Namimori was peaceful, as Kawahira had promised, from the glance of it she had caught before entering the Kawahira home, two stories above a worn-down realtor's office. It was peaceful in that it was more suburban than the Juban district. More houses than apartments and skyscrapers, and far less people. There was a more open air in the town, and far less background noise, even in 'downtown' Namimori.
The lack of the white noise she was so used to disconcerted her, but not necessarily in the bad way.
She was too focused on the lack of pain and the fear of being somewhere new without any of her fellow senshi to really be disturbed by noise and lack thereof, anyways. It was freeing, and her body felt lighter than it had in months due to the lack of chronic pain. It was a great feeling, to not be suffering from the pain of her soul screaming and shaking in her own body.
And yet her shoulders were heavy, burdened with the terrifying fear that came from being alone. One step forwards, and she felt like she could just launch herself into the air, like she could as Saturn – only to revert to Hotaru and fall to the ground like an angel robbed of his wings as punishment for defying the natural laws.
Liberty and despair. Healed and alone.
Having experienced both a pain that cut to the soul and the cold sensation of being alone in the world, Hotaru couldn't say for sure which was worse, only that both were utterly terrible and not something she would wish upon anyone easily, let alone herself.
And yet here she was. Clutching at the sheets she was spreading over her new bed – familiar, because she had brought them from home, had been picked by Setsuna-mama because they suited her bedroom but now was in an unfamiliar room – and scared of being left alone.
"I can still call them," she mumbled, reminding herself that they hadn't left her, not really. The day she left Juban, they had all cried. Usagi bawling her eyes out as she clutched at a red-eyed Rei, wanting to hug Hotaru and not being able to lest it overwhelm her. Setsuna, silent tears running down her dark cheeks. Michiru weeping into Haruka's shoulder and Haruka looking like she wanted to fight the world with her bare hands. Makoto sniffling as she spoke from afar about all the food she'd send her, every week, so Hotaru had better be eating and staying healthy or else. Ami handing over papers neatly stapled together regarding health concerns she needed to be aware of and promising she would fax over anything else that came up. Minako, snatching the papers and shoving them into a box she claimed were filled with things from all of them so Hotaru would be prepared, no matter what – and then breaking off to join the rest of the senshi in crying.
They hadn't wanted her to go. They had cried for her.
They loved her, they wouldn't forget her while she was gone, she wouldn't be alone forever.
That was the thought that would sustain her through however long she needed to stay in Namimori.
Someone knocked on the door, and Hotaru quickly rolled off her bed. Hair fixed into a decent state after a quick finger-combing, she opened the door.
Kawahira, leaning against the wall like that small effort required to keep him upright was too great for him to bear, gave a small wave of his hand.
"Granny's back," he mumbled. "She wants to meet you."
Hotaru followed him as he shuffled down the stairs. In the kitchen, a tiny old lady in a pink kimono was unloading a grocery cart into the refrigerator.
"Riku," she said without looking back. "I'm making miso soup and fish. You didn't eat ramen again, did you?"
"No, Granny," he answered obligingly, but Hotaru, behind him, saw him cross his fingers.
Finally done with emptying her cart, the old woman turned around. Her face was deeply lined, but her eyes were keen and sharp, and they immediately landed on Hotaru.
"Is this her?" she barked. Hotaru nearly flinched at the force behind her sharp words.
"Yup." Kawahira popped the 'p' sound.
The grandmother marched over to Hotaru with the force of someone on the warpath, and after putting on a pair of glasses she whipped out from her pocket, scanned her over once.
"You're too skinny," she said bluntly, sharing her conclusion with her immediately. "Good spirits, what have they been feeding you where you came from?"
"Food?" Hotaru blurted out the answer, and then flushed, because that was a response that could be interpreted as sass. "I just – I don't usually eat much."
She had always eaten small amounts, even during the growth spurts. That had worried all of her parents and the rest of the sailor scouts, and it hadn't been uncommon for them to carry around snacks to feed her at any given time they met. And recently, she hadn't been eating well at all. Appetite was hardly present when the soul was in threat of crumbling at the edges.
"Hmph," said Granny Kawahira, with a critical eye glittering behind her glasses. "Well, you need more meat on your bones." She waved a bony finger towards Kawahira, who stood with a bland look on his face through the whole exchange. "Don't go feeding her ramen until she gets some meat on her bones."
"Yes, Granny," he replied obediently, with the enthusiasm of a napping donkey.
"What is your name?"
The old lady was a very forceful woman with an ironclad way of doing things, Hotaru was beginning to realize. "Tomoe Hotaru, ma'am."
"None of that 'ma'am' stuff," she said brusquely. "It's Granny, or Granny Kawahira."
"Yes, Granny." The only 'old' person in her life so far had been Rei's grandfather. Granny Kawahira was definitely not like the old priest, but not in a bad way.
"Go wash up," Granny ordered. "And come down for dinner. I want to see you eat everything in front of you."
Kawahira shot her a very sympathetic look before his grandmother's voice cracked down on him as well. "That goes for you, too, Riku! Not a single grain of rice left behind!"
Hotaru quietly climbed up the stairs as the old lady began to scold her grandson about how he should know better than to eat so much ramen at such a young age. Her cover story was that she was an orphan that had suddenly grown allergic to city life and could not stay with any of her cousins, as they all had jobs in the city. She needed to stay in a more peaceful environment, one less urban, and so she had come to Namimori.
"It's not even a lie, if you think about it," Kawahira had said with a shrug. Hotaru was given the impression, from his lack of concern, that he might have just stuck to that 'cover story' out of sheer laziness.
But no one would question her history or background when they couldn't recall her remaining the same age as time passed. Kawahira's magic would ensure no one really noticed that oddity, even as she walked through the town.
"I do it all the time," he stated when she asked about how it would work. "Sometimes I forget to change my appearance for a century, and witch hunts get annoying. Besides, people usually aren't very observant in the first place."
Hotaru washed her hands and her face, and then went back down to see if she could help with dinner. Kawahira was still being scolded, and while he answered in the affirmative as a sign of engagement, he also seemed a little bored.
Like a teenager rolling his eyes and answering 'yes, Mom' to a nagging mom in the most monotone voice he could manage, Hotaru thought. The idea amused her, and she had to fight the tugging at the corner of her lips.
"Can I help?" she offered when the scolding ended with a 'wash your hands'. Efficiently, Granny Kawahira had made sure to start up the miso soup while lecturing her grandson.
Granny nodded briskly and pointed. "Set the table. The chopsticks are in the first drawer."
Hotaru grabbed three sets of the chopsticks, battered and scratched-up metal ones that took a while to match, and set them at the table after dampening a clean washcloth and wiping down the surface.
"Meat on your bones," the old woman muttered. "What's your favorite food?"
The last question came like a cracking whip, sharp and quick and sudden. "Soba noodles, Granny."
The old woman snorted and rolled her eyes. "Of course it is."
Buckwheat noodles weren't exactly the best food of choice for putting 'meat on her bones', that Hotaru would admit.
"Girls your age shouldn't be dieting," Granny complained. "All sticks and skin, and blown over at the gust of a wind, I swear."
Hotaru didn't tell her that she didn't diet. It wouldn't have convinced her, and only sounded like an excuse.
She tasted the soup, and nodded approvingly. "You work on fattening up, and making your own life. Don't let no one else tell you what your worth is. They made a dumb mistake, losing you, and that's all you need to think."
The turn in conversation confused her, and it took her a second to understand. Oh, Hotaru thought, going over what the grandmother supposedly knew about her history. She thinks that I was abandoned.
"It's not like that, or their fault," she protested. "I – I had an allergy, staying was hurting me so I needed to go."
"And they couldn't come with you?" Granny raised a silver eyebrow, disapproving towards the women she had never met because she thought they had abandoned a young girl.
But they hadn't. They had wanted to stay with her. It was just that . . .
"I'm the problem," Hotaru whispered.
A gnarled hand landed on her shoulder and forcibly pulled her up.
"You listen up," Granny ordered, fire in her eyes. "You are not the problem. Repeat that. You are not the problem."
Hotaru shook her head. The woman meant well, she really did, but she didn't understand. Hotaru had brought this on herself.
"They cried," she said.
And wasn't that a sin, that she had made her future queen cry like her heart would break? That her fellow guardians, who already had burdens too great for them resting on their shoulders, have one more weight to carry because of her?
"I was allergic to them and they cried because it hurt me to be near them even if I loved them so much. I was the problem, I shouldn't have –" Hotaru inhaled sharply and the breath caught, cutting her off.
She shouldn't have?
"I grew up too fast," she whispered. "Because I wanted to – to stand with them."
Because she had wanted to fight at their side, but the body of a five-year-old had been too young to fight. Saturn had pushed herself further, releasing more of her magic and letting it condense the time around until she was old enough to be fighting. Still the youngest among them all – but they were all young, and she was still able to fight thanks to the choice she had made. Fight at the sides of the people she belonged with – at the side of Chibi-Usa, the first to change Saturn.
And that choice had come with a price.
Her cheeks were wet.
"I didn't want to go and they didn't want to watch me leave but it hurt so much." Hotaru hiccoughed, not bothering to wipe them, not when they'd just become wet again.
She shouldn't have?
The price had been paid in the currency she was most reluctant to part with – that of time spent with her loved ones. To reach out with a hand and know someone would take it, to have the warmth of another person's presence and loving smile guaranteed in her life, to be aware of just how colorful her life could be painted with the love she received and could give.
That was her price, for forcing things along, and it was a terrible price.
She shouldn't have? Shouldn't have made the choice to accelerate her aging?
. . . No.
Hotaru wouldn't change a thing, if she went back in time. She wouldn't have sat out in the fights that followed, fighting with everyone against the threat to their princess, their planet, she wouldn't have missed her time with Chibi-Usa for anything in the world. If she found herself in the same situation, faced with the same choice, Hotaru knew she would have chosen to fight once more.
But knowing that, and still being alone and miserable were two different things, because while there weren't exactly threats to Earth that required them to all come and fight, she was doing exactly what she hadn't wanted to do – sit out on the sidelines, away from everyone else. By Selene, she missed them all so much, and she hated that she was incapacitated, making her helpless and useless.
She shouldn't have – made them cry. Even if she secretly drew relief from their tears, reassured in a way that they would truly miss her, she shouldn't have made them cry.
How terrible of her, to find it comforting that they cried for her.
An arm wrapped around her shoulder and tugged her down to a seat.
"Fine," the old woman said gruffly. "So they're not that bad. But you still listen to Granny when she says it's not your fault."
She wiped away the tears from her eyes and nodded. "I'm sorry for my outburst."
Maybe she truly had been on an edge, to have confided in someone she had just met like this. It was rather unlike her.
"Nonsense," Granny said crisply. "Tears are healthy. Never bottle them up – that's the stupidest thing anyone could do. Cry and scream and yell to live long, I always say – look at me, I'm ancient, and I don't care to hold my tongue at anything and anyone, and I've never enjoyed better health in my life."
A startled laugh escaped from Hotaru's lips, almost like a sigh.
"There you go. Don't hold back, girl – you're already here because of poor health, the last thing you need is adding to that."
Maybe she had a point.
"Can I come in now?" Kawahira called from outside the kitchen.
Granny scowled. "Riku, what do you do with your eyes and ears, boy? Don't ruin the moment!"
"That's why I asked, Granny," he protested mildly, shuffling into the kitchen with his hands raised at chest level. "Is the food ready?"
The old woman grabbed some bowls and began to fill them. Hotaru rose up so she could move them to the table. She needed something to do.
"Be more like Hotaru-kun, you ramen addict," Granny snapped at Kawahira as she shoved him down into a seat.
"Tomoe-chan is cute, but not the type I want to be like," he mumbled, not protesting to her rough treatment of him. "I think that would make me gross. Or a pervert."
Rice and side dishes also put into bowls and placed on the table, Granny nodded at her sharply, a silent okay for her to sit. The food was simple, but good in the homemade-sense. The miso was rich and warmed her insides, and the pickled plums were the best she'd ever had.
"You like soba noodles. What else?"
Hotaru swallowed before answering. "I . . . eat anything I'm given. Except milk." She didn't like milk, usually ended up taking calcium supplements as well as multi-vitamins to make up for it.
"Bones, girl, bones," Granny said with a shake of her head.
"What about ramen?" Kawahira offered, contributing his own two cents.
"They're okay." She didn't have them very often, to be honest, but they were fine.
But her words sparked something in the man, whose eyes blazed behind the lenses of his glasses.
"Ramen is not just okay," Kawahira insisted, the most passionate she had seen him yet. "Ramen is the food of gods. Or it should be, anyways."
As someone who had been called a god – and a goddess of destruction at that – in her previous life, Hotaru couldn't really agree with him.
Granny made a gesture, as if to throw her chopsticks towards his head. "It's cheap instant food. You'll get high blood pressure from all that salt one day and then you'll regret it."
"I could never regret ramen," pronounced Kawahira with sincerity one usually reserved for swearing an oath in court. "And it's not just cheap instant food, Granny, you know I only eat the ramen made by experts of the craft."
She snorted. "It's salt and fat and noodles, Riku, you stop talking back to your Granny before you further convince me of how your brain's been replaced by ramen."
Hotaru ate all the food, as ordered. It was delicious and she made sure to tell Granny that.
The old lady clucked her tongue. "You barely ate anything," she chided. "Meat on your bones."
But she did reach up to pat her on her head and shuffled away, slippers dragging against the ground.
Her footsteps, when climbing up the stairs after putting the bowls away, were just a bit lighter.
AN: I came early because I put in a commission for the fic and it came today and I'm super happy and anyone interested in this story should be too because that means I'm now financially invested in it, meaning I have to finish it.
It's a spoiler for the pairing I had in mind for this story and it's going to take us a while to get there but oh well I wasn't going to miss the chance.
Cover image by SweetRachel at daily-sweets on Tumblr.