SUMMER BEFORE

Shortly past midnight came the whisper. "Okay, she's asleep, let's go."

The two of them slid out of their sleeping bags and crept to the door leading out of the room. Deirdre eased it open without a sound, then stole out into the hallway. "C'mon, Minor."

"We're gonna get caught," Minor said at a perfectly normal volume, believing she was whispering in the absolute, unquestioning manner of someone completely incapable of doing so. She giggled, half out of amusement and half out of nervousness.

"Shh!" Deirdre hissed, glancing back over her shoulder. Back in the room, Kanako didn't stir. They waited in silence until they heard the quiet even breathing of deep sleep from the huddled form beneath the sleeping bag under the window; then Minor followed Deirdre down the hall, past one closed door after another, until they reached the kitchen.

"Silencing spells on all their rooms," Deirdre whispered as their bare feet padded over the cool blue tiles. "I checked when I got up to get a glass of water. That's how you can tell they're all planning to have sex tonight."

Minor blushed and muttered something about not needing to think about her parents, her grandparents, or her sister having sex. Deirdre grinned at her. "That's why I said we should do this tonight. I'm learning all kinds of useful stuff at the Great School."

"Like how to tell when people are having sex?" Minor mumbled.

"That's just inference from the silence spells." Deirdre slowly opened the fridge, filling the kitchen with the faint light cast from within. Minor blinked at the sudden light, then leaned forward and plucked up a six- pack of beer in each hand.

"Dad's self-replenishing fridge," she said, smiling slightly. "They're never gonna know anything's gone."

They took the hallway from the kitchen to the back room, where Deirdre slowly opened the sliding glass doors leading out to the deck, then stepped out after Minor. The air was still warm from the heat of the summer day, but a cool salt wind was blowing off the sea. Deirdre shivered as it ran across them and hugged her arms round herself, wishing she'd thrown on a sweater over her tanktop. Minor, though dressed little warmer, seemed completely oblivious to the chill as she took the steps down to the sand two at a time.

"You're shaking up the beer," Deirdre said as she paced after the slight form of her aunt, little more than a walking shadow skipping across the sand ahead of her. Slight?, Deirdre thought. You're one to talk; Minor had filled out quite a bit in all the places a girl was supposed to since the time Deirdre seen her last summer, while she'd gained a lot of height and little else. The curse of elven heritage; Mom promised she was going to fill out in time, but this knowledge, however true, was not comforting when she currently had about as many curves as a triangle. Not that this meant boys weren't interested in her, because boys--she had discovered this quickly-- were interested in just about anything female that didn't run away, but that didn't prevent her from being envious. As soon as she learned just a little more shapeshifting...

The surf was rolling in steadily upon the shoreline, and the water's surface shone with the rippled reflection of the moon and stars. Minor tossed the six-packs down in the wet sand near the water's edge--Deirdre winced and told herself to open her first one very carefully--and danced into the waves, kicking up white spumes of water with her feet and punching at the night with her fists.

Deirdre came and sat down on the sand near the beer, watching for a little while in silence. Grandpa Ramon was right all along, she thought; Minor's going to be a great fighter like him. She could already see it in the way her aunt moved, like you could tell the shape by the shadow cast; Minor was just the shadow right now of what she'd eventually be. Not her, though! Well, maybe she was going to fight just as well as Minor, or close to as well, but she was going to do all kinds of other things, too; magic and shapeshifting and sorcery and Logrus and Pattern, just like her parents, and maybe some Trump, too, because her parents didn't do that and it was always good to do something new, something so that no one would be able to say (as they surely would for Minor) that you were "just like your father" or "just like your mother"...

Her train of thought was broken when Minor sprawled down on the sand beside her, panting, extracted a beer from the six pack, and cracked it open.

"Auntie, no--"

"Awww, crap!"

Deirdre, by virtue of being only a secondary target to the explosion of foam, ended up with only a few stains on her tanktop and shorts. Minor, by contrast, took the blast full in the face and chest, and sat there on the sand gaping, with beer foam dripping from her hair and soaking through her shirt.

"Crap," she repeated.

"I told you you were shaking it up, bouncing around like that," Deirdre said, unable to keep from laughing.

"At least I _can_ bounce," Minor huffed, standing up and pulling her shirt off. "Can you dry my clothes off with your magic? And make sure they don't smell like beer?"

"Sure," Deirdre said, still chuckling. "I'll try not to light them on fire."

Minor shot a glare at Deirdre, then found herself unable to keep from laughing either. She stripped off her shorts and panties and left them in a pile on the sand, then ran forward and dived into the ocean. It closed round her like a gentle hand. Deirdre was an okay sorceress already, but she really needed to stop fooling around and focus on something. It was important to find what you were good at and do that, like her and her dad; she sort of regretted not having been able to learn magic, because her grandmother and mother and sister were all great at it, but Dad had told her he hadn't been able to learn it either. No matter how much she looked like her grandmother, she was her father's daughter. Under the water, with the rhythm of the waves echoing distantly in her ears even though they were right overhead, was one of her favourite places to be; it was like she could fly there, but not with magic like her mom or with wings like her sister or Davros or Mitsune. Just with the power of her own body, moving through the space any way she chose, up or down, left or right, and the dark all around her; down here, at night, only the tug of buoyancy and a dim sense of stars told her which way was up. She kicked her legs out and pushed down to the bottom and ran her hands through the fine-grained sand; it felt good to swim naked, as well, without a bathing suit between her body and the water. This wasn't the kind of thing she'd ever be able to do normally; her mom would freak out.

Deirdre was calling her name, and, though echoing and distorted, the voice still reached through the waters. She pushed to the surface and gasped as her head broke water, pulling in a big lungful of night air.

"Hey, Deirdre!" She waved. "You should come in! The water's great."

"I thought you'd drowned in there or something," Deirdre said, sounding relieved. "You were down so long." She stood just at the edge of the water, the waves rolling over her feet.

"I can hold my breath a long time," Minor replied, wading out onto the beach. The night air began to dry her immediately, and she shivered with pleasure at the feel of the wind from the sea on her skin. "My clothes dry?"

"Uh," said Deirdre.

"Uh?" Minor replied, putting her hands on her hips.

"Well, your shirt kind of dissolved." Deirdre waved her hands and continued hurriedly: "But your underwear and shorts are fine, and I grabbed you a beach towel off the back porch while you were underwater, so you can cover yourself."

"Ah. Okay." Minor shrugged nonchalantly and began to redress herself.

"Watch out for sand in your panties," Deirdre advised.

"I know." She slid her shorts on and sat down on the beach towel, grabbing herself another beer. The night air was pleasant against her bare breasts, and being topless in front of her niece hardly bothered her. This time when she cracked the beer she was ready, and clamped her mouth over the top in time to prevent another disaster.

Deirdre sat down next to her and took a beer for herself, staring at it suspiciously. "Hey!" she said after a moment. "I can just use magic to settle this down before I open it."

Minor stood up and walked several steps away, sipping at her own now- calm beer. Everyone had told her that you never liked the taste at first, but she'd liked it from the first try she'd ever had.

"Hey!" Deirdre said, looking offended.

"Don't dissolve the beer can," Minor advised.

Deirdre concentrated intently on the beer can for a moment, then smiled and opened it. It failed to explode, to her pleasure and Minor's obvious surprise. "Told you," she said, sipping and making a face. Her mother had let her sample some a few months ago; she'd hated the taste then, and didn't like it now, but it was an adult drink, and she was becoming an adult, so she had to learn to like it. Besides, you had to drink when you were doing something like this.

"Right, Minor," she said gleefully. "It's time for the girl talk now."

"Okay," Minor replied amiably, coming back and sitting down cross- legged and facing Deirdre. She finished her beer, crumpled the can into a small ball of aluminum, dropped it onto the sand, and took another. "So, uh... you got a boyfriend right now?"

"Not really," Deirdre said. "You?"

"Kind of." She looked a little embarassed. "Sir Mathis; he's from Begma. I was seeing him for a few months before summer break, and right before school let out, we, uh..."

Deirdre grinned. "Details, details! Is he cute? What's he like? How far did you get with him?"

"He's cute, he's a good musician and a pretty good fighter, and that's none of your business," Minor mumbled.

"Oh, come on!" Deirde half-wailed. "You can't not tell the best part."

Minor went crimson. "Second base, I think," she said, nearly inaudibly. "Or maybe third. I can't keep 'em straight."

"Well, tell me exactly what he did, and I'll tell you what base he got to."

"No."

"I can tickle it out of you."

Minor gave Deirdre a look that summed up exactly what she thought Deirdre's chances of being able to tickle something out of her were.

"Oh well," Deirdre said, shrugging. "Hm. What now? I guess we could braid each other's hair."

Minor ran a hand through hers and smiled. "It's long enough to do that now."

"What made you decide to grow it out?"

"I dunno. I always just kept it short because it's easier to fight when your hair is short. I'm thinking of dyeing it."

"Ooh, what colour?"

"Red, maybe. Or black."

"Hrm, red would look good."

"You think so?"

"Yeah, though you'd probably look a lot like Aunt Kanna."

"I'd need to be a lot taller to look like her," Minor said, sounding a little unhappy.

"Oh, come on," Deirdre chided. "You've got a great body."

"Hm. Oh, thanks. You too. It's tall and has cool ears."

"You both have fine bodies," said a voice from the darkness. "As 'The ABC of Kundali' goes, 'B is for bodies, tall and short, stout and slim--'"

Minor was up in a flash, grabbing the towel and wrapping it round her chest. "Pervert!"

"It's okay, we're relatives," Miroku said mildly, coming close enough that he was visible as something more than a shadow. "I'm just paying you a compliment, aunt, not expressing any sort of deviant desire."

"Don't make us kick your butt, Miroku," Deirdre said. "What're you doing up?"

"What are you doing up?" he replied.

"Girl talk," Minor said, carefully fastening the towel in order to show as little cleavage as possible. "So you're not allowed."

Miroku concentrated and turned into a girl. "There," she said, tossing her long blonde hair behind her back.

Deirdre laughed. "Sit down and have a beer, bro."

"Nanbara's ranting in his sleep. It woke me up." Miroku settled down nearby, displaying such utter obliviousness to Minor's glowering that eventually she simply shook her head, smiled, and tossed a beer the temporary girl's way.

"You think they're having a good time?" Deirdre asked.

"Huh?" Minor looked puzzled as she opened her next beer.

"I assume she means Kanako and Nanbara," Miroku replied. She traced in a spiral in the sand beside her crossed legs, leaving the beer unopened for the moment. "Nanbara is enjoying himself, I think, although I think Great-Grandfather's patience is wearing thin over being told he's cheating every time he beats Nanbara at chess. Kanako is... well." The spiral crossed itself at the centre, and Miroku frowned slightly and brushed at the sand until the shape was entirely gone.

"Kanako is a nice kid when she isn't being a total weirdo," Minor said. "Dad's teaching her how to fight."

Deirdre nodded. "Yeah, you guys were all up this morning practising, right?"

"And every morning since we came here," Minor declared. "You gotta keep your training up."

Miroku nodded her agreement. "Unfortunately," she said with a melodramatic sigh, "some things cannot be practiced on a family vacation."

"Huh?"

"He means he can't be with his girlfriends," Deirdre translated.

"Oh," Minor said. She paused, then narrow her eyes. "Girlfriends?"

"Or his boyfriend," Deirdre added.

"Boyfriend," Minor weakly echoed.

Miroku smiled. "Somehow, I still find time to study," she said, just slightly pridefully. She took a delicate sip of beer.

Deirdre studied Miroku for a moment, then blinked. "Hey, Miroku, you ever think about how your girl body looks a lot like Auntie?"

"Mmm," replied Miroku.

"Did you do that on purpose?"

"Hmm."

The two of them turned slowly to look at Minor shortly before she jumped on Miroku and tried to make him eat the beach.

"How dare you copy my body and use it to seduce men?!?"

"Auntie, the towel!"

The wind seized the towel as it fell and sent it tumbling down the beach. Minor shrieked and pursued it, swiftly vanishing out of Deirdre and Miroku's sight. Miroku got back up, spitting out sand and shaking her head.

"She's our aunt, Miroku," Deirdre said. "You shouldn't grin like that."

"I am afraid," Miroku said, looking properly shamefaced without feeling any shame at all, "that I cannot help it."

Deirdre was silent for a moment, then said, "She is starting to get pretty hot, isn't she?"

"She combines great-grandmother Nanami's beauty with grandpa Ramon's strength and grace," Miroku said thoughtfully. "I imagine she is very popular with the boys."

"Girls, too," Deirdre added. "A lot of girls get crushes on athletic girls like her."

"I hope she can't hear us," Miroku said, sitting cross-legged and combing sand out of her hair. "She'll toss us both in the ocean."

Deirdre nodded. "She's sort of easy to embarass."

"It's what happens to people who don't grow up in a proper harem- based household," Miroku said sagely.

Deirdre's ears twitched. "She's coming back," she whispered.

Miroku peered carefully into the darkness, and for a moment her eyes gleamed with reflected starlight. "And she has a shirt."

Minor stomped back into sight and dropped down on the sand, lying on her stomach and propping her chin on her hands. "You," she said to Miroku, with mixed irritation and affection, "are a pervert."

"'And the Unenlightened Ones will deem ye perverse, and cast their words against ye, but heed them not'," Miroku quoted.

Minor shook her head and grabbed another beer.

"I did not do it deliberately," Miroku said after a moment. "I let myself find the body. There's much of my mother in it, and a little of you and your namesake, I think."

"Total pervert," Minor concluded.

Miroku laughed softly. She didn't mean it, of course; he knew that her speaking in such a way was no different from his father or Motoko pretending embarassment when his mother or Moonshade got affectionate in public. He had learned a lot in the last few years about hearing what was behind people's said, how tone and inflection and context revealed--sometimes deliberately, sometimes unintentionally-- what was really being said. Coming from Minor, "pervert" was an entirely different word than it was from, say, Rimururu. He almost frowned openly at the thought of the woman. Discovering the hostility of some towards his parents and their relationship, and that it extended to him, had been one of the less pleasurable things involved in developing a familiarity with Amber. But he did not want to think of such things on what was meant to be a fun family vacation, although the fun, as he had often lamented to Deirdre, was somewhat limited, when everyone around worth flirting with was a relative. Still, there was a difference between looking and touching, between the contemplation and the act, and he'd gotten an absolutely marvelous eyeful of Aunt Minor's breasts, which were developing quite nicely. She wasn't his aunt by blood, of course, but there were ties that ran as deep, or deeper; Mitsune might have been the one to bear him, the fertile garden for his father's seed (Deirdre would have mocked him mercilessly for that metaphor, but he'd read it in _The Essential Kundali_ last year and liked it), but Motoko and Moonshade were just as much his mothers. "Motoko-Mom"; "Moonshade- Mom". Cumbersome terms; he wished there were better words, something you could call your other mothers that rolled more easily off the tongue--well, Motoko had told him there were proper terms in more archaic dialects of the Courts, the ones preserved in part by the individual religious sects, but not enough people knew them. "Being a parent is a role of many faces, not just one," she'd said (this had been one of the rare times the two of them, alone together, had been able to talk about these things--coming into maturity made him appreciate such things more, being able to talk with his parents as though, for want of better words yet again, they were not his parents). "The old tongues recognized this." She had smiled, and rolled the words out, one by one: single words that stood for father-by-blood, mother-by-adoption, and one last word, ungendered, which he thought had one of the nicest definitions he'd ever heard for any word: parent-by-love.

"We should go skinny dipping," Deirdre announced.

"No," said Minor.

"Please?"

"It would be fun," Miroku said. "And we're all relatives, so again, no harm done."

"C'mon, Minor," Deirdre said ingratiatingly. "You sure looked like you were having a good time before..."

Minor turned red. "That was just me by myself."

Deirdre looked over at Miroku. "You should've seen her, bro."

"I wish I had," Miroku said wistfully.

Minor hurled an empty beer can at his head, though without the force that would have shown real irritation. Miroku laughed and rolled out of the way across the sand, then came up to her feet. "Well," she said, "I'm going in." She shucked out of her shorts, boxers and loose t-shirt, then waded into the night-coloured sea.

"Stay here if you like, Auntie," Deirdre said, pouting slightly and stripping down. "I'm going in." She shivered and wrapped her arms round herself as goosebumps rose across her skin. Hopefully the water was warmer than the air.

Minor looked up at her appraisingly, then said, "You've got no boobs at all."

Deirdre laughed. "Yeah, I know." She raced after Miroku, who was easing into the water inch by painstaking inch, and cannonballed in. The water had retained the warmth of the day, and she and Miroku were soon splashing each other and almost shrieking with laughter.

"We're going to wake everyone up," Deirdre gasped.

"Except that they're all having sex in silenced rooms," Miroku replied. She tackled her sister into the water, and they struggled heartily beneath for a few moments, before they felt hands close round their shoulders and separate them by tossing each a half-dozen feet in opposite directions.

"Even if we're relatives," Minor said severely, "nude underwater wrestling is probably crossing the line." Out of some apparent sense that it was more decorous to do so, she'd kept her t-shirt on. Since it was now soaked to her skin and she was wearing nothing beneath, this was not, in fact, the case.

Deirdre looked sidelong at Miroku. "Doubleteam?" she stage whispered.

"Our only chance," Miroku replied solemnly.

They hit Minor from both sides, windmilling their arms to cast up great spumes of water. Minor retreated, severity vanishing completely as she became unable to keep up the facade in face of the assault. Laughing, spluttering through the walls of water they cast up around her, she gave ground further, until the sea was nearly over her shoulders, and then she dived beneath. Deirdre and Miroku did not even realize she was gone at first, until they heard the absence of her laughter. They stopped their splashing, and the sea lay still as glass, and the moon shone in it like a white hole in the face of the waters.

"Auntie?" Deirdre called.

"Do you think we splashed her a little too hard?" Miroku asked nervously.

"No way. Auntie's--" The rest of the words vanished in a startled yelp as Deirdre found herself seized by the ankles and flipped heels over head into the water as though by a sudden undertow.

Miroku, a quick learner, began to stroke for the shore, even as Deirdre was thrust out of the water like a thrown harpoon. She twisted in midair and hit the water in a shallow dive. "Flee, Miroku!" she called, gasping for breath and hurriedly finding her footing on the sandy floor.

While a quick swimmer Miroku was not the match for Minor, who grabbed her by the legs and jerked her back into an embrace that, under other circumstances, might have been quite pleasant (and, for a moment, was), if it hadn't immediately been followed by Minor arching her back and tossing.

"I am the champion!" she exclaimed, shortly before a particularly high wave washed over her head and caused her to swallow a mouthful of seawater.

Miroku surfaced, male again, shaking his head dazedly. "I can see the champion's nipples through her thin, clinging t-shirt," he reported.

"DIE!"

"Auntie, do you really want to tackle a naked boy?" Deirdre asked.

Miroku smiled lazily as Minor stumbled to an embarassed halt, then turned his back and dove underwater again, swimming out deeper into the sea, past the point where he could stand on his feet without water over his head.

"Do you want to swim out after him, Auntie?" Deirdre asked, floating over to Minor, who was trying to figure out how to turn a wet t-shirt into something that concealed her modesty, with little success. "If you took it off and rolled it up, you might be able to make a bikini top out of it," she suggested.

Minor sighed. "No. I give up."

"Miroku's just teasing," Deirdre said, somewhat worried Minor was actually beginning to take offense. "If it bugs you, just tell him to stop and he'll stop."

"I should be shown the respect I deserve as your aunt," Minor said, unconvincingly.

"I am filled with respect for you, Auntie," Deirdre said, insincerely.

"Of course you are, Deirdre," Minor said, smiling. She threw her arms around Deirdre. "Give your aunt a hug."

"Crushing..." Deirdre flailed her arms briefly, then wrapped them around Minor as the grip relaxed to a powerful but affectionate one. I wonder if she doesn't realize I like girls as well as boys, Deirdre thought. Probably not, or she probably wouldn't be hugging me while we're both practically naked.

"This has been really fun," Minor whispered into Deirdre's ear. Her breath smelt of salt-water, with a faint hint of beer. "I don't get to see you and Miroku enough."

"Yeah." Deirdre felt a sudden lump in her throat, and remembered something Queen Corrine had said to her once at the end of a family gathering.

Why do you hug people so much, Great-Grandma? (she was starting to suspect Corrine might not really be Grandma Keiko's mother, now, but this had been years ago.)

I just like to, I guess. (and Corrine had briefly fallen silent.) And you never know; perhaps it's the last hug you'll get to give them. (and Corrine had suddenly looked old and sad as she let her free from the embrace, just briefly.) Oh. (how old had she been? Not very old; maybe about eleven. She hadn't quite understood, but she had been a little scared, because Great-Grandma never looked sad, Great-Grandma always smiled and laughed and hardly ever seemed serious enough to be a Queen.) (Corrine had smiled then.) I know what people say about me, that I'm sentimental. But I'd rather be sentimental than not show people how I feel. (and she had hugged Deirdre again, quickly, and then gone to try and hug Drake.)

"Can I have a hug too?" Miroku asked, reappearing from his swim out into deeper waters.

"No," Minor said. Then, after a moment, she added, "You can have a hug once we get some clothes back on."

The inexplicably sad sense that something was passing away left Deirdre, so quickly and surely it left but little impression on her mind.

Miroku cheered. Deirdre gave Minor a final squeeze, then let her go and began heading back in to shore. As more and more of her bare body emerged from the water, she began to shiver again. Definitely a little more shapeshifting first, she thought; so I can grow fur at times like this. Or just make my body heat itself more efficiently. Or maybe...

"You could just use magic like I did," Miroku said, ambling blithely along nearby, but far enough away that little of his nakedness revealed itself as he stepped out onto the sand and began to dress himself.

"Huh? How did you--"

"Your shivering makes it easy to read your mind, sis," Miroku said. He tossed her the bundle of her clothes, and she pulled them on quickly, uncaring of how wet she was, wanting only to get her clothes back on and run back inside the warm, warm house. "We'd best get inside before we're discovered." He sauntered off towards the back porch, leaving damp impressions of his feet on the beach.

Minor came out of the water after he was out of sight and stood briefly on the shore. The angle of the moon shone down on her, and each droplet of water clinging to her body glowed like a tiny jewel for a moment. Then she walked out of focus and began pulling her clothes on, finishing by wrapping a towel round her torso.

"Okay," she said to Deirdre. "Gotta go give Miroku his hug."

"You sure?"

"I promised." She paused, then grinned. "Plus, I can hug pretty hard."

They headed up to the back porch together, arms thrown round each other, then froze as they came closer and they realized there were two shapes waiting for them, rather than one. One was Miroku. The other was only a little taller than Minor, but carried itself with an assurance and power far out of proportion to its size.

Nanami raised her hand, and a dim ball of light bobbed above her palm. "My," she said crisply, sounding both amused and irritated, "you three have been up to a lot, haven't you. Drinking and swimming naked, and who knows what else?"

"You were supposed to be having sex, Great-Grandma," Deirdre said in a strangled voice.

"As I told Miroku," Nanami said, with just a hint of ice, "I pray your schoolings have not been such a failure as to make you believe that silence spells can't be one-way."

"So we wouldn't hear them having sex, but they could hear us," Miroku commented.

Nanami looked at him sidewise. "Miroku," she said, "be quiet."

Miroku opened his mouth, seemed very surprised when nothing came out, then quickly closed it.

"We didn't do anything bad, Grandma," Minor said.

"There are issues of propriety to consider." Nanami turned a cool gaze on Minor. "And issues of trust, such as how we trust you three not to steal beer." She narrowed her eyes and looked down towards the ocean. "You at least could have cleaned up the cans if you were trying to ensure we didn't find out."

Minor looked embarassed. "Sorry, Grandma," she said. "Next time, I'll hide the cans."

Nanami sighed. "Miroku, Deirdre, go inside and go to bed," she said. "I'll let your parents deal with this in the morning. Also, Deirde, Kanako was rather upset about your sudden disappearance. I got her to lie back down and told her you'd be back very soon."

Deirdre looked guilty, then bowed hurriedly to Nanami and headed back inside. "Sorry, Great-Grandma," she murmured as she passed.

Miroku said something, but no words came out.

"You can talk now, Miroku," Nanami said. "As long as it's not about sex."

"Can I have my hug before I go back to listen to Nanbara's sleepranting?"

Nanami blinked, looking somewhat floored for a moment, then leaned over and gave Miroku a hug. "Go to bed, Great-Grandson," she said. He grinned at Minor over Nanami's shoulder, and gave her a thumbs-up. Minor snorted and shook her head at him, as Nanami released him, and he too headed inside.

"As for you..." Nanami said, turning back to Minor.

"As for me?" Minor grumbled.

"You look just like Ramon when I had to discipline him at your age," Nanami said. She flicked her hand, and the ball of light floated into the air and began to bob a few feet over her head. "Let's walk down to the beach, Granddaughter." She came down the steps to join Minor on the sand, elegant even in nothing more than a nightgown, a light robe, and fluffy slippers.

"Oh." Confused, Minor fell into step with her grandmother. "Okay."

They went down to the shoreline together, to the spot where all the empty beer cans sat in the sand like fallen towers.

"Throw a can out for me," Nanami said.

"Huh?"

"Over the ocean. Throw a can."

Minor, even more confused, picked up a can and hurled it with all her strength. Nanami gestured with her thumb and forefinger, and a saffron-coloured bolt the size and shape of a pencil shot out from the bobbing ball of light and blasted the can to ash at the height of its arc.

"Wow," Minor said softly. "That's cool. Like a firework."

"Throw another," Nanami said. Minor did. That one exploded in a pattern of sparks that formed a yellow rose before they fell upon the waters and extinguished with faintly-audible hisses.

Minor stared wistfully. "I wish I'd been able to learn magic," she said.

"So do I," Nanami said quietly. She gestured down at the scatter of cans, and they rose into the air; she gestured again, and they sailed out over the ocean, and again, and the saffron bolts struck them one after another. They burst into yellow roses, golden suns, into geometries the colour of warm honey, into amber-coloured gems.

"So what's my punishment?" Minor asked after a moment, sounding almost curious. "I'm guessing it's not to just watch you blow up beer cans."

Nanami looked at her carefully, then asked, "Are you happy, Granddaughter?"

Minor blinked, uncomprehending. "Huh? What? Of course I'm happy. I've got the coolest dad in the world, and Mom's pretty cool too, and now that she's starting to learn how to fight, we got more things in common." She pushed at the sand with a toe, then continued: "I'm learning lots of neat stuff at Ohtori. About history and stuff. I kinda like history. And I've got you and Grandpa, and sis, even though I don't see her all that much, and--I mean, I'm really happy. Why?" She smiled uncertainly. "Is something wrong?"

After a moment, Nanami shook her head. "No," she said reassuringly. "Nothing's wrong. And I'm not going to punish you for anything. Just... be more proprietous. Please. Which means don't go drinking and swimming naked with people."

"Even my relatives?"

"Especially them."

"Okay." Minor looked down at their image in the waters. "We look like twins," she said after a moment.

"Yes," Nanami said. She reached out and ran a hand through Minor's hair, somewhat hesitantly. "Your hair looks better longer, Granddaughter."

"I know," Minor said. She was quiet for a time, then added: "But it makes me look a bit too much like you."

"There's nothing wrong with looking like me," Nanami said haughtily. "Better than looking like Wakaba."

"I dunno, Wakaba's pretty cute, and she's a surprisingly good--ow! Don't pull."

"Wakaba hasn't a tenth of my beauty and grace." Nanami combed Minor's damp hair out with her fingers, tsking at every tangle. "Perhaps if it were longer..."

"Huh?"

"Hold still, Granddaughter," Nanami commanded.

Minor obeyed, straightening her back and setting her arms at her sides. Nanami twined her fingers into Minor's hair near the scalp and, slowly, began to coax it longer, a faint glow suffusing her hands as she did. Minor watched their reflection in the gently rolling waves with a smile on her face, as Nanami pulled it down past the small of her back, past her hips, past her knees, nearly to her ankles.

"I remember you doing this when I was four," she said quietly, resisting the urge to giggle as the magic tickled all over her skull.

Nanami laughed gently. "When you singed all your hair off trying to make a simple light spell." She took her hands away and stepped back. "Turn around, Granddaughter." Minor did. "There now, don't you look pretty?"

Minor gathered up the long, fine length of her hair in one hand and looked at it carefully. "I won't be able to fight well with it this long," she said. "It'll fly all over the place and get in my face."

"Then tie it back," Nanami suggested. "Or braid it."

"Uh..."

"You do know how to braid hair, don't you?"

"Well--"

"Come here. Sit down."

Minor folded her legs and dropped to the sand. Nanami came and crouched down behind her. "Now," she said. "Remember how I do this so you can do it yourself when you need to." She separated Minor's hair into three long strands at the nape of the neck, taking two in one hand and one in the other.

"Left strand over... right strand over that... middle strand over right strand... left strand over right strand..."

"Do we have to talk about boys, too?"

"Do you want to?"

"Umm... not really."

It was a lengthy process, as Nanami went through it slowly so Minor could follow. Then she unbound it and had Minor do it herself until she had it down. By the time that was done, the high tide was lapping at Minor's ankles, and it wasn't long till sunrise.

Minor lay back on the sand and held the long coil of her new braid between two fingers, dangling it before her nose and focusing on the tip until she nearly went cross-eyed. Nanami sat behind her, knees curled up to her chest, watching the sea.

"Hey Grandma?" Minor asked.

"Yes?"

"Isn't it funny we look so much alike? I mean, people look like their ancestors, but Dad doesn't look much like you, and neither does Mom, so why should I--"

"Don't think about it," Nanami said. Perhaps too harshly, she realized as she saw Minor flinch. "I mean, who can know these kinds of things? That you look like me... that is what is."

"I guess you're right." Minor kicked her legs in the air as though about to begin backstroking through the sand, then let them drop; her heels threw up flurries of sand. "No reason to worry about things you can't understand." She looked over at Nanami. "Thanks, Grandma; I really like it like this."

"It looks good on you," Nanami said vaguely.

"Race you back to the house!" Minor sprang up and sprinted for the back porch, not even stopping to see if Nanami was going to follow; perhaps not caring, perhaps realizing she would not.

Nanami watched the sea. My son, my foolish son, she thought, you want to tell her the truth because you hate to be lied to; would you hate me, then, for I have lied to you again and again and again, and I will lie to you until the truth is forced from my lips or until I die, for I will not make you suffer for your mother's sins. My foolish granddaughter, you want to tell her the truth because truth has never been for you anything but a marvelous, wonderful thing; the truth was that you are the beloved of a god, the truth was that you get the blessings of the universe upon your loves. Truth has never been a sword for an enemy to raise against you, or a scourge to use against yourself. The truth will _not_ always come out; there _are_ some secrets you can keep forever, if you're strong enough. But she knew they were right as well, damn it; it wasn't like her and Makoto, just a secret between them. Too many had been there the night Motoko brought her back from the world of death; too many knew what she was; it would slip, somehow. Better to tell her themselves and contain whatever damage--this was their logic, and she could see it, though she wished she didn't--than to have it slip sometime in conversation with a well-meaning fool like Kanna. But there would be damage; she could see it coming, sure as she could see the rim of the sun on the horizon. She felt truly helpless; she had felt like that before, but somehow this was all the worse. Perhaps it was just a kind of selfishness--after all, it was _her_, in a way, wasn't it? Her, but raised with love and kindness and family all around her, rather than as a blot upon the kingdom, a living reminder of a traitor who nearly destroyed Amber. Even after centuries, she could make herself livid remembering the taunts of children, who could be the cruelest creatures in the world as well as the sweetest: traitor's daughter, traitor's daughter, traitor's daughter. To spend sixteen years making something like this and then, and then... to lift a rock above it and let it drop and see if it would shatter. If not this year, perhaps the next; if not the next, the one after that. They wavered, like the sea. After she graduates. After she starts making her own path in life. After she walks the Pattern. Now; she's ready now. She would never be ready; this was what they did not understand. It wasn't like a punch she could prepare herself to take. And yet, and yet... there was nothing she could do. It was as if all of it had already come to pass, and she was only going through some kind of forward-looking hindsight. Oh, my granddaughter, my other me, she thought (and prayed--even now, she rarely prayed), we can trust in the gods, but not too much; may the Unicorn and Serpent bless and guide you, but if they will not bless and guide you, may you find the strength within yourself; now, so as not to twist as I was twisted--or if not now, then later, to see, as I finally saw, that no road ever truly closes, that even if you cannot turn back, there are always forks ahead of you. Our beginnings constrain us, but do not bind us hand and foot.

"GRANDMA! I'M GONNA MAKE BREAKFAST FOR EVERYBODY! YOU WANNA HELP?"

Nanami rose slowly and walked back towards the back porch, where her granddaughter stood with her hands cupped round her mouth. If not this year, than the next; if not the next, than after that. It would come. But until then there was the summer and the sea, and ensuring that Minor made a breakfast that was at least somewhat edible, and making love to Tsuwabuki, and trying to get to know--hard though it might be--Motoko's children by Loewen a little (that, too, something that will come to pain, she thought, as they begin to come to a fuller comprehension), and for a little while, at least, there was happiness, and then, after the pain, perhaps, there would eventually be joy again.

FIN