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010-Till Our Lives Burn Out - Ch4 - Pt3b-Pt4a

by Eric Gasparich
copyright 02-26-2008


Age Rating: 13 +
010-Till Our Lives Burn Out - Ch4 - Pt3b-Pt4a
Picture Credits: screengrab


Till Our Lives Burn Out

Chapter 004-This is This and That is That
(Part 3b)




… Later that evening, Kuryakin called to find out if Hotaru could answer the riddle. She gladly took the call and gave him the answer.

“Outstanding, Hotaru,” he said, sounding very pleased. “I knew you’d come through. All right, can I talk to one of your guardians for a minute?”

Setsuna was busy upstairs and did not realize who had called, a shame really, as it might have given Hotaru a trinity of “she likes him” boxes. Michiru took the call.

“Miss Kaioh, how are you tonight?”

“Very well, thank you,” she said.

“Good to hear, very good to hear. We’re definitely going to the Dolphinarium tomorrow. I’d like to get an early start so we can get back in time to squeeze in some formal review for the midterms at the studio. I don’t want Hotaru to know, but I get a little anxious about the midterms and finals no matter how smart the student is. May I come there and pick her up at 8:00?”

“We’ll be ready,” Michiru said rather cryptically.


“Good morning, Kittens,” a smiling Kuryakin said, as he opened the door for Hotaru. “What’s with the picnic basket?”

“We’re going with you today,” Haruka said flatly.

“Yes,” said Michiru, “Hotaru has been so effusive with praise about how good a teacher you are, we thought we’d come watch you work.”

“Seriously?” said Kuryakin, looking like a kid who’d just been given decade’s worth of Christmas presents in a single morning. “Well now, Miss Kaioh, I wondered what you meant when you said ‘we’ll be ready.’ Will you be with us all day?”

“Yes,” said Haruka, “that’s not a problem is it?”

“Not in the least. Are you sure you won’t be bored?” he said as he opened the trunk.

“I’ll settle for that, actually,” said Haruka quietly to Michiru.

“Where Hotaru is concerned, never, Kuryakin-san,” said Michiru cheerily.

“Will Miss Meioh be joining us as well?”

“No, she’s got a long day of tests and coursework ahead of her. She’s already left.”

“Ah, that’s a shame. Almost had a trifecta, here. I thought this was going to be an ordinary fun day, but now it’s going to be even more fun,” he smiled wistfully. “There are so many things I have wanted to ask you two. For example, how is it that you have so much free time on your hands?”

“Uh,” said Haruka, “we, ummm, took the day off from school.”

“Ah, yes, that must be it,” he said smiling. “You must take a lot of days off from school. Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to ride in a minivan if you want to watch me teach. We’re going to review for her World History exam on the way. Bit of a come down from that Ferrari.”

“Why a minivan, anyway?” asked Haruka.

“Well, because they’re so cool of course,” he said, his voice dripping with irony as he put his sunglasses on. “They handle like a car, but they have room enough for somebody my size. And they have some carrying capacity if I need it.”

As he helped Hotaru into the van, Haruka whispered to Michiru, “This is not a good idea. He is far too happy about it.”

“Oh, I think it will be very fun,” she chuckled. “It seems like he will enjoy our company. Let’s enjoy his.”

“He’s a guy. When have I ever enjoyed the company of a guy?”


“Well, my dear kittens, how am I doing so far?” Kuryakin asked, as they were about twenty minutes from Atami and the Izu Ocean Park Dolphinarium. Hotaru and he had just gone through a rapid-fire question and answer session over the Pax Mongolica. Then he asked her to formulate this knowledge base along the lines of three potential essay questions. Her answers demonstrated that she had learned a lot about quickly organizing an essay answer around a specific question since the first time he tested her.

“Do you always refer to paying customers so familiarly?” said Haruka.

“No, not usually. But you two are so obviously special,” he said with a cheery smile. “True confessions time now. I’ve seen you before, Tenoh-san. Didn’t Miss Meioh tell you?”

“No. Where?”

“At a track meet about two and half years ago. You’re fast. Very fast. I can only imagine you’re faster now. Very impressive, very memorable.”

“Why were you there?” asked Haruka, slightly interested, but making certain she did not sound like it.

“Moral support. One of my students was into track and field. I also caught sight of you later. I was even going to come and … talk to you but, well, you were busy. Thus I discovered that you are quite the flirt. Also, a memorable thing.”

“I am what I am,” said Haruka.

“Aren’t we all? Fortunately, one can learn to transcend that. After all, I should think you would never, ever want to give lovely, elegant Miss Kaioh any reason to doubt your ardor. Now, Hotaru-chan …”

“How do you even know about that?”

“You’re kidding, right?” he said seriously. “It’s impossible to imagine one of you without the other. It’s that obvious. Anyone who can’t see it is simply not paying attention to their surroundings. Now, Hotaru-chan?”

“Yes, Kuryakin-sensei?”

“Explain the effect of French foreign policy on the Thirty Years War, and summarize the results.”

“Though many of the Europeans nations were already fighting each other, French foreign policy effectively continued and inflamed the situation. Under the reign of Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu, the first true Prime Minister of a country in the modern sense …” Hotaru launched into a brief discourse on it, ending with this summary: “Spain began showing how weak it had become, Germany was fractured and devastated, post-war Sweden became a force in Europe, the Hapsburg Empire went into decline, and Bourbon France became the dominant power.”

“Very good, Hotaru,” said Michiru, after she finished her little discourse.

“Yes. The best part, Hotaru-chan, is how you’ve learned to fill in the details around the bare bones narrative that I give you in the lecture. That’s what those review sheets and note cards are for, Miss Kaioh. That’s where the real work gets done. At first, I was worried about letting her do those at home, on her off days, but she’s been hopelessly responsible,” he said, smiling and winking at his pupil. “Since she knows Asian history cold, we’ve been focusing on European and Levantine history. Toward the end of the term we’ll cover the history of the Americas, and … okay, I can’t stand this anymore. Tenoh-san, there’s something I have to ask. It’s been driving me crazy.”

“Yes?” Haruka sighed heavily. She had just about succeeded in pretending she was somewhere else, and wasn’t sitting in the middle seat of a vehicle she didn’t want to be in, being driven by someone she didn’t want to be with, on her way to somewhere she didn’t want to go. Only for Michiru and Hotaru was she putting up with this.

“It’s incredibly rude of me, I know,” he said in a placating tone, “and I’m very ignorant about this stuff, and you look really sharp and stylish and all, but there is something that is really bugging me about the way you dress.”

“Yes?” she huffed, looking askance at Michiru.

“What do you do when you have to go to the restroom in a public place?”

Michiru nearly burst out laughing, and Hotaru had her hand over her mouth and an amusedly stunned look on her face.

“No, I’m serious. I mean, I can’t figure it out. If you use the women’s bathroom, and somebody who doesn’t know you is in there and mistakes you for a guy, doesn’t that create something of a … disturbance?”

“I hold it in,” she lied.

“Ah, that would explain why you look more or less angry all the time. Yes, like that now,” he said, as Haruka’s eyes glowered at him from his rear view mirror.”

Haruka then stared at Michiru as if to say “NOT a good idea, Michiru!”

“Haruka is the soul of discretion, Kuryakin-san,” she said smiling. “Although there was that one time …”

“You say too much, Michiru dear.”

“Please forgive me, Tenoh-san,” said Kuryakin. “You’re so cool and interesting looking, but you’re also a real puzzle. It’s like catnip to me. I just have to figure you out. It’s a … pathology, really.”

“You should seek help,” Haruka said airily, as Michiru leaned her head into her shoulder as if to say ‘thank you for bearing with this.’

“Yes, I probably should,” he chuckled. “Now Hotaru-chan, summarize the Copernican Revolution in science, especially its effect on the career of Galileo and the controversies in which Heliocentrism embroiled them both.”

‘Bad idea. Bad, bad, bad,’ Haruka fumed, as she looked out the window at the passing scenery. She would have moved into the back seat if the picnic basket and the stuff Kuryakin brought for Hotaru’s lunch wasn’t already taking it up. After a few miles had passed, she inexplicably found herself softening a bit. The praise of her athletic ability was sincere, and a point of justifiable pride with her. She didn’t like how quickly familiar he was the people he’d never really met, and, at times, wondered if he was intentionally trying to piss her off, but then suddenly it hit her, and a bit of a smile started playing around the corners of her mouth.

‘He’s testing me. Just like guys do when they first meet each other.’

It reminded her of the first time she’d met Kou Seiya, and how they’d faced off in Michiru’s dressing room. Funny that, because now that she thought about it, there were some things about this guy that reminded her a lot of Seiya. In a backhanded sort of way, it was a compliment, and a rather clumsy admission of uncertainty on his part, as if he were saying, ‘I don’t understand you very well, and I’m wondering how you wish to be treated.’ Inwardly, she chuckled. This was just the sort of effect, often intentional, she had on most people when they discovered she was a woman after mistaking her for a man. It was part of her aura, and her way of having some sort of upper hand at all times. The question about ways and means in public bathrooms hadn’t offended her all that much because she was so indifferent to what all but a few people thought of her. She was beginning realize she was acting more put out than she really felt. With his admission that she was a real puzzle, she found herself becoming strangely comfortable with the guy: bored, but comfortable. It was unnatural for her to be remotely comfortable with any guy, or any unfamiliar situation: only in the company of Michiru Kaioh did Haruka Tenoh, the Wind, the Wanderer, ever find understanding and solace for that ache her heart was born with. And yet now, she felt almost like the way she felt around … Funny that.

“So, Kuryakin-san?”

“Yes, Miss Kaioh?”

“What was it like playing for the NHK crowd?”

“Surprisingly nerve-wracking,” Kuryakin said. “Usually, I’m very steady under pressure. If it had been a solo recital, I wouldn’t have been worried at all, but when one is part of a much larger group, there’s so much beyond your control. What about you, Miss Kaioh? Do you aspire to a solo career, or will being part of some first rate orchestra be enough?”

“I very much prefer being a soloist. I do sit in with “festival” orchestras now and then, but I like the solo literature better, and who doesn’t want to be the star? You looked like you were enjoying yourself up there.”

“You mean you saw it?”

“It was on TV Sunday afternoon.”

“Oh yes, of course. I think Saturday’s performance was the one they used.”

“Actually, Kuryakin-sensei,” said Hotaru, sounding smugly knowledgeable, “they started with Friday’s, and then went to Saturday’s.”

“How did you know that, Hotaru-chan?”

“About midway through, your tuxedo was different.”

“Really? Okay, but how do you know which day I wore what vest and tie?” he asked.

“Actually, I don’t I … no wait, you were watching the conductor like a hawk for the first part, and then you barely had to look at him during the second part. So, it makes sense that the second part was after you’d had more time in front of that orchestra.”

“An excellent inference, Hotaru-chan. And a correct one. I’m definitely rubbing off on you. So, how did I look up there?”

“I thought you played wonderfully,” said Michiru.

“No, no. I don’t care about that. I know I played well - it was only Gershwin, after all. I mean, did I look good up there?”

“Surely, you’re joking,” said Michiru, chuckling. “You don’t strike me as all that vain.”

“I am kidding, of course. Mostly.”

“Well,” said Hotaru a little too casually, “you must have looked okay, to judge from the way Setsuna-momma watched the entire thing.”

“Did she?” asked Michiru. “She said she hadn’t been.”

“I saw her reflection in the TV. She was watching.”

Kuryakin had very chatty up to this point. This revelation silenced him for the rest of the trip to the dolphinarium. Haruka may have noticed, but she continued to watch the passing scenery as Hotaru looked knowingly back at Michiru.


Till Our Lives Burn Out

Chapter 004-This is This and That is That
(Part 4a)



They arrived at the Izu Dolphinarium about 9:30, and since Hotaru had been here before, was the only one going into the tank, and could recite from memory all the rules of safety and methodology about letting the dolphins make first contact to Dr. Saito, she did not have to sit through the 35 minute lecture this time. Hotaru happily emerged from the changing rooms in her new dolphin gray bathing suit with a beach towel around her neck, and greeted Dr. Saito’s assistant. She remembered Hotaru well, and said she could call her ‘Yoshi-chan.’ They began working at once to attract the dolphins.

“How did you get this place all alone for her?” Michiru asked, as Haruka looked casually around.

“Well, it’s a Monday, first of all. Slow day for them. As an educator, I can reserve a time slot for my class here, and since Hotaru is, in every way, in a class by herself, voilà. There’ll be another group here around 11:00, like last time. So that’s another reason why I wanted to get here early. I also want to see how long she can stay in there with them this time.”

Haruka was watching Hotaru’s first run around the tank holding on to a dolphin’s dorsal fin, when she saw something else that sparked her interest, and casually sauntered over to the other side of the pool.

In suggesting this trip with Hotaru and her tutor, Michiru had an agenda of which she had not told Haruka. She had been honest enough in telling her that she wanted to set Setsuna’s mind at ease if possible, though she had as little hope of that as Haruka had. Like Setsuna, she had reason to believe that Kuryakin was ‘more than he let on.’ Unlike Setsuna, she had a more solid reason than a few curious observations and vague suspicions. However, the reason she was aware of it also served to make her trust him far more than she would any ordinary stranger. She didn’t quite know what was happening, or going to happen, but she had seen something in her mirror, and while it was puzzling in the extreme, she saw no other option than to keep her own council, and let it play out for a while. As for today, she had thought about how she was going to approach this, and with Haruka distracted taking pictures of Hotaru, this looked like a good time to begin. She would start by avenging Haruka’s discomfiture a bit, as they walked along the upper observation path.

“So,” said Michiru, as she sidled up next to Kuryakin, “I thought you would be joining them in the tank?”

“No. I won’t.”

“A shame,” she said, inching toward him, and lowering her voice a bit. “You seem rather fit, and I thought I was going to get to find out.”

His eyes widened a bit and he looked at her warily.

“Uh, … no,” he said, looking very uncomfortable, “… you won’t.” ‘What is this now?’

“You don’t strike me as … shy,” she said, smiling and inching yet closer.

“Uh, I was in … the military, Miss Kaioh. I have few a scars to show for it. So I generally avoid situations involving bathing suits.”

‘Now we’re getting somewhere,’ thought Michiru. “Scars are nothing to be ashamed of.”

"Oh, I’m not ashamed of them,” he said, “not in the least. I just don’t like drawing too much attention to myself –something I think you can appreciate, Miss Kaioh?- or having to explain them, or making others … um, uncomfortable.”

She was now right next to him, looking very coy.

“Just what did you have in mind, Miss Kaioh?”

“Let’s play a game,” she said, suddenly looking very serious.

“Oh. I like games. I think.”

“The game is called ‘This is This and That is That'.”

“Sounds interesting. How’s it played?”

“I ask a question and you answer it; then you ask a question and I answer it.”

“I dunno,” he said, looking dubious. “What if I – or you- feel it’s a question one can’t answer?”

“Well, that’s often an answer, in its own way, isn’t it?”

“This game sounds dangerous.”

“You don’t look like someone who scares easily.”

“I don’t,” he smiled. “I’m just thinking of you, Miss Kaioh. I mean, which of us has more secrets to keep? And of course, I am handicapped by Miss Meioh’s injunction not to pry into things too much.”

“You also don’t look like the type to back down from a challenge, especially one from a meek, little girl.”

“Ha! Miss Kaioh, please. You are neither meek, nor a ‘little girl.’ By all means: ladies first.”

“How old are you, Kuryakin-san?”

“Old enough to know better, Miss Kaioh.”

“Tsk. Evasive.”

“My super secret past requires that I not reveal too much about my origins, so that’s all I can give you on that one. My turn. You truly belong in places like this,” he said, sweeping his hand toward the clear, autumn blue of the sky, and the dingier blue of the Pacific. “Your hair looks like a very wave upon that ocean. Tell me, what do you think of these dolphinariums?”

She looked at Hotaru being pulled across the tank and yet again, having the time of her life. She got a thoughtful and ambivalent look.

“I suppose I’m a bit torn between their obvious educational value, and a certain dislike for them.”

“Hotaru felt the same way at first, but she was okay with it, when she heard about how they help injured dolphins and then release them. Funnily enough, the first time we came here, it actually looked like the dolphins were all afraid of her.”

“Really? What happened?”

“Does that count as one of your questions?”

“No,” she said slyly.

“One of them got brave enough to approach her and then the rest saw that she was okay. This is pretty much the same bunch, near as I can tell, although I don’t see that male who was monopolizing her time during our previous trip. They remember her, too. Look at how they all surround her, like an audience with the queen, each one of them hoping she’ll pick them next. She is really loving it.”

“Yes. Still, I don’t think I like them.”

“They are also good at providing an experience of nature for the handicapped.”

“Is that why you’ve brought Hotaru here, twice? She is … handicapped and needs … therapy?”

“Handicapped, perhaps, but in a strange way. Today, I want to see if she’s gotten any stronger since the last time. And I thought it would be a good idea, in general, for her to have real and interesting contact with … living things. Look how open and animated she is right now. Usually, she’s kind of closed up, in spite of the really wonderful job you all done raising her.”

Michiru looked pleasantly surprised. “You think we’ve done a really good job with her?”

“Yes, I do. She’s as well adjusted as can be, under the circumstances.”

“Thank you,” she said, genuinely. “We’ve never even thought to ask anyone how we were doing, but it’s nice to know.”

“Hotaru could have done much worse. Much, much worse. I know of cases …,” his voice trailed off.

“Were you an orphan?”

“Oh, no,” said Kuryakin. “My parents are fine, and my grandparents, and all my brothers and sisters. I come from a big family. Okay, that’s about three or four questions from you, so my turn. How do you and Tomboy Kitten come to live in that lovely house, jet set around, and seem to have all the leisure time in the world?”

Michiru looked positively embarrassed, but finally said, “We have wealthy patrons who support our artistic and athletic endeavors.”

“Hmmm, wealthy patrons? Miss Kaioh, there are no stars in my eyes. I make no judgements, or assumptions, but if I may ask, are these patrons corporate or ... um, private?”

“You’re good at this game. Corporate sponsors, only. It’s not like that, although people often assume it is, and sometimes make snide comments, or spread rumors. I do find that embarrassing from time to time.”

“Well, that’s probably because you are a lady, Miss Kaioh.”

“Why, thank you,” she said sincerely. “But I’m really not all that proper.”

“Well, I didn’t quite mean it in that sense. A lady can be someone who … gets things done, when it’s important enough.”

“Well, thank you, nonetheless. Haruka takes it far more lightly than I do, but then she likes to be provocative. Early on, I was … approached a few times, as was Haruka. When we found each other, we had both declined that way of life, and decided it was best to throw in our lot with each other. Despite appearances, we’re very careful with the support I get from the Yamaha Performing Artists group and the Fuji-Sankei Arts Council, and Haruka’s Toyota F1 sponsorship.”

“Miss Kaioh, I understand this world is not as we wish it. There are no solutions; only trade-offs. All the same, I find I am happy to hear that. Surprisingly happy, really.”

“Oh?”

“It’s so obvious you two are one,” he said, as he crossed the fingers on one hand, “any ‘compensated dating’ would tarnish it somehow. Your turn.”

“Hotaru said you feel music is the second best thing you do. What is the first thing?”

“I simply cannot tell you that. Period.”

“Tsk. Does it have to with … having been in the military?”

He looked thoughtfully to the sky, and said, “yes, it does.”

“Well, I’ve come off badly so far. I think I’m owed another question. Where did you study music?”

“Self taught. Had to be. Big secret number one: music ‘saved me’ really. I’m slightly dyslexic. It bedeviled me for a long time. Music, and later, learning languages not unlike yours, helped me find my own ways of learning. And frankly they’re better ways, too, at once more comprehensive and efficient.”

“Interesting. How’d you get in with NHK?”

“Well, I’ve played for a few ‘corporate orchestras’ – I’ve even conducted them.”

“Oh,” said Michiru slyly, “so you have ‘corporate patrons,’ too.”

He laughed. “Not like you do. Anyway, the conductor that night was somebody I played for with Yamaha’s Orchestra. He won NHK’s young conductor’s contest, and Friday was his big night. When that scheduled performer came up sick …”

“Did he really eat pufferfish for lunch?”

“Yes, isn’t that amazing? The pianist was Japanese, so it wasn’t like he didn’t know the risks. What kind of dummy takes a risk like that before a big performance? Some kind of ‘I’m extreme, baby! tempting fate’ nutter, I imagine. Anyway, it was that conductor’s big debut in front of NHK and they wanted him to switch pieces. He was a nervous wreck. He had worked his tail off on Rhapsody in Blue, so he called that afternoon and begged me, I got over there and we ran through it.”

“I trust you were well paid for it.”

“No, I did it for free.”

“Free?” Michiru asked with genuine puzzlement.

“I couldn’t take money for something I wasn’t able to properly rehearse. Besides, it was honor enough to be on the same stage with such a great orchestra, play for such a high class crowd, and get a hard working, up-and-coming conductor out of a jam. And now, he owes me a favor, you see? Someday, I may call it in.”

“You have very high – very professional standards.”

“Miss Kaioh, have you ever wondered if there are places where high standards are merely expected behavior? Okay, my turn. What’s Tenoh’s story? Has she ever led some poor befuddled kitten on too far? Anybody gotten hurt?”

“Oh, of course not. Haruka is very committed to the things and the people she loves. She’s tough, she’s competitive, and a bit of a flirt, but she’s not mean. Not really.”

“Yeah, she seems like a great person really. Let’s get closer, shall we?” he said offering her his arm.

“Closer?” she purred.

“To the tank, I mean,” he chuckled. “Tenoh-san seems to be taking more than a passing interest in Dr. Saito’s assistant.”

Michiru looked across the tank, then looked heavenward. Just now, that was the last thing she wanted to see. As if in response, she took Kuryakin’s proffered arm very firmly, then glowered in Haruka’s direction.

“Your turn,” he chuckled.

It was time to get serious.

“What do you think of Hotaru?” she asked.

“How … do you mean?”

“Let’s put it this way. You, sir, are spoiling her something fierce and I’m not the only one who has noticed. I find it hard to imagine you’ve been able to be this generous with all your students.”

“I might surprise you there, Miss Kaioh. I am no stranger to hard work. But continue …”

“I suspect you have come to care for her a great deal. She’s more than just a student to you.”

He took quite a bit of time before responding.

“Miss Kaioh, the night you called me -once I realized you were the people Miss Miyamura was talking about, was … a wonderful night, but also a terrifying one. Up until now, I have been able to do these small kindnesses, this helping marginal cases stuff, without having to ask -or answer- too many questions. I really didn’t want to take this job because I knew something about it was going to be different. I could tell, just from the sound of Miss Meioh’s voice. I knew that there was a big danger in taking on only one student, but when she put Hotaru on, something inside me … awoke. After that, there was no doubt in my mind I was going to take this job. Hotaru is very charming. You are also very - even terribly - charming. Of you all, you are the most open hearted and the one I’d be the most likely to trust.”

“Good. These small kindnesses, as you call it. Why do you do it?”

“That is an incredibly long and tortuous story. The short version is I just don’t know any other way to live anymore.”

“Interesting. How do you feel about the upcoming midterms?”

“I’m scared to death of them, right now.”

“Why?”

“Hotaru is obedient, to a fault really. If she should freeze up, or for some other reason doesn’t do well, I might have to get tougher on her, and … at this point, I don’t think I can do that. I’m so glad she solved that riddle. I don’t think I could have denied her this trip even if she hadn’t. It would have been hard to be too tough on her even on the first day. And now I … couldn’t, which is funny because, Miss Kaioh, if push comes to shove, I assure you I can be all nine circles of hell on most anybody else. There are three or four former students of mine who can certainly testify to that. This first part of the term, I felt I should try it this way. You three have probably spoiled her too, a bit. Even so, I thought she could use a little more spoiling as long as it’s the right kind. She’s having fun right now, but she’s also getting stronger. Makes me happy to see her like that. Makes me want to do everything I can for her. I do care about her very much. I should feel guilty about that. Professionalism requires that I treat all students equally.”

“She’s your only student. Are you admitting you’ve done more for her than any other past students?”

“There are some that come close. It’s just so easy with her. I don’t understand it, there are times when I …”

‘Is he starting to choke up?’ thought Michiru, as his breath caught and his face seemed to flush for a moment. She watched him very closely now.

“When you … what?” she asked, very gently.

“Sometimes, she seems so … I don’t know, tragic, I just want to … wrap her in cotton, and shield her from the evil, awful world, and tell her everything will be alright. Sometimes I even feel like if anything ever threatened her, I would level all of Tokyo to protect her.”

“Hmm, well, you are almost as tall as Gojira.”

“Heh, I’m sorry. I’m forgetting myself. I’m just an outsider, Miss Kaioh. Just someone with a job to do. You have trusted me to do it, and I’m going to do it. You heard us going over European history. Think about how in just a few centuries Renaissance Europe came to dominate the world, financially more than any other way, because across entire continents the merchants were able to trust other merchants they’d never met to do what they said they would do. Webs of trust are what make a civilization work. Without them, it comes apart.”

“Trust is hard,” said Michiru, “very hard. It requires that we make ourselves vulnerable. I find how you feel about her very touching. I realize it might be a bit unprofessional, but I think it’s a good thing that you are emotionally involved. I think it bodes well for solving her particular problem. What do you think is causing her to freeze up?”

He sighed, heavily, then proceeded.

“There was something I noticed that first day and it makes me wonder something that …”

“Yes?”

“Without getting too personal, how does Hotaru relate to Miss Meioh? What does she think of her?”

Michiru thought long and hard about what to say here.

“This is important to helping Hotaru?” she asked.

“Quite possibly.”

Deciding it would be okay to reveal a little of their home life, she said, “Hotaru truly admires her. I think Setsuna is the one she wants most to be like. She loves us all, but the bond between her and Setsuna is very close. No biological mother and daughter could be closer.”

“That is what I figured. One more thing, if you feel you can speak of it: Hotaru is, as I said, very obedient. If something were to ever bring her into conflict with Miss Meioh, how would she react? Has such a thing ever happened?”

“I don’t know how she would react. I can’t imagine it happening really.”

‘Bingo,’ thought Kuryakin.

“What made you think the problem could have something to do with Setsuna?”

“I’m just puzzling over it right now,” he said, evasively. “Really, it may have more to do with herself than anything else. She’s so meek, and that’s why I’m doing everything I can think of to strengthen her and boost her confidence. Life can be so tough. Her father was Soichi Tomoe, the geneticist, right?”

“Yes.”

“So Hotaru lost her birth mother in that construction fire at Infinity Academy, and then lost her father when the earthquake destroyed it. A singularly unfortunate place, that Infinity Academy, eh? Anyway, it’s no wonder she’s a bit lost. And she’s so precocious. Sometime she seems like a baby, and other times she seems so grown up, like she’s aged too fast or something. The gap between her mind and her physical maturity means she is going to have conflicts. The mind and the body need to age together.”

‘He has great intuition,’ thought Michiru. “So she … how do they say it? … doesn’t know herself?”

“No, now there’s a strange thing. I think she does know herself, very well, and she’s a bit terrified by it. Can you think of any reason why she would feel that way, Miss Kaioh?”

“Nothing comes to mind,” she very smoothly lied and wondered whether he would notice. “Can you think of anything else to do for her, that you aren’t all ready doing?”

“If I could make one wish for her, it would be to give her innocence.”

“Really?”

“Miss Kaioh,” he said quietly, “I think you’ll understand what I am about to say: some people are too innocent to be tempted to despair; others, having been tempted and survived, are … immune to despair, kind of by inoculation.”

“Yes,” she nodded. “I do understand you, perfectly. Haruka would understand, too. So then, which is Hotaru?”

“If we’re lucky, she’ll be the second kind. Innocent as she seems, she’ll never be the first. I’d move heaven and earth to make that possible for her, if that would do it. But it can’t. The main thing for you all, Miss Kaioh, is to just keep loving her.”

“We can and we shall. Kuryakin-san, you play this game well.”

“High praise, from a worthy opponent. Just for you, Miss Kaioh, I will keep doing my best.”


“Hotaru, time for lunch,” Michiru called down to the pool.

“Aww, already?” she called back. The expected group of students arrived and that would be the end of their monopoly on quality dolphin time.

“Tell me, My Kittens, what do you have in your picnic basket?” Kuryakin asked a few minutes later as Hotaru was toweling herself off ...

(Word Limit Reached)




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