a minute, please" whispered Yuzu, feeling the small sting of tears in her eyes when she felt Mei's hands on hers. "I miss you, Mei."

"I know you do," answered Mei, her shoulders slumping as she spoke. "I miss you too, Yuzu. I promise we'll have more time together soon. Perhaps we could ask Mother and Father to take Airi for a couple of nights and go on a few dates before our vacation? My schedule is going to be clear for the next few days, so perhaps we can ask them to take her tomorrow after we take Hideki to the airport? Or if they can't, we could ask Udagawa and Rena. I know Hina has been missing her and Reo will be lonely without Hideki to bother."

"I'd like that," replied Yuzu, wiping the tears away before Mei turned around, pulling her into a warm hug. "I'm sorry if I sound needy. I think with Hideki leaving for the summer; I'm starting to feel that, 'empty-nest' thing people talk about when their kids grow up."

"Empty-nest syndrome," said Mei with a chuckle. "I suppose that's part of it. He's graduating soon, and he's already been accepted into his first choice school, so it was bound to happen. Even if he is living at home, between his school work, job, and dance competitions, we're going to be seeing even less of him. He'll probably even get a girlfriend."

"Yeah," said Yuzu with a smile, her hand resting on the back of Mei's neck and applying just enough pressure to pull Mei's forehead to hers. "Our little boy is growing up, and there's nothing we can do about it."

"There's nothing we ever could have done about it," countered Mei before kissing Yuzu's forehead and stroking her hair. "The same goes with Airi and the others, but the good news is that we will have the house to ourselves again once they're adults and since Hideki will be gone, it will mean fewer people over which means more time for you and me to be alone."

"If I didn't know any better, I'd think you've been waiting for this to happen." Yuzu stepped away from Mei and gave her a knowing smirk. "Mrs. Aihara, are you having naughty thoughts?"

"N..no," coughed Mei turning her gaze from Yuzu's though Yuzu couldn't help but notice the redness in her ears. "I was simply thinking about how nice it would be to have some privacy. You know that Hideki's friends tend to congregate at our house and I was merely commenting on the fact that fewer children in the house means less noise and more privacy."

"All right," laughed Yuzu in disbelief before stepping away to answer the phone on her desk, "but in case you forgot, we still have one kid at home with the same ability to walk in on us at the wrong moment."

"How could I forget," sighed Mei with the same look she'd given Yuzu that morning when Airi knocked on their door, crying about a nightmare she'd had and interrupting their first chance at anything more than a kiss or a hug in the past several weeks.

Shaking her head, Yuzu picked up the receiver and politely asked, "Hello? This is Aihara Yuzu, how can I help you?"

"Yuzu-san?"

"Habiki?" Yuzu's eyes narrowed at hearing the voice of Yui's oldest brother on the other end of the line and noticed a worried look grow across Mei's face at hearing the name.

While they weren't as close to Habiki as they were with Yui, they were still friendly with him and saw him on occasion. But the fact that he was a detective for the metropolitan police and calling them wasn't sitting well with Yuzu and when she saw the look of surprise on Mei's face, she knew something was wrong.

"Habiki," repeated Yuzu trying to sound calm, "is that you?"

"Yes it is, Yuzu-san," said Habiki with a dry chuckle. "It's been, and while I'd love to catch up this isn't meant to be a personal call, I'm afraid this call is more for business than pleasure."

"Is everything all right?" Yuzu's hands were shaking at what could have led to him needing to call her, and if it wasn't for Mei walking over to support her, she was sure she would have fallen to the ground. "Did something happen?"

"It's nothing too serious," sighed Habiki just as Yuzu turned the speakerphone on. She and Mei could hear the creaking of his chair and the sound of people in the background. "But I'm gonna need either you or Mei-san to come by my station. I tried her number but she wasn't answering."

"She's here with me," answered Yuzu nodding at Mei.

"Habiki, I'm here," said Mei her voice giving off only the slightest hint of a waver. "What's happened? Is it the kids? Our parents?"

"It's a little complicated," answered Habiki nervously. "But the short story is that well, Hideki got into a fight with a couple of kids on the way home with Airi. Luckily I was nearby on my break and happened to stop it. I've gotten his and the other kid's statements, though none of them gave us much so, we're going to let them off with a warning. I called Udagawa-san when I didn't get you on your mobiles, and while I can let Hideki leave with him, I'm going to need one or both of you to retrieve Airi as you're her legal guardians."

"You have our daughter at the police station," asked Mei quietly a sense of dread running through her.

Mei's face twisted with worry and when she looked to her wife, she watched Yuzu gripped the side of her desk, her arms shaking at the news before slamming her palm down on the table and whispering, "I'm gonna kill him."

"I'm sorry, I am," said Habiki quietly. "But I don't want you to worry, we have her in a special room designed for kids, and she's well away from anyone or anything you might consider dangerous, and it's not too far from the entrance. We gave her some snacks, and she's been spending her time with a couple of officers who are trained for this kind of situation, and we're letting her keep her violin. I stopped by a little while ago to check on her, and she's keeping them entertained. Honestly, I was surprised as them to hear how good she is. But, I promise you we are handling this situation as best we can, but I need you two to come and get her, soon. I know you were supposed to have a party tonight to celebrate him leaving, but..."

"We understand," said Mei, who despite sounding calm, was as visibly upset as Yuzu. "We'll be there shortly."

"Thank you," squeaked Habiki before coughing and repeating in his normal voice, "thank you. I'll tell them you're on your way."

"We'll see you soon." Yuzu pressed the disconnect button and ran a hand through her hair and grabbed her bag while Mei continued to look calm but Yuzu could tell by how her hands were wringing her purse strap Yuzu was afraid to see what would happen when they got to the police station.

"You ready," asked Yuzu once she made sure she had everything.

"Yes," said Mei icily, sending a shiver down Yuzu's spine. "Come on, let's get this over with."

When they arrived at the police station, Yuzu was glad that they were able to find a parking spot close to the entrance. Her anger had subsided a little during the drive, but the fact that Airi was in there on top of Hideki was pushing her so close to the edge that her knuckles had turned white from gripping the steering wheel so hard.

"Yuzu," whispered Mei, her fingers rubbing against the top of Yuzu's hand, causing her to jump.

"It's all right," said Mei quietly without losing a beat, taking her wife's hand and holding it. "Everything will be all right."

"I know," said Yuzu, leaning back and staring at her wife, amazed once again at how calm Mei could be under pressure. "I'm just frustrated. I know it's probably not as bad as I'm making it seem, but this is...I don't know. I just never expected this from him, after all the time we spent telling him not to pull crap like this, what does he do? He's not a little kid anymore. I mean I understood it back then when people teased him for dancing and having us as moms, we expected it. But he's going to be eighteen next year, and if he pulls something like this while he's away for the summer, he can kiss his recommendations goodbye, if he hasn't lost them already thanks to the report they gotta file. What's so funny?"

"You sound like me," chuckled Mei dryly, wrapping her hand around Yuzu's and squeezing. "Worrying about things like college recommendations."

"Yeah, well, I guess I'm getting old," Yuzu smirked while Mei frowned.

"I see, so you think I'm old," snorted Mei gripping Yuzu's hand a little tighter and causing Yuzu's smile to falter, "and here I thought it was simply because you loved our kids."

"I'm kidding Mei," winced Yuzu trying to return Mei's grip but failed. "You know I think you're as pretty as you've always been."

"Flattery will only get you so far," whispered Mei, her ears turning red.

"It's better than nothing," Yuzu leaned in and gave Mei a soft kiss before pressing their foreheads together. "I'm sorry for losing my cool. I'm just worried about them, you know?"

"I understand." Mei's hand tightened around Yuzu's so much that the blonde felt like her fingers would break. "Believe me, I understand. But if we go in there and cause any more problems, especially if the two people involved are there along with their parents assuming they're around Hideki's age, then we can't afford to lose our tempers. I am just as angry as you are, but promise me you'll keep calm."

"But Mei, Airi is..."

"Promise me, Yuzu." Mei's hand gripped Yuzu's so tightly that the blonde thought her wedding ring would cut into her finger. "They're both our children, and they have their whole lives ahead of them, remember? What we do and say can affect them as much, if not more, than how their actions affect us. So please don't lose your temper, especially in front of Airi."

"All right." Yuzu nodded her head and took a few deep breaths before turning her hand around and holding Mei's hand. "I promise not to lose my temper, not that I ever really do, but I promise to keep my cool. I just thought we were past all this with him, you know? He's been doing so well with school, and his dancing, hell he's even balancing a part-time job on the weekends. Just...I don't…."

"I know, Yuzu." Mei lifted her wife's hands to her lips and kissed it. "But we need to be patient because believe me it is taking every ounce of my self-control not to go in there and join you in shouting at him."

"At least I'm not alone in that," chuckled Yuzu earning her a smile from Mei.

"I'm glad you finally remembered," smirked Mei before nodding at the door to the station. "All right, let's get in there because if we don't, I don't think we're ever going to make it home."

Upon entering the station, Mei and Yuzu headed to the desk where they found a pleasant looking man sorting through paperwork and occasionally offering advice and directions to people who looked as nervous and upset as them.

"He...hello," said Yuzu nervously catching the man's attention.

"Good evening," said the man politely staring at the pair of them, "this is an unusual sight, what can I do for you two ladies?"

"We're here to see Detective Sato," said Mei shakily. "He called us about an incident involving Udagawa Hideki and a young girl named Aihara Airi?"

"Ah," the man nodded understandably and sighed. "He told me to expect you two. Your son is a bit further down the hall in the detective's bullpen along with his father, and your daughter is in one of the rooms down the same hallway," he pointed to the hallway to the right, "third door down. Would you like me to show you?"

"I think we'll manage," said Mei, noticing the anxious look on Yuzu's face. "Thank you for your help."

"Of course." The man gave a polite nod while Mei and Yuzu began their march down the hallway.

It was mostly empty, with the occasional officer walking by and smiling or nodding politely, which they both attempted to return only to look like they both had severe neck problems, instead of seeming polite. Neither of them had ever been in a police station before, at least not one like this. There had been times when they'd stopped by a koban to ask for directions or to grab Hideki or Airi if they'd gotten separated, but never for something like this.

As they walked, Mei's hand gripped Yuzu's and couldn't help but wonder what went on inside these halls. Despite the pristine walls, bright lights, and smiling faces, Mei wondered what other things went on here, the kind of people that were brought in, gangsters, petty criminals, even murderers. Her heart was pounding, and her hand was shaking, and Mei needed something keep her mind off the thoughts that were blitzing through her head, about how Hideki's future would turn out because of this and how scared Airi must be. She wanted to ask Yuzu how she was feeling but didn't notice her wife was behind her until she noticed Yuzu's hand pulling her back.

"What's the matter," asked Mei when she saw the constipated look on Yuzu's face. "Yuzu, what's wrong?"

Yuzu responded by placing a finger to her lips and tilted her head in the direction of a door a few feet behind them. Counting them, Mei realized that her wife was pointing at the third door on the right and strained her ears to try and hear what it was that Yuzu had noticed. It took a moment, but she finally heard it, the low familiar muffled vibrations of a violin emanate from the door.

Tugging on Mei's arm, Yuzu led her to the door and when they arrived they pressed their ears against it just in time to hear the sounds of two people applauding and a small voice giggle.

Motioning for Mei to keep quiet, Yuzu quietly turned the doorknob and cautiously pushed the door open just enough for them to see a small almost seven-year-old girl, with almond skin, bright green eyes, long black curly hair, dressed in jean shorts and a tee-shirt emblazoned with a magical girl on it, smiling sheepishly while clutching a violin in her right hand and its bow in her left.

"That was very pretty, Airi-chan," said a young male officer and crouching down in front of her. "You must practice a lot to play so well."

"Uh huh," answered Airi when a female officer appeared with the case and a rag both Mei and Yuzu recognized as the one their daughter used to clean her violin. "I practice every day and go to music school two times a week while Hideki does dancing. He's really good too. He does ballet, stuff called ballroom, and he has shoes that have metal on the bottoms and make clacking sounds. He has a bunch of trophies too, a lot more than me."

"How many do you have," asked the female officer, watching as Airi finished cleaning her violin and began putting it away.

"I have three!" Airi held up her fingers, a huge smile on her face. "Only one's first place though. A lot of Hideki's are first and second place, but I'm gonna get a lot more."

"I'm sure you will," said the man sincerely. "You're very talented, and if you keep practicing, I'm sure you'll win a lot of trophies and make your brother and parents very proud."

"Thanks!" Airi giggled as she locked her case and picked it up. "Umm, I'm gonna put my violin next to my bag, okay?"

"Okay, Airi-chan."

Both Mei and Yuzu chuckled at the sight of Airi skipping along, her violin case clutched in her tiny hands as Yuzu's smile spread across her face, both of their hearts lightening at the look until they both noticed her face drop briefly.

Upon seeing this, Yuzu pushed the door open a little more, causing it to creak and make Airi gasp in surprise and look up, her smile returning when she saw Yuzu and Mei's faces staring back at her.

"MAMA! MOMMY!"

The violin case dropped to the floor, and Airi ran forward, jumping into Yuzu's waiting arms and begin nuzzling her head in her mother's chest.

"Hi, Kiddo," smiled Yuzu, burying her face her daughter's thick hair as she held her tight to her chest. "It's so good to see you, Mommy and I were scared you got hurt."

"I did get hurt, Mama." Airi pulled back and pulled up the leg of her shorts to show off a freshly bandaged knee. "I fell, but Habiki-san helped me up before stopping the fight and a nice lady at the where we bought the candy from put this on me, so it doesn't hurt as much."

"Did you thank her," asked Mei as she and Yuzu inspected the bandage, impressed by how clean the work was.

"Uh huh," said Airi, giggling as Mei accidentally tickled the back of her knee. "Stop Mommy!"

"I'm sorry." Mei put Airi's foot down and pulled her close, hugging her tightly. "I'm sorry you had to see that."

"But I'm okay, Mommy," said Airi, confused but glad that Mei was hugging her. "Hideki's face had blood on it, and one of his eyes is purple. He's also got blood on his hands. It's kinda gross."

"I bet," sniffed Yuzu before standing up and straightening her clothes before bowing to the officers. "Thank you for taking care of her. We're sorry for the inconvenience."

"It's why we're here," said the woman while the man approached with a tablet and a stylus. "She 's tvery sweet, but you may want to go slow with asking her questions. Even though she wasn't directly involved in the fight it's possible she could have a delayed reaction so keep an eye on her."

"Of course." Yuzu took the tablet and signed it before handing it Mei who followed suit before bowing in return.

"We appreciate your hospitality and your concern," said Mei as she helped Airi pick up her instruments and while handing Yuzu the backpack.

"It was our pleasure," answered the man, setting aside the tablet before joining his co-worker in a polite bow. "Airi-chan be good for your moms and take care of your brother and make sure you keep practicing."

"Yep!" Airi and her moms returned the bow and waved bye to them before grabbing her mother's hands and heading out into the hall in search of her brother.

Chapter Text

So...I don't know how you guys feel about this story, but I hope you guys like it. I’m sorry for the previous note and some of my actions lately. But I’m trying to figure this out and hope you guys are okay and you have a good Christmas. Maybe I’ll have two chapters up soon, and I hope you guys all find this enjoyable. Would you guys be okay with a time jump using the original first chapter that I rework or do you want more time with a young Airi? I’m just casting feelers out to those who want to read this still.

And I think I figured out why some people didn’t like the second half of the story and...well...I can write an essay on that but not here.

I apologize for the lack of an “n” again in the title on AO3...my freaking computer screwed up, and I forgot to hit the checkbox again to say it was a multi-chapter story. Same as last time. Whoops!

Also, my new work location sucks, and I’m hoping to transfer out soon.

Anyway, on to the chapter.

I know only 2500 words! I can write short chapters; it’s a Christmas miracle!

 

Chapter 2

The more she thought about it, the more Mei felt like she was on the longest walk of her life.

Even her walk down the aisle with Yuzu didn’t feel as long as the slow, ominous march they were taking toward the bullpen. Given that her knowledge of police procedure was limited to the odd police drama or television show, Mei didn’t know what to expect when she walked in there and began wondering if they should expose Airi to it after everything their daughter had been put through.

Even after seeing her daughter's smile, Mei couldn’t forget the look on Airi’s face when they’d opened the door. It had only been for a moment, but Mei recognized it as the same look Yuzu wore when she was trying to hide something and tried best to fight the impulse to begin questioning her daughter.

She knew that the officers were right, that pushing her would have been too much, but Mei hated not knowing how best to help their daughter and barely absorbed what Airi was telling Yuzu about the song she played for the officers. Her mind was so focused on the memory of the sad look she’d worn that Mei didn’t notice how hard she’d been squeezing her daughter's hand until Airi began whimpering and trying to pull her hand free.

“Mommy, that hurts.”

“What?” Mei looked down and saw Airi’s face screwed up in pain as she tugged on her arm. Upon noticing this, Mei immediately let go and looked around, hoping that nobody had heard Airi's complaints and thought she'd intentionally hurt her.

“I’m sorry, Airi. I didn’t mean to do that, are you all right?” Mei ran a hand through Airi’s hair, watching worriedly as her daughter flexed her fingers while Yuzu gave Mei a worried look of her own.

“Yeah,” sighed Airi looking perplexedly up at her mother. “Are you mad at me?”

“What?” Mei nearly collapsed from the shock at Airi asking if she’d hurt her because she was mad. “Airi, I’d never do that to you because I was mad at you or because I wanted to, you know that, don’t you?"

“Yeah,” said Airi, though the uncertainty in her voice wasn’t lost on her mothers. “It still hurt though.”

“I’m sorry,” said Mei, caressing her daughter’s cheek and trying to smile. “I promise you that I wasn't trying to hurt you.”

“Then what were you doing,” asked Airi cautiously cradling her hand against her chest. “You looked sad. Did I make you sad? Are you sad cuz Hideki got in trouble?”

“Both, I suppose,” coughed Mei, trying to sound casual in an attempt to keep Airi from worrying. “Are you okay? Did the fight scare you?

“A little,” said Airi, her feet shuffling while her gaze shifted nervously between mothers. “Those boys were bigger than Hideki and they pushed me.”

“Is that what happened to your knee?” Yuzu placed her hands on Airi’s shoulders, a concerned smile on her face. “Did they push you during the fight?”

“N...no..,” Airi’s lower lip disappeared into her mouth, her eyes turning in the direction of a newly opened door, her eyes lighting up while her feet began shuffling impatiently.

“Airi, you don’t have to lie,” said Mei quietly, dropping to her knee and lifting her daughter’s chin. “If they pushed you or did anything else to you, you need to be honest. Hiding things like that can make matters worse, and we need as much information as possible.

“But, what if I get Hideki into trouble?" Airi continued to chew on her lip while her eyes began scanning the hallway looking for an escape.

"Hideki is in trouble regardless," said Mei, praying that AIri would understand the explanation. "But if there was a good reason for what he did then he won't be in as much trouble. Does that make sense?"

Airi wiped away a tear, sniffed, and nodded while trying to put on a brave face. A face identical to the one Yuzu wore whenever she was frightened or uncertain about how things would turn out.

“It’ll be okay.” Yuzu stroked their daughter’s hair before holding her tight against her legs. “We promise, Hideki won’t get into any more trouble. But if there’s something you think you need to tell us, then you might want to let us know before we leave so we can tell Habiki-san, okay?”

“I don’t wanna,” whimpered Airi, breaking free from Yuzu’s hold and before Mei and Yuzu could stop her she began running down the hallway, oblivious to her mothers shouts.

“Airi, get back here,” called out Yuzu, wasting no time following after their daughter with Mei hot on her heels.

“Airi, listen to Mama,” called Mei only to have her words fall on deaf ears as Airi slipped past two officers and disappeared behind the door with Mei and Yuzu following shortly behind her.

“If it’s not one thing it’s another,” side Mei while Yuzu waved down the officers and apologized to them for the interruption.

“It’ll be fine,” whispered Yuzu as they both stopped to apologize to the officers. “We’re sorry about that. She’s had a rough day. You didn’t happen to see which way she went?”

“I think she’s with Sato-san,” said one of the officers looking confused and taking a peek into the door. “Yeah, just go to the right and you’ll see her in Detective Sato’s office talking with that kid that got brought in earlier. I take it you two are here to pick him up?”

“Yes, we are,” answered Mei so stiffly that the officers immediately straightened up and focused their attention on her. “So, if it is not too much trouble, we would appreciate it if you’d kindly step aside.”

“O...of course,” stammered the female officer as she and her partner stepped aside to let them pass.

“Thank you,” said Yuzu, giving the pair an apologetic look and allowing Mei to pass her. “You could have gone a little easier on them.”

“They let our daughter run right past them and out of sight, Yuzu,” snorted Mei, turning sharply in the direction the male officer had told her; eyes focused on the door that bore Habiki’s surname and title. “IF they were any good at their jobs they would have stopped her instead of letting her run right past them.”

“Well, they did say she was with Habiki,” offered Yuzu in an attempt to pacify her wife much as Mei had when they were in the car, “and based on how they were talking about Hideki, they know they were brought in together which means that if she’s with Hideki, she’s with Udagawa so they probably thought she was in good hands.”

“That’s still not an excuse to let a child run around unsupervised in a police station.” Mei turned her attention from the door on Yuzu, unconcerned by the looks the few officers in the bullpen were giving them. “Honestly, Yuzu, considering how you were acting in the car, I thought you’d be more upset once you saw the state Airi is in.”

"You were the one that told me I needed to stay calm,” whispered Yuzu, hoarsely and hoping that none of the officers were paying attention to them. “Remember? You said that our actions would reflect on them more than they did on us. So why is it that you’re allowed to freak out and I’m the one who has to stay calm? I thought they were both our kids, not just one or the other?

Mei was so taken aback by Yuzu’s retort that she fumbled to find the right words.

Luckily, before she could come up with a reasonable answer, the door to Habiki’s office opened, and they heard a familiar voice say, “I know you want to be with Hideki, Airi-chan, but you have to go back to the kid's room, so the other officers don’t get in trouble. Now come on, we gotta get you back before your moms show up.”

“But, Habiki-kun,” whined Airi as she was being pushed out by a well-built haggard looking young man in his early twenties wearing a clean suit, “my moms are here. See!”

“Oh thank, God,” sighed both women, their argument forgotten for the time being once they saw that Airi was safe and Habiki’s relieved look.

“Good to see you two,” grunted Habiki as he massaged his neck and allowed Airi to run to Mei and Yuzu, with the latter picking the young girl up and holding her tight against her chest and quietly scolding her for running off. “And here I thought she’d somehow managed to weasel her way out while the officers were distracted.”

“Our apologies,” said Mei with a bow while Yuzu barely managed a slight bend. “She ran off when she saw something down the hallway and based on the look she had on her face, and where we found her, I can say it’s safe to assume that it was you?”

“Probably.” Habiki yawned and held up a paper coffee cup. “I was coming back from getting some coffee and was in the office before I realized that she was trying to claw her way into Hideki’s lap. You two have any trouble getting her?”

“Nope.” Yuzu patted Airi on the back before setting her down for a few moments of relief while Mei took a cautious step forward and began trying to crane her neck through the door in an attempt to see what condition Hideki was in. “I mean outside of the fact that she bolted while we were in the middle of talking to her, we didn’t have any problems.. How’s the other one doing?”

“See for yourself.” Habiki took a step back and stuck his head in and whispered something. There was the sound of a chair shuffling followed by another familiar voice telling someone to stand up. “Listen to your dad, kid. For God’s sake, you fought two guys at once and you’re afraid of these two?”

“That’s because you don’t have to live with them,” came a shaky, somewhat higher pitched voice. “I gotta go home with them while you get to stay here.”

“Ya got me there,” chuckled Habiki stepping back and taking a sip of his coffee. “But you forget how much I used to hang out at your house so I know how scary they can be. Now get your ass out here before I have your dad help me drag you out.”

“Let’s go,” came a deeper voice followed by the clicking of shoes accompanied by the appearance of a slightly gone to seed Udagawa.

He looked almost the same as he had when Yuzu had first gone to work for him, though his hair was a bit grayer and slightly receded. His once flat stomach now had a slight paunch to it and his usually cheerful face was almost as rigid as Mei’s, though it was clear from the look on his face that he had a better understanding of the situation which added a certain level of softness to it.

But the patience of all three of them was beginning to grow thin, and after a moment of silence from inside the office all three of them caught the attention of the bullpen when in unison they all said, “Now, Hideki.”

As much as they wanted to laugh, the three adults all remained firm, and when he failed to appear, they all looked to Habiki to follow through on his promise. But instead of Habiki, it was Airi who managed to wriggle out of her mother’s grip and walk toward the office door, stuck her head inside and quietly said, “It’s okay, Hideki. I’m not mad at you.”

“I know,” sighed the teenager from inside the safety of the office. "I'm just a little scared."

“How come you’re scared," asked Airi innocently. "It's just Mama, Mommy, and Uncle.” Airi disappeared into the office and they heard the sound of shuffling and a deep sigh.

"That's why I'm scared," chuckled Hideki and they heard AIri laugh before speaking again. "You'll understand when you're a little older."

"Okay." They heard a couple of footsteps and the sound of Airi clapping at her brother. “It’s gonna be okay. I’ll protect you this time.”

“Thanks, Airi,” laughed Hideki before hearing him let out a sigh before hissing loudly. “Careful, Airi. That’s my bad hand.”

“Sorry,” apologized Airi followed by her asking, “is that better?”

“Yeah. Thanks, Airi. How’s your knee?”

“It stings but I’ll be okay. Mommy tickled my leg when she checked it.”

“That sounds nice,” they heard Hideki reply before he let out a loud a loud breath. “You ready?”

“Uh huh!”

After the exchange, Mei shifted away from the door toward Yuzu, immediately seeking the blonde’s hand, her heart pounding in her ears as her fingers locked with Yuzu’s. She could feel Yuzu’s hand shaking which caused Mei to squeeze even harder. If Yuzu was in pain, she didn’t let it show as at that moment Hideki appeared, wearing a different shirt than the one he’d worn that morning. His knees and shins were severely scraped and he had a series of bandages wrapped around his left hand while in his right he held Airi’s tiny balled up fist.

His face was turned down but it did little to hide the massive amount of bruising on the right side of his face but even that couldn’t hide the fact that the older he got, the more his looks tended to stray from his father’s and more toward his mother’s. Though he would never inherit the deep purple of his mother’s eyes, it was clear that outside of his height and more muscular frame he would always be more his mother's son than his father's.

Upon seeing him, Mei’s hand immediately left Yuzu’s, her feet carrying her toward their children with Yuzu right behind her. Their faces filled with concern as Mei lifted Hideki’s face and let out a low sigh of concern when she saw that not only was his eye slightly swollen but he also had a massive gash in his lower lip which had caused it to swell to almost twice its normal size.

“Oh, Hideki,” sighed Mei, resisting the impulse to comfort her son by caressing his wounds while Yuzu’s eyes widened at the injuries that plagued their son’s face.

Neither Mei nor Yuzu knew what to say, but apparently, Hideki did as his mouth spread in a grim smile as he said, “Hey, guys.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

"What on Earth were you thinking," sighed Mei as she continued to inspect her son's face as her chest filled with an uncomfortable mixture of pain, anger, and sadness. "Fighting like that when you were supposed to be taking care of your sister. Did you bother to think about what would happen if she got hurt? You're lucky the worst thing she walked away with only a skinned knee."

"It's not what you think," hissed Hideki as Mei's fingers brushed against the bandages that had been applied to his eyebrow.

"Then what is it," snorted Mei, letting Hideki go and looking to his father. "You were here before us, weren't you? Did Habiki tell you anything or am I going to have to read the report to find out?"

"I only know what they told the police, Mei." Udagawa pulled his glasses off and began wiping them in an attempt to buy himself some time to think. "According to what I read in the report, the boys he ended up fighting had been following and teasing him, and after pushing him a few times, he lost his temper, and this is the result.

"Is that true?" Yuzu was the one who spoke, while Mei was focused on Udagawa and Hideki, Yuzu had been watching Airi, taking note of how quiet their daughter was being, despite her telling Hideki that she would keep him safe. "Are the other boys to blame?"

"Sort of," muttered Hideki while Airi inched a little bit closer to him. "I mean I did throw the first punch after they started pushing, but can we talk about it after dinner? This is kind of embarrassing."

"You're embarrassed?" Mei's voice rose slightly, prompting Hideki and Airi to take a cautious step backward. "Have you any idea..."

"Mei, remember what we talked about," said Yuzu calmly, stepping between them and placing her hands on her wife's shoulder in an attempt to defuse the situation.

"But Yuzu you heard him, he thinks this is embarrassing. If that's what he thinks then..." began Mei, only to stop when she saw from the frustrated expression on Yuzu's face just how hard her wife was working to keep her emotions in check.

"I get it," replied Yuzu, trying to lighten the mood by forcing a smile and gently squeezing Mei's shoulders, "but you wanted us to keep cool, right? So, could you maybe take a few deep breaths and remember where we are before you get us in trouble."

As Yuzu spoke, Mei couldn't help but notice how her wife's eyes kept darting in the opposite direction. Following her wife's lead, Mei noticed several police officers staring at them causing her to blush in embarrassment and bow her head apologetically.

"Mei," whispered Yuzu, turning Mei's face back to her, looking about as frustrated as Mei was angry. "Come on, it's getting late, and we're both tired. Let's go home, have some dinner, take a bath, and sort this out after we put the kids to bed, okay?"

Turning her gaze from Yuzus. Mei's eyes turned toward their children, and Mei felt her anger begin to subside almost as quickly as it had formed. Whether it was the look of shame in Hideki's eyes or the way Airi had switched from holding his hand to clinging tightly to his leg, Mei nodded and looked to Udagawa who was waiting patiently for a reply.

"All right," said Mei after a couple of deep breaths nodded, much to everyone's relief. "We will discuss this later. Hideki, Airi, let's go."

"I...I'm gonna ride with Dad," answered Hideki while his uninjured hand gently patted his sister's hair.

"But, Hideki," whined Airi as she pulled on her brother's pant leg, "you promised you'd come home with us."

"I'll be home," said Hideki as he crouched down and rested her forehead against hers. "Dad and I will be right behind you, and we're gonna have a party tonight. Remember? Reo was gonna make us dinner because I'm leaving tomorrow and there's no way I'm gonna miss spending my last night before summer vacation with you guys."

"Airi, come on," said Yuzu, holding her hand out for her daughter, a reassuring smile on her face. "It'll be okay. Hideki will meet us at home, but it's late, and you want to see Hina, Reo, and the others before you go to bed, don't you?"

"But, Mama..."

"Airi, listen to Mama," repeated Mei, the natural coolness returning to her voice. "I know you're upset, but complaining isn't going to help. We'll see them at home, at least that's what I hope you're planning?"

"Of course it is," grunted Udagawa, slipping his glasses back on. "Besides, Reo and Hina are at your house with your parents and I'm a bit worried about who's doing the babysitting at this point."

"Not funny." Mei took the paperwork that Habiki was holding out and began reading it, her eyes trying to discern anything that may explain the guilty look she and Yuzu had seen when they asked Airi about what had happened during the fight.

Unfortunately, the report offered no new information and Mei resigned to signing it and handing it back to Habiki who excused himself and returned to his office.

"Okay," said Yuzu after Habiki closed his office door and they began walking toward the exit, "you make sure you're safe, okay?"

"Yeah," answered Hideki before pulling a coin out of his pocket and began rolling it between his fingers. "Umm am I grounded?"

"We'll discuss that later," answered Mei as she, Yuzu, and Udagawa remained a few feet behind the kids, watching as Airi took the coin, trying to mimic her brother. When the kids had a sizeable enough lead on them, Mei turned to Udagawa and whispered, "I assume he wants to go with you because he wants to have what the two of you and Reo call a 'man talk'?"

"Why do you have to make it sound like we're doing something scandalous," chuckled Udagawa as he watched Hideki try to explain the trick to Airi. "He's a teenager, and a boy at that, so it's only natural for him to have an easier time talking to me about certain things instead of always coming to you two."

"That much is obvious," answered Mei, her brow furrowing as she tried to block the onslaught of images her imagination was creating about the fight. "I just wish he'd talk to us like he used to."

"He will," whispered Yuzu, taking a couple of steps closer to Mei. "But even if he does tell us what's bothering him, he's still gonna pull crap like this, so there's not much we can do."

"That doesn't mean we have to just sit back and accept it," said Mei as they pushed open the doors that lead to the parking lot. "We were lucky they didn't call social services on us, but God knows what will happen in regards to those other boys parents."

When they stepped outside the sun was almost set, and Mei could barely make out the orange and reds that remained in the sky through the tall office buildings, though she did manage to make out a few faint bits of starlight. On top of that, despite it being almost nine; it was still warm which Mei was thankful for. The last thing she needed to worry about was Airi getting sick and she was looking forward to turning the air on in hers and Yuzu's room, if only for the chance to hold her wife and forget about the day.

"It's gonna be okay, Mei," Yuzu said softly as she wrapped her hand around Mei's, pulling the younger woman back to reality. "It was just some stupid fight between teenagers. I doubt they're going to do anything, but if something does happen, we'll figure it out together."

"I know," sighed Mei, rubbing her eyes with the heel of her free hand. "I'm sorry for being this standoffish, I think the weight of the situation is finally getting to me."

"I figured," smirked Yuzu as she watched Hideki congratulate his little sister at completing a single roll of the coin. "But I kind of like seeing you flustered like this. Doesn't make me feel as bad about getting mad or wanting to flip out in the station."

"I'm glad you didn't" sighed Mei, squeezing her wife's hand and briefly rubbing her cheek against Yuzu's head. "Thank you for keeping me from losing my temper. I'm sorry I put you in that kind of position."

"It's okay." Yuzu returned Mei's affections with a nuzzle of her own and giggled when she saw her wife's blush. "I know it's just you being a mom, and I've been feeling the same way, but he'll come to us when he's ready; you know he will. Let's be glad he wasn't in his school uniform that would have made things ten times worse."

"From what I gathered, the boys weren't from his school," said Udagawa comfortingly as he pulled his keys out of his pocket. "The parents didn't know who he was and they were just as mad as you are. One of the boys mom's was even yelling at him as she and her husband walked him out of the station. But you make a good point, Yuzu-chan last thing he needs after this is to get expelled or worse."

"At least it's over, for now." Mei felt some of the tension leave her body and the urge to hug her children return, but knew she had to refrain from it until they finished sorting everything out. "I just hope he can keep his cool while he's away."

"He'll be fine, Mei. From what Abby said about this camp, he's going to be too busy to get into trouble anyway." Yuzu gave Mei her usual cheerful smile before kissing her wife on the cheek and turning to the kids. "All righty, Airi, we gotta go now so say bye to Hideki and Uncle."

"Why," pouted Airi, her eyes shifting from her brother to her parents. "Uncle dropped Hina off at our house so that means her car seat is in his car so why do I gotta go with you?"

"Because Uncle and Hideki need to have some alone time," said Yuzu softly but with enough of an edge so that Airi knew she meant business. "Besides, we're all going back to our house, and since Reo's there I'm sure he's already finished making that big dinner he promised, and if he has Grandma helping him, I'm sure it'll be extra tasty."

"I'm not hungry." Airi moved closer to Hideki's leg and carefully wrapped her arms around his knee. "I said I'd protect Hideki and I can't protect him if he goes away."

"I understand your frustration, Airi," said Mei, smiling at how protective she was being. "But I promise you that Hideki will be safe and if you're good and Hideki's okay with it, we'll put a futon in his room, and you can protect him tonight after everyone goes home. But for now, you have to come with Mama and me since Uncle and Hideki need to talk."

"He's gonna yell." Airi's eyes narrowed malevolently at Udagawa who chuckled nervously at the Mei like glare he was receiving. "If I stay with Hideki he won't yell."

"I promise I'm not going to yell," said Udagawa calmly. "But I'm going to have a talk with him about what he did and why he shouldn't have done it that's all. Here, we'll even do a pinky swear to prove that I mean it."

Udagawa walked over to Airi and squatted and extended his as he asked, "You know what a pinky swear is right?"

Mei and Yuzu chuckled as Airi looked at Udagawa's hand, then at Hideki and asked, "Do we have needles?"

"Airi, I don't think that will be necessary," said Yuzu, stifling a laugh at the sight of Airi's probing glare.

"Uh huh," said Airi, her head whipping around so fast that her hair nearly slapped Udagawa in the face. "Hina said that if you break a pinky promise, you gotta swallow a thousand needles so I wanna..."

"That's just a saying," sighed Hideki while Mei and Yuzu hid their smiles behind their hands as Udagawa chuckled nervously. "Nobody is going to make you swallow a thousand needles if you break a pinky promise."

"Then why do people say it," a frown grew on Airi's face, a sign that she was beginning to get frustrated, "and how come you're laughing at me?"

"We aren't laughing at you," Hideki grunted as he squatted next to his sister and held up his pinky. "Here if it'll make you feel better, I'll promise not to yell too. How does that sound?"

"I guess," muttered Airi, her small hands rising followed by her wrapping her pinkies around her brother's and surrogate uncles. "Ummm I promise not to make you swallow needles if you guys yell."

"Thank you," chuckled Udagawa after they let go of each other's fingers, followed by him gently patting her head. "You were very brave today Airi, and if you need to talk, you can talk to me and Auntie Rena just like you talk with your moms okay?"

"Okay." Airi pulled her arms back and stared nervously at Hideki and Udagawa, one toe rubbing grinding into the ground while she nervously rubbed one of her shoulders. "No more fighting, 'kay?"

"No more fighting," repeated Hideki with a nod before giving his moms a nervous smile that only Yuzu returned while Mei looked conflicted as to how to respond. "Umm, I am sorry, you guys know that right?"

"We will discuss this after dinner," said Mei coolly while gesturing for Airi to come back to them. "But for now, in spite of everything that's happened, we will allow you to have a bit of fun tonight, though I warn you that you're responsible for explaining everything to your grandparents and siblings, not us."

"Yes, ma'am." Hideki gave Airi one more nuzzle on the forehead before hugging her. "All right, Shorty, ya gotta go with Mama and Mom. I'll see you at home."

"'kay," answered Airi returning the hug tightly. "Remember your promise."

"No fighting," said both Udagawa and Hideki in unison making Airi giggle.

With that, both Mei and Yuzu said their goodbyes, and after making sure Airi was fastened into her car seat, they made the long awkward drive home. Even though Airi had been fairly chatty while they were at the station, the moment she began driving, Yuzu couldn't help but notice that any time either she or Mei asked her a question, their daughter only seemed only to answer them with a nod or the occasional grunt.

As much as she wanted to talk to Mei about it, Yuzu wasn't sure how to begin, especially with Airi in the car. She knew they needed to talk, but like the officers had warned them, Yuzu didn't want to force the issue, but couldn't help wanting more answers. Like Hideki had been at that age, Airi tended to wear her heart on her sleeve though like Mei she tended to clam up whenever something was bothering her. She wanted to ask Mei what she thought, but unfortunately, the younger woman was busy answering an email on her phone and rather than interrupt Yuzu decided to engage Airi.

Taking a deep breath, Yuzu gave a cautionary glance in the rearview mirror, only becoming more disheartened when she saw the pensive look on her daughter's face.

Not wanting to cause their daughter any more pain, Yuzu decided to withhold her questions about the fight, put on a smile and asked, "So, Airi, did you learn anything new in music class today?"

"Kinda," sighed the girl as she tapped a finger listlessly against the glass. "Goya-sensei let me play the piano today."

"Oh yeah? What'd he have you play? Did you get to sing while you played?" From the corner of her eye, Yuzu saw Mei's fingers stopped moving followed by her resting her phone in her lap so she could give their daughter her undivided attention.

For as long as they could remember, Airi had always had a fascination with music. Ever since she was a baby the only way they could get her to fall asleep was to have an mp3 player or cd playing in the background.

While most of her friends were singing things like "Wheels on the Bus," or "A Rolling Acorn", Airi was spending her days on Hideki's computer watching videos of rock bands, pop groups, and whatever genre of music she found interesting. While supportive of her interest, Mei and Yuzu did end up having to monitor her after Airi repeated a few choice swear words she'd heard in a couple of songs. But, regardless of those speed bumps, Airi's love of music wasn't dampened and eventually they had enrolled her in the music school where her daughter could indulge herself, but also where Airi discovered she had a talent for not only the violin, but also the cello, though those lessons were given at home.

Despite her young age, Airi was advancing rather quickly and with her music teacher having her play the piano, Yuzu and Mei were wondering just how many more instruments they'd end up having to buy.

"He said he wanted to talk to you," said Airi reaching for her bag and pulled out one of her music books and began to quietly hum a song that neither Mei or Yuzu recognized, but knew she was doing it in an attempt to keep them from bothering her.

"What does he want to talk to us about," asked Mei, looking over the her shoulder at their daughter, aware that the book was merely an attempt to get them to leave her alone. "Does he want to move you

into an advanced class?"

"I dunno," grunted Airi as she pulled an envelope out of her bag and handed it to Mei. "He said he wanted me to give you this after my singing lesson."

"You had a singing lesson today," asked Yuzu somewhat amazed that Airi had been moved into a singing class. "When did that start?"

"Today," groaned Airi, closing her music book and kicking her feet impatiently. "I asked him if I could sing and he had me sing while I was playing the piano."

"Was that the song you were humming," asked Mei, carefully opening the note while Yuzu tried to keep her curiosity from getting the better of her so she could focus on the road.

"Yeah." Airi's face grew a shade darker as she spoke and her feet stopped moving as she chewed on her lip. "Goya-Sensei said it's from a movie he saw as a kid and he thought I'd like it. The movie sounded kinda scary though."

"What was it about," asked Mei a smile growing as she read the note.

"Umm he said it was about a family of mice that lived in America. The song was kinda sad but it was pretty and it reminded me of you and Mama."

"Oh yeah?" Yuzu reached her hand over and squeezed Mei's hand and winked. "How'd it remind you of me and Mommy?"

"Cuz it's a song about how even when people are apart they think about the people they love and how even though they miss each other they aren't alone." Airi's face turned even darker as she spoke and she smiled sheepishly. "Like you and Mommy did when you worked for the hotel."

"That's so sweet," laughed Yuzu as she saw a smirk appear on Mei's face while Airi hid her face in her hands and began giggling. "Do you want to sing it for us later?"

"I don't have the music," said Airi, peeking at Yuzu through her hands, "and we don't have a piano."

"That's true," said Mei, giggling at the muffled sound of Airi's voice. "But from the sounds of this letter, Goya-sensei sent home with you it sounds like he wants you to start learning piano and to begin singing lessons over the summer."

"That's great Airi," cheered Yuzu as the pulled into the driveway, slamming on the brakes when she realized she was about to crash into the garage door. "Whoops."

"Be careful, Mama," grunted Airi as she rubbed her shoulder, "that hurt."

"I'm sorry, Kiddo." Yuzu unbuckled herself and rushed out the car to check on her daughter. "Where does it hurt?"

"My shoulder." Airi undid the straps of her car seat and rubbed her shoulder and allowed Yuzu to check it. "Do I have a bruise?"

"No," sighed Yuzu in relief after inspection. "It's just a little red, but if it hurts tomorrow, make sure you let me know and Mommy and I will see if you need to go to the doctor."

"Okay." Airi reached for her bag and after putting everything away, grabbed her violin and hopped out of the car and stretched. "Can I go and see if Hina wants to play?"

"Sure."

Yuzu smiled and pressed her forehead against Airi's, making her daughter giggle before running to the front door and shouting, "I'M HOME!"

There was a series of greetings from inside the house, two of them children, with the others being the familiar voices of their parents.

Chuckling, Yuzu stepped toward the house, ready to follow their daughter in when Mei called out to her from inside the car.

"Hey, there" chuckled Yuzu as she opened the door and propped herself on the side of the car in an attempt to look cool. "What can I do for a woman as pretty as you?"

"You can stop acting like a fool for one," snorted Mei, though Yuzu could see a smile in her eyes. "But if you don't mind, I would appreciate you helping me out of the car."

"As you wish." Yuzu stepped away from the car and held her hand out and blushed when she felt Mei's fingers on her palm and the way her hair shimmered in the dim light of the street lamps, and the way her skirt billowed in the evening wind.

There was the small click of Mei's heels on the concrete and when she was out of the car, Yuzu couldn't help but pull her wife toward her and kiss her.

Mei let out a surprised gasp but eventually relaxed and fell into the embrace, returning the kiss and stroking Yuzu's hair, causing her wife to chew on her lower lip and sending a tingle down Mei's spine and making her whimper.

"Sorry," whispered Yuzu, breaking the kiss prematurely and inspecting Mei's lip. "Did I hurt you?"

"I'm fine," answered Mei, kissing Yuzu's finger, causing the gems on her wife's rings to sparkle. "But thank you for worrying, I'll make sure to make it up to you later."

"Can't wait." Yuzu kissed Mei again, this time getting cut off by the appearance of Udagawa's car and an exaggerated look of disgust from Hideki.

"Do you guys gotta do that out in public," sighed the teen after hopping out of the car and grabbing his bag. "You're worse than Dad and Mama Rena."

"Watch it," grunted Udagawa after smacking his son upside the head. "You're on thin ice as it is so don't push your luck."

"Hey," growled Hideki, rubbing the sore spot on the back of his head, "I thought we promised that we wouldn't fight."

"I'm warning you, not fighting with you," chuckled Udagawa as he ruffled his son's hair, albeit a bit roughly. "So if you want to keep that promise, maybe you should get your butt inside and say 'hi' to everyone and leave your moms alone."

"Fine." Hideki slung his bag over his shoulder and sighed. "It was just a joke, don't know why you guys are getting on my case."

"I think the answer to that is obvious," said Mei with a sigh as she watched Hideki walk toward the front door. "But, given the circumstances, I'll allow it this once, just watch the sarcasm for the rest of the evening."

"All right." Hideki raised his hand and waved at them before turning the corner that led to the front door. There was a burst of light and the sound of Hideki announcing his presence followed by Airi and Hina's voices, Hideki shouting in surprise, and the door slamming shut.

"I'll...I'll uh go and check on them to make sure nobody's hurt," said Udagawa with a nervous laugh. "You two take your time."

"Well that was a bit of a mood killer," sighed Yuzu, wrapping her hands around her head and staring in the direction of the door.

"It's all right," said Mei, wrapping her arms around Yuzu's waist, burying her face in Yuzu's hair and kissing her wife's neck while she rubbed her stomach through her shirt as retribution for what happened back in Yuzu's office. "If they hadn't interrupted us I wouldn't be able to do this."

"Be careful," giggled Yuzu when she felt Mei's lips on her ear. "If you keep this up somebody's gonna come looking for us."

"Just a little longer," whispered Mei, continuing her kisses while her hands wrapped around Yuzu's stomach, pulling her tight against her body. "It's been a long day and I don't know how long we'll have before we get interrupted again, so please let me hold you."

"I'm not complaining." Yuzu smiled and relaxed into the embrace, her eyes shifting up to the clear somewhat starry sky. "I just thought you'd want to wait until we were in our room, but this is nice. We haven't done this in a while."

"Not since our camping trip during spring break." Mei took a few cautious steps backward until she felt the metal of the car on her back. Her grip tightened slightly, and her eyes followed Yuzu's as she took in the sight of the stars, a smile crossing her lips when she felt Yuzu's hands on hers. "Would you like to take one while the kids are on break? We were talking about taking a trip soon an, and it might be difficult to find a campground, but I wouldn't mind another camping trip."

"Well the boarding house is up and running since it's the summer, so maybe we can ask Udagawa to set aside a room for us."

"If we were taking the kids I wouldn't mind, but," Mei's gaze turned from the sky couldn't resist nuzzling the back of Yuzu's neck, "the reason I want the campground is because we wouldn't have to worry too much about anyone or anything distracting us."

There was a brief moment of silence between them, the only sounds they could hear were some muffled laughs from inside the house, the occasional barking of a neighbors dog, or the sound of a passing car.

When Yuzu didn't answer, Mei let her hands drop and after one last kiss to Yuzu's neck, let out a disappointed sigh and said, "I'm sorry, I'm acting selfishly. I shouldn't have..."

"Mei, don't." Yuzu turned around, revealing a familiar bright smile and pulled her wife into a strong hug and giggled. "How many times do I have to tell you that it's okay for you to be selfish?"

"Too often," sighed Mei returning the hug, resting her head on Yuzu's shoulder. "But you've been busy with the restaurant, and I don't want to interfere with your work, especially with it being summer break."

"You know, I'll make the time," answered Yuzu, kissing Mei's ear and laughing when she heard her wife's whimper. "Besides, you always make time for me and you know I can't resist you when you get pouty."

"I'm not pouty." Mei gave Yuzu a half-hearted push, earning her a laugh and a tighter hug which she returned eagerly. "I already said that I miss you, and I meant it. I was offering an alternative to what we discussed at the restaurant."

"I know," Yuzu chuckled and kissed Mei's cheek and neck, "and I love that you're thinking about us. I'm glad I'm not the only one who gets clingy."

"You'll always have me beat in that regard," smirked Mei, lifting her head and pressing her forehead against Yuzu's, unable to resist staring into her wife's eyes. "But I wouldn't have you any other way, Yuzu."

"I doubt that, but I like hearing it," Yuzu closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead against Mei's, while her hands massaged her wife's back and began trying to lift Mei onto the hood of the car.

"Yuzu, what are you doing?" Mei choked back a laugh when she felt the warm metal of the car rub against the back of her thigh.

"I want you to sit on the car," grunted Yuzu as she attempted another lift only to have her back twinge and force her to accept defeat. "But it looks like that isn't going to happen."

"Why would you want me to sit on the car?" Mei lowered her skirt, her face flushed from embarrassment and the evening warmth.

"I wanted...you to hold me." Yuzu pressed her face into Mei's chest, her cheek rubbing against the ring that dangled from her wife's neck. "Just for a little bit longer. I want to...I mean I want us to decompress a little after everything that happened and because it's easier on my back."

"Is that all? Well if that's all you want then all you had to do was ask." Mei let go of Yuzu and with a little bit of difficulty managed to sit on the hood of the car, jumping in surprise at the sound it made when the hood adjusted to her weight.

"It'll be fine," answered Yuzu, flexing her hands anxiously as she saw how far Mei's skirt had slid up her legs, making the blonde laugh as she watched her wife hurriedly try and cover her exposed skin. "Sorry about that. Guess that came off as kinda creepy, huh?"

"You know I don't mind if you look." Mei reached out and took Yuzu's hand and pulled the blonde toward her and wrapped embraced her wife and whispered, "But I'd prefer it if you waited until we were alone, it's not like we're on a date. What if the kids or someone else walked by?"

"Yeah, yeah," muttered Yuzu as she pulled at the back of Mei's blouse.

"Is this helping," asked Mei, rubbing her nose into Yuzu's hair, with one hand gently massaging the spot that always seemed to bother her wife.

"Yeah," sighed Yuzu, her grip tightening the longer Mei held her. "What about you? You feeling any better or do you want to go in? I'm sure the others are starting to worry."

"Maybe," said Mei, kissing Yuzu's cheek and smiling when she felt Yuzu kiss her ring through her shirt, "but I don't mind letting them wait, especially with how today turned out. Ever since we picked up the kids, I've wanted to hold you all three of you. But if you don't mind, can I follow your lead and ask that we stay out here for a little longer? I don't really feel like sharing you at the moment, is that all right?"

Lifting her gaze, Mei blushed a when she saw the large smile on her wife's face as she cheerily said, "Absolutely."

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

"Are you ready to go in," asked Mei after about ten minutes of cradling Yuzu against her chest, conflicted at the sensation of not wanting to let her wife go, but also at the knowledge that if she didn't stand up soon, her legs would start falling asleep.

"No," answered Yuzu, nuzzling Mei's chest and pushing past the fabric of her wife's shirt so she could begin kissing the soft pale skin beneath it. "I don't want to go back. I want to take you away and hold onto you for as long as I can without anybody getting between us."

"That is a pleasant thought," smirked Mei, holding back a gasp as Yuzu gently bit her clavicle, " however we have guests waiting for us, and it would be rude to run out on them, our children in particular."

"Can't we give them to Udagawa or our parents," begged Yuzu, continuing her kisses and pulling Mei closer. "We can see them at the airport in the morning?"

"Unfortunately we can't," gasped Mei when she felt Yuzu's hair hit her ear as she lifted her wife's head. " Besides, you'll have me to yourself for the next couple of weeks, barring any major issues in regards to work or Airi. You only need to be patient."

"I don't want to be patient." Yuzu began her assault on Mei's neck, keeping the kisses light but forceful enough that she hoped she could entice her wife enough to delay heading into the house. "I want you now."

"I know," panted Mei, biting down on her lower lip to stop the tingling sensation that was spreading through her body, managing regain control of her senses just as Yuzu's hands began moving up her skirt and pulled them away, a smile on her face. "But we have a duty to our children and guests, but if you're patient, I promise to reward you after everything settles down."

"You better." Yuzu removed herself from Mei's neck and pressed their lips together, relaxing as her anxieties and fears from earlier washed away from the kiss and the sensation of Mei's arms encircling her neck.

"Keep this up, and I may just give in," chuckled Mei, kissing Yuzu's neck and cheek while stroking her wife's long hair. "But knowing you, that's what you're going for, isn't it?"

"I just said it was," pouted Yuzu, sticking her tongue out at Mei before stepping away and helping her off the hood of the car. "But, you said I gotta be good so...oh geez are you okay?"

"Ye...yes," grunted Mei, sliding off the car and causing her knees to buckle as a series of pins and needles shot up her legs, forcing her to rest against Yuzu. "I just need a moment for the circulation to return to my legs."

"Okay."

Lifting Mei's arm to her shoulder, Yuzu helped the taller woman to adjust her position and watched as her wife slowly and painstakingly walked in place in an attempt to recover quicker.

Yuzu couldn't help but smirk at how cute Mei looked with her eyes screwed shut and when she finally saw the familiar purple of her wife's eyes couldn't resist giving Mei one more kiss.

"What was that for," asked Mei her face turning bright red.

"For being cute," giggled Yuzu before tilting her head toward the door, her smile growing as Mei's blush deepened. "You think you can make it?"

"I believe so," replied Mei taking a cautious step and nodding. "But if you don't mind, I'd prefer holding onto you in case my legs grow weak again."

"You know I don't," smiled Yuzu before slipping her arm through Mei's and inching closer, humming happily as she and Mei walked slowly toward the front door.

When they entered, they both inhaled deeply, savoring the delicious savory scents that were wafting from the kitchen. Yuzu could pick up the scents of rosemary, sage, along with tomato and basil. In addition to those, there was a strong hint of garlic along with lemon and butter and freshly baked bread. She could even smell a hint of chocolate and what was possibly coffee but she couldn't quite place it, but whatever it was, she could tell by the look on Mei's face that Reo had outdone himself and laughed when she heard a loud gurgle come from wife's stomach.

"Aww, someone's hungry," laughed Yuzu as she tried to rub Mei's stomach.

"Of course I'm hungry," snorted Mei, swatting Yuzu's hand away. "I haven't eaten since lunch and our detour didn't help."

"You should have said something," sighed Yuzu as she pulled her shoes off, wiggling her toes. "I could have grabbed you something from the restaurant."

"Well, our son getting arrested didn't help," retorted Mei with a faint smirk. "Had we not been interrupted I would have made sure to ask you for a slice of coffee cake before coming home."

"I'll make sure to head to the shop and grab a few tomorrow," Yuzu chuckled and brushed some hair out of Mei's eyes, making her wife blush. "Can't have you going hungry."

"Given how well you and Reo cook, I don't think I'll ever have to worry about that." Mei poked cautiously at her stomach and sighed. "We really should start eating earlier in the day."

"How many times do I have to tell you that you're fine? The doctors said you're healthy and that you don't have anything to worry about. Besides, you know I still find you irresistible." Yuzu leaned in and kissed Mei's cheek and then her earlobe, causing the taller woman to flinch. "Sorry."

"It's fine." Mei played with some of the hair around her ear and smiled, "and I'm aware of how attractive you find me Yuzu, and I I'll admit I do find it rather cute when you blush whenever I catch you staring at me. It's just something I thought I'd be over by now. Even if I'm healthy now, things like this can become burdensome the older we get.

A look of concern flashed over Yuzu's face and she couldn't help but press her head against Mei's and ask, "The doctors haven't said anything, have they? You haven't been keeping secrets from me?"

"It's just as you said, they say that at the moment I am perfectly healthy," answered Mei, returning Yuzu's affections and closing her eyes. "However they said it would be beneficial for me to take some time to myself each day."

"Then let's take tomorrow to see if we can figure out some mandatory, 'Mei time'?" Yuzu's smile widened, and Mei didn't know if she should be excited or concerned.

"What exactly do you mean by, 'Mei time,'" inquired the younger woman, separating from her wife and setting their bags on the small table next to the entrance. "Is this some excuse for you to cling to me more than you normally do? Because if it is, I'd like to state for the record that I'm fine with the current amount."

"Why do you have to be so mean," whined Yuzu, wrapping her arm around Mei, nearly sending them to the floor. "I wasn't trying to make you spend time with me. I was offering you the chance to have some alone time when you're home. You work hard, and you deserve it, and all you have to do is tell me that you need a break and I'll pick up the slack."

"I wasn't trying to be mean," sighed Mei while placing a warm hand on her wife's, "and I appreciate your concern. I'll think about your offer so long as I get to set the terms should I decide to take advantage of your offer and only if you promise me you'll do the same. I know you've been having back problems again and don't you dare try and deny it. I've heard all about it from your employees, and you promised me you'd hire some more people."

"I am," answered Yuzu, both dismayed at Mei's frustration with her and flattered that Mei was so concerned about how things were going at the restaurant. "I have new people starting next week when they get back from trips, but until they get there and are trained, I don't have a lot of time to relax. But I promise, once they know their jobs I'm going to take more breaks, okay?"

"I'm going to hold you to it," huffed Mei, glad that Yuzu couldn't see the smile on her face. "But for now, could you please let me go? I want to see what Reo and Mother made for us."

"So do I," groaned Yuzu, feeling her stomach growl as she picked up a strong scent of vanilla and lemon hit her nose. "Speaking of Mama where is she? I figured she would have come out and yelled at us about Hideki. You think Udagawa-san or Papa talked her down?"

"I'm not sure," hummed Mei, wondering not only about what was going on with her step-mother but also wondering about what her father had to say if he was with her. "It is rather unusual, but it is possible they were able to keep her calm. Though I am worried about how quiet it is, do you think they might have decided to eat outside?"

"That's probably it," grunted Yuzu while doing a couple of quick stretches to help the knot in her back. "Wanna go check it out?"

"We may as well," yawned Mei before rubbing her eyes. "I'm getting tired and we have an early day tomorrow."

"I know, I know." Yuzu took Mei's hand and lead her toward the main living space where the living room and dining room connected, expecting to see Reo standing behind the counter, fervently finishing dishes while his dad or Ume helped him finish up as Sho and the others set the table or entertained Hina and Airi.

Though they weren't surprised to find the house empty, both Mei and Yuzu were mildly disappointed to see that nobody was waiting for them. While there were still some dishes in the sink along with a few measuring cups and some pots and pans resting on the counter, it was otherwise spotless and as empty as the rest of the common area.

"I guess they did go outside," muttered Yuzu as Mei let out another loud yawn making Yuzu laugh. "Are you going to make it through dinner?"

"I will," confirmed Mei with a tired nod. "Though I may need some coffee to keep me awake."

"If you say so." Yuzu gave Mei a peck on the cheek and then looked out the sliding door where she saw an excited girl with black hair and glasses alongside a giggling Airi waving at them through the glass door.

"What are you..," began Mei when she saw Yuzu begin to wave and smiled when she heard the door open followed by Hina and Airi's giggles. " Hello, girls."

"Hi Auntie Mei," said Hina happily, dressed in the summer version of the Aihara academy's elementary school uniform. "Do you like my new uniform? How come I had to change it and how come Airi doesn't to wear one?"

"I like it very much," said Mei patting her surrogate niece on the head. "You look very pretty in it, and you wear it because a lot of schools require you to wear uniforms and they change with the seasons. As for Airi..."

Mei turned to her daughter just in time to catch Airi pulling her finger out of her nose and begin wiping it on her shorts.

"Airi," Mei rolled her eyes and pointed at the kitchen sink. "Go wash your hands."

"Why?" Airi stuffed her hands in her pockets, grinning up at her mother.

"Please don't start, Airi," grumbled Mei, thankful that Hideki had never picked up such a disgusting habit. "You had your finger in your nose so please just do what I say and go wash your hands."

"But I didn't pull out a booger! See!"

Airi raised her hands and began stepping toward Mei, but was thwarted when Yuzu appeared from behind her and with a loud grunt slung the squealing girl over her shoulder and turned toward the kitchen.

"Mama," whined Airi, kicking feebly. "Mama! Put me down! I was trying to show Mommy I don't have to wash because I didn't have any boogers."

"Doesn't matter," chuckled Yuzu while Mei sighed and Hina giggled. "I saw you put your finger up there and so did Mommy which means you have to wash your hands."

"But Uncle and Grandma and Grandpa said we had to bring you out when we saw you." There was a loud thud as Airi stamped her foot on the step stool they kept near the sink, specifically for the girls. "Everyone's waiting and Reo made a really yummy dinner that he wants you to try."

"I promise you we'll try it," laughed Yuzu as she poured some soap in Airi's hands. "But first you need to get cleaned up and after that Mommy and me will eat a bit of everything that was cooked."

"Fine," was the last thing Mei heard Airi say before shaking her head and returning her attention to Hina who was continuing to giggle.

"Have you been having fun, Hina," asked Mei as the girl began playing with her skirt.

"Yeah." Hina smiled and lifted her skirt before pointing at her knee. "I got to help Reo and Grandma Ume with dinner. I helped make the dessert and Airi showed me where she fell when Grandpa Shou helped her change the bandage. It was gross because when Grandpa Shou pulled it off there was blood. Airi thought it was cool and tried to make me look at it, but Grandma Ume told her to stop. "

"I don't like blood that much either," said Mei with a small chuckle. "But I've gotten used to it with how much trouble your brother and cousin get into. You'll get over it one day, especially since your father told me you wanted to spend some time with your mother learning how she does her job."

"But Mommy's not a doctor," said Hina raising her finger and adopting a somewhat condescending tone. "She doesn't talk to patients, she stays in her office and talks to business people."

"That is mostly true," answered Mei as the worrisome sound of Yuzu and Airi's mischievous giggles filled her ears, "but your mother does talk to patients sometimes, especially when there are problems with how their treatment went."

"Okay," said Hina rocking back and forth on her feet while she chewed on her lip. "Do you have to talk to people like Mommy does? Is that why you don't come see me when I'm in school?"

"I do most days," grimaced Mei as she remembered all of the meetings she had scheduled in the coming weeks, "and it's very tiresome. Some days are better than others, but there are a lot of days when people yell or scream at me, or nobody wants to agree on anything and it takes us much longer than I'd like for us to solve the problems. But that's why I have so many people there to help me, it gives me the time and energy I need to focus on more important tasks, which occasionally includes checking in on the other schools. However, the reason I don't visit you that often is because my visits are scheduled and I can't make special trips to see you every time I go to the elementary school because that wouldn't be fair to the other kids. Not to mention that I'm there to monitor the teachers and see how the children are being treated, not to play. But I promise you that I'll make a trip to your class soon on the condition that you allow me to do my job. Is that agreeable?

"I guess," sighed Hina looking disappointed. "I just wanna see you more because Mommy and Daddy haven't brought us over in a long time and you don't visit a lot, and I like coming to visit."

"I understand." Mei smiled and pat Hina's head. "I enjoy our visits as well, but part of being an adult means you don't always get to do the things you want to do. But we do the best with what time we have and your Auntie Yuzu and I have to make time for Airi and Hideki as well. But I will make a stronger effort to spend more time with you and Reo once I have some more free time, is that all right?"

"Fine," grumbled Hina rubbing her toe into the ground and tilting her head back and forth before adding, "but if I wanted to, could I help you after school since Airi doesn't go there? I'm good at helping and I want to see your office, and you still haven't told me why Airi doesn't have to wear..."

"Airi's school doesn't require a uniform," said Mei cutting off Hina's latest barrage. "That's not entirely correct, she does wear a shirt with her name on it while she's there, but outside of that, she gets to wear whatever she wants as long as it's appropriate. But when she's older and goes to junior high and high school, she will."

"Okay," nodded Hina looking satisfied with the answer, "but what about me being your helper? I help my teacher all the time and Mommy and Daddy too and they say I'm a really good one so can I help you?"

"I'll...discuss it with your father," said Mei unsure of how to handle Hina's request, but flattered at the girl's willingness to support her. "But for now why don't you and AirIIIIII…."

A spin numbing chill shot through Mei's body as a tiny pair of cold hands planted themselves firmly on her neck, causing Hina to gasp while Airi giggled maniacally behind her.

"I got you, Mommy," laughed Airi, wrapping her arms around Mei's neck and hugging her while Yuzu appeared shaking her head and smiling.

"Yes….you certainly did." Mei turned from Hina to Airi who was in the process putting a couple of ice cubes in a small bowl that Yuzu was holding. "I take it you were somehow involved in this?"

"Maybe," grinned Yuzu setting the bowl down on the counter and grabbing a towel and handing it to Mei. "Are you mad?"

"I'll tell you later." Mei dabbed at her neck and chest before returning it to Yuzu and focusing on Airi who was doing her best to smile innocently and failing miserably. "As for you, you know better than to interrupt me when I'm having a conversation."

"I'm sorry." Airi's smile disappeared and she moved slowly next to Hina. "I just wanted to make you laugh."

"I understand that," sighed Mei at seeing the worried look on her daughter's face. "But that was rude and you know I'm not a fan of that kind of joke, so the next time you and Mama decide to play a joke on me, wait until after company leaves."

"'Kay." Airi took Hina's hand and gripped it tightly so her cousin couldn't pull away. "Am I grounded?"

"No," said Mei with a soft smile. "You aren't grounded, and won't be so long as you remain on your best behavior for the rest of the evening and all of tomorrow. That means no fighting when we wake you up or yelling at Hideki or tantrums, am I clear?"

Airi's eyes flitted toward Yuzu and then back to Mei after her birth mother nodded vigorously and gave Mei an energetic nod, causing her copious amounts of brown hair to fly in several directions as she said, "Yes, Mommy."

"Good," Mei reached out and took Airi's free hand and gave it a reaffirming squeeze before turning her attention to her wife. "Now, Yuzu, I think our daughter and our niece were given the job of taking us out into the yard where the rest of the family is waiting. Are you going to join us or are you going to stay inside for the rest of the night?"

"You better believe I'm coming!" Yuzu's face lit up at the question and raced toward the girls and took Hina's hand. "You think I'm going to miss seeing how hard they all worked? Seriously, Mei, I thought you knew me better than that."

"Well, that's because you never stop surprising me," coughed Mei adjusting some of her hair to hide the how red her ears were turning, smirking when she saw how red Yuzu's face had become.

"Umm, tha…."

"Come on," whined Airi, interrupting Yuzu. "I'm hungry and Hina and I wanna show you what's outside! Don't you Hina?!"

"Umm," Hina's face turned red as she nodded, "yeah. Can we go outside, please Auntie Mei and Auntie Yuzu?"

"All right," sighed Mei smiling down at the girls before smiling at Yuzu. "Lead the way girls."

Hina and Airi both cheered and pulled the two women toward the door while Yuzu whispered, "What do you think they have planned?"

"Just humor them," replied Mei with a smirk. "They're excited, and it seems Hina put in a lot of hard work, not to mention after everything Airi and Hideki went through, we can allow them to have a little fun before souring the mood."

"That sounds a little sadistic," chuckled Yuzu as they approached the door and looked down to see Hina and Airi whispering excitedly. "But you're right, as usual. I'm sure Mama and your dad are already freaking out over the condition Hideki is in, so yeah I'd say having fun takes priority tonight."

"I'm glad we agree," said Mei before leaning over their daughter's head to kiss her wife only to hear a disgusted grunt come from Airi.

"Quit it," snorted Yuzu letting go of Hina's hand briefly to tap her daughter on top of the head. "You give Hideki, Mommy, and I kisses all the time so why can't Mommy and I kiss each other?"

"It's cuz you guys sometimes use your tongues when you…."

"That's enough Airi," chuckled Mei nervously when she saw the uncomfortable look on Hina's face. "We're being rude by keeping everyone waiting and you're supposed to be taking us outside, remember?"

"Oh yeah." Airi looked to Hina and pointed at the door. "Ummm what'd your daddy ask us to do?"

"He said they have to close their eyes," repeated Hina confidently. "He said that we gotta have them close their eyes and lead them outside. No questions asked."

"Why do we have to…," began Yuzu only to have Hina raise a finger to her lips.

"Daddy said no questions," said Hina firmly. "So you guys gotta close your eyes, okay?"

"Why do we have to..."

"Just do it, Mommy," said Airi excitedly, tugging on Mei's arm. "You too Mama! You gotta close your eyes."

"Only if you give us a hint first," teased Yuzu with a wink at her daughter. "It's not fair if Mommy and I don't know why we gotta close your eyes."

"You already know," huffed Airi sticking her tongue out at Yuzu. "It's a surprise and if you see it then it won't be one. Mommy tell Mama she's gotta close her eyes."

"Just do it Yuzu," chuckled Mei closing her eyes slowly. "It's only a short walk so what's the worse that can happen."

"All right," sighed Yuzu in a perfect imitation of Airi before being enveloped by darkness. "Okay Airi, Hina, take us to the surprise."

"Okay, Hina, you hold their hands. I'm gonna open the door."

"'kay," answered Hina taking Yuzu's hands while Mei and Yuzu listened to the familiar sound of the back door sliding open. "Okay, Auntie Mei and Auntie Yuzu follow me."

"This better not be a trick," teased Yuzu, feeling Airi's hand take her free one. "You promise it's not a trick?"

"No," giggled both Airi and Hina in unison as they helped Mei and Yuzu step off the porch.

"We said it's a surprise," laughed Airi, bouncing up and down on the grass while Yuzu wiggled her toes against the soft ground while Mei fidgeted uncomfortably as she heard the sound of several hushed voices and clattering of silverware. "Come on, walk slow though cuz Hina forgot to clean up some of my toys."

"You left them…."

"That's enough girls," sighed Mei when she heard the beginnings of another fight. "Can we please get this over with?"

"That's not very nice, Mei," laughed the familiar voice of her step-mother while Shou groaned loudly.

"Ume?!"

"They already know we're here so why hide it?"

"No fighting," said Airi loudly cutting off her grandparents, "and you guys ruined the surprise."

"No they didn't Airi," said Yuzu squeezing her daughter's hand. "I've kept my eyes closed the whole time, and I'm sure Mommy has to. Haven't ya Mei?"

"All I know is that our parents are here and I'm tired so can we please get on with our evening? Airi can you please tell us what this surprise is?"

"You got it, Mommy!" Airi let go of Yuzu's hand and with a firm tug, pulled Hina away from Mei, both of them squealing as they ran toward the whispering voices of Udagawa and the others.

"What do you think it is," asked Yuzu excitedly as she fumbled for Mei's hand before finally grabbing it and shuffling closer.

"I'm not sure," sighed Mei, locking her fingers with Yuzus. "I thought this was supposed to be a party for Hideki. Why are we the ones that are waiting for a surprise?"

"Does it matter," asked Yuzu happily. "I kind of like being surprised by them for once. Besides you're the one who said we needed to let them have some fun so why don't you follow your advice for tonight?"

"You make a valid point," Mei chuckled and pulled Yuzu a little closer and took a deep breath. "Okay, everyone what's this surprise you all keep going on about?"

"Okay, Mom, Mama," said Hideki sounding like his usual cheerful self. "Open 'em!"

Together Mei and Yuzu opened their eyes to reveal their parents, Udagawa, Hideki, and the rest of the kids all standing behind a couple of large covered picnic tables, laden with homemade pasta, pizzas, salads, cheeses accompanied by cold cuts, as well as a couple of bottles of wine, tea, and soda.

None of this was a surprise, given that they'd smelled most of it earlier, but when they saw the huge smiles on their family members faces and their arms raised, Yuzu let out an excited squeak and pointed in the same direction of the others and whispered, "Mei, look!"

"I see it Yuzu."

Mei's lips parted in an appreciative smile when she saw the banner that was hanging between two small posts and the sight of their family member's smiling and shouting along with the banner, "HAPPY ANNIVERSARY!"

Chapter Text

 

“Do you like it, Mommy? Mama?” 

 

Mei’s smile faltered a little when she heard the lack of confidence in their daughter’s voice, but she recovered when she felt Airi’s hand on hers. 

 

“I do, Airi.” Mei lowered herself and pressed her head against Airi’s. “You and your brother must have worked very hard to keep this a secret from us.”

 

“Well it was my idea,” answered Airi somewhat pompously sticking her nose in the air, making Yuzu laugh and Mei roll her eyes.

 

“Oh it was, was it?” Yuzu grunted and joined Mei, steadying herself on her wife’s shoulder as she felt a slights spasm in her back and poked Airi in the belly. “Are you sure you aren’t fibbing?”

 

“No,” giggled Airi, pulling away from Yuzu and moving toward Mei and wrapping her arm around her mother’s. “I’m not fibbing. You believe me, right Mommy?” 

 

“I do," said Mei softly as she nuzzled Airi’s hair but couldn’t resist giving her a poke similar to Yuzu’s and tightened her grip, keeping her daughter from escaping. “But I am interested in hearing about this idea to turn your brother’s goodbye party into an anniversary party for your Mama and me. So can you tell me?” 

 

“Nope,” giggled Airi trying to escape from her mother’s hold. “I’m not telling! It’s a secret!” 

 

“I see,” said Mei coldly, before removing Airi from her arm and moving her closer to Yuzu. “Well then, I’m just going to leave you here with your mama until you decide to be honest with me while I go and see what your cousin has prepared for us to eat.”

 

“Mommy no,” whined Airi as Yuzu slowly crept toward the child, her fingers and mouth curled in malicious delight. 

 

“She can’t save you Airi,” laughed Yuzu maniacally as she crept toward Airi, making her daughter’s eyes grow wide in fear while simultaneously suppressing a giggle, “the only way you can get out of this is to tell us the truth. So what’s it gonna be?” 

 

Airi’s eyes darted between both of her mother’s and then at the table, and as Yuzu lunged for her, she let out a squeal and bolted toward the table laughing as she nearly knocked over Ume who was carrying a large platter of tomato covered meat.”

 

“Oh so that’s how it’s going to be,” cackled Yuzu, climbing to her feet and chasing after her daughter. 

 

“Yuzu, please don’t encourage her,” sighed Mei as she picked up a piece of cheese from the table, trying to hide a smirk.

 

“Relax Mei,” chuckled Yuzu, taking a moment to kiss her wife’s cheek, “I’m just trying to help her relax.”

 

“I understand that,” said Mei, adjusting her hair so that it covered up her ears, “but there’s a lot of...”

 

“Airi,” began Shou as Airi pulled Hina into a game of tag and began shouting at Yuzu to catch them, giggling as they ran around the table and shouted at the adults to pay attention to them, “Hina, if you’re going to play take it away from the table!”

 

“What’d you say, Grandpa,” asked Airi, coming to a stop a little too quickly, causing Hina to crash into her and sending both girls into one of the padded wooden armchairs that had been brought out for the party. 

 

“Are you two okay?”

 

“Hina, what’s the matter?”

 

“I hit my head,” cried Hina holding her forehead while Airi sniffled and clutched her knee. 

 

“Come here,” said Udagawa walking over to his daughter and picking her up while the boys looked on worriedly as Yuzu got to her feet to check on Airi while Mei began scanning her daughter for any signs of blood. “Airi are you okay?”

 

“I hurt my knee again,” she whimpered holding her leg tightly. “Mama, is it bleeding? Do I need stitches?”

 

“Let me see,” said Yuzu softly, pulling her daughter’s hands away from her knee and checking the bandage and smiling after a moment. “Well the bad news is it’s bleeding a little, but the good news is we have everything we need to make you better in the bathroom, so let’s go and get you fixed up and then we’ll come back and have dinner, okay?”

 

Airi’s lower lip disappeared into her mouth, but she nodded and slid off the chair and took Yuzu’s hands, wiped her nose on the back of her hand and said, “Sorry, Hina. Sorry, Uncle.”

 

“It was an accident,” said Udagawa as he grabbed a towel that Ume had packed with ice and carefully placed it on Hina’s forehead. “But next time try not to play around the table, promise?”

 

“Promise,” said both girls before Udagawa returned to his seat with Hina while Airi followed Yuzu into the house. 

 

“Yuzu,” said Mei as the table returned to a state of cautious celebration, “do you need my help?”

 

“We'll be fine,” answered the blonde, kissing her wife softly and rubbing their noses together. “It’s just a scratch, and it'll only take a couple of minutes so try to relax and have some fun. Just not too much fun and save whatever that tomato covered meat Reo made, okay?" 

 

“We’ll wait until you get back,” answered Mei, blushing when she noticed the flash from her step-mother’s phone. “Don’t be too long, please?”

 

“Yes ma’am,” chuckled Yuzu before tugging gently on Airi’s hand. “You ready Airi?” 

 

“Yeah,” whispered Airi, giving Mei an apologetic look. “I’m sorry I ruined the party.” 

 

“You didn’t ruin anything Airi,” said Mei with a reassuring smile and patting her daughter gently on the head. “Now go get cleaned up so we can have some fun.”

 

Airi managed a sad but sincere smile beforre following her mother into the house, waving to Mei before disappearing inside.

 

“Rough day,” asked her father as he sat down next to her and poured her a small glass of red wine.

 

“Tiring is more accurate,” replied Mei as she watched Ume and Hideki laugh as they tried throwing bits of cheese into one another’s mouths. “But after seeing all of this my mood has definitely improved.” 

 

“I can't begin to tell you how happy that makes me,” chuckled her father as he poured himself a glass of wine as Hina wriggled free from her father’s grasp, pressing the towel to her forehead and asking Ume and Hideki to join in the game while Reo finished a few last minute preparations. 

 

“How are they holding up," asked Shou after a small sip of wine. "Hideki seems fine, but how's Airi?  Is she okay? I mean she seems like it, but Hideki told me a bit of what happened, and I want to make sure they’re both handling it okay.” 

 

“I think Hideki will be fine after a few talks,” said Mei after taking a shallow sip of wine. “But I am worried about Airi. I feel like she’s hiding something, that they both are, but I’m worried about pushing her too hard and I'm worried if I press her she'll begin to shut me out. Not just her but Hideki too.” 

 

Mei took another drink, this time a rather long one which caught the attention of her ex-husband and father along with her surrogate nephew. But she was so focused on her daughter that she didn’t notice and when she finished she let out a heavy sigh and asked, “I thought it’d be easier with Airi, but it’s proving to be just as difficult as it was with Hideki.” 

 

“I may not be the best person to say this,” coughed her father before taking his own long drink, “but I have noticed throughout my career, and I’m sure you’ve noticed it too, that each kid presents their own unique challenges. Hideki was your first so everything was new to you and it prepared you for a lot of things that would happen with Airi and for the most part it seems that everything has been pretty par for the course.

 

Mei bit her tongue, knowing that despite his absence in her life, Shou's career as an educator did grant him a perspective that many parents didn't have and while Mei rarely asked him for advice, but in this case she was willing to listen and allowed him to continue. 

 

When she didn't say anything, Mei noticed how he was being careful with his alcohol intake and watched as he barely drank any of his wine before slowly saying, "But I’m not going to lie and say that because of certain...aspects...of her biology she’s going to have different experiences. Especially since you two decided to raise her here in Japan. Most of the experiences I'm sure you’re very familiar with but some of them..."

 

Shou carefully tugged on the skin of his forearm and said, "Those kinds of problems are going to be a little more difficult to deal with. Am I making sense?" 

 

“You are,” answered Mei through slightly gritted teeth. She knew what her father was talking about and while she and Yuzu still dealt with certain prejudices, they rarely had anything to do with Airi. 

 

Though it wasn’t unheard of and the thought of what her father was suggesting as being a reason for Hideki getting into a fight had been sitting in the back of her mind ever since she saw how they’re children avoided their questions and Mei wondered if Yuzu was having similar thoughts. 

 

“I’m sorry,” coughed Shou after seeing his daughter’s face and finishing his glass before preparing to excuse himself, “I shouldn’t have said anything.” 

 

“It’s fine,” said Mei, placing a trembling hand on top of her father’s and trying to smile. She knew his intentions were pure and didn't doubt the love he had for Airi. 

 

Even though Airi wasn't his granddaughter by blood, Shou loved her as if she were and Mei knew he was as protective of her as he was of Hideki. 

 

With this knowledge, Mei managed to squeeze her father's hand and felt her hand begin to calm before saying, “I know you’re worried and that you’re trying to help me. I appreciate your concern and know you're simply trying to give me the best advice you can and I'm grateful.

 

“Thanks, Mei,” answered Shou, a weak smile on his lips and Mei could see that he was struggling to figure out what to do next. 

 

“Here,” said Mei, making the decision for him by grabbing the bottle and began refilling both of their glasses. 

 

“What’s this for,” asked Shou, giving his glass a wary look. 

 

“I would like to share a drink with you,” answered Mei, picking up her glass, “to thank you for being there for them and for us the past several years. Besides, you and I never had a proper drink on my ‘Coming of Age Day’ and as the saying goes, there’s no time like the present.” 

 

“Words to live by,” chuckled Shou, scratching the back of his head before taking a drink in unison with his daughter. 

 

When they finished,  Mei noticed a distressed look on her father's face and asked, "What's the matter? Did I do something wrong?"

 

"No," said Shou quietly before finishing his glass. "You did a lot of things right, but I feel you're putting me on a pedestal to make me feel better. 

 

"What are you talking about?" Mei was confused by her father's words and was beginning to regret suggesting they share a drink. "I meant what I said, about wanting to share a drink with you and appreciating what you've done for the kids. 

 

"I haven't done much, Mei," said Shou rubbing his temple in frustration.  "All I did was what I should have done with you so I don’t know if you should be thanking me since it doesn’t make up for everything else.”

 

“It doesn’t,” said Mei frankly, making her father wince and try to pull his hand away but Mei kept a firm grip on him, “but you’ve more than earned your forgiveness Father, so please, stop punishing yourself. Because honestly, I'm growing rather tired of telling you to.” 

 

Shou nearly dropped his glass when he heard Mei’s words and before he could reply the sliding door opened as Airi bolted from the house, her knees freshly bandaged and a huge smile on her face as she ran toward Mei. 

 

“Mommy! Look!” Airi skid to a halt in front of Mei and lifted her shorts to show off the fresh bandages Yuzu had applied to her knees. “They don’t hurt no more.”

 

“Anymore,” corrected Mei, softly, patting her daughter’s head and smiling. “They don’t hurt anymore, Airi, and I’m happy that you’re feeling better, just promise me that you won’t run around recklessly for the rest of the night, do we have a deal?”

 

“Yep!” Airi nodded and turned her smile to Shou so she could show him how good of a job Yuzu had done fixing her knees but stopped when she saw him rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. “Grandpa, are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine, Airi,” coughed Shou before finishing his wine and pulling Airi into his lap. “Mommy just said something that made me happy. So if you see tears, they’re happy tears. You know what those are right?”

 

“Uh huh.” Airi beamed at her grandfather and wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. “Mama and Mommy told me that tears are good things cuz they can help you feel better. Do you feel better?” 

 

“I do,” chuckled Shou, hugging Airi tight against his chest, “and thanks for the kiss, it helped a lot.” 

 

“Easy Papa,” laughed Yuzu taking her seat next to Mei. “She may be tough but she’s still a little kid, so try not to hurt her.”

 

“I’m not little, I’m the tallest kid in class,” grunted Airi, breaking away from her grandfather before turning around and dropping into his lap, thankfully avoiding the sensitive portions of her grandfather’s lap. 

 

“That’s true,” smirked Yuzu accepting the rest of Mei’s wine and sipping it. “If the doctor’s right you’re going to be almost as tall as Hideki and Uncle.”

 

“That’s tall,” said Airi, her eyes wide as she tried to contemplate being that height. “If I got that tall would I have to wear Hideki’s clothes?”

 

There was a clatter of china as Reo nearly dropped a plate of food he was handing to Ume after trying to hide his laughter.

 

“No,” chuckled Yuzu, finishing her wine and pouring a glass for herself and Mei, “you wouldn’t have to wear Hideki’s clothes. They’d be too big on you.”

 

“That sucks,” snorted Airi, earning her a disapproving look from her mother, but ignoring it as Hideki handed her a plate with some salad and pasta. “I like Hideki’s clothes. They’re comfy.”

 

“Is that why I’m missing a couple of tee-shirts,” asked Hideki after swallowing a large bite of pizza. “Airi what’d I tell you about sneaking into my room?!”

 

“I didn’t go in your room,” said Airi with an impish smile after picking a piece of onion out of her salad. “Mama put them in my drawer by accident.” 

 

“You’re lying.” Hideki downed the last of his pizza and began to move around the table, but before he could reach her, Airi had slid off her chair and was running away from her brother. “Where’re my shirts, Airi?!”

 

“Not telling,” giggled Airi as she evaded a lunge from her brother. 

 

When she dodged him, Hideki tripped and nearly collided with the ground, but it came to no surprise to anyone watching that he was able to right himself and continue his chase in spite of his injuries. It was clear to everyone at the table that Hideki was pulling his punches. He towered over his younger siblings, having almost a foot on his mothers, and they all knew that he could have caught Airi if he wanted to. But instead, he smiled and teased her as he chased his sister around the yard despite their parents telling them to come and eat, only giving up when Hina abandoned her plate to join in on the play even after Udagawa threatened her with no dessert. 

 

“You know that never works,” laughed Ume over her glass of beer and took a large bite of what looked like meat covered in tomato sauce and sighed happily at the taste while Hideki let out a loud growl as he stomped around the yard, chasing his sisters. "I don't know why you even bother trying."

 

“Thanks for the support, Ume-san,” laughed Udagawa as he poured himself a glass of barley tea before turning his gaze on Reo. “You gonna join them, son?”

 

“Nope,” grunted the younger Udagawa as he began tucking into a plate of cheese, bread, and meats after handing over plates of food to Mei and Yuzu. “I spent all day cooking since Mom wasn’t here to help, so I’m going to relax as much as possible.” 

 

“I helped,” pouted Ume, throwing a piece of crust at the twelve-year-old who, instead of dodging it, allowed it to bounce off of his perfectly combed hair. “I worked just as hard as you making some of this stuff, harder in some cases since I had no idea how to make any of it and you insisted on making a lot of it by hand.”

 

“Sorry Grandma Ume,” coughed Reo after swallowing a large chunk of bread and cheese and washing it down with a couple of sips of Ramune, his face burning from the embarrassment of almost choking and forgetting that Ume had helped him. “You know I appreciate all your help today, and if I didn’t say it I’m...”

 

“You said it plenty sweetheart.” Ume smiled and reached over and began messing her surrogate grandson’s hair, making him pull away in annoyance much like Hideki used to do before poking his bicep “I was just teasing you, but I’ll admit, I’m impressed.”

 

“Impressed by what, Mama?” Yuzu had just finished a bit of pasta amazed at how smooth the sauce and pasta were and how Reo had managed to find a way to make the shrimp sweet and spicy without either flavor overpowering the other. 

 

“How strong he is!” Ume pulled up the sleeve of Reo’s tee-shirt and lifted his arm to show off a well-defined bicep hidden beneath his wiry frame. “My arms have been killing me since noon and I had to take a couple of breaks just to get my strength back, but he’s been going at this since six this morning!”

 

“It’s because I’m used to it,” grunted Reo pulling his arm back and covering it up. “You and Auntie have been teaching how to cook since I was little and it would have been sooner, but once Hideki asked me if we could make it an anniversary party I had to change everything. He’s lucky I didn’t kick his a...”

 

“That was Hideki’s idea,” asked Mei pointing up at the banner before realizing she had cut Reo off mid-sentence though from the corner of her eye she could see the look on Udagawa’s face and realized she’d done the teen a favor. “My apologies Reo, please continue.”

 

“It’s all right, Auntie,” replied a frustrated Reo before standing up to allow Shou access to the food. “But yeah it was his idea, at least I think it was. When I asked him why he wanted the extra food, he said it was because one night Airi said that they should do something nice for you two since he was leaving and asked me to make a ton of extra stuff. Or at least that’s what he told me, and it better be the truth because I had to put off studying and dip into my savings to plan and pay for everything.” 

 

“Excuse me,” asked Mei, fuming at the prospect of Reo being forced to pay for something that was his brother’s idea. “Are you telling me that Hideki didn’t even offer to...”

 

“It’s not his fault,” explained Udagawa with an audible sigh and casting a disapproving glare at his middle child. “Hideki added in ten-thousand of his own money to help cover any extra costs. It was Reo who miscalculated by asking me to buy a couple of extra bottles of wine for some of the recipes he wanted to try out.”

 

“I see.” Mei felt relieved that Hideki had at least offered to pay for the extra food, but still felt she owed Reo and her step-mother something for working so hard on the dinner and couldn’t resist taking a bite of what looked like a beef dish and risked a taste. 

 

It was delicious and the herbs that Reo had chosen worked perfectly with the meat and the sauce was sweet but not so powerful that it overshadowed the meat. Mei was amazed at how tender it was and after a few moments began to wonder just what exactly it was that Reo had made. 

 

“Reo, this is incredible,” gasped Mei and seeing the same look flash across Yuzu’s face. “What...what kind of dish is this?”

 

“It’s called Osso Buco,” explained Reo, spooning himself up some of the meat, bit into it, chewed and nodded pleased with himself. “It’s got a lot of different preparations, but I went with one that required a tomato base and lamb shank instead of veal which I think works better and costs about the same amount.”

 

“Yuzu,” said Mei, going to take another bite only to discover her plate was now empty. “Can I….”

 

“Here.” Yuzu smiled and skewered some onto her fork and offered the fork to her wife.

 

“Thank yo..,” said Mei, reaching for the fork and looking agitated when Yuzu pulled it away and gave her the same smirk Airi had given to Hideki when he questioned her about his shirts. “Yuzu….”

 

“Open up,” giggled Yuzu tantalizingly waving the fork in front of her wife’s face. 

 

“I’m not a child, Yuzu. I can feed myself.” Mei’s voice was low, and she felt her ears burning while her father snickered behind her and Ume took a couple of pictures on her phone as Reo and Udagawa did their best to ignore the scene playing out in front of them. “Yuzu, please, this is embarrassing.”

 

“All right,” pouted Yuzu and set the fork down on Mei’s plate and gestured toward it, her lower lip sticking out slightly. “There, the fork and food are all yours.” 

 

“Yuzu, don’t give me that look,” whispered Mei, her ears burning while Yuzu picked up some stray bits of pasta sauce with a piece of garlic bread. 

 

“What look,” asked Yuzu, almost passing off a look of confusion, save for the slight twitch in the corner of her mouth. 

 

“You know what I’m talking about.” Mei cast a nervous glance around the table, aware that everybody save for Reo was listening in on their conversation despite their attempts to pass off their eavesdropping as attempts to listen to one another.

 

“No I don’t,” said Yuzu coyly while twirling some pasta onto a fork and taking a bite before sipping some more wine as Hideki returned to the table with Hina and Airi, all of them covered in grass stains. “Did you guys have fun?” 

 

“Uh huh,” gasped Airi, forcing her way past Ume and into Shou’s lap so she could eat her dinner while Hideki sat next to Hina and began telling her about what happened at his dance class. “Mommy how come your ears are red? Did Mama do something weird?” 

 

“Not yet,” snorted Hideki through a bite of what had to be his fourth piece of pizza. "Give it time though AIri, they'll do something weird soon enough.

 

“Quiet you,” laughed Yuzu, reaching over and flicking her son in the ear, making him jump and cover it. "Unless you want me to steal your dessert when it comes out."

 

“Don’t,” warned Hideki trying to sound tough but instead gave an awkward half-laugh. “You know I hate it when you do that!” 

 

“I know.” Yuzu cleared her plate of food and began spreading some fontina cheese onto a cracker. “Just thought I’d remind you in case you decide to pull something like what happened this afternoon again.” 

 

“I know,” sighed Hideki spooning up some of the Osso Buco for himself and Hina. “When I get back, how long am I grounded for? Just so I know what to expect.” 

 

“We haven’t discussed it yet,” said Mei, ignoring the fork Yuzu had placed on her plate and focusing on the other dishes, “but you’ll know as soon as we have a date, but you can be certain your social life will be mostly non-existent until it’s over.”

 

“But what about work or if I have to do a recital or something?” Hideki sounded annoyed at the prospect of a long punishment, but it was clear to his parents that he wasn’t going to challenge them on their decision. 

 

“We will take work and your recitals into consideration,” said Udagawa after setting aside his plate and resting his hands on his stomach. “But outside of that any free time you have will be spent at home studying or taking care of your siblings. Which means no mixers or going out to eat with your friends after school, including Yui.”

 

“But what if they want to come over and study,” asked Hideki with an innocent smile that was fooling nobody.

 

“Not after what happened last year,” came a familiar voice from behind Mei and Yuzu and while everyone else lit up at the sight of their latest arrival, Hideki’s mood deflated.

 

“Mommy,” gasped Hina excitedly, practically knocking over Hideki to get to her mother. 

 

“Hi, Mom,” answered Reo earnestly while giving Hideki a nudge with his elbow. 

 

“Hey, Mama Rena,” snorted Hideki punching his brother in the arm before groaning in pain as he felt a jolt in his bruised knuckles.

 

“Good evening, my love,” said Udagawa standing up and kissing his wife before allowing a haggard-looking Rena to pick up an excited Hina and allowing her to sit and preparing her a plate. “I’m glad you were able to make it.”

 

“So am I,” said Rena happily and sitting down in her chair with Hina. “I’m sorry I missed the big reveal, you two.”

 

“It’s all right,” said Yuzu happily after finishing her fourth glass of wine and kissing Mei on the cheek and eyeing the fork she’d left on Mei’s plate. “You’ll see plenty when Mama sends you all the pictures she’s been taking, won’t she Mama?!”

 

“You know it,” laughed a rosy-cheeked Ume holding her phone up before downing another beer. “I got a bunch, not just of Mei and Yuzu, but also Reo and me cooking, Shou playing with the girls, Hideki trying to help out and things like that. I even got one of Udagawa almost falling off the ladder while he and Hideki put up the banner.”

 

“Guess those are going in the photo album,” chuckled Rena before taking a bite of the food and letting out a satisfied sigh when she tasted her son’s cooking. “Reo, Ume, this is incredible. If this is how good dinner tastes I can’t wait to see what you cooked up for dessert.” 

 

“I want dessert,” said both Airi and Hina so loudly that Mei nearly dropped the glass of water she’d asked Yuzu to pour for her.

 

“After dinner is cleaned up,” said Mei dabbing at her face and neck with a napkin and pointing at Airi’s plate. “Which includes you finishing everything on your plate or else you won’t get any of whatever it is that your grandmother and Reo made. If you do that and help with cleaning up you can have dessert; because  if you don’t, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”

 

“Since you have food on your plate do you get dessert Mommy,” asked Airi pointing at her mother’s plate.

 

“What are you talking about Airi?”

 

“You gotta finish your dinner,” giggled Airi as she chewed on a piece of bread while Mei stared down at her plate. “So you gotta eat, or you don’t get dessert.” 

 

“You’re mistaken Airi,” said Mei with a smirk. “I’m your mother, so I’m allowed to have my dessert even if I don’t finish everything on my plate.” 

 

“I don’t think so,” came Yuzu’s voice as she wrapped her arms around Mei’s stomach. “If the kids have to eat all their dinner then so do you, unless your goal is to insult Mama and Reo.”

 

“If it shuts you up; I’ll finish it,” sighed Mei removing Yuzu’s arms and returning to her plate and finishing the last few pieces of her food. 

 

“Mei.” Yuzu took a deep breath and focused on how to talk to her wife while everyone else focused on beginning conversations to avoid listening in, though it was apparent that both Hideki and Airi were having a difficult time minding their own business. “It was a joke; you know you don’t have to...”

 

“I want to,” said Mei keeping control of her voice so that she didn’t come off as upset with and risk ruining their meal. “I understand that you were teasing me, but you made a good point. Reo and Mother spent their day preparing this meal, and I don’t want it to go to waste. Besides, there’s still something you need to do for me.”

 

“What’s that?” Yuzu took a short sip of her wine and Mei could tell by the tinge on her cheeks and the way Yuzu’s knee was rubbing against her that the blonde was going to be a handful once their company left.

 

“This.” Mei lifted the fork off her plate and handed it to Yuzu, doing her best not to look amused at the blush that had overtaken her bride’s face. “You wanted to feed me this, didn’t you?”

 

There was a snort of laughter from behind them, and Mei couldn’t help but notice Hideki covering his mouth and turning his head in an attempt to hide his laughter while Reo buried his face in his hands. Nobody else seemed to see, but Mei could feel a couple of extra eyes on them but decided to throw caution to the wind and adjust her hair and head in a way so that Ume could get the picture she knew her step-mother would want to add to her most recent photo album. 

 

“Kinda,” whispered Yuzu casting a glare at Hideki who was still snickering. 

 

“Ignore me,” he said before taking a drink of Ramune out of his glass. “I got something caught in my throat.” 

 

“Sure there is,” said Reo, tearing off another piece of bread for himself along with some more cheese. 

 

The table gave a short jump, rattling a couple of dishes and Reo winced before glaring at his brother followed by another jerk of the table. 

 

“Watch it,” grunted Hideki, biting down on his lower lip. “You almost hit my bandages.”

 

“Then quit being a jackass,” quipped back Reo with a snicker. 

 

“That’s enough,” said Rena, turning away from the conversation she was having with Airi and Hina to stop her sons arguing. “I’m not in the mood for it, and after what happened this afternoon I thought you’d be tired of it as well Hideki. The same goes to you, Reo. You worked hard, and I’m sorry I had to go to work today, but that doesn’t give you the right to tease your brother.” 

 

“Yes, Mom.”

 

“Yes, Mama Rena.” 

 

“Good.” Rena exhaled loudly and pulled off the jacket of her suit and removed the hair tie she was using to keep her hair up, shook it free, and tucked it behind her ears. After a sip of water, Rena a bite of cheese and turned her attention back to Airi and said, “So Airi, why don’t you tell me and Uncle more about this piano lesson you had today and Hina, when Airi's  done, you can tell Daddy and me about how class went, okay?” 

 

 

While Hina and Airi began vying for the attention of Udagawa and Rena, Hideki started conversing with Shou about places to visit while he was in New York and Ume gave Reo most of her attention while she input some of the recipes he’d made into her phone. 

 

When they were confident that they had some amount of privacy Mei nodded at the fork and asked, “So are you going to do fulfill your wish or am I going to have to do it for you?”

 

“Mei, I told you that it was a joke,” sighed Yuzu gesturing for Mei to take the fork. “I know you don’t like it when I do stuff like that so there’s no reason to force yourself just to make me happy.”

 

“I’ve never said I don’t like it.” Mei reached up and moved a few strands of hair out of Yuzu’s eyes. “Just because I’m not always receptive to your advances doesn’t mean I dislike it. My willingness is simply dependent on my mood, and right now I want to do that for you.” 

 

“All right.” Yuzu giggled and held the fork up to Mei’s mouth and nudged the fork toward her. “Open up.” 

 

Rolling her eyes, Mei opened her mouth and moved it toward the fork, her eyes locked on Yuzu’s and the smile that spread across her wife’s face as her mouth enveloped the fork. The meat was just as delicious cold as it was warm, but even with how good it tasted, Mei couldn’t keep her eyes off Yuzu and as she pulled away winked at her wife just as a flash filled the corner of her eye. 

 

“Really, Mama?” Yuzu managed to remain smiling, but Mei could see the annoyance fill Yuzu’s green eyes. “Did you have to take a picture?”

 

“Oh relax, Yuzu dear,” said Ume tapping something on her phone, most likely emailing it to herself to avoid accidentally deleting it. “This isn’t even the most embarrassing picture I have of you or Mei for that matter.”

 

“How embarrassing are we talking,” asked Yuzu, her face still red but her voice uncharacteristically calm. “Like...awkward baby pictures or something weirder?”

 

“I’m not telling,” replied Ume in a sing-song voice. “If you want to know, you’ll have to come over and see the project I’ve been working on in my free time.” 

 

“Project we’ve been working on,” said Shou with a grunt. “Don’t forget you’ve been dragging me into it every chance you get.” 

 

“Think of it as penance for all the time you’ve spent traveling during our marriage,” teased Ume before giving her husband a peck on the cheek. But to answer your question Yuzu it’s nothing you or Mei have to worry about, isn’t that right Shou?”

 

“She’s telling the truth,” answered Shou, his face looking almost exactly like Mei and Hideki’s did when they got annoyed. “I can vouch for her innocence, even if it eats up my weekends which by the way you still owe me for spending most of last weekend in the apartment helping you.”

 

“And you will be paid in full soon,” giggled Ume resting her head on her shoulder while Shou downed his beer, “I promise.” 

 

“And I’ve lost my appetite,” grunted Hideki, pushing his plate away. “What’s for dessert?” 

 

“Nothing,” said Reo, smirking as he stood and began walking toward the house with a couple of plates.  “I didn’t have enough time...”

 

“That’s bull, and you know it.” Hideki got to his feet and pulled his brother into a cautious headlock and began messing up his hair. “I heard you and Grandma this morning in the kitchen, and you said something about needing to freeze something all day, and you only do that when you’re making ice cream or gelato or something else like that.”

 

“Will you get off of me,” growled Reo elbowing his brother in the ribs, but only causing the taller boy to hold on tighter while continuing to steer him toward the kitchen. 

 

Hideki gave a quiet moment of false contemplation before shaking his head. 

 

“I think I’m gonna hold onto you for a bit longer,” snickered Hideki as he used his free arm to open the sliding door. “We’ll be back in a minute!”

 

There was a sound of muffled cursing from Reo and Hideki shouting at him to calm down and help him with everything before the door shut, leaving the adults and younger kids in peaceful silence. 

 

“Mama,” yawned Airi as she stepped away from Udagawa and Rena and began tugging on her mother’s shorts. “Can Hina stay the night?” 

 

“I’m afraid she can’t sweetheart,” said Yuzu as she took Rena’s plate and with the help of Shou and Mei began making room for the dessert. “We have an early day tomorrow, and you need to sleep. Not to mention that whenever Hina stays the night, you two never go to sleep on time.” 

 

“Yes, we do,” piped in Hina from her mother’s lap, looking almost like a doll as she folded her hands gently in her lap and smiled in a vain attempt to look in innocent.

 

“Nice try,” chuckled Yuzu while Mei began trying to clean a squirming Airi’s face with a damp napkin while Ume took pictures and Shou begged his wife to stop. “Don’t think Auntie Mei and I forgot about that mess you two made when you two snuck a carton of ice cream out of the freezer the last time you stayed over and what happened to the floor when you two fell asleep in the middle of eating it.” 

 

“We said sorry,” whined Airi as Mei finally released her. “And I’ve been a good girl and haven’t gotten in trouble at school.”

 

“You’ve been better,” confirmed Mei wiping off one last bit of sauce from Airi’s face and chuckling when the girl whined, “and so has Hina, but we need to discuss this before you two are to be trusted to sleep alone in a room again.”

 

“Fine,” groaned Airi falling forward and practically slamming her head into Mei’s lap while Hina failed to convince her parents as they agreed with Mei and Yuzu. “If Hina can’t stay over can I sleep with you and Mama tonight?”

 

“We’ll discuss it after dinner,” said Mei, patting her daughter’s soft, bushy hair, “and after you’ve had your bath.” 

 

“I don’t want a bath,” cried Airi stamping her feet. “I had one yesterday.” 

 

“We know,” said Yuzu rolling her eyes at her daughter’s false tantrum and smirking at Mei. “But you were rolling around in the dirt, so you and Hideki are going to bathe and then it’s bed right after that.”

 

“I wanna sleep with you and Mama.” Airi’s voice was beginning to grow louder, and all the adults were starting to wonder if she was faking her tantrum. 

 

Mei felt Airi’s nails on her thigh through her skirt and rested her hand on her daughter’s hand and gave a worried look to Yuzu. 

 

“Airi,” said Yuzu, carefully placing a hand on Airi’s back. “You need to listen. Mommy and I know you’re tired, but you have to...” 

 

“I WANNA SLEEP WITH YOU AND MOMMY!”

 

Airi’s voice echoed throughout the backyard, silencing all conversation and catching the attention of a couple of neighbors, some of whom stepped outside to ask if everything was all right. While Udagawa, Rena, and Shou began explaining what was going on, Airi managed to pull away from Mei and barely escaped Yuzu’s grasp to run to the door, nearly knocking over Reo who was carrying a large cake dusted in powdered sugar while Hideki ate a spoonful of something out of a plastic tub. 

 

“Is...everything all right,” asked Hideki as Yuzu approached, pulling Mei along behind her. “Do you guys need my help?” 

 

“We might,” said Mei before pointing at the table. “But for now you two get everyone started on dessert while we handle this. Thank you, Reo, for all your hard work and Hideki...”

 

“Yeah, Mom?” 

 

As much as she wanted to embrace her son and thank him for including them in the festivities, the anguished look on Airi’s face was still fresh in her mind. 

 

“Mei, we gotta go.” Yuzu’s voice was quiet, and it was easy for Mei to tell that Yuzu regretted saying it but knew she had to.

 

“Take care of things down here for us, please?” 

 

Hideki nodded in understanding and smiled at them and said, “You can count on me."

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

 

“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

sang:

 

 

You had your time, you had the power

You've yet to have your finest hour

Radio (radio)

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?”

 

“Why?

 

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.”

 

“How come?”

 

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?”

 

“Yes, Mommy.”

 

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.”

 

“Okay.”

 

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."

 

“Yes!”

 

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.

Chapter Text

 


Chapter 7

 

“So what’s this surprise you have planned?” Mei set her phone down and propped her head up on her hand as she watched the mountain scenery pass by as Airi sang quietly to herself as she read one of the books Suzuran had given Hideki when he was a baby. “And please don’t say that telling me will ruin the surprise, I’m not in the mood for bad jokes.” 

 

“It’s a town up in the mountains,” explained Yuzu pointing wide expanse of forest, fields, and hills that surrounded them. “I thought that much was obvious considering where we are.” 

 

“Both hands on the steering wheel,” sighed Mei, pushing Yuzu’s hand away, but not bothering to repeat herself when Yuzu held onto it and rested it on the console. “I remember you saying that it was a town in the mountains, but why the mountains? Couldn’t we have stayed somewhere closer to home? I have to stay somewhere where there’s phone reception in case the school or Himeko call.”

 

“We’ll be fine.” Yuzu squeezed Mei’s hand and gave her a quick smile before returning her focus to the somewhat busy freeway. “I made sure they have good reception where we’re staying, and there are plenty of pay phones and places that we can borrow a landline. There’s even a small business center on the property in case you need to send an email if your phone's not working. Besides, you forget that I left a newbie manager in charge of the restaurant to train the new hires so don’t think you’re the only one who’s got a lot on their mind.” 

 

“I’m sorry.” Mei gave a heavy sigh and gripped Yuzu’s hand tightly. “I’m only thinking about myself again and that’s not fair to you or Airi.” 

 

Mei turned her gaze back toward their daughter, releasing Yuzu’s hand so the blonde could better control the car while she inspected Airi who was smiling happily as she sang happily along with a song. It’d only been a week since the fight and physically Airi was fine. But she was still waking up to bad dreams about it and the only way they had been able to sleep was by letting her sleep with them or in Hideki’s room with most of the stuffed animals to keep her company.

 

While they’d been patient with her, the fact was that Airi’s sleep had been so fragmented that even when they put her in a place where she felt safe, she spent her nights running up and down, meaning that Mei and Yuzu had to sleep in shifts. It had made them both irritable and they’d snapped each other a couple of times with them taking turns sleeping on a futon at the foot of their bed. But there was a silver lining as once Airi heard about their trip she got so excited that it’d become easy for Mei and Yuzu to get her to stay in bed making the previous night the only full nights sleep they’d gotten in the past week. MOstly because Airi was so excited that she wore herself out helping Yuzu prepare.

 

Thankfully, Airi had slept through the night, allowing Mei and Yuzu to finally recover after their harrowing week, even though their worry had yet to subside.

 

Even with Airi’s temperament on the upturn, Hideki had barely been in contact since the day he’d left which they took as a good sign considering the looks he’d gotten from Harumi, Abby, and Matsuri when they’d come to see him off the following morning. But it was little consolation thanks to their worry about how he was acclimating to the cultural differences between Japan and America.

 

Not to mention that Mei and Yuzu had their hands full since Udagawa and Rena had to leave with the kids to handle a family emergency and since Ume and Shou were busy with work they had no one to watch Airi. Meaning they had to adjust their plans and workloads to include her, but the smile on their daughter’s face was the only thing Mei needed to see to confirm that bringing her along was the right thing to do.

 

“Hi, Mommy,” said Airi, pulling her headphones off, creating a somewhat noticeable dent in her hair. 

 

“Hello, Airi.” Mei smiled back shyly and waved at her daughter. “What are you listening to?”

 

“A movie.” Airi picked up the tablet and showed Mei a screen with a bunch of computer-generated animals that were walking around dressed like people. “It’s a movie about a fox and a bunny cop that Hideki put on the tablet for me. It’s good and has a couple of songs I like, but it’s kinda scary. Do you want to watch it with me?” 

 

“I’ll watch it with you after we take a break,” answered said Mei with a smile. “I know the movie you’re talking about thanks to Mama and Hideki, and I think it would be best if one of us watches it with you.” 

 

“I think you should watch it with her,” chuckled Yuzu spotting a sign that mentioned an upcoming rest stop. "Since we got a bit more driving to do."

 

“I can drive,” said Mei looking affronted. “I’ve had my license for seven years, and I’ve never once gotten into an accident or gotten an infraction.”

 

“That’s true.” Yuzu gave Mei a side smirk before pulling off and heading toward the rest area. “I know good a driver you are, but that’s only when we’re in town. Unless you forgot about what happened the last time you tried driving on the freeway.” 

 

“I remember,” offered Airi, bouncing up and down in her car seat. “Mommy almost hit a couple cars because she thought she saw a kitty and then almost drove into the wall. Then she said...”

 

“Thank you, Airi.” Mei turned to Airi and gave her a look that warned the girl to not continue with her story. 

 

“Kay,” giggled Airi before pointing out the window. “Are we there Mama?!”

 

“Not yet.” Yuzu parked the car and let out a loud, long sigh as she stretched and shut off the engine as a few more cars pulled in next to them and several kids screamed ran around in a grassy play area. “This is a pit stop. We got a couple more hours before we reach our vacation spot. But we’re going to take a short break to stretch our legs and then get back to it. Do you want to go and play while we’re here?”

 

“Yeah,” Airi began fiddling with the straps on her car seat while Mei and Yuzu exited the car with Mei taking over to relieve their daughter from her restraints.

 

“Airi, slow down.” Mei reached out and barely managed to grab a sprinting Airi by the scruff of her shirt and pulled her back to the car, rolling her eyes. “There are a lot of cars  and people around, and we don't want you getting hurt or lost.”

 

“But I gotta pee,” whined Airi running in place and pointing at the bathroom. 

 

“Give me a moment to check with Mama, and we’ll go.” Mei held up a finger and turned the corner to see Yuzu going through the cooler and tried to see whatever it was that Yuzu had packed in the back of the car but couldn’t make it out because of the suitcases and coolers. 

 

“Looking for something,” grunted Yuzu, twisting her back and groaning in satisfaction while Mei flinched at the sound of her wife’s back popping. 

 

“I was,” answered Mei placing a hand on a familiar spot on Yuzu’s back and began massaging it. “But now I’m beginning to think it’d be wiser for you to take a break and sit in the back with Airi.” 

 

“I’m fine, Mei.” Yuzu let out a sigh at the relaxing tingle that spread across her back before shivering at the sensation of Mei’s lips on her neck. “Mei, stop.”

 

“Why,” whispered Mei kissing just below Yuzu’s ear and smirking, ignoring the few looks and giggles they were getting. “I only want you to feel better. Is this helping?”

 

“A bunch,” said Yuzu, managing to break the hold Mei had on her and removed her hand. “But we gotta get on the road soon, and I promise once we’re settled I’ll take a long hot bath and once Airi’s sleeping you can touch me as much as you want.” 

 

“I’ll hold you to it.” Mei kissed Yuzu’s ear and turned around to find Airi hopping up and down in place and pointing at the bathrooms. 

 

“Mommy, let’s go!” 

 

Rolling her eyes, Mei smiled and took her daughter’s hand and led her to the bathroom while Yuzu finished fishing out a few sandwiches and some fruit for them to have for lunch and dried her hands on the leg of her jeans just as her phone began playing a familiar ringtone. 

 

Slamming the cooler shut, Yuzu began pulling her phone out of her pocket and nearly dropped it, but managed to catch it before it shattered across the ground and answered with a breathless, “Hello?”

 

“Mama? Are you okay?” Asked a concerned Hideki on the other end. “Is everything all right?”

 

“Yeah, I’m fine Sweetie,” said Yuzu grabbing the bag she’d loaded the food into before closing up the car and heading to an empty picnic table. “I almost dropped my phone when I got it out of my pocket. How are you? Your mom and I have been worried. It’s gotta be what...one, two in the morning there? What are you doing up? Don’t you have practice? I swear to God if you...” 

 

“Relax Mama,” yawned Hideki and Yuzu could hear the squeak of a bed and the sound of a plastic bag and the hiss of a carbonated drink opening. “Tomorrow’s an off day, so me and a few of the other kids went out and got a late dinner since we put in a lot of extra practice tonight. I knew it would be tough, but I’m sore in places I don’t even want to think about.”

 

“Oh...okay.” 

 

Yuzu opened herself a bottle of tea and took a sip while thinking over a couple of questions to ask him before blurting out, “So what’d you have for dinner?” 

 

“My first real chance to talk to you guys all week and that’s the first thing you ask me?” Hideki laughed, and Yuzu smirked when she heard the sound of a television in the background.

 

“We’re worried about you,” said Yuzu as Mei walked out of the bathroom with a relieved and chatty Airi who was pulling at the straps of her overalls and pointing at her shirt. “We haven’t heard from you, and we wanted to make sure nobody’s giving you any problems. Did the teachers say anything about your injuries?” 

 

“The teachers didn’t,” groaned Hideki and Yuzu heard the sound of a door opening and a boy's voice on echo through the phone and her son took a moment to welcome him back in English before switching back to Japanese. “But a lot of the other kids and older students did. It was helpful as an ice-breaker and got me some credit with them, especially when I told them that it was me fighting against two other guys. But other than that, everyone’s been pretty nice. The teachers are tough, but it’s fun, and I kinda like it here.” 

 

“That’s good.” Yuzu felt a weight lift of her shoulders at hearing that her son was fitting in but felt like a nagging sensation in the back of her mind when she remembered the tri-fold picture frame Hideki had taken with him holding photos of their family. “Have...has anyone asked you about us or given you any trouble about it?” 

 

“My roommate knows,” chuckled Hideki before yawning again. “I mean I put the picture up on my nightstand, but all he said was ‘cool’ and let it go after I told him. His dad coaches baseball and teaches gym and raised him alone, so he gets it. Plus a few kids that I went out with, one of them’s gay and his boyfriend is in the program with him, they’re pretty understanding, and one girl says that she doesn’t know anyone with a family like ours but doesn’t have a problem with it. So based on that, I don’t have to worry about anybody messing with me because of family, just if they see me as a threat for taking one of the spots in the program."

 

“Nothing wrong with a little competition,” said Yuzu, standing up and waving at Mei and Airi before popping a slice of watermelon in her mouth. “But you still haven’t answered my question about what you ate. You’re not eating just junk food, are you? I heard you opening a soda and messing with a plastic bag which means you went to a convenience store, didn’t you?”

 

“Yup,” belched Hideki making Yuzu groan in disgust and her son’s roommate laugh. “There’s a convenience store across the street from the dorm they have us in, and since I have a day off, no curfew and I’m gonna relax and stay up and..”

 

“No, you aren’t,” snorted Yuzu, rolling her eyes as her son tried to sound cool. “You’re going pass out once you hang up the phone.”

 

“Who’s going to fall asleep,” asked Mei as she helped Airi sit down and serve her a sandwich and some fruit. 

 

“Hideki,” answered Yuzu before popping a slice of watermelon in her mouth. “Here Sweetie, talk to your mom before...”

 

“I wanna talk!” 

 

Airi nearly knocked over the food in her attempt to grab the phone out of Yuzu’s hands, but her moms managed to get it high enough off the table that it passed into Mei’s possession without incident. 

 

“You’re mean, Mama!” Airi dropped into her seat, a scowl on her face. “Why can’t I talk to Hideki?”

 

“Because you’re acting up,” answered Mei, pointing at Airi’s lunch. “Now no more complaining and eat your lunch. Sorry about that Hideki, how are you? Are you eating well? What do you mean why am I asking you that?” 

 

While Mei drifted off into her conversation, Yuzu smiled at Airi and asked, “Are you still excited about our trip?”

 

Airi shrugged and took a large bite of her sandwich, swallowed, and asked, “How long are we gonna be gone? I wanted to stay with Uncle and Auntie.”

 

“We’re going to be gone a week,” said Yuzu smiling and wiping some sauce off Airi’s cheek, “and you’ll get to stay with your aunt and uncle when we get back. Your aunt’s sister is sick, and they had to go and take care of her until her husband comes back from his trip. Besides I thought you liked taking trips with us?”

 

“I do like it,” whispered Airi after swallowing the last bite of her sandwich and resting her chin on the table. “But I miss Hina and Reo and wanted them to come.” 

 

“Is it because you miss Hideki?” Yuzu began gently rubbing Airi’s head, watching as her green eyes shined and her mouth turned into a shy smile. 

 

“I guess.” Airi moved her head along with Yuzu’s hand, her eyes turning to Mei who was in the middle of lecturing Hideki to remember to soak and use his muscle ointments. “Are we gonna do that stuff you and Hideki do when we take trips like this? I wanna learn how to do that so I can show Hina.”

 

“Of course we will.” Yuzu stopped rubbing her daughter’s head and smiled at her and winked. “Maybe we can get Mommy to do it too. You think she’d like that?”

 

“Yeah.” Airi giggled but stopped when she saw Mei turn her gaze toward the pair of them, eyes narrowing when she saw mirrored images of fake innocence on her wife and daughter’s face as she finished her conversation. 

 

“Just make sure you don’t eat too much junk food,” said Mei while readjusting the phone. "Also promise me you will eat something besides ramen for din...yes I know it wasn’t from a package but you’re in a city known for having some of the best restaurants in the world. It’s a waste of an opportunity if you only eat foods you grew up with. I don’t care if they’re asking you for recommendations; find something else to eat.”

 

Airi and Yuzu both laughed at the looks Mei’s flustered voice and the sight of her ears turning bright red.

 

Realizing that she was getting a little loud, Mei lowered her voice and sighed saying, “I want you to take care of yourself Hideki. It’s hard enough having you halfway across the world and considering the past couple of weeks I don’t want you to lose out on an opportunity like this. I...no I’m not saying that you have to get the scholarship, but I also don’t want you to hate yourself for thinking you didn’t take it seriously and you missed out on a life-changing experience. “

 

There was silence for a moment, and finally, Mei’s body relaxed, and Yuzu felt a warmth spread through her body when she saw Mei smile. 

 

“Thank you, Hideki. Regardless of the outcome, we’ll be proud of you, and if you want, we’ll have a nice welcome home dinner when you get back, anything you want. No not ramen!”

 

Yuzu and Airi began laughing at the blush that spread across Mei’s face when she realized how loud she’d gotten and they could hear Hideki’s laughter on the other line. 

 

Scowling at her wife and daughter, Mei turned her back on them and softly said, “I...okay Hideki...I understand. But please think of something besides that  for your welcome home dinner.” 

 

There was a moment of silence, and Mei sighed before nodding and quietly said “All right if you can’t think of anything else I will entertain  the idea and discuss it with Mama. Okay, that’s better but keep thinking of things and remember to keep an eye out for those items I asked you for and let me know if you need me to...no I will pay for them...oh...oh fine if you find them you can buy them with your own money if it’s what makes you happy."

 

Mei looked over her shoulder at Yuzu who was smiling expectantly at her and wiggled her eyebrows while caressing Mei's jeans with her foot, making Mei’s blush even brighter and distracted her to the point where she couldn’t make out what Hideki was saying. 

 

“I’m sorry Hideki, what was that? Your Mama needed something.” Mei cast a glance at Yuzu who was in the process of resting her chin on her hands and giving Mei a stare so doe-eyed that she was confident that if she’d been standing, she’d have fallen into her seat. 

 

“Not funny,” whispered Mei, turning Yuzu’s pleading gaze into a snicker before returning her attention back to Hideki. “Yes, I heard you Hideki. No, your mama is being her normal annoying self. I’ll make sure to tell her that for you, I’ll do it right now in fact.”

 

Mei briefly dropped the phone and turned her attention to Yuzu and said, “Hideki would like me to tell you that he knows it’s hard, but you need to stop being a pain and leave me alone.”

 

Yuzu’s face turned to one of shock and in a rare moment that Mei was able to chuckle and while Airi giggled and pointed at Yuzu.

 

"You look silly Mama!"

 

"Oh be quiet," snorted yuzu poking Airi in the cheek. "Mei are you done or does Hideki still need to talk to you or can Airi have a turn."

 

"I think we're almost done." Mei's face dropped at the prospect of hanging up and said, "Hideki I'm going to give the phone to Airi. Promise me you'll take care of yourself and remember that we love you."

 

There was a moment of silence and Mei's smile returned briefly before she looked at Airi and held out the phone. 

 

"Airi, Hideki wants to talk to you."

 

“Yay!"

 

In her excitement, Airi snatched the phone from her mother before getting an answer and ran a few feet away dropped onto the grass and began chatting excitedly with her brother about everything that had happened since he’d left, including her taking up residence in his room. While Airi giggled as she told Hideki about what happened in music class, Mei took the opportunity to take a seat next to Yuzu and press herself against her wife as they enjoyed their meal.

 

“Hello,” said Yuzu happily, placing a hand on Mei’s jean covered thigh and began making small circles with one of her fingers. “You feeling better?” 

 

“Much,” replied Mei after swallowing some of her sandwich, her ears burning with embarrassment at the contact, but grateful that Yuzu kept her hand in one location. “It sounds like he’s having a lovely time, but I’m still worried. A lot can happen, and we won’t be there to help him, and he said that if he does well he may have to stay until the end of next month and I don’t want him to fall behind in his schoolwork.”

 

“He’ll be fine.” Yuzu wiped her mouth and placed a soft kiss on Mei’s cheek before lifting her hand and placing it on her wife’s. “He’s a smart kid, and I’m sure they’ll put his education first. If it becomes a problem, we can talk to the school about doing online courses if he has to stay longer.” 

 

“That’s only part of the problem.” Mei shifted her head and rested it against Yuzu’s and closed her eyes. “I’m worried about him living alone and having no one there to help him. I may have gotten through it but Hideki’s different. He’s not used to being alone; what if he begins to break down and can’t pull himself up?” 

 

“That’s not going to happen.” Yuzu rubbed her head against Mei’s cheek and squeezed her hand tighter before continuing. “I mean, you’re right that Hideki’s never really been alone. He’s always had someone there to watch him and save for that stunt he pulled earlier this year he’s a good kid. But I trust him, and I think he’ll be fine. Besides he knows that if he screws up and gets sent home for doing something stupid he’s going to have four pissed off parents getting on his case, so I don’t think we have anything to worry about.” 

 

“I suppose you’re right,” said Mei, resigned to the fact that some of her worries were somewhat unfounded, “and you’re right that he’s never given us a reason to distrust him. Though stealing beer and liquor from you and Udagawa and going out drinking with his friends in the middle of the night shouldn’t be written off as a mere stunt.” 

 

“You’re right.” Yuzu popped one last piece of watermelon in her mouth before stealing the last bite of Mei’s sandwich, swallowed, and said, “He was a complete dumbass.”

 

Despite her disapproval of the word, Mei managed a smirk and nodded in agreement. 

 

“He was.” Mei shifted her gaze to Airi and smiled when she saw how happy their daughter was as she sat up and began saying goodbye to her brother. “But he’s learned his lesson and if you think we can trust him then so will I. But I am curious about if you’d be reacting this way if it was Airi?”

 

“That depends on what kind of teen she turns out to be.” Yuzu waved Airi her to them and smiled when she came running. “But I’m not worried. Not with you as her mom.” 

 

Mei tried to find the words, but before she could, Airi climbed across them and handed Yuzu back her phone and said, “I’m all done!”

 

“Thank you.” 

 

Yuzu took the phone and pinched Airi’s nose before checking her phone and wasn’t surprised to see that Hideki had hung up. 

 

Putting it in her pocket, Yuzu turned to see Airi sitting in Mei’s lap with her mother holding their daughter in the same comforting manner she carried Kumagorou when she needed to relax in an attempt to hide her beet-red face. 

 

“All right,” grunted Yuzu as she stood up and began picking up their trash. “We gotta get moving or else we’re going to be wasting time driving when we can be having fun. Airi, you take this and the rest of the trash while Mommy and I pick up the food.” 

 

Airi nodded and climbed out of Mei’s lap and gathered the trash Yuzu had picked up and grabbed the remaining trash before running off to the garbage while Yuzu helped Mei with the leftovers and managed to sneak in a quick kiss before Airi came back and began pestering Yuzu for her phone. 

 

“Why do you want Mama’s phone,” asked Mei as she climbed into the back seat with Airi and began trying to figure out where Airi had hidden the movie she was watching earlier. 

 

“Cuz Hideki said he’d send pictures before he went to bed,” explained Airi as she attempted to buckle herself in only to have Yuzu take over for her. “He said they take pictures of him and the other kids practicing and I wanna see them.”

 

“Pictures, huh?” Yuzu pulled out her phone and watched as Mei’s hands stopped moving across the tablet at the possibility of seeing pictures of Hideki dancing. Taking a moment, Yuzu checked her email account and text messages but saw nothing from Hideki. 

 

“Sorry, Airi, no pictures yet.” Yuzu put the phone back into her pocket and stopped when she saw the massive scowl that had spread across Airi’s face. 

 

“Quit it,” commanded Yuzu, flicking Airi in the forehead. “Making that face isn’t going to make him send the pictures. He’s tired, and he probably fell asleep while sending it. I’m sure he’ll send it when he wakes up, he made you a promise didn’t he?”

 

“I guess,” huffed Airi as Yuzu ruffled her hair and Mei handed her the tablet with the movie ready to play. “I miss him.”

 

“So do we,” said Mei while buckling herself in. “But for now why don’t we spend this time enjoying our trip and let your brother relax.”

 

“All right.”

 

Resting the tablet in her lap, Airi remained mostly silent for the remainder of the trip, save for occasionally telling Mei about something she saw in the movie or the show they’d switched to once the film was over. 

 

Yuzu, on the other hand, remained focused on the road and allowed Mei and Airi to have some time alone which was good as it kept Mei from probing for any information about where Yuzu was taking them, that is until they entered the town mountain town where they were supposedly staying. 

 

“Wow,” exclaimed Airi staring out at all of the pre-festival decorations that were being set up. “Are we staying here Mama? Are we staying at a hotel? Or an inn with a big bath.” 

 

“Sort of,” answered Yuzu, rolling down the window to allow the fresh air and delicious scents from the street stalls to enter the car and sighing happily. “But we’re gonna be staying at a traditional inn when we’re done with all of our other stuff.” 

 

“What do you mean ‘sort of’?” Mei turned the attention she’d had focused on one of the local shrines to her wife, her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “And what do you mean by ‘other stuff’?” 

 

“You already know part of that answer,” chuckled Yuzu with a wink. “But you’ll see in a few minutes what I mean about the rest of it.” 

 

“I think I already have the answer,” sighed Mei pointing out the front of the car at a sign saying they were only a few kilometers away from a local campsite. 

 

“Dang it.” Yuzu laughed as she took the exit leading to the small check-in station that led to the campgrounds. “Guess I should have realized you’d figure it out once we left the town.”

 

“It’s all right,” said Mei as she ran her fingernail along the back of Yuzu’s neck making her wife shiver,  “I’m glad we’re spending a few days in a quiet place. It’ll give us all some much needed time alone.” 

 

“Glad you approve,” chuckled Yuzu nervously brushing Mei’s hand away as the attendant came out, handing over her license and their reservation. 

 

After a quick examination of the car, they were given a map to their spot and waved through just as another car pulled up.

 

“This is pretty.” Airi’s voice grew as they forest housing the attendant's office opened up to reveal a vast expanse of fields and tents hidden inside a valley. “See Mommy? There’s a big river over there and some mountains and look there are kids here too.”

 

“There certainly are,” said Mei, smiling at Airi’s amazement, though worried about the drop in tone that Airi made when she mentioned the kids while Yuzu parked the car and let out a loud groan. “Do you want to try and make some friends while we’re here?” 

 

“Maybe.” Airi’s voice trailed off from excitement into uncertainty which neither of her mothers blamed her for after everything they’d heard.

 

Before they left, they’d made it a point to spend some time with the head of Airi’s music school discussing some of the issues she had been having with the other kids. 

 

At first, she’d been a little unsure of their concerns, but after discussing it with the instructors most familiar with Airi’s temperament that there were times Airi shied away from having to sit next to certain students. Though initially, she wrote it off as kids being kids until she heard just how often it occurred. 

 

After ensuring that the woman would put in the energy at investigating the situation under a thinly veiled threat of removing Airi and Hideki from their courses and the prospect of having to face the lawyers Mei had at her disposal, they left with their minds slightly more at ease, though worried if they’d made things worse. 

 

However, they couldn't change the situation and as Yuzu prepared to let them out of the car, Mei asked for a few minutes alone with Airi which the blonde was willing to do, though she did take a moment to ask Mei if there was a problem. 

 

“I just want a minute with her. Is that all right?

 

“Sure.”  Yuzu nodded and grabbed the map the attendant had given them pointed off in the distance. “Airi, I’m going to go check how long the bathhouse is open so we can take one after we’re set up and have dinner. You stay with Mommy okay?” 

 

Airi nodded, staring out the window at a large group of kids playing and gasped when a few of them pointed at her causing her to slide down into her car seat. 

 

“You’ll be safe Airi,” said Yuzu unbuckling her seatbelt and turning her to face her daughter. “Mommy and I are and so don't be scared, okay?” 

 

“Okay.” Airi unbuckled her seat and hugged Yuzu and whispered, “Come back soon.”

 

“I will.” Yuzu squeezed Airi, kissed her cheek, and winked as she messed her daughter’s hair. “Be good for Mommy, and I’ll be back in a few minutes with a cart, and we can go set up the tents and start having some fun.”

 

Airi nodded and Yuzu winked at Mei before getting out of the car and waved at them as she ran off toward a large building in the distance while Airi watched her retreating. 

 

“She’ll be fine,” said Mei lifting Airi into her lap and cuddling her. “But she’s worried about you. Are you sure that you don’t want to play with the other kids? They seem friendly enough.”

 

“They were pointing at me.” 

 

Airi began playing with the rings on Mei’s left hand and leaned back to look into her mother’s purple eyes as she quietly said, “The kids at music class point at me before they pick on me.”

 

“I know.” Mei clutched her daughter tighter, remembering how scared Airi had looked explaining to her music school director about what the kids would do to her. “But you have friends at your kindergarten, friends that come over and play and spend the night some times. They don’t pick on you, and you have fun playing with them, so why don’t you try giving these kids a chance?”

 

“Maybe.” Airi turned her attention back to Mei’s rings and let out a loud sigh. “Mommy did you have lots of friends when you were in school?” 

 

“No,” answered Mei honestly, remembering how lonely her life was before Yuzu had entered it. “I only had one friend, your Aunt Himeko, and it was like that for a long time until I met Mama. But I have friends now because I learned to open myself to trusting people and I want you to try that as well, so you don’t end up as lonely as I was.” 

 

“Do I have to?” Airi looked out the window and saw that some of the kids who’d pointed at her previously were still staring at the car, perplexed why no one else had come out. “What if they trick me by being nice then pick on me later?”

 

“That’s possible.” Mei heard Airi groan at the possibility of being teased, but honesty was the thing Mei felt Airi needed most at the moment. “But it’s also possible that they’ll be genuinely nice to you which is the most likely situation. Nobody’s perfect Airi, and sometimes people are mean because they get mad or because they think a joke is funny when it’s not, and there’s no avoiding it. But I can promise you that the reward is almost always worth the risk Airi, but only if you’re willing to take it.” 

 

“I don’t know.” Airi watched as one of the kids waved at her, but refused to acknowledge it and instead focused on a smiling Yuzu who was pushing a cart and practically bouncing with each step. “Can I think about it?”

 

“Of course you can,” Mei smiled when she saw Yuzu waving at them and pointed out the windshield at her approaching wife, “and if you decide that you want to try, and you’re scared Mama and I will go with you to make sure nothing bad happens.” 

 

“Promise?” Airi shifted in Mei’s lap and proceeded to rest her head on Mei’s breast, hearing the familiar, comforting sound of her mother’s heartbeat. 

 

“I promise.” 

 

Mei held her daughter close while Yuzu disappeared around the back for a moment before rounding the car and opening it, her face filled with a smile. 

 

“You two have a good talk,” asked Yuzu climbing in next to them and stroking Airi’s hair. 

 

“Kinda.” Airi climbed out of Mei’s lap and into Yuzu’s and proceeded to listen to her mother’s heartbeat. “Mommy said I don’t have to play with the other kids if I don’t want to. Is that true?” 

 

“Sure,” answered Yuzu, holding her daughter close and resting her head in her daughter’s soft hair. “But if they come up to you, you have to promise me that you’ll be nice and try to get along with them.”

 

“Okay.” Airi sighed and gripped Yuzu’s shirt. “Mommy said that if they’re mean you guys’ll protect me. Is that true?” 

 

“You know it is.” Yuzu lifted Airi’s face towards hers and pressed her forehead against it, hoping that it helped her daughter calm down. “Mommy and I will always protect you.; Hideki too. And you’ll protect us, right?”

 

“Uh huh,” giggled Airi rubbing her forehead and nose against Yuzus. “I’ll grow up big and strong so I can protect you and Mommy.” 

 

“That’s my girl.” Yuzu kissed Airi’s forehead and tickled her cheeks making her giggle even more before pulling her back into a tight hug. “Feel better?” 

 

“A little.” Airi turned to Mei who was smiling at her. “I’m sorry I’m not feeling all the way better.”

 

“That’s nothing to apologize for Airi.” Mei stroked her daughter’s cheek and smiled at her. “Feeling better doesn’t have to come all at once; what matters is that we make an attempt.”

 

“Yes, Mommy.” Airi shifted to Mei and pressed her forehead against Mei’s while wrapping her arms around her neck. 

 

“Good girl.” Mei nuzzled Airi back and when they parted was happy to see Airi smiling at her. 

 

“There’s our little girl,” said Yuzu brushing some hair out of Airi’s face and kissing her cheek. “You ready to have some fun?

 

Airi nodded excitedly and smiled as she shouted, “You bet!”

Chapter Text

 Chapter 8

The air in the tent was heavy and Mei felt shivered as beads of sweat poured down her neck. Her hair was plastered to her forehead and her body ached all over due to sore muscles and the bites Yuzu had left all over her body, the most recent being one she'd placed just below Meis collarbone.

"Mei," whispered Yuzu as Mei felt her tightening around her fingers. "Don't...don't stop."

"Never," replied Mei kissing the side of Yuzu's temple as she felt her wife's hips begin moving and her hand dampening.

Yuzu started to say something but stopped halfway through whatever it was and Mei watched as her eyes screwed shut, her mouth partially open and her lower lip quivering as another orgasm coursed through her before Mei applied her lips, prolonging Yuzu's moan.

"Beautiful," whispered Mei, propping herself up on her elbow and stroking Yuzu's hair and kissing her along her neck and the top of her chest. "You're beautiful, Yuzu."

"Stop," whispered Yuzu, her voice coming back to her and her arms encircling Mei's head. "You're just being nice."

Looking up, Mei could see the embarrassment in her wife's smile and knowing it was a little mean; Mei decided to have a little fun.

"Since when have you ever known me to be nice," said Mei before leaving a carefully placed bite on Yuzu's wrist making her hiss and whimper.

Sitting up, Mei kissed Yuzu, sucking in her lower lip while she began removing her fingers from her wife's warmth, causing Yuzu to gasp and break the kiss.

“Please don't,” panted Yuzu as Mei removed her fingers from inside her. “Just a little more, Mei. Please?”

Mei stared down at Yuzu’s flushed face, her green eyes barely visibile through the early morning light. Mei could see the hunger in them and wished she could spend the next several ours fulfilling every desire Yuzu had, but it would have to wait. They’d been up for almost two hours and what had begun as their normal good morning kiss quickly turned into a repeat of the previous nights events after they’d put Airi to bed in the other tent and as much as they both wanted to continue, they knew it couldn’t last no matter how much Yuzu begged.

“We can’t,” whispered Mei with a delicate kiss to the bite marks she’d left on Yuzu’s chest. “You know we can’t Yuzu. I’m sorry.”

“I know.” Yuzu smiled contentedly as she cradled Mei’s warm, body against hers while peppering her head with soft kisses as they caressed each other in their afterglow. “But maybe we’ll get an encore later tonight? Maybe I can do a better job of paying attention to you?”

“You did plenty.” Mei pushed herself up and placed a kiss on Yuzu’s nose before brushing some hair out of her wife’s face before cleaning her fingers of Yuzu's juices. “You don’t hear me complaining do you?”

“No.” Yuzu propped herself up, ignoring the small twinge in her back as she leaned in for another kiss, careful to avoid biting too hard down on Mei’s lip. “It just felt like you were doing most of the work and you know I don’t like disappointing you.”

“I’m not disappointed, Yuzu.” Mei sighed and carefully lowered herself onto Yuzu’s lap and took her wife’s face in her hands. “Believe me when I say that I have never been disappointed, especially after last night."

Mei took a moment to show off the hickeys Yuzu had left along her abdomen and thighs before returning to her original position and kissed her wife. "Even when we get interrupted, you’ve never disappointed me. I may have occasionally been left a little unsatisfied, but...”

“Okay,” laughed Yuzu, wrapping her arms around Mei’s waist before kissing the ring that was dangling from her wife’s neck. “Okay, you win. Again.”

“Of course I do.” Mei gave Yuzu one final kiss before removing her hands and headed over to her suitcase and began choosing her clothes for the day. “What time is it?”

“A little before seven,” said Yuzu crawling over to Mei, risking a few kisses to the back of her wife’s neck as while her hands massaged Mei's hips and stomach, her fingers lingering on the faded scar. “So we got a little time before she wakes up.”

“Good,” answered Mei, barely fighting off the urge to follow Yuzu back beneath the blankets and instead pressed a bra and a long-sleeved t-shirt into Yuzu’s hands and pointing at the entrance to their tent, “then you can go and get cleaned up first while I figure out what we’re going to do after breakfast.”

"First we gotta catch breakfast, remember,” teased Yuzu after fastening her bra and slipping the faded t-shirt with a teddy bear on the front over her head. “We promised Airi to take her fishing down at the small pond they have set up.”

“I know, I know,” grumbled Mei as she finished pulling on a fresh pair of underwear and jeans. "I was hoping you'd forgotten as I fail to see the appeal in it.”

“Because it’s fun,” chuckled Yuzu sliding on a pair of long shorts and grabbing her phone and a towel. “Also it's relaxing, and the kids have fun and...”

Yuzu leaned back and somehow managed to land her head in Mei’s lap and smiling said, “It reminds me of our first trip together. It was our first time fishing, well I fished you watched, remember?”

“I remember.” Mei smiled sadly down at Yuzu, her finger tracing the lines of her wife’s face, amazed at how after almost twenty years she’d barely seemed to age. “I remember a lot of things about that trip. Not all of them good.”

“I know.” Yuzu took Mei’s hand and pressed it against her lips hoping to alleviate some of her pain. “It wasn’t our best trip, but it had its high points. You, in your weird way, finally told me how you felt, and we had some fun. So I’d say it was mildly successful given how things ended up. Besides, we still got these in the end.”

Yuzu kissed the rings on Mei’s finger and nuzzled her hand. “Silver linings, Mei. We gotta have some bad things happen to us or else we can’t appreciate the good things, and I’m thankful for the good things in our lives.”

“You’re right.” Mei nodded, a real smile spreading across her lips as she remembered all the good things she had in her life despite all the hardships they’d gone through. “We do have a lot to be thankful for, and I’m grateful that I got to experience them with you Yuzu.”

Yuzu’s face turned a bright red at hearing her wife’s words, and after kissing her hand again, Yuzu managed a quiet, “Thanks, Mei,” before being interrupted by the sound of a hand lazily slapping against the front of their tent.

“Mommy? Mama? Are you guys up?”

Both Mei and Yuzu chuckled when they heard their daughter’s voice, and while Mei busied herself with finding a shirt and putting on a bra, Yuzu said, “We’ll be there in a second Airi.”

“O...okay,” yawned Airi and a vision of her daughter dressed in her pajamas clutching her stuffed owl flashed across Yuzu’s mind making her smile.

“I’m ready,” said Mei as she fixed her hair after adjusting the long sleeves on her tee-shirt, this one with a faded picture of Yuzubochi. “Go ahead and open it.”

Sitting up, Yuzu sat up and crawled toward the flap and unzipped it, revealing Airi holding her stuffed owl and wearing one of the tee-shirts Hideki hadn't so much as lent to her but given to her before leaving on his trip; smiling at how it hung off one of her shoulders.

“Good morning, Sweetheart. Did you sleep well?”

“Uh huh,” answered Airi smiling as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “I gotta go potty though.”

“Okay,” said Yuzu pointing at Airi’s tent, where she saw the stuffed animals Mei and Yuzu had put her to sleep with were spread out across the tent and Airi’s blankets were nothing more than a pile in the middle of the futon they'd brought. “Let’s go get your pants and shoes on, maybe change your shirt, get washed up, and then we’ll go fishing for breakfast, sound fun?”

Airi nodded and let out another loud yawn and after nearly falling off the platform that held her mother's tents; followed Yuzu across the grass and beneath the large canopy they’d set up between the tents. With Yuzu’s help, they found her a pair of shorts and a clean tee-shirt and headed off toward the nearby bathroom and cleaning stations.

It was quiet as they crossed the field, as there were only a small number of people up at that hour. The sun was barely making itself known through the cracks in the mountains, making the grass and river sparkle while a few birds sang softly making their walk much more enjoyable. As they made their way to the bathrooms, a few people greeted them warmly and a couple of kids shouted excitedly at Airi and asked if she wanted to play later. Instead of answering, Airi waved back shyly before running to catch up to Yuzu and attached herself to her mother’s shorts.

“Airi,” Yuzu as they came to a stop outside the bathrooms, “what’s the matter sweetheart? Did those kids do something mean?”

“No.” Airi shook her head and edged toward the bathroom door. “They just waved at me and asked if I wanted to play.”

“I see.” Yuzu moved them off to the side of the entrance and crouched down to her daughter’s height and pointed behind them while Mei headed to one of the external cleaning stations and began cleaning up. “Do you want to play with them?”

“No.” Airi shook her head and stepped closer to her mother, clutched her shirt and pressed her face into her Yuzu's chest. “I wanna go fishing with you and Mommy.”

“That’s fine,” said Yuzu encouragingly before dropping her voice to a whisper. “Knowing how to fish is a handy thing to know how to do. Especially if you ever get lost in the woods so today, we’ll spend the morning fishing, and afterward, maybe we can take a hike and go exploring. How’s that sound?”

“That sounds fun,” said Airi excited at the prospect of being able to explore a new place with her moms. “Teacher said we had to do some outdoor stuff for summer homework so can I bring my workbook and can you and Mommy help me?”

“That sounds fun.” Yuzu kissed her daughter’s nose before asking, “Want to know what else we can do when we go out on our hike?”

“What?” Airi’s eyes grew wide at the prospect of making their adventure even more fun. “What are we going to do Mama?”

“Well,” Yuzu held a finger to her mouth before continuing, “you have to promise to keep this a secret from Mommy, but we have some thermoses and a lot of snacks and stuff or sandwiches so after cleaning up breakfast, pack up our backpacks with those things and we hold a surprise picnic for Mommy. How’s that sound?”

“That sounds amazing,” shouted Airi, forgetting any pretense of secrecy and catching the attention of Mei and making the few people who’d joined them to laugh at her excitement and make her blush.

“Is everything all right,” asked Mei after drying her face and hands. “Yuzu, what’d you do to get Airi so excited?”

“Nothing,” squeaked Airi, turning on her heel and pointing at the bathroom door. “I’m gonna pee now.”

“All right,” said Mei confused but also humored by her daughter’s attempt to keep the secret. “Make sure you wash your hands when you're done.”

“She’s got a lot of energy for being up so early,” said an older woman with white hair woman and pale skin who was in the process of cleaning up a squalling baby.

“That’s her fault.” Mei pointed at Yuzu who was struggling to find her towel to dry her face so she could see. “I don’t know how, but she always seems to end up having an abundance of energy no matter how little sleep she's gotten.”

"Must be nice,” said the woman as she patted the baby on the back. “I'm practically useless without nine hours of sleep. Are you two babysitting her or is she a family member?"

“Family,” said both Mei and Yuzu in unison, causing both of them to blush when they realized what they’d done.

“I see,” said the woman smirking as she noticed the redness of their faces and the matching rings they wore. After putting the baby in its stroller, she politely asked, “I hope you don’t find it rude, but would you mind if I asked which one of you carried her?”

“Me,” said Yuzu raising her hand meekly and making the woman chuckle. “She has an older brother, but he’s away for the summer.”

“I see.” The woman turned on the faucet and gave her hands a quick wash before drying them off. “How old is he?”

“He just turned eighteen,” said Mei quietly. “He’s in America right now in hopes of earning a scholarship for college.”

“America?” The woman’s eyebrow raised in shock. “That’s quite a long ways to go for an education. What does he plan on studying?”

“It’s a dance school,” said Mei, straightening up and sticking out her chest when she saw the look of skepticism appear on the woman’s face. “He’s been studying since he was six and he’s received several awards from competitions. It's one of the most celebrated institutions for someone looking of his caliber."

“That’s wonderful,” replied the woman genuinely after hearing Mei’s pride in her son’s achievements and catching her off-guard. “I'll make an offering at the shrine later for his success, and if your daughter is any indication, I’m sure he’ll make you both proud. I hate to be rude; I have to get back to our campsite, my son and daughter-in-law are preparing breakfast. If you happen to see us, please stop by. I’m sure my granddaughter would enjoy the company.”

“We will consider it.” Mei bowed in thanks just as Airi collided with the back of her legs, nearly knocking her to the ground.

“I’m done, Mommy!” Airi smiled at Mei and then turned to see the old woman smiling at her and gasped before moving behind Yuzu’s legs and peeked out from behind them. “Hi.”

“Hello.” The woman bowed politely in greeting. “Might I ask your name, little one?”

“Aihara Airi.” Airi stepped out from behind Yuzu’s legs, bowed in greeting before moving back behind them. “Who’re you? Are you a friend of my mommy and mama’s?”

“That remains to be seen,” answered the woman with a smile. “But my name is Kaiyo Miu. It’s been nice meeting you all and I wish you a lovely day. and hope you come by and visit us soon.”

With that, the women left and Airi, Yuzu looked down at Airi and smiled, picked her up and said, “That was an excellent greeting Airi. I’m proud of you.”

“Thanks, Mama.” Airi reached for the small bottled soap her mothers had brought and washed her hands and face before asking. “Who was that?”

“Someone camping with her family,” replied Mei, handing Airi a towel. “She offered to let you play with her granddaughter later if you’d like.”

“Okay.” Airi dried her face and stuffed the towel under her arm. “Ummm does that mean the baby or another kid?”

“We’re not sure.” Mei took Airi’s hand and began walking back to the tent. “But if we see her and you want to visit their campsite and we will.”

Airi nodded, and they made their way back to the campsite and retrieved a few things before making their way down the pathway toward the mostly empty fishing pond and grabbed a few of the complementary poles and a bucket that along with some bait from the attendant.

“Okay Airi,” said Yuzu grabbing one of the small chairs that they kept, pointing at the small child sized bamboo pole Airi was holding. “Do you remember how to bait the hook?”

“I think so.” Airi grabbed some of the bait and began rolling it in her fingers and laughed. “It feels weird.”

“It does,” said Yuzu as she watched Mei fumble with trying to undo the knot that she had somehow formed halfway up the line. “But show me how to put the hook on and when you’re done I’m going to help Mommy.”

“I don’t need your help,” huffed Mei as she pulled the hook out of her jeans only to prick her finger on the end of the hook. “Ow.”

“Give me a minute,” said Yuzu to Airi before standing up and walking over to Mei and began inspecting the line, chuckling as she started to help her wife. “How’d you manage to do this? We haven’t even started.”

“I don’t know.” Yuzu relinquished the pole to Yuzu and watched Airi who was still playing with the small ball of bait and giggling as it stretched between her fingers. “You know I’ve never been good at things like this, so I would appreciate it if you didn’t laugh at me.”

“I’m not.” Yuzu finally managed to fix the snag and carefully worked the line back into a functional form, set it down, and pointed at Mei’s hand. “Let me see.”

“Yuzu it’s...”

“Mei,” said Yuzu in an uncharacteristically stern voice, catching both her wife and daughter by surprise, “these hooks have been inside fishes mouths and we all know how clean those are. So let me look at it, please?”

“Fine.” Mei held out her right forefinger, revealing a small smear of blood on the tip of her finger.

“That’s going to need a bandage,” sighed Yuzu, pointing at the small rental station. “I’ll check to see if they have anything. Airi, make sure Mommy doesn’t hurt herself.”

“Yes, Mama.” Airi stood up and moved next to Mei and pointed at her hook and held up her bait. “Umm can you watch me with this before you go?”

“Sure.” Yuzu crouched down and watched, slowly guiding Airi with applying the bait and clapping in celebration when she managed to do it without hurting herself. “Good job, sweetheart. I'm going to get some bandages. You sit down and if you want, you and Mommy can cast your line. I’ll be back real soon so do your best to keep her safe.”

“All right.” Airi grabbed her chair and pulled it across the ground and placed it between Mei and Yuzu’s seats. “I’ll stay here and protect Mommy.”

“That’s my brave girl.”

Yuzu rubbed her head and went for a kiss from Mei only to have her wife dodge her and shooing her away with a wave of her hand

“Go and do what you need to do. We’ll be here when you get back.”

Yuzu nodded and off toward the attendant and began speaking to the woman while Airi pulled on Mei’s pant leg and pointed at the pond.

“Mommy, can I try fishing now?”

“Of course, Airi.” Mei shifted her chair and moved closer to Airi. “Do you remember how?”

“Yeah.” Airi raised her rod, and with a gentle flick of her wrist cast, the line and Mei watched as the hook disappeared into the water. “See?! It’s easy.”

“I suppose it is.” Mei smiled and watched as Airi kicked her legs and hummed quietly to herself.

“Airi,” asked Mei after a few minutes of quiet, “did you sleep all right without sharing the tent with Mama and me?”

“Yeah.” Airi nodded and yawned loudly. “I watched a movie on the tablet, and you and Mama left the walkie talkie in there, and you were close like at home. But it was a little scary because I saw a lot of shadows and I missed you guys.”

“I’m very sorry about that.” Mei kissed her daughter’s head and rubbed her back with the heel of her palm. “Do you think you can do it again tonight or do you want Mama and I to sleep in your tent?”

“I dunno.” Airi shrugged as she stared impatiently at her line. “I kinda liked it, but it was weird cuz I kept hearing noises. Did you and Mama sleep okay?”

“We slept very well,” said Mei blushing as she remembered how aggressive Yuzu had been the previous night and wished she could caress the carefully placed hickeys that covered her body. “We did stay up later than we wanted because we were worried. We had to check on you a few times before we went to bed, but once we knew you were safe, we had a very nice night.”

“Was I brave sleeping by myself?” Airi sat up straight as she thought she saw her line dip only to deflate when she didn’t feel a tug.

“You were very brave,” said Mei smiling as she saw Yuzu approaching with some first aid supplies, “and if you want to sleep alone again or if you want Mama and me in your tent, feel free to let us know.”

Airi only managed a nod as she was focused solely on the possibility of her catching a fish.

“Nothing yet,” asked Yuzu, opening the small first aid kit and pointing at Mei’s injured finger.

“No,” winced Mei as she felt Yuzu begin wiping her finger with an alcohol wipe. “But I can tell how determined she is by the look on her face. She wants to make you proud.”

“She doesn’t have to worry about that.” Yuzu looked over her shoulder at Airi and smiled at how oblivious their daughter was to their conversation. “She’s never even had to try at that. I hope she doesn’t burn herself out in thinking we want her to.”

“Something tells me she’ll do that even if we tell her not to.” Mei smiled at seeing Airi getting frustrated before pulling her rod back before casting it again. “Just like Hideki. Even though we’ve told him he doesn’t have to, he always pushes himself too hard.”

“I think it's the name,” chuckled Yuzu as she wrapped a band-aid around her wife’s finger. “We always tell them how they have to be careful because of the family name and I think it gets to them.”

“I think you’re right.” Mei sighed and stared down at her injured finger and then at Airi. “Maybe we’ve been too hard on them.”

“I don’t think that’s true.” Yuzu placed her finger under Mei’s chin and lifted her wife’s eyes to her. “I heard you yesterday telling Hideki he doesn’t have  to get the scholarship. If were as hard on him as gramps was on you, he’d be sitting at home right now, stressing about his exams and taking over the school. Instead, he’s in New York, pursuing something he enjoys doing and if Airi wants to pursue music, then we know she’ll kick butt at it, even if it only ends up being a hobby.”

“A costly hobby,” snorted Mei as Airi cast her line for the third time. “But thank you for telling me that. It means a lot, and you’re right that it is probably us reminding them about their family name that is causing them undue stress. Do you think we should talk to them?”

“I think Hideki’s fine,” said Yuzu as Airi let out a groan of frustration at still not having caught anything. “But I think talking to her wouldn’t be a bad idea. Together though, okay.”

“Together,” confirmed Mei her voice her cheeks burning when Yuzu kissed her fingertip before patting the top of her hand and lifting Airi, removing her line and making her growl at her mother to put her down.

“Watch it,” cautioned Yuzu sitting down in the chair and placing Airi in her lap. “I’m just trying to help, so let me see what we did wrong, and we’ll go from there.”

Airi begrudgingly handed the rod over to Yuzu and Mei felt the impulse to pull out her phone and snap a quick picture of Yuzu observing Airi applying the bait to the hook.

“It looks fine,” hummed Yuzu as she inspected the hook and shrugged. “Ah well, let’s try this and see what happens. You ready?”

“Yep.” Airi took the rod, and Mei managed to snap a few more pictures of them casting the line and sitting there with Yuzu’s chin resting on Airi’s hair, smiling as their daughter quietly sang a song.

They had to recast a few times as Airi was growing impatient which made Mei chuckle. It wasn’t like they needed to catch the fish. Yuzu had packed more than enough food, and with them being so close to town and the campsite offering a meal hall, there was no chance of them starving. But Airi had been looking forward to it and if it made her happy Mei was willing to sit through it, no matter how boring it was. Though it made it all worth it as Airi couldn't resist singing to herself.

“And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”

Airi’s voice trailed off and Yuzu let out a quiet cheer before saying, “That was very beautiful Airi. Where’d you hear that song?”

“On my tablet.” Airi tilted her head up and smiled at her mother while Mei moved her chair closer. “It’s a really pretty song and I know two ways to sing it, but I like the one with the guy who plays the trumpet more. The other one is good too and the guy who sings it was huge. Almost as big as a car.”

“That’s very big,” laughed Mei, rubbing Airi’s shoulder and pointing at the water. “But also I think your singing was good luck; look.”

Airi turned her head down and gasped when she saw the edge of her rod begin to dip beneath the water before feeling a violent tug on the fishing pole.

“I got something, Mama,” squealed Airi tugging hard on her fishing pole. “It’s heavy!”

“Let me help,” said Yuzu extending her hands around her daughter’s only to be told off.

“I wanna catch it,” grunted Airi trying to mimic the moves she saw Hideki and Yuzu do whenever she watched them ish. “I wanna catch it so I can say I caught it for you and Mommy for breakfast.”

“Okay.” Yuzu placed one hand on Airi’s right arm and motioned for Mei to hold her left and when she did said, “If you need help, Mommy and I will be right here.”

“Kay,” grunted Airi tugging violently on the fishing pole, her teeth gritted as she fought to bring their breakfast to them. Occasionally she managed to get the above the water enough to the point where they could see the water splashing; eventually, Airi relented and asked her mother for help.

“All right,” chuckled Yuzu, winking at Mei. “On the count of three. One, two, three!”

On three they all pulled, not that it mattered since Yuzu was more than enough to pull the fish up, but the excitement on Airi’s face when they landed the fish and her clutching the line as she laughed at its wriggling form had her bouncing in Yuzu’s lap.

“I did it! I caught a fish!”

“Congratulations,” said Mei and Yuzu in unison making Airi blush.

“Thanks,” she giggled rubbing the back of her head while she held the fish up towards Mei. “This one’s yours Mommy!”

“Thank you, Airi.” Mei’s face twisted into a strained smile as Airi continued to shove the fish in her face, spraying her with water.

“Aren’t you gonna take it?” Airi lifted the fish higher, trying to get it as close to Mei’s face as possible.

“Why don’t you take it off,” suggested Mei barely dodging getting hit in the face by the fish's tail. “You’re the one who caught it after all.”

“Ummm because Mama said last night I can’t do that by myself cuz the fish might wiggle and I’d hurt myself on the hook,” explained Airi while Yuzu snickered quietly behind her their daughter’s hair. “So you or Mama gotta take it off. But before we do that can we take a picture? I wanna show everyone I caught my first fish!”

“You got it.”

Yuzu reached into her pocket and shifted the chairs so that they were all sitting together and tried to get a good picture of the three of them, but between Airi, the fish, and the pole, it was much more difficult than she initially thought. Thankfully one of the people next to them offered to take it. As they situated themselves, Airi insisted that she stood on the chair next to Mei, both of them holding the fish up so that it was in clear view of the lens.

“Okay and...” the woman who was holding the phone made a gesture that looked like she took it but after a moment shook her head. “Sorry, my hand slipped so this one is all blurry. One more. Okay now smile on three, one, two...”

All of them smiled and just after the flash went off, the fish caught them off guard by suddenly flopping around on the line. There was something that sounded like three, loud, wet slaps, a squeal from Airi and a shout of surprise from Mei followed by the pole hitting the ground.

“Mommy’s fish!” Airi hopped down off the chair and chased after the bouncing fish while Yuzu grabbed the pole and picked the fish up off the ground, unhooked it, and tossed it into a bucket of water while Mei held her cheek in stunned surprise.

“Here you go,” coughed the woman handing Yuzu her phone back and failing to hide the smile that was spreading across her face. “Don’t worry the picture turned out good, luckily before it decided to start moving, so you should be fine if you decide to print it."

“Thank you.” Yuzu looked down at Mei who was still stunned and the fish that was swimming lazily in its bucket while Airi scowled at it.

“Bad fishy,” said Airi pointing at the bucket like Mei and Yuzu occasionally did when they were upset with her. “I’m gonna make sure you’re tasty for Mommy.”

“It’s fine, Airi.” Mei lifted her phone to her face and checked her reflection, unfazed by the bright red mark the fish's’ tail had left on her cheek. “It was only doing what it thought was necessary to survive or out of reflex. There’s no reason to get upset.”

“Does it hurt?” Yuzu sat down in her chair and began inspecting Mei’s cheek. “It doesn’t look bad, but it could bruise if we aren’t careful.”

“I’ll survive.” Mei did her best to smile as she moved her hair in front of her cheek before kissing Yuzu’s hand and glaring at the bucket. “But do make sure you fulfill Airi’s promise and make sure that fish is delicious. Seems only right that we give such a strong specimen a proper send off.”

“R...right,” chuckled nervously at the cold look her wife was giving the bucket. “Airi come here and help me catch the rest of the fish. We only need two or three more then we’re going to head back and have breakfast, and if you want, I’ll teach you how to clean them and cook them.”

“Yes!” Airi ran back and hopped into Yuzu’s lap and smiled at Mei who smiled back, before taking the fishing pole and with the help of her mothers caught three more equally impressive fish, though they made sure to keep them clear of Mei’s face after catching them.

After their fishing expedition, they returned to the campsite where Yuzu spent a good long while showing Airi how to properly clean the fish while Mei busied herself with a book, unable to watch as Yuzu removed the head and organs from the fish despite the teasing she received.

“Just because I’m used to cooking with them at home, doesn’t mean I’m interested in learning how to disembowel them,” explained Mei, flipping to the next page of her book. “I was perfectly happy with watching the two of you.”

“Well how about instead of cleaning the fish, you at least get the salads ready?” Yuzu dropped a bag of ingredients on the collapsible picnic table they’d brought and winked. “Think you can manage that or do we have to have a private discussion later?”

“I don’t think that will be a problem.” Mei took the bag and retrieved a filter from the bag of kitchen equipment they’d brought with them before kissing Yuzu’s cheek and whispering. “Regardless, I look forward to our having a private conversation later.”

“All right then.” Yuzu returned the kiss and gave Mei a gentle pat on her butt causing her wife to blush.

“Yuzu, be careful that’s..”

“Mama! Mommy! Look!”

Mei and Yuzu turned to see Airi holding up one of the fish heads by the spine and had taken to twirling it around in a circle.

“Yuzu, please...”

“I’m on it.” Yuzu gave Mei a quick, playful slap on the rear before heading over to Airi and proceeded to take away the propelling fish head.

“Hey,” pouted Airi sticking out her lower lip.

“I know you think that’s funny,” said Yuzu casting a cautious look over her shoulder to see Mei’s retreating heading toward the sinks, “and it kind of is.”

Yuzu winked and Airi giggled at hearing her mother agreeing with her.

“But it’s not good manners.” Yuzu set the fish head into a plastic bag and wiped her hands on a towel before continuing her lesson. “So, do you remember what you learned?”

“That I can’t use a knife without you or Mommy,” said Airi with a nod and pointing at her fingers. “Cuz if I don’t then I could lose a finger and that the fish has to be cleaned really good or we could get sick.”

“Or worse,” said Yuzu, glad to see that it the information had stuck. “If we were at home, I’d help you with the knife, and I’m glad you remembered the part about cleaning the fish. Now even though you can’t help me cut do you want to help me prepare the fish?”

“Yeah!” Airi slid down off the chair she was sitting on and moved in next to Yuzu who gave her a small step stool so she could look see over the table. "We gotta clip its fins, remove the scales, and then take off the head and clean it, then remove the bones before we cooking it."

"Good job." Yuzu pulled out another bag filled with some sauces and ingredients and set them and a piece of paper in front of Airi. “Now take the mirin, soy sauce, and all these other ingredients and measure them out and put them into this bowl and let me know when you’re done.”

“Got it.”

Airi nodded and proceeded to read the directions that Yuzu had written out and in such a slow, methodical, almost surgeon-like precision that Mei had returned by the time she told Yuzu she was ready.

“Good job,” said Yuzu handing Airi the whisk while Mei stared at the two of them in amazement.

“You still haven’t finished cooking the fish?” Mei set the filter down and began removing the freshly cleaned vegetables and with the spare kitchen knife began preparing the salad.

“Airi was extra careful while helping me with making the glaze,” said Yuzu with a shrug. “But she was a huge help with cleaning the rest of the fish.”

“I got to pull out the guts,” said Airi with a broad smile as she whisked the sauce together with Yuzu’s guidance.

“I know.” Mei grimaced as she remembered how Hideki had the same gleeful look on his face the time he’d cleaned a fish with Yuzu and even after seeing it countless times, Mei still found it to be a rather disgusting ordeal. “I watched you do it and I’m proud of you, but I’d rather not be reminded of it until next time.”

“Fine,” groaned Airi as she handed the mixing bowl to Yuzu watched as Mei finished making the salad. “Mommy, how’d you learn to cook?”

“Your Mama and Grandma taught me,” said Mei rather unenthusiastically.

“They did?” Airi’s head popped up in surprise at this and she felt herself salivating as Yuzu began grilling the fish on one of the small portable burners they’d brought.

“Yes.” Mei smiled fondly at Airi who was hanging onto her every word. “There were times I asked one of them to show me how they made things because I was curious and I wanted to make sure that if Mama or Grandma didn’t have time to cook for us they had a healthy meal waiting for them.”

“Oh!” Airi’s eyes widened just as Yuzu began cracking the eggs for the rolled omelets. “Mama. Are you gonna teach me to cook soon?”

“Of course.” Yuzu smiled and whisked the eggs before pouring them into the pan. “I kind of already am actually. I taught Hideki around your age, and Grandma taught me, so of course, I’m going to teach you. It’s a family tradition to learn how to cook, even if Mommy was a bit late in learning.”

“Says the woman who’d lie to her friends about all the boys she dat....”

“Okay, okay,” laughed Yuzu nervously hoping AIri didn't ask what Mei was talking about. “You made your point. I’m sorry.”

“We will find out later just how sorry you are,” said Mei with a flirtatious tone that only Yuzu was able to pick up on. “If time allows of course.”

“Ye...yeah...”

Yuzu’s face turned a bright red at Mei’s threat and returned to the food while Airi giggled and barraged Yuzu with questions about how to make the food and even managed to help roll the omelettes and finish cooking the fish. Though the fish did end up slightly burnt and the eggs ended up looking more like lopsided tacos than a neatly rolled cylinder.

“And we’re done,” sighed Yuzu after cutting the omelettes and divvying up the food and handing out the plates.

“Thank you, Yuzu.” Mei smiled, taking her plate while taking a moment to caress her wife’s hand and chuckled when she felt Yuzu almost drop the plate.

“What’s so funny,” asked Airi standing up to feel Yuzu’s forehead with the back of her hand. “Are you sick, Mama? Do you need a cold washcloth?”

“Maybe later,” coughed Yuzu before taking a bite of her fish and smiled while Mei them some cold barley tea, trying to look coy. “Good job on the fish, Airi.”

“’fanks, ‘ama,” answered Airi through a mouthful of salad.

“Finish swallowing before talking, Airi.” Mei pointed at her daughter’s chair but smiled as she handed her a cup of tea. “Do you have anything you want to do today or are you going to, as your Mama and Aunt Matsuri occasionally say, wing it?”

“We’re gonna go on a hike,” announced Airi after taking a particularly large bite of egg. “Wanna come? It’s for my summer homework.”

“Of course I’ll come,” said Mei before handing her daughter a napkin, “and not just because of your homework either. I want to spend some time with you and Mama, and I am rather interested in the area around here. When I told a business contact where we were going, we were offered to visit their family home that’s up here, and I was wondering if you’d take issue if they joined us."

“As long as it’s a personal visit, not a work visit,” answered Yuzu while taking a sip of tea before sighing. “Oh who am I kidding, stuff like this always turns into a work visit.”

“I promise that I’ll do my best to ensure that it doesn’t.” Mei pushed aside her now empty plate and bowl and extended her foot to massage Yuzu’s calf. Unfortunately, Airi had begun kicking her feet and managed to hit Mei in the shin just before her foot reached its destination.

“Sorry, Mommy.” Airi shrunk down in her seat and fumbled with her chopsticks to grab the rest of her omelette.

“It’s all right Airi.” Mei reached down and rubbed her injured leg while Yuzu laughed through her last bite of salad. “It was an accident and sit up. It's rude to slouch.”

Airi nodded, straightened herself, and returned to her food while Mei began stacking the dishes when she felt something against her leg. Thinking it was a bug, Mei reached down to swat it away until she felt the edge of Yuzu’s toe caressing her leg. Looking up Mei saw Yuzu’s hand propped in her hand, her mouth curved in an adoring smile and Mei couldn’t resist doing the same.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

"Let's go, Mama!"

"Gimme a minute," panted Yuzu as she made a few more painful steps up the slight incline the path they were using had taken. Even though she'd done her stretches before putting on the backpack that held their picnic supplies, Yuzu could feel her back stiffening and knew that despite their time frame she had to take a short break before continuing. " Let me catch my breath, okay? Mama's back is starting to hurt."

"But Mama," Airi ran to where her mother was sitting and began tugging on her arm, "we gotta get to the place we picked out. You said cuz of the rain yesterday that we have to do everything today or else we'd have to wait."

"I know what I said," sighed Yuzu setting down the backpack and twisting carefully in hopes of popping it. "But my back is killing me Airi, so just give me a minute to rest, and we'll get back to our hike as soon as I'm feeling better."

"But Mama..."

"Airi, leave Mama alone." Mei appeared from behind them, a worried look on her face. "You know she needs time to recover so let her have it. We spent a lot of time this morning packing everything up for tomorrow which means that as usual, she overdid it."

Yuzu chuckled nervously at the subtle transformation from worried to menacing that Mei's face had undergone before taking a moment to give Airi a consoling pat on the head.

"I'll be fine in a minute," said Yuzu, hoping that Airi understood. "I promise."

"You better," snorted Airi, glaring at her mother and puffing up her cheeks in annoyance. "We gotta make sure we do everything today, remember?"

"I remember." Yuzu leaned back and stretched her legs out just as a cool late morning breeze blew through her hair. "I promise that we'll do everything on our list and then some. But we can't do anything until my back feels better, so I need you to be patient."

"Okay." Airi stood up and pulled the workbook her teacher had given her and pointed off at a small field, well within her mothers' eyesight. "Can I go over there and try to draw some pictures for my book?"

"That's fine." Mei nodded and pointed at her watch. "We'll give you fifteen minutes, and when we shout you immediately stop what you're doing and if we have time on the way back we'll stop and you can finish it. If not, we'll help you complete it tonight or tomorrow at the inn and make sure you don't get your jeans too dirty. I'm not sure if the inn offers laundry services.

"Yes, Mommy." Airi nodded and patted Yuzu's knee. "You get better Mama."

"I'll try." Yuzu smiled and watched as Airi ran across the small paved path toward the field and began crawling around in the dirt and begin searching for the items necessary to start her summer homework while Mei tried to pick up the backpack and snorted when she realized how heavy it was.

"That explains everything." Mei set down the bag with a loud grunt; her eyes narrowed at her wife. "What on Earth did you pack in here? We're only going to be gone a few hours at the most. Was it essential to pack the majority of the campsite?"

"I didn't pack that much." Yuzu blushed and pulled the bag away from Mei and heaved it to the opposite side of her before patting the seat next to her. "Just a few essentials."

"What 'essentials' could we possibly need Yuzu?" Mei sat down next to her wife, fighting between watching Airi try and complete her homework while chastising Yuzu. "I know you feel guilty about not keeping some promise to Airi yesterday due to the rain, but is it worth hurting your back over?"

"It's not just Airi."

Yuzu shifted closer to Mei and rested her head on the younger woman's shoulder and took a deep breath. She could still smell the lingering scent of yesterday's downpour in Mei's hair as she curled her fingers around her wife's hand and smiled.

Thanks to a freak thunderstorm, the plans Yuzu and Airi had made to take Mei out on a picnic had been postponed as the rain started shortly after they'd finished breakfast and didn't finish until dinner. Luckily they'd brought plenty of games, and their rechargeable batteries were more than enough to keep the tablet powered for them to watch movies, and as always Mei had brought an ample supply of age-appropriate books for the three of them to enjoy. So while boredom didn't eat at them, the frustration of not being able to treat Mei to a picnic had nearly forced them to send Airi to bed early. Luckily they'd managed to talk her down to the point where they all spent the night curled up in Airi's blanket among the pile of stuffed animals and blankets, and when they woke up, they found that the weather had turned in their favor. Which was why they were in the position they were in now, even though the secrecy annoyed Mei.

"Then what is it about?" Mei nuzzled Yuzu's hair and smirked when she saw Airi jump back and let out a scream. "Airi, is everything okay?"

"I found a really fat frog," shouted Airi as she bent down and picked up a large object. As she held it above her head, Mei and Yuzu could barely make out the appearance of two long spindly legs, dangling down in front of Airi's face. "It jumped on my leg!"

"That's a toad Airi," giggled Yuzu, squeezing Mei's hand. "Make sure you don't touch it too much or else you'll get warts!"

"That's not true," gasped Airi turning to Mei. "Is it Mommy?"

"It is." The look of skepticism on Airi's face was too much, and Mei couldn't resist teasing her. "So do what Mama says."

Airi stared at her mothers, then at the toad in her hands, before shrugging and setting it down and continuing her search.

"I honestly thought she'd freak out after hearing that," chuckled Yuzu pressing herself tightly against Mei's arm. "But at the same time, I'm not surprised."

"Me neither," sighed Mei pulling her phone out and checking a text message and typing out a quick reply before putting it back in her jeans. "Though she is more like Hideki and Yui were at this age, so I expected as much."

"True." Yuzu sat up and stretched loudly and grunted when she felt a pop deep in her back and smiled contentedly. "There it is."

"I heard." Mei let out a groan of disgust at the sound and shook her head. "You're seeing your chiropractor and massage therapist first thing after we get back. No arguments."

"Wasn't planning on arguing," replied Yuzu as she stood up shouted for Airi to come back to them. "Why do you think I got us some time at an inn with a big bath? Partly because I know how my back would get and also..."

Yuzu bent down and kissed Mei's ear, risking a quick bite on her lobe before whispering, "Because I wasn't going to waste the chance for me to give you one of my famous post bath massages."

"I see." Mei's face turned bright red just as Airi approached, her notebook raised and her face beaming with excitement. "Well if that's the case, I hope that you got us two rooms because it's been a while since you've done that."

"Already taken care of," chuckled Yuzu smiling at Airi who was waving her book around. "You sure look happy. Did you find some of the stuff you needed to finish your homework?"

"Uh huh." Airi opened up the book and pointed at all of the things she found. "I got a flower, and an animal, and some bugs, and some other stuff. I need more, but I got lots."

"I'm glad, Kiddo." Yuzu bent down and kissed her daughter on the cheek before picking up the backpack and pointing up the hill. "All right Airi, think you can read us the signs and lead the way?"

"Yes, ma'am!" Airi gave her mother a salute and marched rather awkwardly toward Mei, who rolled her eyes but smiled. "Mommy, wanna help?"

"Why not," sighed Mei standing up and taking the hand Airi had extended to her. "But only if you hold both our hands."

"I can do that."

Smiling, Airi stuffed her workbook in her small backpack and ran to Yuzu, pulling her toward Mei and once she was sandwiched between them, navigated them to the large fabricated field that Yuzu had found on the map.

"This is nice," said Mei, sitting down on one of the park benches as a couple of older kids and adults played with a beach ball and frisbee nearby. "I can see why you wanted to come here, though I'm not sure Airi is going to get much work done. There's not much here that she'll be able to put in her notebook."

"That's part of the reason we stopped," grunted Yuzu as she set down the backpack and while Airi began crawling around patting the grass.

"I see. What is she doing?"

Despite her wanting to continue talking about Airi's homework, Mei's curiosity got the better of her, and she couldn't help but watch their daughter with great interest. While it wasn't unusual for Airi to do things like this as she, Hina, and the few friends she had sometimes acted like animals or played with toys on the ground. But seeing as Airi had no other children to play with or any toys, it was a little odd.

"You'll see in a minute." Yuzu rolled her shoulder and gave Mei a wink. "Airi you find it yet?"

"Yep!" Grinning, Airi stood up and walked a few feet to her right before jumping up and down in excitement. "It's right here, Mama! It's nice and dry!"

"All righty!" Yuzu swung the backpack over her shoulder and took Mei's hand and pulled her off the bench. "Come on."

Surrendering to her wife's whims, Mei followed the blonde to where their daughter was in the process of pulling what appeared to be a well-folded blanket out of her backpack and began unfolding it.

"Mama, I need help."

"Mei, can you help her?" Yuzu dropped to her knees and began going through her bag and smiled at Airi who was having little luck in shaking open the blanket. "I got to check a few things before we..."

"Sit down to lunch?" Mei smirked and rubbed Yuzu's cheek, making her wife blush. "It'd be my pleasure. Airi, let me help you."

Within seconds, Mei had the blanket unfolded and with Airi's help smoothed it out while Yuzu moved onto it and began passing out containers of sandwiches, the remaining fruit and vegetables, cookies, some rice balls, a large thermos, and a few canteens of water.

"Yummy," exclaimed Airi through a mouthful of a tuna riceball. "Mama, you're a good cook."

"Thank you." Yuzu smiled and poured out what appeared to be tea for the three of them. "But make sure you save a few rice balls for Mommy and me. I didn't have time to make a lot before we left home and we ate most of them on the trip here."

Despite not having finished her first, Airi was in the process of reaching for a second rice ball and instead began looking at the sandwiches her mother had made.

"What kind are these?" She asked looking through one of the containers. "I want something with meat."

"I made a couple with meat," said Yuzu taking a sip of her drink and a bite of an apple slice. "There are some steak sandwiches I made using last night's leftovers. There are also egg sandwiches that I made this morning and a few fruit and cream ones that need to be eaten soon. But you have to open the container to find out what is inside because I didn't mark them."

"I think these are the fruit ones," said Mei opening the container she was holding, a satisfied smile on her face when she was proven to be right. "Yuzu would you like one of these or do you want a steak one like Airi?"

"Egg, please." Yuzu took another sip of tea and rolled her eyes when she saw Airi begin shoving her mouth full of rice and sandwich. "Airi, slow down, or you'll get sick."

"f'am oongry," said Airi, exposing a mouthful of half-chewed food.

"Manners," ordered Mei, handing Yuzu her sandwich and handing Airi a napkin to clean herself up. "Honestly you're worse than your brother sometimes."

Airi finished chewing her food, and after gulping down her drink asked, "Can I have some fruit?"

"Finish your other food first," sighed Mei as she began cleaning Airi's face, "and do what Mama says. The last thing we need is for you to get a stomachache before we go for our bath."

"But it's good," protested Airi with a loud grunt. "And I wanna take a bath at the inn. You said we could take a bath there."

"We will and are," answered Mei after a bite of her steak sandwich. "But we've been here a few days, and you've been rolling around in dirt today, and we're going to be all sweaty after walking so much that we need to get cleaned up."

"I haven't rolled in dirt," huffed Airi before finishing her sandwich. "I was doing homework and helping Mama."

"Part of which you spent crawling on your hands and knees and picking up that toad," countered Mei, ignoring the pouting lip her daughter was giving them. "Which reminds me, you didn't wash your hands before you began eating."

"Here," said Yuzu with a grimace, realizing the mistake and handing Mei a bag of wet wipes. "Sorry about that."

"We're both to blame," said Mei, taking the apple Airi was eating and handing her a napkin.

"That's mine!"

Airi made a lunge for the apple but was repelled by Mei who placed the wipe in her hand and with a cool look said, "Clean up, then eat."

Scowling, Airi did as she was told and hurriedly cleaned her face and hands before putting the wipe in their small trash bag and crossed her arms, her gaze locked on Mei.

"There," she huffed slamming her arms down against her body, "I'm clean. Can I have my apple?"

"Manners." Mei took a bite of her sandwich and chewed slowly as she waited for her daughter to follow her directions and wasn't surprised when Airi looked to Yuzu.

"Mama, tell Mommy too..."

"I'm not telling Mommy anything," interrupted Yuzu after swallowing a bit of a rice ball. "You know the rules; manners or you don't get it back. Either you do what Mommy says, or you find something else to eat."

Airi stopped mid-grab and sat back down, her lower lip protruding as she said, "Mommy, can I have my fruit please?"

"Yes, you may," corrected Mei but regardless of her daughter's grammar, gave her back her apple slice as well as an extra piece. "Remember how important manners are, Airi. I know it's hard when you're upset, but remember always to try and use them. You never know when guests will show up, and it's always wise to be on your best behavior."

"Mei." Yuzu waved her wife toward her while Airi continued to eat her fruit in sullen silence.

"What is it Yuzu," asked Mei quietly after shifting closer to her wife.

"You didn't change any plans we had did you?" Yuzu looked to Airi who was eyeing her mother suspiciously before continuing. "You know that most of the time I'm okay with last minute changes, but if you..."

"I didn't change anything." Mei kissed Yuzu's forehead and smiled. "But I understand your worry. Those plans are still the same. However, I hope you don't mind that I did make one minor change in today's plans."

"That depends on what it is," said Yuzu nervously, realizing that Airi had moved several inches closer in the hope of hearing what they were discussing. "Because I don't think she's going to be good company if it takes time away from us being together."

"I don't think you have anything to worry about," said Mei looking over her wife's head and waving at something behind them. "Because I'm sure both of you will enjoy this surprise."

"What surprise," asked Yuzu, turning around to see a large black luxury car pull up and two familiar men in suits, one with salt and peppered hair and wearing sunglasses while the other had cropped gray hair, both of whom ran around to their sides respective rear doors and opened them.

Yuzu's face lit up in excitement, and she waved Airi to her and pointed at a small girl of ten with neatly trimmed green hair and bright green eyes wearing a colorful blue yukata with yellow flowers on it along with a green sash. From the other side of the car, a woman with the same green hair and eyes wearing a solid green Yukata and a yellow sash appeared, failing to hide the small smile that had briefly formed.

"Airi look," said Yuzu excitedly. "It's your Auntie Shirapon and Honoka."

Airi moved a little closer to Yuzu and waved shyly at their approaching company while Mei and Yuzu stood to greet them.

"It's lovely to see you two again," said Shiraho after giving Mei and Yuzu each a brief, caring hug. "I'm surprised you three came such a long way, but I am glad you contacted me Mei-san. Things have been a tad boring at our vacation home with my husband out of town, but my brothers have been keeping things lively."

"That's good to hear." Mei gave her friend a gentle smile before bowing and addressing Honoka. "Honka, thank you for coming to visit us today."

"It's my pleasure," replied the young girl with the same muted, penetrating expression her mother often wore, though her voice easily betrayed it. "Aunt Yuzu, Aunt Mei, I hope you've had an enjoyable summer; you as well Airi. My mother says that you've been having some problems. Is that true?"

Airi popped her head out from behind Yuzu's leg upon being addressed and said, "Kinda. I got picked on, and Hideki got into a fight, and we had to go to a police station. But I've been doing summer homework and taking music lessons, and those are kinda fun, and I play with Hideki and my cousins a lot. Do you have homework too? Mommy also said you play instruments and sing too"

"That's partially true." Honoka's body stiffened up as she approached Airi, her eyes lighting up at hearing that Airi was also a musician. "I don't sing, but I do have a great deal of homework, and I play the flute and the piano. What instruments do you play?"

With the conversation turning to music, Airi's shyness all but disappeared, and the two girls wandered off to where Airi had been eating and once Honoka had a piece of a fruit sandwich in her hands they all but forgot about their mothers which came as a relief to Mei and Yuzu.

"That didn't take long," chuckled Yuzu as Airi began excitedly explaining how her piano lessons had been going. "I can't believe it's been a year since we've seen her. She's gotten so big I barely recognized her."

"Meanwhile, Airi is the same as ever." Shiraho managed a chuckle when she noticed the excitement in Honoka's voice. "Shall we sit? I haven't eaten, and I would love to have some of your cooking, Yuzupon."

"Of course."

Mei gestured to the blanket and picked up the container holding the last two rice balls and put in a couple of sandwich halves and pointed toward the car and asked, "Would your brothers like something to eat? It's not much, but we're more than happy to give them some, and you don't need to worry about returning the container we can always visit you in Tokyo to retrieve it."

"I think they'd enjoy that." Suzuran took the container from Mei and turned toward the car. "I will be back shortly. Honoka, your aunts, are in charge while I head to the car. I'll be back shortly."

"Yes, Mother." Honoka waved to her mother and turned back to her conversation with Airi. "If you ever want to come over and practice piano I'm sure Mother would be more than happy to let you."

"I'll ask my moms," answered Airi with a nervous look to Mei and Yuzu, both of whom gave brief short nods which immediately made Airi smile.

While Airi and Honoka spoke, Mei and Yuzu remained quiet as they watched them, thankful that Airi was finally beginning to open up to someone and didn't say anything until Shiraho returned.

"They both wanted me to thank you for the food and that they'll drop the container off once they're done."

"It's no problem." Yuzu looked past Shiraho and waved at the two men who were standing outside the car, who waved back with sandwiches in their mouths. "If you want, we have some leftover food that we can share if you have time to come by the campsite."

"That does sound nice," said Suzuran, her gaze softening when she saw Airi pull out her workbook and begin asking Honoka for help. "It would be a nice distraction from the longstanding plans we have later this week.

"Might I ask what kind of plans?" Mei's body stiffened which worried Yuzu, and prompted her to retake her wife's hand. "It isn't anything that requires some arrangement on Honoka's behalf, is it?"

"Oh, no. Nothing of the sort," said Suzuran, her stoic demeanor briefly transforming into a humored one when she realized what Mei was suggesting. "They're merely plans involving a possible investment opportunity, and Honoka's music lessons have been postponed for the past month due to her teacher being in the hospital, and since she's out of the hospital, her teacher wants to spend a couple of days making sure she actually practiced. Though we will be able to attend the festival and we would love to spend the day with you. I also think Honoka would like having someone to play with. She's been rather lonely since her best friend moved abroad and I think Airi being close to her age and having similar interests would be a big help."

"It looks like it's doing Airi some good as well," commented Mei as she chewed on a carrot stick. "She's been having some issues with being vulnerable around kids her age. I think having an older friend may give her a confidence boost. If possible would you allow Honoka to come over to our house on occasion? Or perhaps allow Airi to come to your house? We do miss having you over, and we hope that we can remedy that soon. What do you think Yuzu?"

"Sounds good to me," said Yuzu after taking a long sip of mugicha tea. "We haven't had anyone over in a long time outside of family so the more, the merrier. Maybe we can get Harumin and Matsuri to come out of their cave and Himeko to quit working for a bit; make it a reunion."

"I doubt it." Mei shook her head and let out a loud sigh after hearing the suggesting Himeko join them. "Himeko and her husband are about to launch a new clothing line, so I doubt she's willing to take time off, but I have been meaning to visit her. Maybe I should take a day off to go and check on her. Would you be okay with that?"

"You know I am," giggled Yuzu before kissing her wife on the cheek. "She's your, third best friend, I think, so why would I get mad?"

"Third best friend," repeated Suzuaran, unaware of the joke Yuzu was attempted to pull off. "I thought Momokino-san was your only best friend. Who are the other two?"

"Me and Mama."

Airi and Honoka reappeared, both of them dirtier than they had been when their mother mothers had last seen them with Airi sitting in Yuzu's lap while Honoka sat off to her mother's side.

"And just what have you two been up to," inquired Mei, hoping that Shiraho wouldn't be upset at the state Honoka's yukata was in.

"I was helping Airi with her summer homework." Honoka's voice was stiff, and it was easy for them to see that she had the same worry as Mei about what her mother would say about the dirt on her hands, face, and yukata. "She said she had to find some more animals and plants, so I helped her with answering some of the questions and finding some more things to add to her book. We did, however, fall into a small ditch which is why we're dirty. I'm sorry Mother."

"It's quite all right."

Despite Honoka and Mei's fears, Shiraho managed a kind look at her daughter and placed a hand gently on her head.

"You were helping a friend with their studies, and your clothes are easy enough to clean. Let's be thankful your grandmother isn't here because if she was, I'm certain we'd both have a lot more to worry about than a bit of dirt."

Honoka's lips disappeared inside her mouth in an attempt to hide a smile from her mother but ultimately failed and raised her sleeve to her mouth to cover it.

"It's all right," said Shiraho pointing at her friends. "I think for right now it's safe to shirk tradition and allow ourselves to enjoy the company of our friends as it's just you, me, and your uncles at the house right now."

"All right." Honoka dropped her sleeve and allowed her smile to be seen.

It was a kind and gentle smile, one that reminded Mei of Yuzu's and Mei couldn't help but smile along with her.

"Good girl," said Shiraho rubbing her daughter's hair and doing her best to smile back at her, though it was easy to see that it was a difficult task for her. "Remember, that Mei-san and Yuzupon are people you can freely show your emotions around; that is how much I trust them."

"Yes, Mother."

Honoka nodded and gave Airi a cautious sideways glance before asking, "Mother, would it be possible for Aunt Mei, Aunt Yuzu, and Airi to accompany us back to the house? There's something I wish to give her."

"I get a present," giggled Airi bouncing briefly before hearing her Yuzu tell her to stop. "Sorry, Mama. What's my gift Honoka-chan? Can I know?"

"It's a surprise." Honoka's face turned a bright red at seeing Airi's excitement and turned her attention back to her mother. "Mother can they?"

"That depends on what plans they have," answered Shiraho giving her daughter a curious look. "Does it need to be right now? They'll be here for a few more days and I'm sure we'll be seeing them at the festival, can it wait until then."

"It can't." Honoka gestured for her mother to lean down and whispered into her ear, causing her mother to nod in understanding and when they separated Honoka said, "Does that make sense?"

"Of course it does." Shiraho nodded and shifted her attention back to Mei and Yuzu who were both doing their best to keep an excited Airi from asking too many questions about this gift Honoka had waiting for her. "Mei-san, Yuzupon, Airi, if it's not too much trouble, we would be honored if you'd spend some time with us at our family home."

"I don't mind," said Yuzu smiling as she held onto a squirming Airi. "Mei, do you want to go? I mean it was your idea to invite them."

"I don't see the harm in it." Mei shifted her legs and felt did her best to hide the uncomfortable tingling sensation she was feeling. "We've already prepared everything for tomorrow except for the bedding and the tents so I don't see why we can't spend the evening with Shiraho-san and Honoka until it's time to put Airi down. But would it be a problem if we stopped by the campsite to the extra food Yuzu mentioned? We can use it to make dinner as thanks."

"Of course." Shiraho nodded and looked around at the mostly empty containers. "Would you like our help cleaning up? Also, we can give you a ride back to the campsite and follow us back to the house."

"Are we going to stay the night," asked Airi as she and Honoka began cleaning up the containers.

"That wasn't exactly the plan," answered Yuzu, taking the containers and putting them into her bag while Mei and Shiraho began folding the blanket. "But it is possible, although it would be a waste of a night at the campsite."

"Oh, okay." Airi returned to helping Honoka pick up the garbage and the remaining containers, not saying anything else about the possibility of a sleepover, and Yuzu couldn't help but notice the look of disappointment on her daughter's face.

When they finally finished cleaning, they returned to the car, but not after an unexpectedly loud and cheerful greeting from Shiraho's surrogate brothers. Both of whom wasted little time in hugging both Yuzu and Airi while maintaining a respectful distance from Mei though not letting up on the enthusiasm. Once they'd finally settled down, Shiraho took the front seat, allowing for Airi and Honoka to continue chatting while Mei and Yuzu spoke genially with the other adults.

Upon their arrival at the campsite, Mei and Yuzu gathered the remaining food before returning to their car, leaving Airi with Honoka and Shiraho so they could continue talking and followed Shiraho to her family's forest vacation home. While it wasn't nearly as massive as the main house of the Shiraho family, it was roughly the same size as Mei and Yuzu's though like most traditional Japanese homes the majority of it only took up one floor complete with a small garden in the center of it.

"I always forget how big her family's houses are," chuckled Yuzu as they parked the car. "Think we should look into buying one of these?"

"Given our work schedules it would be a waste of money," commented Mei while heading to the rear and pulling out the cooler. "We barely take time off as it is so there's no reason to pour money into something we'll never be able to enjoy."

"I guess," sighed Yuzu while slinging the backpack over her shoulder. "Maybe once we retire and the kids are out of the house we can look into a place like this. What do you think?"

"That depends on our children's love lives." Mei shifted the cooler in her hands and approached the house just as Honoka helped Airi out of the car and began pulling her toward the woods that were off to the side of the house. "Depending on the direction, we may need a larger house than the one we have, or we convert the office into a bedroom. That would be the more pragmatic thing to do."

"I guess." Yuzu watched as Shiraho left her car and called for the girls to come back, but they refused, saying that they found something interesting that they wanted to look at and before she could protest the man wearing the glasses disappeared into the woods, saying that he'd keep an eye on them. "But it would be nice to have a place we can go to if we wanted to get away."

"I'm sure if we ask, Shiraho-san would allow us to borrow this place if it isn't in use," said Mei, nudging her wife with her elbow and gesturing toward the house. "Come on, let's get inside. My arms are getting tired."

"Fine." Yuzu sighed and followed Mei into the house with the other brother while Shiraho remained outside to make sure the children were safe.

"They'll be fine," said Yuzu placing a comforting hand on Shiraho's shoulder.

"I know they will be." Suzuran patted Yuzu's hand in agreement before carefully removing it. "But I'd rather wait and see it with my own eyes. Please make yourselves at home, and I'll be in shortly."

"Are you sure?" Yuzu adjusted her backpack and pointed at the spot next to her. "Do you want some company?"

"I'm certain." Shiraho's face remained stoned-faced as she spoke, reminding Yuzu of the first time they'd met and knew there was no chance of dissuading her. "So as I said, please go in and enjoy yourselves. My brother will show you around and answer any questions you may have about the house."

Not saying anything more, Yuzu nodded and set her bag down on the ground and folded her arms as she joined Shiraho in waiting for the girls to make their grand reappearance.

"Yuzupon, I told you that there's no reason for you to..."

"We're staying," said Yuzu tilting her head toward Mei who had taken a seat on the cooler, "and no matter what you say, we're not leaving."

"I had a feeling you'd say that." Shrugging, Shiraho and let out a loud sigh before nodding. "I suppose it can't be helped."

"Damn right it can't," chuckled Yuzu and together the three of them waited for the return of their daughters.

Finally, after almost half an hour, the girls reappeared, both of them with mud covered shoes and legs while their escort looked like he'd been hit in the face with a bucket of mud and then showered in leaves and twigs.

"Hi, Mama! Hi Mommy!" Airi appeared holding her practically pristine workbook alongside a giggling Honoka while Shiraho's brother staggered forward, looking exhausted. "We finished most of my homework."

"That's nice," said Yuzu holding her arms out for Airi and when her daughter approached her for a hug she adjusted herself so that she managed to get in a very powerful flick that had Airi sniffling while Yuzu put on her best disciplinary face.

"What the heck were you two thinking running off into the woods like that without asking our permission?" Yuzu's face was turning red as she scolded her daughter, doing her best to not lose her temper. "You had no idea what was out there and could have gotten seriously hurt or lost, not to mention that you and Honoka are both filthy!"

"I'm sorry," sniffed Airi, hiding her face and tears behind her book. "I got excited cuz Honoka said there was lots of stuff in the woods that we could look at for my book and I followed her because I wanted to finish my homework so I could spend time with you and Mommy."

"I...we understand that, Airi." Yuzu pointed at Mei and then reached out and patted Airi comfortingly on the head. "But like Hideki, you have a bad habit of running off without thinking. If this were the park near home, it'd be one thing. But we don't know what it's like around here so promise me you won't go anywhere without me, Mommy, or someone else we trust, deal?"

"Deal," sniffed Airi, wiping her eyes with her forearm and smearing dirt across her face making her mother's laugh. "What? What's so funny? Why are you laughing at me?"

"It's nothing," said Yuzu bending down and giving her daughter an actual hug. "You're just too cute, and Mommy and I are happy that you're safe. Aren't we Mei?"

"Yes, we are." Mei removed herself from her seat and joined Yuzu in hugging Airi. "But Mama is right, and for the rest of the trip, you aren't allowed your tablet or any music videos which includes the television. Do I make myself clear?"

"Okay." Airi nodded and nuzzled both of her mothers, getting a little bit of dirt on each of their cheeks before bowing in Shiraho's direction. "I'm sorry for running off and scaring you Auntie. I promise to be good for the rest of our visit."

"I believe you," said Shiraho with a polite bow of her own before turning her cool glare in her daughter's direction. "Honoka, I trust I can expect the same from you?"

"Yes, Mother," answered Honoka obediently with a slight quiver to her voice. "I'm sorry for running off with Airi, Aunt Mei, and Aunt Yuzu. I didn't intend to cause you any trouble, and I take full responsibility for my actions and will accept whatever punishment my parents feel is necessary."

"Your father and I will think of a suitable punishment," confirmed Shiraho pointing toward the house. "Not only for your running off but also for ruining your Yukata. Thankfully it's one of your usual ones, but that doesn't mean you can do whatever you want in them. You need to be more careful. What if you'd gotten hurt or had been taken after you ran off? I have explained to you how dangerous it is and how careful you need to be, not just for the sake of the family but for mine and your father's well-being as well."

"I know Mother." Honoka lowered her head and turned her attention to her surrogate uncle who was in the process of drinking a bottle of water that Mei had offered him from the cooler and cleaning his face with a handkerchief. "Uncle, I apologize for causing you so much trouble. If there is anything I can do to make it up to you, please let me know."

"Don't worry about it," said the man, lifting his sunglasses and winking at Honoka. "It's natural for kids to do things like that, but promise me that you won't make a habit of it. I don't want anything to happen to you or Sis. Not to mention your grandmother would kill me if something happened to you."

"That would be a problem," agreed Honoka her eyes locked on her uncle's.

As they watched her speak, Yuzu and Mei noticed that even though her mother had given her permission to smile in their presence, Honoka was still struggling with it and instead offered a polite bow, though they did make out a slight twitch in the corner of her mouth.

"I'll do my best to make sure she doesn't find out about this; you have my word."

"Thanks," replied the man before thanking Mei for the drink and telling Airi to be good. "Uh Sis, I know we have guests and that normally something like this is offered to them first, but would you mind if I took a quick bath and changed my clothes?"

"It's no trouble." Shiraho's face had remained set throughout their conversation, but it was clear from the tone of her voice that she was grateful. "Please take your time and relax. You've done an excellent job, and I'll make sure to prepare something in thanks."

"I look forward to it."

With that Shiraho's brother disappeared into the house along with Yuzu, Mei, and the others. While they waited for the bath to be free, Mei, Yuzu, and Shiraho spent the time catching up and discussing everything from work to the latest books they'd read. For the kids, it was a dull conversation, so dull that the girls disappeared into Honoka's room to play, but it was nice being able to catch up with Shiraho and both Mei and Yuzu were happy to hear that everything was going well between Shiraho and her husband.

After a few hours of conversation, some of which was interrupted by Honoka giving Airi a lesson in the fundamentals of piano playing before escorting her to the bath. As the girls bathed, Mei, Yuzu, and Shiraho retreated into the kitchen along with Shiraho's brothers to begin preparing dinner with Mei and Yuzu focusing on entrees, the men focusing on the side dishes, while Shiraho prepared the dessert.

"That looks delicious," exclaimed Mei upon seeing the lemon pinwheel cake that Shiraho had managed to make. "Where did you learn how to do that?"

"I've had plenty of time on my hands thanks to being able to do most of my work at home," said Shiraho as she finished piping some frosting onto the top of the cake. "It's amazing what you can accomplish when you're able to do everything from one location."

"Apparently." Mei sighed and looked down at the slightly misshapen croquettes she'd barely managed to assemble and grumbled. "Yuzu do these look right to you?"

"Only one way to find out."

With a smile, Yuzu abandoned the karaage she was preparing and grabbed the plate, checked the oil temperature before carefully picking one up with a pair of chopsticks and nodded when she saw how well it held up.

"So far so good." Yuzu gave Mei a reassuring smile and surpressed a laugh when she saw how nervous Mei looked given she rarely made them. After a quick good luck kiss Yuzu placed the croquette in the hot oil and with a satisfied look, watched as it sizzled and slowly changed from a pale almost white color to a golden brown. "Looks like we're good to go. Good job."

Yuzu watched as Mei's shoulders dropped in relief and gave her one more kiss, refusing to ignore the chuckles that Suzuran's brothers were giving them.

"If you two got time to laugh you got time to finish those entrees," ordered Yuzu pointing at the stove where a pot was gently bubbling. "I know we're good on the salad but how're you guys doing with the soup?"

"The soup is almost done," replied the gray-haired man ladling some into a small saucer and eagerly handing it to Yuzu. "Would you mind checking it for me? I want to see if it meets your standards."

"Sure."

Mei watched in amusement as Yuzu's managerial side came out while she tasted the soup and began instructing the man on how much more seasoning it needed along with having to turn down the heat to a simmer instead of a gentle boil.

"Do you mind if I try cooking these," asked Mei, turning each of the croquettes with the chopsticks Yuzu had used. "How long do we need to fry these for and how much longer do we have before we can start frying the karaage?"

"Three minutes in batches of six for the croquettes should work, but you can let them go for a little longer to make sure they're cooked through. The oil for the karaage is almost..."

Before she could finish, they were all caught off guard by a sudden, ear piercing scream. When they heard it, Mei nearly dropped the plate she was holding, and Suzuran let out a loud gasp while her brothers got to their feet and Yuzu ran toward the kitchen door only stopping at the sudden appearance of a flustered Honoka dressed uncharacteristically in a tee-shirt and pajama bottoms.

"Honoka," asked Mei in a worried voice while Yuzu stuck her head out of the kitchen looking for Airi, "Honoka, what happened?"

"I don't know," said the girl after catching her breath. "I was combing Airi's hair, and I barely got the comb through it when she suddenly started to cry and scream. I swear I wasn't trying to make her do any of those things."

"It's all right," said Yuzu reassuringly before looking to Mei who had an understanding look on her face while she gestured for Shiraho and the others to calm down. "Your Aunt Mei and I know what's going on so calm down and come help me take care of Airi. Mei, do you think you and Shirapon can handle the rest of the cooking? You already know how to handle the karaage right?"

"I do," said Mei with a relieved smile. "Now go take care of her; I'll be right here if you need me."

Nodding Yuzu grabbed a small red bag out of her purse and asked Honoka where her bedroom was.

"It's at the end of the hall on the right," said Honoka nervously. "I'm sorry about this. I didn't mean to hurt her. I was only trying to comb her hair."

"It's not your fault." Yuzu smiled at Honoka and patted her purse as she followed her down the hall. "Your Aunt Mei and I forgot to tell you about her hair so don't blame yourself, and I'll show you what to do. Is this the room?"

"Yes." Honoka nodded and pointed at the closed door and proceeded to open it a crack. "Airi, it's Honoka. I brought your Mama; can we come in?"

"Yes," sniffled Airi from inside the room.

When she entered, Yuzu couldn't help but let out a quiet, "Oh," when she saw Airi curled up in a ball wearing nothing more than a bathrobe, her hands clutching the spot on her hair where a silver comb had lodged itself in her hair.

"I couldn't get the comb out," explained Honoka taking a seat next to Airi while Yuzu removed a couple of odd-looking combs and bottles from the bag. "I tried to tug it loose but instead I jerked Airi's head back, and that's when she screamed, and I came to get you."

"Thank you for that," said Yuzu picking up Airi and placing the girl in her lap. "Now I need you to pay attention while I do this, in case this happens again."

"Yes, ma'am," said Honoka with a nod, her eyes focused on Yuzu's hands as they began working on the comb."

"Good girl," said Yuzu with a smile as she started her work. "Now, because Airi's hair is so thick and curly it requires you to be more careful than with other people's hair. Okay?"

"I understand." Honoka nodded again, this time so strongly that Yuzu thought her head would fall off.

"I'm sure you do, Sweetie." Yuzu smiled at Honoka before pulling one of the more difficult knots out of the comb. "Airi, Kiddo are you going to be okay if Mama pulls out the comb? It might hurt, but I promise to be gentle."

Airi only whimpered and nodded in response and after a couple of short cries and gentle tugs, Yuzu managed to remove the comb and handed it back to Honoka.

"There we go," said Yuzu quietly, kissing her daughter's head. "The combs out and if you're fine with it, Mama's going to comb your hair. Can I do that?"

"Yeah," hiccuped Airi screwing her eyes shut as Yuzu began working in some of the hair relaxer she'd brought with her.

"So, Honoka," began Yuzu as she massaged the product into her daughter's hair, "this is stuff is called relaxer and we put into Airi's hair before we brush it because it helps make it easier to get the knots out and these..."

Yuzu pulled out two combs, one of which looked like it was double-layered and the other one looked like it had multiple sets of teeth in it which got Honoka's attention as she began carefully working the double layered one through Airi's hair.

"Now, these are combs meant specifically for hair like Airi's. We try not to make it too straight because she likes it curly, and so do her Mom and me. But we also don't want there to be too many knots because then it gets unmanageable, so Mei and I try only to get out the bigger ones."

"How come," asked Honoka while Airi remained quiet and occasionally grunted while Yuzu began carefully working out a particularly difficult knot. "I think Airi's hair would look pretty straight so how come you don't do you keep it that way? It'd be easier to manage."

"That's true," chuckled Yuzu when she heard Airi snort after hearing Honoka's suggestion. "But we think Airi's hair is already pretty so we do enough to make sure that it's easy to take care of, but that's it. Though I think it's almost time for a haircut. You're getting a little too shaggy Airi, and I am finding a lot of knots. Want me to talk to Mommy about taking you to get a haircut?"

"Okay," said Airi with an uncaring shrug. "Mama, can you do a ponytail?"

"Already on it," chuckled Yuzu slipping a hair tie around Airi's hair and making a simple ponytail before turning her around.

"There's my pretty girl," said Yuzu lifting Airi's face and kissing her cheek, managing to coax a smile from her daughter. "Are you feeling better?"

"Yeah." Airi wrapped her arms around her mother and rested her cheek just above her mother's ring. "Did I scare you again?"

"A little." Yuzu kissed the top of her daughter's head, enjoying how clean she smelled before stroking her hair. "But once Honoka told us why you screamed Mommy, and I knew what happened."

"I'm sorry I hurt you," said Honoka going into an apologetic bow. "I promise that if you ask me to comb your hair again, I'll make sure to have one of your mothers show me how to do it. I hope you aren't angry with me."

"It's okay." Airi's voice was soft but sincere as she spoke. "It was an accident so you can still comb my hair. I'm not mad."

"I'm glad," replied Honoka, sitting up to reveal a fleeting smile. "If you're feeling better and you're okay with it Aunt Yuzu, would you mind if I had a moment alone with Airi before dinner?"

"Uhh sure."

Yuzu turned to Airi, a nervous look on her face and asked, "Does this have to do with your present?"

"Yeah." Airi managed a smile at the mention of her present. "It's a surprise so you gotta go wait with Mommy."

"I see." Yuzu rubbed her nose against her daughter's before pressing their foreheads together. "If that's the case then I'll go and check to see how Mommy and the others are doing. We made lots of yummy food and Honoka your mom made a cake that smells a lot like some ice cream Airi's cousin Reo made before Hideki left. I think you'll enjoy it."

"I'm certain I will," replied Honoka with a nod.

With that, Yuzu gave Airi one more kiss on the cheek and exited the room and headed to the kitchen to find Mei and Shiraho sitting at the table drinking tea while Shiraho's brothers told them about of the stunts Honoka pulled while drinking a couple of beers. Asking for a glass of her own, Mei poured Yuzu a beer and smiled as they listened to a story about how Honoka had once managed to keep a duckling hidden from her parents for nearly a month before taking it to an animal sanctuary.

Finally, after a short story about how difficult Airi had been during potty training that ended up with Yuzu tripping over the training toilet in an attempt to make sure Airi didn't have an accident, Honoka appeared in the kitchen doorway, still dressed in her pajamas and wearing a proud look on her face while Airi nervously peeked in from around the corner.

"I would like to present, for the first time wearing a summer yukata, Aihara Airi."

Mei and Yuzu's eyes lit up at the announcement, their eyes turning to where Airi had been standing only to find the space now empty.

"Airi," whispered Honoka walking to where Airi had retreated. "Airi they're waiting."

"I know."

Airi's voice sounded nervous, and as much as they wanted to see her, Mei and Yuzu remained seated, though Yuzu had already removed her phone from her pocket and had it ready to take pictures.

"But what if they laugh, Honoka-chan," they heard from behind the kitchen wall where Aili had hidden behind.

"We won't laugh at you," said Mei gently, hoping that Airi believed her. "Mama and I, along with everyone else, are very excited to see you in a yukata. Aren't we?"

Everyone gave their agreement especially Yuzu who said, "Airi I want to see you in your yukata. Mommy and I were planning on getting you one soon but if Honoka gave you one I'm sure you look beautiful. So can we see you, please?"

"I guess. Honoka can you hold my hand?"

"Of course."

Honoka stuck her hand out and nodded before walking back into the kitchen. As she walked in, Airi's arm appeared, first revealing a long lavender sleeve, then a pristine white sock followed by a blue sash trimmed with gold. Finally, they were rewarded with the sight of a nervous looking Airi whose ponytail was slowly puffing up as she kept her eyes focused on the floor, refusing to make eye contact with anyone as she shuffled into the kitchen, revealing the entirety of the lavendar yukata that Honoka had chosen for her.

"Oh my," gasped Mei her hand going to her mouth, tears forming in her eyes. "Airi you look…."

"Gorgeous," squeaked Yuzu taking a couple of pictures before getting up from the table and running to embrace her daughter. "Honoka she looks amazing! Is this the gift you wanted to give her?"

"Yes it is Aunt Yuzu," said Honoka after stepping away to allow Yuzu to inspect a now smiling Airi. "I have a couple more in my room that I'd like to give her since I can't fit them. A few of them will be too big, but they are in excellent condition."

"Thank you," said Yuzu turning Airi around and giggling at the sight of her daughter wearing her first yukata. "I can't believe how adorable you are, Airi. I mean you're always adorable, but this just makes you even cuter. I can't wait to send Hideki and your uncle these pictures."

"Do you think they'll like it," asked Airi, spinning around in a failed attempt to see if she could make the bottom of her outfit rise. "I like the purple cuz it looks like Mommy's eyes."

"It sure does." Yuzu took a few more pictures before leading Airi to her seat at the table between her and Mei while Honoka joined her mother. "Mei, can you believe how good she looks?"

"I believe it." Mei raised Airi's face to hers, smiling broadly at how much the outfit brought out the color of her eyes while Yuzu inspected the bow Honoka had used to secure the sash. "You look lovely Airi."

Airi's face turned a shade darker at hearing her mother's words, and instead of answering, she proceeded to distract herself by eating the food that had been made, causing all the adults to chuckle before returning to their meals. Though it didn't go unnoticed that throughout the meal, that Mei and Yuzu couldn't resist chuckling at how Airi used one of her hands to hold back the sleeve of her outfit in an attempt to avoid getting it dirty.

Finally, they managed to finish their meal, and thanks to Airi's methodical eating habits, they managed to get through the meal without staining the yukata.

However, by the time dessert was over, it was getting close to Airi's bedtime and while she and Honoka returned to the elder girl's room to dress Airi in her freshly laundered clothes and pack up the remaining outfits while Mei, Yuzu, and Shiraho sat in the garden enjoying a cup of tea while Shiraho's brothers laughed at some television show they were watching in the living room.

"So, you're sure you're okay with us coming and staying here if you guys aren't using it," asked Yuzu after a sip of cold oolong tea. Their conversation had recently turned to the discussion she and Mei had had about looking into buying a vacation home, and Shiraho had offered them the liberty of using the house.

"Just as long as you call ahead by a couple of weeks to ensure that we don't have any plans that require the use of the house," answered Shiraho calmly. "We don't often use this place, and we would need a few days to hire a cleaner to get it ready, but I don't see any problem with it, and I'm certain my husband won't either."

"That's very generous of you," said Mei with a yawn after finishing her tea. "We'll make sure to treat it like our own home should we find time to take you up on your offer."

"I do not doubt that you will." Shiraho sighed and stared up at the stars, a faint glimmer of a smile in her eyes.

"Are you all right Shirapon," asked Yuzu while she poured Mei another cup of tea. "You look like you got something on your mind."

"I am fine, Yuzupon." Shiraho turned her attention to Yuzu and managed a soft smile when she saw Mei begin to rest her head on the blonde's shoulder and begin to close her eyes. "I'm just remembering the night we went to the festival and am rather excited that we'll be able to spend an evening like that together very soon. It's hard to believe that it's been over twenty years since we met."

"It is," chuckled Yuzu as she felt Mei's body begin to grow heavy and the sensation of her wife's warm breath against her neck. "It hasn't been easy, but it's been worth it."

"I imagine so." Shiraho watched as Mei's head began to nuzzle against Yuzu's shoulder and shook her head in amusement. "I'm glad you two have found your happiness. It does my heart good when I see you two together."

"Thanks, Shirapon." Yuzu coughed back a giggle when she felt Mei's breath against the back of her neck but managed to recover. "But, everything's going all right for you though. You haven't been having any problems have you?"

"As I said, things are going splendidly." Shiraho brushed a bit of hair out of Yuzu's face as she spoke. "We have the occasional problems with our business partners, but nothing I can't handle. Thank you for your concern."

"All right." Yuzu nodded, and when Shiraho finished fixing her hair, she turned her attention to the now silent hallway their daughters had disappeared down. "Promise me that if things get bad, you'll tell us. You know you can count on us if you have a problem."

"I will, you have my word," agreed Shiraho before following Yuzu's gaze. "I wonder what's taking them so long."

"I was thinking the same thing," asked Yuzu before gently nuzzling Mei's head in an attempt to wake her, but Mei refused to move. "Come on Mei; you gotta wake up. We need to leave."

"Just a little longer," whispered Mei, sleepily kissing Yuzu's neck and wrapping her arm around her wife's before letting out a soft snore and causing Yuzu to blush and Shiraho to chuckle.

"I'll go check on them," she said before climbing to her feet and looking down on the pair as Yuzu continued to try and wake Mei. "I'll be right back."

"Thanks, Shirapon."

When Shiraho disappeared down the hall, Yuzu shook her head and kissed the top of Mei's head before saying, "You really make things difficult sometimes, but you already knew that didn't you?"

Mei let out a small grunt but refused to wake and tightened her grip on Yuzu's arm.

"You're lucky you're so beautiful," whispered Yuzu, caressing Mei's sleeping face, "and I'm lucky to love you."

"I love you too," said Mei before subconsciously turning her head to kiss Yuzu's shoulder before falling back to sleep.

Before Yuzu could say or do anything, Shiraho returned with an amused look on her face and a cell phone in her hand.

"Is everything all right," asked Yuzu quietly, making sure not to disturb Mei. "Is Airi ready?"

"Not quite."

Shiraho shook her head and tapped something on her phone and turned it to reveal a picture of Airi, still dressed in her yukata, on the floor, curled up beneath a blanket with Honoka's arms wrapped around her protectively, both of them sleeping peacefully, blissfully unaware to the world and the sounds around them.

"Looks like we're staying the night," laughed Yuzu, giving Mei one more kiss before beginning to wake her wife.

"It appears so," snickered Shiraho as she watched Yuzu explain to a groggy Mei what was going on before leading them to the guest room.

Once they were settled, Shiraho politely excused herself so she could take a bath before bed, only stopping when she heard Yuzu call out for her.

"Yes, Yuzupon," asked Shiraho, sticking her head into the room to see Yuzu sitting up on the futon while Mei slept peacefully beside her, holding her hand. "Is something wrong?"

"Nope," sighed Yuzu as she plugged her phone in, smiling at her friend. "I just wanted to say thanks for spending the day with us and for, you know, for being a good friend. It means a lot."

"I understand." Shiraho bowed her head politely, giving her a sincere and loving smile that she hardly showed to anyone. "I feel the same way, Yuzupon."

"Good," yawned Yuzu before letting out a loud groan as she stretched only to stop when she felt Mei slap her arm.

"Yuzu," mumbled Mei briefly opening her eyes before shutting them again, "you're too loud. Go to sleep."

"She's the boss," chuckled Yuzu as she stood up and pulled the string that shut the light off. Sitting back down she waved at Shiraho who was still standing at the door, her eyes focused on Mei.

"Hey."

Shiraho jumped a little at hearing Yuzu's voice and turned her attention from the room to her friend.

"Yes, Yuzupon? Do you need something?"

"Are you all right," asked Yuzu, removing Mei's hand from her arm and climbing to her feet. "

"I'm...," Shiraho holding back the tears as she felt an old familiar pain she hadn't felt since her school days form in her chest. "I'm fine. I've just been lonely since my husband left and while I have Honoka and my brothers to keep me company, they don't understand some of the pressures I'm under and I miss having someone around to talk to about them."

"You can always call us," chuckled Yuzu, taking Shiraho's hand and squeezing it. "Or come over for dinner or spend the night. I mean I don't understand everything you and Mei deal with, but I listen to her enough that I kind of get it and I know that Mei would love having you over. She misses having you guys over, even if she doesn't say it."

"I understand." Shiraho managed a small smile but instead of happiness, she felt tears rolling down her cheeks.

"Come on," whispered Yuzu giving Shiraho's hand a gentle tug and pulling her toward the closet. "I'm pretty sure I saw an extra futon in the closet and..."

"No," exclaimed Shiraho taking a step back, causing Mei to open her eyes and Yuzu to stare at her in shock.

"I'm sorry," said Shiraho fixing her hair and wiping her eyes. "If this were another day I would take you up on your offer, but I need to bathe, and my husband should be calling shortly to check in. But thank you Yuzupon for being so considerate. I hope you both have a good evening and I will see you in the morning."

"Wait a moment."

Shiraho watched as Mei removed her blanket and called for Yuzu to help her up.

Once on her feet, Mei earned herself a look of confusion from both Shiraho and Yuzu as she shuffled toward the taller woman and as Yuzu had done before her, took her by the hand and squeezed it.

"Mei-san, what are you...," began Shiraho before being silenced by Mei taking another step forward and in an unprecedented move hugged the older woman, making Shiraho's face turn red and Yuzu chuckle at the adorable sight in front of her, unaware of what

"Thank you, Shiraho-san," said Mei after breaking the hug and wiping a tear from her friend's face. "For everything"

"Of...of course," whispered Shiraho, barely managing to maintain what little composure she still had and removing Mei's hand. "I hope you both rest well, and if there's anything you need from me, please let me know. You remember where my room is, don't you?"

"The one right next to Honoka's," said Yuzu confidently. "And remember what I said, about the spare futon, we'll be right here if you need us."

"I will." Shiraho did her best to smile but only managed an odd looking half-cocked one while she felt her cheeks burn. "Have a pleasant evening."

With that, she turned around, and as she headed toward her room she heard Yuzu ask, "Are you sure she's okay?"

Shiraho could make out Mei saying, "It's complicated," before shutting the door and muffling the sounds of their conversation.

Turning her head, Shiraho watched as the light shut off followed by a few more muffled words and then silence.

When she was sure nobody else could hear her, Shiraho headed to her room and slid the door shut and collapsed against the wall and began wiping away the tears that had started flowing. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't get them to stop, and she practically jumped out of her skin when she heard her phone begin to vibrate.

"Sis," came the worried voice of her gray-haired brother. "Sis, is everything okay?"

"I'm fine," answered Shiraho after a brief cough and checking her phone to see that she'd missed a call from her husband. "My phone startled me. Please don't worry about me and enjoy your evening."

"Are you sure," he asked sounding concerned. "Do you want some tea?"

"No thank you," replied Shiraho as she dialed her husband's number. "But I appreciate the gesture. Have a good night."

"Good night, Sis. I'll see you in the morning."

There was a sound of shuffling footsteps, and just as Shiraho lifted the phone to her ear she heard a deep, familiar, comforting voice ask, "Hello? Shiraho," followed by the sensation of all the pain she'd felt begin to fade.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 10

 

“This place is big,” exclaimed Airi, stopping in the center of the short forested path that led to the traditional inn she and her mothers were staying. While her mothers took care of the car, Airi couldn't resist taking in the vast scope of the inn and the large tree branches that hung over the roof with small beams of light sprinkling in through the gaps in the canopy to light up the path. “Mama, are we the only people staying here?”

 

“I wish,” walking up behind her daughter and patting her on the head. “It’s summer vacation, so that means that there’s a lot of people staying because of that and the festival, which means almost every room is sold out. But lucky for us, Mama was able to snag the last suite with two bedrooms so you and all the stuffed animals will be able to sleep together and Mommy and I will have a room to ourselves.” 

 

“Do I get to sleep on a bed,” asked Airi, clutching her owl under one arm and dragging her rolling suitcase across the ground instead of on its wheels, “or do I get a futon like Honoka-chan, and I was s’pposed to sleep on?”

 

“Inns like this are like Shiraho-san and Honoka’s house,” explained Mei as she tried to help Airi fix her suitcase. “Which means tatami-mats and futons and in most cases a public bath like at the campsite.” 

 

“What’s a public bath like,” asked Airi, finally rolling her bag in the way it was intended, her curiosity getting the better of her as they didn’t get a chance to use the public bath before they left. “Do we get to use it alone or will there be other people? And is it like taking a bath at home?”

 

“Public means with other people Airi and it depends on the time of day.” Yuzu smiled and thanked a man who had held the door open for her and allowed Airi and Mei in before her, sighing in relief at the cool breeze from the air-conditioning. “But since it’s only one o’clock the bath probably isn’t open. Though I'm pretty sure we’ll be able to take one before dinner and it’s like taking a bath like at home with some differences, the biggest one being there might be a lot of people since everyone eats dinner in the same room.” 

 

“We have to eat with other people,” asked Airi, causing Mei and Yuzu to chuckle at the thought of her being more concerned about eating with a group than taking a bath in front of other people. “But, Mommy said we eat in our rooms.”

 

“Well we get breakfast in our rooms,” explained Yuzu as they approached the front desk. “But dinners here are done as a group since they tend to play music with the meal and they want people to experience that. But the good news is that they’re known for the chilled udon, unagi, a good and mizu yokan which are all yummy. But if we don't feel like eating here, there’s plenty of places in town to try and with the festival starting tomorrow we’re going to be eating a lot of festival food. Do you know what you want to have first?” 

 

“Monja,” cheered Airi causing the woman behind the check-in desk and a few of the guests who were resting in the common room to chuckle. “I also want yakitori and takoyaki and candy apples and..."

 

"And a trip to the doctor,” said Mei with a smirk cutting Airi off. 

 

“But I saved my money.” Airi reached into her backpack and pulled out the small coin purse and opened it, exposing the roll of bills and piles of change that were inside. “You and Mama said that I could use this for the festival and I wanna buy that stuff for us." 

 

“We never said you couldn't,” explained Mei, closing the coin purse and placing it back into Airi's bag. “But you need to think before you spend. We have two days to attend the festival, so there’s no sense in you spending all your money at once..”

 

“I’d listen to her if I were you, little miss,” said the hostess with a smile as she called for a bored-looking teenage boy to come and watch the front desk. “The festival here lasts for three days, and you’ll be here for two of them to remember that not only is there a lot of delicious meals, but there's also plenty of games and delicious sweets to enjoy as well. I’m particularly fond of the cotton candy, strawberry taiyaki, and ikayaki myself.”

 

“Strawberry taiyaki?” Airi’s eyes grew almost as wide as her purse and Mei was certain she could see a small amount of drool spill from the corner of her mouth. “Mommy, I want taiyaki instead of apples. I bet it’ll make Hideki and Hina jealous.”

 

“I’m sure it will.” Mei shook her head at the mischievous look in Airi’s eyes but refrained from saying anything as the woman stopped and gestured to a sliding panel door. 

 

“Here we are," announced the owner as she removed the small lock the used to keep the doors closed and stepped back. "Please make yourselves at home.” 

 

“Can I open it,” asked Airi stepping up to the door, bouncing on the balls of her feet. 

 

“Sure, Kiddo.” Yuzu stepped out of the way and smiled at a memory of Hideki opening the door to their hotel room on their trip to Okinawa. “It’s all yours.”

 

Airi nodded and let go of her bag and handed her owl to her mother before walking up to the door and with a grunt slid it open and let out a small squeal when she saw the main living area. 

 

“Wow,” she whispered grabbing her bag and taking her shoes off before running to the balcony where there was a lovely view of a waterfall and a small garden. “Can we go swimming in the pond?”

 

“Unfortunately not,” chuckled the owner after explaining to Yuzu what time dinner was along with the bath times. “But I do suggest taking a walk later on in the evening. The stars are stunning, and the koi fish seem particularly active during the night and they look beautiful in the moonlight. So if you want to make those people you mentioned jealous, I recommend getting pictures of the fish too.”

 

“You got it,” said Airi jumping off the railing and into the other room. “Which room’s mine? I wanna get my animals and bed ready.” 

 

“Airi it’s not the time for...” 

 

Mei wandered off to get Airi under control while Yuzu and the woman chuckled to themselves. 

 

“Thank you for everything," said Yuzu with a polite bow. "It's a lovely room, and I hope you don't mind my asking, what time is breakfast? Our daughter wakes up early, so I want to make sure she knows to wake us up when it arrives." 

 

“We start serving breakfast at seven and stop at nine,” explained the owner, pulling a small notebook out from inside her yukata. “But if you need it earlier than seven we can make an accommodation. Would you like me to leave a note for the morning staff?”

 

“Just that it’d be best to stop by with it around eight-thirty,” requested Yuzu while Mei scolded Airi for trying to set up her futon early followed by Airi’s giggles and stamping feet while Mei shouted at her to behave. “She may wake up early, but she needs a while to wake up if that makes sense.”

 

“Completely,” nodded the woman while jotting down Yuzu’s request. “Are there any allergies we should be considerate of?”

 

“No allergies,” said Yuzu before grimacing at the sound of Airi screaming, the crash of some furniture, followed by Mei grumbling and Airi crying. “I’m so sorry; she didn’t break anything did she?” 

 

“I think her pride is the only thing you need to worry about,” said the woman with a smile and pointed down the hallway. “There’s an ice machine down at the end of the hall dear.”

 

“Thank you.” 

 

Yuzu turned around to see Mei approaching with an ice bucket and towel in one hand, and a crying Airi in the other, pained to see her daughter hurting but grateful that her injuries were only superficial and that there was no property damage. 

 

“Yuzu,” said Mei coldly as she led Air out the door, “we’ll be back shortly.” 

 

“Sure.” Yuzu did her best to smile but instead gulped when she saw a familiar ice-cold glare on her wife’s face and said nothing until she was out of earshot. 

 

“Um, so, where were we,” asked Yuzu with a nervous laugh. 

 

“Food allergies,” repeated the woman with a calm voice, seemingly undisturbed by the chaos that had just happened in front of her. “You said there weren’t any to worry about?”

 

“Yeah no, allergies,” confirmed Yuzu with a nod. “But if there’s anything like natto on the menu it's best to leave it off since it’ll only go to waste.”

 

“Of course.” The woman made one final note, closed her book, and bowed in preparation to leave only to stop and pull something else out of her yukata and handed it to Yuzu.

 

“This came for you earlier today. It’s lucky that I was the one that got it since my son tends to not pay attention to what mail comes in and will occasionally throw things away without looking. That's not completely true as he's normally very good about the guest's mail seeing since we have company retreats here often but normally those are large packages filled with prizes for the games they play, so I think this one slipped under the radar since it wasn’t certified.” 

 

“Thank you very much,” Yuzu felt a lump form in her throat when she saw the name written on the back and set it on the table next to the door before bowing, “and thank you for taking care of us this week. I promise our daughter will be better behaved for the remainder of our visit.”

 

“It’s our pleasure.” The woman gave Yuzu a polite bow, her smile still affixed to her face. “Also, don’t worry about your daughter. As I said, normally our guests consist of rowdy business parties during the year. That's why I love the summer season since our guests are more family friendly. As long as she’s careful not to break anything or disturb the other guests, she’s free to run and have as much fun as she likes. And if you want to wear her out, there’s a game room next to the baths, some shops down the hill, a temple, and a movie theater in town as well. Feel free to call on us if you have any questions.” 

 

“We will.” 

 

With one final smile, Yuzu saw the woman off just as Mei and Airi reappeared with Mei holding a full ice bucket and Airi holding the towel to her forehead, pouting while Mei continued to scowl. 

 

“Everything go okay,” asked Yuzu, receiving only silence from Airi who disappeared into her room and closed the door behind her. “That doesn’t look good.”

 

“She’ll be fine,” sighed Mei, finally allowing her face to relax. “She’s going to have a bruise, but she’ll live.”

 

“Then why isn’t she talking?” Yuzu allowed Mei to enter the room and slid the door behind them before going to the living room and sitting at the coffee table and turning on the television. “Did you yell at her?”

 

“I scolded her,” said Mei as she went to the sink and made her and Yuzu a couple of glasses of ice water before joining her at the table. “I swear we never had this many problems with Hideki.” 

 

“We had almost all of the same problems,” snorted Yuzu into her glass before taking a sip. “He was just as crazy. He ran off without thinking, jumped in puddles, yelled at us a lot more than I’d like to remember. He snuck out and got drunk earlier this year, got into fights at school because kids teased him because of us and his dancing. Not to mention...”

 

“All right, you’ve made your point.” Mei took a long sip of her water and fingered the rim of the glass as she mustered the courage to look Yuzu in the eye. “I’m...I’m sorry for comparing them. It isn’t right and if I made you think that...I prefer Hideki. I hope you know that’s not true.”

 

“I know it’s not.” Yuzu got up, moved to Mei’s side of the table and squeezed in next to her, and kissed her cheek. “I know you love her as much as Hideki. It’s just that we’ve had Hideki longer and sometimes you forget how much of a little terror he could be. Besides, even if Airi broke the table or chair, it’s not like those are hard to replace. My back on the other hand, well that’s a different story.” 

 

“So we’re blaming him for that now,” scoffed Mei with a roll of her eyes. “If I remember right it was you who decided to wrestle with him and Yui which makes you just as culpable.”

 

“I know.” Yuzu chuckled and placed her head on Mei’s shoulder and kissed it before taking her hand. “I wasn’t trying to place all the blame on him. Some of that belongs to Udagawa, Rena, and Papa since they’re the ones who got him interested in it. I’m just glad he didn’t decide to take that up as a career. I don’t think I’d be walking if he did.”

 

“That would have made things a lot more difficult,” agreed Mei as she rested her head on Yuzu's shoulder. “ Though your back problems did come with a rather enjoyable consolation.” 

 

Yuzu was about to ask Mei what that was but had her question answered by the gentle sensation of Mei’s fingers moving up her shirt and begin rubbing her lower back. 

 

“That is a pretty nice bonus,” sighed Yuzu, allowing herself to melt into Mei’s embrace, “though I wish it didn’t hurt so much.” 

 

“I do too.” Mei kissed Yuzu’s head and started to say something until she heard Airi begin to sing. “Airi, come out here!” 

 

There was the sound of feet stomping followed by the sliding door and Airi appeared in front of them, with the towel still pressed to her head and water dripping down her face.

 

“Yes, Mommy?” 

 

“First off,” began Mei whileYuzu and she did their best to hide their amusement, “you can put the towel in the sink.”

 

“Okay.” Airi ran and dropped the towel off in the sink, exposing a small welt and a large mass of wet hair. “What is it?”

 

“Where are your headphones,” asked Mei, inspecting Airi’s hair for the usual signs that she’d had her headphones on. 

 

“In Mama’s bag with my tablet.” Airi ran over to Yuzu’s suitcase and began trying to unzip it only to have Yuzu call her back while Airi started fumbling with the lock Yuzu had put on.

 

“Airi, stay out of my bag,” ordered Yuzu waving her over. “She’s telling the truth, Mei. Her stuff has been in my bag since yesterday. I even locked it with one of those zipper locks to make sure she didn’t get into it.”

 

“Good.” Mei nodded and pointed back at Airi’s room. “Airi, I’m sorry for making you come out here. You can go back to whatever it was you were doing.”

 

“Am I in trouble?” Airi remained next to Yuzu’s suitcase looking worried. 

 

“No you’re not in trouble,” said Mei waving Airi to her which the girl, though it was clear to see the trepidation in her face as she took Mei’s hand. 

 

“Then why’d you yell at me?” 

 

“Did I yell,” asked Mei with a confused look at Yuzu. “I don’t think I did.”

 

“Mommy wasn’t yelling,” said Yuzu consoling, hugging Airi’s side. “She just got a little loud because she didn’t know if you had your headphones and sometimes when you listen to your music you can't hear us, so she only raised her voice to get your attention.”

 

“Oh, okay.” Airi nodded and chewed on her lower lip for a moment before continuing. “Can I go play now or are we going to go out and do stuff? 

 

“Let’s go out,” suggested Yuzu, cutting off Mei who was about to suggest that they stay in for a little while. “We haven’t had lunch, and I’m getting hungry. Not to mention that since I forgot to pack my yukata, I thought it’d be kind of fun to go window shopping for one.” 

 

“What do you mean you didn’t pack your yukata?” Mei’s eyes shifted to Yuzu; her nostrils were flaring at the news that her wife had forgotten to pack such an important item. “Are you telling me that after annoying me with reminders to pack mine so we could take Airi shopping for one that you didn’t even remember to pack yours?” 

 

“I was busy packing the car and preparing the food,” said Yuzu with a nervous laugh. “You of all people should know hard it is to plan a big surprise, sometimes people forget stuff.”

 

“I am aware of how difficult it is,” scoffed Mei still upset by her wife’s carelessness. “But I still managed to get Hideki a suit and my wedding dress, on top of planning our wedding and organizing our trip. I don’t see how you could have forgotten to pack a yukata considering you planned this trip around the festival.” 

 

“We get it,” grumbled Yuzu sitting back and allowing Airi to sit in her lap, “you’re perfect.”

 

“That’s not what I meant and you know it.” Mei sighed and rubbed her temple, prepared to continue her chastisement until she noticed the envelope on the table with her and Yuzu’s names written on it. “Yuzu, what’s this?” 

 

“It’s a letter,” contributed Airi before Yuzu could say anything.

 

“Thank you, Airi.” Mei shook her head and picked up the envelope and began inspecting it. “Who is it from, there’s no return address, and it looks like you haven’t opened it yet.”

 

“Mei,” said Yuzu quietly pointing at the envelope and gesturing for Mei to turn it over, “check the back a little more closely.” 

 

Unsure of how to take her wife’s direction, Mei gave her an uncertain look, but did as she was instructed and looked closely at the characters written on the back of the flap; her eyes widening when she saw who had sent it and snorted. 

 

“A phone call or an email would have been sufficient.” Mei shook her head and set the envelope down and proceeded to run her hands through Airi’s hair before caressing her cheek and tickling it, her heart warming when she heard Airi giggle.

 

“Mommy, stop.” Airi pulled back, thinking that she had an escape route and instead tried to bury herself in Yuzu’s hoodie. “Mama, make Mommy stop.” 

 

“Okay then I’ll do it,” cackled Yuzu raising her hands menacingly and moving them slowly toward Airi’s cheeks. 

 

“NO!” 

 

Airi began backing away, but she was too slow and before she could back away, Yuzu’s arms shot forward and her hands latched onto her daughter’s sides and began squeezing her sides and running her fingers up and down them, tickling her daughter.

 

“Mama,” coughed Airi between the tickles and cackles from Yuzu, “st...stop...”

 

“Okay,” stopped and brushed her hair out of her eyes and smiled. “Okay, I’m done.”

 

Yuzu lifted Airi off the floor and held her close, hiding her face in her daughter’s hair.

 

“Did I hurt you?”

 

“No I’m fine,” Airi returned the hug and kissed Yuzu’s forehead and tried to back away, but this only urged Yuzu to hold onto her tighter and let out a loud sniff. “Mama, are you crying?” 

 

“I’m fine.” 

 

Yuzu lifted her head, and Mei saw the familiar sight of blood red eyes and tear-stained cheeks before her face disappeared behind Airi’s so they could press their foreheads together. 

 

“Are you sad, Mama?” Airi’s voice was nervous and Mei watched as one foot took an instinctive step back, but Airi remained rooted to the spot. “How come you’re crying?”

 

“Mama’s fine,” sniffed Yuzu, stroking Airi’s hair and giving a nervous laugh. “I just have a lot of stuff going on in my head, but I’ll be better soon.” 

 

“Okay.” Airi lifted her hands to Yuzu’s cheeks and clumsily tried to wipe away the tears with her thumbs as her moms did. “Does your heart hurt?”

 

“A little.” Yuzu pressed her hands to Airi’s and turned her head, kissing both of her daughter’s palms and sighed. “But I promise that if it gets bad, I’ll tell you or Mommy. If I did that, do you think you can help me feel better?”

 

“Uh huh.” Airi nodded and pressed her forehead to Yuzu’s making her mother both cry and laugh. “Do you need me to help now?”

 

“You already are.”

 

 Yuzu proceeded to hug Airi again, rubbing her cheek on her daughter’s head and Mei heard her whisper, “You’re my little girl right?”

 

“Yeah,” said Airi with a small giggle, but Mei could hear a hint of confusion in her voice. 

 

“Are you Mommy's little girl?” Yuzu raised her eyes and winked at Mei who smiled back and rubbed Airi on the head. 

 

“Yeah,” repeated Airi though her confusion was much more prominent than it had previously been. 

 

“Good.” Yuzu gave Airi one more kiss on the head before standing up and smiling at her wife and daughter. “Okay, I’m going to go and get cleaned up, and if we’re lucky, we can grab some lunch before we go and find a shop. I hope we can find me one.”

 

“Yuzu,” said Mei after sending Airi off to grab her backpack while Yuzu headed toward the sink to wash her face. 

 

“What’s up,” asked Yuzu after turning on the water and splashing some on her face and ignoring the fact that Mei was now carrying the letter. 

 

“We need to open this.” Mei held up the envelope, a look of urgency on her face. 

 

“No, we don’t.” Yuzu lifted her face from the water and reached for the hand towel that was hanging up on the wall.

 

“What makes you say that,” inquired Mei as she started peeling open the envelope. “It could be a change in plans. He never said whatever he mailed would contain good news.”

 

“I’d consider a change in plans good news,” huffed Yuzu as she leaned against the wall, watching as Airi began counting out some money in the hope that she’d be able to talk Yuzu into letting her buy something. 

 

“If you were going to get like this why did you even bother contacting him in the first place?” 

 

Mei continued to open the envelope, waiting for Yuzu to snatch it out of her hands. However, despite her attitude, Yuzu once again surprised Mei by resisting the urge to take the letter, though Mei could tell by the whites in her knuckles that she was hanging on by a thread. 

 

“I contacted him because I thought we’d have more than a week to prepare ourselves. I didn’t expect him to be in Japan when I emailed him. He didn’t tell me so what else was I going to do after telling him everything that had happened?”

 

In spite of her anger, Yuzu managed a smile when she saw Airi look at her and wave. 

 

“I understand what you’re saying and his being here did change our time table,” said Mei opening the letter and giving it a quick read. “Even I was surprised when you told me that he would be in town for the duration of the summer. But after I did some research, it was bound to happen at some point since his company is an international distributor and they have developers here. And if we consider everything that has happened, this might be for the best.”

 

“Why do you have to make everything sound so simple,” grumbled Yuzu turning her attention to her wife while Airi began having make-believe conversations with the stuffed animals. 

 

“It only sounds simple because I don’t overreact at every obstacle that comes our way," grumbled Mei before folding the letter and tapping Yuzu on the forehead with it.

 

“I don’t overreact that much,” countered Yuzu, snatching the envelope and blushing at the cocked eyebrow Mei was giving her. “Well, not as much as I used to, I’d like to think you’d noticed.”

 

“I have.” Mei leaned in and gave Yuzu a peck on the cheek before rubbing her nose against the spot she’d kissed. “But this trip isn’t one of those times for you to overreact. We made this decision in the hopes of helping Airi, and we need to figure out how we’re going to handle this.” 

 

“I know.” 

 

Yuzu kissed Mei’s temple and chuckled as she watched Airi begin bashing her owl against Satsuma and making loud screeching noises before grabbing Kumagorou and acting like the old faded teddy bear was eating Hideki's smaller tiger. 

 

“But she’s been doing a lot better since we decided to email him and I don’t want this to, you know, screw her up again.” 

 

“And what if not meeting him does even more damage?” Mei joined Yuzu in watching Airi play and felt a familiar, dull pain begin to grow in her chest. “What if by not following through with this we run the risk of her turning out to be like me?”

 

“Mei, that’s not going to hap...”

 

“It’s already started Yuzu.” 

 

Mei’s voice spiked a little, causing Airi to stop playing and ask, “Mommy, are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine,” answered Mei with a reassuring smile. “Mama and I are discussing a few things about our trip, and we’ll be ready soon.”

 

“Okay.” Airi set Satsuma down and pointed at her stomach. “Are we going to eat before buying Mama’s yukata? I’m starving.”

 

“We’ll figure it out,” answered Mei, turning her gaze back to her wife, her eyes narrowed. “Won’t we Yuzu?” 

 

Sighing, Yuzu nodded and said, “Yeah, we’ll figure it out. But can we do it after shopping? I know where your mind is at, but I think I need a little longer to figure it out.”

 

“I understand.” Mei nodded and pointed at the letter that was still in Yuzu’s hand. “And just so you’re aware, he said he’s fine with whatever we choose. He said he’s in a nearby hotel and he’s going to be leaving the same day as us and if we want to meet, we can. But before you give me your answer I want you to think about why you’re feeling this way. Can you do that for me?”

 

“Yeah.” Yuzu nodded and managed to smile at Mei. “I’m sorry for acting like this but can I give you my opinion on something before we leave?” 

 

“What is it,” asked Mei after adjusting her watch. “It’s getting late Yuzu, and if we’re going to go shopping, we need to hurry.” 

 

“Then we’ll talk as we walk,” suggested Yuzu while pointing at Airi to grab her stuff. “Two birds with one stone, sound good?” 

 

“I suppose so,” hummed Mei, grabbing her purse and holding her hand out for Yuzu which the blonde took eagerly and after making sure they had everything, lead them out the door. 

 

After telling the owner where they would be going, they made their way down the forested path with Airi leading the way, though not without regularly asking her mothers for directions. 

 

As they entered the town, all three of them were amazed at how many people were out on the street. Many of them were tourists, given how many were holding maps or stopping to ask for directions, but the vast majority were locals who were spending their time setting up their stalls for the festivities and making sure to hand out coupons or certificates in hopes of drumming up business. Occasionally a few asked Mei and Yuzu if they were interested and while they did stop and grab a few for stalls that they thought would make for excellent souvenirs, they did have some difficulty in keeping Airi from grabbing one from just about every person who offered them. 

 

“We’re not going to be able to visit them all,” said Mei when Airi whined that she wanted one that promised she would win a prize. “So there’s no point in taking all of them because they’ll only end up lost or in the trash.”

 

“But, what if I win the prize,” countered Airi, kicking a stray pebble into the street as they began looking for the tailor the inn had owner had suggested to them. “That lady said we could win another trip or a new television.”

 

“The odds of us winning are highly unlikely,” grumbled Mei as she managed to catch Airi just before she walked into a light pole, “and watch where you’re going, Airi. You could have hurt herself.”

 

“I’m sorry,” said Airi, as she pointed across the street. “But I saw a fireworks stand. Can I buy some with the money I brought?”

 

“We’ll think about it,” said Yuzu with a wink, earning her an elbow in the rib. “But before we do that, you think you can help me pick out my new yukata?”

 

“I guess,” said Airi with a shrug as she followed her moms to the shop. “I dunno how to buy yukata though.”

 

“It’s really easy,” said Yuzu as she opened the door to the shop, allowing Airi in before her and Mei. “All I need is for you to tell me which one I look prettiest in and then Mommy and I will do the rest.” 

 

“Fine,” groaned Airi as she sat down in one of the chairs the store offered and began kicking her feet. “But can we hurry up? My tummy is getting loud.” 

 

 

“Here.”

 

While Yuzu walked up to the counter and began asking if there were any yukata in her size available, Mei rummaged through her bag and pulled out a snack bar and handed it to Airi. 

 

“Have this to hold you over, and I promise we’ll get something to eat very soon.” 

 

“Thanks, Mommy.” Airi took the bar, opened it, and took a big bite and swallowed. “Mommy do you know how to tie my sash?”

 

“I do,” answered Mei, taking a seat and watching as the owner showed yuzu a few possible choices, "and so does your brother and Mama.”

 

“Hideki can tie a sash,” asked Airi in amazement. “Where’d he learn how to do that?”

 

Mei smirked and caressed Airi’s hair as she said, “Mama and I taught him since sometimes one of us would be busy with getting ready, and he’d always ask us to show him so he could help, and if you want,  we’ll teach you as well since you have five of your own thanks to Honoka."

 

“Yeah,” answered Airi bouncing excitedly in her chair before swallowing another bite. “That sounds fun. Can I try tying both of them?”

 

“Both of what,” asked Yuzu reappearing with a seafoam green and white yukata draped over one arm. 

 

“Mommy said I could learn to tie yukata sashes,” announced Airi, spraying bits of food as she spoke, pointing at the gown her mother was holding. “Can I try with that one?”

 

“How about we let Mama buy her outfit and then we’ll worry about the lessons,” suggested Mei after handing Airi a tissue from her bag and giving Yuzu a cold stare. “Not to mention that Mama and I have to have an important conversation before we can teach you to tie anything.” 

 

“I know,” groaned Yuzu, rolling her eyes and pointing at the dressing room. “I’m sorry all right. I promise we’ll talk, but can we please figure out my outfit first? I’m going to feel a little silly if I’m the only one of us not wearing one. Besides you know, this helps me clear my head so can you try and have a little fun? I know you hate it, but it’ll help me out.”

 

“All right.” Mei sighed and folded her arms, already looking bored. “I understand, but please don’t take too long. Airi still needs to eat, and we don’t want to waste too much time as I don’t want us to waste any food while we’re at the inn..”

 

“We’ll be fine, Mei.” Yuzu handed a couple of more outfits to the owner and waved Airi to her. “Airi do you want to help me pick it out or do you want them to be a surprise?”

 

“Ummm surprise,” giggled Airi, making the owner smile. “How many are you going to try on Mama? Ten?”

 

“Please no,” pleaded Mei horrified at the thought of having to sit through ten fittings. 

 

“Don’t worry.” Yuzu turned and winked at Mei holding up two yukata to join the outfits the owner had set aside. “I only have four to try on, sit tight and I promise to make this quick.”

 

“Make sure that you do,” said Mei fidgeting in her chair, trying to hide a smile, despite her annoyance. "Or else I'll decide for you."

 

Once the owner disappeared into the dressing room, Yuzu made a quick dash to Mei and kissed her on the cheek before being summoned back by the owner leaving Mei blushing and Airi giggling. 

 

“Mommy you look silly,” laughed Airi reaching up poking Mei’s bright red cheek.

 

“Oh be quiet,” said Mei stiffly before gently slapping her daughter’s hand away only to break into a hidden smirk as she listened to her daughter’s giggles as they waited for Yuzu to reappear.

 

As promised, Yuzu didn’t take long with her fittings as the first two she’d picked out ended up clashing with her skin tone, at least that what Yuzu had said was her reasoning despite Mei and Airi saying they liked both of them. Finally, after an agonizing half-hour wait, Yuzu finally came to a decision and purchased a dark blue Yukata with white flowers, bright green leaves, and a pink sash to accompany it. 

 

“Are you happy,” asked Mei as they left the store, immediately wishing she was back in her chair with the cool breeze of the shop’s fan blowing on her. 

 

“Very,” said Yuzu wrapping her arm around Mei’s, a huge smile on her face. “Thanks for being patient. I’ll make it up to you later, I promise.” 

 

“As long as it helped you feel better and sort things out.” Mei let out a heavy sigh of relief as a cool breeze blew down the street. “Are you feeling better, Yuzu?”

 

“A little.” Yuzu shrugged and gripped Mei’s arm tightly as she watched Airi try and hop down the street on one foot and barely managing to avoid running into multiple people as she did it. “I’m sorry if that’s a problem, but this is tough, Mei. I mean it’s not like he’s a total stranger. The few times he’s been in town the three of us have managed to have lunch or dinner, and we’ve gotten along, and you do answer his calls for me when I’m asleep or busy. On top of that he has followed through with  making sure that she’s provided for; a lot more than we thought he would.”

 

“He has,” said Mei in agreement while Airi began chasing after a squirrel now that the sidewalk had opened up a little. “Granted we’ve put most of that into a college fund that she probably won’t need, and I’ll admit that I was hesitant  about letting you tell him so much about her, but he’s been reasonable, and I’ll admit I do enjoy his company.”

 

“He is pretty fun,” chuckled Yuzu as she remembered how excited he’d gotten at seeing the pictures of Airi’s first violin recital, “and I want them to meet if that’s what she wants. But I'm still feeling weird about it.” 

 

Yuzu pointed to Airi who had shifted from squirrel chasing to spinning in front of a shop window and trying to catch her hair floating in the air only stopping when a man and a woman chuckled, causing Airi to run back to her mothers and latch onto Yuzu’s leg and interrupting their conversation. 

 

“What’s the matter, Sweetheart? Did those people make you feel embarrassed?”

 

“Yeah,” said Airi taking Yuzu’s freehand and gripping it tightly as the couple walked past and smiled at the sight of Airi clinging to her mother.

 

“It’s okay to accept compliments, Airi.” Mei peeked around from Yuzu’s shoulder as they turned the corner, leading to the soba restaurant Mei had suggested after researching it on her phone. “Mama and I won’t let anything bad happen to you, we promise.”

 

“I know.” Airi’s voice was low but was at least loud enough for her mothers to hear it. “I just don’t like strangers; they’re scary.”

 

“That’s true,” said Yuzu with a strained voice, her heart pounding as she tried to figure out a way to bring up the conversation she and Mei were having. “But just about everyone you meet was a stranger to someone at some point. Also, if you think about it, in some ways you and I were strangers Airi at one point, and you came out of my tummy.”

 

“I guess,” replied Airi giving her mothers a confused look. “But you’re my mama, so that’s different. Other strangers are mean and scary.”

 

“I know what you mean.” Yuzu stopped and after handing her bag over to Mei, bent down and pulled Airi into her arms and began carrying her the rest of the way toward the restaurant. “I’ve met lots of strangers who have been mean and scary. Sometimes at the restaurant, people get mean and yell at me because there was a mistake on their order. But some people are nice and forgive you because they know mistakes happen. Though to be honest there's a lot of people who'll be mean to you just because they don't like the clothes you're wearing."

 

Mei let out a loud cough which made Yuzu laugh and made Airi even more confused as Yuzu continued. 

 

“A lot of those people are strangers to me and like I said,  some are nice, and some are mean. Just like the people we know are nice but can turn mean and the same is true for the reverse of that.” 

 

“Reverse of what,” asked Airi as she began patting Yuzu’s hair. 

 

“What your Mama is trying to say is that there are many different sides to people,” explained Mei calmly as Yuzu stumbled to find her words. “Some people you might think are mean are quite nice but they don’t always know how to express it, and people who are nice to you at one point can turn out to be rude or cruel. Does that make sense?”

 

“Like the kids who said they wanted to be my friend and then picked on me and how you and Mama get mad at Hideki and me when we mess up?”

 

“That’s an excellent comparison,” said Mei with a soft smile. 

 

“She’s a smartypants,” chuckled Yuzu and with a grunt set her back down on the ground before dropping down to her level so she could look her daughter in the eye, "and you’re a good girl Airi who deserves lots of friends and happiness. I know it’s tough and Mommy and I understand because we went through it too.” 

 

“I know.” Airi nodded and screwed up her face as she tried to remember what she’d been told about her moms meeting. “Mommy didn’t like you because you didn’t follow the rules and were loud and you thought Mommy was stuck up and a brat. And Auntie Matsuri was mean to Mommy because she was jealous and Auntie Hime...”

 

“We get it.” Yuzu let out a nervous chuckle, thankful that there were only a few people on this particular street and glad that Airi hadn’t been too loud for all of them to here. “Those were all excellent points, and we’re glad you remember them just make sure you don’t say those things out loud in public.” 

 

“Got it.” Airi raised a finger to her mouth and pressed it against her lips. “That’s cuz they’re secrets.”

 

“Sort of,” agreed Yuzu mimicking her daughter. “It’s not that they’re bad things to say, but you need to ask permission before you say them.”

 

“Oh.” Airi lowered her finger and nodded and began tapping her toe against the ground. "Is that because it's rude to tell other people's secrets?"

 

“Exactly." Yuzu reached up and ruffled Airi’s hair making her pull away but also giggle. "You're so smart."

 

Seeing the smile on her daughter’s face, Yuzu felt her heart begin to pound again, and a lump build in her throat when she saw her daughter's smile and knew she couldn't put it off any longer.

 

Swallowing the lump, Yuzu took a deep breath and asked, “Airi….do you...want to meet a friend of mine tomorrow? I mean they’re a friend of Mommy’s too, but more my friend since I talk to them more than she does. But we’ve known them for a long time, and I mean, I guess Mommy and I want to know if you’d be okay meeting them.”

 

“Are they a nice friend?” Airi’s eyes darted between her mothers, and they could see that she knew they were both nervous. “Are they going to be mean like the boys that picked on Hideki and me?” 

 

“No,” said Mei and Yuzu in unison. 

 

“He isn’t anything like those boys,” said Mei without even thinking about how it’d affect Airi. “Even though we aren’t close I can safely say that he won’t do anything to you like the kids at your school or those fools that decided to pick on you and your brother.”

 

“Good.” 

 

Mei and Yuzu both nodded and thought that was the end of it, but they were wrong and they both burst into laughter when she asked, “Umm, since you and Mommy have known him for a long time, is it, someone, Mama met when she worked for the hotel ?”

 

“Stop laughing,” snorted Airi as Yuzu holding the stitch in her side while Mei hid her laughter behind her hand. “It’s not funny.”

 

“It is to Mommy and me,” explained Yuzu after catching her breath. “Believe me Airi we’re not laughing at you. We’re laughing because you managed to figure out where we met him without us telling you.”

 

“I don’t get it?” 

 

“What Mama is saying,” explained Mei after seeing the frustrated look on her daughter’s face. “Is that we did meet him when Mama worked for the hotel company and you did a good job figuring it out.”

 

“Oh!” Airi’s face shifted from frustrated to happy at hearing that she’d done a good job. “Okay. Umm since tomorrow’s the festival does that mean we get to wear our yukata when we meet him? Is he going to wear one?”

 

“I don’t think so,” said Yuzu with a shrug. “But I’ll ask him. And since we’re wearing our Yukata that means a bath tonight and a bath tomorrow morning before we head out and no complaining. Promise?”

 

“I promise,” said Airi loudly with a huge smile. “I can’t wait to wear mine. Are you going to do my hair?”

 

“I can,” said Yuzu, twirling some strands of Airi’s hair. “But that means, depending on what you want I’m going to have comb it out again, and I’ll need you to behave. The walls at the inn are thin, so that means no screaming and no yelling because I don’t want people thinking something bad is happening.” 

 

“I can do that,” announced Airi before running to Mei and taking her hand. “Mommy, are you going to help?”

 

“I think that’s best left to Mama,” replied Mei, unable to take her eyes of Yuzu. “But I will help if she allows me to.”

 

“I want you to,” said Yuzu with a smile. “But right now, let’s get something to eat. I’m starving, and I heard this place is great.” 

 

Yuzu’s choice for lunch ended up being a bamboo soba restaurant which was an instant hit with Airi as it allowed her the opportunity to play with her food. Though due to her inexperience with the concept and Mei's lack of ability, Yuzu hardly managed to eat anything as she spent much of her time helping them catch their food. Still, it was an enjoyable time and by the time they had left Airi was so full that she'd fallen asleep and had to take a cab back to the hotel.

 

When they entered the hotel, the owner offered to bring their dinner to their room, but they politely refused, saying that the show was one of the reasons they’d chosen that particular hotel which made caused the owner to beam at them before regaining her composure and wishing them a pleasant afternoon. 

 

“Here you go, Kiddo,” whispered Yuzu as she laid Airi out on the futon Mei had laid out. 

 

“I wanna stay up,” grunted Airi as she tiredly kicked her feet at being woken up. “I’m not tired.”

 

“Yes you are,” chuckled Yuzu kissing her daughter’s forehead. "Remember you fell asleep after eating, so it's time for a nap."

 

“No, I’m not,” protested Airi, even though she was in the process of clutching her owl and using Yuzu’s lion Satsuma as a makeshift pillow. “And no I didn't. I don’t need naps; I’m a big girl.” 

 

“We know you are,” said Mei kissing Airi close to where Yuzu had while pulling a thin blanket over her daughter’s small body. “But you need to rest. Dinner is late here, and if you’re going to watch the show you need all your energy, and after you wake up, we’ll have a nice long bath together.”

 

“Promise?” Airi rolled over and yawned, her eyes half-opened in a vain attempt to stay awake. 

 

“We promise,” said Yuzu as she massaged her daughter’s back. “Now go to sleep and remember, if you need us we'll be in the room. I love you." 

 

"I love you t...too." 

 

Airi let out a loud yawn and shortly after, they could hear her gentle snores and left the room, shutting the door quietly behind them. 

 

When it was secured Mei headed into hers and Yuzu’s room and began sorting everything while Yuzu grabbed them some drinks from the vending machine and upon returning handed a bottled tea to Mei before opening her juice. 

 

They sat together in silence, Mei focusing on their luggage while Yuzu sent the email confirming the meetup. Once it was sent, Yuzu set her phone off to the side, and closed their bedroom door before cuddling up next to Mei and couldn't resist kissing the back of her neck.

 

“Email’s sent,” said Yuzu, not realizing how close her mouth was to her wife’s ear. 

 

“All right.” There was a familiar shudder to Mei’s voice, causing her to separate from Yuzu and begin pushing their luggage off to the side. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay with them meeting? It’s not too late to back out.” 

 

“Kind of,” replied Yuzu, smiling at the familiar redness of Mei’s ears but resisted the urge to tease her. "I'm still nervous, though and it's messing with my head."

 

“Can you elaborate,” asked Mei after zipping her suitcase shut before sitting down next to Yuzu. “What exactly is it that you’re nervous about?”

 

“Everything,” said Yuzu with a loud sigh before falling onto her back, staring at the overhead fan. “I’m nervous about her freaking out. I’m nervous about me freaking out. I'm nervous that she's going to run off or scream or cry. That we're making a huge mistake and this is just going to blow up in our faces."

 

“I can understand that,” sighed Mei, deciding to join Yuzu on the floor and curling up next to her. “I’m nervous about how this will turn out as well. She hasn’t seen him in almost four years, and the most she knows of him is the few things we’ve told her about the letters and the few pictures we have of them.”

 

“I don’t think this is going to go smoothly.” Yuzu chuckled and wrapped her arm around Mei’s shoulder and kissed her forehead. “But you were right earlier. It was probably going to happen at some point, but I wish it happened when she was older or that it was under better circumstances, ya know?” 

 

“I do.” Mei moved closer to Yuzu and gently kissed her wife’s neck as she caressed her cheek. “I have the same worries as you about how people will react to her. I know we decided on using him together, but there are days I worry that by doing so we’ve made her life more difficult by choosing someone who wasn’t Japanese.” 

 

“Mei...”

 

Yuzu looked down and felt the lump return to her throat when she saw the tears in the corners of Mei’s eyes. 

 

“Am I a bad mother for thinking that,” asked Mei as she clutched gripped the sleeves of Yuzu’s shirt. “Does it make me a bad mother for sometimes wishing that we hadn’t made that decision so she could have an easier life?”

 

“You aren’t,” whispered Yuzu, before rolling onto her side and holding Mei close to her chest and begin kissing the top of her head. “You’re a great mother, Mei. I always knew you would be from the moment you told me you were going to have Hideki and it’s natural that you’d want her to have a life free of pain and suffering.

 

"Then why do I feel so terrible," asked Mei curling into Yuzu's embrace. "I know it shouldn't matter and it doesn't matter to me. But why can't I stop myself from feeling like this?"

 

"Because you're her mother," said Yuzu, swallowing a lump and squeezing her wife, "and wanting her to have an easier life isn't a crime and it doesn't make you a bad mother."

 

"Then what does it make me?"

 

Yuzu looked down and felt her chest ache at seeing the pain in her wife's eyes and kicking herself mentally for not paying attention to how this had been affecting Mei.

 

Leaning down, Yuzu placed her lips to her wife's forehead and kissed her gently and said, "It makes you human, and humans aren’t perfect. I know how much you love Airi and I know you wouldn’t do anything like what those kids do to her or anyone like her. You’re much too kind to do that, even if you don't think you are.”

 

“But Airi...” 

 

“Airi’s our girl.” Yuzu shifted her body down, so she was face to face with her wife, and once she was, she couldn’t resist wiping away the tears and kissing the spots where they’d fallen. “You reminded me of that this morning when you said we have to do what we can to help her. That’s why when I saw her smiling after we told her about people teasing her I knew she had to meet him, even if we run the risk of her wanting to go back to America with him.” 

 

“Is that why you wanted to cancel the meeting,” sniffed Mei, forgetting her worries for a moment in hopes of helping Yuzu through her frustrations. “Because you thought she would want to leave?”

 

“Yeah.” Yuzu ran her hands through Mei’s hair and let out a loud sigh as she stared at the door and what lay on the other side. “I know she’ll leave home some day and that if she wants to see him when she's old enough, we won't be able to stop her. But I'm still scared that she'll want to leave us for him. Kinda stupid, huh?"

 

“No,” answered Mei, shaking her head and turning Yuzu’s gaze back to her. “No, it’s not. I know it’s not because you helped me through similar feelings the first time we sent Hideki away with Udagawa and Rena, remember?”

 

“Oh yeah,” chuckled Yuzu as she began remembering their first time making love. “That was a very...intense evening. Especially once you started enjoying yourself.” 

 

“Not even close to what I was getting at.” Mei’s nostrils flared, but Yuzu could see the smile hidden behind her false frustration. 

 

“I know,” Yuzu smirked and tapped Mei on the nose. “It was a rough week, and even after we had some fun, you couldn’t stop talking about him in your sleep. I remember waking up to you sitting up in bed trying to talk to him while he screamed and laughed on the other end.”

 

“I do too,” chuckled Mei as she wiped away a partially dried tear. “But I like to think that by allowing him to stay with his father it, made it easier for me to accept the fact that one day he’d end up leaving home, even though I’m worried sick with him being so far away at the moment.” 

 

“That goes for me too,” agreed Yuzu before pressing her forehead against Mei’s. “Thanks for making it easier, Mei. I’m sorry for being selfish and making you and Airi worry.”

 

“I’m used to it,” said Mei as she closed her eyes. “But I understand. The past few weeks haven’t been easy, and I’m sorry for overreacting earlier. I shouldn’t have shouted at you like that this morning. You were upset, and I should have paid more attention to what you were going through. Can you forgive me?”

 

“Only if you forgive me for the same thing,” said Yuzu as she rubbed her nose against Mei’s. “And for the record, there’s nothing wrong with being like you, Mei. How many times do I have to tell you that?”

 

“Every time I say it.” Mei felt her lips brush against Yuzu’s as she spoke, hoping that Yuzu would interrupt her with a kiss, but it never came. 

 

Instead, she opened her eyes and wasn't surprised to see that Yuzu had fallen asleep, gently snoring while her necklace glimmered in the afternoon sun.

 

Deciding that there was no point in fighting it, finished her water and grabbed a couple of pillows in preparations to nap next to Yuzu. Just as she finished putting Yuzu's head on top of her pillow, there was a quiet knock at the door and knowing what was on the other side, Mei opened it to reveal a half-sleeping Airi standing there, clutching her owl and rubbing her eye. 

 

"Do you want to take a nap with me and Mama," asked Mei with a kind smile, earning her a sleepy nod.

 

"Okay." Mei stepped aside and pointed to Yuzu. "Go curl up next to her, I'll be there in a minute."

 

Airi nodded and let out a loud yawn as she stumbled toward Yuzu only to wake her when she unceremoniously dropped down next to her and accidentally headbutted her chin. 

 

There was a gasp of surprise from Yuzu and she opened her eyes, blinking back her sleep as she tried to figure out why her jaw was suddenly hurting. When her eyes came to rest on Mei, the taller woman pointed down which Yuzu did and Mei watched as her tired frustrations, melted into a smile as she held her daughter against her chest. 

 

Once she was sure it was safe, Mei set her phone's alarm and proceeded to join her wife and daughter in their nap; a peaceful smile spreading across her face as she drifted off to sleep. 

 

Chapter Text

 


Chapter 11

"Mama, how much longer?! We gotta get to the festival before everyone eats all the food."

"Only a couple more minutes," chuckled Yuzu dryly as she tried to comb out one particularly tricky section of Airi's hair. "So, don't worry Sweetie, we'll get going once your hair is done and I get dressed. Besides, you don't have to worry about the food because most of the stands will have lots made so you should be able to get almost everything you want. But remember not to have too many sweets. Mommy will kill me and we don't want you having bad dreams."

"I won't get bad dreams," laughed Airi as she raised her arms and flapped the sleeves of her yukata. "I'm gonna have fun tonight, so if I have dreams, they're gonna be fun ones."

"Are you sure?" Yuzu let out a sigh of triumph at finally loosening a knot and began tying the rest of Airi's hair into a braid before moving into combining them into a ponytail. "Because if I remember right, you had three desserts at dinner last night and ice cream while playing table tennis with Mommy and you woke us up at four this morning saying you had a bad dream about a doggy chasing you. Unless I'm lying, am I lying Mei?"

Yuzu looked over her shoulder at the coffee table where Mei was sitting, her hair already set in a simple braid that wrapped around her head that was accented with a hairpiece made up of purple and yellow gladiolas. Her yukata was made of a mint gentle mint green fabric and had flowers of pink, white, and light blues running from the bottom and end just below her bust line. A similar pattern flowed along the lower portion of her right sleeve, extending from the left part of her neck and down the adjoining sleeve. Yuzu found herself smiling as she watched her wife sigh and shake her head as she set down the pen she was using to make some notes in her appointment book before joining the conversation.

"No, Yuzu, you aren't lying," answered Mei before taking a sip of water and yawning. "Although it's your fault she woke us up so early since you were the one who decided to give her the ice cream."

"It's not my fault that you didn't tell me that you'd allowed some of the other guests to give her their desserts." Yuzu let out a snort as she made sure Airi's hair was secure before fixing a hairpiece made up of a red flower Yuzu couldn't identify along with a lovely orange flower she'd found in the garden. "Plus you could have stopped me at any time from giving her that ice cream, but you didn't. Not to mention you shared the desserts with her without even telling me so this time it's your fault, so you're the one who needs to be punished. Right, Airi?"

"Nope," laughed Airi as she adjusted her sash for what had to be the twentieth time unaware of what her mother had meant when she said Mei needed to be punished. "Mommy was fun last night, so she's not in trouble."

Grunting, Yuzu gave Airi's hair a playful tug and whispered, "Traitor," before looking over her shoulder.

When she turned, Yuzu could see the embarrassed blush on Mei's face and knew she'd gotten under her wife's skin. Chuckling to herself in victory, Yuzu was in the middle of making her final touches to Airi's hair when she felt something collide with the back of her head. Jumping a little, she turned to see what caused it. At first, she saw nothing except Mei writing in her appointment book, her chin resting in one hand, while she read from a notepad she'd been using to take notes during an earlier phone meeting. Figuring it was her imagination, Yuzu was ready to turn her focus back to Airi when she saw a somewhat mischievous smirk on Mei's face as the younger woman pointed at the ground. Looking down, Yuzu saw a small ball of paper resting next to her feet that hadn't been there previously, and when she looked back up, she saw Mei smirking at her.

"Yes, Yuzu," asked Mei with feigned innocence, looking less flustered than she had a few moments prior. "Is there something I can help you with?"

"Maybe later." Yuzu winked and blew a kiss to her wife before returning to their daughter. "But right now I gotta make sure our little girl is the prettiest one at the festival."

Reaching for the mirror she'd used to show Mei how her hair and flowers looked, Yuzu and handed it to Airi, asking, "What do you think? Did Mama do a good job?"

Holding up the mirror, Airi began moving the mirror all around, a smile growing with each passing second and Yuzu couldn't resist wrapping her arms around her waist and smile as she heard Airi say, "Mommy, look! Mama made me pretty!"

"You've always been pretty," sniffed Yuzu kissing her daughter's head and wiping a stray tear away as she poked the freckles on Airi's cheeks and began to pinch them. "Especially with these freckles! I know I say this all the time, but I wanna eat you up because you're so cute."

"Stop," groaned Airi as Yuzu began pulling on her cheeks and kissing the top of her head. "Mama, f'hat 'urtz."

"Okay, okay." Yuzu let go of Airi's cheeks and hugged her tight. "You're our beautiful girl, okay? Don't ever forget that."

"Yes, Mama."

Airi smiled as that the look she saw Yuzu giving her and set down the mirror and turned so she could hug her mother tightly.

"You ready to have some fun," asked Yuzu after returning the hug and kissing her daughter's forehead.

"Uh-huh!" Airi let go of Yuzu and stepped back her smile lighting up the room. "Honoka-chan said she and Auntie Shiraho were gonna meet us at the temple, and she said she wanted to play games and try some food with me. Do you and Mommy want to play games and have food too?"

"If we didn't, there would be much point in going," explained Mei finally closing her book and holding out her hand for Airi. "But we won't get to do any of that if you don't let Mama finish getting ready. We still have to start teaching you how to tie our sashes and walk down to the festival, so come sit with me and allow Mama to get dressed."

"Okay," groaned Airi giving Yuzu one last hug and running over to Mei who began inspecting their daughter's hair and outfit with a gentle smile on her face.

It didn't take long for Yuzu to get ready, despite the yukata not being cut to her exact measurements, but she didn't mind that it was a bit loose in the hips and waist since it allowed for a little more freedom of movement, though she did make sure to wear a tank-top underneath.

Once she finished dressing, she fixed her hair into a similar style to Mei's and applied a hairpiece consisting of a purple lily and a light pink rose before spending half an hour teaching Airi how to tie the sashes. While she seemed to understand the basics, Airi still lacked the hand-eye coordination to do it properly, but with Yuzu and Mei's help, she managed. While the knots weren't nearly as pleasing to look at as the one Mei had tied for Airi, they were functional and the look of pride on Airi's face was all that mattered to them.

With the matter of the knots settled, they were finally on their way, though still running late as Airi had complained about wanting to wear the sandals she'd seen other people wear and seemed to purposely be dragging her feet as they followed the small crowd toward the festival grounds.

"Airi, we already told you that you can't wear those right now," sighed Mei once they were halfway to the temple as Airi was still refusing to let the matter die.

"But you said I could wear the sandals," huffed Airi as she ran her hand along one of the stone walls. "You promised when we got to the inn I could wear them with my yukata."

"We meant with the yukata they gave you at the hotel," explained Yuzu, deciding to step in before Mei lost her cool. "It's too far to walk in those and even Mommy and I aren't wearing our sandals since we're going to be on our feet longer and we're going to be walking uphill a lot more than we do at home. But I promise when we're in the hotel, you can wear your sandals as much as you want."

"Pinkie swear," asked Airi extending her small hand and protruding little finger.

Yuzu nodded and locked fingers with Airi and snickered when she saw their daughter do the same to Mei.

"Mommy, you have to pinkie swear too."

"Why?" Mei gave Airi a perplexed look and stared at the finger. "Mama was the one who made the promise, so why is it necessary for me to pinkie swear?"

Airi took a moment to stare at her finger and then at Mei, shrugged, and said, "In case Mama breaks her promise."

"Hey, that's pretty rude," huffed Yuzu sticking her tongue out at Airi. "Why am I the one who's gotta break the promise?"

"Yuzu, are you sure this is something you want to get worked up over," asked Mei with a shake of her head. "Because in all honesty, it isn't."

"I know it isn't," grumbled Yuzu while Airi stood quietly, her finger still extended while people walked around them. "It just hurt hearing her say that I'd break my promise."

"I see." Mei nodded and returned to looking at Airi, who was still holding up her finger expectantly. "I'm sorry Airi, but I can't make that pinkie promise with you."

"How come?" Airi's face fell and her hand dropped to her side in disappointment.

"Because," began Mei as she bent her knees so she could look her daughter in the eyes as she spoke, "you need to learn to trust people when they tell you that they'll keep a promise. Your Mama made you a promise and by you trying to get me to keep the promise for her, you are hurting her feelings and saying you don't trust her. Is that what you want? To hurt Mama and make her believe you don't trust her?"

"No." Airi shook her head so violently that Yuzu was afraid her hairpiece would fall out. "I don't wanna hurt Mama's feelings."

"Then have faith in her and believe her when she says she'll keep her promise." Mei held up her pinkie and gave Airi a gentle smile. "If you're willing to do that then I'll be more than happy to make that kind of pinkie promise with you."

Airi looked to Yuzu who still looked frustrated and hurt at her daughter's request. Feeling a pain in her heart, Airi nodded and without any hesitation wrapped her finger around Mei's and squeezed it.

"I promise, Mommy," said Airi with a conviction that shocked her mothers. "I promise I'm gonna trust Mama."

"Wise decision." Mei squeezed Airi's pinkie and smiled at her before letting go and tilting her head in Yuzu's direction. "Now that we've settled that do you have something you want to say to Mama?"

"I'm sorry, Mama." Airi ran forward and wrapped her arms around Yuzu's legs and squeezed. "I promise I'm gonna believe you. I'm sorry I hurt your feelings. Do you forgive me?"

"I don't know," said Yuzu, her gaze still averted while Airi stared up at her pleadingly and carefully tugged on her yukata. "You really hurt my feelings. It might take a lot for me to get over it."

"Want me to buy you a present like Mommy does when she makes you mad?" Airi proceeded to let go of Yuzu's leg and started walking toward Mei. "Mommy, can I…."

"Airi, stop." Yuzu took Airi's hand and pulled her back. "You don't need to buy me a gift."

"But it'll make you feel better," grunted Airi as she tried to fight against Yuzu, but ultimately failing and allowed Yuzu to pick her up.

"Are you sure," asked Yuzu when Airi was settled into her arms. "Because I don't think it will."

"But Mommy..."

"Mommy and I only do that after we apologize," explained Yuzu while Mei responded to a text message on her phone. "Most of the time, but if we do give a gift when we apologize it's something small and isn't used as the apology it's used as part of it."

"I don't get it," sighed Airi, resting her head on Yuzu's shoulder as they began walking toward the shrine.

"What Mama means," explained Mei moving a little closer, "is that you should try showing and explaining how sorry you are rather than buying forgiveness. Like how you understood that you hurt Mama's feelings and hugged her and said that you didn't mean to hurt her. For most people that is more important than any gift you could ever buy, do you understand?"

"Kinda." Airi shrugged and squeezed Yuzu's neck, still confused. "Does that mean Mama isn't mad at me anymore?"

"That depends," said Yuzu before setting Airi down and taking her hand as they approached the shrine. "Did you mean it when you said you were sorry?"

"Uh huh," squeaked Airi, squeezing Yuzu's hand so tightly that the blonde thought her fingers were going to break. "I meant it, I promise."

"Then I'm not mad." Yuzu smiled and bent down and kissed her daughter on the cheek just as they reached the top of the stairs. "And I forgive you, Airi."

Airi let out a small cheer and raised her arms in triumph before reaching into her yukata and pulled out a little money bag with the face of a famous child's anime character and said, "Can we go pray? I got a couple wishes I wanna make."

"That didn't last long," chuckled Yuzu, taking Mei's hand, "and yes we can go pray Airi. Is there anything special you're going to ask for?"

"That's a rather personal question to ask, Yuzupon," came a familiar voice from behind them, causing Yuzu to jump and Airi to squeal in excitement and run behind her mothers before pulling Honoka into a bone-crushing hug, while the older girl struggled with figuring out whether or not she should smile. "You know that wishes are a very private matter and that they are to be kept between Airi and the gods."

"Thanks for the refresher." Yuzu let go of Mei's hand and gave her friend a quick hug while Airi began trying to pull Honoka toward the offering bin.

"Honoka! Come on! We gotta go to the shrine and pray."

"Airi, stop pulling on Honoka and let her speak," sighed Mei as Honoka tried to explain that she didn't know what Airi wanted her to do.

"Sorry." Airi let go of Honoka's arm and took a step back and began chewing on her lower lip. "Honoka-chan did I hurt you?"

"No, you didn't." Honoka did her best to smile while Yuzu and her mother began whispering to one another, leaving the older girl to figure out what to do. "Umm, but what did you mean about going to the prayer box? I've never actually been to a shrine so I'm not sure about what I should do."

"I can show you!" Airi retook Honoka's hand and turned to her mothers. "Mommy? Mama? Can I go show Honoka-chan how to pray for wishes?"

"Sure." Yuzu beamed at Airi and stepped out of the way and pointed at the shrine. "Why don't we all go and pray together? I know I have a wish I need to make too."

"Don't tell me," shouted Airi while she marched Honoka toward the offering box. "That's the first rule, Honoka. You gotta keep your wish a secret or else it won't come true."

"All right." Honoka's face turned red as they approached the box. "Mother, can I have some money?"

"Of course." Shiraho reached into her purse and pulled out a couple of coins and handed them over. "Airi-chan would you please walk us through all the steps?"

"You got it, Auntie!"

Once they were ready, Mei, Yuzu, and Shiraho all smiled as Airi explained the steps to Honoka. From cleaning themselves to ringing the bell, to introducing themselves to the local gods before ringing the bells and saying their prayers. Once they finished their offerings and prayers, they proceeded to Airi's favorite part, pulling their fortunes.

"So, I just shake this and then pull out a stick?" Honoka held up a large wooden box and began shaking it carefully.

"Yep," explained Airi while Yuzu recorded the exchange on the phone, "and then we take the stick over there for our blessings. After that, you read your blessing, and if it's a curse, we gotta go tie it to the wall and pray so nothing it doesn't come true."

"Is that true Mother," asked Honoka, her hand wavering over the opening where she was supposed to pull out her blessing. "Nothing bad will happen if I get a curse, will it?"

"That all depends on if you think it will." Shiraho crouched down and took the box from her daughter and shook it again. "Like a lot of things in this world, curses have only as much power as you allow them to have. Even good blessings don't always work out the way we want them to and sometimes a curse can turn into something wonderful if you are willing to see it through. But remember that much of that power rests on you and if you're brave enough to face the bad things then good things are just right around the corner. Are you feeling brave enough to pull your fortune or do you want to hold off?"

"I wanna pull mine!" Airi reached in and grabbed a stick from the box and immediately stuck it behind her back and smiled at Honoka. "Come on, Honoka-chan. Ya gotta pick a fortune."

"Airi, you're being rude again," chastised Mei, though her attention was more focused on the distressed that had flashed across Yuzu's face after checking her phone. "Besides Mama and I still need to pick our fortunes, isn't that right Yuzu?"

"What?" Yuzu's head jerked up at Mei's words. "What'd you say, Mei? Is it my turn?"

"Not yet." Mei took a step toward Yuzu and with little difficulty managed to take the phone from her wife and slip it into her bag. "But it will be soon, and I just wanted to make sure you were ready."

"You bet I am." Yuzu rolled up her sleeves and began looking out excitedly for the box containing the sticks. "Where's the box? I'm going to make sure I get the best one in there."

"Right here, Yuzu-pon." Shiraho extended the box while Airi and Honoka tried to figure out if they drew good fortunes. "Mei-san, did you wish to draw a fortune."

"I'll be fine." Mei raised her hand and smiled politely. "I'm certain Yuzu will have better luck than me."

"Three great fortunes coming up." Yuzu grinned and despite Mei and Shiraho's protests, reached into the box and drew three long stick and winked at the two women. "All right, you guys ready?"

"Yeah," cheered Airi grabbing Honoka's hand and began pulling her friend toward the drawers where the five of them proceeded to find their numbers and pull out the slips of paper with their fortunes on them.

"I don't get it," said Airi as she began to read her fortune. "Mama, what's a 'future blessing'?"

"It means that good things will come to you sometime in the future," explained Yuzu while Mei and Shiraho pulled their fortunes. "But if you think about it, most blessings are future blessings. In this case, it means is that it might take a few hours or a few years, but at some point, you're going to get your blessing. You just need to be patient."

"Oh," Airi stared down at her paper and chewed on her lip and then back up at Yuzu. "What kinda blessing did you get, Mama?"

"I got a small blessing," said Yuzu holding up her paper and smiling. "It's not a lot, but it's better than nothing. Who knows, maybe it means I'll win a trip with our raffle tickets later."

"Or a new T.V.," said Airi excitedly while Yuzu rolled her eyes. "We need a new one."

"Why do you want a new T.V.? We just bought a new one last month," laughed Yuzu as she folded up hers and Airi's fortunes.

Airi snickered and hid her smile behind her sleeve as she said, "Because I want one in my room like Hideki."

"Oh, really." Yuzu tickled Airi's cheek while Mei, Shiraho, and Honoka walked up all of them reading their fortunes. "If that's what you want, then you gotta work hard and get good grades like Hideki before you get something like that in your room. Not to mention, you have to keep up with your music lessons. If you do that you can have a television, deal?"

"Deal!" Airi stuck her hand out and after Yuzu did the same, shook it and ran over to Honoka and began pulling on her sleeve. "Honoka-chan, what kinda fortune did you get?"

"I got a half-curse," explained a dour looking Honoka. "But I'm not sure if I should worry about this, I've never heard of a half-curse before."

"It'll be okay," explained Airi pointing at a wall where a group of people were tying slips of paper to a wall. "We can tie it to the wall and pray for it to go away, and if the curse tries to hurt you, I'll protect you from it like Hideki protected me when I got one at New Years."

"Okay." Honoka's face turned red and she turned to her mother. "Mother, did you get a curse as well?"

"I received a regular blessing," explained Shiraho before exchanging it with her daughter's curse, catching the girl by surprise, "and now it's yours."

"Mother, why are you…."

"Because I have enough blessings," said Shiraho, kissing Honoka on the forehead, "and I don't need anymore."

"I don't understand." Honoka looked at Airi who was looking just as confused as she was. "I thought you were supposed to keep things like this."

"Normally, yes." Shiraho's face shifted into a smirk before returning to its usual neutral position. "But as it is my fortune, I have the right to give it whomever I choose and I'm giving it to you. So, please accept it."

"Yes, Mother." Honoka nodded and folded the slip of paper and put it into her bag while Shiraho rose to her feet. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." Shiraho gave her daughter's head a gentle pat and pointed at the wall. "Airi-chan would you like to help me and Honoka tie the curse to the wall?"

"Yep!" Airi took Honoka by the hand and smiled at her mothers. "Mommy? Mama? Can I go with Auntie and Honoka?"

"Of course." Mei nodded and stroked Airi's hair before stepping aside. "But be quick, we have a lot of things we need to do, and if I remember correctly, you had a lot of desserts you wanted to try."

After hearing she'd be allowed to eat the desserts she wanted, Airi shouted for Shiraho to follow her as she pulled Honoka toward the wall, giving her mothers a few moments of much needed quiet.

"So, what kind of blessing did you get," asked Yuzu staring at her wife's hands. "Did you get a curse?"

"No," sighed Mei, reaching into her bag and unfolding the slip of paper, "I received a small blessing, just like you."

"So between the two of us, we have a regular blessing," Yuzu smirked as she read the paper and combined the pair of them. "That makes me feel better."

"Are you still worried," asked Mei while Yuzu put the papers into her bag. "Remember he said that he understands if we aren't ready to do this."

"Doesn't matter if I'm ready, Mei. All that matters is our little girl." Yuzu smiled as she watched Airi help Honoka tie her former curse to the wall and say a prayer to remove it.

"I'm certain she'll be stronger for it." Mei waved at Airi who was in the process of leading Honoka and Shiraho back to where they were standing. "And remember that I'll be by your side."

"I know you will." Yuzu leaned in and kissed Mei's cheek, causing both Airi and Honoka to giggle at the sight. "Yeah, yeah, laugh it up."

While Airi and Honoka continued to giggle, Yuzu's stomach let out a loud gurgle making the girls laugh and Yuzu blush and say, "How about we get something to eat to take our minds off of it. If I remember right you said we could get Airi something sweet, didn't you?"

"I want taiyaki," exclaimed Airi so loudly that Honoka covered her ears. "Oops, sorry, Honoka-chan."

"That's all right," said Honoka, rubbing her ear. "Mother, can I have taiyaki as well?"

"After you eat something more substantial," said Shiraho, as they left the shrine and headed toward where the main festival was taking place. "Yuzupon? Mei-san? I take it you will be making your customary first stop at the crepe stand?"

"If there is one," replied Mei, her cheeks turning red as she began scanning the food stalls for the sign of her and Yuzu's traditional festival treat. "Unless you'd like to try something different this time Yuzu."

"Only if we can't get a crepe." Yuzu winked and pointed at something behind Shiraho and smiled when she saw the light appear in Mei's eyes when she saw the long-awaited crepe stand. "But it looks like we dodged that bullet. Shirapon, want us to get you one?"

"I'm fine." Shiraho pointed at Airi and Honoka who were eyeing the dango and yakisoba stands. "You two go and get your crepe, and the three of us will get a few other things. Airi, Honoka, come along. Mei-san, Yuzupon, there's a picnic area just past the takoyaki stand. We'll meet there once we have our food."

With that, the five of them separated and made their way through the crowds of people. All around them people were enjoying the festival foods while chatting loudly with one another while others browsed the souvenir stands and played games as several hawkers began shouting at them to come and try their food or attempt a game of chance. After the fifth stand, Yuzu broke down and decided to try her hand at a ring toss game while Mei stood off to the side while attempting to look patient.

Yuzu, however, knew better and she could tell by the way Mei kept glancing at the prize table that something had caught her eye and the blonde knew precisely what it was and handed over five-hundred yen for ten throws. Rolling up her sleeves, Yuzu began tossing her rings in an attempt to win the small white teddy bear that was tied to a rod sitting in the back row. Thinking it would be easy, Yuzu lazily threw a few rings in the bear's direction but frowned when she saw how short her tosses were and instead won a mask in the shape of a popular superhero and a kendama with her first few throws.

"Can I get some new rings," asked Yuzu after her fourth ring fell around a small glass turtle, two rows shy of the bear.

"Of course," said the woman running the stall after wrapping the turtle up and handing it to Yuzu. "Here, try these. Though I promise you that you'll find that they're no different."

Yuzu picked up the previous ring and tested the weight of both and once she was satisfied that they were the same weight, she prepared to throw them but stopped and held one out for Mei and asked the proprietor, "Do you mind if she tries with me?"

"Of course not," answered the woman and handed three rings over to Mei. "Miss, would you like to step up and try? I'll even throw in some extra rings if you like, no extra charge."

"I'm fine." Mei gave the woman a polite smile and nodded at Yuzu. "I trust that she will win it very soon."

"I wish I had your confidence," sniffed Yuzu, testing the weight of the ring one more time before giving the ring a slightly stronger toss than the previous one and let out an excited cheer as it slid down the rod the bear was attached to; resting on its head like a small metal halo. "Holy crap! Mei did you see that?!"

"I did," smirked Mei as the woman removed the bear and handed it to Yuzu, congratulating them and asking if they wanted to use their remaining rings. "I said you would win, Yuzu. Do you want to try again? We still have four more attempts."

"I think we're good," said Yuzu pointing at the little boy and what looked to be his grandmother who had just walked up to the stand. "Do you want to play sweetie? Is that okay, ma'am?"

"Absolutely," the woman smiled and gestured to the boy pointed at the prizes. "If you want to try I'll give you a discount on throws."

The boy nodded excitedly, and after his grandmother agreed, Mei and Yuzu paid three-hundred more yen, giving the boy ten more tosses, collected their prizes and started walking back toward their original destination and placed their order of a strawberry, whipped cream, and chocolate crepe.

"Sorry about the detour," said Yuzu while the man running the stall prepared their food.

"Why are you apologizing," asked Mei as she clutched her new teddy bear tightly. "I adore my gift, and I'm sure whoever gets the others will enjoy them too."

"Because you looked upset while I was playing," said Yuzu, taking the crepe from the man and thanking him before heading to the designated meeting spot. "Did you think of a name yet?"

"No, but I'm sure one will come to me soon." Mei stroked the top of the bears head, a soft, serene smile on her face. "But yes, initially I was upset because I'm hungry, but after seeing you get so frustrated over trying to win her for me, I couldn't stay mad at you because you were trying for my sake. Thank you for winning her by the way; she's adorable and will make an excellent addition to the collection.

"So this one's a girl," asked Yuzu, wrapping her free arm around her wife's. "Been a while since we had a girl teddy bear."

"Yes it has, and yes she is." Mei nodded and moved a little closer toward Yuzu, ignoring the stares they were getting. "I can't explain it, but I just felt like this one is a girl."

"As long as you're happy, that's all that matters." Yuzu kissed Mei on the cheek just as they entered the picnic area and heard Airi shout at them.

"I am." Mei smiled and kissed Yuzu, making her wife blush but said nothing as she took the seat across from the others, her new bear sitting to her left while Yuzu sat down on her right and Airi swallowed a large bite of ikayaki.

"Mommy, where'd you get the bear," asked Airi, a small whine in her voice, "Can I get one with my money?"

"Your Mama won her for me," said Mei, taking the first official bite of her and Yuzu's crepe, "and if you want to try we can take you to the ring toss booth. But first, you need to eat your food, not that you have a lack of options."

"You're telling me," laughed Yuzu after taking a large bite of the crepe and pointed at the takoyaki, yakisoba, karrage, ikayaki, and several other foods on the table that Mei and Yuzu were worried they wouldn't be able to finish all of it. "Are you sure you can eat all of this?"

"You'd be surprised at how much Honoka can eat," said Shiraho after taking a bite of dango. "Especially when it comes to food she rarely has the chance to eat; trust me it will be gone and I'm sure you two will eat your fair share."

"We will certainly try," Yuzu smirked and pulled the mask out of the bag the lady running the ring stand had given them and handed over the mask to Airi. "By the way, I heard you asking Mommy, and I know this isn't a bear but do you think this'll work until we can figure out how to win you one?"

"Yeah," shouted Airi after downing two scalding hot balls of takoyaki. "I like this superhero. What about you, Honoka-chan? Do you like this show?'"

Airi slipped it down around her face and began doing a couple of weird poses that made the adults laugh, and Honoka shake her head in confusion.

"I've never seen it," she said while Yuzu continued rummaging through the bag while sharing bites of their crepe with Mei. "But maybe I can come over one day and watch it with you and you can explain it to me."

"Sure!" Airi dropped back down into her seat and lifted her masks o she could continue eating.

"Airi slow down," sighed Yuzu as she finally found the kendama and handed it to Honoka. "This is for you, Honoka. It's not much, but I hope you like it."

"Thank you very much, Auntie." Honoka nodded her head politely and took the toy, a small smile on her face as she began expertly bouncing the ball back and forth between the cups. "My cousins and I used to play with these a lot when we were younger. They never could beat me."

"I can see why," chuckled Mei, after wiping her mouth of the last bits of crepe while Yuzu began chewing on one of the ikayaki. "Yuzu wasn't there one more gift in the bag?"

"I'm getting to it." Yuzu stuck her tongue out at Mei and proceeded to pull out the small wad of paper that contained the glass turtle and handed it to Shiraho. "This is for you."

Shiraho's eyes widened as she took the packaging and said, "Yuzu-pon, there was no reason for you to give me anything."

"Well it wasn't like it was planned," said Yuzu with a nervous grin as she took another bite of squid. "I kinda got on a winning streak trying to get Mei her new bear, and I just figured you'd like it and you know I like giving you guys stuff."

"You've always had a very giving spirit." Shiraho managed a smile and carefully undid the packaging, her face slightly flushed when she realized that everyone was watching her, but worked her way through it and gasped along with Airi and Honoka when she revealed the small, clear, glass turtle.

"Yuzu-pon, it's beautiful." Shiraho raised the turtle causing a small a prism effect to appear on her face as the light refracted off it. "I will treasure it always."

"I'm glad." Yuzu smiled as she watched Shiraho cautiously wrap up her gift while grabbing a couple of food containers for her and Mei before rolling her shoulder. "I think I pulled something earlier on the ring toss."

"I'll make sure to keep it safe in honor of your injury," snickered Shiraho as she wrapped it up in a few extra napkins.

Once the turtle was stored safely in Shiraho's bag, the group continued their meal, and just as Shiraho had promised, Honoka ate enough food for three of them, barely managing to eat more than Airi who'd only stopped eating because she didn't want to miss out on dessert. Thankfully the stalls were well stocked, and Yuzu managed to get a couple of more small containers to fill her and Mei's stomachs. Once they finished their food, they set out to try and tire the girls out by having them try their luck at some of the more physical games.

For the most part, the girls managed to do quite well. Honoka proved to be very adept at the fish catching game, managing to collect twelve of them before her container broke. Luckily the man running it had several prizes available for people who were from out of town and allowed her to trade the fish for a light-up toy sword that Airi said reminded her of the kind of weapon the hero from the show her mask was from wielded. After that, they stopped by the taiko drum area where Honoka managed to get Mei, Yuzu, and Airi to join her and her mother in going along with the dance several people were performing. While it was supposed to be a serious affair, all of them managed to laugh a little at how clumsily they were all following along with the dance, save for Shiraho who performed flawlessly, earning her praise from several spectators.

"Thank you for your kind words," was all she said to her admirers as they followed after the girls who were in awe of the stand with prizes that were attached to the strings.

"Do you two wish to try," asked Shiraho once they made it through the crowd just as Airi pointed at a rather large box containing what looked like a series of action figures from an old anime that none of them recognized except for her.

"Uh-huh." Airi nodded and ran to her mothers, who were only a few steps behind Shiraho and pointed at her mothers' bags. "Mama. Mommy. Can I have some money to try the string game? I saw something I want to win."

"Sure, Sweetie." Yuzu reached into her bag and pulled out a few coins. "What are you trying to win?"

"I'll show ya." Airi grabbed Yuzu's hand and began tugging on it and waving at Mei. "You too, Mommy! But you gotta keep it a secret."

"Why do I have to keep it a secret?" Mei looked annoyed, but Yuzu could tell by the sound of her voice that she was teasing Airi. "You know I'm not fond of secrets."

"Because it's a surprise for Hideki," explained Airi as they approached the stand and pointed at the large box of action figures in the center of the mass of toys that filled the container. "See it's toys from that anime he used to watch! You think he'd like it?"

"I'm sure if it's from you he will." Mei smiled while Yuzu handed over the coins to the attendant for three pulls. "Just remember that there's no guarantee you'll win, so don't be too upset if you walk away with something smaller."

"I know."

In a Yuzu like fashion, Airi rolled up her sleeves and waved her mothers over and asked, "Which one do you think I should pull? There's a lot of strings."

"I think this one looks good," said Yuzu pointing at one of the dozens of strings while Mei seemed occupied on where they went. "What about you, Mei?"

"I'm not sure." Mei sighed and brushed some hair behind her ear while Shiraho paid for Honoka to have a few pulls. "The strings are too jumbled up for me to figure it out."

"Well, yeah," chuckled Yuzu while Airi began fiddling with the strings, "that's because they don't want you to cheat."

"I'm now aware of that." Mei snorted and joined Airi in inspecting the strings before shrugging in defeat. "I guess we should tug on a string and hope for the best. How many pulls did we pay for?"

"Three," said Yuzu while Airi gripped one of the strings tightly, her face set with determination. "Well, now two since it seems Airi just picked the first one. Is that the one you want to go with, Sweetie?"

"Yeah." Airi nodded and turned to Mei. "Mommy, can you help me pull this one and then can I pull one with Mama?"

"I'd be happy to." Mei gave Airi a gentle pat on the head and smiled at her before looking at Yuzu. "Yuzu, are you okay with that?"

"You bet." Yuzu gave Airi a kiss on the top her head, and when she did she heard her phone begin to ring.

Pulling it out, Yuzu looked down at her phone and felt her throat tighten and her heart begin to pound in her ears when she saw the name and number on the screen.

"Mama, are you okay," asked Airi worriedly before letting go of the string. "Do we gotta go?"

"No," said Yuzu, swiping the green button on her phone and trying to sound calm. "No, we don't have to go anywhere. I just need to take a phone call. But I'll be right next to you while you and Mommy pull. Okay?"

"Okay." Airi sounded skeptical but turned her attention back to the game when she felt Mei's hand pull hers towards the string.

"I promise everything is okay." Yuzu gave Airi one more kiss on the cheek before turning her attention back to her phone call. "Hey. I didn't expect to hear back from you so quickly."

"Was that her," asked a nervous voice on the other end of the phone.

"Yeah." Yuzu gave a nervous chuckle and smiled as Airi and Mei tugged on the string and won a magical girl figure instead of the box and while Airi seemed disappointed, Yuzu could tell she was excited to have something since a few of her friends had a couple. "That's her. We're at the lottery pull right now and I'm about to help her try and win a toy for her brother."

"He's not with you is he?" The voice chuckled and Yuzu couldn't help but smile. "I mean, I know he likes me a little more than when we first met, but I still think he wants to kick my ass. I'm pretty sure he could from the pictures of them you've sent me."

"He's fine." Yuzu rolled her eyes but grinned even more as she helped Airi pick another string while the memory of an overprotective twelve-year-old Hideki flashed in her mind. "He's in New York right now for some auditions to get into a school for next year. I can show you the pictures if you want."

"I'm fine." The voice gave a quick apology to someone and Yuzu could hear what sounded like food in his mouth. "But I'm hoping you are too. Are you sure you're up for this?"

"Yeah, I am." Yuzu excused herself for a minute and returned to Airi's side, counted to three and tugged on the string, this time pulling up a giant squirt gun, which Mei immediately confiscated much to Airi's disappointment. "Just don't expect too much out of her. It's been a while."

"Too long." She heard him sigh and before Yuzu could hear the familiar sound of the crepe salesman shouting for people to buy from him and after a quick exchange, which Yuzu heard him order a lemon crepe he continued. "I know it's a long shot, given how quickly this is all happening. But if things go well, I'm hoping we can rectify that at some point, as long you and Mei are okay with it."

"We're open to it," said Yuzu before taking a moment to help Airi and Mei pick their final string while Honoka and Shiraho pulled on one winning a small stuffed tiger. "Not that I don't want you to have more time with her if that's what she wants, it's just that….ugh I don't know how to say this without sounding clingy or selfish. I'm sorry."

There was a sound of ruffling paper and after a loud swallow, the voice said, "You don't have to be sorry for anything. But I want you to know that if you two are willing to try then so am I. You sending me those vids and pictures have helped, but I want to get to know her a little more. If that makes sense."

"I understand." Yuzu felt her throat begin to tighten but managed to continue. "Mei's been pushing for this a bit because of what happened with her dad and neither of us wants that to happen to her, but it's a lot to process."

"I get it," he said through a low burp causing Yuzu to smile. " I made that decision and this is a big call, but I want you to know I'm not talking anything permanent. I haven't been around and I don't expect her to want to spend a lot of time with me. I just meant that I can plan more trips to Japan or if you and Mei can swing it, maybe we can meet halfway or something. Like in Hawaii and plan some stuff there, or if I'm in town for a few days on business we can get dinner and chat or maybe if she gets comfortable enough I can spend a night or two at your place. Or maybe if you're okay with it, I can casually bring up me and her being able to video chat or talk on the phone more. You know I'm a bit of a night owl, so it's not a problem for me to stay up and say bye to her before she goes to school."

"I like the sound of those last two," answered Yuzu a little more excited than intended. "Not that I don't want those to be the only times you get to see her I just meant..."

"I know what you meant," laughed the man, causing Yuzu to blush. "Baby steps, right?"

"Baby steps," agreed Yuzu, turning her head at the sound of Airi's voice yelling at her. After waving it to Airi and saying she would be back soon, Yuzu said, "We would need to talk to Mei about all this too. She's acting cool, but I know that she'd want to say her piece and if she's not on board with it; you know I'm going to have to play devil's advocate."

"Well I can't say I know what that's like, but seeing how my mom used to boss my dad around I get it. If the wife isn't on board, then you either have to convince her or just do what she wants."

Despite her best efforts, Yuzu couldn't resist a brief but loud laugh, only stopping when she saw several people begin looking at her before saying, "Thanks for that. I needed it."

"I bet you did." Yuzu could tell by the sound of his voice that he was suppressing his laughter. "I needed it too, but at least you got Mei to help you out. I don't even have a girlfriend back home to talk to about all this, but I'm glad I got to make you laugh. It helped me feel better about all this."

"Good." Yuzu kicked herself mentally after hearing this. She'd been so caught up in worrying about Airi that she hadn't considered his side of things and hoped she could help build a connection between him and their daughter. "I hope this goes well."

"So do I," he said, his voice quaking. "I'll see you in a few."

"Is everything okay," asked Mei after Yuzu hung up and joined Airi in clutching the string.

"Yep," said Yuzu giving her usual grin. "We're going to have company in a few minutes so we might want to figure out what to do after this."

"Is it your friend," asked Airi, her hand moving up and down impatiently in anticipation for her prize. "Do you wanna wait and let him pull with us?"

"No," smiled Yuzu as she wrapped her hand around Airi's, happy to see that she was no longer shaking. "He's just coming to spend time with us. But thank you for wanting to include him. That's very sweet, isn't it Mei?"

Mei nodded and said, "Yes, it is. But since he's on his way, we need to hurry Airi. Are you ready?"

"Uh-huh!" Airi's hand squeezed tightly around the string, her face screwed in concentration. "You gonna help Mama?"

"Heck yeah." Yuzu's grip tightened around Airi's along with Mei's. "On the count of three, we all pull together; got it?"

Both Airi and Mei nodded, and in a unified voice, the three loudly said, "One, two, THREE!"

With a firm tug, they all three pulled and at first they thought that they had won the coveted prize as they saw it begin to jerk. When she saw it start to move, Airi began to bounce up and down and cheer only to let out a disappointed groan when it was made evident that they'd instead pulled the prize next to it, this time being an expensive looking toy sword similar to the one Honoka had won earlier. Though Mei and Yuzu were happy with the prize, Airi wasn't and attempted to make a trade with the proprietor only to be politely declined.

"Sorry little one, but rules are rules," said the balding middle-aged man running the game. "It's not that I don't want you to have it, but that wouldn't be fair to the other people who won their prizes fair and square. But if you want to try again I'd be willing to give you a discount on a couple more pulls."

"Can I try again Mama," asked Airi as she stared at the box of the robot model they'd won. "I promise I'll use my own money."

"How about we try again tomorrow," suggested Yuzu after checking her watch. "It's getting late, and we still got a few more things to do."

"But what if someone wins it," whined Airi while Shiraho and Honoka chatted quietly with Mei. "I wanna win it for Hideki."

"I understand that's what you want to do," said Yuzu sternly. "But we have other things to do tonight and if it's not there then it's not there and we can try to win him something else. But I swear that if you continue whining we won't come back and we'll spend our last day of vacation in the hotel room. Am I clear?"

Airi opened her mouth to argue but stopped when she saw just how much Yuzu's face was starting to look like Meis.

"Fine," huffed Airi, crossing her arms and turning away from Yuzu and heading toward Mei.

"Airi, please stop," sighed Yuzu after a quick apology to the man. "There's no point in whining about it. We can't always get what we want, and you got a lot of other nice souvenirs so you should be thankful for what you have."

"But I wanted Hideki to have that toy," sniffed Airi after wiping her sleeve across her nose. "He said he's going to bring back lots of cool stuff for us and I wanted him to have something cool."

"I think he'll be happy with whatever you give him." Yuzu did her best to pat Airi's hair beneath her mask and pulled out the action figure that Airi had one. "Especially this. I think he'll think this is really cool, don't you Mei?"

"I believe he will," agreed the younger woman, breaking away from her conversation with Shiraho. "But I will be holding onto the water gun for the foreseeable future."

"Dang," whispered Airi causing Yuzu to chuckle and Mei to smirk. "Mama? Mommy? Is Honoka-chan and Auntie going to meet your friend with us."

"I'm not sure," said Shiraho, barely hiding her look of discomfort. "We don't want to intrude, given the nature of the visit. Mei-san, Yuzu-pon, are you two okay with us staying?"

"I think it would help." Mei turned to ask Yuzu how she felt about it, but the look of relief on her wife's face had Mei wondering how the woman was even standing. "Yuzu, I take it you're fine with this arrangement?"

"Yeah, I am." Yuzu let out a sigh of relief while Airi ran to Honoka, a look of pure joy on her face. "Are your brothers going to be okay, though? We haven't seen them in a while and I don't want them to get freaked out."

"I told them to have some fun," explained Shiraho before pulling out her phone. "And I've been keeping them updated of our progress and if need be they can track it."

"Why would they need to track your phone," asked Honoka while tried to retrieve her toy sword from Yuzu's bag.

"It's complicated." Shiraho let out a nervous cough while Mei and Yuzu smirked and Airi began fiddling with her sword and trying out all of its different functions. "But it's mostly just in case we get lost. Like when you and Airi decided to disappear into the woods. If you had a phone and got lost, we could have tracked you, but since you didn't your uncle ended up having to follow you in and ruin his suit."

"I see." Honoka nodded stepped back just in time to avoid getting hit in the face by Airi's sword. "Airi be careful. You almost hit me."

"Sorry." Airi lifted her mask and lowered her sword, but failed at hiding her smile as she addressed her mothers. "Is your friend gonna be here soon? I wanna get taiyaki."

"He'll be here soon," explained Yuzu after checking her phone and looking around the crowd. "Wait I think I see him over by the mask stand."

"Yuzu stop jumping," groaned Mei as Yuzu began hopping up and down and waving her arms. "You're making a scene."

"Well it's either me doing this or yelling at him," countered the blonde after finally getting his attention.

"You also could have just gone over there and talked to him." Mei rubbed her temple and gave a nervous look to Airi who was looking in the same direction as Yuzu. "Airi are you going to be okay?"

"Yeah. Why?" Airi gave Mei a confused look, making Mei realize that they still hadn't told her who they were meeting.

"It's...nothing." Mei stepped close to Airi and patted her gently on the back. "Just remember that if you want to leave, all you have to do is tell Mama and me and we'll head back to the hotel."

"Okay." Airi raised an eyebrow in confusion while Yuzu approached a somewhat familiar looking man wearing a pair of shorts and a t-shirt from some video game Airi had seen Hideki play.

Like her mother, the man like he was about to collapse and when she saw his face, Airi felt her head begin to hurt, and her body move behind Mei's leg while Yuzu spent a minute introducing Shiraho to the man while Honoka waited patiently for her mother to finish.

After Shiraho stepped aside, Yuzu and the man continued to speak and Airi couldn't help but notice that his hair was a bit longer and curlier than she'd seen from the pictures that her mothers had shown her. She could also see that he was in better shape than he'd been in the picture of him holding her on her second birthday, though nowhere near as fit as Hideki and Airi found herself wishing that her brother was there to protect her. He was almost as tall as her brother and his skin was still the same shade as hers and as he approached Airi began to grow curious about whether or not he had the same kind of freckles as her but at the same time, she continued to shift behind Mei's legs as the man continued to grow closer.

"Airi, are you okay," asked Mei, when she realized that Airi was tugging on the back of her yukata.

"I'm scared," she said, feeling her heart pounding in her chest while the tears began to fall down her face. "How come he's here? You said it was a friend."

"Yuzu wait," said Mei before turning around, granting Airi the briefest glimpse of the man who was only a couple of feet away from her, looking like he was about to pass out.

Bending down, Mei began trying to wipe the tears from Airi's face but to no avail as the girl suddenly started crying loudly, catching the attention of several attendees and a few nearby police officers who had been stationed there for security.

"Is everything all right," asked an officer, only making matters worse as his appearance had suddenly caused Airi to begin screaming and saying she didn't want to go to the police station.

"She's just had a long day," lied Mei, immediately picking Airi up and cradling her in her arms while her daughter sobbed uncontrollably. "But if it's all right, we'll be taking her back to our hotel. I promise you that she'll be better behaved tomorrow."

"Are you sure," asked the officer while signaling for his partner to stay where he was. "She keeps saying something about a man and not wanting to get arrested again. Do we need to call someone?"

"Her brother got into a fight defending her from some bullies," explained Mei while Yuzu began telling something to Shiraho, Honoka, and Ken before the three disappeared into the crowd though Mei felt grateful that Ken took a few extra seconds to watch Airi. "Unfortunately the police were called, and she had to go to the police station. If you like I can give you the number of the detective who took the report. Yuzu, can you please give this officer Habiki's card?"

"Sure." Yuzu appeared and pulled Habiki's card out of her bag and handed it to the officer who asked them to wait while he called in the inquiry but not before asking who Yuzu was.

"I'm Aihara Yuzu," she explained confidently, puffing her chest out a bit. "And that woman over there is Aihara Mei, my wife, and the little girl is our daughter Airi and if you want the name of our son his name is Hideki who is in New York for the summer. If you want I can give you the information for the school he's studying at."

"All right," said the man, unsure of how to handle the sudden influx of information and instead of speaking to Yuzu chose to call Habiki to confirm Mei's story. "But I don't need the school's number, I'm sure this will be enough. Just wait right here."

"What happened," asked Yuzu, trying to get a good look at Airi's face but wasn't able to since the girl had pulled her mask down and was still crying behind it. "Airi how come you started screaming? Did you get scared?"

"She did," said Mei when Airi refused to answer. "The moment she saw him, she hid behind my leg and began crying. To think you were the one I was worried about."

"Well, we both knew this could happen." Yuzu smiled and sighed while her hand began rubbing Airi's back in an attempt to comfort her. "Airi, I'm sorry Mommy and I didn't tell you. I bet that was scary, huh?"

Airi nodded, causing the red bug-like eyes of her mask to shimmer in the lights of the vendors' stalls.

"I'm so sorry about that," said Yuzu, pressing her forehead against Airi's mask. "Mommy is too, huh Mei?"

"Very sorry," whispered Mei, holding Airi close. "And if you don't want to see him you don't have to."

"Why'd he come," sniffed Airi, her voice muffled by the mask. "Did he come to take me away? Do you want me to live with him?"

"Of course not," explained Yuzu, tears stinging her eyes despite her laughter. "If you don't want to live with him, you don't have to. He just wanted to see you since he was in town and Mommy and I told him about what happened with Hideki and those boys. He was scared and he wanted to see you."

"He coulda called on the phone." Airi lifted her mask, exposing her red eyes and tear-stained cheeks. "He has our number. Or he could have used the computer; you said he talks to you on the computer."

"Do you want to talk to him on the computer," asked Yuzu while the officer approached them, looking far less ornery than he previously had. "Because we can do that. But he can only do the computer while he's in town unless he stays up all night to talk to you. But if that's what you want we can do that, but he'd really like to talk to you to your face. He hasn't seen you in a long time, and when we told him what happened he wanted to check on you. But he understands if you don't want to because I was scared too and I think Mommy is also because it looks like she doesn't want to let you go."

Before Airi could say anything, the officer let out a loud cough and extended the business card to Yuzu who bowed politely and took it while the man said, "My apologies for the interruption but the detective explained the situation for me, and I'm very sorry that she had to go through all of that. You're free to go and make sure she gets a treat before you head back to your hotel."

"We'll make sure that she does," replied Mei as she adjusted Airi in her arms. "Thank you, officer and we're sorry about the disturbance."

"Just take care of her," said the man with an understanding smile. "Believe me I've been through this enough with my kids, and I sympathize,I do. Enjoy the rest of your evening."

After Yuzu and Airi thanked the officer, they headed toward the taiyaki stand where Mei and Yuzu bought a dozen of the desserts, spread out across three boxes and started back toward the hotel, with both Mei and Yuzu sharing carrying duties until they reached the temple where Airi finally said she was willing to walk.

"Where did you send the others," asked Mei with a relieved groan as she set Airi on the ground.

"Ken went back to his hotel, and Shirapon went to find her brothers and explain what happened. They're just waiting for us to tell them what's going on."

Both Mei and Yuzu's eyes turned to Airi, unfazed by the fact that she'd decided to pull her mask down over her face in an attempt to hide herself.

"Airi," asked Mei squeezing Airi's hand and causing their daughter to turn her head, making Mei laugh at how silly her daughter looked in the giant green and red bug mask. "Do you want to see the others tonight or do you want to go back to the hotel and relax."

"Hotel," said Airi, taking a moment to lift her mask before speaking. "Can we watch a movie too and have some taiyaki?"

"Sure," said Yuzu, feeling her shoulders relax as she felt Airi's tiny hand grip hers as they made their way up the hill.

"And umm can I call Auntie and Honoka-chan? I wanna apologize for being rude."

"You weren't rude, Airi," answered Mei squeezing Airi's hand tightly. "We should have prepared you better and like we said, if you don't want to talk to him, you don't have to."

"I wanna talk to him."

Mei and Yuzu stopped dead in their tracks when they heard Airi's reply and stared down at her in amazement.

"Are you sure," asked Yuzu, her voice almost inaudible due to how tight her throat was.

"Yeah." Airi nodded and lifted her mask before shrugging. "I was rude and you two said I gotta apologize to people if I'm rude so that means I gotta tell him I'm sorry."

"While we're happy you remember that," said Mei, caressing her daughter's cheek, "we're certain he'd understand it if you wanted us to apologize for you."

"But I wanna apologize." Airi stamped her foot in frustration, though Mei and Yuzu didn't reprimand her given the circumstances. "I gotta apologize."

"Okay," answered Mei and they continued walking down the long road in silence listening to the crickets and chirp while the fireflies danced all around them.

Not wanting to ruin the moment, Yuzu did her best to suppress her curiosity, but it got the better of her causing her to ask, "Airi, can I ask why you want to apologize to him? I promise I won't get mad or upset about it and I'm sure Mommy wants to know why too."

"I'll admit that I am curious," agreed Mei as they rounded the corner that headed toward the inn. "Is it because of what Mama and I told you?"

"Kinda," answered Airi sounding more shy than frustrated.

"What do you mean by, 'kinda,'" asked Yuzu, though she was sure she knew at least one other reason why she wanted to talk to him. "Is there another reason you want to apologize to him face to face?"

"Yeah." For the first time since they'd left the festival, Mei and Yuzu saw a glimpse of the old Airi behind the tears and felt that some good might still be able to come out this situation.

"Do you want to tell us the reason," asked Mei just as the entrance to the inn came in to view. "Or do you want to keep it a secret."

Looking up at her mothers, Airi felt her face turn a shade darker due to her blushing, pulled her mask back down, and with a nervous voice she managed to squeak out, "Cuz he's my daddy."

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 12

 

"Okay, so this goes here, and that goes…."

 

Yuzu smiled as she listened to Airi work on a puzzle she'd brought with her after from home after Mei had called asking if she could drop Airi off at the restaurant while she ran to an emergency meeting at the academy, to which Yuzu happily agreed for several reasons. The first being that as long as Airi behaved, Yuzu was grateful for the extra time with her. Not only that, but if one of the staff happened to ask if she wanted to help, Airi would always be willing to lend a hand in her limited fashion.

 

The second reason Yuzu had agreed was that having Airi out of the house, meant that they could hide the fact that Hideki was coming home a little early from his trip from her for a bit longer, though they wished it were under better circumstances. While they'd all knew that getting into the program wasn't a guarantee, they'd grown more optimistic the longer he'd been gone, even though it meant the possibility of him moving out earlier than they'd have liked. However, despite her disappointment that the selection committee hadn't chosen Hideki to join the program, like Mei, Yuzu was barely able to contain her excitement at the thought of him coming home. 

 

Even Mei could barely contain herself, and like Yuzu had almost let it slip in one way or another. Though unlike Yuzu, who was more prone to blurting out the news, Mei had done it by continually cleaning Hideki's room or stocking up on a couple of his favorite snacks in preparation for his home coming. 

 

Her latest incident had been earlier that morning when she was changing Hideki's sheets for the third time in two days.

 

"I just want to make sure he knows how much we missed him," muttered Mei after Yuzu had pointed this fact out, before asking Airi to help her with making the beds.

 

As she waited for her order to finish, Yuzu chuckled at the memory of Mei's ears turning bright red and Airi's excitement at seeing Mei so embarrassed.

 

"Why're you smiling Mama," asked Airi from the small table in the corner that Yuzu had set up for her, snacks and all. "Did someone say something funny?"

 

"No," smiled Yuzu before winking at Airi and grabbing the order from the kitchen window. "I just remembered Mommy's face this morning when she was making Hideki's bed."

 

"Oh." Airi giggled and kicked her feet happily under the table before placing another piece in her puzzle. "Yeah, that was funny. Mommy's ears turned red like the cherries in my drink."

 

Airi pulled a cherry out of the Shirley Temple, Yuzu had made her, popped it into her mouth and giggled, catching the attention of the two older women her mother was helping before squeaking and grabbing her music book and propped it open so she could hide.

 

"She's so adorable. Is she yours," asked one of the ladies Yuzu was serving while her employees bustled around cleaning up dishes, prepping food, or taking orders and chatting up customers.

 

"Yep," nodded Yuzu, proudly looking over her shoulder just in time to see Airi's head duck back behind the large book, her sneakers and jeans whipping around underneath the table. "She's a bit of a handful, but I love her to pieces, her and her brother."

 

"How old," asked the woman on the left, after taking a bite of the cake she'd ordered and took a sip of tea.

 

"Six," said Yuzu proudly with a wink back at Airi, "and her brother's seventeen, but he's in America right now for a possible scholarship opportunity. She's not bothering you, is she? If she is, I apologize. My wife had to go to an emergency meeting, so she had to leave Airi here with me until she finished."

 

"N..no," said the woman blinking rapidly at the revelation. "No, she hasn't been a problem. She's been rather entertaining, especially her singing; she has such a pretty voice. Does she come here often?"

 

"Not really," explained Yuzu, placing down the plate for the woman's companion. "She and her brother are on summer break, and we usually alternate days off or have one of her grandparents watch her if she's not in one of her music classes or her brother can't watch her."

 

"What instrument does she play," asked the other woman, her gaze turning to Airi, who was again looking out from behind the book and waved cautiously.

 

Yuzu watched as Airi waved back with a nervous smile and proceeded to beckon her daughter to her.

 

"Airi, can you come here, please?"

 

Nodding, Airi slid off her chair and ambled toward Yuzu, taking a minute to brush any wrinkles out of her clothes before stopping and bowing as she greeted the two women.

 

"Hello. I'm Aihara Airi."

 

The two ladies bowed their heads, smiled, and introduced themselves as Chie and Junko, respectively.

 

"It's nice to meet you, Airi-chan," said Junko, adjusting her glasses and resting her chin on her hand. "Are you having a good time here with your mother?"

 

"Yes." Airi nodded as Yuzu patted her on the back and began neverously twisting her body, causing her arms to swing back and forth. "I get a table to myself, and Mama sometimes lets me help out."

 

"What kind of things do you help with," asked Chie with a sincere smile.

 

"Ummmm..."

 

Airi scratched her head for a moment before saying, "Sometimes, Mama lets me take food to customers. And sometimes she lets me put the money in the register and give people change or write orders, but I'm not allowed to touch the buttons on the register."

 

"Oh?" Junko set down her cup of tea, her eyes brimming with curiosity. "Why's that? Don't you have to touch the buttons to give the people their money?"

 

"Uh-huh." Airi nodded, causing the two balls of hair Mei had put her hair in to shake excitedly. "But I got in trouble one time cus I pressed a bunch of buttons on the register and Mama and Uncle had to stay up all night 'fixing the books.' Do you know what that means because they won't tell me."

 

"I see," chuckled Chie, who was in the process of fixing the rubber-bands she had put in her hair. "Well, if your mom and uncle don't want to say anything about it, then I don't think we should either."

 

"I dunno." Airi shrugged and stepped a little closer to Yuzu and nuzzled her thigh. "I just want to help Mama cus she works hard, and she deserves help."

 

"That's very sweet of you." Junko smiled as she spoke while Chie double checked her hair. "So, I take it that means you like coming here and helping your mom?"

 

"Yeah." Airi again nodded this time, reaching behind her head and pulling Yuzu's hand close to her cheek and nuzzling it. "But I get bored because most of the time, I gotta sit and read or do homework."

 

"I bet." Chie smiled and pointed at Airi's table. "But I saw that you have a music book over there. I bet that's got to be interesting. What instrument do you play? I'd love it if you played for me the next time I come into the shop."

 

"Which one?" A hint of excitement entered Airi's voice as she began excitedly bouncing up and down on her feet at the prospect of being able to play at Yuzu's restaurant. "I play the violin, and cello, and piano. But I'm not very good at piano yet also I don't have one, but Hideki said he'd buy me a keyboard, whatever that is, but I can bring my cello or violin. I'm good with those. I even have trophies. You wanna see?"

 

"Maybe next time you can show us your trophies." Chie chuckled and took a quick bite of her dish before continuing. "As for your instruments, you can bring whichever one you want. So long as that's okay with your mama."

 

"I wanna do it," said Airi a little too loudly, catching the attention of several customers and causing Junko and Chie to jump. "Can I Mama? Please? It can be my job."

 

"I'll talk to Mommy about it," sighed Yuzu as she tried to pull free the arm Airi was tugging. "But don't get your hopes up. You go back to school soon, and that and practice come first."

 

"But Hideki gets to have a job and go to school and dance." Airi stamped her foot and crossed her arms indignantly. "How come I can't? I wanna help."

 

"Sorry," whispered Junko and Chie upon seeing the annoyed look on Yuzu's face and turned their attention to their food.

 

"It's okay," said Yuzu with a smile before pointing at the table she'd set up for Airi. "Airi go and sit down for a minute, all right?"

 

"Why," asked Airi quietly before taking a nervous step away from Yuzu. "Am I in trouble?"

 

"No, you aren't in trouble." Yuzu patted her daughter's hair and smiled at her. "But I need to go and check-in with the customers and the employees. But when I'm done, we're going to talk okay?"

 

"But..."

 

"Airi," interrupted Yuzu with a tone of finality that even Airi knew meant she shouldn't bother arguing. "Do what I say. Understood?"

 

"Yes, Mama."

 

After Airi bid farewell to Junko and Chie, Yuzu took a moment to wash her hands before making her rounds with the other customers and confirming that Airi's little outburst hadn't disturbed them.

 

Thankfully, they were all understanding, and after explaining to the staff that she needed to sit down with Airi, Yuzu went to the kitchen and retrieved a peach tart for her and a pear tart for Airi, warmed them up, and added a scoop of ice cream to each. Once their desserts were ready, she also grabbed an oolong tea, two glasses, and a tray before heading back out into the restaurant.

 

"Hey," whined Airi as Yuzu set the tray down on top of the puzzle before noticing the dessert, and with a huge smile, she began shoving spoonfuls into her mouth. "Thanks, Mama."

 

"Slow down," sighed Yuzu before taking a bite of her tart and smiling at the look of satisfaction on Airi's face. "Also, you're welcome. Do you like it?"

 

Airi nodded, swallowed, and said, "It's delicious. Did you make it, Mama?"

 

"Not this one," sighed Yuzu before taking another bite of her tart. "But I made some of the other desserts in the case. I don't get to bake that much since I get stuck doing most of the paperwork, but I wanted you to try these since we'll be swapping them out for some fall desserts soon, and you look like you needed some cheering up."

 

"Oh." Airi gave her tart a downcast look, took another bite and a sip of tea before asking, "Is this a bribe?"

 

Yuzu nearly choked on her dessert and covered her mouth as she finished chewing her bite and asked, "First of all, no, it's not a bribe, and second, why would you ask that?"

 

"Hideki," answered Airi with a shrug. "He says it when you and Mommy sometimes give him money when he's gotta watch me or do errands."

 

After making a mental note to have a talk with Hideki about the choice of words he used in front Airi and moved her chair closer to Airi.

 

Stroking back a couple of loose strands out of Airi's face, Yuzu wiped a bit of pear off of Airi's cheek and said, "Why do you think it's a bribe?"

 

"Cus, you don't want me to help you anymore," sniffed Airi before setting her spoon down and rubbing her eyes, "and you don't want me to play my music."

 

"When did you hear me say anything like that," asked Yuzu leaning in close and trying her best to smile. "I go to all your recitals, and Mommy and I sit and listen to you practice when you're at home and try to help you with your music homework even if we don't understand any of it. Also, earlier today, didn't I let you take a couple of customers' orders, and you helped me with their money like you told those two nice ladies. Remember?"

 

"Yeah." Nodded Airi before picking up her spoon and taking another bite of her food. "But you trying to be nice, like the kids who acted like my friends at school who said they were my friends and then played tricks on me."

 

"I'm not those kids," said Yuzu with a smile before kissing Airi on top of those kids. "I'm your mama, and when I want you to do something with me, it's because I like you being around, and I want you to learn lots of new things, okay?"

 

"Promise?" Airi tried to look like she wasn't enjoying the attention, but Yuzu could see a smile in her eyes.

 

"I promise." Yuzu nuzzled Airi's cheek before wiping some tears away. "I love it when you visit me here, and I love that you want to help me while you're here. It reminds me of when Mommy tells me about how you help when you visit her at school. But the music is something we need to talk to Mommy about because that's a decision we need to make together. Your instruments are expensive, and we want to be careful with them, right?"

 

"Yes, Mama." Airi nodded and finished the last bite of her snack and sighed before continuing. "Do you...do you think my dad would get mad if something happened to them? I don't want him to be mad at me. He just started talking to me, and I don't want him to hate me."

 

Yuzu began to rub Airi's head and smiled, saying, "I don't think he'd be mad at you, and I know for sure that he wouldn't hate you, especially if it were an accident. Ken-san is a nice man, even if he's a little flaky at times. But if it means that much to you, we can talk to him about it." 

 

Due to Airi's outburst at the festival, any chance of Airi and her father having a sit-down conversation had gone out the window thanks to Ken's work schedule. But to their relief, Ken was determined to get to know Airi better and although the time difference made an actual conversation nearly impossible, he'd been sending her emails and the occasional video message which they'd taken to printing off and reading to Airi every night and having Airi write down her replies and typing them out or recording a video.

 

While it was difficult for Mei and Yuzu to at first accept this form of communication between the two of them, primarily because of Mei's history with her father, they couldn't argue with the effect it was having on Airi.

 

Though shy and courteous at first with her replies, with most of them only being a few sentences long, over the past few weeks Airi had slowly begun opening up more to Ken and began to grow more curious about what his life was like beyond the usual topics of what he did at work or how he was feeling and began asking him more about his personal life.

 

At first, he'd been sparse with the details, and Yuzu and Mei occasionally glossed over them in his emails since there wasn't much information to work with. But eventually, he began answering them in his videos, though it was plain as day that the topics were little uncomfortable for him, he was as honest with Airi as he could be and even took the extra effort of emailing Yuzu and Mei beforehand and asking them how they'd like him to phrase his responses.

 

It took a lot of coordination, and there were times both Yuzu and Mei joked to each other about taking Airi there in person, but they both knew it'd be a while before they'd risk another face to face meeting between the two.

 

However, the fact that Airi was beginning to feel better about who she was more than enough for them and as long as she was happy, that's all that mattered to her mothers.

 

But as she sat there waiting for her daughter to reply, Yuzu couldn't resist reaching out and stroking her cheek and chuckled when Airi jumped a little from the contact.

 

"Sorry," said Yuzu with a smile. "Did I scare you?"

 

"A little."

 

Airi fidgeted in her seat and Yuzu saw an all too familiar anxious look flash across Airi's face and for a moment, she could swear she was looking at Mei, but after placing a hand on Airi's head, she rubbed it and asked, "Do you have something on your mind?"

 

"Kinda."

 

Watching Airi's gaze relax, Yuzu gave Airi's cheek one final stroke before asking, "Is it about your dad?"

 

"Sorta."

 

Yuzu watched as Airi took a sip of tea and swished it around in her mouth for a moment, swallow, and then asked, "Do you not want me to ask him about letting you play in the restaurant?"

 

Airi shrugged and took another sip of tea before asking, "Can we ask after you talk to Mommy? I don't want you and Mommy to fight because you asked him before you asked her."

 

"Okay." Yuzu smiled before taking a long sip of tea and waved at a few customers who were heading out and thanked them for their patronage. "But you don't have to worry about Mommy and me getting into a fight. We might get frustrated, but we won't fight."

 

"Promise?" Airi's eyes shimmered briefly, and Yuzu nodded, giving Airi her trademarked smile.

 

"I promise, Sweetie. Mommy and I won't fight, but I want you to know that even if we say 'no,' that doesn't mean we don't want your help; it just means that right now, we want you to focus on other things. You're only six, so you don't need to worry about having a job or anything like that. We're happy enough knowing that you like helping. Does that make sense?"

 

"Yes, Mama." Airi finished her tea and wiped her mouth and let out another sigh.

 

"What's wrong now," chuckled Yuzu, resting her head on her arms and tapping her daughter's forehead and smirking when Airi whimpered.

 

"Nothing."

 

Sliding off her chair, Airi proceeded to climb into Yuzu's lap and rest her head on her mother's chest.

 

"Are you sure," asked Yuzu, embracing her daughter without hesitation. "You sound upset."

 

"Yeah," whispered Airi as she felt Yuzu's on her back and returning the gesture. "I just wanted to give you a hug."

 

"You give the best hugs." Yuzu squeezed Airi tightly smiled at a couple of customers who were walking in and welcomed them before allowing one of her employees to take care of them.

 

"Do you gotta go back to work," asked Airi as her face grew hot at the man and the woman whispering and pointing at her and Yuzu.

 

"Nope," said Yuzu with a smile before pointing at the clock. "Today, I'm gonna leave early since Mommy and I made plans for all of us to have dinner and spend the night together. We even planned a special dinner. does that sound fun?"

 

"Uh-huh," said Airi, her voice sounding significantly more energetic upon hearing the news that they would be leaving soon. "What are we having?"

 

"I don't know," grunted Yuzu as she stretched. "Mommy said she wanted to cook, but I did spend the morning baking a special dessert while we were getting the restaurant prepared."

 

"Can I see it?" A mischievous smile spread across Airi's face, and Yuzu could swear she her daughter looked like some villain out of a manga.

 

"No," laughed Yuzu bending down and kissing Airi on the top of the head. "It's in a box, so you can't see it until after dinner."

 

"What if I promise not to eat it," pleaded Airi tugging carefully on Yuzu's shirt. "Please, Mama?"

 

"Nope." Yuzu could hear a few people, including some of her staff, laughing at the situation and couldn't help but continue grinning. "Sorry, but you're gonna have to wait. Just like Mommy."

 

"Meanie." Airi stuck out her tongue and crossed her arms in a huff, but burst into giggles when Yuzu began tickling her.

 

"Darn right, I am." Yuzu stopped her tickling and gave Airi a quick tap on the nose. "But you know I'm teasing and not in a bad way, right?"

 

"Yeah." Airi rubbed her eyes and nodded again before smacking her lips. "If it was bad teasing, I'd be feeling sad, but I'm happy."

 

"Good." Yuzu couldn't resist giving Airi another quick squeeze before kissing her cheek. "It's okay to feel sad, though, all right? Mommy and I want you to know that, and if you're ever feeling like that, you can come and talk to us, okay?"

 

"I know." Airi rubbed the spot where Yuzu had kissed and scrunched up her nose. "When are we gonna go home? I wanna see Mommy?"

 

"About half an hour," grunted Yuzu as a small twinge hit her lower back.

 

Ignoring it, she picked up the tray and pointed at the puzzle and books Airi had left out and said, "I want everything cleaned up, and once I'm done checking in with everyone to make sure they know what needs to be done, then we'll head home and see Mommy. Deal?"

 

Airi nodded, and once she was occupied with her cleaning, Yuzu returned to the kitchen and had a quick meeting with her staff though it was far from necessary as most of them had been there long enough to know what she expected of them. But thanks to her managerial training and Mei's  repeated  recommendations about their necessity, Yuzu had found herself making them a common practice before opening and at the end of the evening.

 

Luckily nobody ever really complained, but she guessed that it was mostly due to the fact she tried to keep them under twenty minutes so as not to cut into their prep time too much.

 

After confirming with those present what they needed to do over the next couple of days while she was gone, Yuzu retrieved the massive box containing the dessert she'd made throughout the morning; she heard the familiar voice of one of her workers calling for her.

 

"What is it," asked Yuzu politely as she wrapped the box in a plastic bag and turned around to see one of her college employees holding a beaming Airi up in the kitchen window.

 

"Well, in my case, I was just letting you know that I was heading out for the night," explained the young man while Airi waved at Yuzu, exposing the straps of her backpack. "As for her, I think she wanted to tell you something. Ain't that right, Airi-chan?"

 

"Yup!" Airi held up both arms to show off her backpack. "I'm all done, Mama. Are you ready?"

 

"Almost," chuckled Yuzu, motioning for her employee to bring Airi to the office.

 

Once there, Airi ran to Yuzu and began trying to peek into the bag, but was foiled when Yuzu put it on top of her filing cabinet.

 

"Dang," snorted Airi as she watched her mother retrieve her bag and her zip-up sweater.

 

"I told you no peeking," tutted Yuzu with a wink, causing Airi to once again stick her tongue out at her mother in response. "Don't do it again or else you're not getting any. Got it?"

 

"Okay," sighed Airi taking Yuzu's hand and following her out into the late afternoon sun and began walking down the street. "Is Mommy home, or do we gotta go to the school?"

 

"That's a good question," commented Yuzu as she struggled to pull her phone out of her pocket. "Let's call her and find out."

 

"Can I call?" Airi reached up and began tugging carefully on Yuzu's arm, causing her to start walking at an angle. "Please, Mama?"

 

"Okay, okay." Yuzu unlocked her phone and handed it to Airi and watched as the girl expertly navigated her phone and pressed Mei's contact information.

 

"It's ringing," giggled Airi as she held the phone up to her ear before speaking again. "No, it's not Mama. No, I didn't take Mama's phone, she gave it to me."

 

"She's telling the truth, Mei," said Yuzu loudly as they continued walking down the street.

 

For a moment, Yuzu kept a peripheral watch on Airi as she heard Mei's muffled voice, but relaxed when she saw Airi smile again.

 

"I had fun. I got to serve drinks, and I even took money. No, I just gave people money, I didn't touch the register. Yeah, I got snacks. Mama let me have a pear tart and ice cream, it was yummy, and she said she made dessert because you're making something special. What is it? Are you home yet?"

 

There was a moment of silence, and Yuzu smiled as Airi's bright-eyed expression turned to one from aggravation.

 

"That's what Mama said. I wanna know, can you tell me? Fine." Airi began lifting her legs in the form of goose-step for some strange reason. "Umm, Mommy, is Hideki gonna be home soon? I miss him."

 

Yuzu nearly tripped at the question, but caught herself, causing Airi to give her a confused look before turning back to her conversation.

 

"Yeah, I'm here. Mama nearly tripped. But you promise he's gonna be home soon?"

 

Yuzu smiled as Airi began jumping in excitement as they walked.

 

"I'm gonna give him his action figure when he gets home in a few days. Did he get me a present? Oh, okay! I can wait. I hope it's something cool. I love you too. We'll be home soon. Mama!"

 

Airi grabbed Yuzu's arm and held up the phone up to Yuzu's elbow and waved it excitedly.

 

"Mommy wants to talk to you, and she said Hideki got us gifts! Oh, and she said she's home too."

 

After handing the phone to Yuzu, Airi ran ahead and began chasing around a couple of birds that were sitting in front of a shop while a couple of kids a little older than Airi ran down the sidewalk tossing a ball back and forth to each other.

 

"Hey," said Yuzu watching as Airi climbed onto a coin-operated rocking toy as the kids walked by and stared longingly at them as they began to pass the ball carefully. "How're you doing? Everything go okay at the meeting?"

 

"It went quite well," said Mei from the other end. "I'm sorry I had to do that to you, but with school starting, I couldn't miss it. I know she said she did, but  did  she have a good day?"

 

"I think she had a good time," said Yuzu as she watched one of the kids accidentally throw the ball backward and bounce toward Airi and cause the kids to shout for her help to get it. Yuzu was about to intervene, but thankfully they ball rolled to a stop next to a wall, and Airi managed to grab it without having to risk running out into the street.

 

"Yuzu, what's going on? Is everything all right? Do I need to come down to where you are?"

 

"We're fine," said Yuzu with a smile as Airi blushed and handed the ball to one of the girls in the group and stared at the ground as she talked to them. "Just some kids were yelling at a ball they were chasing, and Airi was helping them."

 

"Is she all right?"

 

"She's okay," said Yuzu, happy to hear that Mei was so concerned about Airi's interaction.

 

"They aren't doing anything to her, are they? They aren't being mean?"

 

"No." Yuzu shook her head as she spoke, glad to see that the kids were all smiling and thanking Airi before running off in the direction they'd been initially heading while Airi ran to Yuzu pulled at her pant leg. "No, I think everything turned out all right. Did you need anything from the store or any help when we got home?"

 

"I can manage most of it," said Mei, and Yuzu heard the sound of the sink turning on. "I'll see you when you get home, and just so you are aware, I may have gone a little overboard with some of the shopping. We'll probably be eating leftovers for the next few days."

 

"Of course, we will. See you soon."

 

Yuzu hung up the phone and placed it in her purse before grabbing Airi's hand and continued their journey for a few moments in silence before asking, "Airi, did everything go okay with those kids? They weren't mean, were they?"

 

"No." Airi shook her head and stepped closer to Yuzu, her grip tightening. "They were nice, and they asked me if I wanted to go play soccer with them, but I told them I had to go home for dinner."

 

"That was nice of them." Yuzu looked down to see if she could see the expression on Airi's face but was instead rewarded with a large amount of curly brown hair. "Did they tell you where they were playing? Maybe we can stop by there tomorrow afternoon and see if you can play with them. I'm off the next couple of days since you go back to school soon, so if there's something you wanna do, we can do it."

 

"Maybe." Airi slowed her stride and instead began jumping from one section of the sidewalk to the next. "I know a couple of them. They go to my school, but they're in first grade, not kindergarten."

 

"Well, you'll be in first grade soon, and a year isn't that big a difference. You can still be friends if you want."

 

"I guess." Airi jumped twice more before going back into walking and fell silent for a few minutes.

 

"Mama," said Airi as they turned the street a couple of blocks away from their house.

"What's up, Sweetie?" Yuzu shifted her purse and the bag with dessert.

 

"Umm, if those kids aren't there tomorrow, can we go and see a movie with Hina and Reo?"

 

Running her fingers through Airi's hair, Yuzu chuckled as she said, "Sure we can. We can go and see whatever you guys want so long as it's  age-appropriate , so don't even think about asking to see something for older kids."

 

"Okay." Airi squeezed Yuzu's hand again and began sniffing the air as they approached the house. "Something smells good. What do you think Mommy's making?"

 

Yuzu pulled out her keys and handed them to Airi saying, "What do ya say we go and find out?"

Chapter Text

 


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. 

Chapter Text

 Chapter 14

 

 “Can you please let me go now,” gasped Hideki after several arduous moments of hugging from his family. “I'm starting to lose feeling in my arms and legs."

 

 

 “Fine,” sighed Yuzu before giving him one tight squeeze. and tapped Airi on the top of the head, while leaving Mei alone so she could have a few extra moments with their son. “That means you too, Airi. We need to see if Yui-chan needs help and get the table ready for dinner.”

 

 “But I wanna...”

 

 “Do what Mama says, Airi.” Mei turned her hardened gaze at Airi and waved toward the hallway. "You'll have plenty of time to talk to Hideki over dinner.

 

 “But, I wanted to show Hideki my new apron and knives," whined Airi, stamping her feet and glaring at her mothers. 

 

 “That’s enough, Airi,” echoed both Mei and Yuzu in stern voices silencing the young girl.

 

 “How about you wear the apron while we make the okonomiyaki,” suggested Hideki, using the distraction to break free of his Mei’s vice-like grip, “and then after we eat, I can give you the presents I picked up on my trip. But you have to be good, or else you won’t get anything until tomorrow.”

 

 “But I missed you,” sniffed Airi, her lower lip protruding, making Mei roll her eyes a little, and Yuzu shake her head.

 

 While it had been years since something like this had worked on the pair of them, both Mei and Yuzu knew that Hideki was a sucker for the look Airi was giving him and weren't surprised when he succumbed to it.

 

 “I missed you too.” Hideki did his best to bend down, and both Mei and Yuzu noticed a strained look on his face and the way his knee shook as he approached Airi’s level and placed a large hand on her head. “But I gotta talk to Mom and Mama, and I promise that tonight, you, me, and Yui will have a sleep-over in the living room. I’ll even make breakfast in the morning.  I had to cook a lot while I was out of town, so I’ve learned a lot of new recipes you might like. You want traditional or western?”

 

 “Ummmmm….”

 

 Airi stared up at the ceiling and began swinging her arms back and forth before nodding and saying, “I want those waffle things Reo made when I stayed at Uncle’s last week. Do you know how to make those?”

 

 “We don’t have a waffle iron, Airi,” said Mei, shaking her head at how her daughter once again made a somewhat unreasonable request. 

 

 “Oh.” Airi chewed on her lower lip, her thoughts on what meal she could con out of her brother while Yuzu looked down and noticed the struggling look on Hideki’s face and then made a motion to Mei, who nodded in agreement while an undecided Airi shrugged. “Can I tell you in the morning?”

 

 “Sure.” Hideki gave Airi a pained smile before giving his little sister one more gentle pat on the head. “But before that, you think you can give me some time with Mom and Mama? I promise I’ll tell you about it later.”

 

"Okay." Airi gave Hideki a toothy grin and pointed over her shoulder down the hallway. “Can I ask Yui-chan to play with me?”

 

 “Sure, Sweetie.” Yuzu smiled and carefully turned Airi down the hall. “Now go and be a good girl, and I promise we’ll start cooking dinner soon.”

 

 “Okay.” Airi nodded and jogged down the hallway, making sure to hike up her pajama legs as she went.

 

 When she reached the end of the hallway, Airi rounded the corner, stopped and turned back, and shouted, “Welcome home, Hideki! I love you!”

 

 “Love you too,” chuckled Hideki with a wave, and the moment she was gone, he waved at Yuzu and Mei while struggling to get to his feet. “Can you two help me stand up?”

 

 “Sure thing.”

 

 “Of course.”

 

 With some effort, Mei and Yuzu helped steady Hideki as he shakily got to his feet, and by the time he was standing, they could both see several beads of sweat pouring down his head. “Thanks. Holy crap that was hell on my knee."

 

 “What happened,” asked Mei quietly after hearing Airi and Yui begin playing one of Hideki’s video games.

 

 “And don’t think you can try hiding it like your mom used to,” warned Yuzu with an uncharacteristically stern face. “I know all her tricks, and you’re the same way.”

 

 “I didn’t plan on it.”  Hobbling away from his mothers, Hideki reached down and rubbed his leg as he began explaining what happened. "I hurt my knee during a rehearsal, and the doctor said that I have to take it easy for a while; that's all." 

 

 “And you didn’t think to call us?”

 

 Mei crossed her arms and approached her son, a familiar cold glare darkening her face while Hideki gave her a nervous shrug, wondering if they’d even heard what he said about the doctor.

 

 “I didn’t think it’d be this bad,” he explained as the pain began to fade. “I mean, it’s not like I’ve never been hurt dancing. The first time it happened, I just thought I hadn't stretched properly so I took a few days off, felt better, and then I was working on a routine with someone, jumped, and I landed wrong and just felt something ‘go’ in my knee. They took me to the E.R. and…”

 

 “You went to the hospital?”

 

 Hideki winced at the way his mother hissed her inquiry and gave her another sheepish grin while trying to avoid her gaze.

 

 “Well, yeah,” he began, his voice cracking slightly. “I said I went to the doctor. It kinda made sense given what happened and how much pain I was in.”

 

 “And when were you planning on telling your mom and me this?” Yuzu moved closer to Mei and crossed her arms in a similarly threatening manner, though the look she was giving their son was less intimidating and pointed a finger at his knee. “Also, what did you mean by ‘go’? What exactly happened to your leg, and don’t you dare lie young man.”

 

 “Um, well….”

 

 Hideki swallowed hard, his hands shaking at the infuriated stare Yuzu was giving him. Reaching down, he undid the velcro of his brace and removed it, revealing his bruised and swollen knee and nervously chuckled, “This bad.”

 

 At seeing the injury, Yuzu’s mouth dropped open in shock, and Mei’s hand flew to her mouth.

 

 Over the years, they’d gotten used to seeing Hideki hurt. Given the extent of training he went through for recitals and competitions, it wasn’t uncommon for him to come home sore, covered in bruises, or on occasion a sprained wrist or ankle. It was to par for the course and Abby would cut them a deal on their lessons like she did with her other students if something like that happened, even if the parents didn’t need it and would take an active interest in the recovery process.

 

 But this was something altogether different, and both Mei and Yuzu stared at each other for a few tense moments before turning back to Hideki, who had begun chewing on his lower lip while his eyes shifted between his mothers.

 

 “When...did you go to the hospital,” asked Mei, her eyes focused on the mass of black, purple, and yellow flesh. “Did they do an x-ray? Do you need surgery? Are you going to...”

 

 “Mei,” interrupted Yuzu, placing a gentle hand on Mei’s shoulder. “One question at a time.”

 

 Mei nodded and patted Yuzu’s hand in thanks before gesturing to Hideki while Yuzu said, “Hideki, answer your mother, and remember what I told you; don’t lie.”

 

 “Ri...right.” Hideki coughed nervously and took a deep breath. “Well, we were at practice, and we were doing jumps, and my partner landed wrong, and we both went to the floor, my knee popped and I started screaming which is how I ended up at the hospital. Once I got there, they did the usual stuff. I  got an X-ray and was told that even if it wasn’t severe, I couldn’t continue with the program, and that's why I got sent home early.”

 

 Hideki waved at the house and tried to smile, but his face fell at the looks of hurt on his Mei and Yuzu’s faces.

 

  “You didn’t think to tell us this when you called to say you would be coming home,” snorted Mei after hearing her son’s explanation. “You didn’t think to have the people in charge of your well-being tell us what happened and instead let them just shove you on a plane and act as if nothing happened?”

 

 Hideki winced and looked to for back up but shrunk when she shook her head with a look that said, “You’re on your own.”

 

 “It was stupid, I know,” whispered Hideki. “But I didn’t….

 

 “Stupid doesn’t even begin to describe what you did,” interjected Mei, taking a few steps forward her fists shaking as she spoke. “You and the adults that were in charge of you should have told one of us immediately, regardless of us signing off on them being responsible for you during your stay. This is by far, one of the stupidest things you’ve ever done. That’s including your stealing of alcohol and you getting into that fight before you left. You could have a permanent limp or need pins in your legs or ankle or what if the bone had...

 

 “Mei, lower your voice.” Yuzu wrapped her arm around Mei and rubbed her shoulder comfortingly in an attempt to call her. “We don’t want to scare Airi. I also want it to  make it clear that I am not taking his side, but since he’s up and walking, as long as we're careful, I think we'll be all right until..."

 

 “It’s not all right,” replied Mei, her voice seething. “Our son’s leg is mangled, and the people responsible for him didn’t even bother to tell us. How can you consider that ‘all right’?”

 

 “I agree that they screwed up, and I’m just as mad as you are,” said Yuzu, motioning for Mei to keep her voice down. “Trust me, I am. And I promise you that the first thing we’ll do after we calm down is file a complaint and call to ask them why they didn’t tell us.”

 

 “They didn’t say anything because I didn’t tell them everything,” grunted Hideki, as he struggled to wrap his knee. “So you can’t blame them for not telling you something they didn't have all the variables to. All I told the doctors to tell them was that they suggested that I go home since I couldn’t continue the program. Also, I was the one that told them not to tell you what was going on because I promised that I'd give you an explanation, and I did, so please don’t blame them. They’re good people and had they known everything they would have told you.”

 

 “That still doesn’t change the fact that you should have told us before you walked through the door.” Mei’s voice rose

and shortly after, they heard Yui and Airi ask if everything was okay.

 

 “We’re fine,” said Yuzu with an air of well-practiced cheeriness. “We’re just finishing up talking, so make sure you wash your hands if you’re going to help cook; that includes you, Airi.”

 

 Airi shouted a confirming reply, the volume of the television returned to its previous level, Yuzu gave Hideki a disappointed sigh while she watched Mei struggle to keep her tears in check.

 

 “Mom...Mama...I’m...”

 

 “We know you are.” Yuzu reached out for Mei and wasn’t surprised when Mei flinched at her touch before relaxing and allowing a momentary embrace. “But this isn’t some fight where you defended your little sister. If this injury is bad enough, I mean, are you still going to be able to dance? What are you going to tell Abby?”

 

 “I don’t know, Mama.” Hideki’s voice grew quieter with each word while his body slumped against the wall as his eyes began watering. “Everything just happened so quick, and I didn’t want to scare you guys, not after everything that happened before I left and….”

 

 “Okay, okay.” Yuzu let go of Mei and walked toward Hideki, embracing him, tears pouring down his cheeks as he apologized over and over, his arms practically crushing her. “We understand. We’re not happy about it, but we do understand, don’t we Mei?”

 

 “Yes,” choked Mei, wiping her eyes on her apron. “I suppose we do in our way. But it doesn’t change the fact that I am very disappointed in you, Hideki.”

 

 “I know, Mom,” answered Hideki quietly while Yuzu gave Mei an understanding, but disgruntled look. “I just didn’t know what to do.”

 

 “You tell us the truth,” said Mei before brushing the hair out of her son’s face, careful to avoid his ear. “We just went through this before you left. I understand that you’re getting older, but hiding incidents like this will only cause more problems later on, especially when you’re an adult. Do you understand?”

 

 “Of course I do, Mom.” Hideki snorted but allowed Mei to press her forehead against his cheek. “I’m not stupid; I just panicked.”

 

 “I know.” Mei turned Hideki’s head and pressed their foreheads together; her eyes closed as she listened to her son’s breathing begin to calm. “And I forgive you; I want you to know that. But we're going to take you to your doctor here to get a second opinion, even if we have to delay going into work for a few days. Isn’t that right, Yuzu.”

 

 Mei turned her eyes to Yuzu, who straightened up and nodded the moment Mei's eyes were on hers.

 

 “Of course, we are.” Yuzu leaned joined the pair of them and kissed Hideki on the cheek before gently flicking his ear lobe and making let out a small yelp of pain. “But we’re going to see get ahold of your dad, and we’re telling him everything, and we’re extending your punishment too.”

 

 “No arguing,” said Mei when Hideki began to protest. “You brought this on yourself, and these are the consequences. Am I clear?”

 

 “Yes, Ma’am,” grumbled Hideki, his eyes red and his shoulders hunched over in annoyance. “Am I still allowed to work, or am I going to have to tell Dr. Adachi I’m not going to be able to make my shifts for a bit?”

 

 “We’ll discuss that later.” Mei looked at Yuzu, who again nodded in agreement. “I’m sure the veterinarian can make do without you for a while, although I’m sure with the condition your leg is in the last thing you should be doing is carrying animals and lifting heavy bags of food to help feed them.”

 

 “Okay.” Hideki sighed and scratched his head, his eyes unwilling to make eye contact with his mothers. “So how long is my extension? Is it going to be long?

 

 “I'm not sure of the length yet,” said Mei before taking a step back and waving down the hallway as she pushed Hideki toward the living room, her anger being replaced by maternal concern. “But right now, let’s get you on the couch and prop up your leg. Where’s your luggage? Yuzu, can you check outside for his bags? And did you get any medication for your leg?

 

 “It’s in the back of Yui’s mom’s car,” explained Hideki with a grunt, nervous about what additions his parents might add to his punishment.  “Along with the anti-inflammatory meds the doctors gave me, no, it’s not aspirin, and I promise that the swelling isn’t as bad as it looks. It only looks like this because the seat I had on the plane wasn’t an aisle seat, and I couldn’t stretch it out. But I did manage to get onto the plane a little bit earlier, so that was a plus.”

 

 “And still manage to be several hours late coming home,” chided Yuzu, flicking her son on the forehead before, walking down the hallway with Mei and Hideki close behind her. “Why were you so late, anyway? Was the flight delayed?”

 

 “No, it was on time.”

 

 Mei noticed how red Hideki’s ears had gotten as he answered and asked, “Then, why were you late getting home? And why didn’t you call if you were with Yui? She has a phone; you could have used it. Or one of the courtesy phones at the airport. I would even have accepted a message from an internet cafe.”

 

 “I had to stop and pick something up in Akihabara,” he said, his face turning the same shade as his ears when he saw Airi and Yui sitting on the couch playing a racing game. “And I was trying to keep coming home a surprise from Airi; I thought you’d have figured that out. You know how good she is at weaseling information out of people.”

 

 “Weasling information out of you, you mean,” snickered Yuzu who peeked over her shoulder just in time to see a smile flash across Mei’s face while Hideki rolled his eyes. “What’d you have to pick up in Akihabara? Did some new limited cover manga come out or something?”

 

 “I’ll tell you later,” whispered Hideki as they approached the couch. “Are you sure you don’t need help?”

 

 “We’ll manage.” Yuzu patted Hideki on the cheek and jerked her thumb at the couch. “Go and have a little fun because you won’t be having any for a while.”

 

 “Are you sure?” Hideki gave a worried look to Yuzu and then to Mei. “I’m not tired. I slept a lot on the plane.”

 

 “It’s fine,” said Mei before stepping away and taking Yuzu’s hand. “Do as your mama says before I change her mind.”

 

 “All right.” Hideki gave them both a quick kiss on the cheek before limping over to the couch and promptly stood in front of Airi, his backside covering her line of sight, making Mei shake her head and Yuzu chuckle. “Ah, come on, Airi, you can do better than that. Why’d you run into the wall?’

 

 “I crashed cuz your fat butt’s in my face,” barked Airi as she tried to move her head around Hideki’s posterior, while her car on the screen continued to crash repeatedly into a wall. “Mommy! Mama! Hideki’s making me lose on purpose.”

 

 “You’ll be fine. It's only a game,” said Mei as she pulled Yuzu toward the kitchen while Airi continued to scream at Hideki to move.

 

 “Move your butt, Hideki,’ whined Airi as her foot repeatedly collided with her brother’s massive frame. “Your gonna make me lose!”

 

 “Too late,” cheered Yui as she crossed the finish line, taking the second place flag while Airi let out a scream of frustration and kicked Hideki.

 

 “You’re a jerk,” snapped Airi as her feet repeatedly made contact with her brother’s butt and lower back. “Why’d you do that?”

 

 “Because I could,” laughed Hideki, picking up a controller, and took his spot between the girls, and rested his leg on the coffee table before switching to a fighting game while an angered Airi punched him in the arm before stealing his controller and climbed into his lap.

 

 “I’m gonna pick the level.”

 

 “Fine with me," said Hideki, letting Airi take control of the game.

 

 Mei and Yuzu watched from the kitchen as Hideki leaned back and watched Airi and Yui pick their characters and began a match while providing the occasional bit of commentary.

 

 “Are you okay,” asked Yuzu, pulling the wings out of the fridge and handing them to Mei.

 

 “I am conflicted,” replied the younger woman as she began to work. “On one hand, I am happy he is home and on the other...."

 

 Mei raised her hands, clenched them, and made a momentary shaking motion before going back to her work while Yuzu prepped a skillet and the oven.

 

 “That sounds about right,” sighed Yuzu as Hideki tried to suggest a move Airi should use only for Airi to go and do the exact opposite, catching Yui off guard and sending her to the ground in defeat. “Honestly, I was not expecting that, and I swear the doctor he went to better have sent his x-rays to his primary doctor, or I'm going to do something they'll never expect."

 

 “And what might that be,” asked Mei with a small smirk as she placed some wings on a pan and waved at Yuzu to move. “Do you have some grand scheme to get them to do what you want, or are you going to wear them down as you did to me?”

 

 “Are we going to have this conversation right here” whispered Yuzu just as Airi let out a cheer of victory and stood up on the couch to shake her butt in her brother’s face and began making farting noises, causing his lip curl in disgust while Yui laughed loudly. “Because if we are, I would like to point out that I have acknowledged my mistakes and that I do not appreciate you bringing that stuff up out of the blue, especially with the kids here. But if you want to do this right now, I can bring up a whole bunch of things you did to me when we started dating.”

 

 “I’m sorry,” said Mei quietly, stealing a quick kiss after moving Yuzu out of the way and put the chicken in the oven and smiled as Yui and Hideki began a new match. She even managed to smile at Airi, who was now doing something on her tablet and propping her feet up on her brother's shoulder so she could continue poking him in the face with her toes in an attempt to break his concentration. “That joke was poorly timed, and I shouldn’t have made it. I was trying to make you laugh. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings."

 

 “You don’t need to make off-color jokes to make me laugh,” grumbled Yuzu after Mei had finished with the oven. “And I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have made those comments. I guess I was trying to be funny too, but it came off more as mean than anything else."

 

“Apology accepted.”

 

Mei returned to her preparations while Yuzu helped her, both of their eyes on the kids who were smiling and laughing, though they both noticed Hideki occasionally giving them a nervous, peripheral glance.

 

 “You still mad at him,” asked Yuzu as they finished their last batch of wings and washed her hands in preparation to show Mei how to pan-fry them.

 

 “I’ve calmed down.” Mei took a few calming breaths and watched as Yuzu set the temperature and waited for the pan to heat up. “But I am still upset with him over what he did. That was ill-conceived. We are his parents, and we should have been notified.”

 

 “Well, if he told the doctors ‘no’ then there’s no way they could have told us,” said Yuzu as she placed a couple of wings in the pan and gave a brief explanation of what she was doing before continuing their conversation. “He’s eighteen, and from what I remember, in most places, I think he’s legally allowed to keep stuff like that hidden from us. If we lived in England, he could go and get drunk if he wanted to.”

 

 “And you’re okay with that,” snorted Mei, folding her arms and glowering as Yuzu placed a lid on the pan to allow the steam to help speed up the cooking process. “You’re okay with him being able to keep things like broken bones and diseases and getting drunk hidden from us?”

 

 “You know I’m not.” Yuzu stepped aside to let Mei try her hand at cooking the wings in the pan. “But we’ve had this talk often enough that I’ve become a little bit more used to the idea while you….”

 

 “Are overbearing?” Mei snorted loudly and lifted the lid off the pan and flipped the wings to crisp the other side, piercing the skin of one with her chopsticks as she did it. “That’s what you were going to say, right? That I don’t know how to let go?’

 

 “I was trying to say that you need a bit more time.” Yuzu took a step behind Mei and wrapped her arms around her wife’s waist, and kissed the back of her neck. “With what happened with your dad and Hideki, I get it, and I love that you’re so protective of the kids. It’s so cute.”

 

 “Be careful, Yuzu,” grunted Mei, with the faintest hit of a giggle. “I”m going to burn my hand if you keep doing that.”

 

 “I’ll kiss it better if you do.”

 

 Yuzu smirked and leaned in to kiss Mei’s ears when a loud cough diverted their attention to a grinning Airi and a familiar-looking man with dark skin and short curly hair staring at them from the screen of her tablet.

 

 “Hello, Airi. Ken,” said Mei cooly, wishing that Yuzu would let go of her waist but knew that would be a losing battle and resigned to continue cooking while Yuzu’s chin found its way to her shoulder.

 

 “Hi Ken,” giggled Yuzu at the blush she saw on Airi’s dad’s face. “How much did you see?”

 

 “Just the last part,” he said quietly before coughing again. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. I just had some free time, and I thought I’d talk to Airi and she decided that I should say, ‘hi’. Apparently she chose the wrong time to do it.”

 

 “You get used to it,” sighed Yuzu, giving Mei one more kiss on the cheek before releasing her so she could join Airi on the opposite side. “Airi, you know better than to do something like that.”

 

 “She’s right,” said Mei, keeping her eyes focused on the chicken and growing worried that the pork wasn’t cooking correctly. “You know how we feel about spying. You should have told us your father had called, and we would have joined you.”

 

 “I would have, but I wanted to show my dad the rest of the house.” Airi bent her head down and tried to get her face in the shot. “Did you like the tour?”

 

 “It was interesting.” Ken chuckled at Airi’s enthusiasm. “I got to see everything except Hideki’s and your bedroom, including the photo albums.”

 

 “What’d you think of that,” asked Yuzu with a smile while Mei set aside the wings and joined her at the counter and gripped her hand. “Kinda weird to see all her pictures printed out?”

 

 “It would have been if I hadn’t done the same,” Ken smirked while Mei and Yuzu’s eyes raised in astonishment. “Don’t look at me like that. What else was I going to do with them? Let them sit on my computer? I mean, I do that too, but I like having a physical copy on hand too.”

 

 Just as he said this, Hideki walked by and let out a snort as he grabbed two sodas from the fridge before walking back to the couch leaving his mothers to shake their heads while Airi continued to hold her tablet and smile at them, not understanding why her brother had made the noise.

 

 “Anyway,” said Mei after a moment, “how are you doing? Is work keeping you busy or do you have time off soon so we can make up for what happened when you were in town?”

 

 “As much as I’d like to, I’m going to be pretty busy until winter.” Ken gave them an apologetic smile as he spoke. “We got two projects being completed and one that’s about to start. But once those other two are off the ground, I might be able to swing a few days, especially if I can find a way to get in on a few business meetings involving our Japanese distributors. But if I can make it happen a little earlier, I’ll try. But doesn’t she have school starting again?”

 

 “She does,” said Yuzu with a stern look at Airi, “and she still has a few homework assignments left to finish before she goes back on Monday, which will be finished in the morning.”

 

 “But you said we could go out tomorrow.” Airi’s brow furrowed as she gave Yuzu an accusatory look. “Can’t I do it after?”

 

 “You’ll do it before.” Yuzu reached out and tapped Airi on the nose with a manicured nail. “I’m not going to have you turning into me when it comes to schoolwork. If I did, Mommy would kill me.”

 

 “I wouldn’t kill you.” Mei’s voice was calm as she retreated into the kitchen to remove the food from the oven and begin mixing the batter for the other part of their dinner. “I’d simply stop talking to you until you broke her of the habit.”

 

 “I’d rather you kill me,” groaned Yuzu, winking at Airi. “But homework first, then we play. That includes practicing your cello and your violin and your homework for your piano.”

 

 “Do I gotta,” asked Airi, eyes wide as she looked at her father through the camera.

 

 “You heard them,” replied Ken without hesitation. “Your moms word is law, Airi. Study, then play. You only have a few days left before school starts, and if I don’t want you playing catch up, I’m pretty sure they don’t either.

 

 “Fine.” Airi stuck her tongue out at her dad making both him and Yuzu laugh and Mei smirk. “I’ll do my homework, and ummm...if you visit...I promise not to be mean again.”

 

 “I know.” Ken’s voice was soft, and from the corner of her eye, Yuzu could see Hideki staring at them over his shoulder. When she was sure, Airi couldn’t see, held a finger up to her lips and shaking her head as a way of telling him not to say anything. “But I already told you I’m not mad. You were scared, and I should have said something. If I were you, I would have been freaked out too. But if you’re serious about making it up to me, why don’t you make me something to eat as you did with your mom and mama? I bet you’ll be an excellent cook by the time I get to town for my next visit.”

 

 “Can I,” asked Airi quietly, her eye widening as she stared at Mei and Yuzu.

 

 “That’s why we bought you all this cooking stuff,” said Yuzu as she ruffled Airi’s hair. “Well, part of the reason. But if it encourages you to learn, then I say go for it.”

 

 “Mommy, can you help me?”

 

 At hearing Airi’s request, Mei’s hand hit the top of the oven, and there was a loud bang as thee pan she was holding fell back on to the rack as Mei hissed in pain at the burning sensation throbbing in her wrist. 

 

 “What happened,” asked Yuzu leaving the counter as Mei turned on the cold water and placed her arm beneath it.

 

 “I’m all right,” exclaimed Mei over the cacophony of voices that had erupted from the kids, Ken, and Yuzu. “I just burned my hand. I’ll be fine after I put some ointment on it. But I’ll need some help with finishing dinner. Hideki, get the grill. Yui and Airi, can you please grab the dishes? Yuzu, come with me. I’ll need your help with cleaning and dressing it. Ken, I apologize, but we’re going to need to end this conversation early.”

 

 “Don’t worry about it. I’ll talk to you all soon. Airi, be good.”

 

 “Okay!” Airi picked her tablet up, waved good-bye to her father, and hit a button while Mei and Yuzu retreated to the bathroom.

 

 While the kids all began shouting at each other over who was going to be doing what, Mei and Yuzu retreated into the bathroom. When they arrived, Yuzu set about finding the first-aid kit while Mei quietly stood against the counter, waiting patiently.

 

 “Okay,” grunted Yuzu as she began pulling out the necessary items, “let’s see what we’re working with.”

 

 Mei extended her arm and allowed Yuzu to touch it, biting back a small scream as Yuzu examined her.

 

 “Sorry,” said Yuzu, her voice as gentle as her touch. “Does it hurt that bad?”

 

 “No,” said Mei, shaking her head. “Not necessarily, it was just the initial shock, but I’m fine now.”

 

 “Okay.”

 

 Yuzu nodded and kissed Mei’s palm before returning to her examination, sighing in relief when she saw Mei's wrist.

 

 “Looks like you didn’t pull off any skin or anything, so that’s good.” Yuzu opened the bottle of ointment and applied it to a swab before dabbing it on Mei’s arm and began looking for some gauze and bandages. “I don’t think you’ll need the hospital unless it blisters. If it does, we’ll go first thing in the morning.”

 

 “Thank you,” whispered Mei as Yuzu handed her two ibuprofen, a glass of water, and swallowed the pills. “I can’t believe I did something so foolish.”

 

 “And all because Airi asked you to teach her how to cook.” Yuzu chuckled as she began searching for something to fasten the bandaged to Mei’s arm. “I mean, it was a bit surprising. I mean, I know you were surprised."

 

Yuzu pointed at Mei's arm and they both chuckled. 

 

"It was surprising, yes and I thought she’d ask you as well.” Mei brushed some hair behind Yuzu’s ear as she sighed in defeat and began carefully tying the bandage. “You aren’t upset, are you?”

 

 “Naw.” Yuzu lifted Mei's hand to her mouth and kissed it before continuing. “Why would I be? You saw the look on her face when we gave her all that stuff. I’m sure she’ll be getting in the way trying to help, just like Hideki used to. So, don’t worry about me and enjoy it. Hideki might be leaving soon, but we still got a while with Airi, and we'll both have plenty of chances to teach her to cook.”

 

 “I suppose we do.” Mei kept her eyes focused on the bandage that Yuzu had finished tying around her wrist and sighed as Yuzu gave it another kiss. “I guess I should be happy about that.”

 

 “Don’t sound so disappointed,” pouted Yuzu placing her hands on either side of Mei, making sure to caress the rings on Mei's left hand while her face continued to inch closer to her wife's. “You forget, we still have a lifetime together.”

 

 “Sometimes it feels like we've already been married that long,” said Mei coldly, turning her face away from Yuzu, doing her best to avoid that familiar wide-eyed gaze, though the redness of her ears and the small upward curl of her lips

 

 Yuzu’s mouth once more fell open in surprise at Mei’s commentary before slowly twisting upward into a smile as she rested her head on Mei’s chest and laughed.

 

 “That...okay...that was a good joke.”

 

 “I’m glad.” Mei carefully wrapped her arms around Yuzu and closed her eyes when her wife did the same, causing much of her stress to melt away.

 

 “Feeling better,” asked Yuzu kissing Mei’s neck before resting her head on the taller woman’s shoulder, squeezing her tightly.

 

 “I will be soon.” Mei’s grip tightened around Yuzu briefly before relaxing. “But as much as I want to spend some time alone with you, I think it might be wiser for us to go and check on the children. I’m sure Yui already brought out the sushi I ordered and Airi’s eaten almost half of it.”

 

 “You got sushi?” Yuzu’s head jerked up at this revelation and Mei could see her eyes sparkling. “Why didn’t you say so sooner? It’s been forever since we had sushi. Did you get any nigiri? What about saba? And please tell me you got Airi her own serving of unagi. I don’t want them fighting over it like last time.”

 

 “It’s all taken care of.” Mei smiled at Yuzu’s excitement and followed her out of the bathroom, her hand firmly gripping Yuzu’s. “I took every precaution.”

 

 “Come on, Airi, save some for the rest of us." Mei and Yuzu both sighed as they heard Yui's voice echo down the hall. "Your mom bought this whole tray; you can share one piece.”

 

 “But this unagi came in a box with my name on it. So I don’t have to share. You can eat the chicken since Mommy didn’t say what’s spicy, and I don't want to eat something yucky."

 

 “Seems like you spoke too soon,” said Yuzu, smirking while Mei rolled her eyes at the argument that was taking place.

 

 “I guess so.” Mei let out a loud sigh as they rounded the corner but smiled when she saw Hideki pour the batter onto the grill, his face looking uncannily like his mother’s.

 

 “Will you two stop fighting,” he growled while he loaded some shredded bacon and other toppings onto the sizzling grill. “It’s sushi, and we have a whole tray of it, is it that big of a deal if you don’t get one type.”

 

 “Fine, then I’ll just eat this.”

 

 Yui reached over and stuffed a slice of inarizushi and maguro nigiri into her mouth while Airi shoved yet another piece of unagi into her mouth and began chewing happily; rice covering her face.

 

 “I don’t care,” snipped Hideki as Yui crammed another piece of lean tuna into her mouth, his eyebrow twitching furiously as his best friend began to loudly chew on one of his two favorite types of sushi.

 

 “Pfw ‘are,” asked Yui before picking up another piece, this time one of the larger pieces of inarizushi and began poking him in the cheek with one of her fingers before swallowing what was already in her mouth. “It’s delicious. Your mom got the good stuff. You better eat some before it’s all gone.”

 

 “I’ll eat some when I’m ready,” snapped Hideki, just as Yui popped her latest piece into her mouth, making her choke a little and Airi laugh.

 

 “That’s enough, you three,” sighed Mei, moving to where Hideki was while Yuzu moved to the seat between her and Airi and began trying to help their daughter clean her face before they started the rest of their meal. “Thank you for your help, Hideki. Take your seat, and I’ll finish making this. Yui you can sit as well. However, I’d advise against stuffing your mouth. I’d hate to have you choke before the start of the new term, and it wouldn’t look good for the academy if a student from another school died in my house. Not to mention what your parents would do to me if something happened to you." 

 

 “Yes, ma’am.” Yui nodded and took her seat next to Hideki, earning her an elbow in the side while Hideki began eating as many pieces of mauro and inarizushi before Yui ate the remaining pieces. “Thanks again for having me tonight.” 

 

 “It’s our pleasure,” laughed Yuzu after wiping the last bits of sauce and rice from Airi’s face before sharing a piece of unagi. “It’s been a while since you stayed over. Has school been going well?”

 

 While Yui explained about everything going on with her school work, including her softball and track duties, Mei smiled as the laughter around her filled her ears, content with serving everyone until Yuzu forced her to sit down and eat something before it went cold.

 

 When she was seated, Airi exited her seat and climbed in Mei’s lap, bringing with her a plate full of kappa maki and tamagoyaki.

 

 “I saved you some Mommy,” said Airi, holding up a piece of the omelette sushi for Mei to eat. “You like this kind, right?”

 

 “I do.” Mei leaned down and took a bite of the piece and smiled as she chewed.

 

 “It’s good, huh?”

 

 Mei nodded and swallowed and allowed Airi to feed her the remaining piece.

 

 “It’s excellent,” said Mei after swallowing and grabbing a plate of the slightly overdone chicken wings, sniffed it, and placed a few pieces onto the plate Airi was now sharing with her. “Here, I don’t think these pieces are spicy. Do you want me to try them before you eat?”

 

 “I’ll try it,” whimpered Airi, picking up a fork and sniffing the chicken. “You don’t like spicy stuff either, but you’re hurt, so I’ll make sure you don’t get anything gross.”

 

 “I’ll eat it,” said Hideki, extending his chopsticks to steal a piece only to have his hand slapped by a scowling Mei.

 

 “That was not smart,” laughed Yuzu as she took a seat and began chewing on a piece of shrimp okonomiyaki before eating some saba.

 

 “I guess not.” Hideki snorted and shook his hand, and glared at his mother. “Did you have to slap me so hard? That hurt.”

 

 “Yes, I did,” said Mei, squeezing a still oblivious Airi who had finally mustered up the courage to take a bite of the chicken and began chewing slowly.

 

 “Whatever.” Hideki shook his head and continued to eat, taking a large bite of a wing he knew to be spicy and swallowed. “At least I’m not a baby when it comes to spicy food.”

 

 “I’m not a baby,” shouted Airi after swallowing her bite. “I just took a big bite, so Mommy didn’t have to eat something spicy, and I can eat spicy stuff if I want to.”

 

 “Then, eat this.” Hideki grabbed an uneaten piece of chicken and placed it on Mei and Airi’s plate before eating another bite himself. “If you aren’t a baby, then eat that.”

 

 “Fine.” Airi set down the fork that still held the chicken she’d taste-tested for Mei, grabbed the slice her brother had given her and crammed it into her mouth, and began chewing. “’fe ehm nah a...”

 

 Everyone watched as Airi’s speech slowed and her face shifted from it’s usual warm tan color to a shade of cinnamon as her eyes filled with tears as the spiciness of the food assaulted her tongue, setting her body on fire.

 

 “Oh crap,” mumbled Hideki while tears poured down his sisters cheeks as she continued to chew and he began filling Airi’s cup with some milk.

 

 “Nice one, Hideki,” chided Yui, munching on a bit of mild chicken while Mei and Yuzu began helping a sniffing and coughing Airi get control of herself.

 

 “Se...see,” coughed Airi after taking a sip of milk and blowing her nose. “I told you I’m not a baby.”

 

 “Okay, okay.” Hideki’s face turned a bright shade of pink at the glare his mothers were giving him. “You’re not a baby.”

 

 “That's right,” said Airi through freshly fallen tears before sticking her tongue out at her brother. “I’m a big girl.”

 

 “Yes, yes, you are,” agreed Yuzu before standing up and preparing to make some more food. “Now if you two are done trying to prove how grown-up you; do you want any more? There’s plenty to go around.”

 

 After everyone agreed to another round of food, the meal continued in relative peace, with Hideki telling his family about all of the places he went while visiting New York. Most involved his adventures while staying in the city. But many included the trips they took them on to visit different academies in other cities and all the different foods he’d eaten along with pictures of all the friends he’d made and all the things they did.

 

 There were pictures of them at ballparks, shopping centers, Times Square, museums, and so many other places that Mei and Yuzu wondered if Hideki had done any work at all. Luckily, their worries were alleviated when Hideki showed them the videos of the routines he'd practiced and shows he’d been in while he was away.

 

 

 “Whoa! You can jump high,” exclaimed Airi as she watched a video on Hideki’s phone while Yuzu, her brother, and Yui began cleaning up.

 

 “You’ve seen him jump like that,” chuckled Mei as she watched the video alongside Airi, her arms still holding onto her daughter as if she were Kumagoro. “Though I am amazed at how much you’ve progressed to be able to keep up with the others. I’m very proud of you, Hideki.”

 

 “Thanks, Mom.”

 

 Yuzu watched Hideki’s ears turn bright red and said, “Airi, did you want to tell Hideki about everything you did while he was away?”

 

 “But he knows what we did, Mama.” Airi slipped off the chair and walked into the kitchen and put Hideki’s phone in his pocket. “He knows we went camping and stayed at the inn and stuff.”

 

 “That’s true,” said Mei, walking into the kitchen to help Yui get the dishes and food for their dessert. “We did do a good job of keeping him up to date about everything we were doing.”

 

 “Though you didn’t tell me about taking Airi to meet her dad,” grumbled Hideki, making Yuzu and Mei both sigh in frustration.

 

 “That was a spur of the moment decision,” said Yuzu, jamming her elbow into her son’s side. “He just happened to be in town and Mei and I thought it would be a good idea for them to meet, even if it did blow up in our faces.”

 

 “I’m sorry.”

 

 Both Yuzu and Hideki stopped what they were doing and turned around to see Airi twisting the fabric of her pajamas as she stared down at her feet.

 

 “It’s okay, Sweetie,” said Yuzu as she picked Airi up and hugged her. “Mommy and I know you were scared to meet him. We told you that so you don’t need to say you’re sorry. If anything, Mommy and I are sorry that we weren’t honest with you about taking you to meet him.”

 

 “Really,” asked Airi, nuzzling Yuzu before letting out a loud yawn and smacking her lips.

 

 “Really,” repeated Yuzu, kissing the top of her daughter’s head. “And Mommy and I are very proud of you for apologizing to him and trying to be friends with him. Aren’t we Mei?”

 

 “Very proud,” said Mei from the dining room. “It takes a lot of courage to do what you’ve done, and Mama and I are happy that you’ve come so far over the past few weeks.”

 

 “Are you proud of me, Hideki?”

 

 Airi turned her head so quickly that her hair tickled Yuzu’s nose, making her sneeze just before her son could reply.

 

 “I am,” chuckled Hideki after excusing Yuzu’s sneeze. “You’re the bravest kid I know.”

 

 Airi giggled and wrapped her arms around Yuzu’s neck as she said, “My daddy said that I have a lot of cousins and a grandma and grandpa that I can visit if I want to when I’m older. Do you want to come?”

 

 “I’ll think about it,” grunted Hideki, though he did his best to keep a smile on his face. “I might be busy with school or work. But if you want me to come and I can make the time, I will, though I’m not sure how your dad would feel about it.”

 

 “I’ll ask him in my next letter,” replied Airi before burying her face in Yuzu’s chest. “Is that okay, Mama?”

 

 “Sure, it is.” Yuzu pat Airi’s hair, recognizing this as one of the signs that Airi was ready to sleep and motioned for Hideki to go to the table so they could have dessert before she passed out.

 

 The dessert that night ended up being three large rolled cakes with one being a chocolate cake filled with whipped cream and strawberries, another being a vanilla cake filled with raspberries and chocolate, with the final one being a brown tiramisu style cake.

 

 “Wow,” said Airi, from Yuzu’s lap while Yui and Hideki began cutting slices for everyone. “Mama, you made these by yourself?”

 

 “Yep,” said Yuzu, accepting a small plate with three slices for her and Airi to share. “I had to go in a couple of hours before the shop opened to make them. Do they taste good?”

 

 All of the kids nodded in agreement while Mei quietly ate her slices of tiramisu and chocolate cake.

 

 “Mei,” asked Yuzu while Airi began devouring the cakes she was supposed to be sharing with her mother. “Do you like them?”

 

 Swallowing her latest bite, Mei turned her attention to Yuzu, a small blush on her cheeks as she nodded and said, “They’re delicious Yuzu. Thank you for making them.”

 

 “Thank God,” sighed Yuzu with a relieved smile, finally turning her attention to her and Airi’s plate only to find it empty and Airi downing another glass of milk. “Airi, where’d the cake go?”

 

 “It’s in my tummy,” exclaimed Airi before letting out a loud burp. “Excuse me.”

 

 “Here, Mama,” laughed Hideki as he grabbed the plate and placed a few more slices it, making sure to add a couple of extra slices in case Airi got it in her mind that she wanted seconds.

 

 “Thanks, Little Man,” said Yuzu with a wink causing Hideki to blush for what seemed like the fiftieth time that night.

 

 Only nodding in reply, Hideki headed to the kitchen to prepare some coffee and finish the dishes while Mei and Yui continued their talk about her plans after graduation. When they reached the part about Yui explaining she was looking into law school or following in her dad’s footsteps and entering the technology field, Yuzu felt something warm on her shoulder and wasn’t surprised to see Airi sleeping soundly. Yuzu couldn't help but chuckle at the way Airi's mouth remained open as she snored quietly.

 

 “So much for the sleepover,” said Yuzu before standing up and with a little help from Mei, managed to step away from the table. “Looks like all the excitement wore her out.”

 

 “It’s fine, Yuzu-san,” yawned Yui as she accepted a cup of coffee from Hideki and offered one to Mei, who politely declined. “We’ll still be here in the morning, so I’ll make sure to play with her then. Thanks for all the food, it was great.”

 

 “You’re quite welcome,” said Mei, nodding at the two teens. “Hideki, do you want to help us put her to bed while you get the futon for Yui?”

 

 “Sure.”

 

 Hideki set down his coffee cup and excused himself before following his mothers upstairs and into Airi's room.

 

 While Hideki busied himself with finding the futon they used for company, Mei pulled back Airi’s comforter as Yuzu began to place her down onto the soft mattress, only for her daughter’s arms to grip her tightly and started whining.

 

 “It’s okay,” whispered Yuzu, as she carefully pried Airi's arms from her neck. “Mommy and I are just putting you in your bed. See?”

 

 “Huh?” Airi opened her eyes and blinked before allowing her eyes to focus on her moms. “I'm in bed?”

 

 “Yes,” said Mei sitting on the side of the mattress while Yuzu knelt on the floor next to her. “You’re safe in bed and Mama and I are tucking you in.”

 

 “Oh, okay,” yawned Airi as she rolled over and grabbed her stuffed owl. “Is Hideki here?”

 

 “He’s grabbing a futon for Yui,” explained Yuzu, pulling the comforter over Airi and kissing her temple. “Do you want to say good night?”

 

 Airi nodded and Mei left to grab Hideki, who appeared looking annoyed at the request as it meant having to pick up the futon again, but happy that Airi wanted to talk to him.

 

 “What’s up, Squirt,” he asked as he dropped down on the other side of the bed and took a moment to poke Airi on the forehead. “You feeling sick?”

 

 “No.” Airi shook her head and curled up tight against her owl. “I just wanted to know if you were mad at me.”

 

 “Why would I be mad at you?” Hideki’s eyebrow arched at the question and looked at his moms, who both shook their heads in confusion. “Did you sneak into my room and steal one of my shirts again?”

 

 “Yes,” said Airi with a giggle and pointed at her dresser. “It’s in my dresser, but I was wondering if you were mad at me cus I was talking to my daddy? If you are, I’ll stop talking to him.”

 

 “I’m...I’m not mad at you for that,” stammered Hideki while Yuzu coughed uncomfortably and Mei remained positioned next to the door. "And I don't want you to stop talking to him. So don't say that, okay?" 

 

 “Then how come you looked mad,” asked Airi through a yawn. “My daddy’s nice and he didn’t get mad at me for running away from him at the festival.”

 

 “I know he’s nice,” said Hideki quietly. “I’ve met your dad, but it’s just difficult to like someone who isn’t around a lot, does that make sense?”

 

 “Sorta.” Airi squeezed her owl and gave him a tired smile. “He said he’s gonna visit more, so maybe you can be friends the next time he comes over?”

 

 “I’ll try.” Hideki raised his hand and extended his pinkie. “I promise.”

 

 “Okay.” Airi reached up and locked their fingers before letting her hand drop onto the bed. “I’m gonna go to sleep. You can go away now.”

 

 Hideki laughed and patted Airi’s hair and said, “Sleep tight Squirt.”

 

 When he was gone, Mei approached the bed and along with Yuzu, gave Airi her goodnight kisses, earning them a sleepy, “I love you,” from the girl before leaving her to sleep.

 

 When they returned to the living room, there were unsurprised to find that Yui had already taken her customary place below the couch, while Hideki was stretched out across the sofa, his leg propped up on one of the arms. Both of them were engrossed in an action movie with Yui sitting up on her futon, shouting at the screen while Hideki was engrossed in a conversation on his phone, laughing at something the person on the other end had sent him.

 

 “Whatcha reading,” asked Yuzu, trying to catch a glimpse of what the message said, but was rewarded with a black screen.

 

 “None of your business,” he grunted as he sat up to talk with his moms.

 

 “It’s probably this girl he was telling me about on our way back from Akihabara,” said Yui without looking back. “Come on! What kind of crap is that? How’d he even live through that? Jeez. I get it's a movie, but a little more realism wouldn't kill ya.”

 

 “Keep your voice down, Yui,” said Mei with an annoyed sigh. “Airi’s asleep and I don’t want her to wake up.”

 

 “Sorry, Mei-san.” Yui grabbed the remote and turned the television down just before a gunfight broke out.

 

 “Thank you, dear.” Mei gave Yui an appreciative smile before turning her attention to her son. “What’s this about a girl?”

 

 “It’s nothing, Mom.” Hideki rolled his eyes and placed a cautious kick at the back of Yui’s head. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

 

 “I’m sure.” Mei shook her head and gave Hideki a gentle smoke on the back of the head. “Remember our rule, Hideki. No dating until after high school. I don’t want you getting distracted or leading this poor girl on.”

 

 “Relax, Mom.” Hideki tossed his phone to the other end of the couch and ran his hands over his face. “Mama, can you please tell her there’s nothing to worry about?”

 

 “Okay, everyone, simmer down. It’s been a long day for everyone, and we’re all tired,” said Yuzu with a nervous smile while Yui slowly crawled away from the couch. “Hideki, we just came to say good night and that we’re glad to have you home. Mei, can we please go to bed and talk about this tomorrow. Sound good?”

 

 “Very well.” Mei nodded and approached the couch and leaned down to give Hideki a quick,  awkward hug. “Good night, Hideki. I want you to know that despite what happened earlier, I am happy that you’re home.”

 

 “I know, Mom.” Making sure that he didn’t touch his mother’s injured wrist, Hideki gave her forearm a quick squeeze. “I’m happy to be home too. Good night.”

 

 “Good night, Hideki.”

 

 After kissing him on the temple, Mei stepped away and waited for Yuzu to do the same before heading into their room. Once they shut the door behind them, Yuzu proceeded to take a quick shower while Mei changed into her pajamas and climbed into bed, not even bothering to open the book she’d meant to finish. Instead, she turned on the television, not even paying attention to the movie she’d turned on.

 

 “That feels better,” exclaimed Yuzu, appearing wearing only a fresh pair of underwear and a towel draped over her bare chest. “Aren’t you going to shower, Mei?”

 

 “I took one before my meeting,” responded Mei, a slight flush to her cheeks. Mei wasn't sure if it was because of the sight of Yuzu’s mostly naked body or the scene of a man and woman in a passionate was anyone’s guess, though Mei was leaning toward the former. “Do you need help with your hair?”

 

 “I think I’m good,” giggled Yuzu before slipping a long shirt over her head and skipping toward the bed, unaware of what was on the television. When she reached the edge, Yuzu hopped onto the mattress, causing Mei to bounce upon her impact. “See, I already combed it.”

 

 Yuzu lifted Mei’s arm and allowed her fingers to work their way through her silky hair.

 

 “Feel good,” asked Yuzu, closing her eyes as she felt the heel of Mei’s palm brush her cheek.

 

 “Very.” Mei nodded and leaned in, giving Yuzu a soft kiss on her lips, tasting the remnants of her wife’s toothpaste.

 

 Moaning at the feeling of Mei’s tongue against hers, Yuzu reciprocated by placing her hand on Mei’s, her fingernails stroking the edge of Mei's ears, making her wife moan at the same moment the woman on the screen did.

 

 “What are you watching,” asked Yuzu, breaking the kiss and turning her head toward the screen just in time to see the man and woman begin making love. 

 

 “I don’t know.” Mei fumbled around behind her for the remote, her face growing redder when she accidentally turned it up instead of off, making the woman’s moans even louder. “Damn it, why won’t it..”

 

 “Give it here,” laughed Yuzu, taking the remote from Mei and pressing the power button, sending the room into sweet silent bliss save for Yuzu’s laughter.

 

 “Why’d you turn that on,” chuckled Yuzu, trying to ease the tension but instead of getting Mei to talk, all the blonde did was force Mei to lift the blankets and proceed to bury herself beneath them as she covered her face with her arms, trying to recover from her embarrassment. 

 

 “Okay,” sighed Yuzu before patting Mei on her hip. “I understand.”

 

 There was a momentary shift to the mattress as Yuzu’s weight was removed from the bed, followed by the gentle sound of her footsteps. Mei heard a soft click and noticed the darkness around her grow denser. Pulling her knees up to her chest, Mei remained quiet as she listened to the comforter shift, followed by the cooling sensation of the air on her back before feeling Yuzu’s familiar warmth.

 

 “It’s okay, Mei,” whispered Yuzu after wrapping herself around Mei’s balled up form. “You got nothing to be embarrassed about.”

 

 “I can’t believe I turned something like that on,” sniffed Mei before rolling over and clutching Yuzu’s shirt. “Not only that, but I turned the volume up. What’ll the kids think if they heard….”

 

 “They’ll probably think it was an accident,” chuckled Yuzu as she stroked Mei’s hair. “It’s not like they haven’t seen us watch a romance movie before.”

 

 “They haven’t seen us watch a movie with scenes like that.” Mei shook her head and moved closer to Yuzu. “Honestly, I didn’t even know that the movie had those kinds of scenes. I just turned the television on to whatever channel it was last left on, and that’s what was playing.”

 

 “You don’t need to explain yourself to me, Mei.” Yuzu kissed her wife’s head and shifted her body down so she was face to face with her, though the only way she could tell she'd reached her destination when she felt her nose brush against Mei's. “I know the only reason you watch romance movies is because you know I enjoy them. So stop worrying about it. I’m sure Hideki and Yui are watching some loud, dumb movie or are playing a game, and Airi is out cold. Besides you, Harumin, and Matsuri have seen me read way worse than what was on the screen.”

 

 “That is true,” chuckled Mei, pressing her nose against Yuzu’s before closing her eyes. “You’ve always had strange tastes.”

 

 “Well, you married me, so that makes you pretty strange too.”

 

 They both chuckled and Mei felt Yuzu’s fingers against her cheek before kissing her forehead and giggling.

 

 “What’s so funny?” Mei’s eyes opened at the sound, and for a moment, she could see the faintest outline of Yuzu’s head in the darkness.

 

 “I was just thinking about that trip we took in high school.” Yuzu’s hand moved upwards and began stroking the hairs that were covering Mei’s forehead. “Back before we started dating and when you and Himeko shared a room. I came to talk to you and she burst in and you...”

 

 “I shut the lights off and pulled you under the covers,” said Mei, a small hint of sadness in her voice. “Yes, I remember. I also remember that you thought it’d be a good idea to go ahead and start kissing me and, while I may understand your intentions now, at the time, it wasn’t appreciated.”

 

 “I know.” Yuzu rubbed her nose against Mei’s forehead and closed her eyes, breathing in the subtle floral scent of the shampoo she’d used earlier. “The look on your face said plenty and I hope you know that I wasn’t proud of myself. All I wanted was for you to understand how I felt and that trip was really frustrating. Then there was that whole thing with Sara and...well...I’m sorry, Mei even though I’ve said it a whole bunch of times already.

 

 “I understand. There are many things I’m sorry for too Yuzu.” Careful to avoid her injured wrist, Mei’s arm wound its way around Yuzu’s body and squeezed, forcing a sigh from her wife. “What’s the matter, Yuzu? Did I say something wrong?”

 

 “No,” said the blonde as she continued to caress Mei’s hair. “No, you didn’t say anything wrong. I’m just feeling bad because I keep thinking I should be over all of this stuff already, you know? We’ve been married forever, we got two kids, and there are days where sometimes I can’t help but watch you with them and wonder, ‘Why me?’”

 

 “I understand.” Mei placed her hand on Yuzu’s chest and pulled the ring out from beneath the blonde's shirt and began rubbing it. "I have those thoughts too and I'm not proud of myself for thinking them. But if it helps, I am happy with our life together."

 

 “I know you are.” Yuzu smiled as she felt Mei begin rolling the old gold ring around as Hideki and Yui started to shout at something that was happening on the television.

 

 “Why do teenagers have to be so loud,” sighed Yuzu as she lifted the covers and looked over at the clock to see that it was almost ten and groaned. “And when did I start feeling so old? Seriously it’s not even ten, and I already feel drained.”

 

 “Don’t feel too bad.” Mei kissed Yuzu’s ring before letting it fall to her chest. “Now you know how I’ve felt for most of my life.”

 

 “That explains so much,” laughed Yuzu as Mei removed herself from beneath the blanket, giving the door a concerned look.

 

 “Mei?” Yuzu lifted her head and started to ask what was going on when Mei pressed a finger to her mouth.

 

 “I thought I heard something,” whispered Mei, turning her ear toward the door, trying to confirm her suspicions.

 

 “What?” Yuzu sat up and did something similar to what Mei was doing but didn’t hear anything. “I don’t hear anything….”

 

 Before Yuzu could finish, she saw a smile flash across Mei’s face followed by the sudden weight of her wife’s body pressing her down into the mattress, her legs straddling Yuzu’s hips in an attempt to keep all of her weight centered.

 

 “Mei, come on,” grunted Yuzu as she tried to push her wife off her. “This is embarrassing. What if the kids...”

 

 “Just be quiet and listen,” whispered Mei just as a loud laugh echoed up the stairs followed by a familiar whine.

 

 “Stupid Hideki,” they heard Airi mumble as she stomped her way down the hall. “I’m gonna kick his butt.”

 

 “That can’t be good,” said Yuzu, snickering as she heard Airi take a moment to run back toward the bathroom and then the flush of the toilet.

 

 “Airi? Mom? Mama?”

 

 Mei and Yuzu both grew stiff at hearing Hideki call for them, his voice a little closer than it had been previously.

 

 “Are you guys up?”

 

 “Yeah! I am!”

 

 They heard the bathroom door shut and the sound of Airi running toward the stairs.

 

 “What’s the matter, Squirt? You have a bad dream?”

 

 Both Mei and Yuzu chuckled at hearing Hideki’s new nickname for his sister but remained glued to their spots on the bed as they listened to the conversation.

 

 “You woke me up,” they heard Airi whine along with a stamp of her foot. “And I didn't have a bad dream; I had a good dream and you ruined it.”

 

 “I’m sorry. But you gotta keep it down. Mom and Mama might be sleeping, and we don’t want to wake them up do we?”

 

 “If they woke up, that’s your fault because you and Yui were loud.”

 

 “That’s true,” said Hideki with a nervous chuckle. “But I think we’re okay. If they were up, they’d have probably come out and yelled at us by now.”

 

 “Wanna check?” They heard Airi’s footsteps, and the sudden rattling of the doorknob caused both Mei and Yuzu to freeze. “We can see if they woke up and tuck them in if they did."

 

 “Let’s not and say we did,” came Hideki’s voice, followed by the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs. “They’re in bed and if they’re asleep, I don’t think they’d appreciate us waking them up. But if you want, you can hang out with Yui and me for a bit until you go back to sleep? We’re watching a grown-up movie, not a bad one, just a more grown-up one. I promise no blood and guts or anything bad, well there might be a couple of bad words.”

 

“No, I’m okay.” Mei and Yuzu both laughed at the way Airi yawned as she spoke. “I wanna go back to bed, can you tuck me in?”

 

 “Sure thing, Squirt.”

 

 Outside the door, they could hear Hideki’s heavy footfalls and Airi’s hand leaving the doorknob. They waited for a moment, listening to their dull footsteps, but just as she began to relax, Yuzu’s body clenched up when she heard Airi start trying to break into the room again.

 

 “Airi, you gotta be quiet, or else we’re gonna get in trouble.”

 

 “But I wanna say good night to Mommy and Mama,” whined Airi through the door. “They always tuck me in, so I wanna tuck them in.”

 

 “That might not be a good idea,” they heard Hideki say with a nervous laugh.

 

 “How come?” There was the sound of the doorknob rattling as Airi spoke, followed by a groan of disappointment. “Aw man. They locked it.”

 

 “Then that means we need to leave them alone,” said Hideki with a nervous cough.

 

 “But why?” Mei and Yuzu both smiled and knew the other was imagining Airi’s face puffing up as she pouted. “They never leave us  alone when......”

 

 “That’s because Mama and Mom need alone time, just like you sometimes do. Maybe even more than you since they got work and us to take care of, so we need to let them be alone sometimes so they can feel better.”

 

 “I bet his face is bright red,” whispered Yuzu, causing Mei to snort before covering her mouth and rolling off to the side.

 

 “Shush,” commanded Mei, gently smacking Yuzu on the shoulder right as Airi began speaking.

 

 “But Mommy and Mama say that we help them feel better.” There was a gentle thud against the door, followed by two more, and they figured it was Airi’s hand smacking it. “Especially when we snuggle, so maybe I can do that to help them feel better?”

 

 “As I said, Airi, that’s a bad idea.” Hideki’s voice was shaky as he spoke, and Mei and Yuzu once again had to stifle their giggles. “Mom and Mama snuggling is sometimes way  different than when you do it with them, so let’s give them some privacy and I promise that if you ask them tomorrow, they’ll say yes. Okay?”

 

 “Okay.” Both Mei and Yuzu smiled at her disappointment only to feel their hearts clench in their chest when Airi took a moment whisper, “Night Mama. Night Mommy. I love you,” before following Hideki back down the hallway.

 

 Once there was quiet, Mei lifted herself off the mattress and kissed Yuzu before saying, “Does that answer your question? Because if it doesn’t, I’d be happy to explain it to you.”

 

 “It does,” answered Yuzu, pulling Mei closer and kissing her neck.

 

 “Good,” whispered Mei, her body conforming to Yuzu’s shape. “And just so you know, it’s not only because of what you’ve done for the kids that you deserve this life, but, and I can’t stress this enough, I wouldn’t have come this far without you. Not only in regards to the school but in regards to our life as well, and Hideki’s too. You forget how much we’ve grown together, and I don’t want you to think that I’ve settled for you or that you don’t deserve what we have. As I’ve said before, and will now say again, I spent too long feeling that way about us, I don’t want you to start feeling that way either.”

 

 “I know.”

 

 Mei felt Yuzu begin to nuzzle her neck, the blonde’s hair brushing the bottom of the ear, forcing Mei to summon all of her willpower to remain upright.

 

 “I’m lucky to have you, Yuzu,” continued Mei, her strength finally leaving her when Yuzu kissed her ear. “Even if I have to constantly remind you of it.”

 

 “Just think of it as making up for all the times you wouldn’t believe me when I said it to you,” sighed Yuzu, her warm breath sending a shiver down Mei’s spine. “But I wouldn’t be who I am without you either, so thanks for staying with me and putting up with my nonsense.”

 

 “I would be lying if I said I didn’t find it entertaining.” Carefully positioning her burnt arm next to Yuzu’s head, Mei rested her head on Yuzu’s breast and listened to the soft beat of her wife’s heart. “But I like you, Yuzu. I like you just the way you are; flaws and all.”

 

 “I like you too, Mei,” whispered Yuzu, enveloping them with the comforter before she returned to hugging her wife.

 

 “Is this what you want,” asked Mei, recognizing the signs that, despite their earlier flirting, Yuzu needed Mei close to her more than anything.

 

 “Yeah,” nodded Yuzu, holding onto Mei as if she were a teddy bear. “What about you? Do you want this? Or do you want to do what you were hinting at earlier?”

 

 “I’m perfectly content with this.” Mei let out a content sigh and kissed Yuzu’s neck and cheek before placing her head on the blonde’s shoulders. “As long as it’s with you, I’m okay with it.”

 

 “We could go and grab Airi,” suggested Yuzu with a chuckle. “She was right when she said that being near them helps. I wish Hideki hadn’t grown up so quickly. I miss the way he used to run up to us and climb into our laps.”

 

 “I do, too,” agreed Mei, allowing herself to relax. “But from the sounds of it, we have many more years of interruptions from her to come, so let’s enjoy these moments when we can. I’m sure she’ll bother us tomorrow, and for several days after once she’s started school again.”

 

 “I can’t wait.”

 

 Mei could feel the energy radiating from the smile she knew was plastered on Yuzu’s face and sighed heavily at realizing that for the foreseeable future, she and Yuzu would have no privacy.

 

 “Don’t be like that.” Yuzu shifted her body until Mei was resting next to her; their faces turned toward one another, allowing them to gaze into one another’s eyes. “You just said you miss Hideki’s snuggling, so I thought you’d be happy to take advantage of Airi wanting to be around us.”

 

 “I do,” said Mei, not even trying to hide her disappointment as she caressed and kissed Yuzu’s face. “I just don’t want her taking up too much of our time.”

 

 “I promise she won’t.” Yuzu placed several kisses along her wife’s face, making Mei protest for her to stop, though they quickly turned to laughs.

 

 “That’s enough,” panted Mei after several moments of Yuzu’s teasing, pushing the blonde away, but only by a couple of inches.

 

 “Okay.” Yuzu’s kisses stopped immediately, though her grip remained just as tight. “Can I still hold you?”

 

 “Of course you can.” Mei shifted her body downward and placed her face against her wife’s neck, taking a moment to bite the soft flesh.

 

 “Ow!”

 

 “That was for teasing me,” snorted Mei before breathing in her wife’s scent and closing her eyes. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

 

 “Not really.” There was a gentleness in Yuzu’s voice which told Mei, that despite her protest, that the blonde had somewhat enjoyed what had transpired. “I was more surprised than anything.”

 

 “Okay.” Even without opening her eyes, Mei knew Yuzu’s body well enough to get the general vicinity of where she’d just bitten her wife and kissed the mark lovingly. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

 

 “You didn’t.”

 

 Mei felt Yuzu’s lips on the top of her head and heard a satisfied sigh escape her and knew that she had limited time before Yuzu fell asleep.

 

 “Sleep well, Yuzu,” she whispered, wrapping her injured wrist around Yuzu’s waist. “I love you, and I’ll be here when you wake.”

 

 “I love you too, Mei.” Yuzu let out another yawn, so very much like Airi’s and rubbed her cheek lovingly against Mei’s head. “So very much.”

 

 Shortly after hearing those words, Mei listened to the gentle snores of her wife’s peaceful sleep and smiled, allowing herself the time to cherish the quiet between them, with only the occasional interruption from Hideki and Yui’s laughter and quiet shouts at the television screen. Luckily, Airi didn’t wake up and before she fell asleep, Mei turned on the movie she and Yuzu had watched when the blonde had come back from her first trip to England. As the first sword fight of the film began, Mei felt herself begin to drift off to sleep, her smile growing larger as she felt Yuzu’s protective embrace fill her with warmth.

Chapter Text

So I've sort of hit a burn out and I'm taking a break.

Between that and starting a new job soon, I've just needed a break.

I know I haven't been the best with the stories lately and I'm trying to move away from some certain plot points. I know I've been recycling some plot points, but I'm going to be moving into a few more things in regards to Airi. I know it might seem boring or pointless, but this is just a simple slice of life series that's supposed to mimic life. Ups, downs, drama, moving back and forth. I am going full slice of life with this story so it's not always going to be drama and fights and with how I write I sometimes pull a Chekhov's Gun.

If you aren't familiar the concept is basically that every element in a story must serve a purpose and if it doesn't remove it.

The problem is that with my stream of consciousness approach to fanfiction as opposed to me writing novels and things, which is what I'm going to work on for a while, I don't always plan and things end up getting lost in the muddle and/or occasionally forgotten about. For that I am sorry.

But I promise that I will return, but I got a lot of stuff going on and I need a break.

Also, I'm not trying to get followers or things like that, but keep an eye on my tumblr (mizutanitony2), instagram which is this name as this and my deviantart, but I'm going to be getting some more commissions done soon for you guys! HURRAY!

Until my return, I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season! I'll post soon!