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 12: The Last Guardian
 
 

     Wind whipped around us as the sky continued to darken,
heavy black clouds scudding across it.  Thunder cracked, distant
but getting closer, and out of the corner of my eye I caught the
glimmer of distant lightning.  I looked up at the creature called
Dragon and cocked my head.
     "Unfit?" I asked casually.
     "DO YOU PRESUME TO TAKE OFFENSE?" it boomed,
lowering its wedge-shaped head menacingly.  "INSIGNIFICANT
LITTLE HUMAN, YOU CANNOT COMPREHEND WHAT
THAT KEY IS, THE POWER IT REPRESENTS.  YOU DO NOT
EVEN KNOW ITS TRUE NATURE.  WHY SHOULD YOU
POSSESS IT?"
     "Well, you could ask the demon I took it from," I informed
it cheerfully, "if I hadn't blown him the hell up."
     "YOU THINK A GREAT DEAL OF YOURSELF,"
Dragon rumbled.  "BUT ANSWER ME THIS, BOY.  WHAT
PURPOSE DID THE CREATURE WHO POSSESSED THE
KEY BEFORE YOU PUT IT TO?"
     The look on my face must have been sufficient answer,
because the big lug just nodded his enormous head, eyes never
leaving me.
     "SO.  IT USED THAT POWER TO COMMIT GREAT
EVIL.  MANY OTHERS HAVE DEFILED IT SO IN THE TIME
SINCE IT WAS LOST.  AND, IF A CREATURE AS FRAGILE
AS YOU IS PERMITTED TO RETAIN IT, ANOTHER WILL
PLUCK IT FROM YOUR CORPSE AND DEFILE IT
FURTHER.  ONLY I CAN PROTECT IT.  THAT IS WHY THE
KEY WAS GIVEN TO ME."
     "I've had the thing for years now!" I shouted, wanting to
defend myself without actually understanding why.  What right did
this thing have to judge me, anyway?  "Nobody's been tough
enough to take it away from me!"
     "BRAVADO DOES NOT IMPRESS ME, LITTLE
HUMAN.  I AM FAR OLDER THAN YOU.  I UNDERSTAND
FAR MORE.  THAT KEY WILL BRING ONLY MISERY TO
YOUR KIND.  IF YOU TRULY CARED FOR THE WELFARE
OF OTHERS, YOU WOULD SURRENDER IT TO ME
WILLINGLY."
     "Surrender," I said with a thin, hard smile, "ain't in my
vocabulary."  Dragon just stared at me for long moments as the
storm built around us.
     "SO BE IT," he rumbled at last, not sounding surprised.
     Neither was I.  Talk time was over; I had the feeling it had
just been some sort of formality, anyway.  The longer we talked,
the closer the girls got to us, and so I'd been willing to draw things
out.  But now that push had come right up to shove, I knew
fighting this thing was a bad idea.  Not only was it huge, but the
rules in this place were screwy.
     Time for the better part of valour to make an appearance.
     When Dragon's huge clawed foot came down where I'd
been standing, I was already away.  I dodged under him, banking on
the fact that at least he wouldn't be able to see me.  He started to
spin around, sounding pretty unhappy, and I chose a path that
would take me in a direction opposite to where he was looking.  At
least, I hoped it would.  That direction was also, as it happened,
one that would take me towards the treeline.
     Mamoru didn't need me to tell him the best place to hide
from this behemoth; he had a good dozen steps on me as we
sprinted for the trees.  I caught up pretty quickly, though.
     "I don't suppose," he gritted as we ran, "that there's any
way you'd consider giving him what he wants?"
     "Nope," I replied.  Hell, I'd gone through a lot with that
key.  It had brought me this far, and maybe one day I'd be able to
make it work again so that I could travel the worlds once more.  It
was also important to the plan I'd never gotten around to telling
Minako.
     Mostly, though, I just hate being bossed around.
     Of course, I hate being killed more, so we ran for all we
were worth.  I still couldn't exactly figure out why the treeline was
so far away when it had been at the top of the hill earlier, but that
was a question for later.
     "IDIOT BOY!  WHERE WILL YOU RUN?" Dragon
roared.  "THERE IS NO PLACE HERE THAT IS SAFE FOR
SUCH AS YOU.  NO SANCTUARY, NO ESCAPE.
SURRENDER THE KEY NOW AND I MAY SHOW MERCY.
THE MORE OF MY TIME YOU WASTE, THE LESS HAPPY I
WILL BE!"
     Cheery fellow.
     "I hope it doesn't breathe fire," Mamoru said grimly with a
quick glance over his shoulder.  Dragon was lumbering after us, but
I didn't much like the way he seemed to be taking his time.  Like he
knew that, no matter what, he'd get his way in the end.
     "Or have radioactive breath like Godzilla," I added.
     "Who's Godzilla?" Deimos asked, flying alongside me.
     "Never mind," I told her.  No fire breath or eye lasers yet; it
looked like we were going to make the trees.
     Of course, I didn't think a few trees were going to stop that
juggernaut.  Probably wouldn't even slow him down.  We were
going to need a slightly more detailed plan than "let's hide in the
woods".
     "How tough do you figure those scales are?" I asked
Mamoru.  In response, he plucked a red rose from, apparently, mid-
air, and flung it back.  Pretty good; it's hard to throw something
behind you while you're running all-out with any kind of accuracy,
but the rose flew straight and true and struck Dragon close to one
of his eyes.  It ricocheted harmlessly off the gleaming silvered scales
there, though, and Dragon showed no sign of even noticing its
passage.
     "Tough," Mamoru replied tersely.
     "Attacking Dragon won't work," Phobos told me
breathlessly.  "It's been tried.  Some pretty fearsome creatures
reside in Aethyr, and none of them have ever been able to kill
Dragon.  It's been a long time since anything could even hurt him.
Nothing tries now."
     "That's right, boys," Deimos added.  "Everything stays out
of his way."
     "What about the girls?" Mamoru asked as we drew near
our goal with Dragon's footfalls shaking the ground ominously.
"We've got to meet up with them so that we can get out of here!"
     "Um, about that," Deimos said, a tiny furrow appearing
between her dark eyes.  "Apparently, there's a bit of a snag ..."
 
***

     "Oh, I don't believe this," Venus panted.  They had run all
the way from Dasma's chamber, through corridors of cold crystal
and across the deserted courtyard to the open gates.  Once through,
however, their progress had been abruptly halted.
     The bridge was gone.
     The five girls stood at the edge of the floating island,
staring across the gap between them and the edge of the Abyss.
     "That looks even farther than before," Jupiter spat.  "I think
we moved further away!"
     "I don't see them," the princess said, scanning the far side
of the Abyss.
     "They've taken to the trees," Mars informed her.  "This
Dragon thing  is chasing them, but they're keeping ahead of it.  For
now."
     "This is bad," Mercury muttered, her eyes darting around
frantically.  "This is bad.  Dragon won't get tired, he won't get
discouraged.  He'll chase them until they run out of places to hide!"
     "We've got to help them!" the princess cried.
     Venus scanned the far side of the gaping chasm, but she
could see no place to snag with her whip.  And it appeared that
Jupiter was right; the distance across was even farther than before.
She turned to the others, noting that Mercury's usual composure
seemed to be breaking down rather badly.
     "Mercury," Venus called.  "Can we go back to our side,
then come back here?"
     "What?" Mercury asked.  "I ... yes, but ... if I do that, their
portals will vanish.  They'll be without an anchor, unprotected."
     "But we'll come right back," Jupiter told her.  "Only this
time, over there."
     "I can't control exactly where we'll re-enter," Mercury
replied, her eyes wide.  "We could end far from here, especially
with how unsettled things are right now."  She pointed to the
roiling sky to punctuate that last statement, and Venus eyed
the dark and ominous sky uneasily as bolts of lightning erupted
from gravid clouds in the distance.
     "But then we could at least reach Mamoru and Ranma,"
Mars said.
     "You don't understand!" Mercury cried.  "Without the
portal, Aethyr will begin to affect them almost immediately!  We
would only have a short time to find them before the damage
started to become irreversible!  And time can run strangely here, it
might be hours in local time before we made it back ..."
     "Damage?" Venus asked, a chill skittering through her belly.
"What do you mean, Mercury?  What kind of damage?"
     "Physical changes," Mercury said, misery heavy in her
voice.  "Memory loss.  Degradation of identity, personality.  Inme
did some experiments on this with children who couldn't dive.  The
results ... they ..."
     Mercury broke off, turning her gaze to Sailor Moon,
anguish stamped on her features.
     "Mercury," the princess said softly, taking the girl's hands in
hers.  "Keep calm.  We need you now."
     "I'm sorry," Mercury whispered.  "It's my fault.  I knew
better than to separate.  Now ... I don't know what to do!"
     Mars looked across the huge gap, then glanced down.  Even
though the sky was dark, she could still see her shadow, filled with
the faint traceries of that mystic pattern.  She frowned, the faintest
glimmering of an idea flitting through the edge of her mind.
     "Mercury," she said, but the girl didn't respond.
"Mercury!"
     "Y-yes?" her fellow senshi replied.  It disturbed Mars to see
how shaken Mercury was by this.  She knew that the traumas the
girl had suffered early in her life were to blame; if anything
happened to Mamoru or Ranma, Mercury would never forgive
herself.
     "How does it work?" Mars asked, fixing the girl with her
gaze.  "Returning, I mean.  You said we had to be together, right?"
     "Yes," Mercury said slowly.
     "How close, exactly?"
     "I ... I'm not sure," Mercury said, frowning.
     "Estimate.  Come on, Ami, this is important!"
     "I've done it with another person up to about twenty feet
away, but that person was also a diver."
     "It's way more than that across the gap," Jupiter said
dejectedly.  "And they can't get past that barrier to reach the edge
anyway."
     "It wouldn't matter," Mercury informed her.  "Our shadows
have to touch, and they can't cross the Abyss.  It's bottomless.
Even if they were right over there ..."
     "Our shadows?" Mars asked sharply.  "They just have to
touch?"
     "Yes," Mercury told her, seemingly puzzled by the other
girl's excitement.  "That will link them to my control of the portal,
and ...  Mars?  What is it?"
     "I've got a plan," Mars told them, her mind racing.
"Everybody get ready.  If this works, we won't have much time."

***

     "Okay," I said, standing still in the midst of the thick
foliage.  "So we're lost."  Willow might have known the area, but
she had high-tailed it at the first sign of Dragon.  Smart girl.
     "But we lost Dragon," Mamoru pointed out.
     "I doubt that," Deimos muttered, landing on my shoulder.
Her black bat-wings fluttered nervously, tickling my ear.  "He's not
that easy to lose."
     "Indeed," Phobos agreed as she landed on my opposite
shoulder.  "Just because we cannot hear him does not mean he is
not nearby.  Dragon is not to be underestimated."  I wondered why
neither of them used Mamoru as a landing pad, but frankly that
little matter paled in significance to our current problems.  "He's
lurking around somewhere."
     "Lurking?" I squawked.  "Girls, something that big just
can't lurk.  Seriously."
     "Dragon is a pretty special case," Phobos shrugged.  "There
isn't much that he can't do.  I'm a little surprised that he hasn't
unleashed his full wrath yet.  Perhaps he fears damaging the key?"
That could be, I thought.  In which case it was a good idea to keep
the thing handy.
     "Okay, how's this for a plan?" Mamoru asked.  "We give
him this key and we walk away."
     "I should point out that Dragon doesn't like humans very
much," Phobos noted.
     "No kidding?" I drawled.
     "Yeah, this key is your only leverage," Deimos told me.
"Once he's got it, there are no guarantees that he won't just stomp
on you anyway.  He's pretty foul tempered."
     "So how do we fight him, then?" Mamoru demanded.
     "Um, you don't," Deimos said flatly.  "You get the hells out
of here."
     "Not without Ami we don't," I sighed.  "Which way to the
Abyss?"
     "Don't know," Deimos admitted.  "But the bridge is gone,
anyway, so ..."
     "This is idiotic," Mamoru declared.
     "Hey, feel free to go in any direction you want," I shot
back.  "He's after me, remember?  He probably won't follow you."
     "You don't know Usako very well," the blue-eyed man
replied sourly, hefting his sword.  "She would not approve of me
abandoning you ..."
     A dazzling flash lit up the area, followed immediately by a
deafening crescendo of thunder that rolled through the air with a
force that was nearly physical.  I blinked blue-white afterimages out
of my eyes and straightened from my instinctive crouch, two small
fairy girls clinging to my collar.  In the aftermath of the thunder's
roar, I could hear the sounds of something huge advancing through
the dense forest.  Unfortunately, it seemed to be coming from
several directions at once.
     "He's coming!" Deimos cried.  "Let's get out of here!"
     "But which way?" Phobos replied.
     "That way!" I declared decisively, picking a direction at
random.  I figured it was better than standing around waiting to be
on the receiving end of Dragon's personal charm again.
     "No!" Deimos blurted as Mamoru and I started forward.
"Those trees are carnivorous!"
     I blinked.  They looked pretty much like the other weird
trees to me, but she'd lived here so I decided that she probably
knew what she was talking about.  Mamoru pointed off in one
direction just as I chose another, the ground shuddering as the din
of rampant destruction grew steadily louder.
     That was when I heard it.  A small sound, nearly lost in the
racket, like a small animal barking.  I turned, puzzled, and saw it,
sitting pretty as you please in the middle of the small clearing we
currently occupied.
     "What the hell," I asked, pointing, "is that?"
     "Here in Aethyr," Deimos informed me, following my finger,
"we call that a 'fox', hon."
     "Funny," I said.  It looked like an ordinary fox, with the
russet fur and full tail, but I was wary.  This place was starting to
live up to its billing, and I wasn't sure I wanted to take anything at
face value.  The fox looked at me and got up, taking a couple of
steps before stopping and looking back.  Then it made that little
barking noise again.
     "I think it wants us to follow it," Phobos said helpfully.
     "Yeah," I said.  "But is it a good fox, or a bad fox?"
     "What it is," Mamoru said, "is a lot smaller than Dragon.
Given the choice, I say follow the fox."
     "Fox it is," I agreed as the sound of pursuit grew nearer.  I
couldn't spot anything through the soaring canopy of trees, and
likely wouldn't until Dragon was nearly right on top of us.  It
seemed he was having no trouble locating us, nor did the forest
seem to be slowing him much.
     So much for our advantage.
     The fox turned and launched itself through the underbrush,
and we followed.  The little bugger sure could cover the ground,
but it never got so far ahead of us that we lost sight of it for more
than a few seconds as it slipped through the bushes and leafy purple
fronds that grew everywhere.  The sounds of Dragon started to
recede a little, but I didn't figure that would last long.  We needed a
plan, and fast.
     The fox vanished through a cluster of dense shrubs and we
followed, bursting through into a large clearing.  There was a girl
standing in its centre, and the fox scampered up her leg and into her
arms as we skidded to a stop.
     She was young, maybe five or six years old, with long blonde
hair that curved and swirled around her petite body.  On her left
cheek was a faint mark, maybe a pattern or tattoo, spidery red lines
that traced a shape that almost seemed to make sense to me.
     I didn't bother to wonder what a little girl was doing here.
Even before she opened her mouth, I knew who she was.  It was
the eyes; they didn't belong in that face.  Those were eyes that had
seen forever and had not come all the way back.
     I'd seen them before, in the bathhouse.  The spooky little
songbird.
     And, true to her nature, she started to sing.

     "He took to the Paths,
      And the Paths lead, they say,
      To where the Truth is hidden away,

      But the Truth, it has teeth,
      It can kill with Its bite,
      And it serves both the Darkness and the Light,"

     "You," I whispered.  "What do you want?"
     "Who in the hells is this, Saotome?" Mamoru asked tightly.
He sounded more than a little spooked to me, and a guy like that
wasn't going to be happy about getting a bad case of the heebie-
jeebies from a singing little girl.
     I knew just how he felt.
     "Um, hey," Deimos said softly, tugging at the collar of my
shirt.  A blue light blazed out, and before I could react the key
floated effortlessly up to bob in the air at the end of its tether.
Somewhere far too near for my liking, Dragon bellowed in
response.  Mamoru looked from the floating, glowing crystal key to
the girl and back, the eerie blue light pulsing in time with the
beating of my heart.  But it was even stronger this time than before,
blazing with cold fire.  That fire was reflected in the girl's eyes.
     And I watched as those eyes came back a little from wherever
they'd been to focus on me with sudden clarity.
     "Warden of the Key," she said, her voice high and sweet.
"Stand behind me."
     "What?"  At least she'd finally said something that hadn't
bloody rhymed.  "Who the ..."
     "You must hurry," she said gravely, her words and
demeanor incongruous in such a young girl.  "Time grows short."
     "Dragon or the girl?" Deimos asked.
     "Saotome?"
     My decision was made easier when the sounds of pursuit
suddenly coalesced into a single source, very near.  I moved quickly
to stand behind the girl, the twins staying close to me.  Mamoru
joined us, naked blade still in his hand, and we watched as the trees
rippled strangely, as if they were a mere mirage.  Seconds later they
were torn apart, ragged shreds flying away from the centre of the
disturbance as if carried by typhoon winds.
     And Dragon came through the void left behind, only to be
brought up short by the sight which greeted him.  The wind
continued to howl, but somehow its fury seemed blunted here, as if
it couldn't quite reach us.  Dragon lowered his head and spread his
glittering wings, baleful red eyes seeming to burn right into me.
     He seemed, if possible, even less happy than before.
     "BOY," he growled, sounding disgusted.  "YOU DISAPPOINT
ME.  DID YOU THINK THAT SUMMONING HER TO YOUR
DEFENCE WOULD DISSUADE ME?"
     Me?  He thought I'd done this?  I didn't understand that,
but one thought crept stealthily into my head as I stood there, the
key floating in the air in a pulsing nimbus of light.
     The girl was the only thing between us and Dragon.  And so
far, he hadn't come any closer.  Could even he be ... afraid?
     "Why?" she asked, that little girl voice cool and dignified.  "Why
did you claim that the key was yours, Dragon?  You and the others
were guardians only.  To wield it was never your destiny."
     "I HAVE MORE RIGHT TO IT THAN HE," Dragon
rumbled, that unnerving gaze shifting from me to her petite form
and the strangely calm fox cradled in her arms.  "THE TRUTH OF
SUCH THINGS ARE LOST IN THE MISTS OF TIME.  THEY
SHOULD REMAIN LOST."
     "That is not for you to say," she murmured softly.
     "SUCH POWER IS NO LONGER NECESSARY!  THE
PRICE WAS PAID AND THE OUTSIDERS SEALED, AND
THE FORCES UNLEASHED SHATTERED THE LINKS TO
THIS SPHERE!  WHY SHOULD YOU STRIVE TO AWAKEN
SUCH FORCES ONCE MORE?  WOULD YOU SEE ENTIRE
UNIVERSES LAID WASTE AGAIN?"
     "It is not for me to decide.  Even you cannot stop what is to
come," she said, seemingly unaffected by his anger.  "The shadows
grow long, and Silence approaches.  The Dark must be opposed."
     "BOY!" Dragon roared.  "IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT?
WOULD YOU PAY SUCH A PRICE FOR POWER?  SHE WAS
WARDEN ONCE, AND NOW EVEN DEATH OFFERS HER
NO PEACE!"
     I felt a chill on the tight skin at the back of my neck.  Death?
Was she a ghost, then?
     "Stop this, Dragon," she said calmly.  "He is needed.  He can do
what must be done.  In the end, the choice will be his.  Not yours."
     "I KNOW NOT HOW EVEN THIS MUCH OF WHAT
YOU WERE HAS COME TO BE HERE," Dragon hissed,
towering over us menacingly.  "BUT APPARENTLY YOU HAVE
FORGOTTEN THAT MERE HUMANS WERE NEVER FOUND
SUITABLE TO WIELD SUCH POWER!"
     "I have forgotten nothing, Dragon.  We simply never
realized the strength they possessed in their hearts."
     "SPEAK NOT TO ME OF HEARTS!  WHAT
NONSENSE IS THIS?"  Dragon seemed to be getting more and
more pissed, but the girl never so much as twitched.
     "The key was lost that day, and has since dwelled in
darkness.  You can see that as clearly as I, Dragon.  But he, he has
cleansed it.  You can no longer deny the truth ..."
     "I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER THAN TO
ATTEMPT REASON!" Dragon bellowed.  "YOU NEVER HAD
ANY SENSE AT ALL!"  His eyes blazed brighter, and I tensed as
he lunged forward.  It should have been impossible for something
that big to move so fast, but before I could even react the girl held
out her hand, palm facing outward.
     And Dragon stopped.  Dead.
     I gaped.  He seemed somehow frozen in place, his huge
gleaming body quivering as he fought against whatever invisible
force held him immobile.  This just kept getting weirder and
weirder.
     "Nice trick," Mamoru said in a low voice.
     "Yeah," I nodded.  "Maybe now we can get some real answers."
     "Now," the girl said softly without turning, "you must
leave."
     "No way!" I snapped, fighting the urge to shiver at the melodic
yet somehow haunting voice.  "All this time, I've wanted answers
about this thing, and you have them!"
     "I cannot hold him indefinitely" she replied, maddeningly serene.
"I am in the moment, but even here I cannot remain so.  You must
go to the others."
     I was about to grab her in defiance of all common sense
when Deimos interrupted.
     "She's right!  Lady Mars has a plan, but we need to get as
close to them as possible!"
     "Which way?" Mamoru demanded.
     "That way," the girl said, and as I turned I spotted a narrow
path where I was sure none had been before.
     "BOY."  Dragon's voice sounded like rocks falling down a
well, harsh and hollow.  "THINK.  TURN BACK.  THIS PATH
HAS PERILS, TERRORS THAT YOU CANNOT IMAGINE.
FOR YOU, IT IS STILL NOT TOO LATE."
     I thought of Akane, the way her body had felt in my arms as
the light had gone out of her eyes.  I thought of the life I'd been
cheated out of, and of the closeness and warmth I'd seen in the last
few days between those girls.  They'd fought for what they had,
and no power, no shadow or Silence or whatever, had the right to
take that away from them.
     "Yes it is," I said softly, forcing myself to meet those glittering
gemstone eyes one last time.  "It's way too late."
     And we went.

***

     Thunder rumbled uneasily in the distance, but the winds had
died and the clearing was an oasis of calm.  Dragon's huge body
thrummed with his efforts, radiating frustration and rage without
moving.  The girl simply stood there, fox cradled in one arm, the
other held out before her.
     The space between them would have appeared empty to
mundane eyes, but was in fact filled with the pale light of
commands and countermands, the arcane language of the phantom
machinery that operated at levels beyond human perception and
ken.  She could still compel him.  Even now, even like this.  It
pained her to have to do so, but it did not surprise her.
     He'd always been the most intractable one.
     "YOU CANNOT HOLD ME," he gritted.  "YOU, A MERE
MEMORY.  EVEN NOW, YOUR ESSENCE DRIFTS FROM
THIS MOMENT."
     "What of the others?" she asked softly, as if the silent battle
took no toll on her.  "Pegasus?  Unicorn?  Tiger, Wyvern, Kraken,
Griffon?"
     "I WILL NOT REMINISCE WITH YOU!  YOU ARE
NOTHING BUT A PALE ECHO OF THE ONE I SERVED!"
     "All gone, then," she murmured, as if he had answered.
"Only you remain.  How lonely you must have been.  What of the
survivors of the battle?  Surely some must have made it here."
     "I HAVE NO USE FOR THOSE SELF-STYLED GODS,"
Dragon sneered.  "NOR THEY FOR ME.  AFTER ALL, I WAS
NOT CHARGED TO PROTECT THEM.  NOR WOULD I
CONSENT TO."
     "Your strength would be valuable to the Warden, Dragon,"
she said, her voice soft and low.  The clash of eldritch symbols
came more quickly now, shifting in a dazzling fast-forward chess
game that she knew she must eventually lose.  But not yet.  Not
quite yet.
     "MY DUTIES ENDED THAT DAY."  Was that regret she
heard?  "AS DID YOURS."
     "I remember who held me as I lay on the deck," she
breathed, meeting those flaming eyes with her own gaze.  "I
remember what you said to me as the ship fell into the rift.  You
wouldn't leave me, and so I had no regrets."
     The form of Dragon shimmered, and for a moment a man-
shaped form stood before her, with gleaming skin and eyes of
crimson flame.  It was only for a moment, but that was enough for
her to see his expression.  He'd never been able to hide anything
from her.
     "It was not your fault," she said simply.
     "WHAT IS DONE, IS DONE," he replied, gruff.  "THE PAST
CANNOT BE CHANGED, ILLIANKA.  BUT THERE ARE
REMNANTS OF FORBIDDEN SECRETS IN THIS WORLD,
AND I HAVE SWORN TO GATHER THEM SO THAT WHAT
HAPPENED IN THE PAST SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN
AGAIN."
     "Even you cannot stop it."  Her words were heavy with sorrow;
she was slipping away again, and the key's new Warden would be
cast adrift once more.  She could only hope she had bought enough
time.  Even this was more than she would have believed possible.
Dragon was right, in a way.  Her duties had ended on that day, long
ago.  But the key approached a nexus of events more powerful than
any since it had been lost to the light, and so it called to her.  It was
a call she could not deny, even now.  Because the key remembered,
as was its wont.  The boy filled it with his light, the light particular
to a human heart, and as like called to like and light called to light,
it remembered.
     It remembered her.
     "I FAILED TO PREVENT CATASTROPHE ONCE.  I
SHALL NOT FAIL AGAIN."
     There.  A slip, another, and the web of commands which
held him unravelled with frightening speed.  With a victorious roar,
Dragon leapt, razored wings spread wide as he raised his head to
the turbulent skies.  The winds returned, battering the landscape as
his tail raked through the trees, snapping them with contemptuous
ease.
     And then he was gone, leaving devastation in his wake.
     But the girl stood, unharmed, in the centre of it all.  She had
not bothered to move; even had she not been beyond harm, it
would have been unnecessary.  None of his frenzied attacks had
come near her.  If she was but a memory to him, at least it appeared
she was a cherished one.
     That pleased her.
     The fox whimpered, and she turned her gaze to its upturned
face, feeling the tide sweeping her inexorably away.
     "I must go, little one" she whispered.  "But for you I have this
question: did you never love?"
     She passed her delicate palm over the upraised muzzle, and
a tiny spark of blue light leapt from her to the fox.  It sneezed, a
tiny spasm, then looked up at her again with those strangely
mismatched eyes.  For a moment it was as though something lurked
there, a shadow of what had been, all ephemeral and transitory.
Waiting to be remembered.  Like her.
     "When the time comes, little one, you will know what to
do," she promised.  The fox twitched, then leapt nimbly from her
arms and scampered away into the wind-lashed bushes, leaving her
alone in the detritus-strewn clearing.  She watched it go, her gaze
losing its focus as her eyes fixed on something far more distant than
the horizon.
     Humming under her breath, she spun in place, leaping to
land on one outstretched toe, grace given form.
     And then she was gone.

***

     "By blood and by power, I summon thee."
     Mars incanted the spell slowly as winds filled with elemental
fury swirled across the Abyss.  Her shadow trembled, and she
fought not to gasp as her power extended into it.  Shadow Magick
was dark and wild, but never before had she sensed this aspect of
the power.  It threatened to swamp her, but she was not a girl to
surrender in a match of wills.  Sending more tendrils of her magick
into the roiling mass, she ensnared it and drew the fey-tinged
shadow closer.
     "Bound by my will, answer to my command and lend me
your strength."
     The shadow struggled against her control, something which
had not happened since the day she'd tamed it as a young novitiate.
Inky fingers of darkness snaked up her legs, her nerves singing
sweetly as they climbed ever higher, embracing her like a lover.
     "Azakaru!"
     Not good.  It was too strong, too wild.  She could barely
hold the shadow to her, much less control it.  This was alien
magick; she couldn't do it alone.
     "Mercury?"  Venus's voice.
     "I don't know," Mercury replied softly.  "I told her I
couldn't predict what would happen ..."
     "Her clothes are changing," Jupiter said.  "Is that supposed
to happen?"
     Rei trembled, power coiling through her deepest, most
intimate places.  She had grabbed the tiger's tail, but she couldn't
ride it alone.
     She needed Ami.
     Rei opened her eyes.  Her head was bowed, and she noted
in passing that her fuku was indeed gone.  In its place, she wore a
loose white bloused top that cinched tight just above her navel and
again at her throat, leaving an oval gap between.  The long sleeves
were cuffed tightly at her wrists but slashed along their length,
showing pale flesh covered with writhing shadows whenever she
moved.  She couldn't see the choker that encircled her throat, but
she knew it would be the skull and rose choker she'd once
favoured.  The black skirt was long but slit high on the hip on both
sides to reveal tantalizing glimpses of her long legs clad in mesh
hose.
     She blinked.  The shadow patterns should have been stable,
but everywhere her flesh was visible she could see them twisting
and twining, glimmering lines of the portal tangled with them.
     "Rei?"  Her princess's voice, filled with concern for her.
Normally that would have gladdened her heart, but not now.  If she
lost control, she might not be able to do this again.  And she was
Ranma and Mamoru's only chance.
     Her gaze sought out Mercury, and before the thought could
crystallize she had crossed the space between them, her high heels
clicking loudly on the crystal surface.  Her hands grasped the girl's
shoulders as violet eyes bore into blue urgently.
     "Rei," Mercury gasped.  "Take it easy.  Let me analyse
these readings, try to figure out ..."
     That was no good.  She didn't need Mercury, she needed
Ami.  Ami had mastered the unknown magicks of the portal as a
mere girl, ignorant of her senshi powers, just as Rei had conquered
her own shadow.  Mercury would try to work her way through the
problem coolly, methodically.  But Ami, Ami might be able to take
a leap into the unknown and fly by the seat of her pants, trusting
her instincts as she once had.
     If Rei handled her right.
     Rei let her hands glide over the other girl's slim shoulders,
one trailing down to the small of Ami's back, the other encircling
her neck as she drew the startled senshi into her embrace.
     "Ami, listen to me," Rei said, fighting to stay in control.
     "W-wait," the girl protested.  "Rei, calm down ..."
     Rei growled deep in her throat, a hungry, feline sound.
Wait.  Talk.  Think it over.  Discuss.  This was no time for the
rational mind; she needed Ami's undivided attention, and her
cooperation.
     So.  But carefully.  Ami shrank from casual touch, shunned
the tactile, and Rei knew that pain lay behind that reticence.  But
she also knew of the fires that burned in a girl's heart, none so hot
as those which were hidden and denied.  If she wasn't careful, those
fires might consume them both.
     "Ami."  She made the girl's name into a dark promise,
whispering it, purring it, as her nails traced the tender skin of the
nape of Ami's neck before wandering up under the dark tousled
locks there.  "Look at me."
     "R-Rei, we don't have time ..."
     "Look.  At.  Me."  Ami's body was pressed against hers now,
and Rei could feel the girl's heart pounding through the thin
material which was the only barrier between them.  "I have the
shadow, but I can't control it.  Ami, I need you.  The portal's
magick is all tangled up in the shadow, and I don't know what to
do.  We need to combine our magicks."
     "Combine?" Ami muttered, her eyes clouded with doubt.
"How?  Rei, what you're talking about, it ... there are ... variables, I
mean, and ..."
     Ami was still thinking too much.  Rei dug her nails in at the
small of the girl's back and twined her fingers in Ami's hair.  In that
moment, Rei saw a flicker in Ami's eyes, one that she'd seen
before.  The fuku faded, and whatever replaced it was backless,
leaving Rei's fingers against bare skin where they lingered teasingly,
speeding Ami's pulse with their ministrations.
     "There are no rules for this, Ami," Rei breathed.  "It's never
been done.  We have to work it out, just you and me."  The next bit
was tricky, but there had been that look in the smaller girl's eyes
when she'd been reigned in, and the probably subconscious way
she'd bared her flesh by changing her clothes.  "You follow my
lead."
     Ami stared into her eyes, lips parted.  Their faces were so
close that their breath intermingled in that startlingly intimate way
only lovers experience, and Ami finally nodded, the movement so
slight Rei nearly missed it.
     "Tell me what to do," the girl whispered, pink flushing across
her cheeks.
     "Feel the power, Ami.  Reach for it," Rei instructed.  A
small crease appeared between Ami's brows, and her mouth curled
into a scowl.
     "I'm trying," she murmured after a moment.
     "Closer," Rei instructed, tightening their already intimate
embrace and leaning in until their noses were separated by the
width of a sheet of paper.  "Get closer."
     "I can't," Ami said with a panicky gasp.  She tried to pull
away, and Rei drew her back in firmly.  She was aware of
consternation and whispers amongst the others and hoped fervently
that they would not interfere.  Time was short.
     "Don't be afraid," she told Ami sternly.  "You have to grab
it."
     "But it's wild.  It's not supposed to be like this," Ami
replied, her eyes wide.  Rei suppressed her temper instinctively.
     "It's scary," she said to Ami.  "You're afraid that you'll be
overwhelmed, swept away."  Wordlessly, Ami nodded, another
slight motion of the head.  Rei gave her a smile, the smile that had
been the ruin of countless men and women.
     "Ami," she whispered, moving so that her lips brushed the
girl's ear.  "It is wild.  And it is strong.  But I am more wild, and
stronger.  You know that to be true.  Throw yourself in, and I will
catch you.  It's the only way."
     Her breath stirred a stray lock by Ami's ear, and she felt the
girl's shudder pass to her through that lithe frame.  Rei let her
cheek brush Ami's as she pulled back to stare once more into the
girl's eyes.  Rei teased and beguiled, but she would not use her
power to compel Ami.  She couldn't follow the Sisterhood's path,
no matter how high the stakes.  She had to make Ami believe in her
own strength, and in Rei's.
     "Ami."  That was all she said, just the girl's name.  But as soon
as she spoke, Rei saw the decision made, saw the change in Ami's
eyes, felt it in the thrumming tension of the girl's body.
     And Ami threw herself headlong into the tempest.

***

     Venus grabbed Jupiter by the arm as the taller girl started
forward, eyes smouldering.
     "Hold it," Venus murmured.
     "What's she think she's doing?" Jupiter spat.  "Why is she
all over Ami like that?"
     "It's necessary," Venus said patiently.  She was by no
means certain that this was true, but she didn't suppose telling
Jupiter that it looked like fun would be wise.  Besides, while Venus
would cheerfully have taken advantage of a situation like that to
cuddle up to Ami, she knew Rei's disciplined nature only too well.
Whatever was going on required physical proximity.
     "I don't like this," Jupiter growled.  "Look, those shadows
are spreading to Ami!"
     She was right; inky tendrils of shadow were slithering from
Rei to Ami now, snaking across exposed skin rapidly.  Ami's eyes
were closed and her forehead was touching Rei's; if she hadn't
known better, Venus would have thought she was watching two
lovers in a quiet moment.  Rei's outfit was sleek and sexy, while
Ami's pale blue dress with its ruffled skirt and top that tied behind
the neck was at once demure yet alluring.
     "Listen, this is the only chance we have to get those guys
out of here!" Venus gritted, exasperated.  "Hey, Princess, a little
help here?"
     Venus glanced over, only to be stopped dead by the sight
which greeted her.  Their princess stood still, ponytails sailing
sinuously in the wind as she stared blankly out into space, her lips
moving as if she were whispering to someone.  At her breast, the
Ginzoushou was visible within its brooch, but its light dimmed even
as Venus watched, flickering to a colour unlike its characteristic
silver-white glimmer.  In fact, it appeared to be reflecting the dark
crystal that surrounded them.
     At least, she hoped that was only a reflection ...
     "Princess?"
     "What's wrong?" Jupiter asked, turning to follow Venus's
gaze.  "Princess?"
     Venus strode over and grabbed the girl by the shoulders,
turning her so that she could gaze directly into the other girl's eyes.
She called her princess by name, and slowly those sky-blue eyes
focussed on her.
     "Venus?" the princess murmured.  "What ...?"
     "Take it easy," Venus said softly, brushing a stray lock from
the girl's face.  "You zoned out for a moment there.  You okay?"
     "Yes," she said, brow furrowed.  "I, um ... that was
strange."  The Ginzoushou had returned to its normal state, and
Venus wondered if she had really seen it change colour.  Could this
strange environment be affecting even something that powerful?
     "You think that was strange?" Jupiter muttered darkly, pointing.
"Check this out."
     Rei and Ami were covered by the crawling shadows now,
still standing pressed together.  Rei's sable hair swirled around them
like a heavy silk cloak, rippling like thick liquid in the capricious
winds.  Ami's bare arms had twined themselves around Rei's neck,
but as they watched her left arm slipped down slowly.  Rei's right
relinquished its hold on the girl's slender waist, and languorously
the two hands sought each other out, unerring despite the fact that
both girls still had their eyes closed.
     "Is it working?" Sailor Moon asked, her voice soft.
     "It's working for me," Venus told her, only half joking as
she watched the two girls entwined against the backdrop of the
primal Abyss.  "But the spell?  I just don't know, Princess."
     "It better be," Jupiter said tersely.  "Look."
     The other two shifted their gazes to the distant treeline.
Two figures had burst from it and were running towards the grassy
slope at full speed.  At the same time, the wind seemed to be
intensifying and lightning erupted across the cloud-stained sky.
     "It's them!" Sailor Moon exclaimed.  "Run, guys!  Run!"
     "They're coming towards us," Jupiter breathed.  "But if this
doesn't work, they'll be trapped between Dragon and that barrier."
     "I don't see this Dragon thing," Venus pointed out.
"Maybe they lost it."
     A high, inhuman shriek split the air, and moments later the
treeline seemed to twist and ripple, then tear itself apart.
Something huge thrust itself through the ragged rift, and Venus felt
her stomach clench painfully.
     "Uh-oh," Jupiter breathed.
     "Mamo-chan!"  The princess summoned her sceptre as
Venus and Jupiter tried to draw a bead on the creature.  Venus
unleashed a beam which flew straight and true through the
intervening distance, but splashed harmlessly off the creature's
gleaming skin.  Jupiter's attack was equally useless, and the creature
called Dragon reared up, its fang-filled maw opening wide.  Motes
of light began to collect there, coalescing faster and faster, and even
as far away as they were Venus could sense the build up of power.
     "Oh, damn," she whispered.  Beside her, the princess
levelled her sceptre, eyes narrowed and mouth set.
     Then the shadows covering Rei and Ami paused in their
mad dance.  A tendril of darkness flung itself out at Venus and the
others, falling near their feet.  Venus watched in astonishment as all
three of their shadows, which had been splayed around them in odd
directions, suddenly swivelled on some invisible axis and came
together, that tendril of darkness at their centre.
     At the same time, another thin tentacle of shadow erupted
from the two girls and flew towards Ranma and Mamoru, snaking
with breathtaking speed through space.  Venus had time to wonder
if there was a limit to how far that mystic shadow could reach
before a blaze of light flared from Dragon's mouth.  Someone cried
out, and she tried to shield her eyes from the glare, but suddenly
everything was jumbled, confused, and she felt like she was falling.
     Check that.  She WAS falling.  Landing in an ungainly heap
on cold concrete, she felt a body sprawl across her, heard voices all
raised in a cacophony of alarm.  Blue-white splotches spread across
her vision, but the cessation of wind and thunder told her that they
had escaped Aethyr.
     "Is everyone all right?" she called.  There was a ragged
chorus in the tentative affirmative, and she struggled to raise her
head.
     "Hey, Makoto.  Your elbow is in my back," she complained.
     "Sorry," the other girl muttered.  Slowly, they sorted
themselves out, and as Minako's vision returned to normal she saw
that they were indeed back in the room underneath the mansion.
Makoto helped Usagi to her feet, beating Mamoru to the punch.
Ranma sat and shook her head, Phobos and Deimos clinging to her
like shipwreck survivors to wreckage.  And Ami lay on top of Rei;
as Minako watched, the petite girl came to her senses and
scrambled off of the sultry priestess awkwardly.  Ami's cheeks were
bright pink, and she avoided looking at the raven-maned beauty as
she clambered quickly to her feet.
     "We won!" Minako crowed.  "We're number one!"
     "Well, we're alive," Makoto pointed out.  "I wouldn't call
what we just went through an unqualified success, though."
     "So, that was Dragon," Usagi said.  "Scary."
     "He wasn't any better close up," Mamoru told her grimly.
     "Yeah," Minako sighed, stretching.  "What a trip.  Am I the
only one who needs a drink?"

***

     Fire crackled comfortingly in the big old fireplace, chasing
away the damp chill that early evening had brought along with it.
All the mansion's guests were arrayed around it, fresh from their
perilous journey to Aethyr and filled with untold tales.  Rei took a
sip of dark amber liquid from the glass water tumbler Ami had
scrounged out of her kitchen.
     The Tyrian whiskey had been part of Minako's "emergency
supplies"; say what you would about the girl, she really did have a
style all her own.  And Rei wasn't entirely certain that Tyrian
whiskey didn't qualify as a necessity of life.  She welcomed its slow
burn which seared her throat and erupted into an intimate warmth
in her belly.
     Phobos and Deimos perched on her shoulders, lazily taking
turns licking tiny droplets of whiskey from her lips.  Their kittenish
kisses were playful and intimate, and Rei quite enjoyed the
experience.  She caught Minako looking at her, and had no doubt
the blonde was envying the twins.
     They had been in this very room just the previous night, but
this time the groupings on and around the three couches had
changed somewhat.  Mamoru and Usagi occupied the couch
opposite the fireplace like a king and queen, looking very cozy
indeed.  Minako had claimed the end of Rei's couch closest to the
royal couple; while Luna sat at Usagi's feet, her dark-tressed head
in the princess's lap, Artemis sat at Minako's, not seeming to mind
the casual way the blonde had slung one of her feet into his lap.  His
fingers were twined loosely with Luna's, and the way they kept
glancing at each other made Rei certain that the two feline
guardians had made good use of the time they'd had alone.
     Ami and Makoto once again held down the third couch.
Ami seemed restless, and Rei noticed how the girl took pains to
avoid her gaze.  Well, that was to be expected, and there was
nothing for it just now.  Perhaps, if Rei could get her alone for a
few minutes, she might be able to ease tensions, but that would
have to wait..
     Ranma sat near the fireplace, occupying much the same
position as he had the night before.  To Rei, who had been trained
to read a person's body language, Ranma's constant habit of
placing physical distance between himself and the others spoke
volumes.  There was little to be done about that just now either,
though.  If there hadn't been so much going on, perhaps they could
have concentrated on making him feel more at ease, but as it was
they had much more important matters to deal with.
     They took turns briefly relating their separate experiences, and
now there was a moment as everyone seemed to look around, as if
wondering what next.  That question was answered as Ami got to
her feet and went behind the couch to retrieve her easel and
flowchart from the previous night.
     "All right," she said, flipping a fresh page over.  "Obviously,
there are questions we need to ask in light of what we've learned."
     "Usako is a descendant of Dasma?" Mamoru asked.  "That
one has got to be some kind of trick."
     "It's not," Usagi answered without taking her head off his
shoulder.
     "You should have seen her," Minako added.  "She could be
Usagi's sister.  I'm talking very nearly a twin."
     "That could be a spell," Mamoru argued.  "Or some sort of
deception."
     "It's true," Usagi murmured.  "I feel it."
     "I don't understand why this doesn't upset you more,"
Mamoru frowned, looking down at her.  "We're talking about
Dasma here, remember?"
     "But most of what we know about her is rumour and
legend, Mamo-chan.  She helped found the White Moon, and who
knows what she could tell us about our past?"
     "That's ancient history, Princess," Makoto said.  "Why not
let it go?"
     "It's not just Her," Rei said softly.  "There were other gods.
And as the eldest daughters of the Great Houses of the White
Moon Court, those who were called to serve the princess as her
senshi, we held the greatest power.  It stands to reason that, if
Banri spoke the truth, we also have the blood of gods running
strong in us."
     "It's still ancient history," Makoto sniffed.
     "I wish I could talk to Her," Usagi sighed.
     "Gee, maybe you could have a heart-to-heart with Her
Nightmistress," Makoto said sourly.  "Seeing as how you promised
to help the Sisterhood."
     "Excuse me?" Mamoru blurted.  Usagi sat up, a guileless
expression spreading across her lovely features.  Rei recognized the
signs; her princess was about to charm her way out of a tight spot.
     "Mamo-chan," she began sweetly.
     "Don't 'Mamo-chan' me, young lady," he said sternly.
"Tell me you didn't actually make such a reckless promise."
     "The Sisterhood is our problem now, whether we like it or
not," Usagi told him, not backing down.  "Someone is using them,
and it's in our best interests to put a stop to that."
     "That brings up a very important line of inquiry," Ami
stated, sketching on her easel to create a simple series of lines and
circles.  "Saekianna says she's in possession of knowledge that will
allow her to break the seal on Dasma.  This knowledge, along with
Banri, she obtained from the heart of the labyrinth at Caostye.  But
we know that the labyrinth was never finished, and we've talked to
a creature claiming to BE Banri."
     "She was pretty convincing," Minako pointed out.
     "So what does the Nightmistress have in her possession?"
Ami asked.
     "I got hit with it, and if it isn't Banri, it's at least powerful,"
Minako told them.  "That's no ordinary whip."
     "I agree," Rei nodded.  "Someone went to a lot of trouble
to create it, someone very powerful."
     "But how?"  Usagi asked.  "And why?"
     "The immediate question," Ami said solemnly, "isn't how, or
even necessarily why.  The question that should concern us most is,
if this ceremony on Baniesti isn't really to break the seal on Dasma,
then what is it supposed to accomplish?"
     Silence greeted that, and Rei took another sip of her
whiskey.  That was indeed a very good question; leave it to Ami to
cut to the heart of the matter.
     "Well, I'm going to guess nothing good," Minako said at
last.
     "The Sisterhood are accomplished at deception," Rei
murmured.  "To deceive them in turn, and thoroughly enough that
they would perform this ceremony, would take a cunning and
devious mind indeed."
     "But even if we could find them, it's not like we could just
tell them the truth," Minako said.  "We're the last people they'd
ever believe."
     "What if we could get Banri to come back with us?" Usagi
asked, excited.  "They'd believe her!"
     "I doubt Banri would leave her mistress's side," Rei said
doubtfully.
     "Even if she would, there are only two nights to Baniesti
and we have no idea where to start looking," Ami pointed out.
     "Saekianna," Mamoru muttered thoughtfully.  "As in Saekianna
der Kae?  She's the Nightmistress of the Sisterhood?  I should have
made the connection sooner."
     "You know her?" Rei asked, startled.
     "Usako asked me to run a plate for her a couple of days
ago," Mamoru replied with a dark look at the girl.  "On a red
Ferengetti.  Turns out it belonged to a Tyrian woman whose
mother had lived in a very high-class estate here in the city.  At
least, until six months ago when she was brutally murdered.  Now,
unlike some plates I've run recently, hers had a real address
attached to it."
     Minako looked smug and unrepentant to Rei's eyes.  Rei
didn't dignify Mamoru's statement with a reaction.  "Her mother's
estate," she murmured.
     "Right," Mamoru nodded.  "And I do have the address."
     "She won't be there," Rei told him.  "She knows who we
are now, at least three of us.  She won't be where we could find her
that easily."
     "It seems there's a lot going on that I don't know about."
Mamoru's tone was even, but anger lurked in the lines around his
eyes.
     "When we get a few minutes, I'll bring you up to speed,"
Usagi promised.  "Things have just been happening so quickly,
Mamo-chan."
     "Wait a minute," Minako said.  "So the Nightmistress's
mother was murdered?  How does that fit in?"
     "There was lots of money at stake," Mamoru said.  "And no
shortage of suspects.  We considered the daughter, but she was
alibied pretty good, not even in this province at the time."
     "I remember it being in the news," Rei said.  The name had
caught her eye at the time; what details there had been she had
soaked up.  "It was a brutal murder, wasn't it?"
     "Oh yeah," Mamoru told her, and the dark steely glint in his
eye told her that he was not exaggerating.  "The mistress of the
household, along with four servants, were found carved up in the
main bedroom.  Whoever did it went psycho on them, shattered
bones and did a lot of damage.  Nothing was taken from the house,
though.  Now, the daughter could have hired some glitter-fiend to
do the deed for her, or even a pro.  We never found anything to
connect this Saekianna to the crime, though."
     "It wasn't her," Rei said simply.
     "You'd be surprised what people will do for money, Rei,"
Mamoru told her.
     "I'm not naive," she said with a humourless chuckle.  "And
Sass hated her mother.  Cyrie was typical Tyrian nobility, cruel and
ruthless, and she tried to make her daughter strong through
beatings and humiliation.  That's one reason why Sass left this city
at such a young age, and although I'm certain her mother approved
of her joining the Sisterhood, I don't think they spoke more than a
half-dozen times after she left home.  Sass certainly never returned
to Saeni, nor would she as long as her mother was here.  But if she
were to have killed Cyrie, it wouldn't have been so wild.  It would
have been slow, exquisitely painful, not some clumsy hack-job."
     Silence descended on the room, and Rei chided herself
silently.  She'd gone too far; it showed in Mamoru's eyes.
     "And just how," he asked tightly, "do you know so much
about "Sass", Rei?"
     "We've been researching!" Usagi blurted, nailing Rei with
an imploring stare.  So, she hadn't told him yet.  Typical.
     "Usagi," Rei said softly.  "Tell him the truth.  If you don't
now, you'll just have to later."
     "The truth?" Mamoru asked, his voice dangerously low as
he looked from one girl to the other. "And what might that be?"
     "She has a past with Saekianna," Usagi said meekly.
     "Usagi," Rei sighed.
     "They were ... in the Sisterhood together."
     Silence.
     "Oh, that's just marvellous," Mamoru spat finally, his eyes
blazing.  "Now I know how all this happened.  You brought it
down on her, didn't you, Rei?"
     Minako was on her feet in an instant, finger levelled.
"That's enough, buddy," she snarled before Rei could even react.
"You've got no call to be throwing around accusations like that.
Rei has her past, just like any of us, but she never wanted this to
happen, and she's done everything she could to protect our
princess.  Who are you to judge her?"
     "I've heard enough," he spat back, shooting to his feet and
stomping out of the room.  Usagi leapt up, her panicked gaze going
from his stiff back to Rei and back.
     "Rei," she whispered.
     "It's okay, Princess," Rei told her.  "Go after him."  Usagi
hesitated a moment longer, then nodded emphatically and ran out of
the room.
     "Mina, you've got to learn not to repress your emotions,"
Artemis said dryly.  "And by the way, next time you jump up like
that, watch where you put your foot, okay?"
     "I don't know," Rei murmured throatily.  "I have no
complaints."  She gave the blonde a grateful glance that smouldered
with promise, eliciting a wink from Minako.
     "But Rei, you could have let that pass," Luna said
tentatively.  "Just for a while."
     "No, she did the right thing."  Rei looked over at Makoto,
shocked by the girl's words.  Makoto noticed her gaze and
grimaced.  "Look, keeping those secrets nearly tore us apart.  Rei
was right.  If she told him later, he'd have just felt betrayed that she
didn't tell him sooner.  And he'll have to know."
     "I suppose," Luna sighed.  "But it would have been nice to
break that particular bit of news to him a little more gently."
     "Usagi can handle Mamoru," Minako said dismissively,
seating herself on the couch again.  "Let's get back to what we
were talking about earlier.  "If we assume that Saekianna didn't
murder her mother, then what does that leave us?  Coincidence?"
     "What are you getting at?" Ami asked.
     "Maybe nothing, but ... Rei, this ceremony.  Would it have
to be done here in Saeni?"
     "I don't know the specifics of the ceremony itself," Rei told
her.  "I wouldn't think so, though."
     "Are there any reasons to pick Saeni over another location,
then?"
     "In most cases, yes," Rei murmured.  "Saeni is the capitol of
not only Altua, but also of magickal studies for the entire continent.
There are resources here that simply do not exist anywhere else,
libraries, scholars, temples, not to mention the darker side of the
trade.  Almost any magickal artifact that is available can be found
here if you have the means, regardless of legality.  Add to that our
proximity to a nexus of chaotic mystic energies ..."
     "The Old City," Ami piped up.
     "Exactly.  All factors in our favour, if you like."
     "Right," Minako said, clapping her hands together.  "But if
there was a choice to be made about location, then Saekianna
would have made it, yes?"
     "You're asking," Rei said, cocking her head, "if she would
have come to this city if her mother had been alive."
     "Basically," Minako nodded.
     "As I said before, I think that is highly unlikely," Rei said.  "Not
only did she hate her mother with a passion, she was afraid of her as
well.  She'd have never admitted that, but she was."
     "And her mother was aware of what she was doing?" Ami
asked.
     "Oh, yes," Rei told her with a wry smile.  "She was a big
supporter of the Sisterhood, especially financially.  Saekianna
probably would have tried to bring her mother down long ago,
except Griitna knew of her feelings and forbade it."
     "But she's Nightmistress now," Makoto pointed out.  "So
she could have done what she wanted."
     "Like I said, she would never have been so clumsy," Rei
declared.  "She could have, and would have, engineered a death for
her mother that was far more excruciating."
     "I don't know," Makoto said with a grimace of distaste,
"getting hacked up sounds pretty excruciating to me."
     "I believe what Minako is suggesting," Ami noted, "is that
someone may have murdered the Nightmistress's mother in a way
that would be certain to draw attention, expressly for the purpose
of drawing her to this city instead of another location."
     "I'm just speculating," Minako shrugged.  "But someone
who could get into this labyrinth and make something as powerful
as that fake Banri would certainly be powerful enough to off one
high-toned Tyrian noblewoman."
     "Sure, but why?" Makoto asked.  "What's so special about
this city?"
     "Maybe this Griitna had a partner," Minako suggested.
"Someone who was in it with her.  That person set up Griitna's
successor with the fake Banri and this ceremony ..."
     "Okay, but again, why?" Makoto persisted.  "What are they
actually going to do on Baniesti?"
     "Even if we assume that someone is operating behind the
scenes to bring the Sisterhood here, it's pointless to speculate
without more data," Ami sighed.
     "Which you will work on getting from your sources, no
doubt," Artemis grinned.
     "Ami, Ami, yay!" Deimos declared, wobbling a little on
Rei's shoulder.
     "Ditto," Phobos said quietly, then slid sideways to fall off
the other shoulder.  Rei caught her neatly and placed the tiny girl in
her lap.
     "Enough whiskey for you two," she said with a smile.
     "Okay, leaving that matter for a moment," Ami said, shifting
her gaze to Ranma, "what about Dragon?"
     Everyone turned to Ranma who, as usual, had been sitting
quietly.  He blinked, instantly appearing to tense as he became the
centre of attention.
     "Um," he said.  "What about him?"
     "People do not just walk away from a confrontation with
Dragon," Ami said.
     "I didn't walk," Ranma pointed out.  "I ran.  Really fast."
     "It is unusual for him to be so active," Ami went on.  "What
can you tell us about what went on?  Anything might help."
     "He wanted himself a key," Deimos said loudly.  "Was real
obnoxious about it, too.  But our boy-girl Ranma didn't budge an
inch.  Ranma, Ranma, yay!"
     "The key?" Rei asked sharply.  "Dragon wanted the key?"
     "How did he know about that?" Minako added.
     "Um, I'm not sure," Ranma admitted.  "He said it was his,
but then the girl said it wasn't.  Apparently, he just takes things that
he thinks are too dangerous for people to have.  Or something."
     "What girl?" Ami asked.  "There was a girl?"
     "Uh, yeah.  I guess," Ranma said, clearly hesitant.
     "What do you mean, you guess?  Either there was or there
wasn't," Rei demanded.  Mamoru had given them a brusque
account of fleeing from Dragon, but there had been no mention of
this girl.
     "Just tell us what happened," Minako added, somewhat less
stridently.
     "This girl, I've seen her before," Ranma said with a glance
from under untidy bangs.  That glance appeared, to Rei, somewhat
guilty.  "At the bathhouse."
     "You didn't mention that before," Makoto said quietly.  Rei
knew that tone; the tall girl was not impressed.
     "I ... the experience was kind of, well, spooky," Ranma
sighed.  He appeared to be having trouble articulating his thoughts,
a cloud scudding across his features.  Even for someone who was
so closed to outsiders, he seemed to be holding himself in, and as
she watched him she had a sudden burst of insight.
     "She frightened you," Rei said.
     Ranma glared at her.  "She was just a little girl!" he said
hotly.  "I wasn't scared, just ... unnerved.  This is why I didn't want
to mention her before."
     "How little?" Ami asked.
     "Um, well, maybe five or six," Ranma said, squirming under
the weight of their combined stares.
     "And she spooked you?" Minako asked incredulously.
     "Spooked me, too," Deimos announced, the edges of her
words growing soft.  "The rest of her was a little girl, but her eyes
were old, forever eyes.  You could feel it, being near her.  She was
big-time spooky, Rei-sama. Even Dragon was afraid of her."
     "What?"  Ami seemed floored by this declaration, but
Ranma nodded.
     "That's true," he said.  "She stood between us and him, and
he wouldn't come any closer.  It was like they knew each other."
     "But you have no idea who she is," Artemis said.  "What
did she say to you?"
     "Not much.  She sings, though.  In the bathhouse, she was
singing that same song about Wardens and Keys and two are the
lock.  Just like we heard when Desidinder came."
     "She's associated with Desidinder?" Minako muttered.
"That's plenty spooky for me."
     "But why did she protect you?" Rei asked.
     "I don't know.  I don't know why she showed up before, or
why the key glows like a heartbeat when she comes.  If she knows
anything, she isn't telling me."
     "Maybe she's a goddess," Ami mused.  "Even Dragon
might hesitate to attack a goddess."
     "So many questions," Rei said, shaking out her long raven locks.
"We went there for answers, but it seems we just found even more
mysteries.  We're actually further behind than when we started."
     "Well," Ami sighed.  "I'm going to have to try and make
some sense of all this data.  I'm going to go check my nets, see if
any of the active searches I have running have turned up anything."
     "And I'm going to see about dinner," Makoto announced.  "All
this running around and escaping certain doom is hungry work."
     "I wonder if someone should go check on Usagi and
Mamoru?" Luna asked, glancing at Rei.
     "Oh, I think we should let Usagi calm him down for a bit
before we try talking to him any further," Minako said with a rueful
little shake of her head.
     "I agree," Rei said.  Gently, she cradled Phobos' sleeping
form in her hands and stood, Deimos clinging tightly to her hair in
an effort to maintain her balance.  "I'm going to put this one to bed,
let her sleep it off.  Be back in a bit."
     She left the others still talking and went upstairs, hoping to
avoid Mamoru for the time being.  Luck was with her, and she
made it to her room without incident.  She slipped inside and
tenderly placed Phobos' sleeping form on her pillow.
     "She never could hold her liquor," Deimos confided with a
giggle.  "But don't let that innocent face fool you.  She can be a
real tigress."
     "I've no doubt of that," Rei smiled.  "Listen, Deimos, why
don't you bed down with her for a while?"
     "Aw, I'm fine," the tiny girl scowled.  "I wanna go with
Rei-sama!"
     "I need a few minutes to talk to someone, alone," Rei
confided.  "That's why I slipped away."
     "Oh, I get it," Deimos said with a conspiratorial smile.
"'Kay, Rei-sama.  Go for it!"  Deimos leapt from Rei's shoulder,
and Rei nearly made a grab for the little guardian, but the leather-
clad girl spread her wings and landed neatly on the bed, arms
outstretched.  Her wings shrank into her shoulders as she walked
with care up to her partner and eased herself down behind her.
"Have fun," she said softly.
     "Always," Rei replied with a wink, blowing a kiss as she left
the room and quietly closed the door behind her.  Ami's room was
down at the far end of the hall, and a long hall it was.  Rei paused
outside the door, then knocked gently.  When Ami opened the door
and saw who it was, an expression of alarm flickered across her
features before she could stop herself.
     "Rei," she said, crossing her arms under her breasts and causing
her plain white cotton t-shirt to bunch up under her arms.
     "Ami," Rei nodded, not acknowledging the defensive body
language.  "I need to talk to you.  Have you got a minute?"
     "I, well, I was just finished," Ami said, words spilling out
rapidly.  "And so I was going to go down, downstairs that is.  Right
now.  You see."
     "Just for a minute," Rei said, keeping her voice soothingly
soft.  "It won't take long, I promise."
     "Well, I guess," Ami demurred, her eyes darting nervously.
They never lingered on Rei for long, seeming to prefer just about
any other sight.  Rei wasn't insulted, though; she understood the
source of Ami's disquiet.  That was, after all, why she'd come.
     Ami's room was quite tidy, and fairly sizeable to boot.  Her
bed was in the far corner near the window, the adjacent wall
occupied by a number of large bookshelves crammed with all
manner of reading materials.  Opposite them were a desk and two
tables which held computer equipment.  Rei knew little about such
things, but it appeared that Ami had an impressive setup, at least if
the number of boxes and interconnecting wires had anything to do
with it.
     The room seemed to be L-shaped, but the other branch of
the room was hidden behind a curtain.  Rei assumed that was where
Ami's personal Aethyr port resided.
     "So," Ami said with forced cheerfulness as she fidgeted.
"What did you want to talk to me about?"
     "I thought we should discuss what happened in Aethyr," Rei
said, fixing the girl with her gaze.
     "Well, isn't that what we were doing downstairs?" Ami
asked with a fixed smile.  Really, the girl was almost painful to
watch.
     "I meant about what we did," Rei said.  Her voice was a
low, sensual ripple in the still air of the room, but she was careful
not to allow magickal coercion to creep in.  When she'd been a
Sister, she'd used such talents so often that they had become
second nature; back then, she would not have hesitated to compel
Ami simply because it was more convenient than getting her to
listen by words alone.
     But that was then, and this was now.  Still, there were other
methods for capturing someone's interest, methods involving
magick that every woman possessed.
     "Oh, yes," Ami said brightly.  "I'm almost positive that no
one has ever thought to combine Shadow Magick and portal
control in that way before.  It's fascinating, really.  I may write a
paper on it, although where would I publish it, um, Rei?"  As Ami
babbled, Rei moved closer, and as a result Ami's voice slowly rose
in pitch even as her words crowded together like commuters on the
morning train.
     "Ami, look at me."  Ami's cheeks were flushed bright pink
and she hugged herself tightly, gaze cast obstinately to one side.
She looked painfully vulnerable in her white t-shirt and worn jeans,
a bit tomboyish and very uncertain.  Rei continued moving until she
stood within Ami's personal space, placing one hand against the
wall behind the girl and leaning in close.
     "Ami," Rei said softly.
     "I don't want to talk about that," Ami said at last, but her
voice was nearly pleading.
     "I think we should," Rei said.  "What we did crossed certain
boundaries, intimate boundaries.  You are certainly not accustomed
to having your personal shields breached in that way, especially by
someone so strong and dominant."
     Ami twitched at that last word.  Rei was impressed by her
self-control, but she wanted a more open reaction.
     "It must have been unnerving," Rei went on, "at how easily
you adopted the role of submissive ..."
     "Shut up!" Ami snapped, her eyes alight with a hectic blaze
as she jerked back to finally look Rei in the eye.  "You shut up, Rei
Hino!  That's a lie!  I never did any ..."
     Rei stopped the torrent of words by placing her fingers
gently over Ami's mouth.  The soft lips trembled at her touch as
Ami's protestations died, and Rei smiled gently.
     "I was afraid of that," Rei breathed.  "Ami, I need you to
listen to me.  And I need you to trust me again, the way you did
back in Aethyr.  If there's one thing I know, it's sex.  Not just the
act itself, Ami, but all its permutations, attraction and arousal, kinks
and fetishes, everything related to it.  So I want you to listen to
what I have to say, all right?"
     "So you can accuse me?" Ami asked in a small, wounded
voice.
     "It's not an accusation, Ami.  A part of you enjoyed the
feeling of surrendering control to me.  That's a fact.  I know that
you don't want to admit that.  You think that it's wrong to feel that
way, or to just desire such a thing, even in your deepest heart.
Don't you?"
     "Isn't it?" Ami asked, her chin coming up ever so slightly in
a gesture of defiance.  "How would you feel if someone said that
about you?"
     Tousled bangs hung down in Ami's eyes, catching lightly at
long lashes as the girl blinked rapidly.  Rei continued to hold Ami's
gaze, taking in the hot pink flush on the girl's smooth cheeks and
the way Ami's chin quivered ever-so-slightly, as if straining to hold
in her shame.
     "If I were to tell you the details of the training I endured to
become a Sister, you wouldn't ask such a question so casually," Rei
told the girl softly.  "But that's not the point.  A single desire does
not define who you are, Ami.  It doesn't even define your sexual
self.  A person's sexual nature is much more complex than that.  I
don't wish to presume too much, but I can guess that your
formative years were marked by a great deal of repression when it
came to sex.  You wouldn't have wanted to draw the attention of
this Inme creature, and so you came to feel as though sex were
dirty, wrong."
     "I know better now," Ami mumbled defiantly, but the look in
her eyes as they tried to slide away from Rei's told a different story.
     "You are a smart girl, Ami.  Intellectually, you know that
you have nothing to be ashamed of.  But in your heart, you don't
always believe that.  You reacted with anger to what I said before,
but if you are honest with yourself I think you will have to admit
that I told you the truth."
     "Why are you pushing me?" Ami cried.  "What do you
want, Rei?  Do you want me to chase you around like Minako?  Is
that it?  Is that what will satisfy you?"
     Rei reached up and tenderly brushed a rogue lock of hair
from Ami's forehead, fingertips tracing smooth skin as Ami's lower
lip trembled with pent-up emotion.  "I want you not to hate
yourself for having those feelings," Rei whispered.  "I would have
let this go, Ami, but what we did got too far under your skin, and I
was responsible.  I can't ignore the consequences of my actions.
There was nothing wrong with feeling the way you did, Ami.  There
is nothing wrong with you.  Those feelings are just a part of you,
like anger or joy or moodiness.  If you get angry when provoked,
that does not make you an angry person, does it?"
     "It's not the same," Ami muttered, but some of the tension
had evaporated from her lithe frame, and Rei knew she was getting
through.
     "The difference, Ami, is the way you feel about sex.  It has
bad associations for you, and I don't want you to beat yourself up
over what happened.  What we did was fantastic, a rush.  Can you
honestly tell me you didn't feel exhilarated by the feeling when our
magicks merged?"
     Ami shuffled her feet, but she had stopped trying to slip
away from Rei's gaze, and she no longer seemed quite so on edge
about their physical proximity.
     "It was really something, Rei," she said at last, shuffling her feet
as some more tension slipped from her slender shoulders.  "I never
felt anything like that before.  But you really did the work.  I was
just along for the ride ..."
     "That's not how it was," Rei interrupted, gentle but firm.
"Because your role was to follow my lead doesn't mean you were
less important.  You provided the base, the support.  Whenever I
reached for you, you were there.  You have no idea how rare that
sort of responsiveness is, Ami.  It was like dancing.  I could have
gotten stuck dancing with some clod with two left feet, but you,
you danced beautifully, effortlessly.  Even if you prefer to follow,
not lead."
     "I like the dancing analogy better than the sexual one," Ami
said breathily, a tiny hint of smile glimmering deep in her blue eyes.
     "Yes," Rei murmured, giving the girl a low-wattage smile in
return.  "But the sexual aspect had to be addressed, Ami.  I don't
want you to think that I'm trying to seduce you ..."
     "Not much chance of that," Ami snorted.
     'What's this?  A little self-pity?" Rei asked, eyebrows
raised.
     "You wouldn't understand," Ami said, pushing Rei away
from her lightly.  Rei allowed it; Ami needed to establish some
control now, and Rei wanted to hear this.  "You, you've always
oozed sex appeal.  Minako draws everyone's attention wherever she
goes.  Makoto, she can compete with the guys on their own terms
while still being feminine.  Usagi's light is so beautiful and sweet
that everyone falls in love with her.  But Rei, how often have you
heard a guy say, 'Gosh, I wish I had a really smart girl?'  Not very
often, right?"
     Rei sighed softly.  Ami really had no idea how beautiful she
was.  All she really lacked was confidence, but unfortunately that
was not something that could easily be bestowed upon a person
from outside.  And that wasn't what this was all about, not really.
     "Ami, you are probably the smartest person I know," Rei
murmured.  "But you can be so stupid about yourself.  You are
smart, and sweet-natured, and yes, you are beautiful.  But there are
parts of yourself that haunt you, little slivers of self-doubt and even
self-loathing that poison your confidence.  After last night, I can
guess where most of those come from, and I don't guess that you
want to talk more about that now."
     Ami shook her head, tugging fussily at her shirt while avoiding
Rei's probing gaze once more.  Ami almost never talked about
herself, and Rei could see that having her inner self laid bare was
excruciatingly embarrassing for the girl.  Still, this couldn't be
allowed to fester.  If the last week had taught her any lesson, this
was it.
     "I thought not," Rei said simply.  "It takes time, and friends.
And you have both."
     "Thank you," the girl replied softly, still fidgeting.
     "So, are we okay?" Rei asked.  "With what happened
before?  I didn't want you angry with me, or yourself, over the
feelings that got stirred up there."
     "I'm not that fragile, Rei," Ami replied with the ghost of a
smile.  "It'll be fine."
     That wasn't very convincing, but it was probably the best
she could hope for.  She'd given Ami something to think about,
anyway, and thinking about things was one of Ami's strengths.
     But there was one more thought Rei wanted to leave the
girl with.  Ami had turned to go, and Rei took advantage of that
moment to slip up behind the girl, wrapping her arms around Ami's
slim shoulders and bowing her head so that her mouth was next to
Ami's ear.
     "Just one more thing," she breathed, causing Ami to stiffen
with surprise.  "There is a part of you that craves giving up control,
my little water-nymph.  If you ever want to explore that side of
your nature, don't do it with some stranger, or an amateur.  I'll
accept your surrender any time.  I possess exquisite skills of
domination, Ami, and I will always take good care of you.  All you
have to do is come to me any time, night or day.  Wear a black silk
ribbon tied around your left wrist as a sign.  I will take over from
there."
     "Rei," Ami whispered, her voice devoid of strength.
     "Promise me," Rei demanded.
     "I promise."  The words were ghosts of breath, but they
were enough.  Rei kissed the girl lightly on the cheek, lingering just
a half-second longer than necessary, then released her.
     "Good," Rei nodded.  "Come on, let's go downstairs and
check on dinner."

***

     Ami stood there in a dizzying cloud of Rei's perfume,
watching the raven-maned beauty's slow, sensual strut as she left
the room with the grace of a goddess.  Slowly, Ami's hand rose,
seemingly of its own accord, to her cheek, where it traced the spot
Rei had kissed.
     Ami was breathless, her heart racing in her chest.  No one
had ever spoken to her that way before, and she wasn't at all
certain how to react.  She was never comfortable talking about
herself, but she realized that the discomfort she'd felt towards Rei
following their collaboration in Aethyr had mostly dissipated.
     Rei's glossy hair swirled about her long legs as she walked
down the hall, and Ami watched the girl move, found herself
wondering absently if she actually had a black silk ribbon.
     Just in case, mind you.  Just in case.

***

     Makoto possessed instincts that allowed her to fight off any
invasion of her territory, and she didn't even have to look as she
lashed out, catching the intruder off-guard.
     "Ow!" Minako yelped.
     "No tasting," Makoto said sternly.
     "Geez, don't be so cheap," Minako groused.  "I was just
going to offer to help."
     "You and Usagi share a certain gene, I'm sure," Makoto
informed her.  "It's the one that makes you get covered with food
every time you cook."
     "That's just enthusiasm," Minako grinned, turning to park
her shapely hips against the countertop next to the stove.  Makoto
felt the blonde's stare on her and sighed.
     "Okay, what?" she asked.
     "Where to begin?" Minako mused.  "Well, it's pretty clear
you're pissed off, Makoto.  Your temper has always been hot, but
it's always cooled pretty fast, too.  But you've been mad for days
now, and I think you've just gotten used to it."
     "What's that supposed to mean?" Makoto demanded,
rounding on the girl with ladle in hand.
     "I miss your smile," Minako replied simply.  "It's sexy.  I
wanna see it again."
     Makoto sighed.  The girl was incorrigible, but Makoto had
learned to take Minako's flirtations in stride.  Secretly, she even
enjoyed them from time to time, although she knew better than to
give the brash blonde that much of an opening.
     "I just don't feel much like smiling," Makoto told her.  "I
mean, can you blame me?"
     "Well, let's see," Minako mused, pursing her full lips.
"What could be bothering you?  We found out our princess is
descended from Dasma and the Sisterhood's little soiree is
somebody's idea of a plot.  The Sisterhood is after us, Mamoru's
pissed at us, Hotaru and the others are still out there, and there's a
vamp in our city.  Makoto, it's clear that you're overreacting.
Smile, babe."
     "Nice try," Makoto shrugged.  "But no."
     "Come on," Minako wheedled, sidling up to the girl and
slipping her arms around Makoto's waist.  "I can make you smile."
     "You're wasting your time," Makoto sighed, "and I'm
trying to cook here ..."
     "Someone," Minako whispered, slipping her hands up
Makoto's long, lean back, "is ticklish.  Right ... here."
     Makoto's eyes widened as fingers brushed lightly at the spot
where her neck curved down to her shoulder, and she yelped,
picking Minako up and thrusting her away.
     "No tickling!" she blurted.  "You tickle, you pay the price,
blondie!"
     "You could let me taste," Minako purred, her eyes alight
with mischief.  "Just a little.  Right?"
     "That's blackmail," Makoto said righteously.  "And anyway,
I'm bigger than you are."
     "Well, I'm sneakier," Minako shot back.  "And by the way,
your vegetables are boiling over."
     "Gah!"  Makoto rushed to turn down the heat, then checked
the ground beef she'd put on low heat.  She turned in time to catch
Minako with her finger in her mouth.
     "You tasted my sauce," Makoto accused.
     "Nuh," Minako mumbled, then pulled her finger from her
mouth with a wet sound.  "Anyway, that sounds like a cheap,
culinary come-on, babe."
     "Nobody," Makoto said grimly, "tastes my sauce without
permission.  En garde!"
     Makoto began a spirited pursuit of the laughing blonde with
ladle held high, tracking her relentlessly around the kitchen before
finally cornering her near the broom closet.  Minako held her hands
up in mock-surrender, giggling helplessly.
     "Okay, okay, I give," she gasped breathlessly.  "I'll never
fondle your sauce again!"
     "Bet your sweet ass you won't," Makoto declared,
executing a sloppy salute with her ladle.
     "I DO have a sweet ass, don't I?" Minako said agreeably,
craning her head to look down her back.  Then she followed
Makoto back across the kitchen to the bustling activity at the stove.
     "Ah, I missed this," Minako said wistfully.
     "Home-cooking?"
     "No.  Well, yes, that too," Minako admitted.  "But I meant
fun, frolic, not having everything be life-and-death.  I haven't seen
you smile in a while, Makoto.  And you've got a sexy-ass smile.
I meant what I said about missing it."
     This last was delivered with a flirtatious glance as Minako
reached up to straighten the laces at the throat of Makoto's blouse,
taking the opportunity to press herself lightly against the taller girl.
Minako's playful advances had never bothered Makoto; she might
not have desired Minako, but the girl gave good flirt.  It was kind
of nice, most of the time.  And Makoto was more than capable of
dealing with the amorous blonde if she got out of hand.
     "Things have been tense, no doubt," Makoto sighed, letting
Minako's dextrous fingers have their way.  For the moment.  "I've
just been worried.  I know I said a few things I shouldn't have, too,
Minako.  I never meant to question your devotion to our princess.
When it comes to her, I could never doubt you."
     "You're being sweet," Minako murmured, her breath hot on
the taut flesh of Makoto's throat.  The sensation sent hot tingles
snaking down into the girl's chest, and Makoto revised her earlier
assessment; Minako gave GREAT flirt.  "I love that."
     Makoto knew that the blonde like to tease.  Minako had
also made it clear several times in the past, however, that she was
more than willing to take it further.  Makoto tried not to let the girl
see how tempting that was.  There were very few girls who could
tempt Makoto, and there'd been only one she would have given
herself to.  Anyway, the men in her life were difficult enough to
deal with.
     "Hey," Makoto said softly, taking Minako's hands in hers
and pulling them away from their distracting ministrations.  "I hate
to break the mood just when things are looking up, but there are a
couple of things I want to talk to you about while we've got a
couple of minutes."
     "Heavy stuff?" Minako asked, giving Makoto some room.
Not much, but then that was Minako.  Makoto checked the stove,
turning the heat down to let things simmer.
     "You might get pissy."
     "Try me."
     "Ranma."
     "Ah," Minako said, nodding.  "You're upset that he held
out about this weird girl."
     "Aren't you?"
     "Truthfully, a little," Minako admitted.  "The thing is, you
think he's got an agenda.  I've spent some time with him, and I
think he just doesn't like to talk about things."
     "Well, he's got to talk about things that might affect us,"
Makoto said.  "I mean, this key seems to be attracting a lot of the
wrong kind of attention, and that isn't what we need right now.
Okay, the guy knows about us, and he seems to be linked to what's
going on with Rei's vision, so we should keep him around.  But be
careful, Minako.  You don't want to go getting attached to a guy
like that.  I saw plenty of his type on the streets in my time.  The
angst-y, brooding thing is sexy as all get-out, but you can't always
heal the past.  Love isn't always enough."
     "Why, Makoto," Minako beamed.  "Are you worried about
me?"
     "I'm worried about all of us," Makoto told her.
     "Well, I appreciate that.  Really, babe.  But I've been
around a bit, and I haven't missed the warning signs.  I won't lie,
I'm kind of starting to like the guy, but I'm being careful, too.
Promise."
     "Glad to hear it," Makoto said.  "With everything that's
been happening, it'd be easy to let things slip between the cracks."
     "What about Dasma?  I can see that threw you for a loop."
     "Oh, and it didn't throw you?" Makoto shot back.
     "Yeah, but Makoto, you have a way of boiling things down
to simple terms sometimes, especially in a crisis.  You know, us
versus them.  And to you, Dasma would definitely be them."
     "The Sisterhood is after us, remember?  And it isn't to invite
us to tea!"
     "She doesn't have anything to do with that," Minako
pointed out.  "Face it, if we somehow could get Dasma on our side,
that would solve a lot of problems for us.  And Usagi is really
excited by this.  I'm not really sure why, but we've got to keep her
enthusiasm from getting the better of her.  Even Rei agrees we've
got to be careful.  Speaking of Rei, how are things between you
two?  You seemed a little tense around her again today."
     Makoto snorted.  "To tell you the truth, I'm not too happy
about what she pulled back in Aethyr.  She was all over poor Ami
back there."
     "Oh, come on.  They were doing magick, Makoto."
     "Is that what you call it?  Rei took advantage of the
situation, that's what I think!  Poor Ami, she couldn't even look at
Rei after we got back!"
     "Makoto, Rei doesn't need to take advantage of any
situation," Minako said patiently.  "Think about it.  Rei doesn't
throw herself at women, it's the other way around.  They obviously
needed to be that close to weave the spell.  And don't sell our Ami
short, either.  She can take care of herself."
     "She's shy about that sort of thing," Makoto said
stubbornly.
     "I know.  Gods, how I wish I could draw her out," Minako
sighed, tossing her hair back.  "I'd love to see her sparkle."
     "Yeah, but you're too pushy," Makoto told her.  "Ami hates
that.  That's my point.  She needs to be given her own space.  Not
everybody is like you, Minako."
     "Did she talk to you last night?" Minako asked, her tone
deliberately casual.
     "Yes, she did," Makoto confirmed.
     "Good."  Minako surprised Makoto by not asking for the
details of that conversation.  "I'm glad.  Look, Makoto, I'm not
trying to push Ami.  Really.  I'm not even sure if she likes boys or
girls, or both.  I just want to see her happy.  She's always kept her
heart so guarded.  It's like she has no idea how much she has to
give."
     "Give her time," Makoto said, unwilling to tell Minako that
she harboured the same worries for their friend.  Encouraging
Minako would just lead the blonde to pressure Ami with aggressive
flirtations or offers to set her up, and that in turn would make Ami
feel self-conscious and cause her to withdraw.  Minako's desire to
help was sincere, but her methods would only be
counterproductive, a fact she would never accept.  Makoto hoped
that her own quiet offers of a sympathetic ear would win Ami's
trust when the time came for the girl to break out of her shell.
     "I've been giving her time," Minako groused.  "If she's
game for a girl, there's plenty willing right here.  If she only wants
boys, I can find her any type she wants ..."
     "Let her find a lover on her own," Makoto said sternly,
wagging her finger under the blonde's nose.  "When she's ready."
     "Maybe she can have one of yours," Minako replied,
suddenly impish.  "I mean, you've got a foxy selection of ... ooooh!
Wait!  Hang on!"
     "What?" Makoto asked, blinking.
     "I remembered something I forgot!"
     "Uh, well, good for you," Makoto said cautiously.
     "No, I mean something about you!"  Minako patted at her
snug-fitting skirt, frowning.  "Where did I leave ... oh, yeah!  My
coat!  Be right back!"
     The girl raced out of the room in a swirl of blonde hair, leaving
Makoto to shake her head ruefully.  She would have dismissed
Minako as merely flighty long ago if she hadn't seen the girl's cool
competence in action many times.
     Minako blew back into the room radiating satisfaction, and
Makoto wondered with a tendril of unease what the blonde could
be up to.  With Minako, you just never knew.
     "Okay," Minako beamed, bouncing on her toes.  "Close
your eyes."
     "What are you up to?" Makoto asked warily.  Minako was
holding her hands behind her back, and the taller girl felt curiosity
warring with her better judgement.
     "Uh-uh," Minako pouted.  "No peeking.  Close your eyes,
close your eyes, and I'll give you a big surprise."
     "All right," Makoto said, heaving a sigh.  She closed her
eyes and held out one hand.  "Give it to me."
     It was not entirely a shock to her when she felt Minako's
body press against her own intimately, followed by the hot silky
press of lips against hers.  The sensations were delicious, reminding
Makoto of just how long it had been since she'd felt hot flesh
against her own.  Her nipples tightened as Minako's pressed against
them, and it occurred to Makoto that if she didn't put a stop to this,
things might start to get a little too warm for comfort.
     Minako broke the kiss, though, her lips pulling wetly at
Makoto's as if reluctant to part.  As the girl came down off her tip-
toes, Makoto felt a soft heavy brush of silk against her bare arm.
Minako and Rei both had hair down to their knees, and they wore it
loose; Makoto had seen them both use its touch to tease and flirt.
It was quite effective, she had to admit; it made her wonder what
that unbound silk would feel like slithering over her bare skin.  She
wondered idly how they fought with all that hair swirling around;
hers was nowhere near as long, but if she didn't tie it back it was
forever getting in her way.  And why didn't Usagi use her hair to
flirt?  Hers was even longer than Minako's or Rei's, but Makoto
had never seen her do that.
     Gah!  Her thoughts were a jumble, thanks to that little vixen.
Damn Minako, anyway; now there was a tightness in her belly and a
familiar coil of desire, pleasurably taut, through her chest.
     "Happy birthday," Minako whispered.  Makoto opened her
eyes to find a sparkling blue gaze alight with mischief searching her
face.
     "It's not my birthday," Makoto sighed.  Minako knew how
to steal a kiss, she had to give the girl that.
     "I know," Minako grinned.  "I'm saving a real kiss for your
birthday."  Makoto felt a shudder tickle the skin at her nape; if that
hadn't been a "real kiss", then she'd definitely be in trouble.
     "What is this?" she asked Minako as the blonde held out a
small black case.
     "Something I thought you'd want to have," Minako
informed her.  "Go on, open it."
     Makoto frowned.  Minako just stood there, blonde hair
spilling down over her tight, scoop-necked top, eyes smouldering
with anticipation.  Of all the girls, Minako was the one most likely
to do just about anything for just about any reason.  Unpredictable
simply didn't cover the range of behaviour that their Minako was
capable of.  Warily, Makoto took the case.  It felt soft, velvety; it
was the sort of case that usually held small pieces of jewellery.
There was only one way to find out what was inside, though, so
Makoto opened the box, feeling the tension of the spring-loaded
hinge.
     They lay inside, glittering silver nestled snugly in a bed of
soft black velvet.  Makoto was oddly touched; rose earrings, a sort
of trademark of hers.  She'd habitually worn such earrings, ever
since the pair that ...
     She froze.  No, she thought.  It can't be.  But as she looked
more closely, she could see it, the tiny notch in the edge of one of
the petals.  That notch had always been there, hadn't it?  And at the
centre of each ornate silver rose, so tiny you had to be this close to
make it out, nestled a perfect heart.  She'd never seen another pair
quite like these, not since the day she'd laid them under an offering
to that most fickle of goddesses.
     "I cleaned them up for you," Minako was saying, clearly
enjoying the expression on Makoto's face.  "M.K. + Y.S?  It was
for Yoshi, wasn't it?"
     Makoto nodded, dazed by the unexpected sight.  "Yeah,"
she said softly.
     "They're beautiful," Minako noted, crowding in again.
     "They belonged to my mother," Makoto whispered, a
bewildered smile tugging at her lips.  "But how?  How did ...?
Wait.  You told us something about ending up in an old subway
tunnel when you fought the salamander.  You couldn't have gone
all the way to ...?"
     "Wyvern Keep Station?  Believe it, girlfriend.  And I just
knew, when I saw these, that you'd left them.  Your mother's, huh?
You really wanted it to work."
     "Uh-huh," Makoto murmured, staring at the fey glimmer of
light on silver as if entranced.  "For all the good it did me."
     "Hey," Minako said, and there was an empathy in her voice
all of a sudden that brought a lump to Makoto's throat.  "I thought
you guys got along good."
     "Oh, we do," Makoto said with a humourless chuckle.
"Mostly.  Sort of.  Well ..."
     Minako swept her hair aside with one hand in a practised
motion and hopped up on the counter, letting her long legs dangle
loosely.  "You've got guy troubles," the blonde said crisply.  "Babe,
the doctor is so IN."
     Makoto couldn't help it; she broke out laughing.  There was
no one, not even Usagi, who enjoyed talking about relationships
and their attendant quirks and problems more than Minako.  And,
loathe though Makoto was to admit it, the blonde was actually
quite insightful in her chosen field of expertise.
     "Well," Makoto said again, blowing her breath out noisily as
she checked on the food, turning another burner down.  "Here's
how it is.  The other night when I was talking to Rin at the bar,
Yoshi showed up.  The two of them apparently know each other,
and it's not a case of mutual affection, believe me."
     "Too bad," Minako murmured.
     "Anyway, Rin turned on the charm, like he always does,
flirting and touching and whatnot.  Yoshi, of course, got jealous.
And I didn't react too well."
     "Wait a minute," Minako said, swinging her legs so that her
heels lightly bumped the cupboards beneath her.  "If you and Yoshi
aren't an exclusive couple, then how does he get to be jealous?"
     "You're not that naive, Minako.  Hells, nobody's that
naive."
     "I'm just saying, that's some nerve."
     "You think that's bad?  We're not any kind of couple, never
have been.  I made that offering the same year my gang was killed,
but my prayers were never answered.  Well, that's how it goes
sometimes, you know?  And after things went bad, it took me some
time to put myself back together.  Finally, though, I got my courage
together.  I mean, I didn't know what my future was going to be,
and I didn't want to regret the choices I'd made, or hadn't made.
So I finally told him how I felt."
     "And he turned you down."  It wasn't a question, but
Minako looked like she was having trouble believing it.
     "He did," Makoto sighed.  "Very gently, but he did."
     "That guy," Minako announced, "is out of his gorgeous,
wolfy little mind."  The blonde reached out and snared the collar of
Makoto's blouse, tugging the girl closer.  Makoto let her, and she
ended up standing between Minako's legs.  Sitting on the counter,
Minako's face was actually level with the taller girl's, and as they
spoke Minako began taking Makoto's earrings out with nimble,
skilled fingers.
     "You've got to understand how it was between us, I guess,"
Makoto shrugged, letting Minako fuss over her.
     "Let me guess.  You were like his little sister?"
     "Bingo," Makoto said wryly.  "He saved me from a beating
when I was little and fresh on the streets, and I fell in love with him
right then and there.  He helped me out a lot over the years when I
needed it, and we were friends, but I wanted more.  And the thing
that really burned me was the lovers he did choose.  They were
always ... I don't know how to say this without sounding bitchy ..."
     "Oh, allow me," Minako said softly, placing the earrings on
the countertop.  She took one of the silver ones and leaned close in
a fragrant wave of light perfume.  "Pretty to look at but shallow,
vain or cruel or just weak, worth bonking but just couplings of
convenience, nothing more."
     Makoto gaped at the blonde, who smiled sweetly and
slipped the first earring into place.
     "How did ...?"
     "I have some experience in these matters," Minako said
simply.  "Plus I know you.  If you disapproved of his choices, it
wasn't because of simple jealousy.  You didn't think they were
worthy of his time."
     "That's scary, the way you did that."
     "Well, then let the Mistress of Love scry ever deeper,
hmmm?  It made you mad, because you were there for him and he
wouldn't see you, and because it made you mad at him for choosing
so poorly, when he held such a special place in your heart.  You
didn't want to see him as human or have the image of him you'd
built up in your heart brought low, but there he was, bedding an
array of glossy dolls.  And, of course, it inevitably ended badly, and
he always talked to you about it."
     Makoto stood stock still.
     "And you always gave him a shoulder to cry on, and
wondered when he'd see that you cared for him the way none of
those others had.  But he never did.  He'd just go out and make the
same mistakes all over again."
     "Okay, somebody told you about him," Makoto blurted,
feeling anger rising through her bewilderment.  "That's not funny,
Minako!"
     "Oh, babe," Minako sighed, and the look in those sapphire
eyes lanced Makoto's temper before it could build any further.
"Nobody had to tell me.  It's not that rare a story.  I've been
around, and I've seen things and done things, and there's very little
about the joys and pains of love that would surprise me."
     Makoto recalled a snippet of the conversation from the
previous night, when Minako had mentioned using her looks to her
advantage.  Rei had countered Usagi's point about legalities of age
by noting that there were places where the law was not an issue.
Makoto hadn't dwelled on it at the time, but the suggestion was
that Minako had cut her teeth in some rough and dangerous places.
     Makoto had never spoken to the brash blonde about her
past in detail.  She knew a lot about Usagi's, of course, and she and
Ami had talked at length about their lives before the Long Dark as
they'd become friends.  But Minako?  Makoto had always assumed
that the blonde was pretty much just as she appeared, a lovely,
somewhat flighty sex-kitten who loved to provoke and flirt.  The
thought that this girl might have become carefree in spite of her
past rather than because of it was something of a revelation to
Makoto.  She wasn't sure how she felt about that.
     "I'll tell you something else," Minako went on, brushing the
backs of her knuckles lightly against Makoto's cheek as she
checked out the first earring critically.  "A little insight, for you to
consider.  A lot of people turn down a lovely, loving partner who
knows them well for a succession of empty flings, and it's not
because they're stupid.  There can be serious issues with self-
esteem, even self-hate."
     Minako paused to lock gazes with Makoto, and the taller
girl could see that the blonde was uncharacteristically serious.
     "What are you saying?" Makoto demanded, although she
knew.  Rei had supposed that Yoshi had been abused by a sect
practising sexual magick; it wasn't too far a leap to assume that
whatever had happened had affected his life in other, more subtle
ways.
     "I'm saying that he could be punishing himself for
something," Minako said softly, lashes lowering demurely as she
spoke.  "Or that he somehow feels he doesn't deserve to be truly
happy.  Or that he's afraid.  There are a lot of wounds that don't
leave visible scars, Makoto.  I'm sure I don't have to tell you that.
But just from what you've told me, I'd bet that your Yoshi had his
heart kicked around pretty badly at some point."
     "Then what do I do?" Makoto asked quickly.
     "I love that you want to help him," Minako said, tilting
Makoto's head gently as she slipped the second earring into place.
"But it's just not that simple."
     "Why not?  I could ..."
     "Listen, babe.  You don't even know what the real problem
is.  But assume it's sexual.  Worst case scenario, well, you know
what the streets are like.  Predators and prey."
     "Someone hurt him."  Makoto knew more than she was
willing to tell, knew that someone had almost certainly used Yoshi
in terrible, humiliating ways.
     "Yes, Makoto.  Someone probably did.  He's beautiful, and
with the shifter clans in such disarray, he might not have had
protection when he needed it."
     "He has no family," Makoto said softly.  "And he has no
pack, either, not for a long time.  Just Yoshi."
     "Bad," Minako sighed.  "But even if we're right, Yoshi is a
man now.  And I know a thing or two about men, babe.  The worse
it was, the more intensely personal and painful, the harder it will be
to get him to talk about it.  And if you try, you could drive him
away.  He got jealous, which is good, in a way.  All that time, you
never had suitors?"
     "I was a tall, gangly tomboy," Makoto pointed out dryly.
"They weren't exactly beating down my door."
     "What nonsense," Minako said with a pretty pout, pulling
back to examine the results of her handiwork.  "You, my lovely,
green-eyed tigress, are the full package.  Legs that go on forever, a
killer smile, and those breasts?  If I had your breasts I'd never wear
clothes!"
     "Yes you would," Makoto snorted, her face warming in
spite of herself at the wildly exaggerated praise.  "You are a clothes
horse, Minako."
     "Okay, so I would," Minako admitted with a grin.  "But
come on, are you telling me that no one ever came on to you that
whole time?"
     Makoto suppressed a shiver.  There had been one person, of
course, but that memory was interred in the strongest coffin that the
girl could construct for unwelcome memories.  It shamed her to
think of that now, so she simply shook her head, setting her
ponytail snaking across her back.
     "Afraid not," she said simply.  "The odd stolen moment, dares,
kid's stuff, but nothing of any consequence."
     "Well, then this is a breakthrough," Minako announced.
"Rin wants you, no doubt of that.  And so, for the first time, Yoshi
has to face seeing you with someone else, and maybe confront his
feelings.  Being protective of little sister is all well and good, but
now little sister is all grown up.  So tell me," Minako went on, her
voice dropping to a husky whisper as she wrapped her arms around
Makoto's neck and her legs around the girl's hips.  "Will you pick
the childhood sweetheart, or the suave, seductive suitor?  Or
Minako's choice?"
     "What's Minako's choice?" Makoto whispered back, more
to make the girl happy than out of any lack of insight into what the
blonde would say.
     "Why, both, of course," Minako purred.  "You're in the
driver's seat now, babe."
     "I don't know," Makoto sighed softly.  "I always wanted
Yoshi, but I'd resigned myself to us just being friends.  Rin is
nothing like Yoshi, but he makes me feel so ... alive, somehow.  Of
course, I'm not sure I can trust him ..."
     "That's part of the allure of the bad boy," Minako told her,
breath brushing across her cheek.  "You know, Makoto, I think you
owe it to yourself to explore your options here.  This is the first
time you've been in a situation like this, so I say, enjoy yourself."
     "I could end up hurting one of them," Makoto said, her
voice a touch hoarse.  "Or both."  Minako was very close, but
Makoto didn't try to put any distance between them.  The
conversation was intimate, and it deserved intimate treatment.
     "They're both big boys," Minako breathed.  "They carry
their scars, but you carry some serious ones yourself.  You can't go
through life worrying about how other people might be affected if
you make a decision.  My advice, babe, is to go for it.  Follow your
heart, or even just follow your desires.  See how things play out."
     "I don't know," Makoto said hesitantly, but something deep
in the pit of her stomach tingled and coiled at the blonde's words.
     "Yes, you do," Minako murmured, combing her fingers
through the other girl's auburn ponytail, luxuriating in it
shamelessly.  "You just don't think you should.  But you've done
things the same way all along, and it never got you what you
wanted.  If you want Yoshi to treat you as an equal, then show him
that you're a woman.  Maybe then he'll trust you with his heart."
     "Have I ever told you," Makoto whispered, "that you give
good advice?"
     "Not often enough," Minako said with a crooked, sexy
smile.  Makoto started to pull back, then thought, why not?  She
leaned in and planted a kiss on Minako's full lips, not exactly
passionate, but too long and lingering to be merely friendly.  The
sensation was shiveringly soft, and for just a moment Makoto could
smell dark, heavier perfume instead of Minako's light scent.  But
she banished that phantom and pulled back to find Minako's face
alight with surprise and delight.
     "Thanks," Makoto said.
     "Those suit you, by the way," Minako replied, eyes sparkling.
     "Go set the table, will you?  This lot will be ready soon."
     "Sure."  Minako started to leave, then turned back.  "Hey,
Makoto?  I've been meaning to ask you.  Why did you leave your
offering to Olidia down in that old subway station?"
     "I didn't want to be seen going into Her temple," Makoto
admitted sheepishly.  "And it held special significance for me, in a
way.  Yoshi's into all the history of the city and that stuff, so when I
found out the place was down there I took one of the plaques from
the station and gave it to him as a present.  I thought of it as kind of
a shrine just for us."
     "You're such a girl," Minako laughed delightedly, sweeping
out of the room in a wake of throaty laughter and light perfume.
     Such a girl, Makoto reflected.  I kind of like that.

***

     "You're not being fair," Usagi said, for what seemed to her
to be the umpteenth time.
     "Fair?  Usako, she was a Sister.  Do you have any idea what
sort of things she must have done?  How can you trust her now?"
     "Do you really think this was easy?" Usagi cried, following
Mamoru around the edge of the patio.  The wind had blown rain in
under the overhang, and cold puddles lay scattered beneath their
feet.  He walked through a big one, and Usagi skirted it delicately
while trying to meet his tempestuous gaze.  "I was hurt when I
found out, Mamo-chan.  I wondered if things would ever be the
same again between us ..."
     'The same?  You slept with her!  But for all I know, she
could have ..."
     "Don't!"  Her voice was uncharacteristically sharp in that
moment, and his head snapped around, surprise evident in his eyes.
"Don't," she repeated, softer.  "Don't ever suggest that.  Rei would
never do that to me, any more than you would."
     "But she could."
     "She always could have tricked me, controlled me.
Everything is out in the open between us now.  I trust Rei with my
heart, with my life.  I trust them all that way."
     "Come back to my place, Usagi.  Tonight.  Get away from
this chaos for a little while."  His gaze was steady, imploring, and
she wanted to say yes.  She wanted that because she knew it would
please him to be her sole protector again.  But that just wasn't
going to happen.
     "Rei's past haunts her," Usagi said quietly, lifting her chin
as she returned Mamoru's gaze with one of her own.  "All of my
girls are haunted, more than I ever knew.  I can't leave them now.
I don't want to."
     "Well, then," he said, his blue eyes hardening.  "I guess
that's all there is to say."
     "No, it isn't!" she cried as he turned to walk away.  She
knew him, knew his stubborn streak; he felt as if she'd chosen the
others over him.  She had to make him see the truth.  They needed
to be together, all of them.  Parting had been a mistake, because
without each other they were lessened.  Now that their hearts had
been laid bare healing could begin, but only if they had each other
to lean on.
     "Your mind is made up, isn't it?" he asked sharply.  "We've been
going around in circles on this, and we aren't getting anywhere.
It's like you're deliberately placing yourself in dangerous situations,
like you don't even care.  Well, I care.  I just don't know how to
get through to you."
     "Wait!" she cried as he strode over to the glass doors, his
back stiff with anger.  "Where are you going?"
     "I've got to go," he said without turning.  "I'll call you
tomorrow.  I hope you'll have considered my advice by then."
     "Mamo-chan!"  But it was no good, he'd already gone
through the doors.  She ran to the hallway in time to see him collide
with Minako.  He muttered a brusque apology to the blonde and
just kept going.  Usagi tried to follow, but Minako intercepted her.
     "Whoa there, my darling," she said, taking Usagi gently by
the shoulders.
     "Minako, I've got to talk to him!"
     "He doesn't look like he's in a mood to listen," Minako told
her.  "Look, Princess, talking to him now won't do any good.  He
needs time to cool off.  We've laid a lot on him today, what with
this whole Dasma thing, not to mention Rei's past.  And I assume
you told him that you and Rei got intimate last night."
     "He smelled Rei's perfume on my pillow," Usagi said
miserably, trying to brush by Minako.  The other girl held her
firmly, though.
     "Your pillow?  I thought you and Rei spent the night in her
room."
     "She was on my bed for a while last night, though," Usagi
muttered, still staring disconsolately in the direction Mamoru had
taken.
     "Oh, yes," Minako sighed.  "All it takes is her hair brushing
across something.  I swear she does it on purpose, like scent-
marking her territory.  Not that I mind, of course ...  Aw,
sweetheart, don't look so broken up, 'kay?  He's not mad at you.
Mamoru just has trouble dealing with things that he can't control.
It frustrates him, and he doesn't know how to deal with that.  In the
long run, he has to learn to trust you, but for now just give him
some space.  He'll be more willing to talk about it when he comes
back."
     "What if he doesn't come back?" Usagi wailed, blinking
back tears.
     "Oh, he will," Minako assured her with a sly smile.  "After
all, he'll be wanting this."  Usagi gaped as Minako held up a black
leather folder, dangling it between the forefinger and thumb of one
hand.  It flopped open to reveal a laminated card with Mamoru's
picture on one side, a silver SPD badge on the other.
     "What ... you picked his pocket?" Usagi asked,
dumbfounded.
     "Serves him right," Minako sniffed.
     "But he'll figure it out ..." Usagi said, doubt warring with
the rising tide of optimism.
     "Oh, pooh.  Haven't I been keeping one step ahead of the
police all this time?  Listen, Princess.  If he doesn't notice in a
couple of hours, you call him and tell him you found it.  If I know
my Princess, you had him on your bed earlier, right?  It just fell out
of his jacket then.  And when he gets here, you take him upstairs to
get it."
     "Why?" Usagi asked.
     "Because," Minako replied, rolling her eyes, "then you'll
have him alone in your room.  He'll be a lot easier to talk to after
you seduce him, right?  At the very least, he'll have a harder time
ignoring the fact that you're a woman, not a girl."
     "Ah," Usagi breathed, optimism surging ahead.  Minako
could always make the wackiest, most implausible scheme sound
reasonable.  "Minako, you're the best!"
     "I am," the brash blonde admitted.
     "But you know, I was planning on seducing someone else
tonight," Usagi whispered.  They were standing very close, and
Minako let her arms slip around Usagi's waist, deft fingers tracing
the curve of the princess's buttocks beneath her skirt.
     "Well," Minako whispered back, "someone was planning on
letting you.  But like I said, when it's my turn things are going to be
special.  Wild, even."
     "Tell me," Usagi breathed, her eyes alight.
     "Playtime, my Princess.  Toys, dressing up ... which reminds
me, I finished your present.  I'll see about loading it into your
brooch later, but on one condition.  In bed, you wear it for me
first."
     "I think that can be arranged," Usagi murmured, her worry
over Mamoru's temper nearly forgotten.  "Why don't we go try it
out now?"
     "Because Makoto just sent me to round everyone up for
supper," the blonde sighed.
     "Food?" Usagi asked, perking up.
     "The very same.  Come on, Princess.  A girl shouldn't have
to dispense advice on an empty stomach."
     Usagi walked down the hall hand-in-hand with Minako, her
heart feeling lighter.  A soft brush at her breast drew her attention,
and she frowned as she felt something inside her blouse.  She
reached inside and pulled out Mamoru's badge case.
     "How do you do that?" she asked, awed.  Minako's hand
had only lightly brushed across her blouse, and Usagi hadn't even
felt the thing slide into place.
     "I am a woman with a soft touch," Minako informed her.
"Maybe later I'll show you what else my fingers are good at."
     "Flirt."
     "And proud of it.  Come on, Usagi.  Let's eat and flirt and
dish and forget about all the troubles in the world for a while.
What do you say?"
     That sounded like the best idea Usagi had heard in a long
time.

***

     "You should have seen the little vixen," Haruka said,
shaking her head.
     "I wish I had," Setsuna said.  That wish was sincere; of all
the girls, Minako would have been her candidate for most likely to
monkey with her costume template.  But an Inner Senshi in a black
leather corset, thigh-high boots and cap?  Somehow, Setsuna didn't
think that the sassy blonde would have any trouble pulling off such
a look.
     She really did miss having those girls around.
     "You didn't see any of the others?" Hotaru asked, chin
resting on her interlaced fingers.
     "No.  When we got there, things were in full swing,"
Michiru said.  "Minako was fighting alongside a red-headed girl,
probably a bounty hunter."
     "That one had some moves, too," Haruka said
appreciatively.  Setsuna suppressed a smile as she noted the dark
look Michiru shot her partner.  Someone was stepping out onto
thin ice.  Setsuna half suspected that Haruka did it deliberately,
perhaps enjoying the way Michiru jerked her back into line.
     "This effect that they describe, though, is troubling,"
Setsuna mused after a moment.  "I wonder what could have caused
it?"
     "There are a couple of things that I can think of," Hotaru
murmured, her raven's wing hair contrasting starkly with the ivory
white of her blouse.  "One spell in particular, and one type of
artifact.  Neither has been used in quite some time, though."
     "Let me guess," Haruka said.  "The spell's forgotten, and
the artifact lost."
     "Basically," Hotaru said, inclining her head.  Her silver
earrings glinted in the light as her hair brushed her shoulders lightly.
Setsuna watched her, seeing no sign of weakness or loss of self-
control.  Still, the past couple of nights Hotaru had seemed
distracted, restless.  In anyone else, Setsuna would have suspected
simple desire prowling the cage of flesh, seeking release.  But
Hotaru always kept her desires locked up tight.  It wasn't like her
to let her hungers show; she associated any hunger with her
bloodlust and thus kept them all under tight reign.
     "The carnage was extensive," Michiru continued.  "Property
damage to the market and surrounding area, some fatalities and a
great many injuries.  If this was some sort of directed attack, what
was the objective?"
     "Maybe it was just a test," Setsuna wondered aloud.  "A dry
run for something bigger?"
     "Gods above and below," Haruka muttered.  "This was bad
enough.  If it'd gone on any longer, we wouldn't have been able to
contain the aftermath."
     "Perhaps we're overlooking the obvious," Hotaru said
quietly.  The other three turned their attention to her; Hotaru had a
way of doing that, of drawing your attention completely with a
quiet word, a gesture.
     "Such as?" Haruka asked.
     "Venus was there.  This very well might have involved the
Inners.  After all, my sources tell me that Jupiter has been operating
as a bounty hunter, but there's no indication that Venus has
followed suit.  And wherever those girls go, trouble is bound to
follow."
     "Well, there's only one way to find out for certain," Setsuna
said.  Silence fell heavily in the study at that, and Setsuna bet herself
that Haruka would break it.
     She lost.
     "Are you suggesting that we should contact the Inner
Senshi?" Hotaru asked.  Tension, faint but unmistakable, was
evident in the line of her back and the set of her slender shoulders.
That prospect, predictably, did not sit well with her.
     "Not as such," Setsuna assured her.  "Not officially, at any
rate.  But Usagi has sought out Haruka and Michiru, and very well
may do so again.  Certainly, she would not be averse to discussing
any threats they have faced, especially if those threats might spill
over upon the rest of us."
     "That's true," Haruka nodded.  "But why should this
hypothetical exchange of information not be 'official', as such?
Maybe it is time to make a gesture in good faith.  After all, the
princess made the first move.  She approached us.  If we asked to
meet with them to discuss the ongoing situation, wouldn't that be
an appropriate response?"
     "It's too soon," Hotaru said, a harsh edge tainting her
words.  Setsuna understood what put that edge there, however; the
woman did not want to face Usagi and the others, not after what
had happened.  Hotaru would accept the necessity of such a
meeting, Setsuna knew, but not easily.
     "It is not," Setsuna replied, as neutrally as possible.  "And it
might be a good idea."
     "They will come to us when they are ready, Setsuna,"
Hotaru said curtly, sitting back and crossing her arms.
     "I disagree," Michiru murmured, fingers curled daintily at
the edge of her jaw.  "They are no longer the raw girls we brought
together from the streets."
     "They have earned our respect," Haruka agreed.  "Hotaru,
it isn't up to them to come to us.  I know it won't be easy, but we
owe them a gesture of good faith.  We have to try a reconciliation,
and the ball is in our court."
     "It needn't be all at once," Setsuna said, standing to prowl
the study.  If Hotaru felt they were ganging up on her, she would
become intractable.  A certain amount of diplomacy was required
here.  "A meeting to exchange information would set the
foundation for closer relations.  Haruka and Michiru could handle
the initial contacts, and a timetable could be established for a
meeting of both groups."
     "Gods, this isn't the Royal Council," Hotaru snapped.  "We
aren't trying to establish diplomatic relations with another country,
ladies!"
     "No," Setsuna said softly.  "We are trying to repair the
damage which has been done.  There is no blame to be laid here,
Hotaru.  I have told you that before.  But there are feelings to be
considered, feelings of betrayal.  Emotions will be running high, and
not all of the girls share Usagi's propensity for forgiveness.  The
situation is delicate and must be handled as such."
     "And we must take the initiative now," Michiru said.  "If
recent events are any indication, now is not the time for the White
Moon Court to be divided."
     "You should have seen her fight," Haruka added before
Hotaru could make a reply.  "She was magnificent.  They have
come so far since the beginning."
     "Then they will hardly want to serve under me again, will
they?" Hotaru asked, bitterness souring her words.
     "I suspect that is no longer an option," Setsuna told her.
"Their loyalty is to their princess.  You and Usagi will have to treat
each other as equals."
     "That was not the plan."
     "The plan will have to change, Hotaru.  We cannot lose sight of
what is important here.  Catastrophe threatens all we hold dear, and
we are stronger together than apart."
     Hotaru sat in the gloom, her pale skin almost luminescent in
the shadows, her dark violet eyes hooded, unreadable.  The others
weren't intimidated by her brooding silences, having long since
become accustomed to the woman's moods.  They merely sat while
Hotaru thought, waiting for her response.
     "What you say has merit," Hotaru said at last, and Setsuna
suspected it cost her to admit even that much.  "I still maintain that
rushing things is ill-advised, however.  If feelings are still as raw as
I suspect, then we risk creating an even larger rift, one that might
never be healed."
     "A good point," Setsuna murmured, inclining her head
slightly.  She didn't like the thought that she was handling Hotaru,
but the fact was that her friend was far too close to the problem.  In
fact she was, in large part, the problem.  However, if a little
diplomacy was required to bring Hotaru closer to a meeting with
the princess she had harmed, then Setsuna would be diplomatic.
"Perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves.  Why don't Haruka and
Michiru meet with Usagi again, try to gain a sense of where things
stand?  Then we would have some concrete information from which
to develop a plan for future action."
     "Very well," Hotaru said briskly, standing so abruptly that
her chair skidded back and nearly struck the wall.  "But I am far
more interested at this point in any information they may have on
the attack in the market.  Talk of reconciliation is of secondary
import.  Clear?"
     "If you say so," Haruka said sweetly as Hotaru stalked
across the study.
     "I do," Hotaru replied shortly, opening the door and
breezing through it.
     "Nice talking to you," Haruka muttered.
     "Haruka," Michiru chided, but she was smiling as she said
it.  They rose together and followed Setsuna from the room.
     "Can you get in touch with Usagi?" Setsuna asked them as
they walked down the hall.
     "That will not be difficult," Haruka told her.  "She told us
where to leave a message if we wanted to talk.  Tell me, Setsuna, is
talk of reconciliation of secondary import in your mind?"
     "You know it isn't," Setsuna sighed.  "And not in hers,
either.  But we all know how fruitless it is to push Hotaru, in this
especially.  It will be difficult for us to face those girls after all we
held back from them, but for Hotaru it will be excruciating.  She is
deeply ashamed over what she did to Usagi, and of showing her
darkest, most depraved face to the others.  We must let her come to
terms with the prospect of facing them again."
     "Time may not be in our favour," Michiru pointed out.
     "We must give her what space we can," Setsuna replied.  "I
trust the two of you can impress upon our impetuous princess just
how delicate this situation is?  After all, having her rush back here
to talk to Hotaru would probably be ... unwise."
     "Oh, but I'd pay to see that," Haruka said, her blue eyes
sparkling.  "This place could use the breath of fresh air she'd bring
with her."
     "Breath?" Michiru snorted delicately.  "Try hurricane."
     "It isn't Usagi that I'm worried about, so much as the
others," Setsuna sighed.  "At any rate, any steps, no matter how
small, will be an improvement."
     "Setsuna," Michiru said softly as they entered the kitchen,
stopping the taller woman with a light touch on the arm.  "How
does Hotaru seem to you, these last few days?"
     "If you're asking whether the Hunger has returned ..."
Setsuna began.
     "It's not that," Michiru assured her.  "But she seems, I
don't know, twitchy.  Restless.  She's usually so composed, so
poised and in control."
     "You've noticed that too?" Setsuna said with a wry smile.  "I
can't say for certain, Michiru.  Perhaps the news of Usagi's
overtures has unsettled her."
     "I think she's just frustrated," Haruka grinned.  "A woman
has needs, and hers aren't being met."
     "It's not like we didn't offer," Michiru said, going to the
cupboard and getting a sealed container of fresh coffee beans out.
     "She has seemed distracted," Setsuna admitted.  "If it were
anyone else, I would say that you were right, Haruka."
     "Oh, come on.  The Ice Queen is only human," Haruka said,
her tone light and teasing.  "Why don't you offer to scratch that itch
for her?"
     "I prefer my men tall and broad-shouldered, and my women
a little more ..."
     "Submissive?" Michiru whispered, raking her fingers lightly
through Setsuna's long mane of green-black hair as she passed by.
     "I was going to say 'undemanding', actually," Setsuna
informed the graceful woman haughtily.
     "She means submissive," Michiru told Haruka.
     "I do not," Setsuna shot back.  "You've taken a serious
discussion and turned it into something sexually suggestive.  I
wonder if that's where Minako gets it from?"
     "You can't blame us for that girl," Haruka laughed.  "She
was like that long before we ever met her.  And anyway, I think
Michiru's right.  Maybe you need a change, a little domination in
the bedroom, Setsuna."
     "And you, no doubt, are volunteering?" Setsuna asked
archly.  Haruka just stayed where she was, hips leaning against the
counter, lips curled into a crooked grin.
     "No," Michiru murmured into Setsuna's ear, coming up
behind her and running her hands up the woman's back and into her
hair again, this time twining her fingers in it.  "That's not Haruka's
department.  And you have a standing invitation, you know."
     Setsuna fought the urge to shudder under the other
woman's experienced hands.  She'd fought the temptation this long,
mostly because she was a little afraid of what would happen if she
gave in.  Haruka she could handle, but Michiru was a different
matter.  There were certain barriers that Setsuna had felt it
necessary to maintain between herself and the others; the prospect
of allowing anyone, even these women, close to the heart of her
was still frightening.  As Guardian of the Time Gate, she'd had to
steel herself against the ravages of terrible loneliness.  In the
present, the Time Gate had been rendered useless, but for how
long?  If it once again became usable, her lonely vigil would
resume.
     And how much harder would it be to endure that isolation
after having known the sweet intimacy of love, long nights tangled
in the warm flesh and soft hair of lovers, lazy mornings of soft
words and languorous touch in the half-light of dawn?  No, she was
a senshi and a Guardian, but even she was only a woman.  Such
temptation was too dangerous for any woman's heart.
     "I know," she said simply.  "And I thank you."  She made to
pull away, and for a moment Michiru would not relinquish her
intimate grip.  A hot thread of something between fear and desire
knifed down through Setsuna's throat and chest and into her belly.
But the moment passed and Michiru allowed her to move, dragging
her fingers through the full length of Setsuna's knee-length hair in
the process.  Setsuna stood away from the pair, hoping that the
pounding of her pulse was not apparent.
     "Between you and Hotaru, I swear I've never seen two
women so beautiful, so sensual, who were so determined to deny
themselves," Haruka sighed.
     "It's all part of the mystique," Setsuna said with what she
hoped was an enigmatic half-smile.
     "Coffee?" Michiru asked, and Setsuna fancied that she saw
a glimmer of something in those sea-green eyes, knowledge perhaps
of the effect of her sleek flirtation.
     "Thank you, no," Setsuna sighed.  "I'm going to check out
a few leads tonight, see if I can dig anything up that might relate to
the events of the last week or so."
     "Us, too," Haruka told her.  "But even we deserve a break
from time to time.  We'll be hitting Darkrise when we're done,
sometime after midnight.  Drop by and join us for a drink, all
right?"
     "I will," Setsuna promised.  She left the pair in the kitchen and
went to her room to change.
     She could understand Hotaru's apprehension regarding the Inner
Senshi.  Setsuna shared it, after all.  What would she say to them,
these girls they had brought together and trained, forged into a
weapon?  When they looked at her with accusing eyes, when they
asked why she had kept so much from them, what would she say?
     Perhaps, she told herself wearily, you should tell them the
truth.  That those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and
even though I, of all people, should have known better, I allowed
Hotaru to repeat some of the worst sins of the Silver Millennium.
The secrets, they were what really undid us in the end.
     Even though we were given a second chance, is it possible
we haven't learned anything after all?
     That thought was terribly depressing.

***

     The table was littered with the remnants of an absolutely
terrific meal, courtesy of Makoto.  During the meal, by unspoken
accord, there had been no talk of life-and-death matters; discussion
had been restricted to the most trivial of subjects.
     And that had been a welcome change.  Rei looked around
the table, noticing that some of the tension had indeed faded with
the warmth and laughter of the meal.  Mamoru's absence had
worried Rei at first; she had expected the discussion between Usagi
and Mamoru to be difficult, but apparently even Usagi's legendary
charm had failed to mollify the taciturn man.
     Usagi did not seem too worried, though, and occasionally
exchanged knowing glances with Minako, as though they were
sharing a secret.  Which, knowing the two of them, they probably
were.
     Things seemed a little chummier between Minako and
Makoto as well.  Rei had noted the silver earrings gleaming in the
tall girl's ears immediately, and deduced that Minako had been a
very busy girl.  Makoto had given Ami a few worried glances,
alternating with a couple of borderline hostile ones directed Rei's
way.  Well, it was only natural that Makoto feel protective of Ami,
and Rei's performance back in Aethyr likely hadn't helped things on
that front.
     Still, things were as close to old times as they had yet been.
Luna and Artemis sat together, bickering good-naturedly as was
their wont.  Even Phobos and Deimos had joined them, the former
looking a little unsteady still, and it was as though they had always
been with her.
     Ranma was the only discordant note.  Rei couldn't help but
notice that he once again held himself apart from the conversation,
replying if spoken to but otherwise keeping to himself.  He still
posed an interesting problem, one that Rei had yet to solve.  What
was his role in the coming disaster, and could it be prevented?  Was
keeping him close at hand improving their chances of stopping the
Silence, or was it playing into the hands of fate?
     She resolved to speak to Minako at length afterwards.  The
blonde had spent the most time with him, and might have some
insights to share.  Beyond her observations about the boy's
physique, of course.  But it was far past time that Rei tried to come
up with a plan of action, especially given the revelation that this key
of his seemed to be attracting even more unwelcome attention.
     "So, Ami," Artemis said as he pushed his plate away.  "How
are things coming on the research front?"
     "Well, let's see," Ami muttered, her fingers fluttering
absently the way they did when she was thinking.  "There's the
Church of the Sentinel that Usagi told us about.  I've found records
to indicate that it has existed here in the city for at least two
hundred years under that name.  It was set up as a church, so there
are records of applications for tax exemptions and the other
mundane things that accompany such matters."
     "So if they were a church, who were they worshipping?"
Minako asked, lounging back in her chair.
     "That isn't clear," Ami admitted.  "You have to understand
that there are probably hundreds of small, fringe churches in the
city.  As long as they don't go around advocating holy war or some
such nonsense, the authorities don't much care what they do.  Only
the major temples come under much scrutiny."
     "And these guys were far from major, huh?" Makoto asked.
     "They paid their taxes and their bills and stayed out of
trouble," Ami sighed.  "I have no idea where the money came from,
possibly from their members.  If the police have made any positive
identification on the bodies found at the church, I haven't been able
to find out."
     "But they worshipped this Eye, it looks like," Minako
mused.  "And they were attacked by wraiths, so there has to be a
connection, right?"
     "If we can get access to any writings or histories they had at
the site, we might be able to find out more," Ami shrugged.  "Until
then, this seems to be a dead-end for us."
     "Crap," Usagi sighed.
     "Additionally, I've tried finding out about the Eye through
other sources," Ami went on, adopting that lecturing tone of hers
again.  "There are different references to sentinels throughout
history and mythology.  Vicarji was sometimes called Great
Sentinel for His role as Guardian of AsterGate, for instance.  But I
don't see where that would fit into what we have here.  He was
never called the Eye, and his followers already have a temple."
     "Phobos and Deimos knew of the Eye, remember," Rei told
Ami.  "Spoken of in Aethyr by the Fey."
     "Could it be a faerie thing, then?" Minako asked.
     "They told stories about it, but they never suggested it was
anything to do with them," Deimos declared.  "It was always
something created by those who had made the gods themselves."
     "Old Ones, Ancient Ones, the stuff of myth," Ami sighed.
"The problem is there is no record of these Old Ones.  If they had a
civilization on Gaia, no trace of it has ever been found."
     "So we have an Eye," Rei said softly, holding out her hand
so Deimos could hop into it.  Phobos remained on Rei's lap, curled
up quietly with her hangover.  "Made by a forgotten race for an
unclear purpose.  An Eye looks at something, or for something.
But this one can't see.  It's blind.  So who blinded it?  The gods?"
     "Even they were supposed to be afraid of it," Deimos stated.
"Although I've never heard why."
     "But if the gods do know of it, then maybe some of their
earthly servants do as well," Rei suggested.  "We should consider
asking at one of the major temples, see if we can find out anything."
     "If it's a secret and not just obscure or forgotten, we could
draw attention we'd rather not have," Ami pointed out.  "I think we
should hold that idea in reserve for now."
     "I know that Alieva's new temple has some old texts and
things that were found in the dig at Goultera Isle way back when,"
Usagi spoke up.  "When the old temple was abandoned after the
Long Dark, I remember the Sisters talking about all the artifacts
and things that were saved and moved."
     "Those would be in Old Gaian," Rei pointed out.  "Not
much use to us."
     "Actually," Ami said, a gentle blush spreading across her
cheeks, "I can read Old Gaian."
     There was a moment of silence.
     "You're kidding," Minako said at last.  "Nobody can read
Old Gaian, except for withered old scholars who sit in dark rooms
and translate all the stuff that keeps getting dug up."
     "If the rooms are dark, how can they see to translate?"
Usagi asked innocently.
     "Your mother was one of those people who dug up old
artifacts," Rei pointed out before the two girls could go off on a
tangent.  "Are you telling me she had no knowledge of Old Gaian?"
     "That was different," Minako said defensively.  "She had to
be able to decipher warnings and things like that in old ruins that
she was exploring.  Anyway, Mama was unique and ... say, Ami, if I
stole those texts, that means you could read them!"
     "No!" Makoto and Rei said at the same time.
     "Could too," Minako objected.
     "You're not stealing from a temple," Rei gritted.  "We're
going to have enough trouble with the gods over this Dasma thing
as it is, without violating their temples."
     "Aw, poop," Minako pouted.
     "Anyway, I'm still running searches on every database I can
think of," Ami said with a sidelong glance at Minako.  "But I've yet
to discover anything that seems like it has any relation to this Eye,
or to the key."
     "All right, different tack, then," Rei said.  "What about the
Sisterhood?"
     "That's a different matter," Ami admitted, looking a little bit
uncomfortable.  Rei suspected that Ami would be less than
forthright on the topic for fear of offending the former priestess;
still, she wanted to hear what the girl had come up with.  "There is
a lot of information on them, some of it not entirely reliable.  I'm
having more trouble separating fact from rumour and
exaggeration than actually finding references to them."
     "I can help you with that," Rei told her.  "But for the
moment, we're interested in finding where they might be."
     "Well, I checked out that address you gave me, and it turns
out that Saekianna der Kae did occupy her late mother's estate for
almost three months.  The only way to find out if she's still there
would be to go and look ..."
     "I could break in and look around," Minako offered
cheerily.
     "Bad idea," Rei said flatly.  "Extraordinarily bad idea,
Minako."
     "But you said she'd abandon the estate," Minako pointed
out, moving to put her elbows on the table.  "So it would be empty,
right?"
     "Definitely.  But the Sisterhood would have left nasty surprises
behind for unwary sailor girls and lunatic blondes.  And they know
better than to leave anything of value behind.  No, there won't be
any clues there.  I'd suggest staking out the club, but I'm certain
that Sass only bought it to get a handle on Mistress V.  Now that
that gambit has failed, she probably won't return until after
Baniesti."
     "Since you mention Baniesti, I did find some references to
that as well," Ami offered.  "Probably nothing you don't already
know, though."
     "Anything that might tell us why someone would choose
that time to cast a spell?" Artemis asked.  "Other than one to free
Dasma, of course."
     "Baniesti isn't specific to the Sisterhood," Rei told him as
Deimos perched on her shoulder contentedly.  "It is a time when
dark magicks are at their peak, but especially those associated with
Nemesis."
     "And magicks associated with Nemesis usually means the
Dark Gods," Ami nodded.  "So perhaps we should expand our
search for information.  Perhaps one of the others is using Dasma's
followers to accomplish His or Her own ends."
     "Why?" Usagi asked, clearly puzzled.
     "To protect themselves from retribution from beyond
AsterGate, for starters," Rei pointed out.  "If the other gods caught
on to this scheme, whatever it is, they would believe it to be just as
it appeared and the Sisterhood would suffer the consequences."
     "But that just brings us back to our other big problem,"
Makoto sighed, stretching.  "What is the true objective?  If they're
not releasing their goddess, what are they doing?"
     "This isn't getting us anywhere, is it?" Artemis asked
ruefully.
     "We've got to keep trying, though," Ami insisted.  "There
must be a loose thread in this tangle somewhere, and once we find
it and start pulling I'm confident things will start to make sense."
     "All this talk about gods is too much for me," Ranma
declared, pushing his chair back and standing.  "I'm going to take
care of this mess."  So saying, he began collecting the dirty dishes,
balancing the stacks of plates and cups effortlessly.
     "Thanks," Minako beamed as he cleared the table.
     "No problem," he said casually.  "Just earning my keep."
     Rei watched him disappear down the hallway that led to the
kitchen, then glanced at Deimos.  The winged girl grinned back at
her and, without any words being exchanged, sprang from Rei's
shoulder and glided silently after him.
     "He's in the kitchen," Rei confirmed as Deimos sent her an
image.
     "You know he left because he knows we want to talk about
him," Minako said, her eyes flickering from Rei to the others.
     "Yeah," Makoto said.  "So let's not waste this chance."
     "Ranma is another important element to one of our
mysteries," Rei told the blonde firmly.  "He and his key seem to be
linked to this vampiress and her wraiths somehow.  And before you
start defending him, I'm not saying that he's a bad person, Minako.
I'm saying that he's in this up to his baby-blues and, like it or not,
that means we have to be careful around him."
     "She knows that," Artemis broke in.  It was just like him to
be defensive of Minako, and defensiveness was just what Rei had
hoped to avoid.  It wouldn't help matters at all.
     "Does she?" Makoto asked.  "Minako, you've spent the
most time of any of us with him.  Are you sure you aren't letting
your guard down just a little too much?"
     There was a moment of silence.  Rei had expected Minako
to object hotly, but instead the girl's eyes flickered to Artemis
briefly.
     "Tell them," Artemis urged.
     "Tell us what?" Usagi frowned.  "Minako.  What are you
hiding?"
     "Oh, all right," Minako sighed, giving the entire table her
best put-upon look.  "Since nobody trusts my judgement, I guess
I'd better.  You know that nice new coat I gave Ranma today?
Well, I had Artemis make me a nice, tiny little transmitter, and I hid
said transmitter in that coat."
     "Minako," Usagi said.  "That's sneaky."
     "Yeah," Makoto agreed.  "I approve."
     "So do I," Rei told her.
     "Yeah, well," Minako said, rolling her eyes, "it's just a
precaution, okay?  I mean, I would never put my best girls in
danger by being sloppy."
     "I know," Usagi beamed, getting up to hug the other girl.
Rei noted that Minako took advantage of the situation to
thoroughly grope Usagi's shapely rear, and that Usagi let her.
Makoto stifled a chuckle, while Ami averted her gaze and blushed.
     "That's a start," Rei said, clearing her throat to get the
attention of the group's two blondes.  "But an ounce of prevention
is worth a pound of cure.  Ami?"
     "I ran his name through every system I could think of," Ami
said, a pink flush still lingering on her cheeks.  "There is no record
of anyone by that name being born anywhere that I could find.  Of
course, there are quite a few holes in the official records even just
in Altua since the Long Dark.  There are places in the world that
are much less settled, where records are scanty if they are kept at
all.  Just because I couldn't find any official trace of him does not
mean that he was not born in this world."
     "You don't believe his story?" Minako asked, sounding
flabbergasted.
     "I was just being thorough," an offended Ami told her.
     "For what it's worth, I believe his story," Rei told her.
"I've been taught a great deal about reading a person's body
language and non-verbal cues, and he comes across as being what
he says he is.  But the fact is, Minako, that even if he doesn't
consciously mean us harm, he still might bring it."
     "Another thing we don't know enough about," Makoto
grumbled.  "And he's been holding things back from us, let's not
forget.  Like that little factoid about the singing girl."
     "Well, I will be trying to do something about that tonight,"
Rei told them.  "I'm going to meditate and see if I can plumb the
depths of my vision, try to ferret out some more details.  With
Phobos and Deimos to assist, hopefully I can find something
helpful."
     "In the meantime, I guess we just have to keep an eye on
Ranma," Artemis said.  "Maybe you can try to pump him for
information, Mina.  See if there's anything he's left out up until
now that might be helpful."
     "And needless to say, information is all you should pump
him for," Rei added archly.
     "I know that!" Minako shot back, glaring at Rei.
     "Just be careful, Minako," Usagi murmured, brushing
blonde bangs out of her friend's face.
     "You don't think he's dangerous, do you, Princess?"
Minako asked, gazing up intently.
     "No," Usagi admitted.  "I know he's saved you a couple of
times now.  But he has such sad eyes.  And I don't want you
getting hurt."
     "Well, whether he turns out to be a threat or not, at least we
know where he is," Makoto pointed out.  "This vamp, she could be
anywhere, planning anything.  And the Sisterhood is out there in the
dark somewhere, with the clock ticking down to Baniesti.  And
here we sit, with no clue where to start."
     "I'll get back to work," Ami told them briskly, standing.
"See if I can come up with something to give us a handle on
things."
     "I'll give you a hand," Makoto said.
     "And I am going to prepare myself for my meditations," Rei
announced, cradling Phobos' drowsing form carefully as she stood.
"I will need privacy."
     "I've got to put the final touches on your communicators,"
Artemis said.  "Mina, why don't you give me a hand?"
     "Sorry, tomcat," Minako replied, grabbing Usagi by the
hand and hauling herself up out of her chair.  "I promised to give
my princess a little surprise."
     "Really?  Now?" Usagi chirped, eyes sparkling with
excitement.
     "What about Ranma?" Luna asked.  By the expression on
her face, it was clear what she thought Usagi and Minako were
getting up to, but Rei was uncertain.  The excitement they were
displaying didn't seem to be overtly sexual.  For once.
     "You and Artemis can keep an eye on him," Minako
answered airily.  "If he gets rambunctious, turn into kitty-cats and
terrify him."
     The two blondes swept out of the room, giggling
secretively.  Rei's curiosity was aroused by their behaviour, but this
was not the time to indulge herself.  Somebody had to take things
seriously.
     Sighing, she summoned Deimos and made her way upstairs to
begin her meditations.

***

     Washing dishes was a nice, mindless activity that kept me
out of trouble while actually accomplishing something.  It had
actually been a long time since I'd had to wash dishes; fortunately,
it wasn't the sort of thing you forgot how to do.
     I was picking plates out of the drying rack and wiping them
dry with a dishtowel when Artemis came into the kitchen.  He had
his long white hair tied back at the nape of his neck, and dressed in
a white shirt and blue jeans he looked like a normal guy.  Only the
crescent moon symbol on his forehead looked at all out of place.
     "Hey," he said casually.
     "Hey.  Where is everyone?"
     "Oh, around," he said, waving his hand dismissively.
"Listen, I've been hoping for a chance to talk to you alone."
     "Ah," I said, putting the last of the plates in the cupboard.
     "Ah?"
     "This must be where you warn me that if I hurt any of them,
especially Minako, you're going to have to make me sorry I was
ever born."
     "Damn," Artemis sighed, shaking his head ruefully.  "And I
had a whole speech ready, too.  Was it really that obvious?"
     "I had friends once," I told him with a half-shrug.  "I know
the drill.  You don't let anyone mess with your friends."
     "Got it in one," Artemis said simply, crossing his arms and
leaning one hip against the counter.  "Look, it's nothing personal,
all right?  I'm not saying you'd set out to do it, but trouble doesn't
care for intentions, it just comes.  And trouble is a familiar
travelling companion to you, I figure."
     "You could say that."
     "I just did.  But listen, you've come through for Mina a
couple of times, too, and that counts for a lot in my book."
     "You two are close," I noted.
     "We are," Artemis said with a wry grin.
     "I hope you don't think I'm moving in on your territory," I said.
Jealousy was the last thing I wanted to have to deal with.
     "Territory?  You mean ... me and Mina?" he asked,
incredulous.
     Then he started to laugh, his shoulders shaking as he bent
over, leaning on the counter.  I watched, both irritated and puzzled,
as guffaws erupted anew from the slender man.  He gasped for
breath, tears trickling down his reddened cheeks, as he finally
straightened up.
     "Oh, man," he breathed.  "Sorry.  You caught me off-guard
there.  Heh."
     "I don't get why that's funny," I told him darkly.  "I mean,
you even have a pet name for her and everything.  Why is it so
ridiculous that you two might be ... oh, geez.  You're not related,
are you?"
     "No, no, nothing like that," Artemis assured me, knuckling
tears out of his eyes.
     "Then what?  Sex is pretty casual in this kingdom, and Minako
has made it clear that she does what she pleases when she pleases.
 And you're a good-looking guy."
     "Ranma," Artemis sighed, shaking his head.  "Mina loves
sex, hells, all forms of physical intimacy.  She loves it when people
pay attention to her, and she absolutely adores being desired and
lusted after.  There are very few people she wouldn't bed at least
once."
     "But not you?"
     "I adore Mina," Artemis told me, some of the levity leaving
his face.  "Besides being an intensely sexual woman, she is complex,
much more so than many people would credit her with being on
short acquaintance."  I wondered if that was directed at me
specifically, but let it pass.  "But I fill a unique role in her life, just
as I did back in her previous life.  I am her guardian, her mentor,
her advisor, her friend.  But not her lover, not then and not now.
That's just not how it is between us.  To me, she's almost like a
deranged little sister with a dash of willful student thrown in for
good measure."
     "I get it, I guess," I said.  "But, even only knowing her for a
while, I find it hard to believe she never came on to you."
     "I never said she didn't," Artemis said with a twinkle in his
eye.  "The old cat's still got it, you know?  Now why don't you put
some of that chop-socky energy to work and help me test these
new communicators?"

***

     "He's here," Usagi muttered, tugging nervously at one of her
ponytails.  "What do I do?"
     "What do you mean, what do you do?" Minako asked
archly.  "We talked about this, right?"
     "Yes, but ..." Usagi mumbled.  Now that the moment was at
hand, she was unbelievably nervous.  Her heart pounded in her
chest, her stomach was all tingly and her palms sweaty.
     "Princess," Minako breathed, moving up behind her and
blowing teasingly into her ear.  "You've been thinking about
seducing Mamoru since you met him.  You'll know what to do."
     "I guess you're right," Usagi whispered, closing her eyes at
the sensation of hot breath tickling her skin.
     "You bet I'm right," Minako murmured.  "He wants you,
Usagi.  You know he does.  So just let him have you.  Once you
have him alone, it will work out.  These things have a sort of
inevitability, babe."
     "You're the best, Minako."
     "Yes, I really am," Minako informed her, nipping her lightly
on the earlobe.  "Now get ready, Princess.  It's showtime."
     Usagi pulled away from Minako's heat and opened the door
just as Mamoru was about to knock.  He looked flustered by her
sudden appearance, slightly ill-at-ease.
     "Usako," he said, his voice throaty.  "I, ah, think I left
something here."
     "Besides me?" she asked, giving him a sultry look.
     "My badge," he explained, something flickering in his
beautiful blue eyes at that.
     "Oh, my," Usagi said, eyes wide and guileless.  Now that things
had begun, her tentativeness had almost completely vanished.  "It
must have fallen out in my room when we were ..."
     "Ahem," Minako said gently.  "I guess you two can handle
this.  I'm going to go have a look around.  We never did get the
grand tour.  Be good, kids."  She walked past Mamoru, turning
when she was behind his back to wink at Usagi.
     Then they were alone.
     "Usako ..."
     "Come on up.  We'll see if we can find it," Usagi said
cheerfully.  "You'll get in trouble if you lose something like that."
     She walked ahead of him on the stairs, putting a lazy sway
into her hips as she climbed.  When they reached the top she
sneaked a glance at his face and smiled to herself.
     He'd noticed, all right.
     She held the door to her room open and let him go in first,
closing it after her.  He walked around the bed as she watched, her
eyes lingering along the line of his straight back, the set of his
shoulders, the sharp line of his jaw as her turned his head,
searching.
     "Ah-ha," he muttered, bending down to retrieve the badge
case from where she'd left it.  Usagi considered her options.
Coquettish?  Sly?  Girlish?  Should she reason with him, draw him
into a long discussion about their relationship, or should she simply
tell him her feelings and see what his response was?  Should she ...?
     Ah, screw subtlety, she thought in a most un-princesslike
manner, and took two step across the room to hurl herself onto a
startled Mamoru as he came to the foot of the bed.  He staggered
back as she wrapped her arms around his neck and legs around his
waist, toppling as his calves struck the edge of the mattress and
falling heavily onto the bed.  They lay as they landed for a long
moment, Usagi fighting the urge to giggle madly.
     "Hey," she whispered, the tip of her nose brushing his.
"While you're down there ..."
     "Usako," he sighed.  "I'm sorry I was so short with you
earlier."
     "I'm not holding a grudge," she whispered back.  She loved
the way their breath intermingled in the space between them when
they were this close; it was a strangely intimate sensation.  She let
her legs uncoil and slide slowly down his, revelling in the expression
in his eyes, surprise mingled with arousal.
     "We should talk," he said.  His voice was a little tight, and
she smiled sweetly.
     "Oh my," she murmured.  "Is that your gun?"
     "You know I don't wear my gun down there," he gritted as
she pressed her hips down with delicate firmness.
     "Oh," she breathed.  "Then I may have to frisk you."
     "Usako, we NEED to talk."
     "We've been talking," she pointed out quietly, propping
herself on her elbows and deftly undoing the knot of his navy blue
silk tie.  She'd bought him that tie; it brought out the colour of his
eyes.  It also felt wonderful when she stroked it.  "I'm tired of
talking.  Now it's time for something else."
     "Don't," he said quietly, an almost pained look on his face.
"You don't have to do this.  You don't have to prove anything to
me."
     "You think I'm trying to prove something?" she asked,
flabbergasted.
     "I think you feel pressure because of what was said earlier,"
he told her sombrely.  "And I don't ..."
     She's had enough.  She tore the tie open and whipped it
away from his collar with a sharp motion, then clasped it in her
teeth as she tore his cream-coloured dress shirt open with one
savage jerk.  Buttons clattered noisily as they flew wildly across the
room.  Usagi stared triumphantly at Mamoru's bared chest, ridges
of muscle clearly defined under smooth skin.  She sat up on his
hips, eliciting a hiss from between clenched teeth.
     "Well," she said softly, winding the silk tie around her hands
languorously.  "Am I going to have to use this, Mamo-chan?"
     "I promised you," he breathed.  She noted with satisfaction
that his breathing had become laboured and he seemed to be having
difficulty concentrating.  "When you were ready, I would make it
special for you."
     "You've made a lot of nights special for me," she informed
him huskily.  "You've never disappointed me, Mamo-chan.  Now
would not be a good time to start."
     "Usako, are you sure?"
     She wanted to scream.  Why was he being so pig-headed
about this?  She didn't need to be protected from herself, and she
sure as all the hells didn't need to be protected from HIM.  She was
tired of being protected all the time.  She was a woman, and she
had needs, wants, desires.
     Usagi bent at the waist and placed her hands on the dark
coverlet on either side of Mamoru's head, holding the silk tie across
his eyes as she pressed her mouth against his hungrily.  Her tongue
snaked teasingly along his lips until they parted, pulling her in with
increasing urgency.  She responded to his hunger, trying to devour
him with her mouth while she kept the impromptu blindfold in
place.  Finally he moved, gripping her slender waist in his hands and
easily rolling her so that he was on top.  Only then did he break the
kiss, pulling back to fix her with his electric-blue eyes, a shock of
glossy dark hair spilling down over his forehead.
     "I'll take that as a yes," he breathed huskily.
     "Please do," she replied, running her hands up his back
ardently.
     He did.

***

     "Please tell me you've found something," Makoto pleaded.
"Something that we have to go out and investigate right freaking
now."
     "Afraid not," Ami told her with an apologetic smile.  "I have
feelers out on several fronts, but nothing useful has turned up yet.
Except for freeing sealed goddesses, that is.  No feelers there yet.
I'm not entirely certain how to go about searching for that sort of
information, beyond old myths and such."
     "Put it at the bottom of the list," Makoto suggested.
"Gods, I still can't believe she's even considering that!"
     "You can't tell me that you aren't just a little curious about
the things she could tell us," Ami protested.  "I mean, not even a
tiny bit?"
    "Okay, maybe a little," Makoto sighed.  "Let's change the
subject for a minute, okay?  To something relevant to this century.
Like what happened in Aethyr before."
     "What about it?" Ami asked, immediately becoming, to
Makoto's experienced eyes, defensive.
     "You don't have to be embarrassed," Makoto assured her.  "It
wasn't your fault that things got so out of hand.  I'm just saying that
if you want, I'll have a little ... talk with Rei."
     "You don't have to do that!" Ami blurted, cheeks turning
pink.
     "Look, she was way out of line," Makoto said firmly.  "She
took advantage of the situation when she knows you don't like
being mauled like that.  Minako was bad enough, but at least she's
managed to behave around you recently."
     "I ... spoke with Rei earlier.  About that," Ami mumbled,
her eyes wandering the room.
     "You did?"  Ami had confronted Rei?  That wasn't like her.
     "Yes, well, while you were making dinner," Ami told her,
squirming.  "Makoto, you have to understand something.  The
magick we did there, it was new.  I don't believe anyone has ever
done anything like it before, so we had to make it up as we went
along.  And Rei's magicks, they're very ... tactile.  Intimate, even.
She needed that close contact to do what she had to do.  I accept
that, and so should you."
     "You're saying that you're okay with what she did?"
Makoto asked, incredulous.
     "You're still suspicious of her," Ami said by way of reply.
"I understand that, really.  But she didn't hurt me.  She didn't take
advantage of me, either.  I ... think it's wrong not to trust her."
     "I was just trying to help," Makoto replied, stung.
     "I know," Ami said quickly, smiling.  "And I appreciate it.
But Makoto, Rei was the one who came to talk to me about this.
She wanted to make sure that I didn't feel awkward about it, that
things were all right between us."
     Makoto frowned.  Ami's cheeks were pink again, her eyes
sparkling with some repressed emotion, but she seemed sincere.
     "I see," Makoto sighed.  "Look, I'm sorry if I seemed to be
going off on her again.  But from where I was standing, that "spell"
looked a lot like getting groped.  I remember how Minako used to
pester you, and you never had the guts to tell her to stop."
     "She was just being Minako, though.  I understand that
now," Ami shrugged.  "To girls like Rei and Minako, I must seem
strange.  You know, frigid."
     "Ami!" Makoto exclaimed.  "What have I told you about
that?  You don't have to be the way anyone else wants you to be.
There's no law against being shy or reserved, you know?"
     "I know," Ami said softly, ducking her head bashfully.  "It's
just that I sometimes wonder if I'm missing out on something.
They express themselves so easily, they're so passionate.  You are,
too.  I learned early on to hide what I felt so that my emotions
couldn't be used against me.  Now I wonder if I'm just trapped by
my childhood."
     "Ami.  I had no idea you felt that way," Makoto murmured.
Ami laughed softly, a brittle sound.
     "Of course not," the smaller girl said, an uncharacteristic
tinge of bitterness in her voice.  "I don't let people see such things.
That's the point.  What if I'm stunting my own passions out of
something as horribly mundane as simple habit?  If things had been
different, I might have shone brightly."
     "Hey," Makoto said, getting up and crossing the room.  "I
think you shine pretty damned bright, Ami.  I think you should be
whatever you want, and if that means spreading your wings, well,
you won't have to go far to find a willing partner.  But until then,
don't feel like you have to be like anyone else, okay?  I've always
admired the way you did things your own way."
     "Really?" Ami asked, looking up with wide eyes.
     "Really," Makoto assured her, giving the girl a fierce hug.
"And we love you for who you are, Ami, never lose sight of that.
Got it?"
     "Got it," Ami said, a dazzling smile lighting up her face.
"Thanks, Makoto."
     "That's what friends are for," Makoto told her with a saucy
wink.
     "By the way, I like those earrings.  Are they new?"
     "These?" Makoto asked, fingering one lobe absently.  "Not
exactly.  Let me tell you a story ..."

***

     Minako pulled Ami into the room, grinning from ear to ear.
The girl had been cooped up in her room again, monkeying around
with all those computers.  Until, at least, Minako Aino had made
the scene.  With Usagi otherwise occupied, Artemis and Ranma
outside, Rei meditating and Makoto taking stock of their supplies,
Minako had gone exploring.
     And hit paydirt.
     "This is what was so important?" Ami asked, clearly baffled.
"It's a bath."
     "Ami," Minako replied, enunciating her words clearly.
"This is not just a bath.  This is luxury."
     It was indeed that.  Minako was a fan of decadent bathing,
but even her bath was nothing in comparison to this.  She had an
eye for quality, and if the walls and floor of this spacious bath
weren't genuine Portolian marble, she'd eat the gold-plated shower
fittings.
     The bath itself was huge, set into the floor under a high
ceiling dominated by a soaring glass dome.  In the middle of the
bath stood a pedestal topped by a statue.  When the bath was full,
the statue's feet would appear to be resting on the surface of the
water.  That was appropriate, Minako thought, as the statue was of
Lady Nerine, Mistress of the Seas, twin sister to Lady Cerine,
Mistress of Storms.
     Lady Nerine stood in naked splendour, her lush curves
carved into deep green stone of a type even Minako was unfamiliar
with.  Her hair fell in careless tumbles of silk frozen in time, framing
her petite form like sea foam.  Her arms were held wide and her
chin was high, lips curved in an enigmatic smile.
     There was a high wall separating a smaller bath at one end
of the chamber, and Minako had resolved to find out if that one was
a whirlpool as she suspected.  But first, she had to take a bath in
this pool-sized monument to personal luxury.  She just had to.
     "Well, I guess," Ami shrugged, still looking puzzled.
Minako sighed.  She just could not understand people who could
turn down an opportunity to indulge themselves, especially in a
sensual pleasure.  "But you said you needed me, Minako.  I was
checking my research on ..."
     "Research can wait," Minako told her gravely.  "You're the
only one who can help me with this."
     "Help you with what?"  Ami was starting to sound a tad
exasperated.
     "The plumbing in here isn't mundane, its magickal," Minako
replied.  "There are spells controlling the water, I can feel it.  And
water being your element, I figured you could suss it out for me."
     "Oh," Ami said quietly.
     "Come on," Minako wheedled.  "It won't take you long,
and then you can get back to your boring old research.  I mean,
look at this place!  It's magnificent!  I can't believe it's so neglected.
It looks like you never even come in here!"
     "I don't," Ami admitted, glancing at the statue.
     "Why not?  Gods, it's beautiful!  And I know how you love
the water ..."
     "This wing was where Inme and his partners lived," Ami
said softly.  "We were never allowed in here, and I still stay away,
mostly."
     Minako felt the breath rush out of her like she'd been hit in
the stomach.  A sick, nauseous feeling came over her, and she
reached out to grab Ami's hands in her own.
     "I'm sorry," she blurted.  "Gods, Ami, I'm such an idiot!"
     "It's all right," Ami assured her.
     "No, it's not.  I'm a selfish bitch, and I never even thought
about this.  Of course that piece of trash enjoyed all these luxuries
while he was using you to do his dirty work!  Stupid!  Stupid!"
     "No, really," Ami hastened to reassure her as Minako
berated herself.  "Listen, I couldn't live here if the bad memories
had that much power over me, Minako.  It's just ... well, force of
habit as much as anything.  Honestly."
     Minako searched Ami's eyes for any sign that the girl was
simply trying to make her feel better, but she seemed sincere
enough.  Giving Ami's hands a squeeze, she let them go and sighed.
     "I'm glad to hear that," the brash blonde said.  "But Ami, I
am really sorry.  It should have occurred to me."
     "We've all had a lot on our minds," Ami said.  "Don't
worry about it."
     Minako took a last look around and sighed.
     "Well," she told Ami, "I pulled you away from your
research for nothing.  Sorry about that.  Come on."
     "What's your hurry?" Ami asked, lingering with a strange
look in her eye.  "Don't you want to make this bath work?"
     "Ami, you don't have to do that," Minako said.  "Hey, small
and intimate has its charms too, you know?"  She gave Ami a
lascivious smile, but the other girl didn't react at all, preoccupation
clouding her gaze.
     "Mmmm," was all she said.
     "Ami?"
     "You know, I think we should use it," Ami declared.
     "Really?" Minako asked, dubious.  "I mean, don't get me
wrong, I love decadence in a bath, but wouldn't it be weird for
you?"
     "All the extravagance in this place was purchased with our
sweat and blood," Ami murmured, walking over to the edge of the
bath and staring out at the statue's frozen beauty.  "Nothing can
change that.  But why shouldn't I enjoy it?  It's just going to waste
here, neglected and forgotten.   That seems wasteful, somehow.
We discussed burning this place down after Inme was gone, but we
never did it.  It just ... doesn't feel like a bad place.  And now I'm
glad we didn't."
     "Yeah," Minako said, walking slowly up behind Ami and
standing there, close enough to touch but resisting the urge.
"Yeah, this place is pretty old.  It's seen a lot of history, I bet, and
it'd be wrong to let the things that bastard did during the short time
he was here soil a good place.  People used to call it home, and I
bet these walls miss the sounds of laughter."
     "Yes," Ami said softly.  "Yes, I believe that, too.  This place
deserves better than to rot from neglect because of the evil that he
did."
     She turned, and Minako saw a gleam of moisture in Ami's
eyes.  But the girl was smiling, the sort of unreserved smile that she
rarely displayed, and Minako knew that Ami really was okay with
all of this.
     "Well, then," Minako grinned.  "Let's make magick!"

***

     Deep.  She was deep now, deep inside.  She'd been here
before, but the path had never been so clearly delineated.  That had
to be attributable to the presence of her girls.
     Rei felt herself drawn along the path she had sought, the
vision rising up around her like film of a building implosion running
backwards.  Forcing the vision this way had its perils, and one of
those was that the experience tended to be fragmentary, disjointed,
even more so than usual.  She witnessed images spinning by her,
flying apart and coming together again in ways that made her head
pulse with pain.
     Rei was on the verge of losing the vision altogether when
twin motes of light appeared before her mind's eye, dancing in an
intricate pattern that drew her to a stable place.  She felt more than
heard the fey liquid laughter of Phobos and Deimos, and her spirit
was buoyed.
     She saw again the great spire, thrust from defiled earth to
lance into the turbulent sky.  Unreasoning terror buffeted her as
before, but the lights of her guardian spirits rose before her and
spread their auras as a shield, and the fear was blunted.  Girding
herself, she plunged into the heart of the vision.
     Time held no meaning for her as she was immersed in the
twisted skeins of unreality, forcing her consciousness along each
thread as she fought to draw every nuance, every detail, from it.
Images and sensations bombarded her incessantly and with a
ferocity she had never before experienced; of all the visions she'd
ever had, this one was the most raw.  The forces it foretold were
primal and very, very dangerous.
     At last she emerged from that place deep within herself,
feeling emotionally battered and spent.  She sat very still and fought
to keep her breathing steady.  Every sensation was nearly painfully
acute, from the cool floor beneath her kneeling body to the thin
rivulets of sweat trickling down her back and sides or the currents
of air wafting across her naked skin.  Rei kept her eyes closed,
feeling the subtle weight of the world settle about her once more.
     In her light meditative state, she was aware of Phobos and
Deimos kneeling before her, their bodies forming a triangle with her
own.  She was even aware of the light susurration of their
breathing, but something else tugged at the edge of her awareness,
a disturbance in the air of the room, motion without sound.
     Someone was in the room with her.
     Rei remained motionless, giving no outward sign that she
was aware of the intruder.  Could it be Usagi?  She ruled that out as
quickly as the thought had come to her; her princess could never
have moved with such unearthly stealth.  Rei should have been
aware of the other's approach long before this.
     There was another ghostly motion behind her, and as Rei
prepared to explode from her kneeling posture she caught a whiff
of her visitor's scent carried gently on the air, a familiar tang of
light citrus with a subtle undertone of leather.  Of course.  Who else
could have entered undetected?  She released the tension that had
gathered in the pit of her stomach.
     "What can I do for you, Minako?" she asked quietly.
     "Um," a voice came to her after a moment.  Rei smiled
gently.  It was clear that Minako hadn't expected her presence to be
detected.  "Sorry to interrupt, Rei.  I wasn't sure if you were done
or not."
     "I believe I am," Rei murmured.  "Is anything wrong?"
     "No," Minako replied, moving closer.  Now that she wasn't
trying to hide her presence, Rei could hear the brush of fabric and
the soft brush of footfalls.  No wonder she was such a successful
cat-burglar, Rei thought.  She moves like a cat.  Or the ghost of a
cat.  "I was just checking up.  Sorry if I distracted you.  I didn't
think you'd know I was here."
     "Awareness of one's surroundings is part of a priestess's
training," Rei informed her, neglecting to mention that she very
nearly hadn't sensed the blonde's presence.  "And you didn't
distract me.  I am finished for now."
     "Thank the gods," Deimos sighed.  "That was rough."
     Rei heard Minako settling behind her, then warm hands
slipped up along her arms and under the heavy cloak of her hair to
cup the juncture of her shoulders and neck.  Rei stifled a moan as
Minako's thumbs slid up the back of her neck, her hands kneading
the muscles there expertly.
     "I had no idea that meditation was such hard work,"
Minako whispered into her ear.  "You're all sweaty."
     "A priestess does not sweat," Rei muttered, allowing her
head to droop forward.  "She glows."
     "Well, you're glowing like Highview at night," Minako
informed her as she worked.  "And you're tense, too.  Everything
okay?"
     "Yes," Rei said, taking a deep breath and letting it out
slowly.  "It will take me some time to process everything I've seen,
though."
     "Cool.  In the meantime, I have a great idea."
     "The mind boggles," Rei mumbled as Minako continued her
ministrations.  Gods, the woman had wonderful hands.
     "Not that kind of idea," Minako said, and just from the tone
of her voice Rei knew the blonde was wearing a wicked grin.  "We
found a great old bath in one of the downstairs wings, and Ami
cranked the sucker up.  We're all going to take a bath."
     "Oh, that sounds wonderful," Rei sighed, opening her eyes
for the first time.  "I approve."
     "What do you say, ladies?" Minako asked the twins.  They
were vocal in their approval, and with real reluctance Rei pulled
herself away from Minako's succubus hands and rose to her feet.
Her hair slithered silkily across her naked skin as she did so, a
sensation that she positively adored.  She gave her head a practised
toss to throw it back, then smiled at Minako.
     "Wow," Minako said in a low, husky voice.  "I've never
seen someone make just standing up look so good before.  And
naked meditation, I'm in favour of that, too."
     "The Sisterhood teaches the sensual pleasures of the flesh,"
Rei told her.  "Being bare to the world helps to focus a priestess's
power."
     "Helps focus my thoughts, that's for sure," Minako said, her
eyes lingering on Rei's body.  Phobos and Deimos flew up from the
floor, both as naked as their mistress.
     "Let's go!" Deimos urged.  "A hot bath, that sounds
fabulous!"
     "Shouldn't you grab a robe or something?" Minako asked
Rei.
     "Why?" Rei replied.  "I want to feel the night air on my
body.  And it's not like any of us are unaccustomed to naked
wanderings."
     "Yeah, between you and Makoto, it's a wonder either of
you ever bother to get dressed," Minako said with an appreciative
smile.  "Not that I'm complaining.  I was just thinking, though, that
Ranma will probably get freaked out."
     "Let him," Rei sighed.  "It's just a woman's body.  He has
one himself as far as that goes, and I'm certain he's familiar with all
the parts and what they do."
     "Heh.  Yeah, I guess," Minako shrugged.  "But, um,
Mamoru's here, too.  He's in with Usagi right now, but ..."
     Rei felt a twinge at that which she brutally suppressed.
Mamoru was a part of Usagi's life, and Rei would only complicate
things by resenting his presence.
     "Mamoru," she informed Minako, "will just have to become
accustomed to the way we do things when we're together."
     "That's my Rei," Minako sighed.  "What about you guys?"
     "We're with her," Deimos said with a saucy wink.
     Minako grinned at that as the twins circled impatiently in
the air near the door.  Rei's skin prickled as the light sheen of sweat
dried in the cool air, and she caught Minako's lingering glance at
her nipples.
     "Bet you wish you'd taken me up on that offer of a robe,"
the blonde teased as they walked down the hallway to the stairs.
     "You're assuming that the temperature is responsible, and
not you?" Rei replied with a smouldering gaze from under lowered
lashes.  "It isn't like you to be modest, Minako."
     Rei had the delight of seeing Minako rendered speechless, a
rare occasion indeed.  She padded, barefoot, down the stairs,
Phobos and Deimos soaring ahead in the high-ceilinged foyer with
joyful abandon.  Rei enjoyed watching them; the twins seemed to
take pleasure in the mere act of flying.  Rei thought how wonderful
it would be to have that ability, to soar above the world and all its
problems sometimes.  If the delight she sometimes sensed from
those two was any indication, it must be absolutely liberating.
     Minako led them into a wing of the great house that Rei had
not yet explored.  It seemed mostly closed off, showing even
greater signs of disuse than the common areas.  That only made
sense; Ami didn't need most of this space, and taking care of it all
would be a full-time job.  Still, Rei couldn't help wondering what
was behind all these doors.  How much of what Inme and his
cohorts had accumulated remained?  Had the surviving orphans
made good use of what the man had won from their shattered
childhood?
     "In here," Minako said, her eyes alight with anticipation as
she turned down a short hall that ended at ornately-decorated dark
wood doors.  She strode up to the doors and threw them open with
a flourish.  Pure Minako, that.  She always had to make an
entrance.
     "Taa-daah!" Minako crowed, spinning with her arms
extended.  "Well?  What do you think?"
     "It's magnificent," Rei breathed.  The room was huge, all
open space and marble columns and gleaming fittings.  The bath
was the size of a swimming pool, the surface of the steaming water
as smooth as a freshly waxed floor.  A statue of Lady Nerine
dominated the main bath, and the sculptor had captured lithe grace
and unearthly beauty in cold stone.  She looked as though She
might simply walk across the water and join them at any moment.
     "Hey, guys," Makoto called.  "Wash-up's this way."
     Indeed it was.  There were maybe a dozen large nooks in
the wall at the near end of the room.  Rei followed Minako, who
chatted as they went.
     "Those benches have some sort of padding.  Whatever the
stuff is, it sheds water easily but it still feels soft to your bare skin.
I've never seen it before."  Rei had, and knew how expensive such
material was.  "There are lots of shelves and such, which I took the
liberty of stocking with towels and bath stuff.  Man, these nooks
are big!  I guess the rich just like living large, huh?"
     "The extra space is for the bath attendants," Rei informed
her idly.
     "Bath attendants?  Oh, yeah!" Minako beamed.
     "Put that thought right out of your blonde head," Makoto
said, soaping up her lush curves lazily.  "You can wash yourself."
     "Makoto," Minako said.  "With breasts like those, you
could make a fortune as a bath girl!"
     Makoto stuck her tongue out at the blonde and the twins
laughed delightedly.  Privately, Rei agreed with Minako.  Seated on
the bench, her long legs glistening with droplets of water as she
reclined clad only in a brief corset of lather, Makoto looked like the
poster girl for wet and wild fun.  Given how things had been going
lately, though, Rei thought it best not to offer to wash the girl's
back.
     "Stop gawking and hand me that nozzle, would you?"
Makoto murmured.  "Minako, I never thought I'd say this, but
you're the only one not naked."
     "Give me a second," the blonde grinned.  "I'll beat you to
the bath.  Where's Ami?"
     "Right here," Ami announced, walking in with Luna in tow.
Both girls wore robes; Luna's was long, of a sleek material that
shone under the lights, while Ami's was a worn, comfy-looking
terrycloth number.
     "Where's Artemis?" Minako asked them.  "And Ranma?"
     "Outside," Luna told her.  "They're testing the new
communicators."
     "Just as well," Rei said.  "I doubt Ranma would react well
to mixed bathing, given what we know of his culture."
     "He could turn into a girl," Makoto suggested as she rinsed
herself.  Rei noted wryly that the girl seemed unaware that she was
the centre of attention as soapy suds slid down her taut skin,
muscles rippling gently as she raised her arm to allow warm spray
to cascade down over her chest.
     It was just the tiniest bit vexing, to be standing here naked
and yet be upstaged.  Not that she'd have admitted that to anyone.
     "That wouldn't work," Ami pointed out.  "Once she got
into the bath, she'd be a he again."
     "Oh, yeah," Makoto said sheepishly.
     "He'd still be freaked out, regardless of what his body
looked like," Minako chuckled.  "Damn, I wish I'd gotten to invite
him.  I would have loved to see his expression."
     "What about Usagi?" Rei asked.  Luna looked a little
uncomfortable at that.  Rei was puzzled until she realized that Luna
probably didn't know she was aware of Mamoru's arrival.
     "We didn't want to disturb them," Ami said, then stopped
as if having the same thought as Luna.
     "That's probably for the best," Rei assured them.  "Now
that Usagi has finally gotten him into bed, she won't likely want to
let him out before morning."
     "Speaking from experience?" Minako asked.  Rei sought for
signs of jealousy in the blonde's voice, finding a faint trace.
Something else to be addressed before it could fester, that.
     "Yes," she admitted.  "Come on, let's get clean."
     Ami and Luna went to the booths on the far side of Makoto,
while Minako turned to Rei with a wicked smile, blue eyes
gleaming.
     "Fancy a bath attendant?" she asked in a sultry voice.
     "I thought you were in a hurry to get to the bath," Rei
remarked.
     "I've never been in that much of a hurry," Minako purred,
her eyes lingering on Rei's naked form.  "Come on.  I'll wash your
back if you wash mine."
     "All right," Rei murmured demurely.  She settled herself on the
padded bench like a queen ascending her throne, because she knew
that would make Minako crazy.  The cushiony material moulded
itself to her body, warming to skin temperature in seconds.
     Minako moved behind her and gathered Rei's hair in her
hands, twisting and gathering it into a loose knot and then pinning it
into place with long wooden hair pins she retrieved from one of the
shelves.  Rei glanced at the varied toiletries, reflecting wryly that
Minako certainly wasn't one to go without creature comforts.
Unless all that stuff belonged to Ami, which Rei found extremely
unlikely.
     Minako finished fussing with Rei's raven locks and filled a
dark wooden pail with steaming water.  Then she grabbed a sponge
and began wetting Rei down, alternating slow swipes of the sponge
with holding it in one place and squeezing the water out onto Rei's
perfect alabaster skin, letting fat droplets patter and skitter their
way to pool in low places.  It was part rinse, part tease, and all
Minako.  And it felt very, very good.
     Phobos and Deimos alternated between observing the
goings-on and soaring giddily around the spacious bath chamber,
their light voices twining with the sounds of splashing and laughter.
Rei closed her eyes as Minako added some body wash to the water
and began to lather her shoulders and back with talented hands.
The rich floral scent rose around Rei, and she immersed herself in
the sensual pleasures of the moment, giving free reign to her
thoughts.
     Then Minako was done with her back, and started on her
front.
     "Hey," Rei said, grasping the slick sudsy hands firmly.  "If
you start doing that, we'll never get to the bath."
     "All part of the friendly service," Minako whispered in her
ear, leaning in to press her breasts against Rei's back.  "You know,
with your hair up like that, I have the real and urgent desire to kiss
the nape of your neck."
     "That's because I'm irresistible," Rei murmured back.
"Now give me a rinse, or I'm going to have to do it myself."
     "Can't have that," Minako sighed.  Rei turned so that
Minako couldn't see her impish smile.  Minako was definitely in her
good graces, but Rei fully intended to make the blonde work for
every inch.  It wouldn't be fun to just give the little vixen the green
light; after all, there was nothing quite so enticing as Minako when
she was fully engaged in the art of seduction.
     Warm spray rinsed the soapy slick away, then Rei rose and
beckoned Minako to sit.  With her fingers, Rei combed out the
girl's mane of blonde hair, luxuriating in it.  It was a darker shade
than Usagi's but with lighter streaks of colour shot through it, like
stray shafts of sunlight mixed in with the tawny honey-blonde.  She
pinned it up carefully, being neater than Minako had been but
leaving loose tendrils to hang enticingly here and there.  Then she
went to work on Minako's smooth peaches and cream skin, using
her touch to arouse but exercising the utmost subtlety, so that by
the time she was finished she had wound Minako's desires tightly,
but gradually and without actually appearing to have done anything
deliberate.  The heat in the blonde's eyes when she rose was well
worth the effort; Rei turned away, pretending not to be aware of
the girl's state.
     When it came to teasing, Rei had no equal.
     Then it was time for the bath.  Ami got there first, then
Makoto and Luna together.  Rei joined them, walking down the
sunken steps and sighing contentedly as the steaming water rose
around her legs, leaching any remaining tension from her body as
she immersed herself.
     Minako, of course, couldn't just get into the bath.  She went
to the bag she'd left sitting by the wall and got out a crystal player,
setting it on the floor and showing off her assets in the process.  As
music blared forth from it, she wrapped herself in a fluffy white
towel and strutted across the gleaming marble tile, treating them to
an erotic towel dance as she sang along to the slow, torchy ballad.
That was so Minako, putting something on just to make a
production of taking it off, but her performance reminded Rei of
just what a consummate performer the girl was.  By the end of the
song, they were all clapping along, even Ami, while Rei whistled
and Makoto shouted raunchy encouragement.  As the song finished,
Minako slithered out of the towel, tossed it aside with sensual
abandon, and strode into the water blowing kisses.
     "That was for all my loyal fans," she intoned, like an actress
giving an acceptance speech as she waded through the water and
settled with a happy sigh near the others at the feet of Lady
Nerine's statue.
     "That was great!" Deimos exclaimed.  "You should take
that show on the road!"
     "She has," Makoto told her.  "Believe me, Minako's not
one to hide her light."
     "Oh, this is wonderful," Minako breathed as the twins
circled, skimming the water at high speed to leave ripple trails
behind them in long, sweeping arcs.  "An audience and a hot bath,
along with music.  A perfect girls' night in, and after all we've been
through lately, we deserve it."
     "Amen," Makoto said fervently.  "But it's not perfect yet,
Minako.  We need something to drink."
     "Ah!  I've got that," Minako sighed.  "But I'm not getting out of
this bath.  It's in my bag, if you're that interested."
     "But you'll be sure to have a drink if I go and get it, right?"
Makoto shot back.
     "What can I say?  I'm easy to get along with."  Blue eyes
sparkled above a grin that promised trouble.
     "We've got it!" Deimos crowed.  Rei glanced up to see the
twins pulling a bottle along the floor with some effort.  They
stopped once they reached the edge of the bath, panting.
     "Nice work, girls!" Minako called.  "Just float that on out
here, 'kay?"
     "A full bottle isn't going to float," Ami pointed out,
standing and wading over to retrieve the bottle.
     "Whatever," Minako shrugged.  Rei could tell that the
blonde was just happy she hadn't had to move.  Ami returned with
the bottle and gave it to Makoto; Rei saw that it was wine, and the
design of the label told her that it was a decent one.  Galton and
Wyr were renowned in the kingdom for their wines and liqueurs,
and it figured that Minako would have chosen something high-end
for her stash.  As someone who appreciated life's finer things, Rei
thoroughly approved.
     Of course, Minako had neglected to bring anything to drink
out of, but at least there was a corkscrew in her bag.  Phobos had
little trouble fetching that, and Makoto opened the wine, setting the
corkscrew and cork on the statue's left foot.
     "Hey, isn't that heresy?" Minako asked with a sidelong
glance.
     "I think you mean blasphemy," Luna told her.
     "I think you mean disrespectful," Rei sighed.  "And I
suppose it is.  Gods tend to be touchy over shows of disrespect."
     "You want to talk disrespectful?" Makoto asked, eyeing the
statue.  "I'm seriously wondering where all this water came out
from."
     The girls broke into raucous laughter at that, the sound
bouncing off the walls and filling the air.  Phobos removed the
offending corkscrew while Makoto raised the bottle into the air,
gazing into it as if divining the secrets of life.
     "Well, cheers," the statuesque beauty shrugged, and took a
swig from the mouth of the bottle.  "Damn.  That's good!"
     "Here," Minako demanded, holding out her hand.  They
took turns drinking from the bottle, even Ami, who tended to avoid
strong spirits.  Rei savoured the crisp, slightly fruity taste as the
wine slid down and spread warmth through her body from the
inside, to match the heat soaking in from the water.
     "Ahhhh," Minako declared as the bottle passed her the
second time.  "I hereby declare this evening kick-ass."
     "So noted," Rei said dryly.
     "Ami, I can't believe you've been using such a large bath,"
Makoto said, cupping steaming water in her palms and letting it
sluice down her arched throat, and Rei wondered if the girl actually
was aware of the effect that posture had on her full curves, or on
the girls watching her.  Makoto tended not to be terribly self-aware
in situations like this, but she was putting on a lovely show.  "I
mean, it seems a little extravagant for you.  Minako I could see, but
not you."
     "I've never used it before," Ami admitted.  Rei noted that
the topic seemed to make Minako just a bit uncomfortable; the
blonde looked as though she was going to try and change the
subject.
     "Really?  You must have spent hours cleaning it," Luna
remarked.
     "Hours would hardly do it," Rei opined.
     "As a matter of fact, we didn't have to do anything,"
Minako told them.  "The place was kind of grungy, yeah, but when
Ami got the water working, blammo!"
     "Oh, blammo," Rei said.  "I might have known.  Well, that
explains everything."
     "The bath had been drained," Ami clarified, her cheeks
flushed and beads of perspiration dotting her forehead.  Rei was
willing to bet the water temperature and the wine were equally
responsible.  "This bath must not have been in use in the last weeks
the school was in operation."
     So that was it.  Now that Rei thought about it, this had
probably been a luxury enjoyed by those in charge.  No wonder
Minako had looked so uncomfortable.  Ami, though, seemed
unconcerned with the topic, so Rei let it go.
     "If it hasn't been used since then, how'd you clean it so
quickly?" Makoto asked, taking the bottle back from Luna.  "A
little high-pressure water, Mercury style?"
     "Mothball spell," Ami told her, carving ephemeral circles in
the still surface of the water with her finger.
     "A whatnow?"
     "That explains it," Rei nodded.  "When the bath was shut
down, they secured it with a mothball spell.  When you reactivated
the bath's magic, the spell was triggered and automatically restored
the bath to full working order.  And full cleanliness."
     "I never heard of that spell," Makoto murmured with a look
of wonder on her face.  "Man, I gotta get me one of those!"
     "Handy, yes," Luna laughed, smoothing her damp curls
back from her face.  "But pricey, I believe."
     "You believe correctly," Minako said.  "I myself prefer a
cheaper alternative."
     "You make Artemis do the bathroom chores," Luna said,
her tone accusing but her eyes sparkling mischievously.
     "Make, force, cajole, whine until he complies," Minako
shrugged.  "It's all good, Luna-kitten.  And don't complain, 'cause
I'm housebreaking him for you."
     "I'll have you know, Minako," Luna sniffed, "that I never
have any trouble keeping Artemis in line."
     "You go, girl!" Deimos exclaimed.  She had perched on
Rei's shoulder, and leaned over to daintily lick droplets of wine
from Rei's mouth.  Phobos soaked in the water, pillowing herself
between Rei's breasts contentedly.
     From there, conversation turned to inconsequential matters,
punctuated by bursts of laughter and light, teasing flirtation.
Between the wine and the company, Rei felt herself relax.  The
events of the past days were never too far beneath the surface, but
she really needed this.  It was nice to just kick back and forget
about the heavy burdens of their lives.
     At least for a little while.

***

     "I feel stupid," I said, hopping up onto the low wall.
"Talking into an earring, I mean."
     "Would it help if you turned into a girl and put it on?"
Artemis asked, studying a small black piece of equipment in his
hand.  "I could give you the other one, too."
     "I'm a lot easier with being a girl than I used to be," I
informed him.  "But I'm still not much on jewellery."
     "I guess.  Besides," he shot back, "these are Rei's.  They
wouldn't go that well with red hair."
     I was sure he was joking.  Well, pretty sure, anyway.  We'd
spent some time testing the communicators he'd been working on,
with me heading out in different directions through the forest.  He'd
mentioned something about frequencies and signal encryption and
stuff, but gadgets weren't really my thing, so I just did what he
asked me to.  After all, it was a pretty nice night to be roaming
around in the woods.
     I looked at Artemis again and wondered if he'd been at all
worried that I might just take off.  If so, he hid it well.
     "So?" I asked.
     "Everything checks out," he told me, looking quite pleased
with himself.  "Sub-etheral leakage is minimal, well within the
tolerances I was hoping for.  Communications will be secure."
     "Great," I said.  "From who, exactly?"
     "That's a long story," Artemis said, and I didn't miss his
hesitation.  "Say, I've been meaning to ask you something.  What
style of martial arts do you practise?"
     Changing the subject abruptly didn't bother me; I hadn't
really been fishing for information, after all.  I figured these girls
had enough enemies to warrant a little caution.  Or a lot.
     "I was trained in the Anything Goes School," I told him.
     "That's what it's called?"
     "Yup.  Takes elements from different styles and
incorporates them.  Why?"
     "I was just wondering," he said.  "I mean, Mina says you
use chi-based attacks.  That's pretty unusual."
     "You've never seen chi used that way before?"
     "I'm not saying that.  It is rare to find a fighter with that
level of skill, though, at least in the kingdom."
     "Well, it takes a lot of training to get to that level," I
shrugged.  "But from what I've seen in this city, I'd think people
would be motivated, to say the least."
     "Oh, there are some high-profile fighters who can use chi
attacks.  I'm thinking specifically here of the Jahanna Group.  Have
you heard of them?"
     "Nope.  Are they some sort of school?"
     "No," Artemis replied, amused.  "Jahanna Group is a
troubleshooting organization run by a beautiful noblewoman named
Reimi Jahanna.  She has recruited a small core of martial artists
who are devoted to her.  These fighters share several
characteristics: they're all female, beautiful, extremely dangerous,
and they all possess chi talents.  All that, by the way, also applies to
their boss."
     "Troubleshooting organization?  Meaning what, exactly?"
     "A lot of dangerous, high-profile bounty-hunting, mostly,"
Artemis told me.  "Along with other jobs that interest Reimi and
pay well.  If you're going to be stuck here, I was just thinking that
you'd want to keep them in mind.  As a girl, I think you could get
hired easily.  From what I've heard, you would definitely pique the
lady's interest.  Lots of dangerous work, and they say the pay can't
be beat."
     I was startled by his words, but as that passed I wondered
why I should have been.  He was right, a gig like that sounded
good, and hadn't I been considering this bounty-hunting thing
anyway?  Okay, so I was only a part-time girl, but that wasn't really
what was bugging me, was it?  No, if I was honest with myself, the
really disquieting thing about this discussion was the suggestion of
planning for the future.  I'd been living day-to-day for years now,
and I'd nearly dismissed Artemis's idea reflexively.
     But didn't he have a point?  If I was going to have to be
somewhere, why not here?  Maybe it was time to stop wandering
around, time to start thinking in terms of more than just where my
next meal was coming from.
     My stomach felt queasy at that, filled with butterflies.  Was
this all it took to change things?  An idle discussion on a low stone
wall on a half-abandoned property?  Would I look back in a few
months and wonder that this was where it had all started?
     Whoa, I told myself.  Take it easy, now.  One step at a time.
I don't think I'm ready to start painting the picket fence just yet.
     "That's something to keep in mind," I told him, my voice
remarkably casual.  "Thanks.  Although I don't know how they'd
react to my guy-side."
     "Would they have to know?"
     "That secret has a way of getting blown," I told him wryly.
"I've gotten into more trouble than I care to think about because of
that.  Anyway, I'm kind of surprised that none of the girls has
applied to this Jahanna Group.  Like Makoto, for instance.  She's a
bounty hunter, and she's got magick."
     "Reimi wants skilled fighters with strong chi, not sorceresses,"
Artemis shrugged.  "Magick is fairly common in the kingdom, and
frankly it's a lot easier to come by than chi talents.  Strong magickal
talents are usually naturally-occurring, requiring little or even no
training to be brought out.  Now, that's not to say that training and
discipline aren't important, even to those with strong natural
magick.  But I've got to tell you, there are entirely too many people
running around this city with some natural talent and far too little
idea of how to use it.  Martial arts takes training and discipline to
develop, and chi talents combine that with, as I understand it, a
certain natural ability.  Most people don't want to work that hard.
They'd rather take their flame-hand or mage-bolt to the streets and
make some fast money."
     "Gotcha.  But listen, since we're on the topic, why is magick so
common here?" I asked.  "Or are you saying there's lots of it in the
city because people with magick come here to make it big?"
     "Some of it is that," Artemis sighed.  "But you've got to
look at it this way.  Two of the major sources of strong magicks in
humans are fey blood and blood of the gods.  Which is why those
with strong talent tend to be so physically beautiful, by the way.
The bloodlines of the fey and the gods grant more than just power."
     "And these, uh, fey, and the gods, they've been, uh, fooling
around in the kingdom for a while?"
     "Delicately put," Artemis laughed.  "The gods, they do as
they will.  That's part of being a god, I suppose.  And the races of
the fey, including the sidhe, used to have open contact with these
lands once upon a time.  Their blood still runs strong in the
kingdom, and with it that oddly powerful combination of human
and fey magicks.  Magick is an accepted fact of life in the kingdom,
but sometimes I think people here have come to take it for granted.
There are still people, children mostly, who come into their powers
violently, unexpectedly.  Each year there are still fatalities."
     "People die from their own power?" I asked, aghast.  "Can't
anyone help them?"
     "Once, the Major Guilds of Magick required that all persons
be tested for magickal ability at set times in their life.  They took in
and trained anyone in whom they found a spark of magick.  But
they became too powerful, and when they abused that power the
Queen was forced to act.  Now the Guilds still exist, but their
power is only a shadow of its long ago glory, and many still shun
their strict rules for schools with looser standards, or choose to
teach themselves.  Stories of the Guilds' oppression make me glad
that they can no longer take children into their ranks by decree.
Still, since magickal talent can skip generations, or even appear in a
family where there has never been a major talent, sometimes you
just can't anticipate where it will turn up.  And so, tragedy still
strikes."
     "I never realized," I said, staring off into the dark forest.
"Did Minako and the others have this problem?  Did they go to the
Guilds?"
     "Their magick is fairly unique," Artemis told me.  "The way
it is linked to their past lives, the way they summon it ... it's hard to
explain."
     "Huh.  Still, it must be hard to control.  Magick, I mean.
What if someone gets a strong talent and decides to become a
criminal?"
     "If?  Happens all the time," Artemis shrugged.  "People are
people, no matter what.  Power is just a tool.  The police recruit
magickal talents, but they haven't been able to match the pay of the
private organizations in recent times, so the strongest tend to slip
away from them.  That's one reason the SJA is so important in this
city.  I guess this all sounds pretty strange to you, eh, Ranma?"
     "What do you mean?"
     "Well, people with outrageous amounts of power running
around the city, fighting sometimes with and sometimes against
each other, often wrecking large chunks of real estate.  Pretty
strange, right?"
     I smiled with as much sincerity as I could manage.  "Gee, yeah,
Artemis.  Home was never like this."
 
 
 

end part 12