This story is a work of fanfiction.  As such, it owes a great
debt to the creators of the characters used herein: Rumiko
Takahashi, creator of Ranma, and Naoko Takeuchi, creator of
Sailor Moon.

     This story contains scenes of a dark nature and Lime
rated material, and thus is not suited for younger readers.
Reader discretion is advised.
 
 
 

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
 

Chapter 10: The Truth Shall Set You Free
 
 

     There are times, in the deadest, quietest heart of the night,
when sleep won't come to me.  That's the time when my demons
come out to roam.  Sometimes they taunt me for my failures, others
they cry and wail in the voices of all the people I lost to the abyss.
     Yeah, that abyss, the one that, when you look into it, it
looks back.  I still remembered what Jack had said way back then,
about hunting monsters.  And about becoming them.  I hadn't
understood then, not like I did now.
     Perspective.  Ain't it grand.
     This night had been a bad one, and as I sat on the roof in the
gray light of dawn, I knew why.  It was hard to put into words, but
then words had never been my strong suit.  The problem, though,
was something a little beyond words.  This place, for instance.  It
had seen cruelty and tragedy, but it wasn't haunted by them.  Ami
was, but that was different.  Some places held their darknesses
close, like psychic rot.  This house, though, it was just a place.  A
little sad, a lot lonesome, but in the end just a place.  After all this
time, I knew the difference.
     And all these girls sheltering under its roof had kindled a
spark of something in the mouldering old place.  That something
was the magical, intangible thing known as "home".  It really didn't
have much to do with the building itself, that I knew.  For those
girls, anywhere they were all together was probably home, more so
now that they'd opened all their wounds to each other.
     Home was a warm, safe place for those on the inside.  I'd
had that once, even though I hadn't known enough to appreciate it
at the time.  But now I was just an outsider, and to look at that
warmth from just beyond the glow cast by its hearth was a cold and
lonely feeling indeed.
     Sometimes I really longed for the days when I hadn't
brooded, hadn't lived inside my own head so much.  In those days I
just would have gone out and smashed something, maybe picked a
fight with Ryouga or Mousse.  Then I would have felt better.  Now
...
     I sighed and stood up.  What the hell.  When you're backed
into a corner, just go with your strengths.

***

     Usagi stretched drowsily, arching her back and curling her
toes under the warm cloak of heavy blankets.  Her entire body felt
heavy with sleep and satiation, a combination that was quite to her
liking.  She made a small, feline sound in her throat and reached out
for Rei.
     Nothing.
     Puzzled, she pried one eye open to peer blearily around the
room.  It was barely morning, a cool gray light permeating the
bedchamber.  Early morning was not Usagi's favourite time of day,
but as the information she sought finally filtered its way through the
layers of sleep-sodden befuddlement to her brain, she recalled that
Rei was an early riser by nature.
     Usagi blinked sleepily with her one eye, finally making out
Rei kneeling on the floor near the window.  The girl was
gorgeously, gloriously naked, clothed only in the cloak of sable hair
that fell to pool around her feet on the hardwood floor like liquid
silk.  That sight was one of the few things that could motivate
Usagi to leave the luxurious comfort of her bed; of course, if she
could tempt Rei back to her instead, then she could have her cake
and eat it too.
     As she watched, Rei slowly stretched, lacing her fingers together
and raising her hands until her arms were straight over her head.
She traced slow, languorous patterns, describing a sensuous dance
with the morning that made Usagi's skin tingle just from watching.
The blonde recalled how Rei's lips had felt against her most intimate
places as they'd explored each other, and the tingle intensified,
spread.  She raised her head and opened her other eye.
     "Hey," she mumbled, resting her cheek on one outflung
arm.  "That looks like it would be more fun with two people."
     "Good morning, Princess," Rei replied softly, not ceasing her
meditations.  "I'm sorry, did I wake you?"
     "Nope," Usagi sighed, burrowing into the bed.  "You were
quiet.  I just realized I was all alone in this great big bed, and got to
missing you."
     She could see the smile, small but genuine, that graced Rei's
full lips at that.  Rei leaned forward until her body was level with
the floor, holding that position without visible strain for at least ten
seconds before slowly righting herself, flinging her hair back with a
practised toss of her head.  She wove an intricate, almost hypnotic
pattern with her hands, moving up, then down, finally bringing them
together in front of her chest, palm to palm and bowing her head
briefly.  Then she breathed in deeply, exhaled, and stood in a single
movement of almost unearthly grace.
     "Done?" Usagi asked hopefully.
     "Yes," Rei replied, her bare feet moving noiselessly across
the floor as she approached the bed.  Usagi watched her with
mounting anticipation, eyes tracing the flat of Rei's belly, the curves
of her breasts.  Shadows played along Rei's porcelain skin,
highlighting the knife edges of lithe muscle as she moved, getting
lost in the silken swirl of that midnight mane.  Rei stood above the
bed and gazed down, a sparkle of something hot and mischievous
lurking behind her imperious gaze.
     "Well, why don't you come back to bed, then?" Usagi
murmured, rolling kittenishly under the covers to gaze up from
under lowered lashes.
     "Slug-a-bed," Rei sniffed.  "The day's already begun."
     "Yes, and it seems to be getting along fine without us so
far," Usagi pointed out.  "Come on, Rei."
     "I should go downstairs, see about breakfast," Rei replied.
She didn't move, though.
     "Well, if you're going to be all gung-ho this early, I guess I
can't stop you," Usagi sighed.  "But you'd better kiss me before
you go."
     Rei smiled and leaned over the bed to plant a light but
lingering kiss on Usagi's mouth.  Usagi wrapped her arms around
Rei's neck and pulled the girl down closer, nuzzling and kissing that
perfect, pale skin with wanton abandon, from lips to jaw to throat
and back.  Rei purred, eyes half-closed.
     "If you don't stop that," the priestess murmured, lying half
atop Usagi, "we're going to miss breakfast."
     "Screw breakfast," Usagi whispered, eyes alight with desire.
     "Gods," Rei murmured.  "There really is something you like
more than food!"
     "Our secret," Usagi giggled, bumping noses with her
bewitching senshi.
     "I swear to use this knowledge only for good," Rei said
solemnly.  Usagi broke down in giggles.
     Then Rei moved, her fingers tracing Usagi's bare skin, and
the giggles stopped.
     It was a long time before the though of food entered
Usagi's mind again.

***

     Makoto stepped out into the chill dawn air, stretching the
kinks out of her body.  Clouds hung low and mist eddied around
the overgrown grounds, throwing a cloak of gloom over the
morning world.  It would have been an excellent day to stay in bed
and skip her morning training; she very well might have succumbed
to the temptation had it not been for one thing.
     When she'd woken up, Ami was gone.
     There was nothing particularly worrisome about that fact,
Makoto supposed.  The previous night's revelations had been
tough, but Ami had seemed much relieved, especially by Makoto's
support and understanding.  There was no reason to be concerned,
really.  Ami was tougher than most people gave her credit for.
     Still, Makoto couldn't help but feel a tiny tendril of unease.
What if Ami had gone back into this Aethyr place?  All Makoto
really knew of that strange realm was that, for some reason, Ami
could work the portal that led there ... and that it was very
dangerous.  She didn't like the thought of her sweet-natured friend
facing unknown dangers without any possibility of help from the
rest of them.
     Relax, she told herself firmly.  Why would she go there
now?  Even if Spasma really is in that spooky castle-thing, Ami
wouldn't be headstrong enough to go investigate on her own.
Minako, yes.  Ami, no way.
     She sighed, breathing deeply of the damp air.  Soon that air
would be redolent with the scents of green growing things as spring
came again, then the long hot summer months would be upon them.
She recalled how she'd used to practice in the mornings in the
sheltered little grove behind Hotaru's mansion.  The solitude had
been nice in the beginning; she'd been twitchy, being around the
others back then.  Eventually she'd become aware that Haruka had
taken to watching her, sometimes with Michiru, often alone.  She
had never interrupted, just observed unobtrusively from a distance.
     Makoto hadn't known whether to make an issue of it or
not, at first.  It had occurred to her that Haruka might be interested,
but the sophisticated blonde had flirted equally with all the girls.
Finally she had worked up the nerve to ask Haruka why she made a
habit of watching her workouts.  The blonde had smiled.
     "You remind me a lot of how I used to be," she'd replied.
"Stubborn, determined ... and alone.  You should spar with a
partner sometime, Makoto.  You learn more that way."
     Makoto had eventually begun to look up to Haruka; the girl was
tough and strong yet somehow always sensual and feminine despite
her masculine attire.  To have Haruka compare the two of them had
given Makoto a secret frisson of pleasure.  Despite her initial
aloofness, Makoto had really desired the closeness of a group
again, and she'd found that she craved Haruka's approval
particularly, although she was careful not to show it.  Her matches
against Haruka had indeed been educational, as well as helping her
to break the ice with the others.
     If she was honest with herself, Makoto could admit that she
missed her camaraderie with the older girl; Haruka had understood
her in some ways that the others did not, and Makoto had come to
admire, even idolize, Haruka's self-confidence.  Haruka never felt it
necessary to hide her strength in order to be sexy, which had been a
revelation to Makoto.  As a tall, gangly tomboy living on the street,
she'd watched the pleasure girls with their sleek shiny hair and
filmy, clinging silks with awe, envying the way they drew attention
with a graceful toss of the head, a titter, a smoldering glance.  That
soft, nearly mystical power they had exuded had seemed to her to
be the epitome of feminine allure.  Meeting Haruka had opened her
eyes, shown her that her view of femininity had been rather narrow.
     Haruka had come to mean a lot to her, so of course the
betrayal had been that much more painful.  Even if she now knew
the circumstances behind it, Makoto still felt the hurt that had
burrowed beneath her skin to gnaw at her heart.  The one she'd
looked up to had let her down, and things weren't going to be the
same when they met again.
     She walked across ground sodden and saturated by the
recent rains, the bottom edges of her sweatpants darkening with
moisture.  Hopefully there was a patio or someplace sheltered for
her workout.
     She stopped when she caught sight of a figure huddled near
a high hedge let run to riotous disrepair.  Automatically tensing,
Makoto nearly transformed before she realized that the figure was
Ami.  Curious, she padded across the spongy lawn.  Coming closer,
she realized that Ami was looking at something through the hedge.
     "Hey," she said in a low voice to avoid spooking the other
girl.  "What's up?"
     "Oh, it's you," Ami replied softly, glancing back.  "You startled
me."
     "Sorry," Makoto replied.  "What are you looking at?"
Without waiting for a reply, Makoto lowered her face to the spot
where the foliage was the thinnest.  She found herself looking at
Ranma.
     Or Ranko, as she'd been calling herself before when she'd
been a girl.  The stranger was once again a petite if shapely red-
head, dressed in loose drawstring pants and an abbreviated tank-
top.  It was clear that the girl was running through some form of
kata; her movements flowed effortlessly, as if executed even before
the need could be formed.  Makoto was both impressed and
jealous; it was often difficult for her to achieve the mental state
necessary for such pure expression of physical grace and power.
     "She ... he, that is, Ranma," Ami whispered, "has been at it
for quite a while.  It's quite beautiful to watch.  Do you recognize
the style?"
     Makoto only shook her head.  Whatever Ranma was doing
seemed to have elements that might have come from styles she was
familiar with, but beyond that she was lost.  Ami was right, though.
It WAS quite an entrancing show.  Makoto had been privileged,
once upon a time, to see a master fighter demonstrate her art.
Ranma possessed the same sort of grace and coiled power; it was
hard to articulate, but Makoto knew she was witnessing a master of
the martial arts.
     She hadn't seen Ranma fight yet, and had wondered at
Minako's accounts of the stranger's fighting acumen.  Now she was
certain that those accounts had not been exaggerated.
     "Hey, Ami.  Why's he a she?"
     "Um, I'm not sure," Ami shrugged.  "She's wet, and not
just from sweat.  Maybe she fell in the pond or something.  Say,
you're dressed to work out.  Why don't you go and ask her to spar
with you?"
     "Maybe later," Makoto said glumly.  She hadn't been too
friendly to Ranma so far, and suspected that the girl might relish an
opportunity to get a little back for that.  If their positions had been
reversed, Makoto definitely would have been tempted.  And she
hated to be made to look bad.  "Come on, let's go inside and see if
you have anything good for breakfast."

***

     Minako banged around in the kitchen, closing cupboards
with more force than strictly necessary.  She was in a sulk, that was
true.  And she knew that she shouldn't be, but somehow she
couldn't help it.
     Okay, so it was a little self-centred to want someone to fuss
over her.  But she HAD been hurt in a fight, and even if they did all
heal pretty quickly, a little tender loving care went a long way.
     And it was petty to feel slighted while Usagi and Rei finally
gave vent to their feelings just because her own long simmering
desires continued to be denied.  And yet she did, and she knew that
was wrong, and so was angry at herself for being so petty.
     That only made her feel even worse.
     Then there was the fact that her screw-up meant that the
Sisterhood knew who she was; that knowledge might even lead
them to the others.  Even if none of the others said anything about
it, she still felt like she'd let them down somehow.  The situation
with Rei had focussed her attention, but now she was at loose ends
and found herself with entirely too much time and not enough
distractions.
     In fact, every little thing this morning seemed to conspire to
irritate her.  Artemis and Luna had stolen off to enjoy some time
alone, Phobos and Deimos had flown off somewhere, and even
Makoto and Ami were suspiciously absent.  The sudden mental
image of the two girls sharing a bed in a less than sisterly fashion
ordinarily would have brought a smile to Minako's face, but today
here scowl only deepened.
     She couldn't go to work because she'd quit, and also
because the new owner now wanted to put her on a leash and turn
her into a pretty little playtoy for the Sisterhood, so that avenue of
working off her frustrations was denied her.  Maybe she should just
go shopping, spend a lot of money.  She felt well enough for that.
     "And maybe," she muttered blackly, "I could find someplace
that had some decent freaking breakfast!"
     She slammed the final cupboard abruptly and stomped out
of the kitchen.  She half-hoped that someone would hear the
commotion and come to see what was going on, but of course no
one did.
     So Minako wandered through the sprawling old house, her
ever-darkening mood settling about her like a cloak.  She found
herself near the patio where she'd spoken to Usagi only the night
before, and she slipped out through the dusty glass doors.  The
stone was cold through her thin socks, and she hugged Ranma's
black shirt around her.  The morning air was cool against her skin,
and she wished she had some coffee to sip.  Or hot chocolate.  Or
just about anything, for that matter.
     "Hey," someone called from nearby, rudely snapping
Minako out of her reverie.  Spinning clumsily, she lost her balance
as fatigue and the lingering effects of her beating conspired to rob
her of her natural grace.  Strong, slim arms caught her before she
could fall, though.
     "Careful," Ranma cautioned, her blue-eyes narrowed as she
helped Minako stand again.  "You all right?"
     "Fine," Minako replied shortly.
     "Geez, what are you doing out here, anyway?  You should
be in bed," the petite red-head went on.
     "I'm fine," Minako repeated, irritated despite the fact that
she'd only just moments ago been wanting someone to worry about
her.  "I just wanted some breakfast."
     Ranma stared into her eyes for a moment, a thoughtful
expression on her face, then leaned forward.  She placed her hand
flat, palm out, against Minako's forehead, pressing her own
forehead against the open palm.  That put their faces very close as
Ranma made a low humming noise in the back of her throat.  The
gesture was an oddly charming mixture of nurturing and intimate,
and Minako found herself touched by the unselfconscious way in
which Ranma, who was wary of touching strangers, performed it.
     It felt ... good.
     "You are a little warm," Ranma murmured, pulling back.
"You shouldn't be out here dressed like that.  And you must still
hurt from last night."
     "Well, a bit," Minako confessed, basking in a sudden warm
glow.  "But you know, everyone's been so stressed out that I didn't
want to bother them ..."
     "It won't do anyone any good if you get sick," Ranma
pointed out.  "Go back up to your room and get in bed.  I'll see
about scraping up some breakfast."
     "Well ..."  Minako gradually allowed Ranma to convince her
to return to bed.  Once inside she slowly climbed the stairs, limping
a little more than was necessary as Ranma watched her go.  Okay,
so she was playing it up a bit, but so what?  A girl was entitled to a
little drama every now and then.
     And the notion of being served breakfast in bed by Ranma,
boy or girl, was quite delicious.
     On the way to her room, Minako ducked into one of the
upstairs bathrooms and checked her reflection.  She'd looked
better, but the worst bruises were hidden under the loose shirt.  Her
blonde hair hung below the hem of the shirt, a tumbled, dishevelled
mass, and she thought about running a brush through it.  Then she
thought better of it; rumpled bedroom hair was sexy, after all.
     As she slipped under the covers, Minako found herself
humming under her breath, and she smiled.
     "You're a terrible flirt," she whispered to herself.  And she
was.
     But it felt good.

***

     I watched Minako go up the stairs, shaking my head.  She
was obviously pushing herself too hard, too soon.  When I'd seen
her outside her face had been scrunched up, like she'd been in pain.
As soon as I'd told her to go back to bed, her mood had improved.
     Really.  She didn't have to try so hard.  Who was she trying
to impress?  Nobody else was even up yet.  Crazy girl.

***

     Tension hung heavy in the room, thickening air already
spiced with perfumes.  Saekianna reclined in a chair nearly ornate
enough to be called a throne as she faced the inner circle of her
order.  Yurina, the Black Rose, stood to one side, only her eyes
visible behind her ornate fan.  Mirra stood at the other, hands
clasped behind her back.  Beside Mirra was Jackinda, her caramel
hair tied in two long plaits that hung down below her waist.
     These three women were her lieutenants; Jackinda, the
expert on old magicks, Yurina, the order's reigning Black Rose,
and Mirra, Saekianna's chosen second in command.  Although
Saekianna had always believed another woman would serve her in
that position, she now knew that would not come to pass.  Rei had
committed herself to another path.  Her fate was now sealed.
     "Everyone now knows that Rei Darkeyes, who was Sister
to us, is now a traitor," Saekianna began without preamble.  "But
the situation is worse than that.  There are those who have
wondered at the wisdom of pursuing these sailor girls who haunt
the streets of the city and wear the moon emblem.  Now we know
that they are our enemies."  Mirra's icy blue gaze didn't even flicker
at that; Yurina merely lowered her eyes gracefully behind the shield
of her fan.
     "Could they be controlling Rei in some way?" Mirra asked.
     "Unlikely," came Yurina's soft reply, fan fluttering
languorously.  "She was trained by our order to resist such control.
And she was, let us not forget, extremely adept in the old arts.  She
would have made a fine Black Rose."
     "Regardless, the White Orders do not possess the knowledge to
control someone so thoroughly," Jackinda added, her eastern
accent adding an exotic flavour to her words.  "There are few who
could come close to matching our skills in this.  We must face the
fact that she has acted of her own will."
     "Whatever the reason, the threat to our plans is very real,"
Saekianna said flatly.  "She is closely associated with these girls."
     "Your pardon, Nightmistress," Yurina said, her dark eyes
revealing nothing, "but our information in this matter is terribly
limited.  For the time being, should we not concentrate on breaking
the seal?"
     "I broke that girl's glamourie last night."  Saekianna held
Yurina's gaze, silently daring the woman to make an issue of the
fact that this information had been held back.  Yurina was wily
enough to know that there was nothing to be gained here, though;
it was the privilege of the Nightmistress to decide what to tell, and
when.  "Her name is Minako Aino, and she worked at the club."
     "That explains why this Mistress V frequently appeared
there," Mirra said slowly.  "But ..."
     "She is also a friend of Rei's," Saekianna went on, thumb
stroking the signet ring that gleamed on her finger.  "And of this
girl Usagi.  And, it seems likely, of the Kino girl."
     "The wolf has not been found," Mirra nodded.  "Nor has the
girl.  Neither of them has returned to the building, although her
motorcycle and his car are both gone."
     "If that girl was one of them, then it would be feasible that she
might have defeated a crazed werewolf and escaped," Jackinda
added.  "Coincidence seems less and less likely, the more we learn."
     "But still," Yurina said, her glossy red lips pursed
thoughtfully, "even if Rei is deeply involved with these sailor girls,
there is no way they could know of our plans."
     Silence fell on the room again, three pairs of eyes turning to
the Nightmistress.  Yurina's shone darkly, and Saekianna knew she
was being baited.  Yurina had disapproved of her dalliance with
Rei, specifically the fact that Saekianna hadn't brought her to heel
immediately as she should have.  Now the Black Rose was showing
her thorns, coated with sweet poison.
     "Rei was a Sister," Saekianna said, rising from her chair and
tossing her hair back.  "She pursued this end alongside us in the
past, and so I saw no harm in revealing our goals to her."
     "So now our enemies know what we intend," Yurina said,
her voice velvety soft.  "And when."
     "Yurina," Mirra said, warning in her tone.
     "No," Yurina said.  "It does not benefit us to ignore the
truth, Mistress Mirra.  Our Nightmistress ignored her duty and
allowed our stray Sister to remain outside of the order, all the while
revealing the truth we have carefully hidden from outsiders.  If one
of us allowed personal feelings to jeopardize the Sisterhood's most
sacred quest, our punishment would be severe."  Those dark
eyes remained fixed on Saekianna the entire time, emotion carefully
concealed within liquid depths.  Light gleamed on jade combs that
held intricate swirls of dark glossy hair, and the only sound was the
gentle rustle of silk as Yurina waved her fan in slow, graceful arcs.
     Saekianna walked over to the alluring woman, her steps
measured and deliberate.  Yurina was clever; to lash out at her for
speaking the truth would be seen as a sign of weakness.  To allow
the remarks to pass, however, would also indicate weakness.
     "Our Black Rose shows her thorns," Saekianna murmured,
reaching out to trace her fingers along the woman's pale, sculpted
cheek possessively.  "But I think perhaps she forgets her place.  I
am not a Maiden, to be chastised so."
     "My place is to serve both the Sisters and the Sisterhood,"
Yurina replied as sharp nails slid lightly along her face in
languorous patterns, coming perilously close to her unguarded eyes.
"And the Nightmistress.  But I would serve you poorly by keeping
silent, my Mistress.  As a Maiden, even though I am Black Rose, I
have no magicks to contribute to the ceremony.  For the goal that
we all seek, I must do what is in my power."
     Saekianna didn't reply immediately.  The lovely Black Rose
did not flinch at her Nightmistress's touch.  She must be very
certain of herself.  Or very good at hiding her discomfort.
Saekianna knew that Yurina was both.
     "Your devotion to duty is admirable, Yurina, and in truth I
expect no less from you," Saekianna murmured, catching the girl's
chin and tilting her head back so that their eyes met.  "But I am no
less devoted to our Lady, and it is not your place to question my
judgement.  Perhaps you require a reminder of the nature of the
relationship between Sisters and Maidens."
     Something flashed in Yurina's eyes at that.  Saekianna could
see the realization there that things had been pushed too far, and
now there would be consequences.  With a sly smile, Saekianna
turned to the others.  The time for talk was over; bold action was
now required to remove the threat to the Dark Lady's revival.
     "Mirra, Jackinda.  You both have duties to attend to.  In the
meantime, I will attempt to clear my mind and come up with a plan
of action for dealing with these sailor girls.  Leave us."
     Both women bowed and turned together, sweeping out of
the room.  Yurina stood quietly, opening and closing her fan as she
watched Saekianna carefully.
     "You have a plan, Nightmistress."  It was not a question.  And,
in fact, Saekianna did have a plan, or at least the first glimmerings
of one.
     "You underestimate your Nightmistress, my Black Rose,"
Saekianna replied, her voice a satisfied purr.  "You will no doubt
consider my plan, how would you put it?  Ah, yes.  Direct to the
point of being vulgar."
     "Nonetheless, such decisions are the prerogative of the
Nightmistress," Yurina murmured, bowing her head with feminine
grace.  Saekianna's hand snaked out and caught the fan as it closed.
She gently took it from Yurina's hand.
     "The prerogatives of the Nightmistress," she breathed to
Yurina, "are many.  And as we have some time, I think I shall
indulge myself in one right now.  Come here."
     Her voice was quiet, but the tone of command was
unmistakable.  And whatever Yurina's faults, she would not shirk
her duty or disobey her Nightmistress.
     She didn't even flinch when Saekianna summoned Banri.

***

     "Well," Luna sniffed.  "I was beginning to wonder if we'd
see you at all today."
     "If I could have gotten food sent up to the room," Usagi
replied, bussing the dark-haired guardian on the cheek, "you
wouldn't have."
     "Even you eventually lost out to food, huh, Rei?" Artemis
grinned.
     "When it comes to the bedroom, Artemis, I never lose out,"
Rei informed him archly, combing her hair back with her fingers.  "I
simply thought she needed to keep her strength up."  Rei delivered
this last bit with a look that made Usagi melt.
     "Well, Ami and Makoto are in the kitchen, trying to scrape
something together," Artemis informed them.  "But there's slim
pickings to be had."  They started through the high-ceilinged foyer
together, footsteps echoing on the cool tile.
     "This place is too big and impersonal," Usagi muttered,
gazing around.  "It needs some work to make it more, I don't
know, homey."
     "Huh.  This place needs a truckload of homey," Artemis
informed her.
     "I don't know," Rei shrugged.  "Spartan has always worked
for me."
     "There's a difference between spartan and barren," Artemis
remarked.
     "Say, Artemis, is Minako down here?" Usagi asked.
     "Er," the white-haired guardian replied.  "No, I think she
went back upstairs."
     "Uh-oh.  She's feeling neglected, and that means sulky
Minako," Usagi said with a wry smile.
     "She put on a show of being carefree and glib last night,"
Luna sighed.  "But we saw her prowling around this morning, and
she was definitely in a funk."
     "On top of everything, Usagi, she still feels guilty about
getting beat by Saekianna and having her cover blown," Artemis
said, stopping to face Usagi with a solemn expression.  "And you
know her, she'll deny it, but that's going to eat at her.  She feels
like she put you all in danger by screwing up."
     "Poor Minako.  I need to have a talk with her," Usagi said.
"And I need to talk to Ami too, about this place.  And Mako-chan,
too.  Maybe I should get everybody together."
     Rei stepped up behind her, sliding her arms over Usagi's
shoulders and embracing her tightly.
     "Princess," the raven-maned senshi sighed, nuzzling Usagi's
cheek.  "A night like last night comes along once in a blue moon.  It
was necessary, and in the long run I think it'll be good for all of us
to have opened ourselves that way.  But now everybody's feeling a
little burnt out, their psychic wounds still tender.  It's important for
you to talk to everybody, but not together.  Get each of them alone,
in private, and do what you do.  That will be enough."
     "You're right," Usagi said, reaching up to cup Rei's cheek
tenderly.  "It's good to have your advice again, Rei."
     "Just her advice?" Artemis smirked.
     "Luna," Rei said, without breaking eye contact with Usagi.
Luna swatted Artemis primly.  "Thank you."
     "You're welcome," Luna replied.
     "So, the question is, what first?" Usagi asked.  "Minako,
Ami, or Mako-chan?"
     Just then, Usagi's stomach gave a long, gurgling complaint.
Rei chuckled as the blonde's cheek flushed pink.
     "First, you feed the beast that you call your stomach," she
teased Usagi, taking the sting out of the words by nibbling the girl's
earlobe sweetly.  "Check on the others, but don't push things,
okay?"
     "You're going to talk to Minako?" Usagi asked.  Rei
smiled.
     "Mmmm-hmmm.  She and I are overdue for a
conversation."
     "Rei," Usagi cautioned.
     "Don't fret, princess.  I'll be gentle," Rei whispered into her
ear.  Usagi turned so that Rei could plant a delicate but lingering
kiss on her mouth, then the two girls parted.
     "Say," Artemis frowned.  "Aren't we forgetting about
someone?"
     "Mamo-chan?" Usagi asked.
     "Ranma," Artemis clarified.  "I haven't seen him, or her, this
morning."
     "And we still have so much to learn about him, and that
key," Luna murmured.  "And the threats that face us ..."
     "One step at a time, people," Rei said with a serene smile.
"This day is going to be a long one, so let's not get ahead of
ourselves.  One step at a time."
     Usagi smiled back, and the two guardians basked in the
warmth of those smiles.  With so much affection in the air, it was
hard to believe that disaster could strike anywhere near them.
     But then, it was early yet.

***

     I prowled Minako's room as she ate the makeshift breakfast
I'd cobbled together for her.  I should probably have left, but she
didn't seem to want me to.  Or maybe that was an excuse, a
rationalization.  Whichever it was, I didn't leave.
     The room, although pretty bare, already seemed to bear the
imprint of her; there was something undefinably feminine about it,
the perfume of her perhaps, or the filmy things tossed on a
high-backed chair.
     She set the tray I'd brought aside, stretching her arms above
her head.  I'd never seen anyone turn the act of stretching into
something so carelessly sensual.  I wondered if she was doing it
because I was there, or if that animal grace was just so much a part
of her that it was always present.
     At any rate, I thought she looked great, her tousled blonde hair
cascading down against the black of my shirt, slim arms extending
from the loose sleeves.  Something seemed to ping in my chest, and
I knew it had been a mistake to stay.
     I still didn't go, though.
     "That was great.  Thanks," Minako sighed, fixing me with
that disconcertingly direct gaze of hers.
     "It wasn't much, really," I shrugged.
     "On the contrary.  I'm like a cat, hon.  Once you feed me,
you're stuck with me."  Her words held a subtle heat, teasing and
flirtatious, just as I'd come to expect from her.  That had been
absent earlier, and I hadn't realized I'd missed it until I heard it
again.
     What are you doing, Saotome? I asked myself.  Playing with
fire?  You know better than that, you idiot.
     And I did, but I let it go on a little longer, even though I
knew how she saw me.  No, not even though I knew; BECAUSE I
knew.  It was real, the tiny sparks that flew between us from time
to time, and part of me couldn't let go of that rush so easily.  I had
no intention of acting on it, of course.  No, I just wanted to bask in
that strange, vital energy for a while.  Was that wrong?  Maybe.
Hell, probably.
     But it was just for a while.  What could it hurt?
     "Don't say that," I retorted.  "Cats scare me, remember?"
     "Fear isn't the emotion I generally evoke in men, darlin'," she
said with a sly smile that I was starting to associate with her.
Banter.  But harmless at that.  Yeah, just harmless talk.
     "So, what now?" I asked.
     "Oh, hours of lazy foreplay," she murmured, playing with
her hair in a thoroughly distracting manner.  "Followed by raw
animal passion ..."
     "I meant, in general," I said, sounding flustered, more than I
actually was, perhaps.  "You know, with everything."
     "I'm really not sure," Minako admitted.  "We'll have to talk
about that.  Do we go after this vampire, or try to figure out what's
up with this Osiren Black and Dasma?  Either way, it's not bound
to be boring."
     "About that," I said, recalling my brainstorm from the
previous night.  "I sort of had an idea that might be useful ..."
     Just then there was a knock on the door, and Rei came in.
She stopped when she saw me, something flickering in her eyes.
     "Is this a bad time?" she asked Minako.
     "If I said yes, would you leave?" Minako retorted.
     "No," Rei replied with a smile.  "I was just curious.  Ranma,
can you give us a few minutes?  I need to talk to Minako alone."
     "Sure," I said, since she seemed to take it as a given that I'd
agree.  "I should get cleaned up.  Hope you're feeling better,
Minako."
     "I am, sweetie," she said with a brilliant smile.  "See you
later."
     Those words sounded like more than a casual expression
when they came from her, laced with suggestive heat.  I forced
myself to remember, as I closed the door, that Minako was a flirt by
nature.  She'd have acted that way with anyone.
     Yeah.  Anyone.  Remember that, Saotome.  And don't get
distracted.

***

     Rei stared at the closed door for a moment, then shifted her
gaze to the empty tray on the bedside table.  She shook her head,
hiding her exasperation.  It wouldn't help to lecture Minako, and
after all, that wasn't why she'd come.
     "Breakfast in bed?" she said instead.  "The Aino charm
strikes again."
     "Ranma was just worried about me," Minako shrugged,
elaborately casual.  "She's a real sweetie that way."
     Ah.  It was left unsaid that none of the others had done
what Ranma had, but Rei knew that Usagi had been right.  Minako
was in a bit of a sulk; nothing serious, but if left to stew even
Minako's characteristic resilience might fail her.  Although Minako
had always hidden her moody side from the others, Rei had come to
understand that there were times when even the relentlessly upbeat
girl became mired in the corrosive, dark emotions that lurked in
everyone.  She was just more adept at hiding her black moods.
     "Mmmm," Rei breathed, flipping her hair back like a cloak
as she settled on the edge of the rumpled bed.  "Still wearing her
shirt, too.  The poor thing, she's been parading around since
yesterday in just that tattered tank top."
     "Since she's in girl form now, I'm sure you have no
complaints," Minako shrugged.  Indeed, Rei had enjoyed the view
of Ranma's female body immensely, but that too was not why she'd
come.
     "Aren't you going to ask me about last night?" she asked
Minako instead.
     "Hey, I guess you guys are entitled to a little privacy,"
Minako said, maintaining that aura of casual disinterest.  Rei
suppressed a sigh.  Minako, not sticking her nose into someone
else's love life?  This was worse than she'd thought.
     Direct action was called for.
     "Don't be pissy," Rei said.  "It's not like you, of all people,
to be jealous."
     "I'm not jealous!" Minako shot back.
     Rei smiled, a slow, sensuous curl of her lips that matched
the heat she allowed to creep into her dark eyes.  With erotic grace
which had brought ruin to countless rivals, she leaned forward and
ran her fingers down Minako's cheek, along her jaw and into her
tousled blonde hair.
     "I am a goddess of the darkest sexual arts known to
woman," Rei breathed, her lips pursed as she let her gaze linger
along the line of Minako's exposed throat as they slowly sought
wide blue eyes.  "I've brought men and women to their knees just
with the force of their own desire.  I've made strong men beg just
for the taste of my lips, fierce women implore me to enslave them.
I am the distilled essence of lust, need, and heedless desire.  I can
bring my lovers to the brink of ecstasy and beyond without even
touching them."
     Rei's lips hovered just above Minako's upturned face now,
fingers twined in soft blonde tresses as tension wound tightly in the
air of the room.
     "There is no way on this earth, Minako my love, that you
are not jealous of me," Rei finished, her voice a husky purr.
     "I am incredibly pissed off," Minako whispered, her eyes
wide, "and incredibly turned on at the same time.  You ..."
     "I'm not finished," Rei breathed, placing her finger gently
over Minako's full lips.  "Usagi wanted to come to you, but I made
her wait so that we could talk.  Minako, last night I told you about
the Sisterhood.  Remember?"
     "I'm not likely to forget," Minako said softly.  They were
still very close, the tiny sliver of space between them roiling with
sexual tension, and Rei could see she had Minako's undivided
attention
     "Then you remember that I told you I learned all about
pleasure, but not love," the raven-maned girl said in a low, throaty
voice.  "Even you, Minako, as sensual and uninhibited as you are,
can't compete with me on the battlefield of physical pleasure."
Minako opened her mouth to protest, crystal blue eyes blazing, and
Rei pressed three fingers against those soft lips, smiling.
     "I know it's a lot to ask," she said to the blonde, "but let
that go for the moment, all right?  The point is, you don't have to
compete with me.  Usagi wasn't seeking a mistress of pleasure to
bed when she came to me, was she?  Hmmm?  Why did she come
to me last night, Minako?"
     "Because," Minako murmured as Rei pulled her fingers
away.  "Because she loves you."
     'That's right," Rei said gently.  "She loves me.  And she
loves you, too.  Nothing I could do in her bed would ever budge
her heart one iota from the love it holds for you, or any of the
others."
     "I know," Minako sighed, sapphire eyes sliding away from
Rei's face.  Rei tugged the girl's hair gently, bringing that gaze back
to her.
     "Good," Rei said simply.  "Because jealousy isn't you,
Minako.  It doesn't become you.  The bond Usagi and I share is
unique, but so is the bond she shares with you.  Never doubt her,
Minako.  I did, and it almost cost me everything."
     "I understand," Minako said, a trace of her usual brash
confidence back in her eyes.
     "I'm glad.  Oh, and there's one more thing," Rei said.  She
leaned forward and kissed Minako.  The girl's lips resisted the pull
of the kiss for a moment before parting, reluctantly at first and then
with slow hunger.  Hot breath intertwined and coiled as their
mouths clung to each other; by the time Rei finally pulled away,
Minako was flushed and breathing hard.
     "Whoa," Minako whispered, her eyes wide.  "What was that
for?"
     "For being your stubborn, deranged self," Rei replied.
"You fought to get me back, and I won't forget that."
     "So, does that mean you're not mad anymore?" Minako
asked hopefully.
     "I haven't forgotten that, either," Rei said, eyes sparkling
wickedly.  "But I'll be able to come up with a suitable punishment,
I think.  Later.  For now, I'm going to check on the others.  Feel up
to coming downstairs?"
     "You bet," Minako grinned.
     "Well, then, slug-a-bed.  What are you waiting for?"

***

     Mamoru Chiba guided his car through the maze of streets,
chewing his lower lip thoughtfully.  Usagi had to be with her senshi,
but where?  It had turned out that only Makoto Kino had an
address in the system.  Which was strange, since both Rei and
Minako had vehicles, and those required driver's licenses and
registrations.  But Rei's was nowhere to be found, while Minako's
address had turned out to be bogus, a vacant lot in an industrial
area.
     That didn't surprise him; Minako wouldn't even need a
reason to do something like that.  The girl simply liked trouble and
mischief.  And Rei, well, after what had happened with Hotaru she
might just have decided to go underground.  There was something
about her which had always made Mamoru's instincts twitch
restlessly; behind that sleek exterior were shadows and secrets, so
much the opposite of his Usako.
     So now he was seeking his last lead, Makoto's address,
which at least existed.  He pulled into the lot, driving up to the
squat old industrial building.  Parking his car by the freshly painted
door, he got out and surveyed the exterior dubiously.  Another
fake?  There was no sign of Makoto's motorcycle, and he sauntered
over to the door, trying it without much optimism.  It was locked,
but the cylinder was shiny and new, in contrast to the battered rusty
door.  And there was a small intercom station on the wall beside it,
clearly a recent addition.  He tried buzzing the two units that had
numbers assigned to them, but there was no response.
     "Help you?"  Mamoru turned, eyes narrowed.  The owner
of the voice was standing at the corner of the building; he'd come
up on Mamoru undetected, which was unnerving.
     "Mamoru Chiba, SPD," Mamoru intoned, flashing his
badge.  Some of the tightness went out of the stranger's shoulders,
but he was still wary, his pale gray eyes sizing Mamoru up the way
a man does when he's trying to decide what will happen in a fight.
The guy was Mamoru's height, leanly muscled, and something
about him sang in the air like a spring coiled to the point of sudden
release.
     "They can control people," the blonde man said evenly, his
stare matching Mamoru's.  "Even cops, I figure.  And I smell roses
on you, mister man."
     Smell?  A shifter, then?  Moving slowly, Mamoru pulled his
jacket open and extracted a red rose from within, twirling it
between his fingers.
     "I carry a talisman," Mamoru said.  "In this city, every little
bit helps."
     "Favoured of Travos?" the blonde asked, but the edge was
gone from his tone now.  "Guess that makes you a straight-shooter,
huh?  Well, what can I do for you, lawman?"
     "I'm looking for Makoto Kino," Mamoru said.
     "She's not here," the blonde shrugged.  "Haven't seen her in
a while."
     Mamoru's instincts for people were good, and he figured it
was time to give this guy a little bit to work with.
     "Listen," he told the blonde.  "She's friends with my lady,
and I thought they might be together.  I'm getting a vibe from you
like there might have been trouble here.  I just want to make sure
Usagi's okay."
     "Usagi?" the guy asked.  "Yeah, I remember her.  Makoto
had her here with two other girls, but they were gone when it went
down."
     "What went down?"
     For a moment, Mamoru didn't think the man was going to
answer him, but those pale gray eyes flicked to the rose in
Mamoru's hand, then back to his face.
     "Sisters of Shadows," the man said flatly.  "One of them
came here looking for Makoto, and I got caught in the middle."
     "The Sisterhood?" Mamoru hissed.  Those women were bad
news.  He'd only had to deal with one case where their involvement
had been suspected, but that had been enough to convince him that
all the stories about them were true.  They were like beautiful
serpents, slithering through the shadows until the time came to
strike, bringing down their enemies with sweet venom.
     "Yeah.  Makoto came through it okay, but she's been
avoiding this place since.  Just as well, since they were watching it
up until this morning."
     "You sure?" Mamoru asked quickly.
     "Here's the plate number off the van they were using," the
guy said, handing Mamoru a slip of paper.  "Maybe it'll be some
good to you.  I wasn't able to get close enough to do anything
without being seen."
     "Do us both a favour, stay away from them," Mamoru said
sternly.  "They don't fight fair."
     "Tell me," the blonde said with a humourless smile.
     "Any idea why they were after Makoto?"
     "Afraid not."  The blonde's eyes were unreadable, but
Mamoru suspected he was lying.  Well, what of it?  Secrets were
the norm, especially down here in the Triangle.
     "Listen, if you do see Makoto, would you tell her I was
looking for Usagi?"
     "Sure.  And if you see her first, tell her Yoshi was asking
after her, okay?"
     "You got it."  Mamoru walked back to his car.  By the time
he got in, Yoshi was gone again.
     Damn.  What now?  The Sisterhood?  He remembered Yu's
warning to him, the black rose besetting the red.  That certainly
seemed to be coming true, a fact that gave unsettling credence to
the rest of Yu's premonitions.
     What did the Sisterhood have to do with Makoto, though?
He sat in the car, drumming his fingers against the dash.  Could
those girls have possibly found even more trouble to get mixed up
in?
     Mamoru sat up straight, his jaw clenched as a thought hit
him out of the blue.  That license plate, the one Usako had asked
him to run.  His confrontation with Hotaru and Usako's subsequent
revelations had completely driven it from his mind.  Why had
Usako been interested in Saekianna der Kae, the daughter of a
murdered Tyrian noblewoman?  Rumour had it that worship of dark
gods like Dasma was quite strong in Tyria; it wouldn't be a leap to
suspect that this woman had some sort of link to the Sisterhood.
     The skin on the back of his neck tightened, and he pounded
the steering wheel once with vicious force.  On top of everything
else, now he had to worry about this?  There was no way he wanted
his Usako falling into the clutches of a group of depraved dark
priestesses.  There was no telling what they might do to a girl like
her.
     He started the car and tore out of the barren lot,
determination burning in his gut.  He didn't know how, but he was
going to find Usako.
     Before anything could happen to her.

***

     An awkward silence hung in the air of the kitchen.  I wasn't
really surprised, not after the previous night.  A lot had been said,
but things were rarely fixed so easily, especially when wounds went
deep.  Makoto had been talking to Ami when the others had come
in, and Minako had been talking to Rei.  The two groups still
seemed to be polarised to a certain degree, with Usagi acting as
intermediary.
     Artemis and Luna were there, too, and in human form, so I
didn't have to worry about going all cat again.  The two little fairy
girls who apparently served Rei were nowhere to be seen.  I was
still in girl form; I'd thought about getting some hot water, but
since the others were all female except for Artemis, I decided they
might be more comfortable with me as a girl for now.
     "So," Usagi said with what looked to me like a slightly
forced smile.  "Here we all are."
     "I suppose that we can't put it off any longer," Rei sighed,
drawing everyone's attention to her.  "We have to decide what
course of action to take.  Ami, is it actually possible for us to travel
to Osiren Black?"
     Ami rested her elbows on the table, chin propped on her
hands.  Her expression was troubled, and she didn't answer right
away.
     "I can take us all to Aethyr, if that's what you are asking,"
Ami said at last, her voice so quiet I had to strain to hear it.
     "But?" Minako prompted, lounging back in her chair, long
legs crossed at the ankle.
     "I'm not certain I should," Ami continued.  "Aethyr is a
very dangerous environment, and we don't even know if we can
enter Osiren Black.  I think I should scout the situation first."
     "No way!" Makoto interjected hotly.  "If it's that
dangerous, there's no way you're going in alone!"
     "Mako-chan's right," Usagi said firmly.
     "You don't understand," Ami said softly.  "Aethyr is ... not
what you're used to.  I have experience with conditions there.  The
risk would be acceptable."
     "Not to me," Usagi retorted.  She rose from her chair and
went to stand behind Ami, slipping her arms over the girl's
shoulders and bending down to hug her fiercely.  "Ami, we're a
team, remember?  That means we don't have to be alone anymore.
I can't send you to such a place without any of us to watch your
back."
     Ami's smile wasn't big, but it was heartfelt; her entire face
lit up as she turned her head to look into Usagi's eyes.  I could see
why Usagi was their princess, even if they didn't live in the world
they had when they'd served her.  She cared for them all, and they
cared back.  It was just that simple.
     "Thank you, Usagi," Ami said.  "But I'm not worried about
myself, I'm worried about all of you."
     "We'd have you along to take care of us," Usagi grinned.
"So what could happen?"
     "I bow to your superior logic," Ami replied, only the
sparkle in her eyes giving lie to her sobber demeanour.
     "It's nice that someone does," Usagi said haughtily, turning
to stick her tongue out at Rei.
     "Okay," Makoto said, throwing her hands in the air.  "So
we can do it.  But should we?  What about this vampire?"
     "With the Sisterhood, we do have a deadline," Rei pointed
out, the morning sun casting violet glossy highlights in her hair.
"Baniesti draws near, remember.  If we can find something to aid us
in deflecting the Sisterhood's attention, we'll be able to concentrate
on finding our mysterious vamp."
     "You think that's likely?" Makoto asked.  There seemed to
be some tension still between the two girls, and I wondered if it was
the particular subject matter or just that Makoto hadn't fully
forgiven Rei yet.
     "Honestly, Makoto, I have no idea what to expect," Rei said
evenly.  "This is beyond anything I could have anticipated.  I think
it's worth investigating, though.  At this point we could use any
advantage we can get."
     "As coincidences go, though, it seems a little convenient,"
Artemis grumbled.  "Doesn't anybody else think so?"
     "Come on, Artemis.  Are you saying someone put Osiren
Black right in our path?" Minako scoffed.  "Until yesterday, not
even we knew that Ami could go to Aethyr."
     "I'm not advocating conspiracy theories," Artemis
protested.  "I'm just saying we have to consider that a lot seems to
be happening, and every time we turn around unrelated events turn
out to be pieces of a bigger puzzle."
     "All the more reason to investigate," Rei pointed out.
     "All the more reason to be careful," Makoto shot back.
     "Ami, how soon could we go?" Usagi asked.  That nipped
things in the bud, everyone falling silent as all eyes fell on Ami, who
squirmed under the scrutiny.
     "My portal is too small," she said, brushing her hands
nervously through her dishevelled bangs.  "The quickest way would
be for me to repair the big pattern downstairs ..."
     "Ami, we couldn't ask you to do that," Minako said
quickly, sitting up in her chair.  I noticed she didn't seem to be in as
much pain now, as opposed to the way she'd been limping around
earlier.
     "It's all right," Ami said with another small but genuine
smile.  "It's just a tool, after all."
     "Don't you have bad associations with it?" Usagi asked
with concern, bending over Ami's back so she could stare into the
girl's face.
     "It will be fine," Ami promised.  "But it would probably take me
some time to set it up.  I don't think I could be ready before this
afternoon."
     "Great!" Minako said, doing that slow-motion stretch of
hers again, the one that made my shirt ride up her thighs and pull
against her full breasts.  "I say we make use of the time
constructively."
     "That's the spirit!" Artemis said with enthusiasm.  "We can
research recent events and create contingency plans!"
     "We can go shopping!" Minako exclaimed without the
slightest sign she'd heard what Artemis had said.
     "Another brilliant plan from the mind of Minako Aino,
folks," Makoto said sourly.
     "Oh, come on," Minako grumbled with a sexy pout.  "If I
have to go into another dimension without at least one decent meal
I won't be responsible for what happens.  No offense, Ami, but
you've got nothing here but instant noodles and crackers and
cheese in a spray can.  We are desperately in need of some
provisions, folks."
     "She has a point," Usagi said, nodding emphatically.
     "So speaks the stomach," Rei sighed.
     "Plus," Minako went on, " I don't know about the rest of
you, but I have almost nothing in the way of clean clothes,
toiletries, and the essential whatnots of life.  We can't go near our
own homes, and if we're going to be hunkering down here we're
going to need some essentials."
     "Chocolate," Usagi mused.
     "Lingerie," Minako replied.
     "Popcorn."
     "Bubble bath."
     "Waffle mix!"
     "Yeah!  And chocolate to put in the waffles!"
     "I already said chocolate ..."
     "Well, you can't have too much chocolate."
     "True.  Music?"
     "Yeah!  There's a new crystal out by the Sensations ..."
     "All right!" Rei cried.  "We get it!  You two are already
tired of roughing it!"
     "Well, isn't there anything you'd like to have?" Minako
asked.  "Besides a night of wild sex with our princess."  I didn't
note any jealousy when Minako said that, only teasing mixed with
flirtatiousness.  Her mood certainly had improved.
     "Yes, I admit it would be nice to pick up some things," Rei
sighed.  "But it's dangerous for us to go out.  The Sisterhood will
have eyes everywhere."
     "It's a big city, Rei.  And we can't stay here indefinitely.
Come on, just a couple of fast stops."
     "Fast stops," Usagi echoed, her wide eyes gleaming
innocently.
     "I hate to agree with these two when they're on a roll,"
Makoto sighed, "but we really are going to need to venture out at
some point.  We're going to have to start thinking about ways to do
that."
     "The Sisterhood will have been forced to take steps to
protect themselves," Rei admitted.  "I expect that, with her mother
gone, Sass took over the mansion.  After last night, she'll have had
to move to a back-up location.  If we move fast, we can minimize
our exposure.  It's still risky, though," the girl added sternly as
Minako and Usagi cheered in unison.  "We just grab some
essentials, supplies to get us through the week."
     "You got it, babe," Minako winked.  "I'm gonna get
dressed.  Come on, princess!"
     "Where'll we go first?" Usagi asked as the two dashed out
of the kitchen.  Minako now showed no signs of infirmity, and I
started to wonder if she'd been putting on a show for me earlier.
Still, she must have been feeling some pain from those injuries;
maybe she was hiding it so that nobody would tell her she couldn't
go.
     I understood that.  Being told we couldn't go anywhere was
beginning to give me a sense of cabin fever, even after such a short
time here.
     "I have a bad feeling about this," Artemis said glumly.
     "Rei, you'll go along, won't you?" Luna asked.  "They need
someone to keep them from getting carried away."
     "You don't ask much, do you?" Rei replied dryly.  "Oh,
very well.  And I think we'll take Ranma, too."
     "Me?"  I blinked.  I'd thought everybody had forgotten
about me, but Rei fixed me with that cool appraising stare of hers.
     "Yes, you.  If we do run into trouble, I'd like to have
something in reserve, a factor that the Sisterhood won't have
prepared for.  They've no doubt been studying us, but your fighting
techniques and abilities will be a mystery to them.  Speaking of
which ..."
     Rei fished something out of her pocket and held it out to
me.  I took it, recognizing Ryouga's bandanna.
     "You picked it up?" I asked, weighing the cloth in my hand.
"Thanks.  It sort of has sentimental value for me."
     "Indeed.  It seems to have some offensive value as well,"
Rei noted.
     "While you're out, you should get Ranma some clothes,"
Artemis said, giving my torn tank-top a disapproving glance.
"Mina's appropriated her only shirt, and that girl has a habit of
holding on to clothes that she "borrows".  Trust me."
     "Oh, I know," Rei replied.  "She still has my coat, too."
     "Are you sure it will be okay?" Ami asked, brow furrowed.
"Maybe we should all go."
     "You have preparations to make," Rei told the girl.  "I
suppose Makoto could come, though."
     "I'll stay," Makoto told her.  "Ami might need a helping
hand."
     "Us, too," Artemis chimed in.  "I want to get your
communicators working again."
     "Artemis thinks he can set them up so that they won't be
detectable by Hotaru and the others," Luna said, smiling as she
looked at him.  It was hard to believe that the tall guy with the
white hair and the girl in the yellow dress were actually cats part of
the time.
     "That's a good idea," Rei nodded.  "I wish we had them
now."
     "Mina's is ready to go," Artemis said.  "I'll make sure she
takes it.  That way, even if her phone craps out again we'll be able
to keep in touch.  Rei ..."
     "Don't worry, Artemis.  We'll be careful," Rei assured him.
"I have no intention of crossing swords with the Sisterhood any
time soon."

***

     "It's strange," Ami murmured.
     "What is?" Makoto asked, glancing at the doorway through
which Rei and the others had gone.
     "I expected you to make more of a fuss about this
excursion.  Or at least to insist on going."
     "Yeah, well, there isn't much that those three can't handle,"
Makoto said.  "Plus, this will make it harder for them to argue
when I want to hit the town."
     "Ah," Ami replied with a knowing sparkle in her eye.
"Enlightened self-interest."
     "If you like," Makoto shrugged.  "I'll be wanting to check
up on Yoshi, though, at some point.  And I don't like the thought
that we're hiding from the Sisterhood."
     "Well, maybe I can do something about that," Ami told her.
"Come on, let's collect the supplies I'm going to need."

***

     "Wear these," Artemis said without preamble.
     "Dangly gold earrings," Minako said with a glance in the
mirror.  "Good choice."
     "This one's your communicator," Artemis said with
exaggerated patience as he watched Minako fuss with her hair.
"The one you keep forgetting."
     "Artemis, you know I love you.  Truly.  But you can be
such a nag sometimes.  Maybe if you didn't call me every ten
minutes while I was out, I wouldn't keep accidentally-on-purpose
forgetting the damn thing.  You think?"
     Artemis took a deep breath and let it out slowly as Minako
finished primping and turned to face him.
     "You're right," he said sheepishly.  "What can I say, I'm
part cat, part mother-hen.  I promise to be good, okay?  Just wear
it.  Please?"
     "Oh, all right," Minako sighed.  She took the earrings and
tossed her hair back over her shoulder on one side, expertly slipping
the earring on.  Then she repeated the process on the other side.
     "Now you're going to test it, right?" she asked Artemis, but
her smile was more fond than exasperated.
     "Testing, testing," he answered into the ornate watch on his
wrist.  "Calling the beautiful and talented Mina, come in please."
     "You do have your moments," Minako replied with a laugh,
touching the earring lightly.
     "Mina."  His voice stopped her as she made to go.
     "That's a serious look, tomcat."
     "Are you sure you're okay for this?"
     "Artemis, am I missing any limbs?  No?  Then you can bet I
wouldn't miss out on a shopping trip!"
     "Mina," Artemis sighed, taking her gently by the shoulders.
"Save the brave-face routine for the paying customers, okay?  You
heal fast, but you still aren't one hundred percent.  On top of that,
Saekianna hit you in the ego by beating you as badly as she did, and
I know that you're looking to get back at her for humiliating you."
     Minako looked up into Artemis's eyes, and for the first time
he could see some of what was going on inside her head.  There
was pain and anger there, heavier thoughts than most people would
have expected given her carefree exterior.
     "I'm okay," she said softly.
     "You feel like you let everyone down," Artemis replied,
"even though that's not true, and I know you, Mina.  If you
'happened' to run into one of the Sisterhood out there, you would
waste no time in getting back at them.  Your temper probably isn't
the best right now, especially considering what's going on with Rei
and Usagi."
     "Rei talked to me, Artemis.  It's all going to work out.
Sure, a girl can get a little jealous sometimes, but it's no big thing.
And I am going to get those bitches back, you can take that to the
bank.  But I know enough to pick my time.  We go, we come back.
No trouble, Artemis."
     "Okay," he murmured, comforted by the serious look in her
eyes.  "I was just checking.  I worry about you, kiddo."
     "I know," she said, and he was touched by the warmth that
flooded her face as she smiled.  "Don't stop, 'kay?"
     Then she bussed him on the cheek and danced out the door
on a fragrant wave of soft perfume, leaving Artemis with a wistful
smile on his face.
     "Precious little chance of that," he whispered to the empty
room.

***

     Mirra wasn't happy.
     She should have been.  That witch, Yurina, had invoked the
wrath of their Nightmistress and paid the price.  Her discipline had
left her even paler than usual, although her perfect porcelain
features showed no sign of discomfort.
     Unfortunately, Mirra was forced to admit that the Black
Rose's concerns were not entirely without merit.  Saekianna
seemed to be overly concerned with these sailor girls, to the point
where she was diverting precious time and resources from the
revival.  Mirra had resented Rei's preferential treatment, and would
gladly participate in the renegade's capture and subsequent
breaking, but surely that matter could wait.  It was only days until
the revival would occur.
     And these sailor girls, they too had earned the wrath of the
Sisterhood.  This Mistress V would soon regret challenging a true
mistress, and her sisters would also learn what it meant to interfere
in the affairs of the Sisterhood.  But they presented no direct threat;
even if Rei was with them, they did not know the details of what
was to occur.  It was by far more prudent to deal with them after
the Dark Lady's long imprisonment was ended.  She could oversee
her priestesses as they hunted and brought low these meddling girls,
and once taken the enemy could be presented as an offering.  An
orgiastic celebration would ensue.  It would be wonderful, just
what every Sister had dreamed of.
     Except Saekianna had her own ideas.
     She wanted the sailor girls taken now, today, no excuses.
And she wasn't in the mood to be reasonable.
     "She overreacted," Jackinda whispered, as if reading
Mirra's thoughts.
     "Have a care, Sister," Mirra hissed.  They kept their voices low
to avoid being overheard by Yurina, who held herself with
uncharacteristic stiffness on the other side of the room.
     "You know it's true," Jackinda persisted, "and it does not
bode well.  Tradition allows the Black Rose to voice dissent openly
in the name of the Sisterhood.  Her counsel represents the soft side
of the Dark Lady's influence."
     "She went too far," Mirra insisted.
     "Perhaps, but her concerns were valid," Jackinda said softly.
"Do not let your dislike of her blind you to that fact.  Our
Nightmistress is becoming ... overly concerned with these girls."
     "Our Nightmistress is the reason we've come this far!"
     "Yes, and always she has put the good of the Sisterhood
before all else, unlike Griitna.  But now she is letting her personal
desires rule her.  If she will not listen to Yurina, we must find a way
to make her listen to us."
     Mirra bit her lip, stealing another glance at Yurina.
Jackinda was right, of course.  Saekianna had reacted far more
strongly than the situation had warranted, and that made her look
weak.  It was an error in judgement that Mirra had not expected
from their Nightmistress.  Saekianna was letting these sailor girls
get under her skin.
     But who would she listen to?  The Nightmistress ruled by
strength, and unless one of them could defeat her, they were bound
to obey.  And Saekianna had shown, in no uncertain terms, that she
was not disposed to take criticism lightly.
     "Ah, good, everyone is here," Saekianna murmured as she
strode into the room from her private quarters.  She made no
reference to Yurina's punishment, simply seating herself and fixing
the three women with an even gaze.  "I have been giving it some
thought, and I have come up with a plan to deal with the present
situation."
     "You are referring to these sailor girls?" Mirra asked with a
sinking feeling.
     "Indeed," Saekianna replied smoothly.  "They will have
gone to ground, so we need a way to draw them out.  And I have
the perfect bait.  After all, they style themselves defenders of the
city, do they not?"
     "We are going to launch an open offensive, Nightmistress?"
Jackinda asked expressionlessly.
     "I believe the Nightmistress has something a little less direct
in mind," Yurina said, her voice even softer than usual.  "But quite
... splashy."
     "Indeed," Saekianna replied, amusement evident in her
voice.  "We need not launch an offensive.  It is, after all, spring in
Saeni.  Our operation in New Fosti last year yielded an unexpected
treasure, as I recall."
     Mirra felt a flush of adrenaline as she realized what Saekianna
had in mind.  She wouldn't, the woman thought numbly.  "The
Genosphere, Nightmistress?"
     "Indeed, Mirra.  The Genosphere.  Be a dear and fetch it,
would you?" she asked with a dangerous sparkle in her dark eyes.
"It's time we got serious with our lovely young adversaries."

***

     The ride into the city was interesting, to say the least.
Ami's little hideaway wasn't exactly on the main strip, and Minako
apparently decided that it would be a shame to waste a long,
winding, almost completely deserted road.
     The girl liked to go fast.  Me, I've got nothing against speed
myself, but it's unnerving when someone else is in the driver's seat.
So to speak.  Rei and Usagi shared the small back seat, and the first
hard corner threw them together.  Not that they minded; they
stayed that way for the rest of the trip.
     Finally we hit traffic near the bridge and had to slow down
to only mildly ridiculous speeds.  I stretched, adjusting the seat belt
where it dug into my breast.  I was still in girl form, wearing one of
Minako's sweatshirts.  At least it didn't have puppies or anything
cutesy on it.  And it did smell nice.
     Rei and Usagi made suggestions about where we should go
first, but Minako just smiled.  This wasn't one of her sexy, hell-
raising smiles, more of an "I've got a secret" type.  I wondered if
we were in for trouble.  Since it was Minako, I figured the answer
was yes.
     When she pulled up to the curb in front of a dingy building,
I decided we probably were.
     "What the hells are we doing here?" Rei asked, peering out
through the windshield.  She leaned forward to do that, gripping the
back of my seat.  The tension that thrummed through it echoed the
tightness in my belly as her hair brushed my cheek.  Being around
these girls was starting to seriously wear on my self-control; they all
seemed to exude sensuality in one way or another, from innocent
Ami to sultry Rei.  Being in girl form wasn't helping the way I'd
hoped it would.
     "A cheap hotel?" Usagi mused.  "Minako, you know I love
you, but don't we rate someplace fancier?  You know, with a big
heart-shaped bed and a hot tub?"
     "Believe it or not, Princess, that's not what I've got in
mind," Minako said over her shoulder.  I noticed that she began to
twist around to talk, only to stop short.  So.  Her injuries were still
bothering her.  Still, if she wasn't going to make an issue of it, I
figured I should just keep quiet.
     "So what's the deal?" Rei asked with a frown.
     "Well, Rei, it's like this," Minako said.  "When you're a cat
burglar, you have to be prepared for any eventuality."
     "Like the dummy plates you put on the car before we left?"
Usagi asked with a sparkle in her eye.
     "Actually, all the sets I have are excellent fakes," Minako
grinned.  "I just thought that the ones the Sisterhood knows about
might be too hot now.  Likewise, I wanted to have emergency kits
available to me if I couldn't get back home for any reason.  I have
them stashed in different places around the city.  Like in room 224
of this fine establishment, on month-to-month rent to one Mimi
Chiba."
     Usagi stifled a giggle, although I didn't see why it was
funny.
     "I change my hidey-holes around periodically, but there's
nothing to tie me to this place," Minako went on.  "I've got some
useful supplies, including cash, on hand."
     "Good thinking," Rei nodded.  "This will limit our visibility.
Should we all go up?"
     "No, I'll go," Minako said.  "This won't take long."
     "Not by yourself," Rei replied, her tone stern.  "I'll go with
you."
     "Into a cheap hotel?  My greatest dream come true,"
Minako said with a saucy wink.  I got out and lifted the seat so Rei
could exit the car, then got back in and watched the two girls
disappear through the gloomy doorway.
     "She's covering it up pretty well," Usagi said from the back
seat.
     "Huh?"
     "She's still hurting a bit," Usagi said with a fond smile.
"That's why Rei didn't want her going alone."  I blinked.  I'd
thought that Usagi and Rei, who'd spent the entire trip nuzzling
each other, had been completely oblivious.  Usagi must have
noticed my expression, because she giggled again, that infectious
bubbling sound that seemed to be distilled joy.
     "Usually, Minako is more than happy to be fussed over,"
Usagi said.  "But in a situation like this, she won't want anyone
thinking she can't hold her end up.  She's a tough cookie, our
Minako.  But I worry about her sometimes."
     "I think she's more worried about you," I told her.  "The
whole time you and Rei were apart, she was pretty upset about
things."
     "I know.  And she worked hard to fix things up for all of us.
She's a true friend," Usagi said, sitting back and twirling one of her
long ponytails around her hand.  "I hope things get back to normal
soon, so I can do a proper job of showing her my appreciation."
     "Uh, yeah," I said.  I had a pretty good idea how she
intended to do that.
     Somehow, though, even thought it kept catching me off-guard,
it didn't bother me as much as it once had.  It appeared as though I
might be beginning to get used to the way people acted here.
     I wasn't sure how to feel about that.

***

     Rei climbed the narrow creaking stairs behind Minako, as
there wasn't room for the two of them to walk abreast.
     "The back stairs?" she asked archly.
     "Force of habit.  I don't want anyone to see us," Minako
called back.  "Although, in a place like this, people tend to mind
their own business."
     Rei could understand that.  She'd seen some pretty seedy
places in her time, mostly while she was performing her duties as a
Sister.  This one was far from the worst, but it wouldn't be winning
any awards either.
     The two girls reached the second floor, redolent with the
smells of must, mould, and stale cooking.  And sex, of course; not
the sweetly sinful seduction that Rei personified, but that of frantic,
brief couplings with strangers in squeaky old beds, the last refuge of
those who needed release, or just some poor semblance of contact
with another.
     They reached a weathered brown door with chipped
wooden numbers nailed to it, the four dangerously askew.  Minako
checked something along the jamb, apparently satisfying herself that
the threshold had not been crossed in her absence.  Then she
unlocked the door and lead Rei inside.
     The room was clean if threadbare, and utterly unremarkable.
Rei watched Minako go to the closet and press something against
the door.
     "Magick," Rei murmured.
     "Uh-huh.  A fairly simple spell I picked up for mucho
crowns from a sorceress down on Avenue of Mana.  Without the
proper key, if you open the door you find nothing at all.  Handy,
and hard to detect.  Certainly enough security for a place like this."
     Minako opened the door to reveal several suitcases stacked
neatly inside.  She began pulling them out, and Rei went to help
her.
     "You've got a nice stash here," Rei admitted.
     "You know what I haven't got?  A coat like this," Minako
replied, spinning a little so that Rei's long black coat flared out
around her like glossy liquid night.  "This leather is so supple, and
the lining's great.  It fits like a glove, and gives great drama to
boot."  The blonde punctuated that statement by swirling again.
     "I can tell you where to find one," Rei said, lining the cases
by the end of the bed.
     "Yeah, but it wouldn't smell like you," Minako purred,
pulling the collar up to her face and breathing in deeply.  "How
about letting me keep this one for a while, hmmm?  Come on, the
red one looks great on you, anyway."
     "Everything looks great on me," Rei reminded her.  Still,
she had to admit that they made a striking couple; one lithe and fair,
blonde hair contrasting against black leather as it fell to her knees,
the other dark lips and eyes wonderfully stark against pale skin, lush
raven mane spilling down over crimson leather.  It was enough to
give a girl ideas.
     Fortunately, Rei had the discipline to know when to reign in
her desires.  She was certain that if she proposed that they tarry in
the room for a time, Minako would be happy to.
     "Come on, Rei," Minako wheedled, stepping close and
fiddling with the collar of Rei's coat.  "Just for a while.  Please?"
Minako looked up from under long lashes, her eyes of crystal
sapphire guileless.  It was all Rei could do to not laugh; Minako had
perfected the art of gentle persuasion.  They were close enough that
Minako's breath from between her slightly parted lips brushed Rei's
chin with the fluttering intimacy of a butterfly's wing.
     "You'll have to think of a way to make it up to me," Rei
replied huskily, enjoying the startled look in Minako's eyes at the
flirtatious retort.
     "I might start by proving you wrong about that crack.  You
know, when you said I couldn't beat you on the battlefield of
physical pleasure?" Minako murmured, smiling as Rei turned away
and picked up two of the cases.
     "You might start," Rei replied with a smouldering glance
over her shoulder, "by trying.  Now come on, kitten.  We've things
to do yet."

***

     "Do you have a moment?" a soft voice asked.  Mirra bit
back a sharp reply.
     "Only just, so be brief," she said, turning.  Yurina stood
there, her robes replaced with a long black trenchcoat.  Still, she
managed to look delicate and exotic, like a rare flower that chose to
bloom amidst common weeds.
     "Mistress Mirra, this plan is ill-considered," Yurina
murmured, her slim hands clasped before her.  "There are too many
variables which will be out of our control.  The Sisterhood's
strength has always been in subtlety.  I do not have to tell you this."
     "And yet, here we are," Mirra said flatly.  The parking
garage was cool and reeked of metal and fuel, but none of the
others were nearby.
     "Indeed," Yurina replied with a demure nod.  "Here we are.
Mistress Mirra, if these girls are as powerful as our information
indicates, we may very well lose a direct confrontation.  If we truly
need to remove them as a threat, then we must ensnare one of them
in our web and turn her.  That is how we have survived all these
years against foes with superior numbers and power."
     "And that is the general idea of today's operation," Mirra
sighed.  "Look, your points have merit, but you know we don't
have the time to do this the way we would prefer.  Baniesti is three
nights hence, and we must be prepared."
     "I fear for our ceremony," Yurina said, her voice soft and
breathy.  "I fear for our chances of success if things go badly
today."
     "Why tell me?" Mirra snapped.  Yurina was far from her
favourite person, and it was irritating to hear her own doubts
coming out of that woman's mouth.
     "You know why.  The Nightmistress will not hear my
words.  She has closed herself to my counsel.  Even though I am
Black Rose, I am still a Maiden.  As a Sister, and her second-in-
command, perhaps you can reach her."
     "She is Nightmistress," Mirra said, crossing her arms.  "She
has proven herself worthy to lead us."
     "I am aware of her accomplishments, Mistress Mirra, and I
respect her for what she has done in such a short time.  But my role
is to balance the application of power with subtlety and guile.  I fear
that our Nightmistress has tipped the scales of the Sisterhood too
far in one direction, and without that balance we risk everything we
have fought for."
     "Your words smack of treason," Mirra said sternly.
     "Your pardon," Yurina countered, bowing her head again in
that maddeningly submissive fashion.  "I revere our Nightmistress
as you do.  She is a great woman, a great Sister.  But she is only
human, and her woman's soul burns from the betrayal of Rei and
the humiliation of having her prey snatched away.  Her revenge
should be slow, exquisite, culminating in the total subjugation of the
enemy, not some wild free-for-all in the streets."
     "That will do, Yurina."
     "As you say, Mistress Mirra," Yurina replied, her ruby lips
pursed thoughtfully.  "But I would ask you a favour, if I might."
     "Ask," Mirra sighed.
     "Stay close to our Nightmistress, as close as she will allow.
I have no gift for prescience, but a foul wind blows.  Open conflict
favours our enemy, not us."
     "This conflict will serve to hide our true objective," Mirra said
wearily.  But Yurina was right; this operation crossed the line from
bold to foolhardy.  Not that Mirra could admit that, certainly not to
this one.  "All we need do is capture one of them while the others
fight.  Then we will be able to do what we do best."
     "I pray to the Dark Lady that you are correct," Yurina
murmured.  "For what if we fail?"
     Mirra didn't reply.  That question ate at her, as well.  She
longed for the comforting shadows that were the Sisterhood's ally
and lover, cloaking them from their enemies, giving them
concealment and succour as they twined their enemies in sweet
strands of deception and seduction.
     Still, hadn't Saekianna's bold moves toppled the pretender,
Griitna?  Hadn't they lead the Sisterhood to the verge of
resurrecting their beloved Dark Lady?  Whatever my doubts, Mirra
told herself, I must believe.  To do less is to play into the hands of
our enemies, who would see us brought low and destroyed.
     Something chimed in her pocket, and Mirra withdrew a
crystal disc, setting it to spinning.  Her Nightmistress appeared in
the air before her.
     "Is all in readiness?"
     "It is, Nightmistress," Mirra replied.
     "Good.  Inform the others.  You all know what to do."
     She did.  She only hoped the fickle fates would cooperate.

***

     "I'm not listening," Minako said cheerfully as we walked
along the crowded sidewalk.  The shopping district of the Triangle
seemed pretty popular today; maybe it was because the sun had
finally come out to turn the day mild and springlike.
     "I feel guilty accepting this," I said for the umpteenth time.
     "You need clothes, Ranma," Minako shrugged.  "Even if I
hadn't borrowed your only shirt, you'd still need a few things to
wear."
     "I can't pay you back," I told her, exasperated.  "I don't
exactly have any money, you know."
     "Is that what's bothering you?  I told you, don't sweat the
money.  Money, I've got."
     "You mean from being a ca ..."  Her elbow jammed into my
ribs, cutting me off.
     "Let's not broadcast that, okay?" she asked with a fixed
smile, eyes darting around quickly.  "There's a bounty on that
particular person, let's not forget."
     "Sorry.  But the girl in the store said this was really
expensive," I muttered, fingering the long, charcoal gray coat I was
wearing over my new form-fitting black top.
     "It's the spell," Minako shrugged.  "It should change when
you do, so it'll always fit."
     "Should?"
     "Well, I've dealt with them before, and their stuff is good,"
the blonde said breezily.  "But your curse is strange magic, so we'll
have to find some hot water to test it out for sure."
     "This, too?" I asked, fingering the high-necked black top.
     "Nope.  But that material can stretch a lot without losing its
shape, so it should cover you if you turn to a boy and snap back
when you turn back into a girl.  And it looks good.  I can't believe
you wouldn't let me buy you any skirts, though.  You've got great
legs, and those baggy pants don't show any of your assets off."
     "You bought me enough.  Did I mention I don't have any
money?"
     "Yes, once or twice," she sighed.  "Look, it's only money.
I've got lots, thanks to my, um, various talents.  Plus Artemis's
money handling skills, to be honest.  It makes me happy to spend it
on other people.  So do me a huge favour?"
     "What?" I asked warily.
     "Just accept the clothes as a gift without making a fuss.
Please?"  She gave me a wide-eyed, imploring stare, and even
thought I was half convinced that she was manipulating me, I
couldn't resist.  Anyway, she was right.  My wardrobe had been
whittled down to the bare minimum.
     "Thank you, Minako," I said.  She smiled, a dazzling
expression that rivalled the fresh sunlight for warmth.
     "You're welcome," she beamed.  "Hey, those two are
getting ahead of us."
     "I think Usagi smells that food cart," I said, shaking my
head.  "She's not really going to eat again, is she?"
     "That's our Usagi," Minako laughed.  "This is nice, you
know?  Getting out like this, I mean.  If Rei wasn't being such a
stickler, I'd suggest making a day of it."
     "But she does have a point.  We're supposed to be limiting
our exposure.  Grab the stuff we need, get back to the mansion."
     "Yeah," Minako sighed.  "I remember.  And she let us drag
this out more than I thought she would."
     We caught up to the other two girls near the cart, Usagi's
eyes wide with delight as she savoured the smells coming from it.
My stomach gurgled lightly, reminding me that breakfast had been
pretty skimpy.
     "Come on, Rei," Usagi wheedled.
     "We'll grab something and take it with us," Rei sighed
impatiently, but to me she didn't really seem upset.
     "That's a great idea," Minako said.  "You guys get us all
something, Ranma and I will put this stuff in the car and meet you
at the corner."
     "Thanks," Rei said.  Her gaze met Minako's, and I had the
sudden sense of something unspoken passing between them.  It
might have been sexual; there'd been a kind of vibration in the air
between them since we'd left the hotel.  But it seemed like
something more to me, like they were connecting again after all that
had happened.  And they were supposed to protect Usagi, after all.
Maybe it was just a combination of bodyguard mentality and close
friendship.  Whatever it was, it was intimate and intense, and for
just a second I felt isolated, excluded.  What would it be like to be
on the receiving end of a look like that?  Hell, what would it be like
to know someone well enough to communicate with just a look like
that?
     I felt my aloneness keenly in that second.  That was one
thing that had changed in recent days; when I'd been alone, I hadn't
really thought about it.  Now, however, it seemed I was constantly
being confronted with examples of closeness between these girls,
and that was making me realize how cut-off and alone I had
become.
     "You're awfully quiet all of a sudden," Minako said as we
walked, breaking my reverie.
     "Oh, uh, I was just thinking.  Things seem a little better
today.  Between you and Rei, at least."
     "Hmmm," Minako mused.  "Rei actually flirted with me back in
the hotel.  She's never given me any real encouragement before."
     "Oh," I said, for lack of anything intelligent to say.
     "This is going to be interesting," Minako said with a small
but genuine smile.  "Very interesting."
     "It won't bother Usagi?" I asked, although I suspected I
knew the answer.
     "I just wonder if Usagi is going to wait for me to make a
move, or if she's going to try and seduce me before I seduce Rei,"
Minako giggled, sounding girlish yet sensual all in one breath.
"Yes, this will be very interesting.  I wonder what Mamoru will
make of all this?"
     "Who's Mamoru?"
     "He's Usagi's boyfriend," Minako explained.  "They have
history, too.  I mean, way back in our previous lives history.  He
was Prince of Earth back then, and they were carrying on a sort of
illicit affair."
     "He'll have a problem with Usagi being with you two?" I
asked.  "I thought people here didn't get jealous."
     Minako laughed, but it wasn't a particularly joyous sound.
     "Ranma, our society is pretty open about a lot of things, but
I suspect that humans will never completely do away with emotions
like jealousy," she said dryly.  "Humans are terribly complex
creatures.  Anyway, Mamoru's problem isn't so much jealousy.  He
disapproves of us."
     "Disapproves?  Like, how?"
     "The thing is, he's very protective of Usagi," Minako said,
shifting her bags to one hand and brushing her hair back with the
other.  "I don't know if it goes back to the fall of the White Moon,
but he definitely plays being her prince to the hilt.  Which is strange,
if you think about it, because Usagi has more raw power than he
does.  Hells, she has more power than any of us, except maybe
Hotaru."
     "But you all protect her," I said, frowning.  "She's extra
safe when she's with you."
     "He doesn't see it that way," Minako said with a delicate
expression of distaste.  "In his eyes, our presence puts her in
danger.  We encourage her to act as Sailor Moon and go into
danger regularly.  I understand why he wants to keep her safe.  She
has this quality that makes you want to make the world better just
for her.  I mean, we love her too, you know?"  She said this last
with a vehemence that startled me.  This thing with Mamoru
apparently had struck quite a nerve with Minako.
     "So he doesn't respect her power, and he doesn't approve
of her friendship with all of you," I said cautiously.
     "Oh, I'm making him sound like an ogre," Minako sighed,
her shoulders slumping.  "And he's not, he's just overprotective of
her.  He's really a good guy, and gorgeous to boot.  He's good for
her, too, usually.  But the way things were going, he just seemed on
the verge of screwing things up with Usagi.  If he doesn't open his
eyes and see that she's not some doll that needs to be kept in a glass
case, he's going to hurt her.  Or lose her.  Just like Rei nearly did,
by not trusting Usagi's strength.  And that would be wrong."
     I walked in silence beside her, struck by the depth of
emotion in her voice.  This had been really bothering her; I could
tell that even she was a bit surprised by how much of it she'd let
out.
     "Sorry," she said ruefully, sticking her tongue out.  "I didn't
mean to start lecturing."
     "It's okay," I told her.  "I guess it's hard, wanting things to
work out for other people but not being able to do anything about
it."
     "Exactly!" she exclaimed.  "That's exactly how it is, when
you can give all the advice you want but they just go and keep
messing up!  Oh, it makes me crazy sometimes!"
     I shrugged, and she laughed.
     "Okay, I can be kind of a meddler," she admitted.  "That's
how I am.  But you know, it's only natural.  Venus has strong
associations with capital L love, you see."
     "You told me that before, I think," I replied.
     "Right, in the subway.  You remembered."
     The fact that I remembered an obscure detail of that
conversation seemed to please her, and I felt myself flushing
warmly in response.
     "Here's us," she announced, stopping at the car.  She
opened the trunk and we crammed the bags we had inside, next to
the cases from the hotel.  We had food and the clothes from the
store Minako had insisted we stop at on the way back to the car;
Rei had accused her of parking where she had so we'd have to pass
that store, but in the end she'd submitted to the urgings of Usagi
and Minako and gone inside.  She'd even bought some stuff herself.
     "This will do us for a while," Minako sighed, forcing the
trunk closed.  It took two tries, but we finally got it to latch.  "I just
hope this thing doesn't drag on.  I hate being cooped up."
     "I guess we'll know more after tonight, right?"
     "I suppose," Minako sighed.  We got in the car, but just as
Minako went to start it she froze, a narrow furrow appearing
between her brows.
     "What?" I asked, but I felt it too.  Nothing I could quite put
my finger on, mind you, but there was a sudden sense of ...
wrongness.  Something was happening, something strange.  And in
my life, something strange was never anything good.
     Then the screaming started.

***

     Rei walked beside her princess, watching with barely
concealed fondness as the girl cradled a greasy paper sack in her
hands as if it held the crown jewels instead of streetcorner snacks.
Despite her initial concerns, their little excursion had come off
without a hitch.  No sign of the Sisterhood, or of wraiths.  Which
only made sense; it was a huge city, after all, and finding a small
group of girls was a daunting task at the best of times.
     "Maybe we should go down to Banner Street and pick up
some entertainment while we're out," Usagi said casually.
     "This trip has already gone on too long," Rei told her with
as much sternness as she could manage.
     "Aw, Rei," Usagi pleaded.  "A little diversion is good for
the mind.  It keeps your thoughts nimble and, um, stuff."
     "Your thoughts are nimble and stuff enough, Usagi," Rei
informed her.  "There'll be time to indulge yourself later."
     "Ooooh!" Usagi yelped, thrusting the bag at Rei, who
caught it neatly.
     "What?" Rei blurted.
     "Pay phone," Usagi told her.  "I've been meaning to call
Mamo-chan and find out how he's doing.  Be right back."
     "Two minutes!" Rei shouted at the girl's back as Usagi
dashed to the booth, blonde ponytails streaming out behind her.  It
was hard to stay serious in the face of Usagi's exuberance; Rei had
missed the girl's infectious moods.
     The shopping district was fairly crowded, and Rei found
herself scanning the crowd and categorizing people instinctively,
never taking her eyes off Usagi for long.  It was an old habit, but
old habits really did die hard.  And it was a valuable one, for their
lives would never be completely safe.
     As Usagi stepped into the weathered booth, Rei's heart
seemed to stutter with a spike of adrenaline.  She froze, searching
the crowd for whatever it was that had triggered that reaction, but
saw nothing that would account for it.  Rei began to move forward,
suddenly painfully aware of how many people were around them, of
how many variables she had to juggle while trying to protect her
princess.  They'd come so close to getting away clean ...
     A manhole cover in the street exploded upwards, knifing
into the sky and nearly decapitating a hapless, jaywalking pedestrian
in the process.  Something streaked into the sky after it, and
although it moved too fast for Rei to make out the details, she
sensed its nature.
     Saeni's monster troubles had once again reared their ugly head .
     The crowd started to panic as the heavy steel cover
plummeted to earth, hammering its way through a parked car in the
process.  Finding her path blocked by the sudden flood of people,
Rei struck out with elbows and high heels as she fought to reach
the last place she'd seen Usagi.  The crowd was like a tide, though,
inexorably pushing her away from where she wanted to be.  Then
more screams erupted from down the street behind her.
     Where there was one monster, there were more.  Things
were, it seemed, quickly getting out of hand.
     Rei wasn't going to risk transforming in the open, not
unless she had no other choice.  She let the crowd push her back
towards a streetlight, then leapt nimbly up on its base and clung to
the pole so she could scan the crowd.
     The phone booth was empty, but she quickly spotted
Usagi's head bobbing along the edge of the crowd, heading in the
only direction she could.  Unfortunately, it was away from Rei, but
as the girl ducked into a handy alleyway Rei quickly realized what
she was up to.  With any luck, Sailor Moon would be able to deal
with the monsters quickly, especially once her loyal senshi showed
up to help.
     That was when Rei caught sight of a car out of the corner of
her eye, on the far side of the crowd and moving fast.  She only
caught a glimpse as it roared into the alley that Usagi had entered,
but it was low slung and red.
     And Usagi was alone down there.

***

     Wynneth's eyes opened and she rose from her bed,
throwing the heavy covers off her body.  Something was tugging at
the edge of her awareness, pulsing like a rotted tooth.  In the
shadows she stood, alabaster and midnight, imperious and arrogant.
The cool air caressed her naked skin but evoked no response;
discomfort was beneath such as she was.
     Curious.  The sensation was familiar, and the vampiress
believed she knew what was causing it.  The question was, why?
Closing her eyes, Wynneth reached out to her wraiths, finding
disarray and anger.
     Be at ease, my darlings, she whispered to them, and their
turmoil eased.  Yes, just so.  Now go, my daughters.  Find the
source of this disturbance, and show me.
     Now.

***

     Finally.
     Saekianna saw the lithe blonde break from the panicked
crowd, twin ponytails bouncing as she ran towards where the
Ferengetti was parked.
     It couldn't have been any more perfect.  The scrying had
indicated that this was the best place and time to use the
Genosphere, but scrying into the future was chancy and vague at
the best of times.  And yet here the girl was, practically falling into
Saekianna's lap.
     At last, the Dark Lady was smiling upon her.  This was a
sign of favour upon Her high priestess; surely Dasma desired the
subjugation of Her enemies.
     Pandemonium reigned in the middle of the block as more
creatures appeared, summoned by the sphere's siren call.
Saekianna spared them hardly a glance; her Sisters were controlling
the focal point of the Genosphere's energies, and would keep the
action away from her while she did what needed to be done.
     The engine surged to life, sending its familiar purring pulsation
through her body.  She sped through the gaps left by the fleeing
crowd, racing into the alleyway.  The thrill of the hunt fired
her blood, heat pooling in her chest and loins at the sight of her
prey caught, surprised, in her sights.  With practised skill Saekianna
slewed the car sideways, cutting off the little blonde's path of
escape.  The door leapt open at her touch and Saekianna emerged
from her chariot with predatory grace, every inch the huntress now.
The poor little bunny was frozen, unable to even make a pretense of
resistance with her doom so close.
     Hardly a surprise, although Saekianna was somewhat
disappointed.  She'd hoped the fragile little blossom would have at
least enough fight in her to be moderately entertaining.
     Still, she would provide plenty of entertainment as she was
broken.  Saekianna savoured the moment as she took one step
towards the shocked girl, then another, hips swaying in a sensual
rhythm as her gaze locked with her prey's.  She cradled the black
rose in her long, slim fingers, drinking in Usagi's expression as she
realized what was about to happen to her.  You'll see, Rei,
Saekianna thought with triumphant venom.  You'll see just how
weak and pathetic she really is when I make her my slave ...
     Light.
     It flared like a cool nova, hammering Saekianna's very being
with a force that was nearly physical.  She cried out, raising her
arms instinctively as she fell back before the nimbus of
silver energy.  For a moment she was trapped at the centre of a
maelstrom of that light, a light that banished all shadow from its
presence.  It lasted only moments; when it finally faded, Saekianna
found herself gasping for breath, as if she'd forgotten how to
breathe.
     Lowering her arms, she blinked away the silver-blue
afterimages, still unable to comprehend what had happened.  The
rose she'd been holding lay on the ground before her, shattered.
Worse, however, was the knowledge that the light had come from
the girl standing before her.
     Saekianna's gaze rose and she numbly noted the changes:
the gleaming tiara, the choker, the stylized uniform with its short
pleated skirt and boots.
     The little blossom was one of the sailor girls.  Not, not one
of them.  She was their leader.
     And she was not happy.
     Anger flared in those blue eyes, a deep and imperious anger
that echoed through the Nightmistress's soul.  The girl's eyes, her
stance, her entire bearing, they were suitable for a queen, a general
... or a goddess.  She stood wreathed in power, cool and deep but
nonetheless shimmering with barely leashed wrath.
     And for a moment, just a moment, Saekianna der Kae,
Nightmistress of the Sisterhood, was afraid.
     "You," Sailor Moon breathed.  "I am so sick of you."
     "You dare speak to me that way?" Saekianna cried, burying
her shameful moment of weakness under her contempt for this girl.
"A pretty outfit does not change who and what you are, little
flower.  I will show you the true meaning of strength!"
     "I don't have time for you and your power games," the
blonde returned, her gaze far more steady than Saekianna would
have expected.  "There are people in trouble out there, and I'm
going to help them."
     "The only people in trouble are your sailor sisters,"
Saekianna informed her.  "This outbreak is under my control, so
there will be no one to help you.  Now ..."
     She felt the rush of power as it knifed past her, making her
clothes snap sharply and sending her unbound hair snaking straight
out behind her.  Fighting down her shock, Saekianna eased back so
that she could look behind her without turning her back on the girl.
     The car was gone.
     Even as she stood there, trying to reconcile the scene which
greeted her, something large spun down from the sky, tumbling to
the debris-littered surface of the alleyway with a cacophony of
smashing glass and rending metal.  Her prized sports car skidded
along on its roof, wheels spinning at odd angles as it came to rest
with a sickening crunch against one of the alley walls.  Lying there,
it looked for all the world like some broken, crippled animal.
Saekianna's throat tightened as she turned her full attention back to
the girl.
     Oh, how the little bitch was going to pay.
     "You caused this?" Sailor Moon demanded, that deep, still,
imperious power once again shimmering somewhere deep within
those guileless eyes.  "Fine.  Make it stop.  Now."
     "You," Saekianna breathed.  "Will never give me orders.
GIRL."
     With that, the Nightmistress flung her hand out, summoning
Banri in an instant.  The enchanted weapon once wielded by the
order's own Dark Lady was a black blur as it shot out at her foe,
no, her PREY, with the speed of thought.  We'll see how tough
you are when you're lying at my feet bound in Banri's coils,
Saekianna thought with vicious glee.
     Somewhere between one instant and the next, a long slim
rod materialized in the girl's hand, and she blocked the serpentine
whip with it.  Ebon coils wrapped around the shaft, and for long
moments the two were locked in a contest of strength and will as
power flared along the point where the two weapons were
connected.  Then Saekianna felt a shudder ripple along Banri's
length, and its coils slipped from the shaft.  Saekianna took a half-
step back as she fought to keep her balance, then lashed Banri
angrily, sending tendrils of dark energy skating along its length.
     "Okay," Sailor Moon gritted, holding her sceptre in a guard
position as her narrowed eyes met Saekianna's.  "I guess we're
doing this the hard way."

***

     Mars cursed, leaping away from the snarling tangle of
creatures that slammed into the ground where she'd been standing.
This made no sense; there were so many different monsters here,
with more appearing by the minute.  They all seemed to be fighting
over some invisible point in space, and since she'd burst out of the
shop doorway in her transformed state headed for the alley, that
invisible point seemed to have been following her.
     Usagi was in trouble, but Mars was having difficulty just
keeping ahead of the mad swirl of deranged creatures.  She needed
to get to that alley.  She'd already wasted too much time.
     Whirling and leaping away from the claws of some sort of
armoured lizard, she sent another fireball into the midst of the
crowd of flying, hopping, and rolling horrors.  The detonation
shredded several, but for some reason the rest showed no sense of
self-preservation whatsoever and kept dogging her every step.
     The golden beam of energy that lanced through the melee
was a welcome sign.
     "V!"
     "Hey, babe," V replied with her trademark sultry smile.
"Hope you saved me some nasties."
     "You can have them all," Mars replied, unleashing a barrage
of fireballs from her outstretched hand.  "Listen, I saw Saekianna
following Usagi into that alley.  We've got to help her!"
     "Damn!" V snarled, conjuring a storm of blazing hearts and
ramming it into the pursuing horde.  "What the hells is with these
things?"
     "I don't know!" Mars shot back.  "It's like they're being
controlled somehow ..."
     "They're keeping us busy while that witch goes after our
princess!" V shot back.  "Could the Sisterhood be doing this?"
     "I don't see how!" Mars shouted, channelling her frustration
into a series of blazing flame arrows.  For every ugly that fell,
though, more joined the fray.  And some bigger nasties were
making the scene, just to keep things interesting.
     Just then a streak went through the middle of the growing
cloud of mayhem, sending several bodies flying in its wake.  The
streak bounded through the combatants with reckless abandon, and
Mars opened some space between herself and the knot of monsters.
     "Is that ...?"
     "Ranma?" V replied with a crooked grin.  "Uh-huh.  I don't
know whether to ream her for being so reckless, or just stand in
awe."
     Mars could see what her friend meant.  The little red-head
performed a breathtaking dance routine with death as her partner,
skating along the razored border that separated the living from
those who were one instant too slow.  On that border, one
distraction or misstep meant eternity in a cold grave, but the girl
moved with absolute certainty and the grace of a goddess as she
unleashed a series of terrifyingly deadly yet beautiful attacks.
     Ranma's body ricocheted off of a flying eyeball much like
one of those they'd encountered earlier, arcing to the ground near
where the two senshi were fighting.
     "Why are they following you?" Ranma demanded, not
sounding at all winded.  In fact, there was a look in her eye that
Mars had seen before, the disturbing long-distance stare of a person
who saw forever in the line between this world and the next.
     "We don't know, but Usagi's in trouble!" V snapped as she
tried to keep the growing threat from flanking them with a few
well-placed shots.
     "What would happen if you split up?" Ranma asked,
throwing a few of her chi bolts into the fray.
     "They might split," Mars said sidelong to V.
     "Or not," V offered.  "Worth a try."
     "If they don't, I'll support whichever one they go for,"
Ranma said.  "The other one finds Usagi."
     "Deal," Mars nodded.  "One."
     "Two," V murmured.
     "Three," Mars gritted.  The three girls unleashed a barrage
of energy and split, V going right, Mars left, and Ranma streaking
away in a straight line.
     The shrieking crowd of monsters, some of whom were in
the process of trying to eat each other, came to an untidy stop, as if
unsure of what to do.  The crowd was large enough to take up half
the roadway, and was still growing as more creatures came from
the sewers, the alleys, and the skies to join in.
     Then, with renewed vigour, they made a ponderous turn
and bore down on V.

***

     "Mistress Mirra."
     "I see it," Mirra replied, glancing back at the circle of
women in the shadowed interior of the building.  In the middle of
the circle formed by their joined hands was a crystal sphere,
glowing softly as it hung in the air.  Yurina followed her gaze, brow
furrowed slightly.
     "Where is our Nightmistress?" the lovely Black Rose asked.
     "She must still be in the alley," Mirra said.  "We must assume
that she found her prey.  Until we hear otherwise, our task is to
keep the sailor girls occupied.
     "Which one, Mirra?" Vi asked from the circle.
     "It doesn't matter.  Pick the closest one, her friend will
come to her aid when she sees what's happening," Mirra instructed.
     Vi nodded, turning her full attention back to the spell she
and the others were maintaining.  Mirra rubbed her thigh absently,
turning to watch the pandemonium unfold below her.  The effect of
the sphere was surpassing her expectations; if this went on much
longer, she had to wonder if they would be able to stay in control.
     "Mistress Mirra," Yurina murmured.
     "Yes?"
     "I have the oddest sensation," the Black Rose breathed, her
dark eyes darting to the shadows cast by the sphere's mystic light.
     "It's the spell," Mirra said curtly, unwilling to ease the girl's
discomfort when she had so many other matters to contend with.
     "Not that," Yurina insisted.  "Don't you feel it?"
     "Feel what?" Mirra snapped.
     "Eyes," Yurina whispered.  "It feels as though we're being
watched."

***

     "Oh, how very clever," Wynneth crooned, stealing glimpses
through the eyes of her wraiths.  She rapidly pieced together what
was going on; the Sisterhood had decided to hunt down the Sailor
Senshi, and were using a Genosphere to assist them.
     A clever plan indeed.  Too bad it was not in keeping with
Wynneth's own schemes.
     "You'll all dance, my dears," she breathed.  "But only to my
tune."
     With a smile gracing her full red lips, she sent her silent
commands to her loyal minions.
     And waited for the entertainment to begin.

***

     Mars gritted her teeth, fighting the urge to turn back.  The
roiling mass of howling, shrieking horrors had turned to bear down
on V, and good to her word Ranma had leapt to her aid.
     They would be able to hold out.  Usagi was in danger; if she
fell into the Sisterhood's clutches, then she would be lost to them.
Mars knew what sort of twisted torments awaited her princess at
the hands of her former comrades, and those thoughts made her gut
churn.
     (girls?)
     (we're here, lady Mars)
     (I don't know what it is, but something is drawing every
monster in the city)
     (forget them.  can you see the princess?)
     (no)
     (FIND HER)
     Mars put on a burst of speed, dodging broken chunks of
concrete and one burning wreck of a delivery truck.  There were
sirens in the distance; Saeni's finest, late as usual.  Out of the corner
of her eye she spotted two men in outlandishly bright leathers, one
with a big gun, the other with an even bigger sword.
     Bounty hunters.  Well, good.  V and Ranma would need the
help.
     They mouth of the alley seemed to hang just tantalizingly
out of reach, time stretching out like in a nightmare.  Mars
increased her speed again, pushing herself to the limit.  Be there,
princess, she begged silently.  Be all right.
     One thing was for certain.  If Saekianna laid one hand on
Usagi, she was a dead woman.
     The alley was littered with the usual detritus, but the
upended car that lay crumpled and forlorn against the stained stone
wall was a bit much even for this part of town.  Mars did a double
take as she realized that the wreck was Saekianna's Ferengetti.
     She skirted it, alert for ambush.  If Saekianna was here, it
was likely that she would have her priestesses with her.  That trick
with the monsters had to be their doing; Mars knew better than to
assume it was the only trick up the enemy's sleeve.  She'd been a
Sister, after all, and if she'd been running this operation she'd have
set a trap in order to snare one of her opponents.  Once taken, she
would vanish with her prize, to plunder her vanquished foe for
information at her leisure.
     That fate would not befall Usagi.
     The alley was empty, but the dead-end was no longer an
issue.  The far wall had been shattered, and from the area beyond
she saw flashes of light, followed by a crackling tendril of dark
energy.
     Bingo.
     She tried to make contact with Phobos and Deimos, but
only received a jumbled impression of leathery wings and bad
smells.  It appeared her guardian spirits had their hands full.  Mars
was on her own.
     No.  Never alone, not so long as she had her princess.  The
senshi fairly flew over the cracked asphalt, sending ripples through
small pools of stagnant water with the speed of her passage.
Without slowing she hurdled the rubble at the mouth of the gap,
moving with the savage grace of a predator, hair streaming out
behind her as she leapt.
     Mars skidded to a stop, something too intense to merely be
called relief flooding her as she spotted Sailor Moon locked in
combat with Saekianna.  The two women danced around each
other, wreathed in power, but as Mars watched she could see that
her fears had been for naught.
     Sailor Moon was winning.
     Saekianna managed to deflect attack after attack, but she
was hard pressed to counter any of her opponent's moves.  Sailor
Moon, on the other hand, was showing the confidence that had
come from all her training, not to mention her battles against the
Dark Kingdom and Beryl herself.  Saekianna could not gain the
initiative long enough to use any of her favourite tricks.
     Sass, you thought you could just sweep in and scoop her
up, didn't you? Mars thought.  But you badly underestimated her,
and now you're caught in a direct confrontation with a stronger
opponent.
     Mars knew what that meant.  Saekianna needed an angle, a
scheme, a backdoor.  She needed a cheat, and she would have one.
     But she wasn't going to get a chance to use it.
     Mars moved closer, feeling her power simmer and coil
within her as she went.  Banri lashed out, but Sailor Moon swept
the ebon coils away with a sharp, glimmering arc of light.
Saekianna disengaged then, leaping back and turning her body so
she could see Mars approaching.
     "You," the platinum-maned beauty spat.  "This is a private
affair."
     Someone else might have been taken off-guard by the
woman's attack, but Mars knew her old lover well.  When she
reached up with her left hand to brush her hair back, Saekianna
plucked a black rose from behind her shoulder.  It was a trick which
had served the woman well; she carried Banri in her right hand, but
Saekianna was ambidextrous, and she flung the rose with unnerving
speed and uncanny accuracy with her left in a motion so quick that
it was a mere blur.
     For all the good it did her.  Mars snapped her wrist in a
supple countermotion, bisecting the rose neatly with a ward before
it could reach her.  She knew that Saekianna would sense the
power behind that ward, but she didn't bother to hide it.  The
woman's dark eyes grew wide, first with disbelief, then with
horrified comprehension as she digested the details of what she had
seen and felt.  Mars felt the piercing regard of the woman's sight,
and didn't resist it.
     It was time to make her allegiance clear.
     "No," Saekianna whispered.  "No, it can't be."
     "You've started a fight you can't win, Sass," Mars said, her
gaze steady.  "Why don't you cut your losses and quit the field?"
     "This is madness," Saekianna replied, her lush lips set in a
scowl.  "What are you playing at, Rei?  Do you expect me to
believe that you not only serve these warriors of the White Moon,
but that you ARE one?"
     "It's not like you to deny the truth when it's right in front of
you," Mars countered.
     "Truth?  This is nonsense!  You pretend to be one of them?
 For what purpose, I wonder?  Your plan must be convoluted
indeed, Sister, but the time has come to demonstrate your loyalty to
your Nightmistress and the Dark Lady.  Bring me that girl now, and
I will forgive your earlier defiance of my authority."
     Mars took a breath, her gaze shifting from Saekianna to
Sailor Moon.  Both were beautiful, like battling goddesses locked in
conflict in one of those tales from before the Fall.  Two sets of eyes
were fixed on her, haughty dark and serene sapphire, and Mars felt
the weight of all that lay behind them.
     Yes, it was time to make her allegiance clear.  She owed
both women no less.
     Slowly, she crossed the lot towards Sailor Moon, who
watched her come silently.  There was a smudge of dirt on one of
her peaches-and-cream cheeks, and her twin ponytails danced
lightly in the treacherous breeze.  There were times when this girl's
power clung to her like a cloak, lending her the regal presence that
was her birthright.  This was one of those times; in the princess,
Mars could see the strength that Queen Serenity had carried so
effortlessly.
     It was breathtaking, and she wanted to tell her friend, her
love, how beautiful she was, how awe-inspiring.  But there were no
words which could do that feeling justice; words were pale and
clumsy next to this.
     So Mars stopped before her princess, staring into her eyes
for a long moment, Saekianna's gaze prickling at the edge of her
awareness.
     Then she went down on one knee, taking Sailor Moon's
free hand in both of hers and pressing her lips against it reverently.
     "Command me, my Queen," she said, her voice soft but
clear.
     There was a perfect moment when those perfect crystal blue
eyes looked down at her, brimming with everything that was Usagi,
every emotion, every maddening contradiction, every stubborn
sparkling mote of her soul.  In that moment, Mars knew that home
would always be where this woman was.
     Then an enraged shriek split the air.  Sailor Moon raised her
sceptre as Mars summoned a ward, but neither was needed.  As
Saekianna raised a black rose in her free hand, a streak plucked it
from her fingers and slammed it to the ground.  There it lay,
entwined by a rose of blood red petals, and as one the three women
followed the rose's path back up to the top of a nearby light
standard.
     "Ladies," the lithe man in the tuxedo and cape murmured,
arms crossed.  "Is this a bad time?"

***

     A madhouse.  That was the best description V could come
up with, at any rate.  An ever growing conglomeration of
screeching, distinctly pissed-off nasties had taken it upon
themselves to dog her every footstep.  If it hadn't been for the
arrival of several bounty hunters and a handful of police units, she
might very well have been overwhelmed.
     V had no idea what was doing this, but whatever it was, it
was damned powerful.  The monsters seemed to be following an
invisible point in space, and that point in turn seemed to be chasing
her; a neat trick, no doubt about it.  But the phenomenon showed
no sign of slowing down, and if she didn't find out what was
causing this soon, she was going to end up as monster chow.
     It didn't help that she couldn't break away to find out how
the others were faring.  At least she didn't have to worry about
Ranma; the red-head had thrown herself gleefully into the fray and
was, at that moment, slamming a bat-winged hulk rhythmically into
a six-legged purple insect thing.  Neither creature showed any signs
of enjoying the procedure.  In fact, as soon as they had both
stopped moving, Ranma abandoned her playmates for some more
lively ones.
     "Hey!" V shouted.  "Get up high and take a look for Mars
and the princess, would you?"
     She wasn't certain if the girl had heard her, and a shift in the
howling mass forced her to dodge again, flinging her power
desperately at the advancing horde.  Between checking the advance
of the mob and making certain she had room to manoeuver, V
wasn't able to watch Ranma.  Within seconds, though, the petite
red-head was beside her again.
     "Can't see them," she said succinctly.
     "Damn it!  All right, then I want you to go look for them."
     "Are you crazy?" Ranma shot back, eyeing the monsters as
she followed V's evasions across the shattered streets.  "I can't
leave you alone!"
     "I'll be fine!" V shot back.  It was a blatant lie of course,
but never let it be said that she couldn't carry off even such an
implausible falsehood with style and panache.
     "You'll be dead!  And I'm not going!" Ranma snapped,
sending a chi-bolt smashing into the advancing front.
     "I'm worried about them!  And I obviously can't go,
because my magnetic personality is attracting all these lovely
suitors, so it'll have to be you!"
     "Gah!"  Ranma yelped and leapt away, eyes wide.  V
whirled, unable to comprehend what could have panicked a girl
who had only moments ago been dancing through a swirling cloud
of enraged beasts.
     The answer was startlingly simple.  A group of six large cats
was racing down the street towards them; werecats, and probably
Rin's group.  How absolutely marvellous.
     V dodged, but her effort was wasted.  The cats streaked by
her and began attacking the monsters in earnest, worrying at their
flanks.  They managed to drag a couple of them down, but the
attention of the majority remained focussed on V.
     The senshi watched warily as one of the big cats broke away
and approached her.  She recognized the characteristic pattern as
that of a cheetah, and so was not at all surprised when the cat
transformed into the very naked form of Yui.
     "Rin says that we have a truce," the blonde said to V
bluntly.  "That's why we're here.  If your friend, Jupiter, thinks I
owe her for what she did, though, you can tell her that I don't need
her help."
     "Nice to see you again too, Yui," V sniffed.  "Charmed, as
always.  So Rin keeps his word, huh?  Good to know he's more
than just another pretty face."
     Yui stiffened.  "Don't talk about him that way," she
snapped.
     Oh-ho, V thought.  Have we got a thing for our yummy
boss, Yui?
     "What's wrong?" V asked aloud as Yui's gaze went to the
mob, a strange expression clouding her features.
     "Can't you feel it?" Yui asked, a certain dreaminess
softening her harsh edges.  "It pulls."
     "It doesn't pull me," V frowned.
     "We aren't animals!" Yui blurted, as if V had made an
accusation.  "It can't compel us.  But it does call to us.  Like a song,
or a voice, or ..."
     "Oh, now what?" V wailed, seeing Yui's expression shift
alarmingly.
     "It's stopped," the blonde shifter said.  V blinked.  It was
true, the din had subsided suddenly.  Even as she watched, the
horde seemed to pause as one, shuddering in place.
     "Well, thank the gods," V said with a huge sigh.
     "I'm not so certain," Yui said carefully, "that this is good
news ..."
     The moment dragged on a moment longer.  Then, as one,
the motley gathering of creatures seemed to come to the realization
that they were sharing space not only with delicious humans, but
also with each other.
     The horde exploded in every conceivable direction at once
like the world's biggest monster pinata, spreading absolute chaos
like an expanding ripple of disaster.
     "Well, SHIT," V said, moments before the wavefront
reached her.

***

     Against her.  All against her.
     Saekianna's gaze went from her rose, pinned to the ground,
to the man who perched easily upon the streetlight, and then,
reluctantly, to Rei.
     She had entertained notions that Rei had been running some
sort of operation against these sailor girls for her own purposes,
and that her betrayal had been a matter of ambition, perhaps even
part of a scheme to grab the reins of the Sisterhood for herself.
     But this, this was beyond her wildest imaginings.  Not only
was Rei wearing this girl's colours, she had knelt to her.  KNELT
to her.  Called her Queen.  Pledged her loyalty.
     And this girl, this fragile little blossom called Usagi.  What
was she?  Saekianna der Kae, Nightmistress of the Sisterhood,
armed with Dasma's own whip, had been fought to a standstill by
her.
     No.  No, the path to victory would not be found by lying to
herself.  This girl had been winning.  This girl commanded the
loyalty of powerful warriors, not to mention a woman whose
service to the Dark Lady had been unshakeable.
     Saekianna had blundered badly.  That fact was beginning to
dawn on her now, the realization a cold lump in her gut.  She
should already have been far away from here, vanishing under the
cover of chaos with the girl her helpless captive.  Nothing had gone
as she'd planned, and now she was facing not one, but three
powerful foes.
     "Tuxedo Mask!" Sailor Moon cried, joy evident in her
voice.
     "You," the man called Tuxedo Mask said, his eyes seeking
out Saekianna with cold precision.  "Step away from her.  Now."
     How like a man, Saekianna thought with disgust.  Did he
think he was a prince, come riding on his charger to save the
maiden?  This sailor girl had no need of his assistance.
     "This fight does not concern you," she shot back with as
much hauteur as she could muster.  Which was a considerable
amount, actually.
     "If it concerns her, it concerns me," the man replied.  "And I
assume that the debacle one block over is your doing as well?  I
don't like people who make a mess in my city."
     "Your city?  We shall see," Saekianna murmured.  She was
fingering the crystal disc in her palm surreptitiously, but there was
no response from Mirra.  That was bad news; had this newcomer
overcome her people already?  How?  How was this possible?
     Rei cocked her head, as if listening to something no one else
could hear, then sprang to her feet and grabbed Sailor Moon by the
arm.
     "Everybody move!" she shouted.  "Now!"
     "Do not presume to command me, traitor!" Saekianna
snarled, feeling her temper rise again.  "I will ..."
     The wall of the building nearest to her exploded outwards, a
flood of enraged monsters pouring through.  Saekianna barely had
time to realize that something had gone horribly wrong with her
operation before the wave engulfed her.

***

     It was a great big monster jamboree, and everyone was
invited.
     I rode the wave, smashing everything that got in my way.
This was the best fight I'd been in for a long time, even better than
the salamander or the eyeballs.  There was no need to think, no
time to think.  Every movement had to flow into the next
seamlessly; there were monsters all around, and now that whatever
had called them was apparently gone they were busy going
absolutely freaking berserk.
     I caught glimpses of the action around me as I moved; I was
hardly alone in my efforts to take out as many of these things as
possible.  Some police uniforms were in evidence, but a lot of my
fellow combatants seemed to be civilians.  Presumably, these were
the bounty hunters I'd been hearing about.
     There were bullets flying, as well as spells and arrows and
something that looked like a boomerang and shrieked like a
banshee.  I tried not to get my ticket punched by friendly fire as I
waded through the madness, leaving a trail of mangled baddies in
my wake.  Although I was more than happy to have lost sight of all
those big cats that had come running in, I also seemed to have
misplaced V.  She was no longer the focus of the happy-fun mob,
but she still might need some back-up.  And I had said I would help
whichever one the monsters went after.
     I wasn't worried about her, though.  I mean, the girl was
hell on wheels and then some.  That creeping pressure at the base of
my skull wasn't worry.  I didn't get attached to people anymore,
certainly not loony blondes with dominatrix fashion bents.
     I was just keeping my promise.  A guy should keep his
promises; that's why I felt relief when I finally spotted shiny black
leather and a flash of blonde hair.
     Yeah.  Even a guy who doesn't need anyone needs to keep
his promises.
     V's attention seemed to be totally focussed on the task at
hand, but when I landed behind her she spoke without breaking off
her attacks.
     "Have you seen Mars or the princess?" she asked tightly.
     "I had trouble just finding you," I informed her, grabbing a
big scaly ape-thing as it rushed me, its eyes wide and muzzle
foaming.  I flung it back at the nearest monster, which snatched the
ape from the air and promptly began eating it.
     "Well, we've got to find them!  Damn, these bloody things
are everywhere!  I need an opening!"
     As if summoned by V's words, a swirling ball of energy
seared along the ground beside us, smashing effortlessly through
the creatures that surrounded our position.  V looked startled at
first, then her eyes narrowed, and I turned as she did to see where
the support had come from.
     "Geez," I muttered.  "How many of you guys ARE there?"
     Our assistance had come from a tall woman with short
blonde hair and cool blue eyes who stood with easy grace some
distance away.  Her distinctive sailor uniform stood out, though;
she was clearly another one of the sailor senshi.
     "Uranus," V muttered.  "And where she goes, Neptune isn't
far behind."
     "Um, isn't this good news?" I asked as the blonde gave us a
mocking half-bow.
     "I just don't want to deal with it right now," V replied
flatly.  "Come on, this way."  She sprinted across the street, littered
with burning cars, armed yahoos, and dead bodies, most of which
were monsters.  I followed, glancing back only once to find that the
blonde called Uranus had disappeared into the melee.
     The fighting had spread to the adjacent blocks, and we had
to skirt several pitched firefights, including one involving three
giant armoured battle units with police markings.  I followed V as
she slipped down an alley, pausing only briefly by a wrecked car
before continuing on.
     "Lady Venus!"
     "Phobos!" V cried as the small winged girl swooped down
from the sky, her white wings spread wide.  "Where are the others?
Are they all right?"
     "I think so," Phobos told her.  "The monsters broke through
over there, where our mistress and the princess were fighting the
Nightmistress.  We lost sight of them in the confusion, so Deimos
was going to look for them while I tried to find you."
     "Okay, darlin', stay close," V murmured.  "We're going in."
Phobos lowered herself to perch daintily on V's slim shoulder as the
girl took off running again.  I didn't speak; I knew the dread that
she was feeling.  She didn't know if her friends, the people she
cared about, were all right.  They could be hurt, or captured by the
enemy.  Or worse.  Yeah, I knew the sick feeling that coiled in your
gut in a moment like this, and I knew there was nothing I could say
that would help.  So I kept quiet, and ran.
     If I'd believed in any higher power, I might have prayed
then, prayed that this girl wouldn't have to cradle the broken form
of someone she'd loved in her arms and watch the light die in eyes
that had once laughed and sparkled with life ...
     Something strayed close, coming in from above, and I
leaped to cut it down with cold fury.  I hated these things; they
couldn't be reasoned with, they didn't know about honour or rules,
they didn't challenge the strong or protect the weak.  They only
existed to bring misery.  They were killing machines, pure and
simple, all claws and teeth and stupid, mindless destructive desire.
     I hoped they could feel fear.  I wanted the sight of me to
make them feel the way helpless people felt when one of these
things was bearing down on them.  I wanted them to know how it
felt to feel small and afraid.
     "Still with us, Ranma?" V called.
     "Yeah," I said, increasing my speed to keep up with her.
That satisfied her, or seemed to.  We came to an open area full of
rubble and debris, as well as dead beasties.  No people, though.
That was something.
     "Ah!" Phobos said suddenly.  "Lady Venus!  Deimos has
found them!  That way!"
     V followed the path indicated by the diminutive girl,
hurdling obstacles easily as she crossed the broken ground with
long, leggy strides.  From behind, I had to wonder once again how
she ran like a gazelle while wearing those high-heeled, thigh-high
boots.  All part of the sailor girl magical transformation shtick,
maybe.
     Once through the parking lot we found ourselves on another
street, one full of abandoned vehicles and overturned stalls.  The
locals had wasted no time in heading for the hills when things had
gotten hairy, and the market district streets which had been teeming
with people only a short time before were now virtually deserted,
save for monsters and those who made their living from dealing
with them.
     We wove our way down the street until we reached a
narrower, cobblestoned sidestreet that led off to the left.  I made
note of the high number of recently deceased monsters that lay
along our path as we went, stopping just before the intersection.
     "Hey," I said.  "That thing has a red rose growing out of its
forehead.  Weird, huh?"
     "So," V muttered.  "Tux boy made the scene.  Hope he's
with her."
     Tux boy?  I glanced around, not absolutely certain I wanted
to know what she was talking about.  This city was strange enough
as it was.
     As we were about to round the corner, V suddenly stuck
her arm out to hold me back.  Moments later, a burst of dazzling
white light flared from around the corner, along with a frenzied
shrieking.  V paused a moment longer, then nodded to me, her eyes
shielded by the brim of her cap.
     The narrower side street was also littered, although there
was less destruction here than there had been nearer to the centre of
things.  I could see Usagi and Rei, dressed in their sailor gear,
standing back to back as they finished off the few stragglers without
enough common sense to run away.  With them was the person V
had referred to earlier.  Tux boy just about summed it up: a black
tuxedo, top hat and cape, along with a long cane in one hand.  With
the other, he flung something at a flying ugly, bringing it down with
a single blow.
     I saw how he'd done it as the thing hit the ground.  One red
rose, right between the eyes.  Of course, I'd once participated in a
martial arts figure skating match, so who was I to throw stones
about odd and flamboyant attacks?
     A burst of flame erupted down the far side of the street, and
then there was quiet.  Well, for all of three seconds.
     "V!"
     "Princess!"  V ran down the street, taking her hat off with
one hand and then sweeping her princess into an embrace as they
met in the middle of the street, kissing her passionately.  The scene
reminded me somehow of a sailor meeting his girlfriend right off the
boat.  Well, except for the fact that they were both girls.
     "You're okay," V breathed when she came up for air.
     "Uh-huh," Sailor Moon replied.  "Things got a little wild,
but it looks like they're under control now."
     "A little wild, she says," Mars sighed as she joined them.
Phobos, who had wisely evacuated V's shoulder before the kiss,
had joined her twin on Mars' shoulder.  "You have a great talent
for understatement."
     "Venus," the tall guy in the tuxedo said flatly as he walked
over to us.  The way he carried himself told me that, flashy clothes
notwithstanding, this guy knew how to handle himself.  "New
outfit, I see.  Your true nature finally showing through?"
     Sailor Moon pulled back from V and elbowed him, none to
subtly, in the ribs.  V just smirked as she settled her cap back on her
head with a precise twist of her wrist.
     "You're just jealous, Tux, because you wouldn't look half
as hot as me in leather and heels."
     "That must be it," Tux muttered, the cool eyes behind the
mask settling on me.  "Who's this?"
     "Ranma Saotome," I said, not flinching under his measuring
gaze.
     "Ranma's with us," V said.
     "Swell."
     "So," V went on, turning to the two girls.  "What in the
hells happened?  Where's Saekianna?"
     "We lost her when the monsters broke through," Sailor
Moon admitted.  "She got caught in the worst of it, though.  She
might be hurt, or even dead."
     "Pardon me while I shed a tear," V said sourly.  "How did
she manage to find us?"
     "I don't know," Mars said.  "But she probably wishes she
hadn't.  She seriously underestimated our princess."
     "Yeah!" V beamed, her eyes lighting up.  "Opened a serious
can of whup-ass on her, did you, princess?"
     "Not to brag," Sailor Moon replied, holding her sceptre
demurely behind her back, "but hells yes!"
     "Ladies, as entertaining as this is, I think we should find
someplace else to discuss what just happened," Tux said, eyes
shifting watchfully.  "And just what this Sister has to do with you."
     "We should help mop up," Sailor Moon objected.
     "The police and bounty hunters are arriving in force," Tux
told her.
     "He's got a point," Mars added before Sailor Moon could
object further.  "We wanted to limit our exposure, remember?  If
the Sisterhood was behind this monster incident, they could have
other tricks up their sleeve.  We should regroup back at the
mansion."
     "All right," Sailor Moon sighed.
     "Hotaru's mansion?" Tux asked, his voice cold and eyes
narrowed.
     "No, Ami's," Sailor Moon told him.  "Long story.  Come on, we
can take your car.  I'll give you directions.  Meet you guys back
there," Sailor Moon called as the two moved off.
     "And that was?" I asked.
     "Remember the boyfriend I was telling you about?" V
sighed.  "That was him."
     "Not our biggest fan," Mars nodded.  "But he was bound to
become involved sooner or later."
     "She was really winning?" V asked.
     "V, my darling, I believe our princess has taken an intense
disliking to the lovely Saekianna der Kae," Mars said with a gleam
in her eye.
     "Whoo-hoo!" V hooted.  "Hey, guess who else we saw?
Yui, our favourite cheetah, showed with pussy-cat reinforcements.
Less than enthused, our Yui, but it seems that Rin is taking this
truce seriously."
     "Good news," Mars mused.  "We'll have to give kudos to
Makoto for making that happen."
     "And I spotted Uranus during the fight," V went on.
     "Not surprising, I suppose," Mars sighed.  "This kerfuffle
must have drawn a lot of attention.  Come on, ladies.  Let's get out
while the getting is good."
     I thought about objecting to that "ladies", then decided
there was no point, and followed the pair into a nearby alley where
they changed back.  Then we made our way to Minako's car.  The
streets around the scene were an absolute mess, but Minako backed
down one alley, cut across two narrow laneways, and somehow
manoeuvred us out onto a street where traffic was moving.
     "Queen of the backstreets," Minako crowed when we were
cruising.
     "There's something to be proud of," Rei sighed, but her
gibe was good natured.  They both seemed in high spirits, probably
because their princess had come through the fight unscathed.
     "So Rei," Minako said after a moment, her tone suddenly
businesslike.  "Let me ask you something.  What exactly do you
make of today's festivities?"
     "It seemed off to you, didn't it?" Rei replied softly.  "I
should have known it wouldn't get by you."
     "The Sisterhood's strength lies in subtlety," Minako replied,
watching the road but glancing over at Rei every now and then.
"They operate in the shadows, preferring to stay behind the scenes.
This thing today, it was many things, but subtle isn't one of them.
More like ... desperate."
     "I believe that may have been a factor," Rei murmured,
brushing her hair back absently.  "The deadline to Baniesti grows
closer by the hour, and we have eluded the Sisterhood time after
time.  They feel the need to deal with us before we can interfere in
the revival."
     "The irony, of course, is that we wouldn't even have known
about this thing if they hadn't targeted us," Minako said.  "But I
refuse to believe that this is the best they could do.  At the heart of
things, it looks as though Saekianna arranged things so that she
could go one-on-one with Usagi."
     "I know Saekianna, as well as anyone could," Rei said after
a time.  "You're mostly right about her motivations, Minako.  But
you have to understand her a little to know why she wanted things
this way.  Saekianna underestimated Usagi.  She had to.  In her
world, the world I used to live in, a girl like Usagi is weak, a
plaything to be dominated.  To Sass things like compassion,
tenderness, openness, these are all weaknesses to be exploited.  She
simply couldn't understand how these could be strengths, or how a
girl like Usagi could posses any sort of power."
     "So she didn't know Usagi was one of us."
     "She would have dismissed the notion," Rei affirmed.  "It
would be unthinkable.  I think she wanted to draw us out, use the
monsters to keep us busy while she snatched Usagi.  And she would
have wanted to do it personally, because Usagi challenged her
before.  Her ego would have demanded that she personally bring
Usagi down, show her who was in charge.  She would have
captured Usagi and used her to snare the rest of us."
     "But then Usagi pulled the old switcheroo on Herself,"
Minako said with a faint grin.  "That must have surprised her."
     "I daresay," Rei replied.  "Still, Saekianna would have been
confident of winning a direct confrontation.  She is no slouch in the
power department, and she has Banri.  Also, she has overcome
many opponents in the past through a combination of strength,
guile, and outright deception.  With Usagi, though, she could not
accept that she was up against a serious opponent.  Not until it was
too late.  She doesn't seem to have had a proper back-up plan in
place."
     "Not like her?"
     "No.  Very much out of character," Rei mused, staring
moodily out the window.
     "Well, Rei, you have to realize that you no doubt played a
role in all this," Minako pointed out.
     "How so?"
     "Your loss would have affected her deeply.  Come on, Rei.
It's not like you to be modest.  She thought you were back in her
life, then you turn around and take me right out from under her
nose just when she thinks she's won.  Well, you and Ranma."
     "I wasn't insulted," I said from the backseat.
     "Anyway," Minako went on, "I take it she's got a pretty big
ego.  And you were an important part of her life once.  She didn't
want to spin some complex web of intrigue, she wanted to go out
and trounce Usagi soundly, show her who was the better woman,
the stronger, more dominant woman, the woman worthy of you.
She just didn't expect Usagi to be that woman."
     I looked from one to the other.  Minako's theory seemed
sound; I just wondered if it would upset Rei.  The dark-haired girl's
temper remained in check, though.  In profile, her features were
calm, thoughtful.
     "That may have played a role," she said at last.  "But
Minako, however big her ego is, Saekianna is no fool.  She knows
exactly what she's up against now, and she won't make the same
mistake twice.  Next time, she'll be certain to play to her
strengths."
     "Fine," Minako said with a fierce smile.  "But if Ami can
pull this thing off, Rei, there may just not be a next time."
     "I hope you're right, Minako.  For all our sakes."
 
 
 
 
 
 

end chapter 10