Painted Ferns

“I didn’t realize that the problem I saw you struggling with was so similar to the one I didn’t know I had.”

After the events of episode 80, Ami sinks into depression, until Mako-chan visits and they discover they share a problem.

Painted Ferns

What a relief it was to have reinforced the idea that the Sailor Senshi were trustworthy friends, all of them, and that they would never let her down. What a relief it was that the other students had, in being cleared of dark energy, forgotten entirely their unfounded suspicions about her. It had been a particularly cruel trick of Esmaraude’s, but everything had turned out right.

So why had depression descended on her so quickly after they’d gone their separate ways?

By the time she reached home and read her mother’s note on the dry-erase board, Ami felt as if a granite weight had somehow lodged in her stomach. She couldn’t imagine eating, and, though she had studying to do, she wasn’t much inclined toward anything beyond sitting on the sofa in dark reflection.

Of course her friends believed in her, but was it true she wasn’t a cheater? Absolutely true, in both letter and spirit? Her natural aptitude for study and memorization, for understanding how tests were written, for preparation before a trial, for mental fortitude under pressure — didn’t that give her an unfair advantage as good as cheating? And that she had honed these skills through years of ambitious determination — didn’t that make it worse? She came into every exam at a higher starting level than anyone else, and wasn’t that just as bad as sneaking in an answer sheet?

The latter, at least, she hadn’t done. But in maintaining her innocence of that particular wrongdoing, wasn’t she covering up the true crime? She was probably every bit the fraud the other middle-schoolers had called her, and one day she would be found out. Maybe she already had been, if not by her closest friends, at least by everyone else. Was she really fooling anyone? Had she been fooling herself all this time? It made her sick to think of, though she began to realize that today had only been the emergence of her awareness; she’d had this impression far longer subconsciously.

When a knock sounded at the door, Ami looked around, and realized she’d never turned the lights on. How long had she been sitting here? There was no way to tell; depression hit her like that sometimes. She rose and, flipping switches as she walked, went to the door.

Makoto stood there, holding one of the large shopping bags she used when she wanted to load people down with food, wearing an oversized sweater and slacks in green and blue respectively. She gave Ami a tentative smile. “Hi.”

“Hello,” Ami replied.

“Mind if I come in? I have something for you.”

“Of course,” Ami said, stepping aside to allow her friend through.

Anyone else she might have turned away. Usagi’s silliness, Chibiusa’s constant need of supervision, Minako’s manic energy, Rei’s sarcasm… she couldn’t have dealt with any of it tonight. But Mako-chan could be so gentle, so soothing; she was simply pleasant and easy to be around. Besides, she was the only one that had thought to come.

She did seem to be feeling somewhat awkward, though, and kept her back to Ami as she set her bag on the table. “I know everything turned out all right,” she said, “but I thought you still looked a little down.” She knew where different dishes were located (in everyone’s home), and, after finding the ones she needed, began setting the table with those and some things from her bag. “So I brought you dinner and dessert — they’ll both keep until tomorrow if you’ve already eaten, though.”

“Thank you for thinking of me,” Ami said quietly. “I haven’t eaten.”

“It’s also…” Makoto still didn’t turn in Ami’s direction. “A sort of apology.”

“What for?”

“I jumped into your business earlier, and that wasn’t fair. You had it under control, and it wasn’t my place to butt in and use violence when I should have known you wouldn’t like it.”

Ami laughed sadly. “Oh, Mako-chan, you don’t need to apologize for that. I may not have approved of the method, but it was nice to know you were willing to stand up for me.”

“Well, anyway, I felt bad,” Makoto replied with an uneasy laugh of her own.

Ami went to the table at last, kneeling down across from Makoto. “You’ve brought too much!” she said as she glanced over the salad and cake and dishes that covered the surface except where the shopping bag still stood.

Mako-chan tapped her fingers together, looking away with a faint blush. “I also wanted to apologize for… When you were hypnotized, you obviously thought we were all saying horrible things to you. So anything I supposedly said that made you feel bad… I’m sorry.”

Now Ami truly laughed, gently. “That was the Droid! You would never say the things it made me believe you were saying!”

Makoto met Ami’s gaze. “Yeah, but at first you sounded so apologetic, as if what you thought we were saying was reasonable criticism. Then you looked so hurt… Even if it was just the Droid, I’m sorry there’s anything about me it was able to use against you. I never want to hurt you. I never want to see that look on your face again.”

At this earnest declaration, Ami’s face went very warm, and her eyes prickled dangerously. “Thank you for thinking of me,” she said again. Knowing she could not hide them, she simply brushed away the tears that had welled up. “It was really my fault for giving in to Giwaaku’s illusions. I should have been strong from the beginning. I should be apologizing to you.”

Mako-chan reached across the table and took Ami’s hand. Giving it a squeeze she said with a little laugh, “So we both feel bad. We’re even!”

Ami smiled.

“Now!” said Makoto in a more businesslike tone. “Please enjoy the salad I brought.” And she removed the glass cover from the salad bowl and placed a pair of tongs inside against the edge. The dressing stood in a jar nearby. “I made this myself,” she said, indicating the latter. “It’s mustard-onion-poppyseed.”

“That sounds wonderful.” Ami took the tongs and helped herself to salad. A splash of dressing went into the small dish Makoto had set by her bowl, and, since this was definitely a fork meal, she lifted her silverware.

She found, though, that she still didn’t have much appetite. Staring down at the salad — which in every respect appeared delicious — she moved it around a bit and let the smell of the dressing waft across her nose.

“Something wrong?” Mako-chan asked in a blend of casualness and concern.

“Oh! I… no, it looks delicious.”

“Let me help you get started!” Makoto speared a cherry tomato, dipped it in her own dressing, and reached across. “Aah!”

With a laugh Ami repeated the sound, taking the tomato in her mouth and biting down. Her eyes went wide. After a moment, when it was polite to do so, she exclaimed, “It’s so sweet and juicy! And your dressing really is the best.”

Makoto beamed. “I don’t have room for tomato plants in my apartment, but I know where to buy the best ones!”

Now Ami was able to dig into her salad with real enthusiasm. She should have just tried it in the first place; she knew the quality of Mako-chan’s food preparation. She experienced a pang as she realized this was similar to her giving in to hypnotism earlier; she’d known then, too, that her negative feelings were inaccurate and irrational, and displayed a lack of trust in her friends. Perhaps that had been because she didn’t entirely trust herself.

“This is fantastic,” she said when she could. “I love it! You are such an accomplished chef.”

Now it was Makoto’s turn to play with the salad in her bowl. Finally she said, “Thank you. But, you know, sometimes… Sometimes I feel like I really am a rough, violent person at heart. I put on this show of femininity and gentleness trying to cover it up, but…” She shrugged. “I don’t know if I’m really fooling anyone. Maybe I’m just a big fake. I think that’s part of why I wanted to apologize for earlier.”

It felt as if Makoto’s heart had suddenly been grafted onto Ami’s: a painful process, but one that brought them abruptly closer than they’d ever been. To hear Mako-chan expressing the same doubts and fears Ami had been struggling with all evening, some of her wording even so similar to how Ami had described it to herself, was stunning.

She couldn’t express this just yet, but wanted to probe into the matter and hear Makoto’s thoughts. “But aren’t you,” she asked gently, “serious about the feminine, gentle things you do? You want to own a shop where you sell flowers and cakes… you love cooking, and gardening. Isn’t that all real?”

“I really want it, anyway.” Mako-chan’s eyes softened the way they often did when she thought about her aspirations. “Can’t you just imagine a nice shop with bouquets all around the edges and some cute little tables in the middle where customers can eat cake while surrounded by the scents of flowers? Everything will be so sweet and pretty… I’ve even sketched it out, though I’m not very good at drawing.”

“You have it all planned!”

“I’ll grow the flowers myself,” Makoto finished dreamily, “and of course bake and decorate all the cakes.”

Satisfied with this information, Ami told her, “So that’s a real part of the true you. It isn’t fake if it’s part of who you are.”

Makoto looked at her solemnly. “Do you think so?”

“I do.” Ami considered for a moment. “And I wonder if you really want to completely erase your… rougher side. You’re the strongest of the Senshi, and that’s a valuable trait. I think we’re all proud of your physical abilities. Would you prefer to be weaker if it meant being more delicate and feminine?”

Mako-chan’s brows drew together, and she pursed her lips. Finally she said, “I don’t know. You’re right; there is some value in being the biggest and the strongest. If someone offered me a magical way out of that in exchange for being more womanly, I… don’t know if I would take it.”

“I think all your traits are important to make up who you are. I — we, all the Senshi love you for everything, and we don’t think you should change any of it. You’re a tall, beautiful girl who’s an excellent chef and baker, and who can beat anyone in arm-wrestling! There’s no reason those things can’t go together.” Ami blushed as she said it, if only because praising someone so extensively and frankly, even a good friend, felt a little impertinent.

Makoto was blushing too. “Wow, thank you. It’s really reassuring to hear you say all that.” She busied herself again at the table, cutting slices of cake for the both of them and dishing them neatly onto the small plates. Her movements slowed near the end of the task, and she sighed as she handed Ami her portion. “It’s hard not to think of it like I always have, though. Not to think those things really can’t go together.”

“I know.”

Probably in response to the earnestness in Ami’s tone that seemed to indicate true understanding rather than mere sympathy, Makoto gave her a curious look.

“I feel the same,” Ami admitted, turning her attention briefly to her first bite of cake. “I was just thinking about it when you came over. And you’re right: it’s hard to convince yourself you’re not a fake, even if everyone you care about has faith in you. Even if you know, logically, that it doesn’t make any sense.”

Makoto had caught her breath, and Ami thought there were tears in her eyes; her fork hung motionless in the air between plate and mouth. “Oh, Ami-chan… I didn’t know.”

“I didn’t really know either until after what happened earlier. But I’ve never been very confident in myself, so it didn’t surprise me. I think I may have believed it for a long time.” Ami roused herself to a stronger tone. “In fact I think I’ve heard of a condition like this; I just can’t remember its name. I’ll have to look it up later.”

“But what do you think you’re a fake about?”

Ami explained as best she could.

“Ohh,” Makoto breathed. For several moments she seemed to be considering what to say next. “I wish I could reassure you…” she offered at last… “but I know this is something inside both our heads. Still… yours isn’t quite like mine, but don’t you think the same ideas apply? You’re good at studying, and you’ve practiced hard, and you do it all honestly… isn’t that an important part of who you are? If it’s part of your nature, and it’s straightforward, then it’s real. It can’t be cheating.”

With no attempt at hiding her tears this time, Ami smiled. “Thank you, Mako-chan.”

“And the same question you asked me: your genius is incredibly useful to the team; if you could give it up somehow so you’d seem more ordinary, would you do it?”

“No,” Ami said quietly. “So I guess I’ll just have to live with my doubts.” Her tone brightened, though, in an attempt at indicating she didn’t feel nearly so bad about this as earlier. “And before I forget, this cake is delicious; you’re so talented!”

Makoto thanked her warmly, then looked over the table. “I’ll get the rest of this cleaned up,” she declared.

Ami’s smile broadened. “Not without my help.”

They cleared most of the dishes into the sink, and Makoto washed while Ami dried. As they did so, Mako-chan said thoughtfully, “It seems like each of us is afraid to be who she really is. Like we make up excuses for why we can’t do the things we’re good at because of what others will think. And those excuses go so deep that we’ve even convinced ourselves it’s impossible to be what we really are.”

“I think you’re right. Sometimes I don’t offer to tutor people when I feel I should, because I’m afraid they’ll think I’m pushy or conceited.”

“But high school entrance exams are coming up eventually,” Mako-chan mused, “and everyone could use some help there.”

“You’re right… I should help everyone study. I shouldn’t let my fear keep me from supporting my friends.”

“I’m sure you can do it! And I… a lot of the time I don’t want to wear slacks like these–” she gestured with a soapy hand– “because I’m afraid it will just confirm what everyone thinks of me: that I’m an oversized, boyish girl.”

“But you look cute in pants like that!” Ami protested, blushing as she realized that the compliment implied more than she, perhaps, meant. “You look like yourself, not a ‘boyish girl.’ You have excellent fashion sense, and you make your own clothing, so you know it looks good on you.”

Makoto colored slightly as well. “Thank you. I guess I do like to wear what makes me feel comfortable and like myself. I shouldn’t be afraid of that.”

“You’re strong enough in your spirit not to mind what others think.”

Shrugging sheepishly, Mako-chan allowed, “Sometimes.”

Finished with all the dishes besides their cake plates and dessert forks, they only got into a brief splash-fight in the draining sudsy water. Six months ago, Ami would not have pictured herself ever wasting time on something as silly as this, but now she thoroughly enjoyed it. She found it delightful to be easy enough with a friend that she could engage in such activities.

Giggling, they hung up their aprons (Makoto had evidently brought hers in full anticipation of washing dishes), and returned to the table to finish their cake. But before she knelt again, Mako-chan produced two more items she’d brought. One was immediately visible, and rather what Ami had been expecting when she’d noticed its bulk broadening the sides of the bag; the other Makoto held concealed in one hand.

“This is a painted fern,” she announced, though Ami had already identified it. “It likes indirect sunlight, so I thought it would be perfect to put on your balcony. See this drainage pan? Only water it until the water appears here.”

“Thank you! What a pretty planter!” Ami ran her fingers over the glazed ceramic. “And I’m sure the fern will be beautiful in time, though now it’s a poor struggling thing.”

“Just like us,” Mako-chan said, only half joking as far as Ami could tell.

Ami replied in the same light tone, “Yes!”

Then both of them together, just enough out of unison to make it even more striking, said, “But you’re already beautiful.”

Makoto blushed and scratched the back of her head, looking away; Ami blushed and fixed her gaze on the ceramic again; they laughed, though Makoto seemed more awkward and Ami more shy about it than usual.

After a moment Mako-chan said, “So, yes! The other gift!” She reached over, still red in the cheeks, not meeting Ami’s eyes, and placed it in her friend’s hand.

Glad to have something to direct her hot face toward, Ami examined the keychain. A lovely Betta splendens had been molded out of plastic — the type of hard plastic that was almost as good as glass — in swirling blue and purple.

“I saw it in a store, and it made me think of you,” Makoto said, her previous enthusiasm creeping back into her voice. “And that was all, at first. But now I think… I hope… whenever you see it, you’ll remember that I — that all your friends recognize the great qualities that make up who you are, and don’t think anything about you is fake or wrong.”

Ami found herself tearing up yet again. “That’s an unusual interpretation of a fake fish!” she said in wet amusement, still staring at the keychain in her hand. “And thank you. I wish I had something to give you as a reminder.”

“We’ll share this one,” Mako-chan said softly. “Whenever I see you carrying it, I’ll remember how you feel.”

“I hope that’s enough for you when I’m not around!”

“You’ve strengthened me this evening. I feel ready to face the world!”

Ami looked up at last, her expression cheerful. “I’m so glad I could help you! You’ve helped me too, and the keychain is wonderful. And if you take strength from my conversation, I think that just means you should visit more often.”

“I think so too.”

Over the next few minutes, they ate cake in silence. It really was divine. Ami herself could competently cook and bake, but Mako-chan was in a league of her own. Ami pictured the flower-and-cake shop her friend had described, and thought it would be an instant hit.

Finally, her plate cleared, Ami set her fork down and remarked, “I don’t think anyone but you could have connected with me over this.”

Makoto’s mouth was full with her last bite, but she nodded.

“Of course everyone else would feel sorry for us, and would like to do whatever they could… but only you and I could have understood each other like this.” She didn’t even mind this time that her face was scarlet at saying such things so openly.

When Makoto could speak, she agreed. “I never knew you had the same problem, but I’m so grateful we got to talk about it.”

I didn’t realize that the problem I saw you struggling with was so similar to the one I didn’t know I had. I’m very grateful too.”

For a moment they looked into each other’s eyes without any barriers between them, a moment of peace and comprehension, a moment of pure, warm reciprocity of feeling. They couldn’t maintain this link for long, but in that moment, their relationship was perfect.

“I should go,” Mako-chan said, bustling to get everything organized for that departure. The remaining cake and salad were covered and went into the refrigerator along with the dressing, the last few dishes were set beside the sink, and the shopping bag with Makoto’s apron inside it was folded neatly and tucked under her arm. “There’s school in the morning, and you probably want to study some tonight.” They exchanged amused smiles.

“Thank you again,” Ami said as she walked her friend to the door. “Thank you so much.”

“Thank you,” Makoto replied. She paused before leaving, and turned. Pulling Ami into a one-armed hug — she smelled of lilies and strawberry icing — she took advantage of her height to kiss Ami on the forehead. “Good night,” she murmured.

And Ami leaned against the door staring around at her apartment with the reddest face she’d ever worn, and a little, disbelieving smile.

This story is a gift for Cassildra, who has converted me to this pairing. I have hazy ideas for future stories about them continuous with this one, so I hope Cassildra is up for more :D

The sexism inherent in Mako-chan’s insecurity is one of my least favorite things about the series. Society enforces a certain standard on women, and she’s internalized it to the point where she believes being an inch and a half taller than her friends makes her a failure as a woman. Among other things, of course. It’s disgusting. But since that’s the society of the series and the attitude of the characters, I had to write it that way. Just know that I don’t approve! (Note: I’m not blaming Mako-chan for this; she’s a sweet bean and deserves better.)