Previously:

     In the aftermath of the attack on the police tower, the Inner
Senshi arranged a meeting with the Outers to discuss their estrangement
over Hotaru's actions.  The meeting was interrupted, however, when
Ranma stumbled into a back-alley showdown between werewolf Yoshi,
werecat Rin, and members of the Sisterhood.
     The situation went from bad to worse when Yoshi was shot with
a silver bullet just as Jupiter arrived.  She recognised one of the
Sisterhood; Yurina, the Black Rose, was in fact Lily, the girl who had
betrayed a young Makoto in her gang days.  Jupiter's unleashed fury
reacted with Saekianna's false Banri, throwing some of those present into
Shadow Realm.
     Several of the senshi re-grouped within Shadow and tried to find
a way home.  This was complicated by the presence of Yurina and an
attack on Ranma by a rogue succubus named Maia.  The succubus
revealed that the Crimson Queen and the Black King were locked in a
fight for territory, and if the senshi remained, they would eventually be
claimed by one side or the other ... if the native inhabitants of Shadow
didn't get them first.
     The group set off to find a Shadow Gate that might link back to
home, only to find something disturbing along the way.  Body bags from
the 55 Division morgue were abandoned in Shadow, along with their
unfortunate inhabitants.  This mystery had to wait, though, as another,
more pressing matter intruded in the form of the vampiress's shadow
wraiths.
     Rei and Ami were able to communicate despite being separated
by the two realms due to the strange interaction between Rei's shadow
and Ami's Aethyr ability, although unbeknownst to Rei, Ami was
suffering erotic side-effects from the link.  With both groups
coordinating, the senshi in Shadow suddenly found their route home cut
off, only to be attacked by legions of the Crimson Queen's succubi.
     Just when all seemed lost, the ghost ship, Desidinder, appeared in
the crimson light of the Shadow moon, Nemesis, and the mysterious
singing girl seemed to give Ranma a clue to their salvation.  Using the
key, Ranma managed to do the extraordinary and breach the barrier
between Shadow and the human realm, allowing the senshi to escape.
Unfortunately, Yurina was snatched away by Maia, who fled into the
human realm, thus depriving them of a means to discover the
Sisterhood's plans.
     Usagi, meanwhile, had managed to reconcile with Hotaru over
the events that driven a wedge between the two groups in the first place.
Makoto tended to the injured Yoshi, who counselled her to set aside
vengeance against Lily for the sake of her own battered soul.  With the
two groups re-united, several problems still remained.  Hotaru burned for
vengeance against the vampire who had murdered her mother and left her
with plagued by bloodthirst, Usagi had her promise to Banri to save the
Sisterhood from the plot they had become ensnared in, and the Inners
sought to hide Ranma's Outsider status from a suspicious Hotaru.
     When Rei did a divination on some evidence from the police
morgue, however, things began to come to a head.  In light of this new
information, coupled with the discovery of the body bags in Shadow, it
quickly became apparent that they had found a bigger piece of the
puzzle.  The vampire had orchestrated the attack at the police tower,
using a Sister under her control to operate Silkaine's Siren.  The bodies
were taken to disguise the true target of the attack: Cyrie der Kae,
Saekianna's mother.
     Two mysteries, the sinister vampiress and the Sisterhood's
mysterious ceremony planned for Baniesti, were linked.  The vampiress
was manipulating the priestesses of the Dark Lady, but for what purpose?
     Whatever she had planned, the senshi had to stop it.  But first,
they needed to find the Sisterhood and somehow prevent them from
unwittingly fulfilling the vamp's will.
     Meanwhile, all was not well in the kingdom, as Queen Kendra
faced the shade of her mother on the castle's highest watch.  There, in the
dark of night, the mystic blade which had been lost during the Long Dark
returned to the kingdom.  Why had it returned now?  What darkness
could compel the dead to stir from their eternal slumber?
     The story continues ...
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

     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.
 
 
 

Prologue
 

     Raine Jahna Greiv had many duties as captain of Her Majesty's
personal guard.  She found none to be as wearisome as having to be the
bearer of bad tidings.  None, perhaps, save dealing with that lout, Gar.
     Still, there was no hesitation in her precise stride as she marched
along the quiet corridor.  Raine prided herself on carrying out her duties
with equanimity, no matter how trivial.  Nodding curtly to the guards on
duty at the door to the council room, she brought herself up before the
unassuming door and knocked, entering when bid to do so.
     "Majesty," she began.  Two things struck Raine as she entered the
room where Queen Kendra conducted much of the business of ruling the
kingdom.  One was that Tam Greely was not only present, but was in fact
kneeling before the Queen.  The second was that the Queen was holding
a strange sword.
     Strange, and yet somehow familiar.
     Raine actually stumbled, her eyes locked on the faintly
shimmering blade, and for a moment she felt light-headed.  There was no
mistaking what she was looking at; the unsheathed sword that the Queen
held in her hand was the most famous blade in the kingdom, after all.
     Or had been, until the black day that it had been lost.  Raine
remembered every detail of that day, as one of the last survivors of her
unit, a raw recruit standing with Queen Larissa and the valiant heroes
who rallied to break the Dark.  In that moment memory fell upon her, so
intense it seemed real, and she saw Larissa's smile again, a beacon that
gave them hope in the darkest hours.  She would have followed that smile
to the gates of the hells, and very nearly had.
     "Galiraithe."  She didn't realize the soft whisper had come from
her lips until Greely spoke.
     "Yes," he said, his eyes gleaming with unshed tears.  "The Sword
of Queens has been borne by every woman to rule this kingdom since
Yurianna the Black carved it from the untamed borderlands.  And now it
has returned to serve its rightful Mistress."
     "But how?" Raine asked, taking a tentative step forward, her eyes
still trapped by the fey silvered gleam of the sword.
     "My mother," Kendra replied softly.  "Her shade appeared to me, and
left me this gift."
     "We are truly blessed," Greely said, his voice cracking.  Kneeling
there, tears spilling down his taut, lined cheeks, he looked his age, and it
made Raine sad somehow.  Greely had been a trusted advisor to Larissa
and, after her death, to the nine year old girl who had been thrust to the
throne.  The stability his presence had brought had been a treasure in
those uncertain times, and Raine had relied on that strength herself more
than once.
     Looking at him, she felt old herself, even though she was only ten
years older than the Queen.  So many years, she thought.  Where did they
all go?
     "Did she say anything?" Raine asked.  She tried not to appear
anxious, but something flickered in Kendra's eyes at the question, and she
smiled.  There was gentleness in that smile, quite at odds with her
characteristic grin, the one full of confidence and lightly seasoned with a
touch of wildness.
     "No," she replied, her words gentled by memory and the knowledge
that Raine had adored her.  "My mother's shade had no words for those of
us she left behind, Raine.  Only this."
     "Only," Greely sighed.  "Majesty, this is an incredible gift."
     "Are you certain?" Raine asked.  Greely frowned at her,
clambering slowly to his feet.
     "Raine, are you mad?" he asked.  "This is Galiraithe!"
     "I believe Raine's point, Tam, is why now?" Kendra interrupted
gently.
     "Indeed, Majesty," Raine said with a respectful bow.  "I fear this
may augur poorly for the future.  On that note, I come bearing news."
     "News?"  Kendra was all business now.
     "A report just in from the Bonaventure," Raine told her.  "She is on
patrol near Fen's Peak, and the crew are tracking another Zero."
     Silence.  The Queen turned and walked slowly to the curtained
doors that led out onto the spacious balcony.  The view from that vantage
was first-rate, but the lithe woman did not part the curtains.  Raine stared
at Kendra's back, gaze tracing the perfect line of her heavy plait.
     "Is the ship in any danger?" Kendra asked at last, not turning.
     "Captain Pa'ar is confident, Majesty, that she is not," Raine
replied.  "The Zero is proceeding on a direct course, and if it is aware of
their presence, it has not reacted in any way."
     "Just like the others," Kendra sighed.
     "I beg your pardon," Greely interrupted, coughing gently into his
fist.  "Others?  I must confess, Majesty, that this is news to me.  I believe
that 'Zero' is the military's code-name for a dragon?"
     "It is," Raine confirmed.
     Kendra turned back from the window, her expression calm,
composed.  Raine knew, however, that the young queen was troubled.
     "Almost twenty-four hours ago, one of our battle carriers, HMAS
Magnificent, detected a Zero in the skies over the Kerkein Mountains,"
Kendra said, tugging at her plain white blouse with her free hand.
"While we do know that there are dragons living in the highest peaks of
the Kerkeins, as well as in the far northern and western ranges along our
borders, it is rare for them to come anywhere near an airship."
     "Indeed," Greely said.  "Little is known of the great wyrms, for
they are both enigmatic and solitary, caring little for what they refer to as
lesser beings, such as ourselves.  There have been occasions of dragons
attacking airships in recent memory, but generally only when they've felt
that their territory has been infringed upon, or when they've been hunted
by the very foolish."
     Raine must have been staring, because when Greely met her gaze
he chuckled.  "Raine, my dear, I do have interests outside of politics," he
said wryly.
     "But dragons?" Raine asked, shaking her head.
     "He also bowls a mean game," Kendra shrugged.  "Regardless,
the Zero made no hostile moves, and Magnificent's captain wisely chose
not to pursue, merely reporting the matter."
     "However?" Greely asked, one eyebrow arched sharply.
     "However," Raine sighed.  "Ten hours later, a free trader flying
through Victory Pass reported seeing a Zero high above them, travelling
in the opposite direction.  Then, a few hours after that, scientists studying
the old Ryokken-Kee ruins near Bargerston also spotted one.  And now
this."
     "This much activity is definitely unusual," Greely nodded,
stroking his beard thoughtfully.  That particular gesture always put
Raine in mind of the villain in some old movie; all Greely lacked was a
sinister laugh to make the visual complete.  "I wonder if this is related to
the artifact retrieved by Royal Operations?"
     "Doubtful.  The flight paths of all the Zeroes had one troubling
factor in common," Raine told him.  "They were all headed out of
kingdom airspace."
     "They're leaving?  Why?" Greely asked.  Kendra's reply was a short,
humourless laugh.
     "That," the Queen told them sourly, "is an excellent question.
Given our limited knowledge of dragons, however, I fear that there is
only one likely explanation for their sudden exodus."
     "And that is?" Greely pressed.
     "That they know something we don't," Raine said softly.
     "Exactly," Kendra nodded.  "A vampire, an artifact from the age
of the Genrous, Galiraithe's return, and now this.  Pieces of a puzzle, all
jumbled together, and us without the big picture to work from.  I grow
weary of this, people.  Raine."
     "My Queen."
     "Summon these people," Kendra instructed, walking over to the table
and picking up a piece of heavy, cream-coloured parchment.  "I want to
pool all this information with the people most likely to have answers.
Whatever is happening, I want us to have a handle on it, and fast."
     Raine bowed and took her leave.  She was troubled, however, far
more than she had let on.  It wasn't the strange behaviour of the dragons
which was at the root of her trepidation, however.  No, Galiraithe's
return concerned her far more.  Raine had witnessed many things in her
career, and she had reached one irrefutable conclusion.
     It was never good when higher powers began intervening in your
life.
     Not only was it not good, it was often fatal.
 
 
 

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

Chapter 16: Memories
 

     Memory is a funny thing.  Sometimes a little piece of my old life
will just rise up out of the murky depths all by itself and surprise me.
You'd think that those razor sharp images, those frozen moments of lost
time, would involve the people that I loved, and sometimes they do.  But
not always.  No, quite often they are little uncharted islands in the sea of
memory, brief stops along the way that I had quite forgotten until they
reared up at odd times.
     Like the old man.
     I never did know his name.  I guess it wasn't really important.  I
met a lot of people in those years when me and Pop travelled around,
never staying in any place too long.  A lot of faces, a lot of folks with
lives to live who only crossed my path for a short time.  Why any of their
faces should get dredged up instead of an image of someone I actually
missed was a mystery to me ...
     Anyway.  The old man.  I could see him, sort of.  Funny, I
remembered the sky that day, high and a sharp blue streaked with faint
traces of cloud.  I remembered it vividly.  Him?  Well, I remembered his
face under that beat-up old hat, lined by years and weather.  I think he
was wearing a t-shirt, but I don't recall the colour.  I do know he was
wearing cut-off jeans, because that was how I saw the scar on his leg.
     I was only seven or eight at the time.  Ah, who am I kidding?  I
never did learn much in the way of tact.  I probably would have stared at
the scar on his leg even if I'd been older.  It was white and ropy, twisting
around his tanned flesh like a worm.  I remember wondering if he'd
gotten it in a fight.
     Even at that age, it was always about fighting for me.
     He'd seemed to be paying close attention to the line he had cast
off the gray, dingy pier, so his raspy voice surprised me.
     "Gonna be a storm tonight, young feller," he said laconically.  It
sounded like his throat was full of rusted metal, and I started.  He didn't
look at me, though, just watched his bobber float on the surface of the
water.
     "Tonight?" I asked, eyeing the perfect sky.  "No way."  I figured
he was playing with me, the way crusty old guys like to yank a kid's
chain.  Next would be the tale of the one that got away.
     "Yup," he said.  "You seen that, right?"  He cradled his fishing
rod in one hand, gestured at the scar on his leg with the other.
     "Yeah," I said with a youthful mixture of awe and appreciation.
"Pretty nasty.  How'd you get it?"
     Yeah, Mr. Tact.  The old man just laughed softly, the lines
around his eyes deepening under the brim of his hat.
     "When you're young, sometimes it seems like you're invincible,"
he informed me.  "And you're gonna live forever.  That there's just a
little keepsake, reminds me of those days.  That, and it tells me when a
storm's a'brewin'."
     "Get out," I said, but my eyes were drawn back to the scar that
snaked down over his knee and around the back of his calf.
     "Serious," he grunted, reeling his line in and casting it again with
an easy, practised motion.  "It don't bother me much, 'less a storm's on
the way.  Then it throbs like a rotted ol' tooth.  You mark me, my boy,
tonight's gonna be a bad one."
     Just then Pop had called, and I'd bid the old fisherman a hasty
good-bye, running back down the dock.  We'd been training along the
shore that day, and I saw the old man from time to time as day stretched
towards evening.  He never did catch anything that I saw.
     But he was spot on about the weather.  That night we got hit with
a fierce thunderstorm, and as I watched the lightning dance over the tops
of the rain-lashed trees I felt a child's wonder at an old man's scar that
knew when it would storm.
     I lay back on the roof and stared up into the darkness.  The last of the
day's light had bled from the sky and the moon was up, nearly full and
peeking through the tatters of old black cloud.  I thought about that old
man for the first time in years and felt a pang for my lost life, for all the
little things that I would never see again.
     I understood more now.  I had a scar of my own, legacy of a time
when I'd been young and thought I'd be whole and happy forever.  That
scar lay across my heart, and sometimes it throbbed like a rotted ol'
tooth.  The storms it predicted were darker than mere weather, though.
     And it was aching now.  We were in for a bad one.
     If it hadn't started already.
     "Well, now," a soft, throaty voice drawled from behind me.
"You're up on the roof.  How like you."
     "Hey, Minako," I sighed.  Now I was going to hear about my
little outburst earlier, when Hotaru had pressed me again about the key.
I turned my head to watch as she clambered out of the narrow attic
window with long-limbed grace.  Instead of coming over to where I lay
on the slope of the roof, however, she went up, striding boldly across the
rooftop's crest to stand at the edge.  She closed her eyes and spread her
arms wide, the fitful wind blowing her honey-blonde hair around her like
a luxuriant cloak.  She looked good and she knew it; I never knew
whether I should be irritated by her absolute self-confidence or charmed
by it.
     "You know," she said after a time, "you have the look of a man
who's fixing to do something reckless."
     "Who, me?"
     "Yes, you.  You wouldn't be thinking about doing something
stupid, would you?"
     "Maybe," I sighed.  "We're all just sitting around here.  Isn't that
getting to you?"
     "We agreed to wait until Hotaru could check with her source at
the palace," Minako replied, glancing down at me.  Meeting her gaze, I
realized that she was no happier about the situation than I was.
     "I don't recall agreeing," I snorted.  "Anyway, we don't know
how long that might take.  Meanwhile, here we sit while Baniesti gets
closer by the minute."
     "Ranma Saotome, Man of Action," Minako intoned grandly as
she came down from the peak of the roof to sit beside me.  Her tone had
been light, but I felt my hackles rise regardless.
     "We waited," I said before I could stop myself.  She turned to me
then, and I knew those blue eyes were seeing more than I wanted to show
them.  There was something going on, way down in the depths of those
eyes.  I didn't know what, but I was beginning to feel uneasy.
     "When your city fell," she said softly, all trace of Minako the
Flirt gone.  "When your world fell."
     "Yeah."  The word was quiet, all sharp raspy edges that hurt my
throat as it emerged.  "We thought ... we thought we had time.  But while
we sat around and argued about what to do, it got later and later.  And
then it was just too late."
     "It is late," she whispered with a humourless smile.  It hurt to
look at, that twist of the lips, and she seemed to realize how much she
was showing me just then.  She looked up at the sky, already fully dark.
"Maybe later than we think."
     I have never been the most insightful person, but in that moment I
had a flash of insight that was startling in its clarity.
     Minako was afraid.
     It wasn't the situation we were in; of that, I felt certain.  Not that
there wasn't plenty of reason to be afraid, mind you, but I'd seen her deal
with danger.  This was something else, something that was eating at her.
     "It's too bad our plan to snag a wraith didn't work," I said, trying
to watch her without looking like I was watching her.  "If we only had
some place to start digging ..."
     "Ranma."  She sighed my name, eyes closed, face turned up to
the turbulent sky.  It made my mouth go dry when she said my name that
way.  Then she lowered her chin and turned to look at me, and she said
my name again, this time without the stomach-fluttering breathiness.
     "Uh, yeah?" I asked cautiously.  She had come to a decision, that
much I could see.  But about what?
     "You're right," she said, brushing her hair back reflexively as the
breeze blew it into her face.  "If there's something we can do, we need to
do it."
     "You," I said cautiously, "have the look of a woman fixing to do
something reckless."
     "Yes," she said, a faint glimmer of her characteristic vivacity
returning to her eyes.  "But not alone.  And we're going to need a plan."

***

     Rei found Minako in the narrow third-floor hallway, climbing in
off the roof with Ranma in tow.  She stood and waited for the blonde to
notice her, noting the tiny flinch as Minako's eyes picked her out of the
gloom.
     Guilt?  Maybe.  Or maybe something else.  One thing was for
certain; Minako was keeping secrets from her.  She suspected that there
was something Minako was not telling her about that Tyrian mansion,
and Rei did not like the implications of that.  No, not at all.
     Still, she would have conceded that Minako was entitled to her
secrets had circumstances not dictated otherwise.  Rei herself had kept
more than a few, after all, and was in truth still keeping some.  But given
what she was about to propose, Minako would have to come clean.
There was too much at stake.
     "Hey," Minako said with an easy grin.  "What's up, gorgeous?"
     "I was hoping we could talk," Rei told her. "About earlier.  The
mansion ..."
     "Oh, yeah!  About that, me and Ranma were just cooking up a
plan!" Minako enthused.  "The plan goes like this: a couple of us sneak
in and look around, see if there's anything there to link the owner to the
Sisterhood.  Okay, the plan's a little light on specifics, but sometimes
you've just gotta think on your feet, you know?  Now I ..."
     "Minako."  Rei's voice cut off the blonde's cheerful chatter like a
blade.  "I think that is an excellent idea."
     "You do?"  Minako was clearly taken aback.
     "Yes," Rei replied.  "After all, I saw the crest on the gates of the
estate.  The owner isn't just some noblewoman, she's a member of the
Sultanate."
     "The who?" Ranma asked, his gaze jumping from one girl to the
other.  Rei had to hand it to him.  He might not know exactly what was
going on, but he seemed aware that there was a subtext to the discussion
between the two senshi.  The boy was more perceptive than he let on.
     "The Sultanas are the highest circle of Tyrian society," Rei told
him while still watching Minako.  "The women of the Sultanate are the
most ruthless and sadistic of the Domina's followers.  Even the other
nobles fear their power."
     "Yeah, they have quite a reputation," Minako added, her eyes
skating away from Rei's gaze.  "Scary."
     "And well-earned," Rei added darkly.
     "So Saekianna's mother was one of these, uh, Sultanas?" Ranma
asked.
     "No," Rei said with a mirthless smile.  "Cyrie was powerful, and
she aspired to that level, but her family fell into some disfavour with the
Domina.  Regardless, this Sultana is probably one of the most powerful
Tyrians in the city, possibly the kingdom.  And if she had a Circle of
Veneration in her estate, then there is a strong possibility of a link
between her and the Sisterhood.  It is well worth checking out further."
     "Assuming she didn't get arrested," Ranma shrugged.  "I seem to
recall a lot of sirens when we were leaving.  And her people had those
Gan gun things, right?"
     "She was not arrested," Rei told him, noting that Minako seemed
unsurprised by this revelation.  "She does not exactly have diplomatic
immunity, since she's not attached to the embassy, but Highview always
handles the Tyrians with kid gloves.  The police arrived in response to a
call about a disturbance.  They did not enter the estate."
     "Mamoru?" Minako asked.
     "Yes, he checked it out for us," Rei acknowledged.  "There was
nothing to justify entering the grounds of the estate, and the police left
after speaking with the lady's representative."
     "Wealth and power, kids," Minako muttered.  "Why bother
playing by the rules when you have tools like those?"
     "What else do you suppose she's up to behind those walls?"
Ranma asked.
     "That's a very good question," Rei told him.  "I expect we're
going to have to find out.  But not by sneaking around."
     "The lady's not just going to talk to us," Minako said with a wry
smile.  "Not even if we ask nicely."
     "No," Rei replied.  "But if she is involved with the Sisterhood,
she'll talk with a delegation of Sisters.  One sent by the Nightmistress to
investigate reports of a senshi sighting on her grounds, for instance."
     "Hey," Ranma said slowly.  "That's sneaky.  But it might work.
Do you think you could convince her, Rei?"
     "I think I could pull it off," Rei told him dryly.  "It would be
helpful to have back-up in case anything went wrong, though."
     "I don't like it," Minako frowned.  "Stealth is better."
     "But harder," Ranma pointed out.  "They'll be on their guard
after today.  We'd probably have to wait until after midnight to even try
to sneak in."
     "That's still better than some half-baked masquerade," Minako
argued stubbornly.
     Rei watched the blonde closely as she argued.  Something was
clearly wrong; it wasn't like Minako to pass up a chance to show up an
adversary.  "Say, Ranma, would you mind giving us a moment?" Rei
asked lightly.  "I need to talk to Minako."
     "Sure," Ranma said, shrugging his shoulders.  He squeezed by
Rei in the tight confines of the hallway, shooting Minako a quick glance
on his way by.  That glance did not escape Rei's notice.  The boy was
worried.  Rei remembered how quickly Ranma had reacted back at the
estate.  He might not know the details, but Ranma certainly was aware
that there was more to Minako's story than she was letting on.
     Interesting.
     Rei waited until Ranma disappeared down the stairs before
speaking up.  "All right, Minako.  Let's have it."
     "Have what?"
     "Spare me the innocent act," Rei growled.  "What aren't you
telling me?"
     Minako didn't reply for a moment, and Rei fancied she could see
the wheels spinning behind that glib expression.  Minako was deciding
how much to tell her, and Rei was surprised at how much that realization
stung.  That was hypocritical of her, of course, considering her own
record with secrets, but that fact didn't seem to assuage her hurt in the
slightest.
     "Look, Rei," Minako said at last, sighing loudly.  "This woman
is dangerous, but you know that.  If there was anything else, anything
relevant that you needed to know, I'd tell you, all right?  I wouldn't let
you walk in there blind."
     "Don't turn this around on me," Rei shot back, feeling her temper
rise.  "I'm not making an accusation."
     "Well, that's what it sounded like!  What's wrong, suddenly you
don't trust my judgement?"
     "It isn't like you to let personal matters interfere with senshi
business, Minako."
     "Look who's talking about personal matters and secrets!"  That
exclamation hung in the air between them, and Rei felt her cheeks
growing hot under Minako's glare.  A silence grew up between them in
the wake of Minako's words, growing longer and more awkward as the
two girls stared across the space that divided them.
     "Well, then," Rei said at last, her voice quiet.  "I guess that's
that.  We'd better let the others know what we've got planned."
     Minako opened her mouth, but Rei whirled and strode away
before the girl could say anything.  Frankly, at that moment, Rei didn't
want to hear it.

***

     Minako watched Rei go, shame and anger warring within her.
Somehow, the discussion had just gotten out of control.  One minute
she'd been certain that she could handle things, the next she was snapping
at Rei.
     "Nice going, Aino," she whispered, slumping against the wall.
"Real nice."
     But what was done was done.  Taking a deep breath, she shook her
head and went downstairs.

***

     Makoto started as a pair of slender arms encircled her waist.
She felt hot breath against the back of her neck and sighed.
     "Nice try, Minako," she said, turning down the heat on the
stove.  "But you're not getting any this time until it's ready."
     "That Minako," Usagi murmured.  "What a mooch."
     "Usagi?  Sorry, I thought ... anyway, ten minutes, okay?"
     "Fine," Usagi agreed as Makoto turned to face her.  "I wanted a
few minutes to talk to you, anyway."
     "Everything okay?" Makoto asked as the girl leaned against her.
"You're not worried about Hotaru, are you?"
     "Right now," Usagi said softly, reaching up to toy with the loose
ties of Makoto's blouse, "I'm worried about you, Mako-chan."
     "Me?"
     "This thing with Lily," Usagi went on, gazing up into the taller
girl's eyes intently.
     "Oh," Makoto replied, a guilty flush rising to her cheeks.  She'd
been expecting this, but not from Usagi.  The princess was bad at
discipline; she'd anticipated a reaming from Hotaru, or maybe Haruka.
"That.  Look, Usagi, I'm sorry.  I lost my cool and put everybody in
danger in that alley.  I just ..."
     Usagi reached up and laid her finger gently across Makoto's
lips, silencing her.  "You were so hurt, so shocked.  I understand, Mako-
chan.  It must have been terrible for you."  The compassion in the
blonde princess's eyes warmed Makoto, reminded her of why she adored
this girl so much.
     "I didn't think, Usagi.  About anything, much less your promise
to Banri.  I ... understand the situation.  You can depend on me, I
swear."
     "I've never doubted that," Usagi told her with a tiny smile.  "I
always depend on your strength.  You've never let me down."
     Makoto blinked at the girl, those words of praise warming her
heart.  Usagi was one of the most important people in her life, and to
hear her say such a thing with such conviction was heady indeed.
     "And I won't, Princess," Makoto swore, hugging the girl
fiercely.
     "I know," Usagi breathed, slipping her arms around the taller
girl's neck.  "But there is something, Mako-chan.  Rei."
     "Oh.  Yeah.  That, too."
     "Mako-chan, I know why you got mad at Rei," Usagi blurted,
her gaze imploring as she clung to the other girl.  "But you two have to
stop fighting with each other!  You've fought together, lived under the
same roof, and you both want the same things!  Can't you trust her?"
     "Princess," Makoto said heavily.  "Oh, Princess.  I know this is
hard for you.  But when I see her, when I think of her doing the things
that Lily did ... it twists me up inside."
     "But she's changed," Usagi whispered.  "I know you believe
that, deep in your heart.  I know it.  You two are both so strong-willed,
so stubborn!  I don't want that to end up driving you apart!  Please,
Mako-chan, please try.  Try to understand her.  I couldn't bear it if you
guys built a wall between you!"
     "For you," Makoto sighed.  "For you, Princess, I'll try.  If she
will."
     "She will," Usagi vowed.  "I'll talk to her."
     "It would be easier," Makoto went on, scowling, "if she would
keep her hands off of Ami."
     "Ami?" Usagi asked.  "Rei and Ami?  What's this?"
     "Maybe you should ask her," Makoto sighed.  "Okay, enough
with the death-grip, huggy girl.  Dinner's ready."
     "Just in time," Usagi grinned.  "I hear the others coming
downstairs."  Usagi whirled and dashed to the door, then paused.
     "Mako-chan?  You're really okay?"
     "I'm fine," Makoto told her.  "I promise."
     "'Kay."  With that, the girl was gone in a swirl of long blonde
ponytails, leaving Makoto alone.
     Try to get along, huh?  Well, she had been trying.  But every
single thing that happened just seemed designed to arouse her ire.  Rei
being a Sister, Rei mauling Ami in some erotic dance-cum-spell, Lily
being a Sister, Rei and Ami the sequel ...
     Rei had always gotten to Makoto, ever since the beginning.  Part
of that Makoto had written off as Lily's legacy, which had left her with
a distrust of sultry, seductive women.  Rei had never used her charms to
get what she wanted from the others, though, at least not blatantly, and
Makoto had relaxed her guard somewhat over time.  Still, of all the
Inners, Makoto had kept the most distance between Rei and herself.
     Was that now coming back to haunt her?  Or had her instincts
been right all along?

***

     Dinner turned out to be nearly as loud as the discussion we'd
had with Hotaru.
     "Absolutely not!" Haruka protested loudly.
     "Wait a minute," Minako began.
     "She's right about time being short," Makoto interjected.  "I had
an idea myself."
     "Now hold on!" Haruka growled, shifting her attention from
Minako to Makoto.
     "This sounds fool-hardy," Setsuna added, "and poorly thought
out."
     "Be fair, Setsuna," Rei said coolly, feeding tiny morsels to
Phobos and Deimos while she ate.  "You haven't heard the details of
our plan yet, and not even the general outline of Makoto's."
     "Actually, Mamo-chan and I were thinking of something we
could do as well," Usagi piped up.
     "It's a mutiny," Haruka declared.  "That's what it is, a mutiny."
     They all yelled.  I ate.  The food was great, and there was no
telling when I'd have a chance to eat again.  I listened as things got
hashed out.  Apparently, Rei hadn't been the only one thinking of
constructive things to do while Baniesti got closer and closer.
     "You want to divide our forces," Haruka said at last after
several plans had been sketched out.
     "We need to cover a lot of ground," Usagi countered.  "And we
don't know how long Hotaru will be, or even if her source will know
anything useful."
     "Hotaru's source is highly placed, this much we know," Setsuna
told her.
     "And all this may not yield anything of use," Michiru added.
     "We can't just sit around waiting for the perfect time to act,"
Makoto said, pushing her plate away.  "We need to get out there and
start digging."
     "I agree," Minako nodded.  Nobody asked me what I thought.
If they had, I'd have told them dinner was great.  All things considered,
not a particularly insightful comment, so it was just as well that nobody
asked me.
     "So let me see if I've got this straight," Haruka sighed, pinching
the bridge of her nose.  "Rei, you want to take Minako and Ranma and
check out this Tyrian estate by masquerading as priestesses of the Dark
Lady."
     "Piece of cake," Rei said with a sleek smile.  "Since I used to be one."
     "A discussion for another time, I assure you," Haruka said
darkly.  "Makoto, you want to talk to these werecats that the Inners
have a truce with."
     "I can find Rin or one of his people," Makoto told her.  "The
shifters hate vampires as much as anybody, and they have eyes
everywhere.  If I tell them what to look for, we might get a hit on the
Sisterhood or the vamp.  It's worth a try, I figure.  I'll take Ami as back-
up."
     "Right," Haruka said, shaking her head.  "And Usagi, you and
Mamoru intend to pay a visit to someone from Alieva's temple?  Before
Hotaru left she mentioned that course of action, and you thought it was a
bad idea."
     "She wanted to turn the White Sisters loose on the Sisterhood,"
Usagi protested.  "I just want to find them."
     "Usagi still knows some people in the temple," Mamoru added,
leaning back in his chair.  "If they have any sort of a line on the
Sisterhood, maybe we can get some help that won't jeopardise her
promise."
     "Ah, yes," Setsuna murmured, lacing her fingers together and
resting her chin in them while she pinned Usagi with her gaze.  "That
promise."
     "While all this is going on, what exactly do we do?" Michiru
asked.  I couldn't read her very well, but she almost seemed amused by
this discussion.
     "Um, you stay here and hold down the fort?" Minako asked.
     "And watch over Yoshi," Makoto added.
     "This is revenge," Haruka said, throwing her arms out
despairingly.  "For all the times in the early days when we left you all at
home."
     "We've forgotten all about that," Minako said dismissively, her
words belied by the glint in her eye.  "Haven't we, girls?"  There was a
not entirely convincing chorus of agreement.
     "Look," Haruka began.
     "They have a point, Haruka," Setsuna interrupted.  "Time
grows short.  We cannot afford not to act."
     Haruka looked at her for a moment, then turned to the others.
"All right," she said.  "All right.  You won't listen to me.  Hells, Usagi
has earned the right to command you all, a point which has been made
repeatedly.  But I at least want you all to have our comm channel
frequency, and the encryption codes we're using.   That way, if
something should go wrong, you'll be able to call us for assistance."
     "I'll take care of that right now," Artemis said, perking up.
Luna, who had been sitting beside him throughout dinner, didn't look
happy, casting looks at Usagi.
     "Then we have a plan of action," Setsuna declared.
     "Hotaru's going to be unhappy," Haruka muttered.
     "Not if we find out something useful," Rei pointed out.
     "Come on," Usagi said.  "With all of us digging, somebody's
got to find something."
     "I hope so, Princess," Setsuna said, her expression grave.
"Because time grows short, and we still don't know what the Sisterhood
has planned for tomorrow night."

***

     Yurina looked around her bedchamber and sighed.  She had
decorated it to her tastes as best she could, but tonight it seemed like just
another room in a long succession of rooms.  She longed for
permanence, a sense of belonging, a place to call her own.  Once the
Dark Lady was revived, she dared to hope that her dreams would come
to pass.
     The Black Rose stared out the window at the lights of the city,
fluttering her fan in languid, graceful arcs.  They were so close now, yet
every sparkling light seemed gravid with danger.  After struggling for so
very long, could it be possible that they were finally on the verge of
realizing the most fervent wish of every follower of Dasma for
generations?
     She recalled again Rei's face, and her brow creased, fan ceasing
its subtle dance.  Such a simple lie had the traitor told, unworthy of one
who had been so accomplished as a Sister.  But doubt nagged at the
back of Yurina's mind, a poisonous little itch that could not be
scratched.  Was it possible that Rei actually believed what she had said?
Could she have somehow been tricked into acting against the Sisterhood
in the belief that she was serving them?
     That could explain why Rei had chosen the sailor girls over her
former comrades.  It could also explain why the senshi had not killed
Yurina outright when she had been at their mercy, or at least left her to
the hungers of the denizens of Shadow.  And that would mean that Rei
Darkeyes was still the girl Yurina had known and admired, and not a
traitor after all.  At least, not in her heart.
     And what about you? she asked herself wryly.  Lying to the
Nightmistress about such a trivial thing.  That was foolish.  And
unnecessary.
     Yurina recalled those eyes again, green as the lush canopies of
Errith, and closed her eyes.  She had seen many things in those eyes:
sullen anger, hurt, longing.  And of course desire, which she herself had
put there to wash the other emotions away.  But today she had seen
white-hot fury, made all the worse because she knew that it was not
entirely unwarranted.
     She laughed then, a dry, bitter sound.  Not entirely
unwarranted?  If their positions were reversed, she would feel the same
hatred.  That girl had no way of knowing the truth about what had
happened back then.  She had no way of knowing the fury and anguish
Yurina had suffered when she had learned the truth; that those deaths,
and all of the darkness she had wrought, were all for nothing.  And even
if she knew, would she care?
     Enough.  The past could not be changed.  Gods knew, Yurina
had wished often enough that it could be, but such wishes were the
flutterings of gaily coloured butterflies against the tempest of reality.
And if a part of her was glad that Makki the stubborn, lonely, beautiful
street rat had survived, the rest of her knew that they were enemies now.
Even if Makoto had not become Jupiter, they would have been enemies.
And if that enmity had been incurred for the sake of the Sisterhood, then
Yurina could have borne it.  That thought had carried her through many
times when nothing else could.  But for the mercenary hunger of such
contemptible little men?  That ate at her still.
     She was pulled from her reverie by a timid knock at her door.
Pulling the heavy drapes closed, she moved over to the door.  She had
been preparing for bed, and was clad only in a sleek confection of
lavender silk.  Her unbound hair swayed across her back as she walked.
     "Bella," Yurina murmured as she opened the door.
     "I am sorry to disturb you so late," the Maiden said, bowing her
head so that her heavy curls hid her face.  "But all the Sisters are
occupied with preparations, and ... and I ..."  The girl stopped,
seemingly lost.
     "Come in," Yurina said, taking the girl gently by the hands and
drawing her inside.
     "I'm sorry," Bella said again, her eyes huge dark pools rimmed
by long lashes.  Yurina looked into those eyes and chided herself
silently.  She should have seen this coming.
     She led Bella to the bed, where they sat side by side.  Yurina
twined her fingers with the other girl's, setting her fan aside and raising
her free hand to stroke the unruly curls that framed that angelic face.
     "Everyone is so busy," Bella said suddenly, the words tumbling
out in a rush.  "There isn't time for ... what I mean is ..."
     "I am sorry, Bella," Yurina interrupted gently.  "You and Jade
were quite close.  This must be hard for you."
     Bella's bee-stung lips parted, trembled, closed again.  "Oh, but,
you ... I mean, your loss would have been a terrible blow to the
Sisterhood.  I didn't mean ..."
     "Once the Dark Lady returns to us, another Black Rose could be
created were I lost," Yurina said softly.  "In truth, I tire of the restrictions
placed upon me sometimes, but I must act for the good of the
Sisterhood."
     "I know," Bella mumbled, and Yurina slipped her fingers under
the girl's chin, lifting it gently until their gazes met.
     "It is all right to grieve for her, Bella.  I know it seems as though
her sacrifice has not been honoured, but when our Dark Lady is returned
to us, all those who died in her service will be remembered."
     Bella's petite frame shuddered, tears welling up in her eyes.
Yurina gently drew the girl's head down against her breast and Bella
curled up against her, sobs wracking her body.  Yurina held the girl,
letting her tears run their course.  There was no shame in mourning the
loss of the woman who had been her comrade, partner, and lover.  Of
course, it was easier for the Maidens.  If Bella had been a Sister, she
would have had to guard her emotions more carefully.
     "It's not fair," Bella sniffed at last, head cradled in Yurina's lap.
"Just one more night.  Just one more night and she would have gotten to
see our Dark Lady revived.  She was so happy."
     "Hush," Yurina crooned, stroking the long soft curls
comfortingly.
     "Did you see, Yurina?  Was it ... was it bad?"
     "Her death was mercifully swift," Yurina said softly.  She
recalled the severed arm; she could hardly be certain that Jade had died
swiftly, but this lie was a mercy to the living, and could harm nothing.
"She died fighting."
     "She would have," Bella said with a breathy sigh.  "I can't
imagine her going without a fight.  She always thought ..."
     Yurina knew what the tear-stained girl had been about to say.
"Do you resent me?" she asked Bella, her tone soft, sisterly.
     "No!" Bella blurted, turning to look up into Yurina's eyes.
     "The truth now, little one.  You can tell me."
     Bella squirmed under Yurina's gaze.  "I know you must do your
duty.  You are our Black Rose.  But she so wanted to be a Sister.  She
was so strong, so beautiful.  I wanted to see her succeed."
     "I know," Yurina sighed, brushing the hair back from Bella's
pale cheeks.  "But I sensed her weakness, her uncertainty.  A Sister with
such a weakness could be turned against us, Bella.  It may seem cruel,
but I must judge."
     "I know," Bella said in a little-girl voice.  "But what about the
traitor?  She turned against us, didn't she?"
     "There is a difference between turning and being turned,"
Yurina replied.  "In the beginning, she left us because she learned the
truth about Griitna.  Now?  Who can say?  The Dark Lady will judge
her, my sweet.  If her motives are found wanting, then she will be
punished."
     "Yes," Bella whispered, her dark eyes gleaming.  "Punished.
And the others?  These White Moon girls?  Will She punish them, too?"
     "Oh, yes," Yurina assured her, fingers lingering on the contour
of the girl's cheeks.  "Shall I tell you about that punishment, my Bella?"
     Bella nodded, her eyes wide as she snuggled up against Yurina
like a child waiting for her bedtime story.  So Yurina wrapped the girl in
a spellbinding snare of lilting words and soft touches, easing her pain
and letting her rest.
     Soon enough, Baniesti would be upon them.

***

     The Royal Gardens were a wonder.  Magicks within the soaring
crystalline dome kept the dizzying profusion of plants alive and in
bloom regardless of the season.  Visitors flocked to see exotic trees,
bushes and flowers from all over the world.
     Of course, there were no visitors at this late hour, only the heady
scents of lush blossoms, nearly cloying in the warm, still air.  It was a
fine place for a romantic rendezvous.
     Which, Saturn thought darkly, was just typical.
     "Ah," Gar said as she pushed her way past a flowering bush that
was nearly as tall as she.  "At last.  Such lovely blossoms, yet they pale
next to ..."
     "Yes, yes," she sighed, fighting the urge to roll her eyes.  "Gods,
man.  Don't you ever turn it off?"
     "Of course not," Gar said with a roguish smile.  "A man has to
be prepared for any eventuality."
     "Such as the eventuality that I might suffer brain damage and
succumb to your sophomoric advances?"
     "Ah, cruelty, thy name is woman," he parried, pushing off the
trunk of a golden pine and walking over to her.  He was a big man; she
had to tilt her head back to meet his eyes.  Saturn knew he was making
her do that on purpose, waiting to see if she would suffer from neck
strain or step back.  She did neither.
     "There are some sights here worth seeing," she admitted, turning
her back on him to gaze at a riotous explosion of tropical colour in the
form of dozens of huge blossoms.  "What are these called?"
     "I call them, 'My Passion for Saturn,'" Gar announced
sombrely.  Saturn sighed, but did not move, and finally Gar walked
around into her field of view, no longer crowding her.
     "I trust the information on the sphere was useful?" she asked,
crossing her arms.
     "Ah," he shot back with a lopsided grin.  "So it's to be a little
quid for the pro quo, is it?"
     "We have both benefited from our relationship," Saturn pointed
out.  "I have some information that you may find useful, and in return I
will ask that you endeavour to find something out for me.  Deal?"
     "Sounds reasonable enough," Gar agreed.  "Since we're both
familiar with the ground rules, I suppose we can dispense with the
formalities.  What have you got to interest the queen's favourite
bloodhound?"
     "Let's talk about vampires," Saturn replied, that familiar rush of old
anger tightening in her gut.  She kept her feelings off her face, however; a
lifetime of hiding her pain away made that second nature.  "That was a
very astute move, blaming the attack at the police tower on her.  Allowed
Her Majesty to dodge some, if not all, of the political ramifications of
declaring martial law while increasing her ability to deal with the
vampire.  Your idea, I suppose?"
     "You flatter me," Gar said easily, but a watchfulness had veiled
his eyes.  "Not without cause, mind you.  I suppose you want me to find
out who was really behind the attack?"
     "Not necessary," Saturn told him, cupping one of the fragrant
blossoms in her gloved hand and breathing in its scent.  "As it turns out,
the vampire was the actual culprit."
     She turned in time to catch the flicker of surprise that slipped
through his usual facade of roguishness, and fought the urge to smile.
Gar liked to try and keep her off-balance when they spoke.  It was
refreshing to return the favour.
     "Perhaps you would like to tell me exactly how you came to that
conclusion," Gar said finally, crossing his arms across his broad chest.
"Since my people are still examining the evidence."
     "My people are extraordinary," she shot back.  All that she was
about to tell him had come from Usagi and her girls, of course, a fact that
Saturn was painfully aware of.  Still, he did not need to know that.
     "And they look better in short skirts than a lot of mine," Gar
admitted breezily.  "Still, I can't just go to my cousin and say that I
believe you because you are exquisitely lovely in moonlight, my dear
Saturn."
     "I can't imagine that Her Majesty tolerates your particular brand
of irreverence especially well," Saturn sighed.
     "Well, I am Her favourite cousin."
     "I should hate to meet the others, then.  As to the matter at hand,
all of what you are about to hear comes to me from my people.
Corroboration will prove difficult, as you will come to understand, but
time is of the essence.  Tomorrow night is Baniesti."
     "So?" Gar asked, raising his eyebrows.
     "We believe that this vampire is manipulating the Sisters of
Shadows into performing a ceremony that will serve her purposes."
     "Dasma's group?  That's a stretch.  They're a pretty savvy
bunch, you know."  Gar looked unconvinced, and Saturn fought the urge
to snap at him.
     "Indeed.  However, they believe that tomorrow night they will be
performing a ceremony to revive their Dark Lady.  They are in
possession of an artifact that is purportedly Dasma's whip, as well as
others that will allow them to perform this ceremony.  They have no idea
that they are being deceived."
     "So what makes you so certain that they are?" Gar asked her.
     "My people spoke with the real Banri," Saturn told him.  "Inside
Osiren Black, where she guards her mistress.  She told them that the
place where the fake was found had never been completed.  She denied
that this ceremony would release her mistress."
     "Osiren Black," Gar repeated softly.  He turned to stare out over
the gardens, and Saturn was struck by the sight of his profile.  She had
never seen the man take anything seriously, yet in this moment he seemed
affected by what she had said.  "I never would have taken you for a
supporter of the Dark Lady, Saturn.  Most folks would associate your
girls with Alieva."
     "It is not a matter of support," Saturn told him.  "The Sisterhood
set its sights on some of my girls, and during the course of things this all
came to light.  We ..."
     "Where?" Gar asked.  Saturn blinked, uncertain for a moment
what he was referring to.  "Osiren Black," he went on, turning to face her
fully.  "Where is it?"
     "That is hardly germane," she said, exasperated.  "This situation
..."
     "Saturn."  The tone of his voice stopped her; all trace of
flirtatiousness was gone, and his face seemed wreathed in shadows.  "I
am a knower of secrets, a man who collects them and holds them close.
You want a favour from me?  I want this information.  You know that I
am not someone who treats secrets lightly."
     She studied his face in the shadows, suspicion nibbling at the
back of her mind.  She and Gar enjoyed a mutually beneficial
relationship, but his motivations and goals were not always clear to her.
She didn't go quite so far as to doubt his loyalty to the crown, but he
certainly did seem to play his cards close to his chest at the best of times.
Still, she could not find a reason to deny him.  What could he do with
such a secret?
     "Very well," she acquiesced.  "Osiren Black currently resides in
Aethyr Realm.  Hanging above something called the Abyss, where it has
only recently appeared.  That is as specific as I can be."
     "That is as specific as you need to be," he sighed.  Gar stepped
closer, the light sliding over his face again, chasing the shadows away.
"Well, well.  That is ... interesting.  All right, Saturn.  So the Sisterhood
has been rooked.  Who says it's the vampire?"
     "The police tower attack," Saturn told him.  "The timing was
quite suspicious.  The body of a murdered Tyrian noble had just been
brought in for routine examination.  That woman was the mother of the
current Nightmistress, and her body was among those that vanished
during the attack.  The woman using the sphere was a Sister who
appeared to be under some form of control.  And many of the bodies
taken from the morgue were found in Shadow Realm by my people, but
not that of Cyrie der Kae."
     "Shadow?  Aethyr?  I had no idea your people got around so
much.  And how exactly did you know about the missing bodies from the
morgue?"  That cynical glint was back in Gar's eye.
     "You are not my only source of information," Saturn said,
smiling thinly.  She could almost see the wheels turning in Gar's head as
he stood there.  "So, we have a vampire who uses Shadow Magick.  We
have bodies discarded in Shadow Realm.  We have a devastating but
ultimately pointless attack on the police tower involving a Sister being
controlled, and the disappearance of a woman's body which, according to
my sources, would have shown signs of vampiric attack.  Said woman
was the mother of the Nightmistress, and her untimely death may have
drawn the Sisterhood here."
     "Okay," he said at last.  "You make a strong case for the vamp's
involvement.  But what in the hells is she up to?"
     "That," Saturn told him, "I do not know.  But if we can find the
Sisterhood before Baniesti, we can stop them."
     "If my people find them, we can stop them, too," Gar reminded her.
"We're good at stuff like that."
     "I would like to stop them with as little bloodshed as possible,"
Saturn added.  "Our princess made a promise to Banri."
     "Did she, now?  How curious.  Why would she do such a thing?"
     "That is between the princess and Banri," Saturn informed him,
unwilling to admit that she, too was very curious as to what would
possess Usagi to do such a thing.  "But I hardly see why you should be
concerned about Sailor Moon's relationship with an emissary of the Dark
Lady.  Unless you are a worshipper of Alieva?"  Saturn had never known
the man to show favour to any of the gods, but there were those who kept
such matters secret.
     "Nope," the big man said with a wry grin.  "Doesn't do to get
involved in petty squabbles in my line of work, even if they are between
goddesses."
     "Then you will help?"
     "I'll do what I can to locate the Sisters," he told her, rubbing his
palm along his jaw.  "And if I find them, I'll give you first crack.  But
Saturn, if these women are doing a vamp's bidding, then we have to stop
them.  One way or another."
     "I am aware of that," she said.  "I am hoping that someone with your
resources can locate them in time.  It is a big city."
     "And there isn't much time," he sighed.  "Ah, the things I'll do
for a beautiful woman."
     "One more thing," Saturn said, catching him as he turned to go.
     "A nightcap?" he asked with a crooked grin.
     "A rumour.  At least, considering the source, I would call it one.
While in Shadow, my people were told that succubi are entering our
realm through some sort of gate located beneath the palace.  They are
operating under the command of someone called the Crimson Queen."
     "Nonsense!" Gar laughed.  "Do you have any idea how closely
the palace is guarded?  Nothing goes on around it that isn't caught by
dozens of mundane and mystical scans."
     "As I said, a rumour," Saturn shrugged.  "But, as the succubus in
question seemed to have little to gain by lying, I thought it prudent to
pass it along."
     "I appreciate that," Gar told her, still grinning.  "But you'll
excuse me if I put it at the bottom of the pile, along with sightings of
Desidinder and Train 13."
     "As long as finding the Sisterhood remains your priority," Saturn
said.
     "If it involves our vamp, then it is a priority," he told her.  "Don't
worry, if I find them, you'll be the first to know."
     "Keep in touch," she replied.  Then she walked into the night,
leaving the oasis of tropical warmth behind.
 
***

     Gar watched Saturn disappear through the lush foliage, the mirth
slowly draining from his expression.  For a long moment he merely stood
there, then at last he drew himself to his full height, shaking himself
lightly as though waking from a doze.
     "So," he said softly.
     Just that.  Then he sketched a shape in the air with his hand,
turning it over with the sort of flourish a stage magician might use.  In his
large, square palm rested a small box, dark surface smooth and
unassuming.  He stared down at it, his expression shading into something
akin to wistfulness for a moment.
     "Looks like it's finally showtime, Bowser," he muttered.
     Then light appeared around him, coalescing into a gleaming
portal that hung in the air, shimmering with power.
     Gar stepped through, and was gone.

***

     Oh, here it comes, Rei thought darkly.  The heavy hairbrush
paused in mid-stroke as she watched Minako's reflection enter the
bedroom.  The girl gave Rei's inner sanctum a brief but attentive going
over as she moved closer.  Minako's deliberate casualness irritated Rei,
although she struggled not to show it.  Things were strained enough.
     "Nice," Minako said.  The forced ebullience in the blonde's voice
set Rei's teeth on edge.  Minako was usually pretty good at lying,
evading, and prevaricating, but Rei was familiar with the Aino Let's-
Make-a-Big-Deal-Not-Such-a-Big-Deal technique.  In truth, she'd been
expecting this particular gambit; Minako would want to smooth things
over before they left the apartment.
     A sound idea, in theory.  But Rei was still pissed.  Rei didn't
want to play.
     "How's Ranma?" she asked, going back to her hair.  Minako had
come up with a simple yet sexy black dress to wear, a shoulder-baring
little number that showed her curves nicely while contrasting with her
unbound honey-blonde hair.  She looked the part, at least.  Not that Rei
had had any doubt Minako would rise to that occasion.
     "Finally getting ready," Minako told her.  "Hey, Rei ..."
     "Let's not do this now, okay?" Rei sighed.
     "Do what?"  Wonderful.  Now Miss Puzzled Innocence had put in an
appearance.
     "You don't want to talk about it.  I don't want to hear about it.
So we're good."
     "Damn it, I can't believe that you still don't trust me!" Minako
griped.
     "What part of let's not do this now ...?"
     "So it's okay for you to have secrets, but not anyone else?"
Minako blurted.  Rei slammed the brush down on the dark wood of the
dressing table and spun around to face the other girl.
     "Is that really what this is about?" she gritted.  This was just what
Rei did not want, recriminations made in anger.  "You want to get back
at me for keeping secrets?"
     No!" Minako exclaimed, pink spots appearing high in her cheeks.
"No, Rei, you know that's not true!"
     "I don't know what to think," Rei shot back, standing so she
could look the blonde in the eye.  "But it's not like you to let personal
issues get in the way of senshi business, Minako.  So think what you
want, I'm not going to apologize for being worried!"
     "So this is my fault?  That's what you think?"
     "I think I said let's not do this, remember?  You're the one who
pushed, not me!"
     "Fine!"  Minako spun neatly and stomped out the door, slamming
it behind her.  Rei pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed, exasperated.
She should have handled that better.  As a Sister, she would have used
any number of techniques to soothe Minako's anger, to coax her into
revealing the source of her anxiety.
     But Rei couldn't bring herself to manipulate her friend so.  And
why should she have to?  They were friends, weren't they?  They cared
for each other, shouldn't that be enough?  Shouldn't ...?
     The door burst open again and Minako sailed through, slamming
it behind her as she stood glaring at Rei, obviously in a high temper.
     "And another thing ...!" the blonde began.
     "Get out!" Rei snapped, pointing at the door.  Minako tossed her
hair.
     "Fine!"
     "If it's fine, then go!"
     Another door-slamming, and Rei was alone again.  She shook her
head, plopping down onto her bed, her movements devoid of her usual
grace.  This was idiotic.  Why were they fighting amongst themselves at
such a time, anyway?  This reminded Rei painfully of the early days,
when they hadn't yet trusted each other.  Everything in those days had
been rife with drama and tension.  Hadn't they come further than this?
     The door opened again, slammed as Minako entered.  The blonde
stomped across the floor and flung herself onto the bed behind Rei,
bouncing the priestess with the force of the impact.  Before Rei could get
up, Minako's arms wrapped themselves around her neck from behind.
     "You smell nice," Minako said in a small voice, her mouth near
Rei's ear.  Rei's body remained stiff.  Contrite Minako, hmm?  Well, Rei
was in no mood to be charmed.
     "Bessin root oil," Rei told her brusquely.  "You want to be
careful with ..."
     "I'm sorry," Minako whispered.  "Really."
     Damn.  Rei took a deep breath, let some of the tension flow out of
her body.  "Me, too," she sighed softly.  "Look, Minako, I know things
have been rough recently, but we can't do this.  You have to get your
head in this thing.  Okay?"
     "'Kay," Minako agreed.  Rei sighed again.  This would have to
do, at least for now.  Pushing any harder would be counterproductive.
She made to get up, but Minako did not release her grip.  "Rei," she
asked softly, "do you know what a soft marker is?"
     "Yes," Rei said cautiously.  Minako squirmed behind her, fingers
twining nervously over Rei's collarbone.
     "I didn't really rob that estate," Minako told her at last, chin resting on
Rei's shoulder.
     "Oh, hells," Rei sighed as the implications sank in.  She turned so that
she could look at Minako, but the girl shifted her gaze to stare down at
the bed.  "Now I get it.  Damn it, Minako ..."
     "I would have told you if I thought it made a difference," Minako
breathed, her eyes wide.  "Really, I would have.  I was just hoping that I
wouldn't have to tell.  But I should have, Rei.  I'm sorry.  I know you're
mad, and I don't blame you."
     "I'm not mad.  But Minako, you shouldn't go back there," Rei told
her, tenderly stroking loose strands of honey-blonde hair back from the
girl's face.
     "I don't want to go," Minako said heavily.  "But I do have to.  I
know the layout of the place.  I spent enough time there.  If there is
anything useful hidden inside there, I can find it."
     "She might recognize you," Rei murmured, torn.  Minako had a point.
"And her guards might recognize Venus."
     She had expected vehement denials or a plaintive protest, but
instead Minako smiled, her face lighting up.  She leaned in to kiss the
corner of Rei's mouth lightly.
     "No problem," she replied, hugging Rei tightly and nuzzling her.
     "Careful of the hair," Rei sighed as her sable locks spilled over
Minako's bare arms and throat.  "Bessin root oil, remember?"
     "Ah, I'm already under your spell," Minako beamed, bouncing to
her feet.  "And check this out!"
     She produced a piece of jewellery with a flourish, all traces of her
earlier moodiness gone.  Rei wasn't fooled, but she would let the girl get
away with it for now.  Later, the two of them would be speaking of this
matter in depth.  All that mattered now was that Minako had opened up
to her.
     That mattered a lot.
     "Okay, I give," Rei sighed, combing her hair into place with her
fingers.  "What is it?"
     "This, my love, is the Crescent Compact!" Minako announced.  "Just
a little gadget Artemis made for me in the early days, before I joined up."
     "That cat does spoil you," Rei remarked.
     "You're just jealous because Phobos and Deimos can't make
neat stuff," Minako sniffed.
     "I'll tell them you said so," Rei said, eyeing the gold crescent in
Minako's hand.  "So, what does it do?"
     "This and that," the blonde remarked, that mischievous twinkle back
in her eyes as she unfolded the compact and began fiddling with it.  "For
this particular situation, though, it has one significantly useful ability.  It
can lay multiple layers of glamour over each other, like laying a shroud
glamour without utilising a recognition glamour.  Or you can leave a
recog in place and switch between multiple shrouds.  Or ..."
     "Whoa," Rei grimaced.  Magick tech and gadgetry were not her
strong suits.  "What does all that techno-babble mean?"
     "It appears," Minako beamed, "that a demonstration is in order."
     Great.  Minako was not one to pass up an opportunity to show
off.  Still, it helped dispel the tension that still lingered, so Rei sat back
and watched as Minako held the gleaming crescent up.  She could make
a few minutes for Minako to get herself back in fighting trim.
     "For instance," Minako declared, "I can change my clothes
without changing my appearance."  Her black dress glowed with motes
of light, resolving itself into an airy confection of gauzy veils and
jewellery.
     "Our henshin rods can do that," Rei pointed out wryly.  "As I recall."
     "Heh," Minako chuckled ruefully, sticking her tongue out.
"True enough, but only if you transform.  And they only hold four
templates.  This holds lots more.  And observe!"  Minako glowed again,
and when the light faded her clothing was the same but her appearance
had changed.  It was hard to tell how much, of course.  Having watched
the transformation, looking at Minako's face was like looking at a picture
of two white faces in silhouette and having them resolve into a black
vase.  Rei only glimpsed the altered visage momentarily before she
automatically picked out Minako's familiar features.
     "So you can change just your appearance, or your clothes, or
both," Rei said.  "You could have just said that."
     "Then I wouldn't sound nearly as smart," Minako pouted.  "But
it also works when I'm transformed, so I have my powers but not look
like Sailor Venus."
     "I get it," Rei said, standing.  "You're on top of this thing, Mina.
You've got the angles covered."
     Minako flushed with pleasure.  Rei knew the girl was probably
more pleased at Rei's use of her nickname than the praise itself.  Well,
good.  After all, Minako really had covered the angles.  Even if she
hadn't wanted to reveal her secret, she had ensured that she would not
give them away.  Rei should have known the girl wouldn't let her
personal problems endanger a mission.
     "Hey, come on," Minako blurted suddenly, reverting to her
original dress.  "You've got to see Ranma.  Trust me, you're going to
like this!"
     Knowing Minako, there was little doubt in Rei's mind about that.

***

     I'd thought the bickering, shouting, and door-slamming had been
bad, but the quiet that followed was far more unnerving.  I was beginning
to have serious reservations about this plan, what with the obvious
tension between Minako and Rei.  I wasn't sure what they were fighting
about, but confronting an enemy should take precedence as far as I was
concerned.
     I'd thought that stopping at Rei's place had been a bad idea.
After all, Rei herself had admitted that the Sisterhood could still be
watching her apartment.  Or course, she'd gone on to point out that we
were ultimately after the Sisterhood, not this Tyrian noble.  If the Sisters
attacked us here they'd be saving us a lot of trouble.
     Hard to argue with that logic, and I didn't try.  Phobos and
Deimos were on lookout, and would provide advance warning if anyone
tried to ambush us.  Unfortunately, nobody had attacked.
     Which meant I was going to be stuck wearing this outfit.  I
understood the necessity, and I had worn women's clothing before.  And I
did look the part.  The outfit was sexy as hell, definitely the kind of thing
a Sister would wear.  It was just a little, well, extreme.
     First, there was the body stocking.  Actually, stocking was a huge
overstatement; it was a black fishnet affair that made Minako's tight dress
look like a tarpaulin.  At least I got a thong to wear under it.
     God, on the list of things I never thought I'd say, that would have
to be right up near the top.
     The outfit started off with a skirt that rode low on my hips.  It was
long, hanging down nearly to my ankles, with a long slit up one side.
There was a belt that rode across the front, black with a big gleaming
silver buckle on the high side of the arch.  I wondered if it was real silver;
if so, then at the very least I could use it to whack any werecats we came
across.
     The jacket matched the skirt.  That was the best thing I could say
about it.  Oh, it was nice enough, stylishly cut, cropped high at the waist,
with wide shoulders, and it was made of leather so supple that it nearly
felt like cloth.  The problem was that the thing didn't close in the front.  It
wasn't a size issue; the damned thing wasn't supposed to close.  Each
side covered my nipples and a couple of extra inches before leaving the
rest of my chest completely exposed, not to mention the area between the
bottom of the jacket and the top of the skirt.  Which was a lot.  A simple
black choker finished off the outfit; I'd managed to talk Minako out of
earrings or other jewellery.
     I was saved from contemplating my reflection in the floor-length
mirror when the door to Rei's bedroom opened and the girls came out.  I
could tell immediately that something had defused the tension between
them.  Fighting one minute, best friends the next, huh?  Well, whatever.
It was better this way, better for our mission at least.
     "You like?" Minako asked Rei, gesturing at me.  "It was in with the
stuff you said was suitable."
     "It's a Sisterhood duelling outfit," Rei remarked, giving me a once
over that must have left my face as red as my hair.  "A bit much for
calling on nobility, but I suppose it won't hurt to have an attack dog with
us.  Just for show, of course."
     "I don't know," I retorted.  "It's a little drafty, you know?"
     "Well, I suppose we could go with an alternate option," Minako
remarked as she walked around me.  Her hand brushed against my back
and I felt a strange tingle; at least, it wasn't the tingle I usually associated
with her touch.
     Whoa.  Bad mental direction.  I tried to steer my thoughts back
into safer territory, stopped as I saw Rei trying very hard not to smile.
     "Minako," she said, almost sounding reproachful.
     "What?" I asked.  "What's up?"
     Then I looked down.
     Risque as my outfit had been, what I was now wearing made it
seem positively demure.  I squawked, dancing in place as I tried in vain
to cover myself with my hands.  I was now wearing what looked for all
the world like a long piece of string, one that looped behind my neck and
then plunged down to cover each nipple.  Barely.  The string widened
marginally at crotch level, but I really didn't want to examine the alleged
outfit too closely.
     "Minako!" I bellowed instead.
     "You don't like it?" Minako asked.  "It's from my minimalist
period ..."
     "Bring the other one back!  I'll wear it, okay?  Come on!"
     Smiling sweetly, she reached around me and let her fingers brush
against the small of my back.  It felt like something was there, pinned
against my bare skin where the string looped over my hips.  As she
removed whatever she had put there, that tingle swept over me again and
the blonde stepped back, a crooked smile on her glossy red lips.
     "Well, I liked the other one better," she sighed theatrically, "but
if you're sure ..."
     "Cute," I muttered darkly.  "Okay, I get the picture.  It could be
worse.  But seriously, isn't there any more to this get-up?  Like, I don't
know, a shirt?"
     "It gives maximum effect just like that," Rei told me, giving me a
thorough appraisal.
     "I'll be giving the world maximum effect if there's the slightest
gust of wind," I told her archly.  "How'm I supposed to walk in this
thing, much less fight?"  I fluttered the edges of the jacket morosely.
     "There's a secret," Rei told me.
     "Oh, don't!" Minako objected.  "I was looking forward to a few
gusts of wind!"
     Rei ignored her, coming over to me.  She slipped her hands inside
the jacket, and the room suddenly got ten degrees hotter.
     "There are little hooks here," she murmured, standing
uncomfortably close as her hands moved in dangerous proximity to my
breasts.  "They attach to the mesh, which keeps the top from blowing
open.  The idea is to tease, not to flash."  She looked up as she said that,
meeting my eyes from only inches away, and the temperature spiked even
higher.  She smelled terrific, and there was a glint in her dark eyes that
told me she was enjoying this as much as Minako would have.
     Swell.  This, I needed.
     "And these pads here," she went on, her voice thrumming
through my nerves in a low register, "keep the nipples from getting
chafed by ..."
     "No chafing!" I blurted.  "Chafing bad!  Got it!  I do have
breasts, you know!"
     "Yes," she breathed.  "I noticed."
     "Ah-HEM," Minako interrupted.  "Rei, you're making him
nervous.  That's MY job."
     "He doesn't look much like a he just now," Rei said with a sultry
smile.  "You can carry off a femme fatale attitude, can't you, Ranma?"
     "Of course he can," Minako declared as Rei slowly withdrew her
hands.  She never made contact with my skin, but my flesh tightened and
tingled all along the path that her hands had taken.  She backed away
from me with a smile that told me I was hers for the taking, and my
mouth went dry as beach sand in August.
     "Good," Rei said softly, holding my gaze with hers.  "Remember
Ranma, you are a Sister, mistress of your own carnal power.  You must
make them believe that."
     "Got it," I replied.  It probably would have been more convincing
if my voice hadn't squeaked.
     "Okay, let's do something with your hair," Minako announced,
circling me with a critical eye.
     "What?" I asked, trying to regain my focus.  "What's wrong with
my hair?"
     "Boring," Minako replied absently.  "Good for fighting, not for
making an impression.  You always wear this braid."
     "Force of habit," I told her as she took my long red plait in her
hands.  I was seriously beginning to regret agreeing to place myself in her
hands as a condition of coming along.
     "Ah," she sighed as she untied the cord and began working the
braid loose.  "Nice.  Your hair is a beautiful colour, Ranma, and these
coppery highlights!  They really catch the light.  And it's got a nice wave
to it, too."
     "I suppose," I said dubiously as she combed her fingers through
my loose locks.  My unbound hair brushed the small of my back through
the mesh as she played with it, then I heard a spritzing sound and smelled
perfume.  "Hey!"
     "Just brushing some scent in," Minako informed me cheerfully.
"I don't suppose you have any of that bessin root oil left, Rei ..."
     "No chance," Rei told her, not looking up from fussing with her
earrings.  "That's not for amateurs."
     I wasn't accustomed to being called an amateur, but recalling the
effortless way Rei had sent my needles into the red, I figured I had to
concede the point.  Even having Minako brushing out my hair was
sending a mixture of pleasantly intimate and erotically charged
sensations through my body.  Yeah, I guessed amateur was pretty
accurate.
     The girls, in contrast, looked anything but amateur.  Rei's wore a dark
charcoal suit with narrow pinstripes, tailored to fit her curves like a
second skin.  The jacket was cut low in front, accentuating the swell of
her breasts, and her ivory blouse was unbuttoned along the line of the
jacket to reveal a pale triangle of skin.
     The thing that caught my eye was the choker she wore.  It had a small
device on the front, a silver skull with a red rose.  It looked classy, yet at
the same time somehow dangerous.  Kind of like the woman wearing it.
     Minako had opted for a simple dress, black and off the shoulder,
with a belt of small silver links.  The long sleeves almost reached the hem
of the skirt when her arms were at her sides.  Silver earrings glinted as
she moved, catching the light and throwing it off in tiny shimmers.
     "Well," she murmured, "I think we look the part.  What do you
say, Rei?"
     "We're as ready as we're ever going to be," Rei nodded.  "Just
remember, let me take the lead.  The less we say, the better.  Sisters
would not justify themselves, after all."
     "Got it," I said.
     "Of course, if we're wrong about this woman and she's not
conspiring with the Sisterhood, then things could get tense," Rei added.
"In that case, we should avoid conflict if possible."
     "Swell."  She meant we should run away.  I could do that, too.
 After all, we had to keep our eye on the ball, as it were.  We walked out
onto the landing and went down the spiral staircase to the small parking
lot behind the building.  Moments later, Phobos and Deimos had joined
us.
     "No sign of trouble," Phobos announced.
     "Yeah, it would have made things easier for us, but I guess the
Sisters have given up any surveillance they had here," Deimos added.
     "I'm not really surprised," Rei told us.  "Whatever they're doing,
I think it's taking up more and more of their resources as Baniesti
approaches.  Now that we want them around, they're going to be keeping
a low profile."
     "And you!" Deimos blurted, flying over to Minako.  "Rei-sama
doesn't need to be jealous!  Maybe we can't make gadgets, but can Artie
do this?"  She struck a sex-kitten pose in mid-air, pouting and moaning
provocatively while Minako whistled in appreciation.  I had no idea what
they were talking about, but then I was distracted by Phobos landing on
my shoulder.  I expected some sort of crack about my sexy get-up, but
instead she leaned close and spoke in a soft voice that would not carry.
     "Rei-sama wants you to stay close to Minako once you get inside
the estate," the little winged girl told me, pretending to watch Minako
and Deimos.  "And to react as ruthlessly as you did earlier if she is
threatened."
     "No problem," I told her.  I glanced over at the car where Rei
was standing, and she caught my gaze for a moment, giving me a tiny
nod.  I nodded back, then followed Minako as she joined Rei, still
sparring verbally with Deimos.
     So.  I wasn't the only one that had figured out that there was
more to Minako's link with this estate than she was telling.  And Rei was
worried enough that she wanted me watching Minako's back.  Fine by
me.  Everything I heard about these Tyrian nobles made me like them
less and less.
     Minako could pretend all she wanted; I knew as well as anyone
that sometimes you buried the past for a reason.  But if things got ugly,
well, so be it.
     I'd get ugly right back.

***

     Mamoru had been prepared to use his badge to get them through
any roadblocks they encountered, but that proved unnecessary.  Traffic
was far lighter than usual, but the announced curfew was hardly keeping
everyone indoors.  That might change over the next couple of days, as the
crown brought enough manpower into the city to close it down, but for
the moment the limited resources of the police department were being put
to use elsewhere.
     The car had been quiet since they had dropped Makoto and Ami
off.  Makoto had been ecstatic to find that her motorcycle had remained
unmolested, a fact that Mamoru attributed at least in part to the events of
the past couple of days.  Even the criminals were not immune to the sense
of peril that hung over the city.
     As they neared the exit that would take them off the expressway
and down toward the temple district, Mamoru found his gaze drawn off
to the left.  There, in the distance, stood a scarred goliath pinned against
the backdrop of night by hastily-rigged spotlights.  Mamoru had worked
out of the tower since being transferred to 55 Division two years ago, and
he had become fond of the old girl.  Once, all of the city's major police
divisions had been housed in the old defence towers left over from
the Sidhe Wars, but time, cost, and politics had eroded that particular
tradition.  Now, 55 was one of only three divisions to have that
distinction.
     And if the damage to the tower was too great to repair, then no
doubt that number would fall to two.
     "Mamo-chan," Usagi said softly.  "Are you all right?"
     "I'm fine," he told her with a sidelong glance and a brief smile.
"Just ... thinking."
     "A lot of people died today," she said, staring out the windshield
at the battered police tower.  "I know it must be hard for you.  Are you ...
I mean, I know you must wish you could be there.  With Yu and the
others.  You could still go.  I'd be fine."
     "Usako," he sighed.  "It's not that I don't want to be with them.  I
love this city, you know?  Even with its faults, all the dark places and all
the ugliness, its been home to my family for generations.  My mother was
a cop until she got shot, and my father was a soldier.  My mother's
family, the Chibas, have a long history of service to this city and the
kingdom.  Her parents were both soldiers, her mother in the Royal Guard
and her father the AAN.  I come from a line of people who have fought
and bled for their home, and I'm proud to carry their name and their
bloodline."
     He glanced over and she was watching him in that way she had,
the planes and curves of her face aglow with that warm light that always
seemed to shine from inside her.  "I know," she told him, reaching out to
lay her hand on his shoulder.  "I know you are."
     "I will always protect what is dear to me, Usako.  My home, my
friends.  But most of all, you.  You're going to face this evil, and I am
going to be by your side.  If I was an ordinary man, then I would be with
the others right now.  But I'm not.  It took me some time to come to
terms with that fact, but I have.  I have the power to do what they can't,
and it is my duty to fight the darkness.  It is my privilege to do it by your
side.  I have no regrets, my Princess."
     "I'm glad you're with me," she whispered, her hand tightening.
He reached up and covered her hand with his own, marvelling at how
small it was, how smooth and delicate.  It was easy to forget how much
power that hand could wield.
     "I'm glad, too," he told her, glancing over as they stopped at the
bottom of the ramp.  "We haven't had much time together lately.  I'm not
pointing fingers," he went on as her eyes clouded with apprehension.  "I
understand what a delicate time this is for you and your girls.  There's so
much happening, and you haven't had the time with them that you
want."
     "Or with you."
     "Well, I'm just glad I'm going with you tonight instead of Rei."
     "Mamo-chan!" she blurted, her cheeks flushing bright pink.  "I
swear, the two of you treat this like some sort of competition!  It's
maddening!"
     "Well, Princess, a man has his ego," Mamoru told her with a
crooked smile.  "Competing with a mistress of the carnal arts could
intimidate anybody.  And of all your girls, the bond has always been
deepest between you and Rei."  Usagi sat back in her seat, expression
troubled.
     "I don't want you to be jealous of her," Usagi said at last.
     "I know you don't," Mamoru replied.  "But I am."
     "Oh."  She didn't seem to know how to reply to that.
     "Don't worry, Usako," he went on, glancing at her expression.  "I
promised to get along, didn't I?  Trust me, it would be more worrisome if
I wasn't jealous."
     "That," she scowled, "does not make me feel better, Mamo-
chan!"
     "I wish we could talk more about this, Usako.  Really, I do.  I
know we can't let it just fester.  But we're nearly there, and we need to
figure out what we're going to tell Tyla."
     "The truth," Usagi said simply.  "I was never any good at lying to
her."
     "The truth includes some pretty sticky facts," he cautioned.
"Like Rei's association with the Sisterhood.  And your promise to this
Banri creature."
     "Oh, I'll be leaving a few things out," Usagi assured him.  She
thought for a moment.  "Okay, a lot of things.  Tyla would freak if she
knew I was friends with someone who'd been in the Sisterhood."
     "Think of her reaction," Mamoru said dryly, "if she found out
you were descended from Dasma herself.  And that you'd promised to
help revive her."
     "Just drive, tux-boy," she said primly.

***

     Makoto took the extra helmet from Ami and locked it to her bike
along with her own.  They would have to walk a few blocks to get where
they were going, but under the circumstances she was more than willing
to take a few precautions.  And it would all be worth it if they got a line
on the Sisterhood.
     "We're early," she told Ami, shrugging her shoulders inside her
leathers.  "Hopefully, Rin doesn't make us wait.  It would be just like
him to play some sort of dominance games over this."
     "There isn't going to be trouble, is there?" Ami asked, her eyes
clouded with worry.
     "Over Yoshi, you mean?" Makoto asked her with a wry smile.
"Believe me, Ami, I've gotten used to Yoshi coming home all beat up
over the years.  Yes, Rin and Yosh will probably end up getting into it at
some point.  I guess I've just got to accept that."
     "Even if it's over you?"
     "Boys will be boys," Makoto sighed, glancing around the
uncharacteristically quiet street.  "Anyway, Rin didn't shoot Yoshi.  And
he did help us out with that fae root tip, so there's only so mad I can be."
     "That's good, considering we're asking him for a favour."
     "Don't look at it that way," Makoto cautioned the smaller girl.
"We're asking him to go to his people under our truce over something
that helps out both sides.  If you treat it like we're asking him for a
favour, he'll use every bit of leverage he can."
     "Really?" Ami asked.
     "Oh, yeah.  You'll probably end up having to go on a date with
him.  And what would Rei think about that?"  She'd meant it as a joke,
but that last part came out sounding more caustic than she'd intended.
     "Makoto!  Not this again!"  The girl's cheeks flushed bright
pink, and Makoto sighed.
     "I know, I know, we talked about this," Makoto said sourly.
"She mauls you, but I'm the bad guy.  I can't help it if I'm worried about
you, Ami."
     "Makoto."  Ami put her hand gently on the taller girl's arm, and
immediately Makoto regretted her outburst.  There was no point in
taking her frustrations out on her friend.  "I know you mean well, and I
appreciate it.  Really, I do."
     "I don't like this thing that you and Rei are doing," Makoto told
her, taking Ami by the shoulders and speaking in a low, urgent voice.
"This combination of your Aethyr ability and her Shadow Magick?  It's
dangerous, wild.  And unpredictable.  Like how she could reach you
from Shadow, for instance."
     "Rei would not be reckless with my safety, Makoto," Ami
chided.  "You can't tell me that you believe she would thoughtlessly
place me in danger!"
     "What I believe," Makoto replied, holding Ami's gaze evenly, "is
that Rei has a different idea of what constitutes dangerous than you do."
     Ami was silent for a moment, that pink flush rising to her cheeks
again.  "You're talking about what happened in the basement," she said
at last.  "But Makoto, that was a ... a side effect of the magicks."
     "I walked into that circle, Ami.  I got a taste of what was going
on.  And I'm sure Rei wouldn't think twice about raising that kind of
erotic magick.  But you aren't like her.  All I'm saying is that it's wrong
for her to treat you like a Sister or something.  You have different
boundaries than she does, and it makes me mad that she isn't willing to
respect them.  And that I'm not going to apologize for.  I'd feel the same
if it was Minako."
     "Makoto," Ami said softly, her face alight as she gazed up.
"You've always looked out for me, ever since the beginning.  Have I
ever told you how much I love you for that?"
     "Aw, come on," Makoto mumbled, feeling her own face
warming.  "Friends look out for each other."
     "You've always been protective of me," Ami went on.  "But I
need you to believe in me.  This thing with Rei, I can handle it.  And I ...
I want to.  You're right, Rei and I are very different people, but we talked
about this and she has promised to respect my boundaries.  Her word is
good enough for me, and it should be good enough for you, too.  I know
things have been rough between the two of you, but I don't want this to
add to the tension.  So I want you to promise me that you won't argue
with her over this.  All right?"
     "But ..."
     "Promise."  Ami gave Makoto a stern look, and the tall senshi
could only sigh.  Somehow, she just couldn't say no to Ami.
     "All right, Ami.  I promise."
     "Thank you," Ami beamed.
     "But if you change your mind ..."
     "Makoto!"
     "Okay, all right!  I got it. Geez."
     They started walking down the narrow side street, shadows
clinging stubbornly to every corner and alleyway.  Makoto glanced over
at her friend, feeling a mixture of exasperation and pride.  It was unlike
Ami to be so stubborn about something like this.  On the other hand, it
cheered Makoto to see the girl standing up for herself.  And the fact that
Ami had thought to speak to Rei and get a guarantee was reassuring.
     "Say," Makoto said as a stray gust of wind tugged at Ami's coat
collar.  "That's new, isn't it?"  Ami blinked, and Makoto gestured at the
girl's slender throat.  "That ribbon," she elaborated.  Ami generally
wasn't given to frippery or any sort of girlishness in her dress, which was
why the glossy black ribbon tied around her neck caught Makoto's eye.
     "Oh, this?" Ami asked, touching the ribbon self-consciously.
The girl blushed even more furiously than she had during their previous
conversation, which puzzled Makoto.  "It was in with the things Minako
brought.  I was just ... just trying it on.  That's all."
     "Relax," Makoto laughed, disarmed by the girl's obvious
consternation.  "I'm sure she won't mind.  She invited us to help
ourselves, after all.  It's pretty."
     "Mmm."  Ami still wouldn't meet her eyes, and Makoto fought
the urge to sigh again.  Ami was a capable senshi, cool and collected in
battle, and she was clearly not intimidated by the prospect of
experimenting with untested magickal synergies.
     So how could she get so embarrassed over a simple silk ribbon?

***

     "Usagi?"
     "Tyla!"
     The two embraced enthusiastically, with much squealing and
laughing.  It had been too long since they had seen each other, and the
sight of the vivacious red-head evoked a strong sense of nostalgia in
Usagi.  Friends like Tyla had made growing up without family tolerable.
     "You look great!" Usagi beamed, holding the other girl at arm's
length and giving her a quick once-over.  "You cut your hair!"
     "And you still haven't cut yours," Tyla teased, tugging lightly on
one pale blonde ponytail.  "I bet it touches the floor when you let it
down."
     "Just about," Usagi giggled.  "Those glasses are new, too.  They're
funky.  Oooo, let me introduce you.  Mamo-chan!"
     Mamoru joined them, and Usagi felt a flush of pleasure at the
obvious appreciation in Tyla's gaze.  "Tyla, this is Mamoru.  Mamoru,
Tyla."
     "A pleasure," Tyla said, her cupid's-bow mouth curling into a
smile.
     "I've heard all the stories," Mamoru assured her, taking her hand
and raising it to his lips.
     "Oh, no!" Tyla cried.  "Surely not all of them?"
     "Don't worry," Usagi assured her with a grin.  "I kept the most
embarrassing in reserve."
     "I should think so," Tyla retorted.  "Since they wouldn't paint
you in any better light than me.  Come on, let's go sit down.  I made tea."
     "I'm sorry we've come by so late," Mamoru told her.
     "Oh, don't worry," Tyla assured him.  "I've always been a night
owl."
     "This is a nice place," Usagi said.  The apartment was small,
what the real estate people referred to as "cozy".  It was also cluttered,
but not really what Usagi would have called messy.  It felt homey.
     "Yeah," Tyla said cheerily from the kitchen.  "The temple
actually owns this block of apartments.  Everyone living here is either
attending their college or in training for temple service."
     "How's that going, anyway?"
     "It's hard, but I'm enjoying myself," Tyla said, reappearing from
the kitchenette with a shiny metal tray in her hands.  She set it down on
the low coffee table and waved her guests to sit in the matching chairs on
their side of the table.
     "That's great," Usagi beamed.  "You're going to be a great
priestess, Tyla."
     "Thanks," Tyla replied, pouring the tea into plain mugs and
offering cream, sugar and honey.  Mamoru took his black.  Usagi loaded
hers down; Tyla had left plenty of room in the mug, knowing her friend's
tastes.  "My studies take up a lot of time, but it's going to be worth it.
But hey, enough about me.  What have you been up to?  It's been ages!"
     Usagi talked with Tyla for a while, catching up on things.  It was
nice, reminding Usagi of old times.  Mamoru smiled at the story of how
two young girls had admired each other's hair colour, leading to a
disastrous night of amateur hair colouring and weeks of sheepish hat-
wearing.  They spoke of people they had known from the orphanage, and
of the sisters who had tended them.
     "Remember Sister Urti?" Tyla asked with an impish grin.
     "Yes!" Usagi cried.  "Gods, we made her crazy!"
     "Yes, we did," Tyla sighed.  "And she never lets me forget it."
     "She's still around?  Wasn't she, like, a thousand years old?"
     "The woman is never going to die," Tyla told her.  "I'm certain
she got special dispensation from Alieva Herself.  But here I am,
blabbering on and on, and I'm quite sure you came here for a reason."
     "Can't I just drop in on an old friend?" Usagi asked lightly.  Still,
she felt a twinge of guilt.  She had come with an ulterior motive, after all.
     "Usagi," Tyla said, a familiar smirk on her lips.  "This is Tyla.
Come on, give."
     "Actually, there is something," Usagi admitted with a glance at
Mamoru.  "It's, well, I was hoping to ask you about something ..."
     "What is it?" Tyla asked, looking vaguely alarmed at Usagi's
hesitancy.  The Usagi she knew, after all, was never at a loss for
something to say.  But then, the Usagi she knew had not been a senshi, a
princess, a hero.
     Or a direct descendant of Dasma.
     "I asked her to put me in touch with someone in the temple,"
Mamoru broke in gently.  Usagi shot him a grateful smile.  Their story
was simple enough, but now that she was here it was all she could do to
hold anything back.  It just felt wrong, somehow.  But, in the end, it was
to protect Tyla that she was hiding the truth.
     So why did she still feel guilty?
     "Oh?" Tyla asked, tugging at the collar of her pale blouse.  She
tucked her bare feet up under her, curling up in her chair, and Usagi
watched her eyes widen as Mamoru pulled out his badge.
     "Usagi," Tyla said.  "Are you in some sort of trouble?"
     "No!" Usagi blurted.  "Well, not since I lost the keys to his
handcu ..."
     "A-HEM," Mamoru interrupted.  Usagi grinned sheepishly and
subsided.  "It's nothing like that," Mamoru went on, reassuring Tyla.
"In fact, I wouldn't want you to think this is an official inquiry.  This is
strictly off the record, okay?"
     "You mean, you don't want me to say anything to anyone," Tyla
said slowly.
     "I have no problem with you reporting what I say here to your
superiors in the temple," Mamoru told her.  "I just want to make it clear
that this is not an official police matter.  I'm operating with the authority
of my division commander, but right now I'm sort of in a gray area."
     "I don't understand," Tyla said, her green eyes wide as she turned
to Usagi.  "What's this all about?"
     "Tomorrow is Baniesti," Usagi said.  Tyla's rosy cheeks went
pale, and she leapt to her feet.
     "Usagi!" she exclaimed.  "What are you doing?  Tell me you
aren't poking around the Sisterhood!"
     "Of course not!" Usagi declared, standing and putting her hands
on Tyla's shoulders.  She couldn't look the girl in the eye, though, not
while telling such a blatant lie.  "Mamo-chan?"
     "Tyla, please sit down," Mamoru said.  He was in what Usagi
thought of as his cop-mode, very polite, soothing even, but radiating cool
authority and comforting competence.  Tyla complied, but she still
seemed upset.
     "Mamoru," she said stiffly, "please tell me you haven't let her get
anywhere near such people!"
     "Of course not," he replied.  His expression was bland, but Usagi
knew she would hear about this later.  Mamoru and Tyla were, it seemed,
in complete agreement about just how much involvement she should
have with the Sisterhood.  "I noticed the extra security around the
building as we came in, Tyla."
     Usagi blinked.  She hadn't noticed anything, but judging by the
look on Tyla's face, he had been right on the money.
     "The temple provides for us," Tyla said carefully.
     "Of course.  The thing is, I'm working on a deep-cover
assignment, a special mission being run out of my division."  Which, as
he had told Usagi, was true.  "In the course of my investigations, I have
come across some information.  Now, this intel has so far proven
impossible to corroborate, but there are hints that the Sisterhood has been
active in Saeni in recent months.  There are also rumblings that they
intend something big for Baniesti this year.  I was wondering if you'd
heard about any specific threats."
     "No," Tyla told him, glancing over at Usagi who smiled back.
"Mamoru, wouldn't it be best to go to the temple with this?"
     "Like I said, this is a deep cover mission," he told her.  "I can't
reveal my sources without jeopardising the operation, and my boss
doesn't want to make this into an official matter.  She's worried that the
temple authorities would apply political pressure if she went to them with
something so vague, that they'd press the brass for details."
     "And you won't give them those details?"  Tyla's tone had gone
decidedly cool.
     "He would if he could, Tyla!" Usagi protested.  "Really!"
     "Tyla," Mamoru said in a low voice, leaning forward with his
elbows on his knees.  "Listen.  My operation involves the attack on the
tower.  It's very delicate, and nobody involved is willing to risk blowing
it."
     "But that was caused by ..."  Tyla broke off, her eyes going wide
once more.
     "Let's just say that we can't risk any mistakes," he went on.
Usagi could see that Tyla had connected the dots.  Where the vampire
was concerned, all ordinary rules of conduct were suspended.  "But those
of us in the operation decided that we should make some discreet
inquiries, make sure that the temple wasn't taken off-guard."
     "There isn't anything concrete," Tyla told him, leaning forward and
dropping her voice.  "The temple is just making sure we're all careful."
     "They aren't concerned that the Sisterhood might target their
people?" Mamoru pressed.
     "Well, of course they're concerned about that," Tyla said with a
brittle laugh.  "The Sisterhood's numbers have fallen in recent years,
thanks to our temple's efforts in disrupting their recruiting.  There are
probably only a handful of them left, but they still long to strike at us,
drag us down into the filth.  They will go to any lengths to give vent to
their hatred of our Lady."
     "Are you thinking of something in particular?" he asked.
     "Oh, there are many examples that spring to mind," Tyla assured
him darkly.  "We know that they were responsible for the desecration of
one of our temples in Krenndilton last year.  We suspect that they were
behind the disappearance of a high priestess from a mission in Errith
three months ago, as well as the drugging of the water supply at a
meeting between members of our temple and the Black Islands Council.
The temple is still trying to repair the damage done there!  Gods, I can
only imagine how they must have laughed at us while members of our
temple rutted in the dirt like animals!  There are no depths to which these
creatures will not sink!"
     "That's why we want to stop them before they can do anything,"
Usagi broke in, wincing inwardly at the venom in Tyla's voice.
     "We?" Tyla asked sharply.  "Gods, Usagi, you can't be thinking of
getting involved with this!  I shudder to think of what those women
would do with an innocent girl like you!"
     Usagi had a terrible moment in which she found herself
remembering in vivid detail just what a certain ex-Sister had done to her.
Fortunately, Tyla seemed to interpret her flushed face as agreement with
her position.
     "I just meant that I'm helping by bringing Mamo-chan to you,"
Usagi mumbled, hunching her shoulders.  "Really, Tyla.  That's all."  It
was hard to lie to her old friend, but Usagi understood the necessity of it.
No, that wasn't the worst part.  The worst part was seeing Tyla's fervent
enmity towards the Sisterhood and not being able to share it as she once
would have.  Usagi felt that there must be other girls like Rei in the
Sisterhood, girls who could overcome the legacy of lies and bitterness
that they had been fed.
     But to Tyla, they were an implacable enemy.  What would her
old friend think if she knew that Usagi had promised to help the
Sisterhood?  Gods, what would she think if she knew that Usagi was
descended from Dasma Herself?  Would she turn that righteous anger on
her old friend?  Would she look upon Usagi with revulsion before turning
her back?
     It began to hit Usagi at a visceral level just how complicated this
situation really was.
     "The real issue, Tyla, is the safety of the members of Alieva's
order," Mamoru interrupted gently.  "If the temple is unaware of the
threat, then you may all be in danger."  Usagi shot him a look, but
Mamoru ignored her, concentrating on Tyla.
     "I said the temple was unaware of any specific threat," Tyla
reminded him.  "But they take our safety very seriously, especially where
the Sisterhood is concerned.  Tomorrow, all temple personnel will be
spending the day and the entire night in the main temple complex.  The
same order goes for all our temples, everywhere.  Even if the Sisterhood
is here in the city, what can they do?  Their goddess has fallen far from
favour, and they have no standing and no temples.  They are nearly
extinct, and if they should dare to try to attack us in our most powerful
stronghold, then we will finally wipe the Dark Lady's stain from the face
of Gaia, once and for all."
     Tyla's face shone with a righteousness that once would have
made Usagi proud.  Now, though, her stomach curdled and knotted.  The
rift between the Sisterhood and Alieva's temple was so deep, so very
wide.  Too wide to straddle, and her actions might end up putting her on
the wrong side of the divide.
     "But surely Lady Alieva would show mercy," Usagi protested.   Sister
Urti had always lectured them on the dangers posed by the Sisters of
Shadows, but back then they had been spectres, phantoms.  It was
different now.  The Sisters were real to her now, individuals with faces
who were driven by needs and failings that were all too human.  It made
Usagi a little sad that she could no longer believe in those teachings
unreservedly.
     "The Lady, in Her wisdom, shows mercy to those deserving,"
Tyla told her, eyes flashing.  "But to those whose hearts are black, She
deals righteous judgement."
     "So the temple will be a fortress," Mamoru said.  "Tyla, the
Sisterhood aren't the sort to try a frontal assault ..."
     "I know what you're thinking," Tyla replied with a wry smile.
"But believe me, Mamoru, there are priests and priestesses in our temple
who have fought the Sisterhood for years.  They are familiar with the
tactics of our old enemies.  Those harpies will not defile any of our
people."
     After that, there didn't seem to be much more to say.  It was very
late, and so they prepared to take their leave.  At the door, though, Tyla
pulled Usagi aside.
     "He's gorgeous, Usagi," Tyla whispered.  "Is he a keeper?"
     "Oh, yes," Usagi told her, smiling.  "He is."
     "I'm glad."  Tyla hesitated, reaching out to brush Usagi's long
bangs out of her eyes.  "Listen, sweetie, promise me you'll stay out of
this thing.  Mamoru's a big, tough policeman.  But you, you'll always be
the blonde cutie who hid under the covers during thunderstorms and cried
during all the sad parts of movies.  I couldn't stand it if they did
something to you."
     "I'll be fine," Usagi replied, giving her friend a fierce hug.  "I
promise.  I'm more worried about you."
     "Don't worry about me," Tyla murmured, squeezing back.  "If
those witches come after us, we'll just finish what we started more than a
hundred years ago."
     Usagi forced a smile.  "I know you will," she said, nearly
overwhelmed with melancholy.  "I know you will."

***

     It was like a scene from a movie.  Jupiter stopped on the
threshold of the bar, eyes narrowed as they swept the room.  Every table
was full, as were all the barstools.  Several more people stood along the
walls in small clusters.  In short, it was a typical crowd in a dark, busy
bar.
     Except for the fact that, in that moment, nobody was talking.  Or
drinking.  The entire bar fell silent the moment she entered, and every
single pair of eyes was directed straight at her.  If this had been a movie,
she'd have pushed her way inside, twin revolvers slung low on her hips,
and conversation would have slowly resumed.
     Jupiter eased through the door, her gut tightening.  This couldn't
be good.  On cue, conversations started up again, creating a low
background buzz, but Jupiter had the feeling that she was now the subject
of those low, terse, sidelong exchanges.  Of course, maybe she was just
being paranoid.  The hunters had gotten hit hard at the police tower, and
there were bound to be a lot of folks here drowning their sorrows or
remembering comrades who'd fallen.
     Mercury entered behind her, and the buzz faltered again, but less
noticeably this time.  Jupiter was scanning the crowd, picking out the
hunters she knew, looking for familiar faces.  There.  Down near the
back, at two tables near the stairs that led to the second floor.
     Shifters.
     She made her way back, aware of the looks that followed her.
Word had obviously gotten out about her little set-to with Rin here, but
she wouldn't have thought that the crowd would show such obvious
interest in a possible re-match.  They were a pretty cool bunch, and her
fight with Rin and his people was just another scrap.  But even the two
brothers behind the bar, Junior and Senior, were keeping an eye on the
two senshi.  Jupiter didn't like this vibe, not one bit.
     The shifters stood as she drew near.  There were six of them, most of
whom she recognized.  None of them was Rin.
     "Yui," she said, her voice cold.
     "Jupiter," Yui replied.  The chiselled blonde's tone contained
heat, feral and hungry.  This close to the full moon, Jupiter knew that it
wouldn't be a good idea to provoke anyone.  There were shifters who
would love an excuse, any excuse, to slip the restraints of their
self-control.  Yui, for instance, looked like she would enjoy nothing more
than to sink her fangs into Jupiter's throat.
     "I came to meet Rin," Jupiter said, giving the others a dismissive
glance.
     "You can go up," one of the shifters said.  He was rangy, with
short dark hair and an expensive suit.  "She stays."
     "Maybe I'm not making myself clear," Jupiter said, letting an
unpleasant smile rise to her lips.  "I deal with Rin, not with flunkies.
This is my meet.  Now, you can get pretty-boy down here, or we can go
up and get him.  But we are going to talk to Rin, Yui.  Unless he's
scared, that is."
     So much for not being provocative.  Yui snarled, her teeth
already showing signs of lengthening into fangs.  "You bitch!" she
hissed, reaching for Jupiter.  The senshi was faster, grabbing Yui by the
collar and lifting her off the floor as her comrades kicked their chairs
back, making room to fight.
     "Yui," Jupiter said softly.  "This thing is getting very old.  I don't
care what kind of thing you've got for your boss, but if you don't stop
pissing me off I'm gonna have to fry you, pussy cat.  Truce or no truce.
Are you getting me?"
     They stood in a frozen tableau, Mercury staring down the tense
shifters as Yui struggled in Jupiter's grip.  Jupiter knew that the tiny
hairs on the backs of everyone's necks were standing up, courtesy of the
power she had called.  Damn Rin, anyway.  He knew how Yui felt about
her.  What was he thinking, putting the girl down here?
     "Put her down," a gravelly voice rumbled through the warm,
smoky air.  Jupiter felt a wash of bestial power, so primal she could
nearly taste its musky essence on the back of her tongue.  She turned her
head enough so that she could see the stairs without taking her eye off of
Yui.  The man who stood there was big, tall and broad through the
shoulder and chest, powerful without being bulky.  His dark gold hair
was brushed back from the planes of his face, and he pinned her with his
one good eye.  Jupiter fought the urge to curse aloud.
     Gareth.  Freaking marvellous.  The stares from the hunters made more
sense now; they knew that the big cat was in the house.  She caught sight
of Rin on the stairs behind his boss, face impassive.  Rin she could
handle, but Gareth?  That made this into an entirely different ball game.
     "All right, kids," a voice came from behind her.  "Everyone
chill out."  Jupiter turned her head to see Junior and Senior standing
behind them.  Junior was cradling something that looked to Jupiter like a
big, ugly riot gun.  Senior, on the other hand, had a gnarled wooden club
slung carelessly over his broad shoulder.  The symbols carved into the
dark surface told Jupiter that it was likely far more than just a length of
dead tree, though.
     "Gentlemen," Rin said, moving down the stairs gracefully.  "I
assure you ..."
     "Shut up, Suzuki," Senior said.  The big man didn't raise his
voice, but there was no mistaking the threat there.  "Now, kids, normally
I like a good scrap as much as the next guy.  Isn't that right, Junior?"
     Junior didn't react in any way, just watching us all with cold eyes
that were an odd yellowish colour.  Senior gave a half nod as though his
brother had agreed.  "Right.  But this has been a bad couple of days here
in the city, and people are on edge.  Jupiter, put the girl down."
     Jupiter complied, keeping a wary eye on Yui.  The angry girl
tugged at her shirt as she backed away, but she did not press the issue.
That probably had more to do with the stare she got from Gareth than
from the implicit threat in Senior's voice, but she subsided, and Senior
smiled.
     "Very good," he said.  "Now, Gareth, what did I say when you
came in here?"
     "My people did not start anything," Gareth replied.  "As I
assured you they would not."
     "I said no trouble," Senior went on as though Gareth had not
spoken.  "There can be drinking and talking, but if there is any more of
what the old folks used to call roughhousing, then I'm going to get upset,
and all of you are going to find yourselves unwelcome.  Are we clear,
kids?"
     He looked at each of them in turn, and Jupiter found herself
nodding.  This bar was a valuable meeting place; she did not want to
get banned.
     "Splendid," Senior announced.  "Do carry on."  With that he
turned and made his way back to the bar, Junior trailing along.  Jupiter
turned to Gareth and Rin, fighting the urge to lash out.  Baiting Rin was
fun.  Baiting Gareth would probably not be.
     "What's this about?" she demanded.  "I asked to see you, Rin."
     "Indeed," Gareth rumbled, moving from the bottom of the stairs
until he stood in front of her.  Jupiter was tall, but Gareth topped her by
at least a head.  "And you, of course, expected to have your divine
commands followed without question."
     Jupiter looked up into Gareth's eye, alternately irritated by his
obvious dominance games and puzzled by his tone.  "It wasn't like that,
Gareth.  I don't give orders to shifters.  I asked for this meeting.  Ask Rin
if you don't believe me."
     "Matters of presumption aside, the timing is suspect," Gareth
went on.  His silk shirt was stretched tight over the muscles of his barrel
chest; Jupiter wondered, not for the first time, if Gareth's influence
accounted for the expensive style of his pack.
     "You don't even know what this is about," Jupiter scowled.  The
other shifters had backed up a little, but none of them had sat back down.
Mercury remained at Jupiter's back, and the lanky senshi knew that her
friend would keep her covered.
     "Don't I?" Gareth asked smoothly.  "Sakamura's blood was still
wet on his shirt when Rin brought it to me.  Am I to turn a blind eye
while you indulge in revenge, girl?  Are the restrictions of our treaty only
for lesser beings, that you can ignore them at your convenience?"
     "Hang on," she said.  "You think this is about Yoshi?"  And
what was this about a shirt?  Jupiter's thoughts skipped and jumped
madly as she shot a quick glance at Rin, who stared back impassively.
Had Rin taken Yoshi's shirt after he'd been shot?  She couldn't recall
clearly, she'd been too worried about Yoshi, too furious at the sight of
Lily.  But if he had, why would Gareth think she wanted to get Rin?
Unless ...
     Unless Gareth had sent Rin after Yoshi in the first place.  Rin
came back with a blood-stained trophy bearing Yoshi's scent and fresh
blood, and he was in good with the boss.  Of course, that meant that Rin
had neglected to mention the presence of the Sisterhood.  Damn, this was
getting complicated.  Twists and turns weren't her thing; she wished
Mercury was handling this part all of a sudden.
     "I think you are not above interfering in matters which are
rightfully the domain of shifters," Gareth replied.  There was an animal
tension in the air, thrumming just below the threshold of audibility, and
Jupiter knew that this would be a bad time for a show of temper.
Unfortunately, Gareth's attitude was beginning to piss her off.  Rin kept
quiet, and ordinarily his obvious discomfort would have tickled her.
Right now, though, she had to put the needs of the senshi above her
personal feelings.  If she was going to get cooperation from Gareth, she
needed Rin's help.
     "Is it shifter business if Yoshi and Rin are fighting over me?" she
shot back.
     "You do think a great deal of yourself, don't you?" Gareth
goaded her, squaring his broad shoulders.  "Rin's long association with
the wolf is the issue here, not you.  I am his pack leader, little girl.  I
forbade their ill-conceived friendship when I took Rin in.  Any blood
between the two of them concerns my pack and the velpurg.  It does not
concern you."
     Jupiter's rising temper was lanced by Gareth's words.  Ill-
conceived friendship?  Rin and Yoshi?  What in the hells was he talking
about?
     "Please understand that we did not come here to avenge Yoshi,"
Mercury broke in smoothly, drawing Gareth's gaze away from Jupiter.
"Jupiter would not bring her personal relationship into our truce, Gareth.
We only wish to ask for your help in a matter of mutual interest."
     "Is that so?"  Gareth didn't call her a liar, but his expression
showed clearly just how sceptical he was.
     "Yeah," Jupiter agreed.  She tried to catch Rin's eye, but the
sleek shifter was making a show of checking Mercury out.  Friendship,
hmm?  This was going to bear investigating.  But not now.  "Maybe we
could have a seat and talk about what we came to talk about?"
     "And what might that be?" Gareth asked, crossing his arms.  He
was going to make her work for every inch?  Well, maybe it was time to
get right down to the heart of the matter.  Jupiter leaned close to the big
man, breathing in his pleasant musky scent as she met his eye.
     "We need to talk," she said, her voice low and soft, "about the
vampire."
     Tension rippled through the hard planes of Gareth's face, and that
gorgeous eye narrowed.
     "Well, now," he rumbled.  "You have my attention, Jupiter.  I
trust you won't waste my time.  Let us go upstairs and talk ... like
civilised folk."
     Gareth smiled then.  Jupiter was not at all comforted by that
expression.
     Doubtless, that had been Gareth's intention.
 

***

     "What is the meaning of this?"
     That haughty demand drew the attention of everyone in the
sumptuous foyer.  The lady of the house stood on the gleaming spiral
stairs, glaring down at the small crowd with nearly palpable disdain.  She
was everything Rei had expected.
     "Sultana Vanka der Gris," Rei said smoothly.  "My apologies for the
lateness of the hour.  The Nightmistress sends her regards."
     "It does not take three of you to send regards," Vanka snapped,
descended the rest of the stairs to the tiled floor.  Half a dozen guards
stood around the three girls warily; the bold and unapologetic appearance
of three "Sisters" had thrown the men off balance.  Striding in like young
goddesses, the three girls had acted as though they had every right to be
there, and the men had not disputed that fact in their manner or body
language.  Even before Vanka's appearance, that had told Rei one
important fact.
     The Sisterhood had visited this place before.  So.  What else had they
done here?
     "Let us not mince words, Sultana," Rei said by way of reply.
"The Nightmistress is concerned by recent events ..."
     "I don't know you.  Where is Mirra?"  Vanka crossed her arms,
her dark eyes fixed on Rei as the other two girls stood by, looking for all
the world as though they were profoundly bored.  Rei knew that Minako,
at least, had to be anxious about facing this woman again, but Vanka
gave no sign of recognizing her former guest.  Artemis's gizmo was
living up to its billing.
     "Unfortunately, Mirra could not be spared from her duties," Rei
said, letting a rime of frost creep into her voice.  So.  Saekianna had been
sending her second-in-command to deal with this woman?  They were
definitely on to something here.  "Matters have come to a head for us.  I
am certain you can appreciate that."
     "If Saekianna could not be bothered to send Mirra, then she must
not regard this matter, whatever it is, as serious," Vanka said
dismissively, flipping her pale hair back with one slender, manicured
hand.  "You may tell her that I will not entertain every petty subordinate
who has nothing better to do.  That is all."
     All attitude, Rei thought wryly.  Typical noble.  "Sass," Rei
began, letting some heat show in her voice.  Then she stopped and made a
show of reining in her temper as Vanka hesitated.  "Saekianna," Rei went
on after a brief pause, "has every confidence in the abilities of my team.
That is why we were assigned to investigate the, shall we say, untimely
appearance earlier today of a certain group of sailor girls."
     Ah.  Vanka turned back, a flush rising to her aristocratic features.
     "I nearly think you are accusing me, girl," Vanka said in a low,
dangerous voice.  The guards had tensed, but Rei wasn't concerned.  Her
use of Saekianna's nickname had not escaped this woman, nor had the
fact that it had been an intentional slip.  No Sister would claim such
intimacy lightly; if it were a bluff, the potential consequences would be
too severe to imagine.
     "And I think that the presence of those cursed sailor girls here, so
close to Baniesti, is troubling," Rei replied evenly, meeting the woman's
molten gaze.  "The Nightmistress agrees.  She is most curious to know
why they should have come here.  What might they have discovered, and
how?"
     "All these men are of my house," Vanka growled.  "They are
loyal to me.  They know well the penalty for disloyalty."
     "Nonetheless, something drew those girls here," Rei told her.
"We are to investigate, discover what they may have learned.  Or shall I
tell the Nightmistress that you no longer wish to cooperate with us?"
     This was the tricky part.  Knowing that the Sisterhood had been
dealing with this Sultana was one thing.  Without knowing the details of
those dealings, though, it was by no means certain that the threat of
withdrawing the Sisterhood's support now would be effective.
     "I have bargained in good faith," Vanka said at last, the light
gleaming off the clear polish of her long nails as she gestured with one
beringed hand.  "I would not place all of our hard work in jeopardy at
this late date over something that is really quite trivial."
     "Then you will not object to Ranko and Min looking around while
you and I talk?"  It wasn't really a question; Rei could see that it rankled
Vanka badly, having her authority undermined here in her own home.
But she could also see that their story had worked, and Vanka obviously
had much to lose by backing out on her dealings with the Sisterhood
now.  She acquiesced, making it look graceful.  Her eyes told a different
story, though, and Rei could well imagine what it would feel like to be a
captive and to see the churning malevolence in those lovely dark pools.
     Minako and Ranma set off together.  They had their part of the
plan to follow, and Rei had hers.  Vanka led her up the stairs and along a
hallway lined with intricate tapestries, sculpture, and paintings.  The
artwork was all exquisite and quite authentic, Rei noted.  No surprises
there.  The wealthy and powerful liked to be surrounded by beautiful
things.
     They reached a room on the second floor which was apparently
Vanka's private sanctum.  It contained a large fireplace fronted with pale
green marble, flame crackling within.  Above the fireplace hung a coiled
whip of the type used by Tyrian slavers, and before it lay a rug made
from the skin of a large black cat.
     "He was quite a useful asset in life," Vanka announced, noticing
Rei's gaze.  "But shifters, they are beasts at heart and cannot be trusted.
So he became useful in another way."  Vanka's smile told Rei that she
was quite serious.  Rei only nodded, as though murdering a werecat and
making a rug out of him was the act of a completely reasonable human
being.
     "They normally revert to human form when killed, don't they?"
she inquired.
     "Oh, yes," Vanka admitted with a thin smile.  "But there are
ways around that.  It just takes some ingenuity.  And I have that, Sister ...
but you haven't introduced yourself, my dear."
     "Call me Rein."
     "Very well, Rein.  Now, tell me.  Saekianna doesn't truly think I
have been careless, does she?  After all, I have as much to lose as you if
my participation in the Nightmistress's schemes is revealed.  I
masterminded the retrieval of a certain valuable package from
Quor-Juassti, lest we forget.  Should my role in that transaction come to
light, the consequences would be catastrophic.  The existence of my
entire house would be placed in jeopardy."
     "The Nightmistress appreciates the efforts you have made on our
behalf," Rei assured her.  This sounded very promising indeed.  The
calculated risk in coming here was already paying off.
     "And does she appreciate the lengths I have gone to in order to
fulfil my part of our deal?" Vanka went on, moving to the ornate
sideboard.  She retrieved two heavy crystal tumblers and poured two
fingers of Tyrian whiskey into each.  Being personally served was a good
sign.  Rei accepted her drink and took a sip.
     Damn.  Nothing but the best.  There were times she missed the sensual
indulgences of her old life.
     "You should not interpret our presence as an accusation," Rei
told the woman smoothly.
     "It is unlike Saekianna to take such a step without personally
informing me," Vanka replied, running her nails lightly along the rim of
her glass as she studied Rei carefully.  "Therefore, it is hard to be
sanguine about your presence here."
     "I am certain you can appreciate just how difficult things are at
this juncture," Rei said with a smile that contained the first flickerings of
heat.  She needed to draw Vanka out on the matter of Baniesti, find out
what the woman knew without revealing her own ignorance.  "Tell me,
Sultana ..."
     The woman cocked her head, long earrings glinting in the soft
firelight.  "Call me Vanka," she said with a sultry smile, her gaze holding
Rei's over the rim of her glass.  "There is no need for unwieldy formality,
is there, Rein?  After all, we are in this together.  We all want the same
things."
     "Of course, Vanka," Rei replied, her answering smile growing warmer
still.  So.  It was to be seductive charm now, was it?  Very good.  Rei was
a true mistress of this particular game, after all.  "But tell me, what do
you think brought those girls here?  I mean, even if they suspected your
connection with us, there is nothing here to betray our plans."
     "How could there be?" Vanka asked, setting aside her glass and
closing the distance between them with a slow, sensuous glide.  "When I
am not privy to the details of Saekianna's plan for Baniesti?"
     "True," Rei murmured as Vanka took the tumbler from her hand
and set it aside.  "But I am certain that a woman as intelligent and
shrewd as you has some idea as to what will transpire?"
     "It would be most improper of me to speculate," Vanka breathed,
reaching out to run her fingers idly through Rei's glossy hair.  They were
very close now, but Rei didn't mind.  If this was how Vanka wanted to
play the game, fine.  Let them engage in a duel of veiled words and
tantalizing teases.  Rei was becoming more and more certain that Vanka
did know more than she should of what the Sisterhood planned.  And Rei
wanted to know whatever Vanka knew.
     And what Rei wanted, Rei got.
     "Perhaps," Rei replied softly, sighing as Vanka's nails traced the
edge of her ear.  "But we cannot take chances, Vanka, not when we are
so close to our goal.  I must assess the danger this incident poses, if any.
It is my duty.  Can I count on your complete cooperation?"
     "Of course, Rein," Vanka purred throatily, her hand slipping
down to Rei's shoulder as their bodies brushed lightly against each other.
"It will be my ... pleasure."
     Vanka's hand slipped along the base of Rei's throat, and in that
instant white hot pain arced through Rei's body like a ragged knife.  Her
head snapped back and she tried to scream, but every muscle in her body
seemed to have contracted at once, and only a strangled gasp escaped.
She hung in a hellish cage of agony for long moments, vaguely aware of
Vanka's fingers tightening around her throat.
     Then her body was released and she was falling, muscles
unresponsive.  She ended up sprawled untidily across something soft,
heat prickling at one side of her face.  She gasped for breath, fire searing
her lungs, her very blood.  Vanka stepped into view, standing over her
with an unpleasant smile gracing her lovely face.
     "It is unfortunate that we won't be friends, Rein," Vanka said
with a smirk.  Fine tendrils of smoke rose from one of the rings on
Vanka's hand as she moved, stepping over Rei's prone form.  Rei tried to
move, but her efforts resulted in only a faint trembling of her arms.  She
managed to roll her head enough to see Vanka taking the whip down
from over the mantle, cradling it in her hands lovingly.
     "You called, Sultana?" a voice came from out of Rei's field of
vision.  It was a man's voice, deep and resonant, with a strong Tyrian
accent.  Rei had no idea how or when Vanka had called anyone, but one
thing was quickly becoming apparent.
     They were in trouble.
     "Captain Garo," Vanka murmured.  "The other two are in the lower
hall, near where my old office used to be.  Tell your men to move in.
Take them alive if possible, dead if necessary.  If either one escapes, you
will suffer greatly before you die.  Go."
     "Yes, my Sultana."  There was the sound of a door closing, and
then Vanka was looking down at Rei again.
     "I was so looking forward to getting to know you better, Rein,"
she sighed.  "If it is any consolation, you will fetch a high price in the
slave markets of my home province.  I know many who would pay any
price for the chance to tame such an exquisite beauty."

***

     "I'm sensing an issue with the plan," I muttered, looking out past
the orange tarp.
     "You mean like the fact that the office I wanted to check seems to
have been in the part of the house that got smashed?" Minako asked
lightly.  "Yes, I think that might be a problem."
     I glanced at her.  Minako was putting on quite a show of being
nonchalant, but the longer we were here, the stronger that subtle
undercurrent of tension became.  I was liking this plan less and less.
     I'd have liked it more if I got to hit someone.
     "I wonder what happened?"
     "It may have something to do with Shadow," Minako murmured
as we walked back down the hallway.  "Remember, the building over
there was completely demolished.  Maybe that affected this place as
well."
     "Maybe," I shrugged.  I didn't really get the mystic mumbo-
jumbo stuff.  The important thing was that Minako had known where the
lady of the house kept her files and miscellaneous incriminating
evidence, but now that room was gonzo.  Kaput.  "But at least we
definitely know that this Vanka is linked to the Sisterhood."
     "That doesn't do us any good if we can't find out what she
knows," Minako said, eyes flicking rapidly along the hallway.  I didn't
know what she expected to see, but her fingers were drumming rapidly
against her thigh, a sort of nervous tic that I'd never seen her show
before.  In the short time I'd known her, she'd seemed alternately flaky
and capricious.  That is, until things got tight.  Then she'd shown
admirable focus and cool competence.  This was unlike her, though, and
worrisome.  Phobos's warning, relayed from Rei, still nagged me.
     Rei was worried.  And Minako was nervous.
     Okay, Saotome, be honest.  She's not just nervous.  She's scared.
This has the potential to get very, very ugly.  So keep your eyes open.
We're in enemy territory.
     "Well, maybe Rei will have better luck," I suggested.  "Vanka
might have set up another office when the first one got smashed."
     "Uh-huh."  Minako nodded, but she wasn't listening.  We came to an
intersection of two hallways, and she turned to look at a set of large
wooden doors down the corridor that branched off from where we were
standing.  The way the main part of the house was set up, they would
lead into one of a set of rooms that was in the middle of the house.  No
windows, perfect for hiding secrets.
     Or, apparently, for other activities; a hoarse cry reached us even
through the heavy doors.
     "What the hell?" I blurted.  Minako actually flinched, her eyes
wide and fixed on those doors.  "Hey, Minako?  What's ... hey!"
     She set off down the hall, her gait oddly rigid as she moved with
dogged determination towards those doors.  That feeling of trepidation
spiked, but I followed close behind.  No way was I letting her out of my
sight, not now.
     As we drew closer, I heard other sounds, muffled by the heavy
doors.  More cries, voices, and a sharp cracking that evoked a pained
scream.
     Oh, goodie.
     Minako hesitated before the doors, almost staggering.  I reached for
her, but before I could touch her shoulder another cry came to us, and she
shuddered, throwing the doors open and striding quickly through.  One
look inside the room, though, and I forgot all about Minako.
     It was a torture chamber.
     Seriously, like out of a movie or something.  Okay, there were no
cobwebs or flickering torches like in a monster movie.  It was clean and
well-lit, but that didn't make it any less horrible.  In fact, somehow the
track lighting and off-white paint made it worse.  Seeing those racks and
manacles hanging in a room that was otherwise quite ordinary was
jarring, almost unreal.
     The people in the room, though, they were quite real.
     There were a couple of the household guards, wearing the
standard uniform and smiling the standard henchman smile.  There was a
woman with short dark hair, dressed like a secretary in a conservative
dark suit jacket and skirt.
     And then there was the big guy.  His head nearly brushed the high
ceiling, and he was stripped to the waist, all the better to show off his
masses of ugly white scar tissue and his inhuman physique.  He was all
muscle, from his bald, bullet-shaped head to his V-shaped torso to his
legs as big around as tree-trunks.  I'd seen big guys before, bodybuilders
and the like, but something about this guy, maybe the shape of his ears or
the planes of his face, seemed somehow wrong.  As in not human.  It took
me a moment to recall where I'd had that feeling before, but it finally
came to me that the bouncer at Club Kiss had been the same way.  This
guy, though, he was much bigger.
     As impressive as the big man was, my attention was really
rivetted by the other occupants of the tidy, suburban torture chamber.
There were nine of them, six girls, three guys.  The first thing that struck
me about them wasn't that they ranged from striking to stunning in
appearance; I guess I was just getting used to the unearthly beauty that
reigned in this city.  The triangular ears and tails that each of them
possessed, though, those were definitely different.  I didn't mistake them
for costumes, like Minako's club outfit, not for one minute.  The ears
twitched nervously, the tails lashed, and the pupils of their eyes were
elongated.  These were the real deal.
     Most of the girls wore sexy maid outfits as extreme as the ones
Minako had conjured for the senshi, although one wore a white lace
number that weighed approximately as much as an impure thought.  Two
of the guys wore matching outfits, skin-tight leather pants with boots, no
shirt, and white collars with bow-ties and matching cuffs.
     The third wore mostly blood.
     His wounds weren't that bad from what I could see.  Hanging by
his manacled wrists, he'd clearly been given a going-over by Captain
Gargantua.  Besides the cuts, there were ugly bruises forming all along
his ribs.  I could practically see the shape of Gargantua's fists in those
marks, and it made me mad.  Mad enough to ignore the tingle of unease
that these distant cat-cousins evoked in me, at least for the moment.
     "Ah, our visitors from the Sisterhood," the secretary said
casually, as if there was nothing remarkable about walking into a room
full of terrified cat-people watching one of their own get tortured.
"Have you come to critique our technique?  I assure you, we are quite
capable of handling discipline amongst the help."
     "Discipline?" I asked.  Whatever was showing on my face made
the guards come to attention, no longer smiling their bored little smiles.
     "Indeed," the secretary told me.  I noticed that she was wearing
black gloves, and that she had something fitted over the fingers of her left
hand, something that gleamed with metallic highlights.  Steel knuckles of
some kind?  "I miss Tyria, you know.  The local peasants here provide
little in the way of challenge.  I feel my talents are wasted on the likes of
these.  What this city needs is a good slave market, something to put the
proper fear into the lower classes.  Don't you agree, my dear?"
     This last was directed at Minako.  I felt a queasy sensation in the
pit of my stomach as I turned and saw her standing, frozen, just behind
me.  Her face was pasty, the pupils of her eyes oddly glazed, and her
breath was coming in rapid little gasps.  Something was wrong, badly
wrong.  I could practically hear this mission splashing into the toilet as
we stood there, and I knew it was time to pull the plug.  Whatever secrets
Minako was keeping about this place, she wasn't ready to face them.
Hell, if they involved a room like this, neither was I.
     "Oh, dear," the woman said, her voice dripping insincere
concern.  "Your partner seems unwell."
     "She's fine," I said shortly, trying to catch Minako's eye.  "Look,
I can see you're busy, so why don't we just come back later?"  Yeah, I'll
be back, I thought.  And then we'll see how tough you guys are.
     "Oh, I'm sorry," the woman said, taking a step towards us.  "I'm
afraid there's been a change in plans."  Then she stepped past me and
thrust her hand into Minako's stomach.  The metal loop around her
knuckles made a crackling sound, and Minako cried out in pain,
dropping to her knees.  Incensed, I turned to grab the woman, but before I
could move, a hand the size of a car dropped over my head, fingers
clamping tightly and lifting me off the ground.
     That hurt.  I kicked, taken off guard, but couldn't make contact
with anything.  Damn, Gargantua was not only big, he was fast.  Damned
fast.
     "Arj, take care of her," the woman said, casual contempt in her voice.
     "Yes, Karla," Gragantua replied smoothly.  I felt myself being
spun through the air as I clawed at the massive hand, trying to gain some
leverage to break myself free.
     Then I hit a wall.  Sparks flared behind my eyes as I was hoisted with
ridiculous ease through the air, then hit it again.
     And again.
     And again.
     Then something gave way with a crunch, and I was falling ...
 
 
 
 

End chapter 16