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

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

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

Chapter Five: Inexplicable Truths

     Mars barely had time to register the strange sounds that erupted from Ranko's throat before
the girl moved, her arm blurring in an arc that surpassed even her previous speed.  The
wereleopard was sent flying back, crimson staining its fur as it tumbled to the uneven pavement.
     That was all the diversion they needed; flame erupted at the same time as a brilliant yellow
beam of light, and the remaining weres scattered.  They began to shift, one of them going all the
way, the other two stopping in their hybrid forms.  Using the piles of rubble as cover, they slipped
in and out of sight with unearthly grace, working around the two senshi.
     Mars caught sight of Ranko as the girl rolled over onto all fours.  At first she thought the
red-head must be injured, but the girl spun quickly and lunged forward, landing on all fours again
and snarling at the wounded wereleopard, feral rage in her eyes.
     Mars had no time to puzzle out what was going on, however, as one of their attackers leapt
over the rubble and streaked towards her.  She unleashed a series of flaming discs in his direction,
and he veered off quickly, leaving the discs to explode against the tangle of steel and concrete.
     The weres were testing their defences, trying to draw them out so as to expose a flank.  Very
predatory of them, but both senshi had been in tight battles before, and weren't about to make
such a basic mistake.
     Ranko was a different matter.  She charged the wereleopard heedlessly, slashing at it with her
hand, leaving a trail of parallel blood trails behind ... almost as if she'd grown claws herself.  The
creature roared in pain and anger and tried to strike back, but Ranko was far too fast and slashed
it yet again as it lunged, opening several diagonal cuts across its nose.  One eye was obscured by
blood, and the big cat shrieked, twisting in a attempt to escape its tormentor.  Ranko would not
be denied, though, slashing again and again at her foe's flanks, drawing blood every time.
     That did it.  The panicked wereleopard turned tail and fled, running full-out into the Zone.
Ranko wheeled, snarling, and now the others found themselves facing even odds.  Mars nearly
tagged the other cat, a weretiger, with her fireball, sending it rolling across the roadway.  Seconds
later it was up and running, shrieking in fear as fire blossomed on its tail.  It fled into the ruins, all
thought of fighting apparently abandoned.  Mars wondered how long it would be before the were
calmed down enough to change back.
     The tide turned even more quickly after that.  V caught one of the hybrids, the male, with her
whip and slammed him into the ground, then whirled and flung him across the road and into a
partially demolished wall.  The force of the impact took him through the crumbling stone, and
after a few seconds it was apparent that he wasn't coming back.
     That left only one hybrid, the woman called Yui.  She crouched, her half-human, half beast
form coiled and ready to attack.  V raised her finger to point at the woman, but before she could
fire her Crescent Beam, Yui slipped away.  Mars had only begun to consider a course of action
when a blur of motion showed her that Ranko had not been idle.
     Apparently, she'd been creeping around the periphery of the fight, and chose that moment to
spring at the distracted were.  Yui whirled and slashed at the girl, but Ranko flowed through the
air like mercury, dodging the blow and drawing blood as she passed.  She landed on all fours and
spun, yowling with fury and immediately making another pass.  Yui stumbled back, not knowing
what to make of her opponent.  She hissed, baring long fangs as she shifted her gaze between
Ranko, who was letting loose with a low warning growl, and the two senshi.
     Then, in a flash, she spun and retreated, shifting even further into animal mode.  Ranko sprang
after her, disappearing in a flash of black and red, moving much faster than Mars would have
thought possible on all fours.
     "Ranko!" Mars called.  "Come back!"
     "What on earth WAS that?" V asked, easing up beside Mars.  "I've never seen anything like
that before.  Is Ranko some kind of were?"
     "No," Mars said, frowning as she ran towards the point where the girl had disappeared.  "She
didn't change at all that I could see.  Whatever that was, I don't think it had anything to do with
lycanthropy."
     They edged carefully around the debris, then ran when it became apparent that there were no
threats nearby.  They heard the sounds of fighting ahead, ferocious and wild, and they put on a
burst of speed.
     Ranko was pursuing Yui again; this much they could see down the ruin of a street.  Ranko
appeared to have her foe's number, though.  Yui's feline form was streaked with blood, but Ranko
seemed unhurt.
     Physically, anyway.  Mars could not understand what had happened to the girl, but she didn't
have time to worry now.
     "Damn it, Yui sure can run!" V gasped.
     "No wonder," Mars shot back.  "See her transformation?  She's a cheetah!"
     Indeed, the big cat was outdistancing even Ranko now, but Mars caught a glimpse of the
skyline and knew that Yui was in trouble.  This street, if she wasn't mistaken, led to the river.
     She wasn't mistaken.
     They saw Yui slow as she spotted the twisted ruin of what had once been a bridge spanning
the turbulent expanse of the White Orb River.  Her head came around, spotting Ranko gaining
ground while the two senshi struggled to keep up.  Mars knew that if there was sufficient flat
terrain, they would never catch Yui, but the area around this street was a wasteland of
treacherous rubble, sinkholes and tangled metal.
     Mars wondered what Ranko would do if she caught the werecheetah.  Apparently, Yui
decided not to find out; spinning, she streaked up the short buckled deck of the bridge and
launched her lean form into space.  Seconds later, they heard a splash as her body hit the
fast-flowing water.  For a moment Mars was afraid that Ranko would follow her quarry, but the
girl skidded to a stop at the edge of the abbreviated bridge, gazing curiously over the side.
     By the time the two arrived, winded, near the end of the street, Ranko had come back down
off the bridge and was crouched contentedly in the street, licking her hand and rubbing the back
of it along her face.  Mars motioned V back and slowly crept forward, stopping only when Ranko
looked up at her and began to emit a low, feral sound deep in her throat.  The weres, taken
off-guard by events and losing the element of surprise, had been vanquished in short order, but the
danger wasn't over yet.
     "Ranko?" Mars called softly.  She gazed down at the girl, her chest tightening.  I'll look into
her eyes, she thought, and there'll be nothing there.  Just like in my vision ...
     But there was something lurking in those intense blue eyes, something alive and hot and vital.
It just didn't seem to be human.
     "Mars?" V called softly.
     "Stay there," Mars replied without turning.  She tried to ease forward, but Ranko began
making that unpleasant, pissed-off feline sound again, and she froze.  Then she slowly crouched
where she was until she was on one knee, watching Ranko all the while.
     "It's okay," she said softly.  "I won't hurt you.  Do you understand, Ranko?"  The red-head just
stared back impassively, showing no sign of comprehension.  Mars suppressed a curse.  This was
just wonderful.  Somehow, the girl had gone wild on them.  So now what?  They couldn't leave
her out in this part of the city; after dark, weres would be the least dangerous thing lurking in
these ruined buildings.
     And Ranko was the key to whatever danger her vision had presaged.  They needed to keep her
close.  Somehow, though, Mars got the feeling that sweet reason wouldn't be the answer here.
     Fortunately, she had another idea.
     She began to concentrate on her breathing, effortlessly recalling her temple training.  Ranko
didn't back away, but neither did she seem inclined to come any closer, content to just stare.  Mars
began to whisper a mantra under her breath, locking her gaze with Ranko's.  She let her aura
intensify and expand, compelling, drawing, attracting.  Her pheremone signature intensified as
well, as she reached out on a level below rationality to draw the now savage girl to her.
     She'd always been rather good at exercises like this during her training; her will was strong and
her control nearly unrivalled.  She watched as Ranko's nostrils flared slightly, and the girl cocked
her head.  She shuffled in place, shook her head a little, but didn't back away.  Then, almost as an
afterthought, she rose onto all fours and began to pad slowly towards where Mars was crouched.
     About halfway there she stopped, clearly torn.  Mars couldn't figure out why until she felt
hands on her shoulders, sliding around into an embrace her as V knelt behind her.
     "Rei," the blonde whispered huskily into her ear.  "I don't know what you're doing, but I liiiiike
it ..."
     Damn.
     "I told you to stay back," Mars hissed back, not breaking eye contact with Ranko.
     "But I just wanted to ..."
     "Minako," Rei breathed.  "Be still."  She put the force of compulsion behind her words, and
instantly Minako froze, still pressed against her.
     "Yes, ma'am," the blonde whispered meekly.  Mars gritted her teeth.  This was going to be
hard to explain, but first things first.  She needed Ranko to come closer.
     Lazily, she extended one hand, letting it flow in slow, languid motions that gestured,
summoned, beckoned the girl forward.  Ranko pretended to ignore her for a moment, shaking her
head with a tiny sneeze, but soon got back up and began to pad forward once more.  Rei focussed
her persuasive talents, stroking the girl with her gaze, her scent, the force of her will.
     Finally, Ranko came up to the beckoning hand and, after a momentary sniff, nuzzled it.  Mars
stroked the girl's cheek carefully, reaching back to plunge her fingers into that crimson mane and
scratch gently behind the ears.  Ranko's eyes lidded, and she butted her head against Mars' chest
... and started purring.
     "Mmmmm," V sighed.  "Will you scratch my ears next?"
     "Hush," Mars murmured without turning.  She let Ranko smell her, waiting until the girl
rubbed her cheek against the front of her fuku.  Then she slowly began to let the compulsion fade,
waiting for any sign that Ranko would bolt.
     She didn't, content to have her ears scratched.  Mars sighed in relief.
     One problem solved.  But they still had to get out of the Zone and back to somewhere safe.
     "That," V growled throatily, her lips next to Mars' ear, "was a very interesting trick, babe."
     "Thank you," Mars said shortly.  "Next time, stay where I tell you, okay?"
     "I did," V whispered, smiling slyly.  "I think you underestimated your effective range.  What
kind of spell was that, anyhow?"
     "We'll talk about it later.  See if she'll let you pet her."
     V reached down slowly, and Ranko raised her head in an unnervingly feline gesture, rubbing
against V's hand before letting the girl stroke her hair gently.
     "So, what now?" V asked, stroking the now complacent Ranko.
     "Now, we've got to get her someplace safe and see about reversing whatever was done to
her," Mars sighed.  "There's the Two Towers, so we don't have that far to go.  Let's see if she'll
follow us."
     Ranko did just that, never straying too far away.  With no sign of the remaining werecats, that
left them free to make their way across the river and back into town.
     "Hey, Mars," V said, glancing back at Ranko, who was happily scampering on all fours in their
wake.  "How in the hells are we going to explain this, anyway?"
     "Damned if I know," Mars sighed.  "Just keep walking, okay?  We'll worry about that later."

***

     Makoto leaned her hips against the polished wood counter in her kitchen, scowling.  She didn't
like how this was turning out, not at all.  It had been shocking enough to hear that woman tell
Usagi that Rei was a follower of the Dark Lady, and that she'd never really cared for Usagi at all.
What was worse was that her words had possessed a ring of truth.
     Once Makoto would never have entertained such a notion.  That, however, was before Hotaru
had revealed her true self, drinking Usagi's blood and showing the true contempt she held for both
them and the long-dead Queen Serenity.  When the unthinkable happens, it tends to throw
shadows of doubt over everything else.
     And so they'd arrived back at her place, and Makoto had braced herself for trouble ... only to
find that Rei and Minako were gone.  The note they'd left had said they were on their way to pick
up Ami, but when Ami called later from the train station to say they'd never showed, Makoto's
paranoia began to seem almost reasonable.
     It seemed so incomprehensible, but the arrogant beauty who'd wounded Usagi's soul so
effortlessly had told her to ask Rei if she wanted to know the truth.  Makoto felt her scowl
deepen.  And when Usagi did ask, what would Rei say?  Would she be shocked, angry?  Or would
she admit to having embraced the darkness?
     Makoto had heard stories of the Sisters of Shadows, and of the tactics they employed.  It
almost made sense to her, that they might want to slip one of their own close to someone who
embodied the power of the White Moon, someone like Usagi.  Once having gained her trust and
even her love, their operative could then cripple the princess's spirit, leaving her a shell of her self,
unable to protect herself from their foul web of deceit and lies.  And to those women, that would
be much more satisfying than actually killing their foe.
     Makoto fairly quivered with anger.  Hotaru had brought them together, revealed their past
lives, and helped forge them into a team.  Even when faced with the truth, Makoto had had
trouble believing ... had not WANTED to believe.  But the facts had been undeniable.  Hotaru had
used them.  They'd never been anything more to her than pawns.  And the others, the Outer
Senshi, had known the truth all along and had kept it hidden from them, which in Makoto's eyes
demonstrated their complicity in everything that had happened.  Even Haruka, the first person
Makoto had looked up to in a very long while, had lied to her, betrayed her trust.
     And to Makoto, there was no sin worse than betrayal.
     And now this.  She didn't want to believe it; Rei had been with them through so much.  But
then, so had the Outers, and apparently it had meant nothing.  One thing, though, was certain.
     Makoto Kino was tired of being manipulated and lied to.
     "Makoto?"  She looked up at the sound of her name to find Ami standing beside her.  Ami had
taken a taxi at Makoto's bidding when they'd spoken on the phone, and had spent the time since
she'd arrived trying to pull Usagi out of her funk.
     "How is she?" Makoto asked.
     "Worried," Ami replied softly.  "She says she's afraid Rei and Minako are in trouble, but ..."
     "Yeah.  But," Makoto replied sourly.  "But what if Minako is the only one in trouble?"
     "I just can't believe such a thing," Ami protested, keeping her voice low.  "Even after all that's
happened ..."
     "That woman was pretty convincing," Makoto told her.
     "Saekianna, Usagi said.  Nightmistress of the Sisterhood," Ami mused.  "What is she up to?"
     "It was all just a game to her, Ami.  You should have seen her.  Usagi was crushed, and this
woman was enjoying herself!  If I hadn't been worried about Usagi, I'd have gone after the bitch
myself!"
     "That would be unwise," Ami broke in.  "The Sisterhood's reputation is well earned.  They are
very dangerous."
     "You think I care?"  Makoto didn't realize how her voice had risen until Ami began speaking in
the tone of voice she reserved specifically for when she was trying to calm the taller girl down.
     "They are tricky, devious, and cunning," Ami continued calmly.  "For Usagi's sake, please
don't do anything rash.  Please?"
     Makoto took a breath and let it out slowly.  Ami was right, of course.  It was just that she was
feeling helpless, impotent in the face of Usagi's pain.  It was just like after Hotaru, and the urge to
do something, anything, was overwhelming.
     "I understand," she told Ami ruefully.  "I just ... I can't stand going through this again, you
know?  I thought we were something special."
     "We should wait and hear what Rei has to say," Ami said, shuffling her feet absently.  "This
whole thing could be a ploy of some sort, you know."
     "I hope that's what it is," Makoto sighed.  "Believe me, I do.  But I can't help thinking about
things in a different light now.  Like how Rei, a priestess, never knew Hotaru was a vampire.  I'm
starting to doubt everything.  I just ... I feel this sense of dread, you know?"
     "I know," Ami replied, her voice nearly inaudible.  "If this IS true, then it'll be the end of the
senshi.  We'll never recover."
     "I just wish there was something we could do," Makoto fumed.  "This waiting is killing me."
     "Let me use your computer, Makoto," Ami said, tilting her head back to gaze up into the taller
girl's eyes.  "It isn't as sophisticated as any of mine, but I can try to find out about this woman.  If
she does know the truth about us, then we'll need to take steps to protect ourselves."
     "Good idea.  In the meantime, I'm going to go sit with Usagi.  Maybe I can convince her to eat
something."
     "Makoto," Ami called as the tall girl pushed off the counter and started walking towards the
loft.  Makoto stopped and turned back.
     "Yeah?"
     "Where do you think Rei is now?" Ami asked.  Makoto saw the hope in the other girl's blue
eyes, the need to hear that there was a perfectly good explanation for Rei's untimely absence.
     "I don't know," Makoto admitted.  "But this doesn't look good, Ami.  It definitely doesn't look
good for us."
     She walked away, trying to keep a tight reign on the dull ache in her gut.  Betrayal, she was
finding, never got any easier to stomach, no matter how many times it happened.  It hurt, burned
like acid, ate away at the soft parts of the heart and left only scars in its wake.  Maybe she'd been
right to strike out on her own after all.  Maybe, in the end, you really couldn't rely on anyone else.
     That was a frightening thought.

***

     Rei watched the cab driver pull away, the driver giving them one more incredulous glance in
his mirror before roaring down the road and out of sight.  Well, she couldn't blame him, she
supposed.
     It certainly had been an interesting ride.
     Ranko had squirmed and crawled around between them, refusing to settle down in her odd
feline state.  And, of course, Minako had felt compelled to tell the driver that Ranko was their sex
toy and was merely role playing.  Rei was relieved that the drive was finally over.
     Although their problems weren't.
     "So this is your place, huh?" the raven-haired senshi asked.
     "Yup," Minako replied, trying to coax a still wary Ranko into following her, oblivious to the
looks they were receiving from passers-by.  "Not bad, eh?"
     It was better than not bad.  Minako's neighbourhood was on a hill that gave a pretty impressive
view of the central districts of the Triangle.  Their adventures had brought them so far north that
it had actually been easier to get to Minako's place than to try to fight through traffic and make it
back to Makoto's.  Rei hadn't wanted to keep Ranko in the cab any longer than strictly necessary
anyway, so Minako's had seemed the better choice.
     The house itself was impressive, a towering old stone manse festooned with turrets and gables
and old wardings woven into the wrought iron scrollwork that lined the windows and the edges of
the roof.
     "This place can't be yours," Rei said as she approached the walkway that led to the imposing
front door.
     "Not all of it," Minako grunted, trying to wrestle a recalcitrant Ranko away from a nearby
bush.  "It's been broken up into apartments.  There's one in the basement, two on the main floor
and two on the second floor.  Mine's one of those, but mine's the best one in the place.  I've got
rooms up in the third floor as part of my space, that turret thingie is part of my bedroom ...
Ranko, dammit, will you stop being such a pain?"
     Smiling wryly, Rei walked past the blonde and through the open gate.  Ranko rose on all fours
and followed her, brushing lightly against Rei's leg as she investigated her new surroundings.
Minako made an exasperated sound.
     "Made yourself a friend, huh?" the blonde asked.
     "Jealous?" Rei shot back.
     "If she's your cat, just see that she doesn't pee on my floors," Minako said.  She walked up to
the heavy front door and fished about for her keys as Rei and Ranko followed her up the broad
stairs.  The neighbourhood was an older one, but quite nice for the Triangle; sort of eclectic, with
a mix of architectural styles.  There were signs it had once been fairly upscale.
     The hill dropped off steeply only a couple of streets over into a wooded ravine that led to the
Black River, forming a natural boundary that probably fostered a sense of community among the
people who lived here.
     Or maybe she was reading too much into that; maybe it just fostered paranoia in those with a
fear of heights.
     Minako opened the door and led them inside.  Ranko hesitated briefly at the threshold, but
ended up following Rei into the small foyer.  Rei wondered if the way she'd summoned the girl
back in the Zone had made such an impression on Ranko's cat-persona, or if she'd just decided to
follow Rei around for some inexplicable feline reason.
     Whichever, it was helpful that she was being at least moderately cooperative.  Rei wanted to
get the girl someplace private as soon as possible, so they could try to figure out what had
happened and how it could be fixed.  One thing was for certain; she'd never get any answers out
of Ranko in her present state.
     The curved staircase took them up to a narrow hallway.  Ranko sniffed warily along the dark
wooden baseboards, and Rei waited impatiently as Minako opened her door.
     "Ah," the blonde announced.  "Home sweet home."  Rei stood at the threshold, urging Ranko
inside.  The door opened directly into a large, airy room in a state of moderate disarray.  A couch
and two plush chairs formed a rough cluster near a wall unit equipped with some very expensive
stereo equipment, including a top of the line karaoke machine.
     The colours were warm, and the entire atmosphere was one of casual intimacy.  It suited
Minako perfectly, as far as Rei was concerned.
     "Yo, Artemis!" Minako called.  "I'm back!"
     "Mina?" a voice replied from another room.  "Just a second!"
     Moments later, a small white cat with a crescent moon emblem on his forehead emerged from
one of the arched doorways leading from the room.
     "Another all-nighter, huh?" Artemis asked wryly.  Then he caught sight of Rei and his eyes
widened.
     "Hey!" he blurted.  "I wasn't expecting to see you, Rei!"
     "Long story," Rei replied.  "How are you doing, Artemis?  Keeping out of trouble?"
     "With Mina around, that's a full-time job," Artemis laughed.
     "I heard that!" Minako shouted from somewhere out of sight.  "Hey tomcat, have we got
anything to eat?  I'm starved!"
     "Now there's a shock!" Artemis shot back.  Just then Ranko emerged from her investigations,
crawling into the room and stopping short at the sight of Artemis.  She lowered her body slightly,
a low menacing growl oozing from her throat.
     "Uh-oh," Rei said.  Ranko began a slow, low-slung advance, and Artemis yelped, scampering
up Rei's leg and into her arms.
     "Ranko, knock it off!" Rei snapped.  Ranko's eyes, fever-bright, stayed locked on Artemis
even as she froze on the floor.  It was clear that Ranko, in her feline state, wasn't fond of other
cats.
     "What's going on?" Minako asked, stepping into the room.
     "Little territorial dispute, I think," Rei replied.  "Take Ranko into the kitchen and get her some
milk or something, would you?"
     "Huh.  Okay, red, come on," Minako sighed, grabbing the disgruntled Ranko by the collar and
pulling her away.  "No bullying Artemis, okay?"  With a baleful backwards glance, Ranko allowed
herself to be pulled away.  Artemis peeked timidly over Rei's shoulder, sighing in relief as Minako
pulled Ranko through the doorway into the kitchen.
     "That girl has brought some lunatics home," he grumbled, "but this is a new low even for her."
     "Another long story," Rei assured him, reaching up to scratch idly behind his ears.  They
swivelled back lazily and his eyes lidded under her ministrations.
     "Urmmm," he sighed.  "So why did you suddenly hook up with Minako?  Could it be that you
two have become an item?"
     "Me and Minako?" Rei asked, dubious.
     "Hey, she could use the discipline," Artemis said with a salacious leer.
     "Well, I can't dispute that," Rei said wryly.
     "Hey, what are you two talking about in there?" the blonde called from the kitchen.
     "You," Artemis replied.
     "Oh.  Very good, carry on," Minako said.  "Um, Ranko appears to have problems with other
cats.  Artemis, why don't you change and see if that helps?"
     "Maybe Ranko just doesn't like males," Rei frowned.
     "Well, one way to find out for sure," Artemis said, leaping from Rei's arms.  His body began to
sparkle in mid-air, tiny motes of white light coalescing around his form.  Rei shivered as the cool
tingling sensation of magic washed across her skin in a gentle caress.
     The glowing motes shifted and flowed into a tall form before fading.  There, standing before
her, was a man with long, straight white hair and a crescent moon upon his forehead.  He shook
his head slightly, his mouth twisting into a rueful grin.
     "That still takes it out of me, even at the best of times," he sighed, tugging fussily at his loose
white robes.  "Think she'll like me better this way?"
     When Ranko came back into the room, she barely glanced at Artemis, moving over to a patch
of wan sunlight and curling up on the floor.  The other three watched her, and at last Artemis
cleared his throat.
     "So, what exactly is her deal, anyway?" he asked.  They ended up sitting down, Rei and
Minako giving him a brief recounting of the events that had brought them to that point.
     "Have you ever heard of anything like this in connection with weres, Artemis?" Rei asked.
"Some sort of lycanthropic magic, maybe?"
     "That seems unlikely," he replied, gazing absently at the resting girl.  "It wouldn't benefit them
at all to cast that sort of spell, would it?"
     "You have a point," Rei admitted.  "And they seemed as surprised as we were at what
happened.  More so, even.  They couldn't handle her at all."
     "Maybe it was something only indirectly related to the werecats," Artemis mused as Minako
came back into the room.
     "What do you mean?" Rei asked.
     "Well," he mused, "something that was attracted by them but not under their control ... for
example, a rogue cat-spirit of some kind."
     "Spirit possession?" Rei asked sharply.  "Damn, I'm stupid!  I should have considered that
sooner!"
     "You mean Ranko might be possessed by something?"  Minako asked, glancing at the
red-head.
     "That explanation certainly fits," Rei said, getting up off the couch.  She reached inside her
shirt and slowly withdrew a spirit ward, holding it between her index and middle fingers.
Carefully she padded over to where Ranko lay.  The girl's eyes were closed, but Rei suspected
that Ranko knew exactly what was going on around her.  As if to prove her point, Ranko's blue
eyes opened as Rei came within arm's length, gazing up at her with guarded indifference.
     "What are you doing?" Minako asked from behind her.
     "Just watch," Rei replied softly.  She crouched in front of Ranko, concentrating on appearing
friendly and harmless.
     "Hey there," she murmured, her voice pitched low.  "How we doing here, puss?"  With her
free hand, she reached out and brushed her fingertips over Ranko's ear, lacing them into the
tangled mane of red hair and scratching gently.  Ranko's eyes half closed, and she arched slightly
into Rei's hand.
     "What's that noise?" Artemis asked.  "Hey, is she ... purring?"
     "Yeah, she does that," Minako told him.  "It's kind of wild, huh?"  They watched as Rei
stroked the girl with slow, soothing motions, gradually bringing the ward up in her free hand.
     "That a girl," she crooned as Ranko cocked her head lazily.  "Just relax ..."  Picking her
moment, she reached out and planted the end of the ward directly on Ranko's forehead.  Not
knowing what the reaction might be, she hopped back quickly, watching Ranko to see what effect
her ward would have.
     She didn't have long to wait.
     Ranko sat bolt upright, the long strip of red paper covered with arcane black characters
dangling in her face.  She shook her head violently, but the end of the ward remained firmly stuck
to her forehead.  Ranko made a confused blert, then rose up on her legs and began batting at the
ward with her hands.  She spun in place, pawing madly, then ran on all fours across the room,
sliding into the far wall.  Rebounding neatly, the red-head began flailing again and finally
managing to snag the flapping ward.
     Eventually succeeding in tearing the ward free, Ranko batted it around in mid-air before it
could hit the ground, propelling it across the room.  Merrily, she gave chase, pouncing on it and
once again sending it skittering around on the gleaming wood.  Finally she landed squarely on it,
grabbing the offending ward in her mouth and giving it a good shaking before falling down and
rolling onto her back, limbs waving.  At that point she froze with the ward still clasped in her
teeth, rolling her eyes to look at Rei.
     "I'm guessing spirit possession is right out," Minako said.
     "Good guess," Rei sighed.
     "I think she wants to play," Artemis said, not managing to completely hide his amusement at
Ranko's antics.  Rei sighed again and walked over to Ranko, who promptly began ignoring her
and started whipping the unfortunate ward around in an obvious attempt to subdue her prey.
     "Bad cat," Rei scolded.  Her attempts to retrieve the ward were frustrated, though, and finally
she gave up.
     "Well, what else could it be?" Minako asked.  Rei shrugged.
     "I've never seen anything like this," the raven-haired girl admitted, trying to hide her
frustration.  "We just don't have enough information.  Maybe if Ami was here, she could do an
analysis ..."
     "Oh, yeah!" Minako blurted.  "We were supposed to pick up Ami and we never showed!  They
must be worried sick over there.  We should call and let them know we're all right."
     "I'll do it," Rei said.  "I don't look forward to trying to get Ranko into another taxi, though.  If
Ami's there already, I'd like to ask them to come here."
     "Good idea," Minako said.  "First things first, though.  I don't know about you, but I'm
starved.  Artemis?"
     "I suppose I could whip something up," Artemis sighed.
     "Thanks, tomcat," Minako said, blowing him a kiss as he trudged into the kitchen.
     "Where's the phone?" Rei asked.  Minako pointed, and Rei went to make her call.
     To her surprise, Ami picked up at the other end.
     "Ami?  It's Rei," she said.  There was a pause.
     "Rei?"
     "I guess you're wondering what happened, huh?" Rei asked.
     "Yes, we were concerned," Ami said cautiously.  "You and Minako just seemed to disappear
..."
     "Sorry about that," Rei said.  "It's a long story, we can tell you the details when you get here."
     "Get where?"  There was something odd about Ami's voice, or rather, her tone.  Ami could be
quite reserved and timid in her manner, especially with strangers, but Rei was no stranger.  And
Ami seemed strangely tentative, as if she were weighing every word Rei said.
     "I want you guys to come to Minako's place," she said, frowning.  "There's someone here I
want you to meet."
     "Someone?"  There it was again, an undercurrent of tension in Ami's voice.
     "Yes.  Ami, is everything all right there?"
     "Yes, fine," Ami said quickly.  "I don't know how to get to Minako's, though."  Rei gave her
the address and some brief directions.
     "You get all that?" she asked at last.
     "Yes," Ami confirmed.  "We'll be there as soon as we can.  Rei ..."
     "Yes?" Rei asked.  It sounded like Ami wanted to ask her something, but after a moment Rei
heard a soft sigh at the other end.
     "Nothing," Ami replied.  "We'll see you soon."
     "Great.  See you," Rei said, frowning as she hung up the phone.
     That had definitely been strange.  Perhaps Ami was just feeling awkward, talking to her for the
first time since their break-up.  In the beginning, the quiet senshi had been painfully shy, but Usagi
had drawn her out of her shell, and slowly Ami had shed some of her reserve around the other
girls.
     Whatever the case, it could certainly wait until the rest of the team arrived.
     Rei froze, feeling a tiny quiver of anticipation.  The rest of the team.  Well, they were that,
weren't they?  A team?  And why was she so looking forward to having everyone together, when
she'd already decided that she was going to stay out of Usagi's life?
     Cursing herself silently, she returned to the main room to find Minako taunting a coiled Ranko
with a dangling piece of string.
     "Having fun?" she asked.
     "Absolutely," Minako grinned.
     "Great.  Well, in case you care, Ami made it to Makoto's.   They're going to come here, and
then maybe we can get to the bottom of this once and for all."
     "That's great news," Minako beamed.  "In the meantime, though, I'm going to run a bath.
After the day I've had, I could use it."
     "The day YOU'VE had?" Rei asked archly.
     "Hey, my tub's more than big enough for two," Minako said with a coquettish glance.  "And
cat-girl there could use one too, seeing as she's been crawling around on the ground half the day."
     "Well, you've got a point," Rei admitted.
     "Glad that's settled," Minako grinned.  "You get Ranko undressed, I'll start the bath."
     "What?" Rei blurted.
     "Look, she can't take a bath with her clothes on," Minako said in a maddeningly reasonable
tone.
     "Well, stripping a girl is something I'd expect you to enjoy," Rei said irritably.  "Why should I
do it?"
     "Because she listens to you," Minako said, moving over behind Rei.  "And," the blonde added,
her voice velvety, "if she gives you trouble you can always use that beguiling technique from
earlier.  What exactly was that, anyway?  It was very ... interesting."
     "Something I picked up training in the mountains," Rei replied idly, trying to ignore the
flirtatious way Minako's hot breath was tickling her ear.  "A meditative technique that can, under
the right circumstances, amplify latent emotions, like fear or anger or desire."  A lie, of course,
but there was no way she could tell the truth.  And Minako seemed to be buying it.
     "Could you teach me?" Minako asked, her blue eyes alive with wicked interest.
     "It takes spiritual training and discipline, and you haven't got either," Rei pointed out,
advancing slowly on Ranko.  The girl, as if sensing Rei's intent, got to all fours and scampered out
of the room.
     "Looks like you're going to have your hands full with her," Minako snickered.  "And here I
thought you had a way with troublesome girls."
     "Funny, Aino," Rei said blackly.  She slipped out of her pinstriped jacket, tossing it on the
couch.  Then she unfastened the cuffs of her shirt and rolled up the sleeves.
     This promised to be quite an undertaking.

***

     Minako watched with undisguised amusement as Rei stalked off, intent on cornering Ranko
and preparing her for the bath.  In Minako's humble opinion, Rei really needed to loosen up a bit,
and chasing an uncooperative cat-girl around in a bid to strip her naked was just what the doctor
ordered.
     Rei was something of an enigma to Minako, even now.  She was one of the most sensual,
alluring women Minako had ever met, radiating a cool, effortless sense of self-confidence that
Minako found irresistible.  Rei could go from aloof to haughty to playful to passionate, each facet
at once compelling and fascinating.  She had even, on very rare occasions, shown a more tender,
even vulnerable, side.
     Rei didn't lack for besotted suitors either, but for some reason Minako couldn't understand the
raven-haired beauty rarely availed herself of the opportunities presented.  Minako knew Rei
wasn't frigid, nor was she a prude; watching some lucky girl succumb to Rei's captivating charms
was proof enough of that.  The fiery senshi possessed a sensual hunger rivalled only by her fabled
temper.
     Had Minako been in the other girl's shoes, her bed would always be full of wanton, willing
partners.  The fact that Rei seldom indulged her appetites puzzled Minako to no end.
     Of course, from the first moment they'd met Minako had wanted Rei.  The girl's nearly
arrogant self-possession, her stark beauty, her dominant nature ... Rei was something special.
However, unfortunately and, to Minako, inexplicably, Rei refused to respond to her flirtations.
Minako was unaccustomed to being turned down, and Rei's aloofness only made her all the more
attractive.
     As every pass was coolly deflected or even ignored, Minako began to get more and more
frustrated.  Finally, though, she found an outlet for those frustrations; Rei's volatile temper.
Minako had taken to subtly goading and provoking Rei at every turn, flushing with pleasure every
time she enticed a rise out of the other girl.  It had become something of a game to her, to inflame
Rei whenever possible.  It wasn't quite the passion she wished to evoke in Rei, but at least the
raven-haired girl found it impossible to ignore her.
     And, she was quite certain, eventually she would push Rei just a little too far.  What would
happen then was anyone's guess, but at least it wouldn't be boring.  The very thought caused her
to shudder with anticipation; Minako had never been one to play it safe.
     That was probably why, when she picked up Rei's jacket and felt the lump of the fiery senshi's
henshin rod in the pocket, a devilish notion immediately leapt to the forefront of her mind.
     She'll be really pissed, Minako told herself as she fished out the henshin rod and held it in the
palm of her hand.  But the thought of Rei's eyes, aroused with fury, just provoked that delicious
shudder again.  It was really a naughty thing to do, but ...
     Aw, hells, she decided.  Rei's been so grim since this whole vision thing brought us back
together.  Maybe this'll put her in a more receptive frame of mind.
     A quick check revealed that Rei was still chasing the recalcitrant Ranko, who had bounded
upstairs.  And Artemis was still in the kitchen.
     Perfect.

***

     It took some time, but Rei finally cornered Ranko back in the main room.  What ensued was a
wrestling match as she tried to get Ranko's clothes off.
     The red-head seemed to regard Rei's actions as some sort of game, and gleefully made things
difficult by pawing and head butting Rei with guileless affection.  Rei considered trying to beguile
the girl again, but decided against it unless absolutely necessary. Minako seemed to buy her
meditation story, but Artemis might ask awkward questions ... questions that Rei wouldn't want
to answer.
     Getting the sash off wasn't too hard.  After that, she struggled with the fastenings on the front
of Ranko's shirt as the girl squirmed and flailed.  With her arms full of red-head, Rei could feel the
girl's compact body quite well.  The loose clothing hid a sleekly muscled frame that bespoke of
hard physical training, as well as very feminine curves.  Rei sighed at the thought that anyone
walking in could easily misinterpret their apparently compromising position, entangled on the
floor with Ranko half-undressed.
     And, since Minako was the most likely person to come into the room, that misinterpretation
was likely to be voiced without any hesitation.
     Rei couldn't figure Minako out.  As a Sister of Shadows, Rei had been taught to respect carnal
appetites, to hone them into a weapon to be used against others, never against oneself.  Minako
was a strong girl, but she flung her libido about in a manner that Rei found puzzling at best.
There were aspects of Minako's personality that nearly would have made her a decent Sister, but
the way she seemed to almost be a slave to her desires made her seem more like one of the
Maidens, just waiting to be brought to heel.
     Rei envied Minako's openness sometimes, though.  Having broken from her past, Rei had
come to keep her darker nature under strict control, especially once she'd met Usagi.  She didn't
want her princess to see that part of her; Usagi would never understand.  Indeed, having been
raised by the White Sisters, Usagi would be horrified and repulsed by Rei's past.  That was why
Rei had never been able to confide in her friend, even after all they'd shared.
     Minako, though, never seemed to bother holding anything back.  She seemed to accept
everything that had come her way with a certain wry equanimity, remaining relentlessly upbeat.
Minako's constant flirtations with Usagi wouldn't have  troubled Rei so much if she hadn't felt that
the capricious blonde was just out to carve another notch in her bedpost.  Minako's careless
liaisons with her bevy of acquaintances was none of Rei's business, but Usagi deserved better than
to be bedded out of curiosity, or because Minako regarded her as a challenge.  Of course, it
would have been much easier if Usagi didn't encourage Minako's attentions so openly; that girl
really was too innocent for her own good.
     Finally, Rei got the shirt totally undone and managed to pull it off, leaving Ranko with a brief
gray tank top, cropped just above the navel, and her baggy black pants.  Ranko regarded her with
feline curiosity, clearly wondering what strange thing Rei was going to get up to next.
     Minako, of course, walked in as Rei was trying to get Ranko's pants off, and immediately lived
down to Rei's expectations.
     "Oh, dear," Minako said, feigning shock.  "If you two would like to be alone ..."
     "Very funny," Rei growled.  "Get over here and help me with this, would you?"
     Ranko enjoyed this new game as much as the old one, and more pursuit was necessary before
Rei could get the drawstrings at the waist and ankles undone.  Once Ranko's pants were off,
Minako broke out laughing.
     "Boxer shorts?" she asked incredulously.  "This girl takes being a tomboy to a whole new
level!"
     Rei just shook her head.  The red-head was now clad in only the abbreviated muscle shirt and a
pair of boxer shorts, yet she still managed to exude a nearly primal sensuality.  The muscles of her
shoulders and arms were clearly delineated as she crouched, forming smooth curves of steel under
silken soft skin.  As Ranko rolled and sat up, tossing her waist-length braid insouciantly, Rei
noticed something strange about the girl's narrow waist.  Sleek muscles were visible there as well,
sheathed in taut smooth flesh, but thin white scars snaked up one side of her abdomen and
disappeared under her shirt.
     "Looks like our kitty's seen some action," Minako murmured, following Rei's gaze.
     "Hmmm," Rei mused.  "If she got those scars while in cat mode, then that means there's
definitely a way to get her back.  We just have to find out what it is."
     "Question," Minako said.  "Is she more of a threat if we DO get her back to normal, or like
this?  If she's really a threat at all, I mean."
     "I don't know the answer to that," Rei admitted, suppressing the urge to snap at the blonde.
"But at least we can communicate with her as a girl.  We'll never get answers out of her this way."
     "Okay," Minako said, cracking her knuckles.  "Time to get kitty into the bath, then.  At least
we can accomplish that much."
     Between the two of them, they managed to get Ranko into the bathroom.  Rei, well aware of
Minako's fondness for clutter and general disarray, was surprised by how clean the bathroom was.
The tiles gleamed, plush towels were stacked in the appropriate nook, and toiletries were lined up
along the side of the large tub with almost military precision.
     "I'm going to guess that Artemis cleans the bathroom," Rei said wryly, as Ranko began
investigating the corners, sniffing fastidiously.
     "You know me so well," Minako grinned.  "He says I'm a slob."
     "You ARE a slob."
     "True," Minako sighed theatrically.  "I guess I'll just have to find a love slave who cleans."
     Rei checked out the tub enviously.  The bathroom was quite large, with the tub taking up one
corner.  Shallow steps led up from the rinse area to a large flat dias.  The tub was set into that
dias, the edges flush with the tiled top.  The tub itself was spacious and deep, just the sort of
extravagance that Rei wished her own bathroom possessed.
     "Nice, huh?" Minako remarked from behind her.  "It's one of the points that sold me on this
place.  I can't resist a luxurious bubble bath."
     "I noticed," Rei said.  The steaming water was covered with mounds of foamy bubbles,
forming an intricate landscape of valleys and mountains.  "I guess it helps to have someone else
clean the tub when you're done."
     "Yup!" Minako replied.  Rei turned to see the blonde pulling her t-shirt over her head, shaking
her long blonde hair free as she tossed it aside.
     "What are you doing?" Rei asked.
     "I," Minako said firmly, "am going to have a bath.  Salamanders and long treks through
abandoned tunnels are bad for a girl's skin.  Care to join me?  Unless you're afraid to get naked in
a tub of hot, scented water with me ..."  This last was delivered with a sidelong glance, and Rei
snorted.
     "I can handle you easily, Minako,"the raven-haired girl replied.  "But we're supposed to be
cleaning up Ranko."
     "I remember," Minako said, tossing her bra on top of the discarded shirt.  "But if we're going
to bathe her in her present state, we're going to get wet.  Trust me."
     "WE are not going to get wet," Rei said, "because WE are not having a bath.  You can wash
Ranko-kitty while I go check on Artemis and dinner."
     "You are worried about taking a bath with me!" Minako smirked.  "What's wrong, Rei?
Afraid things'll get out of hand?"
     "Hardly," Rei snorted.  "I can keep you in line any day, nympho."
     "Command me, mistress," Minako murmured with a demure smile, holding her hands up,
wrists together.  She peered up from under a curtain of blonde hair, and Rei fought to keep her
expression neutral as an instinctive surge of heat flashed through her.  Minako had no idea that
women had actually come to her with just that plea back in her Temple days.  Minako was only
fooling around, but for a moment Rei's instincts had nearly taken over.
     Keeping her breathing steady, Rei just gave the girl a sour look.
     "Have fun with your bath," she told the playful blonde.  "I think you'll have your hands full
washing your new friend, though."
     "Why's that?" Minako asked, watching Ranko's perambulations absently.
     "Because cats hate water, idiot.  See you."
     Rei left Minako to her project and headed for the kitchen.  A bath was tempting, but she just
wasn't in the mood to fend off Minako's advances ... and contrary to the blonde's protestations of
innocence, there would be advances.
     The matter of Ranko continued to nag at her.  Her appearance had only deepened the mystery
surrounding Rei's vision.  If Ranko wasn't the cause of the disaster which Rei had foreseen, then
who, or what, was?  And why did Ranko loom as such a central figure?
     She shook her head.  This was getting them nowhere.  At least if they could talk to the girl
they might be able to find some clue to what was going on.  Right now, though, that just wasn't
going to happen.  They needed to know what was wrong with Ranko so that they could get her
back to normal.  Hopefully Ami could help out in that regard.  Rei hadn't sensed any overt magic
in Ranko's transformation, and her ward would definitely have had an effect if there were spirits
involved.  Ami was quite well-read on many subjects, however, including magic.  Between the
quiet girl's knowledge and her portable scanner, hopefully they could come up with a plan of
action.
     Rei wandered into the kitchen, where Artemis was busy throwing various bits of something
into a pot of steaming water.
     "Not gourmet fare I'm afraid," he said, catching sight of her.  "Mostly just stuff right out of a
package, actually."
     "Fine by me," Rei said.  I'm starved."
     "Well, I'm no Makoto," Artemis admitted ruefully.
     "So who is?" Rei asked, plucking a slice of radish from the cutting board and popping it neatly
into her mouth.  "Trust me, I don't feel like waiting until she gets here to eat.  It's been a long day,
and dealing with a girl who suddenly thinks she's a cat didn't help matters at all."
     "This Ranko, she's a friend of yours?" Artemis asked with a teasing smile.  "She seems more
like Minako's type."
     "If only it were that simple," Rei sighed.  "But we're hoping she's friend and not foe."
     "Oh," Artemis said, somewhat taken aback.
     "Don't worry, Artemis.  So far, the only thing she's done wrong is show up in one of my
visions," Rei assured him.
     "Visions," Artemis said, shaking his head.  "I'd almost forgotten how interesting life was with
you around.  With ALL of you.  Does all this mean that the senshi will be re-forming?"
     "I just don't know, Artemis," Rei said, trying to ignore the wistful flutter in her belly.  "Once
we deal with the immediate problem, I guess we'll have to talk about that.  I mean, Hotaru's still
out there.  How will she react if she finds we're back together?  She might regard the Inner Senshi
as a group a threat since we're not under her thumb anymore."
     "I hope things work out," he said with a small, crooked smile.  "It would be good for Minako
to have you guys around again.  I've been a little worried about her since ... you know."
     "Worried?  Artemis, nothing gets to that girl," Rei snorted.  "She seems to be doing fine on her
own."
     "She takes things pretty much in stride," Artemis said, his gaze turning inwards.  "But she's
only human, Rei.  Sometimes she throws herself into every passing fancy, every fleeting
encounter, with such recklessness that I can't help but worry.  I always hoped she'd find a
long-term partner, someone to share her heart with, someone who'd settle her down a bit.  Like
Usagi, or you."
    "Me?" Rei asked with a crooked smile.  This was the second time since they'd arrived that
Artemis had mentioned the possibility, and Rei wondered if he was trying to do some
matchmaking.  "No offense, Artemis, but no thanks.  The only reason Minako ever wanted me
was because she couldn't have me.  I'd just be another notch on her bedpost, and that goes for
Usagi too."
     Artemis turned and stirred the pot, and Rei suppressed a sigh, wondering if she'd said too
much.  Artemis was very protective of Minako, after all.  When he turned back, though, there was
no indication that he was offended.
     "You're wrong, you know," he said, rubbing his nose with the back of his hand.  "About
Mina."
     "Artemis ..."
     "Oh, she's not above wanting something just because she can't have it," he said, holding up a
hand to forestall her protest.  "It was like that with Michiru.  Her unattainability was definitely
part of the reason Mina pursued her.  But Rei, I know her pretty well.  Trust me when I say that
Mina thinks very highly of both you and Usagi.  She thinks the world of all four of you, actually.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that there's no more to her than meets the eye.  There's a lot
more, things she doesn't share with casual bedmates.  Things she'd share with the right person, if
given a chance."
     To say that Rei was surprised by Artemis' words would have been an understatement.  Even
though he was very fond of the girl, Rei had never heard him talk that way about Minako before,
cutting so close to the heart.  Before she had a chance to pursue the matter, though, she heard a
loud yelp, followed by a splash.
     Then something skittered across her skin, a cool heat of intangible raspy silk.
     Magic.
     Strange, unfamiliar, almost alien, it washed over her in a short burst, then faded, but by then
she was already running towards the source, cursing herself for leaving Minako alone in the bath
with Ranko.  She heard Artemis running behind her, and could only hope they wouldn't be too
late.  The sudden silence from behind the bathroom door was somehow ominous, and she called
out as she ran.
     "Minako!"

***

     Minako sighed as Rei stalked out of the room, her scent lingering faintly like dark promise.
The prospect of getting Rei into the bath with her, all naked and slicked down, had been enticing
to say the least.  Well, better luck next time.
     And after all, it wasn't like this bath was going to be boring or anything.  She slid her jeans
down her long legs in one smooth motion and kicked them away into a corner, then stood and
watched Ranko.
     Ranko had finished sniffing around and was returning her gaze, head cocked in a gesture
Minako found charmingly innocent.  The red-head didn't appear to be registering Minako's nudity
at all, though; she appeared neither aroused nor offended.  She simply watched with that feline
indifference as Minako approached her and knelt down.
     "Time to get clean," the blonde said softly.  "Come on, let's get the rest of this stuff off."
     She tickled the red-head's chin, coaxing her into a position where she could pull the
abbreviated tank top shirt off.  One quick pull did the trick.  Minako tossed the shirt aside, but
when she turned back she caught sight of something hanging down between Ranko's full,
unencumbered breasts.  She tried to keep the red-head still while she checked it out.
     It was some sort of crystal, oddly shaped.  It hung on a fine chain like a pendant, and Minako
gently took it between her fingers and lifted it so she could see it better.  The stone itself was
oddly beautiful, light swimming in its depths in odd swirls and flashes as she moved it.  There was
no writing or anything on it, though, nothing to indicate why Ranko was wearing it.  Minako
wondered idly whether it had some sort of significance, religious perhaps.  Or maybe it was a
good luck charm.  Or hells, maybe she just wore it because it was a pretty stone.
     Or maybe a beautiful girl had given it to her, Minako thought impishly as she reached around
and unfastened the chain.  She coiled it up neatly and dropped it into the folds of Ranko's shirt.
     Those ridiculously masculine boxer shorts were next.  Minako bet herself that Ranko was a
natural red-head.
     It took some doing, but the shorts finally came off.
     Minako won her bet.
     Finally, the blonde sat down on a small stool in the tiled rinse area and grabbed the spray
nozzle attachment.  Once the water was warm enough, she sprayed herself down, sighing happily
as the water cascaded down her body freely, cutting through all traces of dust and sweat in the
process.  She turned to the side, admiring her taut body and the way her flawless skin glistened as
thick rivulets of clear water snaked along every curve and plane.
     Then she scowled.  She hated to waste an opportunity to look irresistible!  Rei just had to be
difficult again, didn't she?  Between her and Usagi, Minako was going to end up frustrated.  And
one thing she hated was being frustrated.
     Ranko wasn't any better.  Instead of acting as appreciative audience, she was sitting on her
haunches and scratching idly at her ear.  This was quite a contrast to her intriguingly bashful
demeanor in the tunnel, when Minako had given her that little kiss.  Shy could be fun, but in her
present state Ranko wasn't even registering Minako's provocative poses.
     Cross, Minako flicked the spray at Ranko, who leapt nimbly aside with a speed that belied her
earlier facade of indifference.  She gave Minako an reproving glare and settled down again.
      Resigned to being ignored, Minako shut the water off.  Getting Ranko under the tap would be
more trouble than it was worth; Artemis was going to have to clean the tub afterwards, so she
might as well just try to get the girl in.  She eyed Ranko thoughtfully, wondering if she should
undo that long braid.  In the end, she decided not to.  Ranko's hair was only waist-length, not as
long as hers or Rei's, but it would still be a pain to deal with afterwards with Ranko in her present
condition.  She'd get the red-head into the bath and see how she tolerated it; at worst, the girl'd
have a hot rinsing.  At best, Minako could scrub her a little and get all the dirt off.
     Standing, she moved up onto the dias and slowly eased herself into the waiting bath, breathing
in the steam with anticipation.
     "Ahhhhh," she moaned as the hot, scented water embraced her.  Bubble baths were sinfully
good, even when taken alone.  She leaned back and kicked her feet lazily, sinking in up to her
neck.
     Bliss.
     Finally she opened her eyes and sat up enough so she could find Ranko.  The red-head was
apparently intrigued enough by the goings-on that she felt obligated to investigate.  She was
slowly climbing the shallow steps up to the top of dias, blue eyes scanning the tub in quick, jerky
motions.  Minako smiled and spoke soothingly.
     "Hey, kitty-cat," she murmured.  "Doesn't this look like fun?"  Not enough fun to lure the girl
in; she remained crouched on the flat edge, watching Minako warily.  That was all right; Minako
had just come up with a cunning plan.
     Slowly, she raised her hands, scooping some bubbles in her cupped palms and holding them
up.  Raising them to her face, she pursed her lips and blew.  The pinkish foam leapt from her
hands to sail with careless grace back down to the tub, and Ranko's bright feline gaze followed
them the entire way.
     "Oooh, look at that," Minako grinned.  "Neat, huh?"  She repeated the performance, sitting up
a little straighter this time.  Ranko followed the progress of the floating bubbles closely, but they
remained out of reach.  The third time, Minako blew them high into the air, and Ranko rose up on
her knees abruptly, batting madly at the renegade foam with her hands.
     That was just what Minako had been waiting for; her arms snaked out and slipped around
Ranko's waist while the girl's balance was still precarious.
     "Gotcha!" the blonde grinned, yanking the startled red-head towards her.
     Unfortunately, in her enthusiasm she pulled a little too hard.  Ranko let out a loud yowlp as
she toppled directly on top of Minako, throwing them both back into the tub with a loud splash.
Minako surfaced a second later with Ranko lying on top of her, coughing and blinking soapy
water from her eyes.
     Maybe it's just as well Rei wasn't here to see that, she thought ruefully.  Turned out to be
somewhat less cunning than I'd hoped ...
     Ranko's body was sprawled against hers, and the first thing she noticed was that the girl was
oddly heavy.  Then her vision cleared, and for a moment she couldn't figure out what she was
looking at.  Ranko's hair had gone jet black.
     Hair dye?  Could it wash out so quickly?  Her disjointed thoughts were even further scrambled
by a quick succession of sensations that bombarded her.  There was the startled expression in
Ranko's eyes, the familiar-yet-not-quite cast of her face, and the way her body felt where it
pressed against Minako's.
     Something is not right here, a little voice inside her said.  Something like what's pressing
against your thigh, for instance ...
     There was confusion in Ranko's eyes, but more importantly, there was awareness again, too.
Minako stared up into those eyes, everything clicking somehow as she took in the broad
shoulders, the planes of the face, and the body that was pressed oh-so-intimately against her own.
She didn't know how to explain this, but her current position and its attendant sensations were not
totally unfamiliar to her.
     She was distantly aware of Rei calling her name, and as the bathroom door burst open, she
gazed up into those beautiful clear blue eyes and smiled.
     "That," she murmured, "is even better than the cat trick!"

***

     Coming out of the Nekoken was sort of like waking up suddenly, except that normally people
woke up where they'd actually gone to sleep.  I never knew where I might be when I snapped out
of my cat state.
     I certainly never would have guessed I'd be naked, in a bubble bath, on top of a blonde.
     The both of us froze for a few moments just as we were.  I don't know about Minako, but my
brain was trying to catch up to events.  It knew one thing instinctively; ending up in bathtub with
naked girl equals savage beating.
     Of course, my brain was used to dealing with a different type of girl.  Minako looked up at me,
utterly unfazed, and smiled.
     "That is even better than the cat trick!" she informed me as the bathroom door burst open.
            Old habits die hard.  The prospect of being caught in my present compromising position
rang urgent alarm bells in my head, and I pushed away from Minako quickly, scrambling to my
feet as sudsy water sloshed around the deep tub.  Only as the uninhibited blonde's blue eyes roved
slowly down the front of my naked body did I realize that I'd made a grave tactical error.  I tried
to cover up with my hands as I scrambled backwards out of the tub.
     Mistake number two.  My feet shot out from under me, unable to gain purchase on the slick
tile, and I tumbled backwards down some shallow but reasonably hard steps, catching an inverted
view of Rei in the doorway as I rolled.  I hit the floor and slid on my back, casting about
desperately for my clothes, or a towel, or something, anything, to cover up with.
     No luck, but I did come to rest near a reasonably large plastic basin.  Well, that would do.  I
grabbed it, scattering the contents as I slapped it over my groin.  It looked ridiculous, but it
afforded me at least a bare semblance of modesty.
     "Wow," Minako said, sounding appreciative.  She'd turned onto her belly and was watching
me, her arms crossed over the edge of the tub.  She rested her chin against them, eyes gleaming as
she looked me up and down.  Well, at least her current posture had the effect of hiding her naked
body, although the thought of how she had felt against me made me flush.
     "Oooo, full body blush," Minako teased.  "Naughty thoughts, Ranko?"
     "Just what in the hells is happening?" Rei snapped.  I turned to her, noticing a guy standing in
the doorway behind her getting an eyeful.  He had long white hair and some kind of yellow mark
on his forehead, and he looked as confused as I felt.
     "Shouldn't I be asking that?" I shot back.  "How'd I get in the bath with her?"
     "I'm a little more interested in your shape-shifting abilities," Rei said darkly, glaring down at
me from the doorway.  "What other powers have you been hiding, Ranko?"
     "That's not a power," I sighed wearily.  I didn't relish having to explain both my Jusenkyo
curse and the Nekoken, but it looked like I had little choice.
     "Well, exactly what do you call it then?" Rei asked.  I  glanced back at Minako, who was
shamelessly ogling me from her perch, then back to Rei.  The guy in the back had turned away,
proving that there was at least one person in this city besides me who had some modesty.
     "It's a long story," I said.  "And if we're gonna get into it, I'm definitely gonna need some
pants."

***

     "A curse," Rei echoed dubiously.  Ranko nodded, pausing to swallow a mouthful of food.
Their guest was certainly not giving his food a chance to get cold, managing to convey the odd bit
of information between gulps.
     "That's right," he said.  "A curse."
     "Who cursed you?" Rei asked.
     "And why?" Artemis added.
     "Who?  Nobody," Ranko said, looking puzzled.  "I just fell in a cursed pool, that's all."
     "I've never heard of such magic," Rei said, taking a small sip of her tea.
     "Consider yourself lucky," Ranko grunted.  "It can be a real pain.  Hot water makes me a boy,
cold makes me a girl."
     "You call that a curse?" Minako said with a slow, sultry smile that told Rei exactly what was
on the blonde's mind.  "That sounds like it could be a lot of fun."
     "It bothered me a lot more in the beginning than it does now," Ranko said, looking slightly
discomfited by Minako's suggestive tone.  "But ..."
     "How does the cat thing figure into your curse?" Rei broke in.  "It doesn't involve any actual
shape-shifting."
     "Uh, you mean the Nekoken," Ranko sighed.  "That's not part of my curse.  It's a ... um, sort
of a phobia, I guess.  There was this secret technique that my pop tried to teach me a long time
ago, but he sort of skipped the fine print.  That's another long story."
     "We've got time," Minako said, fixing her gaze on Ranko hungrily.
         Rei stared at Ranko over her tea, trying to reconcile all the facets of this strange girl that
she'd witnessed so far.  The red-head had fought with almost joyful ferocity coupled with a fluid
grace that was breathtaking to behold.  As a cat, she'd been guileless, uninhibited.  But now, as a
boy and forced to talk about himself, Rei saw the flicker of old pain, like an involuntary flinch,
deep in those blue eyes.
     Rei had been trained to read a person's body language, those small non-verbal cues that could
reveal things facile words sought to hide.  Every line of Ranko's body was set in a subtle posture
of defensiveness.  His eyes flicked towards whoever was speaking, but then only for a moment
and rarely did he make eye contact.  Ranko acted like someone unaccustomed to the company of
others, and it was clear to Rei that just sitting at a table and talking about himself was far more
nerve-wracking for the boy than tackling that salamander had been.
     That made Ranko seem more like a real person to Rei and less like some nebulous threat;
everything about the strange boy/girl cried out to her of old pain and wariness and distrust.  And
Rei herself was on familiar terms with these feelings herself.
     Rei wondered about Ranko's curse.  Perhaps its effect had been determined by Ranko's
tomboyish nature, transforming her into an actual male.  She was curious about the mystical
specifics, but her curiosity could wait.  There were still mysteries to be explored here.
     "So who are these others, anyway?" Ranko asked, fidgeting  under Rei's direct gaze.  "Are
they like you?"
     "If you mean are they senshi ..." Minako began.
     "Forget that for the moment," Rei interrupted with a glare in Minako's direction.  She didn't
want to reveal any more than necessary; Ranko already knew too much about them.  "The
important thing here is to try and figure out what the danger in my vision was."
     "You really think I'm a danger to you?" Ranko asked.  He didn't seem belligerent, merely
curious.  Rei stared at him for a few moments before letting some of the tension drain from her
body.
     "Either you're an incredibly good actor carrying out some intricate and devious plan, or you
don't really intend to harm us," she conceded at last.  "But that doesn't change the fact that you
were a central figure in my vision.  Whatever is going to happen, you will be right at the centre of
it.  So it's really in your best interests to help us figure this out."
     "I'm a little new to all this vision stuff," Ranko grumbled as he finished off his dinner, slurping
up the last noodle from the bottom of the bowl.  "I mean, what exactly did you see?"
     Minako and Artemis turned to her with similar expectant looks, and Rei suppressed a scowl.
This was the hard part.  How to explain the emotional impact of a vision to people who'd never
had one?  There was so much in a vision that was clear to her, warnings and portents contained in
symbols that would be muted in the telling.
     "There was a darkness," Rei said slowly.  "It seemed to be summoned by Ranko, or maybe TO
her, and it surrounded her, consumed her."  She closed her eyes, reaching for the details of what
she'd seen.
     "Was this darkness familiar?" Artemis asked. "Like what you felt with Beryl's minions?"
     "No," Rei murmured.  "Nothing I could identify, just darkness, cold and ... hungry.  And
power of some sort, raging, like a storm.  And there were other things in the dream, a voice, and a
tower.  A tower and a huge eye, an eye that was blind.  And ..."  She opened her eyes, pausing as
she saw Ranko's face.
     "Ranko?" Rei asked.  There was a tightness in him that hadn't been there before, and
something in his eyes, like recognition.
     "Nothing," he said, but quickly, too quickly.  Rei leaned across the table, her own eyes
narrowing.
     "If you know something about my vision, then I want to hear it," she said, holding the
dark-haired boy's gaze.  Ranko returned her stare, and Rei fancied she could see the wheels
turning as he weighed his options, considered what to say.
     They were interrupted by a knock at the door.
     "Hey, that's probably them now," Minako said, getting up and heading out of the kitchen.
Artemis followed her, and Ranko made to get up, but Rei stepped in front of him quickly.
     "Listen," she told the startled boy softly.  "One thing I know for certain from my vision is that
this darkness wants to hurt my friends.  I am not going to let that happen.  You think about that
while you're considering how much you want to tell me."  Rei let her intensity radiate out of her
like fever heat, and Ranko took a half-step backwards, eyes widening slightly.
     "I keep telling you, I'm not out to hurt anyone," he replied, sounding defensive.
     "Good," Rei said, smiling thinly.  "Then we'll get along fine, won't we?"  She went to the main
room, Ranko following behind.
     She didn't have to possess spiritual powers to discern that something was badly amiss; the
moment she entered the room tension struck her like summer humidity.  Usagi was there, flanked
almost defensively by Makoto and Ami, and the sight of her stopped Rei dead.  She was sensitive
to her princess's moods, sometimes nearly painfully so.  Usagi's joy eased her own heart, while her
sorrow would infect Rei's spirit with a unique torment.
     Usagi had been happy when Rei had left her, anticipating the reunion of her senshi.  She was
not happy now.  In fact, there was something strange about Usagi's aura, about the way her very
presence resonated in the air, something Rei hadn't felt since that night when Hotaru had shocked
them all.
     Reflexively, Rei started towards the blonde, taking in the girl's downcast eyes and
apprehensive posture with mounting concern.
     "Usagi ..." she began.
     Then Makoto moved, placing herself solidly between Rei and Usagi.  Almost as if ...
     Almost as if she was protecting Usagi.
     From Rei.
     "Just hold it," Makoto said, fixing Rei with a cold glare.
     "Makoto, what are you doing?" Minako asked, sounding confused.
     "I want Rei to answer a few questions, that's all," Makoto said.  To someone who didn't know
her, the tall girl's measured tone might have seemed reasonable, but Rei didn't miss any of the
signs.
     Makoto was angry.  That was hardly a rare circumstance, but that anger seemed to be directed
at her, and Rei didn't know why.
     "What questions?" Rei asked warily.  "What's going on?"  In the background, Ami's gaze kept
flicking anxiously between Makoto and Usagi, while Minako and Artemis looked on with
increasing bemusement.  Ranko had faded into the background, watching impassively.
     "Mako-chan."  Usagi's voice was low, but clear.  "Stop it.  Please.  You promised.  You
promised not to get mad before she had a chance to explain."
     "Explain?  Explain what?"  Rei felt a vertiginous sensation in the pit of her stomach;
instinctively, she knew something very bad was about to happen, was happening even as she
stood there.  There was only one secret she possessed that could elicit such a reaction from the
others, and it seemed to Rei that she could feel everything slipping away from her in that moment.
     "Care to explain your relationship with the Sisters of Shadows, oh priestess?" Makoto asked,
the virulence of her fury snapping through the room and robbing it of all other sounds.
      There it was, at last ... her darkest secret, laid bare in front of these girls who had been her
friends, her comrades.  But all that was over now, ended in a moment.  In the past Rei had
wondered how it would go, should this moment ever come to pass.  She'd run through it in her
mind, the things she would say, her impassioned and implacable defence of her dark past defusing
all the anger and suspicion brought to bear against her.
     But now, now that the moment had arrived, all those intricate arguments had abandoned her,
driven like dry autumn leaves before the wind by the sight of her princess.  Usagi had finally raised
her head, those guileless crystal blue eyes meeting Rei's.  The uncertainty there was painful to see;
almost since the beginning, Usagi's faith in Rei had been unshakeable.  Always.
        Until now.  Now, there was doubt, a vile shadow staining those blue eyes, and Rei was the
cause.
     "Sisters of Shadows?" Minako blurted.  "What in the hells is this?  Makoto, are you seriously
accusing Rei of being a follower of Dasma?"
     "Rei?"  Usagi's voice was soft, tremulous, her attention totally focussed on the raven-haired
girl.
     Make it quick, Rei thought, trying to force herself to concentrate through the strange
numbness that was descending over her.  Don't drag this out.  You owe her that much.
     "I told you, Usagi," she said softly.  "Remember?  I told you that you were better off without
me in your life.  I never wanted this to happen."
     "How?"  Usagi's whisper was astonishingly painful, considering how little force was behind the
words.  "How could you?"  Tears welled up silently in the blonde's eyes, and each one burned a
trail through Rei's soul as it slid down her princess's pale face.
     "Usagi ..."  She took a step forward, driven by an almost primal need to stem the flow of tears,
to do something, anything ...
     Usagi stepped back.
     Away from her.
     That moment demonstrated to Rei, more effectively than words ever could have, that it was
over.
     She had broken Usagi's heart.
     "That's close enough," Makoto growled.  Rei's entire soul felt like a raw wound, and she
turned abruptly on her tormentor.
     "What is it exactly you think I'm going to do?" she snapped, fighting the urge to lash out at the
taller girl.
     "That's a very good question," Makoto returned with a menacing scowl.  "What HAVE you
been trying to do, all this time?"
     "Just what are you accusing me of?" Rei gritted.  Her vision seemed to be tinged with hot
crimson, and she felt the sudden urgent need to release her anger, to let it explode.  In the old
days, that had always eased the pain, even if just for a while.
     "Have you been spying on us, is that what it was?" Makoto shot back.
     "Makoto!" Minako exclaimed.
     "You seem to have made up your mind without hearing anything I say!" Rei snarled, that
roiling anger edging eagerly towards its boiling point.
     "What more needs to be said?"  Makoto was shouting at the top of her lungs now, body rigid
with fury.  "You lied to us from the beginning, didn't you?  Just like Hotaru ..."
     "STOP IT!"  The agonized shriek stopped both girls dead in their tracks, drawing everyone's
attention to their source.  Tears were coursing freely down Usagi's face now, and she seemed
horribly fragile to Rei in that moment as she stared at them, trembling.
     "Stop it," she repeated, but softly now, her voice breaking on the jagged shoals of her sobs.
"Please, I can't ... I just can't ..."
     And then she broke and ran past them, head down, fleeing deeper into Minako's apartment,
and Rei's anger vanished in an instant, burst like a soap bubble.  Ami was the first to break the
frozen tableau, moving jerkily to follow the sobbing girl through the doorway and down the hall.
Something about the scene seemed discordant to Rei, and it took her a moment to figure out what
it was.
     It's supposed to be me, she realized finally.  When Usagi's  hurt, I'm usually the one that calms
her down, that wipes her tears away and makes her smile again.
     But it wouldn't be like that anymore.  She'd ruined everything.  Everything.
     "Are you happy?"  Makoto's voice was low, dangerous.  "Are you happy with what you've
done to her, you snake?  Is this what you set out to do?"
     "Makoto, stop!" Minako snapped.  She pushed between the two, barely preventing the taller
girl from getting a grip on Rei.
     "Don't take her side, Minako," Makoto said, briefly turning her glare to the blonde.
     "This is insane," Minako shot back.  "Do you hear yourself?  This is REI we're talking about!
This can't be what you think!"
     "I think Rei is a priestess of the Dark Lady," Makoto hissed.  "Ask her to deny it."
     "Rei?"  Minako had turned to face her, one hand still splayed against Makoto's chest in an
effort to hold the girl's simmering fury back.  The question was there in her eyes, and the shadow
of doubt too, and suddenly Rei was tired.  She'd become poison to these people in the matter of
moments, people she'd come to care about.  It was time to do what she should have done in the
beginning.
     Time to go.
     Wordlessly, she grabbed her jacket from the back of the couch and started for the door.
     "Hey!" Makoto snapped.  "You think you can just walk out of here?"
     "You'd rather I stayed?" Rei asked in a dead voice, not bothering to turn.
     "I'm not done with you, bitch!"  Makoto started forward, the effects of Usagi's anguished
outburst having faded completely.
     "No!  Makoto, no!"  Minako threw herself in front of the other girl, trying in vain to hold her
back.  Rei watched, feeling oddly detached.  The numbness that was settling over her was, at
least, preferable to the pain she'd felt earlier.
     "How can you protect her?" Makoto gritted.  "Don't you care what this is doing to Usagi?"
     "And what is you pounding on Rei going to do to Usagi?" Minako shot back, straining to hold
Makoto back.  "Please, Makoto, go and check on her.  She needs you now.  Please?"
     Rei watched dispassionately as Makoto's blazing green eyes  met her own and held them for
long moments.  Finally, the taller girl threw her auburn ponytail back with a sharp toss of her head
and eased away from Minako, whose sigh of relief was clearly audible.
     "Fine," Makoto spat.  "But this isn't over, Rei.  Next time we meet, I'm gonna settle with you.
For her."  With that, she spun and stalked away, disappearing down the same hall as Usagi and
Ami.  Rei turned and opened the door.
     "Wait!" Minako called.  "Rei, don't go.  I ... I need to understand this.  There's got to be
something ..."
     "Forget it," Rei said, not turning.  Her voice sounded flat and lifeless in her ears.  "Everything
that needed to be said was said."
     "Rei ..."
     "It's over," she said, so softly she wasn't certain Minako even heard her.
     Then she opened the door and walked out, into the cold empty world.

***

     Minako could only stand and stare at the empty doorway for a time as the gears of her
thoughts ground uselessly, unable to find any purchase.  None of what was happening made the
slightest sense to her; every time she tried to form a coherent thought, it became inextricably
tangled in the jumble of unreality in her head.
     She might have stood there indefinitely, dazed, had Artemis not come up behind her and
placed his hand gently upon her shoulder.
     "Mina," he said softly.  It was all there in his voice; the turbulence and confusion, but also an
underlying tone of compassion, of sympathy.  For her.
     For them.  And suddenly, inexplicably, it made her mad.
     "No," she said to nobody in particular.  She whirled, causing Artemis to back up quickly, her
thoughts finally beginningto focus.
     "No," she said again.  "This is wrong.  Artemis, this is WRONG."  She looked from the
pale-haired man to Ranko, standing where he'd remained, unnoticed, through the entire scene.
     "I understand how you feel, Mina," Artemis said slowly.  "It's like Hotaru all over again."
     "No, Artemis," Minako said, her resolve hardening.  "Hotaru was many things, but she wasn't
one of US.  The five of us, we were the team, the Inner Senshi.  And Rei WAS one of us.  This
whole thing is wrong, and I'm not letting it go.  It can't be how it looks."
     "Then how is it?" Artemis asked, eyeing her cautiously.  "Rei admitted she was a Sister of
Shadows, Mina.  You know what that means."
     "What I know is that there has to be more here," Minako said stubbornly.  "And if nobody else
is going to find out what it is, then I will.  Stay here, I'll be right back."
     Ignoring her companion's protests, she stormed past the silent Ranko and down the hall,
looking for Usagi and the others.  Usagi, unfamiliar with Minako's place, had ended up in the
kitchen; Minako found her crouched in a ball on the floor, curled around her pain with her face
buried in her arms.  Ami had her arms around the other girl's trembling shoulders, a rare show of
physical comfort from a girl who seldom touched others.  Makoto stood over them, her lanky
form somehow menacing and protective at the same time.
     Had Rei entered the kitchen, Minako had no doubt that menacing would have immediately
overshadowed protective, but when the auburn-haired girl saw who was in the doorway, she
merely scowled and made her way over.
     "Is she gone?" Makoto asked tightly.
     "Yes," Minako replied, feeling a twinge in her gut as she took in the sight of Usagi, bubbly,
sparkling, effervescent Usagi, crouched on her kitchen floor in tears.
     "You shouldn't have stopped me," Makoto growled.  Arguing with Makoto when her temper
was up was a very bad idea, but Minako's own patience was beginning to fray.
     "We'll talk about it later," she hissed.  "Bring Usagi to my room and she can lie on the bed,
okay?"  Makoto looked like she was trying to think of a reason to argue the point, but finally she
nodded curtly and went over to where Usagi lay.  Ami made room, and Makoto easily scooped
the unresisting blonde up into her arms.
     Minako led them back to the narrow staircase that wound in a loose spiral to the rear of the
upper floor.  She hesitated at the bottom, but Makoto mounted the steep risers smoothly, showing
no sign of strain or awkwardness.  Once upstairs, her bedroom was just on the left.
     It was cluttered, as it usually was.  Artemis insisted on calling it untidy, but Minako knew the
truth.  It was cozy and intimate, full of distractions and diversions and comforts.  There was no
way she could seek sanctuary in a space that was clean,  sterile, and orderly.
     Nobody commented on the mess, though.  Minako pulled back the rumpled comforter and
straightened the sheets underneath, and Makoto slipped Usagi into place while Ami removed their
princess' shoes.  As soon as Makoto laid her down, Usagi curled into a ball on her side, drawing
her knees up to her chest.  Minako pulled the heavy comforter up over the girl, perching beside
her on the bed.  Gently, she stroked Usagi's hair, stricken by the misery in the girl's face.
     Such an expression didn't belong on Usagi's face.  And this time, she wasn't going to let
Mamoru be the one to heal her heart.  This time, Minako Aino was going to let the sun shine into
the heart of her princess.  No matter what.
     "Usagi?  Sweetheart?" Minako whispered.  Usagi didn't respond, her lashes lying dark against
her pale cheek, the trembling susurration of her breathing evidence that sobs could erupt again at
any time.
     "I can't believe this is happening," Ami said softly, easing onto the end of the bed and sitting
primly.  "Why would Rei do this?"
     "She was obviously spying for the Sisterhood," Makoto said darkly.
     "That's crazy!" Minako exclaimed.  "You can't really believe that!"
     "No?" Makoto shot back.  "Then explain to me why a follower of Dasma would pretend to
serve under the banner of the White Moon.  Face it, this is the worst blow there could be for us.
How's a trusting girl like Usagi supposed to recover from a betrayal like this?"
     "Rei wouldn't do what you're saying, Makoto!  She's one of us!" Minako blurted.
     "Damn it, girl, open your eyes!" Makoto snapped back.  "All this time, she wasn't the person
we thought she was!  She lied from the start!"
     Minako knew that, in a way, Makoto was right.  But she also knew that the hot-tempered girl
was not helping matters by saying such things in front of Usagi.  Before she could marshal her
thoughts, though, she was startled by Usagi's voice, speaking in a low monotone.
     "She must have hated me," the princess mumbled.
     "Usagi, no!" Minako cried.
     "She was right," Usagi continued, opening her eyes to gaze blankly at nothing.  "Rei lied to
me, kept all those things from me, all those things she shared with HER.  She was telling the truth
after all."
     "She?" Minako said slowly, confused.  "Who, sweetheart?  Who was telling the truth?"
     But Usagi didn't answer, choosing instead to close her eyes as more tears spilled forth.
Minako wished desperately for the words to make this better, to stop those tears and bring
Usagi's smile back, but of course there were no such words.
     In that moment, Minako felt her own anger towards Rei flare like a pocket nova.  Despite the
fact that she couldn't accept Makoto's belief that Rei had betrayed their princess, still she found
herself furious with the enigmatic senshi.  Rei had caused this, after all.  How dare she play the
martyr, walking out in silence while Usagi suffered?  Her place was here, at Usagi's side,
explaining the tangled threads of this seemingly impossible dilemma, reassuring her princess,
soothing her heart.  Showing where her loyalty truly rested, no matter how hard it might be for
her personally.
     A tiny part of Minako suggested that perhaps Rei WAS showing her true allegiance by leaving,
but she brutally suppressed that thought.  Such doubts were poison and would destroy whatever
chance she had of fixing this mess.  There WAS an explanation, something that would allow them
to salvage the Inner Senshi, and she would find out what it was.
     Even if she had to drag it from Rei with her bare hands.
     "Usagi," she whispered, brushing her fingers lightly over a cheek left damp by tears, "I'm going
to fix this for you.  I promise.  In the meantime, stay here with Ami and Makoto, okay?  You'll be
safe here."  Usagi didn't reply, and finally Minako leaned forward to plant a kiss on the girl's
forehead.  Then she straightened, motioning to Makoto to join her as Ami took her place.
     Once in the hallway outside her room, Minako took a deep breath, trying to calm herself.
Getting angry now would not help matters; when it came to getting angry, it was unwise to
compete with Makoto at any rate.
     "What in the hells are you doing, promising her something like that?" Makoto hissed, leaning
down to glare into Minako's eyes from only inches away.  Minako could smell the taller girl's faint
perfume, and normally would have tried to take advantage of their proximity.
     "This whole thing is just out there," Minako replied, keeping her voice low and her tone even.
"There's no way this is just how it looks, Makoto.  No way."
     "I hate to burst your bubble, blondie," Makoto shot back, "but this is EXACTLY how it
looks!"
     "Usagi said "she" told the truth," Minako pressed, gritting her teeth and ignoring Makoto's
provocative attitude as best she could.  "Who was she talking about?"  Minako watched as the
taller girl pulled back a little.  From the look in those deep green eyes, she had just given Makoto
a better focus for her fury.
     "Oh, you're going to love this," Makoto told her, shoulders rigid with tension.  "We found out
about Rei from none other than the high priestess of the Sisterhood herself!"
     "What?" Minako blurted.  Makoto crossed her arms and nodded, grimly satisfied with
Minako's reaction.
     "That's right," the tall girl said.  "Usagi made me chase this red Ferengetti across half the city,
and when we finally caught it she went and talked to the driver.  If I'd have known who she was, I
would never have ..."
     "Ferengetti?" Minako asked slowly, a sick plummeting sensation in the pit of her stomach.
     "Yeah, a rich girl's toy," Makoto sneered.  "Guess it pays to walk the dark paths, huh?"
     "This woman," Minako pressed.  "Was she beautiful, I mean goddess-gorgeous, with masses
of white hair and lips to die for?"
     "I wouldn't have put it like that," Makoto said, a crease appearing between her brows.  "But
yeah, that's her.  How did YOU know that?"
     "Usagi and I saw her talking to Rei last night outside the club where I work," Minako replied.
And somehow, Usagi had suspected something, she told herself.  And instead of telling anyone,
she confronted this woman alone.  Damn it, no wonder Rei was acting so strange last night!
     "You still think Rei's the victim of a misunderstanding?" Makoto asked archly.  It was
Minako's turn to scowl.
     "I never said that," she told Makoto.  "But this whole thing just makes less and less sense.
Why would the Dark Lady's highest priestess reveal to Usagi that Rei is a Sister?  That kind of
shoots the spy theory in the foot, doesn't it?"
     "How should I know?" Makoto grumbled.  "You've heard the stories about the Sisterhood,
haven't you?  Twisted head games are par for the course with them."
     "And Rei didn't know her secret was being blown," Minako continued.  "I mean, from the way
she reacted, there's no way she knew.  So why?"
     "To destroy Usagi," Makoto said flatly.
     "Makoto, if Rei was loyal to the Sisterhood, then why haven't they dealt with us already?"
Minako argued.  "As Senshi of the White Moon Court, we represent what they despise.  She
would have told them who we were long ago, and with us all on our own recently, they could
have picked us off easily."
     "Why are you so determined to defend Rei?" Makoto asked, fury tainting her words.  "Don't
you care what she's done to Usagi?"
     "Of course I care!" Minako shot back.  "That's why I don't want us to go off on this thing
half-cocked!  Everybody's hurt and angry right now, but we've got to stop and think this through
no matter how hard it is!"
     "Think?  What's to think about, huh?  I'm supposed to just ignore the fact that Rei betrayed
our trust?"
     "Listen," Minako said, fighting the urge to shout at the stubborn girl.  "Just listen, okay?  I
don't know what the whole story is with Rei, but I know one thing for sure.  She IS Sailor Mars.
That can't be faked.  Part of her belongs to the White Moon, Makoto.  I say she belongs as much
to us as to Dasma, maybe more.  Maybe none of this was planned, maybe she just woke up one
day and found herself on a tightrope that nobody'd ever tried to walk before.  If we fight for her,
we could still make this work!"
     "No way, blondie," Makoto snapped.  "You can't have something like this both ways.  White
Moon and Nemesis, Dasma and Aliera, they're complete opposites.  And I'd say that Rei made her
choice.  She wasn't just a follower of Dasma, she was one of the Dark Lady's priestesses.  You
don't get to be one of those by just stealing panties and pinching bums, you know.  You have to
embrace the darkest, most depraved secrets of the Sisterhood."
     "Will you stop being so damned stubborn!" Minako cried, her patience fraying.  She
understood, intellectually at least, why Makoto didn't want to let go of her anger, didn't want to
risk being let down again.  But that didn't make it any easier to take.
     "At least I'm not being led by my hormones," Makoto replied haughtily, shocking Minako into
motionlessness.
     "Excuse me?"
     "You always had a thing for her," Makoto spat, crossing her arms.  "That's what this is really
about, isn't it?"
     "I can't believe you," Minako breathed.  "You really think I'd sell out Usagi for SEX?"
     "I think you'd see what you wanted to see out of infatuation, that's what I think.  And if you
could convince yourself you were helping Usagi in the process, so much the better ..."
     "Okay, that's it," Minako said flatly.  "You stay here with her, I'm going to go find Rei before
this gets even further out of hand."  She stomped away from Makoto, not trusting herself to say
anything further.  As she began to descend the stairs, Makoto called her name.  Warily, she
paused.
     "Watch your back," the tall girl said, her expression guarded.  "Whatever you think is going
on, you can't trust the Sisterhood, and Rei is one of them.  So just ... watch your back."
     Then she turned and disappeared back into Minako's room.  Wearily, the brash blonde turned
and went the rest of the way down the stairs, her heart heavy.
     Even if she could find Rei, could the chasms of misunderstanding and mistrust still be bridged?
Or was it already too late to save the Inner Senshi?

***

     Ami looked up from Usagi's tear-stained face as Makoto returned to the room, looking sour.
Things had gone even less well than she'd imagined they would, and Makoto's angry
recriminations and heated accusations hadn't helped in the least.  She wanted to try to talk some
sense into the other girl, but knew instinctively that now was not the time.  Still, getting mad was
not helping Usagi in the least, and helping Usagi had to be their priority, no matter how upset they
all felt.
     "Where's Minako?" she asked Makoto softly.
     "Gone out," Makoto replied in a tone that discouraged further inquiry.  "I think we should go
too, take Usagi back to my place."
     "I think we should leave her for now," Ami said, noting that Usagi seemed to have tuned out
the world.
     "Why?" Makoto asked, lowering her voice as she came closer.
     "Minako will come back," Ami murmured.  "And Usagi will want to see her."  That was
certainly true; despite Ami's own distaste for Minako and her antics, she couldn't deny that
nobody brought out Usagi's silly, goofy, playful side like Minako.  If she'd been a more petty
person, that fact might almost have made her ... jealous.
     "I guess you're right," Makoto conceded grudgingly.  "But I'd sure feel better if we could find
someplace to hide, someplace Rei didn't know about."
     "Do you really think she'd send the Sisterhood after Usagi?" Ami asked.  Her heart felt twisted
by everything that had happened, shaken by so many incomprehensible revelations that she was
beginning to wonder if she could count on anything.  "Could she really do that?"
     "I hope not, Ami," Makoto breathed, gazing down at Usagi's unresponsive form.  "Believe me,
I hope that doesn't happen.  But if it does, we have to be ready.  Are you with me?"
     Ami knew what was being asked of her.  It was no easy request; even now, she couldn't forget
the things she'd learned from Michiru.  They shared a magical element, but Ami had always been
in awe, not to mention envious, of the other woman's effortless grace, her style, and her utter
self-confidence.  The thought of having to fight against someone she felt so inferior to had
haunted her since that night at Hotaru's.
     And in a way, it was the same with Rei, whose element was the opposite of hers.  Rei had
always intimidated her; in the beginning, Ami had even been a little bit afraid of the girl.  Her fear
had faded as they'd trained together and fought together, although even now she still shied away
from the aloof beauty’s dominant nature.  But  beneath it all, she couldn't help remembering the
small things during their time together, like the way Rei had brought her a book when she'd been
sick, demonstrating a startling familiarity with Ami's tastes in the process.
     She didn't want to fight Rei, didn't want to turn her powers on someone who'd been one of
them.  But she knew she would if it became necessary.  Usagi was her princess, the first person to
want to draw her out of herself since her mother had died, a person who had become very
precious to Ami.  And somehow Ami had become very close to Makoto as well, despite all their
differences.
     So if someone was to threaten the people she cared about, the few remaining people she could
trust unreservedly, she knew what the answer had to be.
     "I'm with you, Makoto," she said softly.  "To the end."

***

     "I can't believe it," Yusaku groused, running his fingers through his hair.
     "Of course you can," Mamoru said, frowning at the screen of his computer. "It was
inevitable."
     "A task force?" Yusaku moaned.  "I mean, politics and chains of command and conflicting
agendas ... how in the hells are we gonna get anything done?"
     "Not to mention that you won't be able to hog the glory and be brought to the personal
attention of Her Majesty," Mamoru added.
     "You know me so well," Yusaku sighed.
     "Come on, partner.  As soon as we'd confirmed it was a vamp, this thing was out of our hands.
At least we get to be on the task force."
     "Swell," Yusaku grunted.  "That meeting lasted for hours!  How are we gonna catch us a
vamp sitting in meetings all the damned time, anyway?"
     "Some of those guys were in the old V Division, Yu," Mamoru murmured.  "They know all
there is to know about hunting vampires.  We'll get her."
     Yusaku wandered around Mamoru's desk, moving behind his partner's chair.  Mamoru stifled a
groan as the other man began kneading his shoulders, digging his fingers in with exquisite force.
     "You, partner, are tense," Yusaku murmured.  "I think you should let me help you deal with
that tension."
     "Yu," Mamoru said ruefully, "have you ever even READ the departmental guidelines on
trysting between officers?"
     "Oh, those," Yusaku said breezily.  "The booklet was very thick, I remember ... just right for
holding up the wobbly leg on my coffee table.  Anyway, I heard officials of the goddess of love
are grieving regulation of affairs of the heart.  I think they could win."
     "If they do, get back to me," Mamoru chuckled.
     "Party pooper," Yusaku chided.  Then he leaned closer, peering over Mamoru's shoulder.
"Hey, what's this?  A license plate check?  Have you been holding out on me, partner?"
     "Uh-uh.  Usagi left me a message earlier, asking me to check this tag for her."
     "Detective Constable!" Yusaku gasped.  "What a shocking misuse of official police resources!"
     "Kind of like the way you use your handcuffs?" Mamoru teased, evoking a wry grin from his
partner.  "Anyway, she probably saw someone nearly run down a stray or something.  She gets
outraged by unfairness, and always wants to charge off and fix it."  Or she had before that night
when her heart had been so wounded.  And, he thought, she would again.  He'd always loved that
about her.
     "Maybe she just saw a cute guy," Yusaku said slyly, "and wanted his address.
     "Nope.  This one's a woman," Mamoru said.
     "Whatever," Yusaku grinned.  "Oh, my, and a rich one too, to be driving something so exotic."
     "Der Kae," Mamoru frowned.  A Tyrian name, but foreigners were hardly rare in the capital.
Why did it seem as if he'd heard it recently?
     "Wait a second.  I know that name," Yusaku said slowly.  "Why do I ... hold on.  About six
months ago, uptown."
     "Right," Mamoru said, finally grasping the elusive memory.  "Cyrie der Kae.  She was of
Tyrian noble birth, ran in pretty sophisticated circles.  The case is still open, isn't it?"
     "Yeah, they never caught her killer," Yusaku said, frowning at the screen.  "Pretty brutal, from
what I heard, and unusual for the neighbourhood.  Got lots of attention because of her society
connections, but nothing ever broke."
     "Saekianna," Mamoru read.  "Must be her daughter."
     "If she looks anything like the mother, then she's a rare beauty," Yuskau said.  "I remember her
picture from the news.  And if she takes after her mother in the personality department, then she's
a cruel conniving cold bitch."
     "I didn't hear THAT on the news," Mamoru remarked.
     "I heard some buzz from a friend in 6 Division back then," Yusaku said.  "We had our own
caseload to deal with, but I do remember him saying there was no shortage of people who hated
that woman, and apparently with reason."
     "Including her daughter?"
     "They'd have checked that, I'm sure," Yusaku shrugged.  "Still, it's an odd coincidence that
your girlfriend should want to know about this woman in particular.  You don't suppose she's
sticking her cute little nose in somewhere it shouldn't be, do you?"
     Mamoru didn't know what was going on, but he certainly wouldn't put it past Usagi to get into
trouble without even trying.  He leaned forward, dislodging Yusaku's hands, and began typing.
      "Hey, what are you doing?" Yusaku asked.  When he saw what Mamoru was up to, he
reached down and yanked the keyboard away.
     "Yu," Mamoru growled, displeased.
     "We have a case, partner, a very big one," Yusaku said.  "And this ain't it.  Besides, if anyone
finds out you've been poking into the files on an active murder, there'll be uncomfortable
questions to answer."
     "I won't get caught," Mamoru stated.
     "Yes you will, because you're an idiot at this," Yusaku grumbled, pushing Mamoru's chair out
of the way with his foot.  "I, on the other hand, am clever and devious, and would never get
caught."
     "Thanks, Yu," Mamoru said, recognizing the truth of the other man's words.  "I owe you."
     "Damned right you do," Yusaku sighed.  Mamoru got up so his partner could use his chair, his
thoughts already turning to a certain girl with mischief-filled blue eyes and blonde ponytails.
     Usagi, he thought, trying to ignore the nagging sense of concern in his gut, what have you
gotten into this time?

***

     "Can I ask you a question?" Ranko asked.
     "Sure," Minako said, pushing through the crowd with practised ease.
     "Why am I here?"
     "Philosophy has never been my bag, handsome," Minako replied absently.
     "You know what I mean," he persisted, staying beside her as she made her way towards the
chaotic scene at the bar.
     "Look," she sighed, pausing so she could look him in the eye.  "I don't really know what to do
with you right now.  Leaving you at my place with everything that's going on would probably be a
bad idea, so I'm bringing you with me."
     "Oh," Ranko said.  "But aren't you worried being around me?  I mean, about Rei's vision and
all that ..."
     "Let me put it this way," she said.  "I consider myself to be an excellent judge of character, and
I think you're okay."
     "That's it?" Ranko asked, sounding faintly incredulous.
     "That's enough for me," Minako replied.  With everything that  was going on, worrying about
some nebulous darkness was not high on her list of priorities.
     "But this ... thing ... with Rei," Ranko pressed.  "Wouldn't it be better if one of the others came
with you to find her?"
     "None of the others want to see Rei right now," Minako admitted, reminding herself that
Ranko was an outsider, and thus not emotionally affected by the situation as they all had been.
"They feel that she betrayed them."
     "But you don't."  It wasn't a question, but Ranko still seemed uncertain.
     "That's right," Minako replied.
     "Why?"
     "Because," Minako gritted, tired of trying to explain something that cut so close to her heart.
"I am a good judge of character, okay?  I'm a GREAT judge of character.  In fact, I may possibly
be the world's foremost judge of character, and I say that things aren't quite the way they look!"
     "But you're still mad at her ..."
     "I'M NOT MAD!" Minako shot back, taking a breath as Ranko recoiled.
     "Well, good," Ranko said cautiously.  As Minako turned towards the bar again, Ranko cleared
his throat.
     "Uh," he began.
     "What?" she sighed, resigned,
     "Why are we here, exactly?" he asked, looking around them.  It had only just turned dark, but
the club was already well on its way to being packed.  The fun started early in this part of town.
     "I know people in the business," she said, pushing forward again.  "I want to check around,
see if Rei's been spotted.  This part of town's handy to my place, and she'll be wanting a drink or
twelve.  Hopefully, someone can point us in the right direction."
     "That's the plan?" Ranko asked weakly.
     "Would you believe that I'm making this up as I go along?" Minako replied with forced cheer.
     "Yes," Ranko grumbled from behind.  Minako ignored him.
     She knew her plan had its weaknesses, but she needed to do something, anything, no matter
how slim the chances for success seemed.  She was going to find Rei and drag answers out of her.
What they had, the five of them, was worth whatever she had to do.  Somehow they'd let Hotaru's
hatefulness poison their collective spirit and drive them apart, but this time would be different.
     She'd look in every dive in the Triangle if she had to, night after night.  Every lead would be
followed, every dark corner investigated, every avenue exhausted until she tracked Rei down.
     After all, she had made a promise to her princess.

***

     Empty.
     Rei held the glass up, and moments later the bartender appeared with a replacement.  No
words were exchanged; the last thing Rei wanted was idle chit-chat.  All she wanted, in truth, was
to soothe the raw wound in her heart with a comforting blanket of boozy numbness.  That was as
far as her plans for the future had progressed.
     Come on, she told herself.  What's all this?  It's better this way, isn't it?  Just two days ago you
had decided to stay out of her life, for her own damned good.  Now the decision's out of your
hands.  You should be relieved, shouldn't you?
     That thought failed to lift her dark mood in the slightest.  She threw back half her drink in one
shot, letting it burn down into her gut.  Despite how much she'd already had, she was still
depressingly aware of herself, her thoughts not blunted by the Tyrian whiskey's effects.
     It kept coming back to her in painful detail, the way they'd looked at her, the betrayal in their
eyes, the accusation, the anger.  And she found she was beginning to get angry herself, now that
the shock was finally fading.  How dare they?  None of them understood how it had been for her,
none of them had even tried!  Rei had struggled with the duality of her nature in silence, and this
was what she got?  Ami's nervous refusal to meet her gaze, Minako's dumbstruck shock,
Makoto's open hostility, and ...
     She shuddered, hunching over slightly as if in pain.  Those eyes, those crystal clear blue eyes,
trusting her to make it better, to make it not true.  But it had been true, and the pain Rei had put
there was echoed ten times, a hundred times over, in her own heart.
     I never wanted to hurt you, Usagi, she thought, hand clenching around her glass
spasmodically.  I hope you can realize that one day.  The only thing I can do for you now is leave,
so maybe you can at least keep the others together.
     She tossed back the rest of her drink sharply, barely tasting it.  The future gaped before her for
one vertiginous moment, HER future, and it was black and empty, barren, meaningless.  Because
her princess wasn't in it.
     Bleakly, she reached into her jacket pocket to find some money.  She'd pay off her tab and buy
a bottle to take with her.  Business was starting to pick up, and she didn't want to be around
people just then.  She didn't want to hear them laugh and flirt and joke around like the world was
still a great place, like it hadn't fallen into black ruin in a moment.
     Her fingers brushed something smooth and hard, and she froze.  Her henshin rod; she'd
forgotten all about it.  She should probably just toss the damned thing away; after all, her days of
being Sailor Mars were certainly over.  Yes, she should do that as soon as she had a chance.
     How many more little reminders would she stumble across in coming days, weeks even, strewn
like so many emotional land mines through the jagged landscape of her life?  Clamping down on a
sudden wave of self-pity, she pushed her fingers past the silently accusing artifact, only to
encounter another object, this one smooth, cool, and round.
       She frowned, vaguely puzzled for a moment, until it came back to her in a rush of almost
painful clarity.  For a moment the inside of her head was absolutely silent, devoid of accusations,
recriminations, and futile yearnings.  Rei barely breathed, letting her fingertips linger where they
were, aware only of the rush of air in her ears.  The bar and its inhabitants had ceased to exist, as
if she'd found her way at last to a place she hadn't even known she'd been seeking, a mystic
crossroads.
     Well, why not? she asked herself silently when the unearthly quiet that had descended upon her
thoughts remained unbroken.  You can't go back, after all.  So take the final step away from what
was.  Maybe it was meant to be this way, dark calling to dark.  Maybe you just had to see that
you were never pure enough for a girl like Usagi.
     Sure.  This is how it should be.  And if you're not around to torment her, she'll heal, and
forget, and be stronger ...
     Rei snapped out of her reverie, aware that she was clinging fiercely to her new course of
action like an exhausted swimmer to a lifeline.  She couldn't, however, find it in herself to care.
Slapping several rumpled ten crown notes on the bar in front of the taciturn bartender, she slipped
from her padded stool and got out of there, feeling strangely energized.  She knew what was
calling her, and knew the dangers of answering that call again.  But that knowledge was distant
and unimportant; anything was better than the horrendous pain that lurked behind the void in her
soul.  And distraction was welcome now.
     The streets of the Triangle's infamous club district were full, as usual.  She had to walk for a
short time before spotting someplace suitable.  The alley Rei slunk down was dark and strewn
with garbage, and the shadows lay heavy as she left the realm of cold neon light.  Those shadows
might very well hold danger, but anyone foolish enough to cross Rei Hino this night would find
that she was no stranger to the shadows herself.
     Finding a private spot behind a badly dented dumpster, Rei was disappointed that no denizen
of the city's underbelly had challenged her.  A need was beginning to swell in her, churning and
coiling in the pit of her belly.  It was familiar, this sensation; in the old days, it had always driven
her to reckless action of one sort or another.  In an odd way, it was comforting.  It whispered to
her, its voice low, soothing, seductive.
     You know what to do, Rei, it hissed sweetly.  Don't hesitate.  We know where a girl like you
belongs, don't we?
     Rei reached into her pocket, digging past her henshin rod to find what she wanted.  The dark
crystal disk gleamed even in the dim light of the alleyway's depths, the black rose inscribed into its
surface drinking the wan light greedily.
     Do it, the voice urged as it wrapped its dark coils around her, caressing her like a lover.  You
need to unleash your anger, your darkness, your most wild nature.  And she will understand.  So
do it ...
     Taking a deep breath, Rei held the disc up and flicked it gently with her fingernail, sending the
smallest flicker of power into it.  The disc rang like a chime, a clear penetrating tone resonating
with the dark all around.  It began to spin, and when she let her cupped palm drop, it remained
suspended in the air, spinning faster and faster, the unearthly musical tone rippling all around her
as the ghostly image of a black rose shimmered in the centre of the spinning disc.  It expanded,
fading, and Rei watched spellbound as a woman's image began to form.
     She could see Saekianna's head and shoulders; the woman's platinum mane was a silken
disarray, and bare skin extended down out of sight as she sat up.  The woman gave the
appearance of someone roused from her bed as her mesmerizing dark eyes sought the person
contacting her.  Rei knew that it wasn't late enough for Saekianna to be asleep, although she didn't
doubt she'd pulled the sultry woman away from some activity involving a bed.  She watched
Saekianna's expression change from irritation to surprise to pleasure as she recognized her caller.
     "Rei," she breathed.  "I was hoping you'd call."
     Rei stared at the image for a moment, feeling the siren call of her own need intensify, the
visceral urge to wipe away the day's anguish by finally surrendering to dark abandon drowning out
everything, all the pain and doubt.
     "Rei?" Saekianna repeated, moving so that her nakedness was fully apparent.  Rei tried to
think of a reason not to step into the abyss.  None came to mind.
     "Sass," she said softly.  "I need to see you."

***

     A house as large as hers should not have seemed confining by any means, yet Hotaru found
herself fighting a mounting sense of nearly claustrophobic anxiety.  She prowled the darkened
rooms of the sprawling manse with a predatory intensity, unable to keep still for more than a few
moments at a time.
     Finally, driven nearly to distraction by the restlessness within, she stalked into the large room
that housed her swimming pool.  The air within had that characteristic damp warm chlorinated
smell all indoor pools seemed to have, and that fact only served to tighten the sense of prickly
energy that nagged her so.  It was too much trouble to go back to her room for a swimsuit; she
stripped as she moved, casting her clothes carelessly in her wake as she went.
     Finally naked, she strode impatiently to the edge, flinging herself into space without hesitation.
She hung over the still, perfect mirror of the water's surface for an instant, then plunged through,
shattering the reflected light into a billion gleaming shards.
     The water was warm, and she drove herself through it forcefully, knifing to the far end, then
flipping and starting back.  She was no match for Michiru in the water, but then nobody was
really, except maybe Ami.  The exertion gave her the outlet she'd craved, though, and she swam
end to end, letting the water flow over her bare skin like silk
     As she swam, the tension within her seemed to ease somewhat.  Still, she swam until her
shoulders ached and her breath came in gasps, and when she went to pull herself from the water's
clinging embrace it took her two tries to lever her body up onto the side.  Blowing clinging
droplets from her lips, she stood and stretched, her bare feet slapped wetly as she went to a chaise
and eased herself into it.
     Skinny dipping, she thought ruefully as she lay back, slicking her wet hair back with her
fingers.  I can see why Michiru enjoys it so.  Probably more fun with a partner, though ...
     She sighed, her breath trembling slightly from exertion.  The restlessness that had infected her
had receded now, sated by her burst of activity.  Hotaru hoped that it was merely worry over
what had transpired in the city over the previous twenty-four hours, and not another anomaly like
her strange bout of the hunger the previous night.
     The fact that Haruka and Michiru had not reported in was not necessarily bad.  In all
likelihood, it meant that they were following the leads that she'd given them, trying to ascertain
just what had really happened the previous night.  They were not children; they would not call in
unless they had something to say.  Still, Hotaru was feeling antsy.  She had a very bad feeling
about the shroud of secrecy that surrounded several seemingly unrelated incidents which had
occurred in her city in the space of one night.  A very bad feeling.
     Still, she'd sent those two out on similar missions before.  There was something else here,
something that gnawed at her.  It was as if the night called out, beckoned her to run out of the
safe confines of this place and throw herself onto the capricious winds.  The feeling was strong,
and it disturbed her.  The fact that it was not entirely unpleasant made it all the more unsettling.
     Hotaru stretched, watching as the water beaded on her taut skin and skated down the slopes of
her breasts, tracing the ripples of muscle as they coursed along her belly and dropped into her
belly button.  It was oddly liberating, lying nude and wet here.  She could only imagine what the
others would say if they walked in on her like this, though; she was not known for being either
impulsive or whimsical.
     Well, let them say what they liked.  Haruka and Michiru were far more uninhibited than this,
and she knew Setsuna was no prude.  In fact, she wished for a moment Setsuna was there.
Perhaps they could swim together, naked as fish.  Of all the senshi, Hotaru thought Setsuna
understood her best, understood loneliness and the harsh cutting edge of solitude.
     But she wasn't. Like a cat, Setsuna came and went as she would.  The enigmatic senshi was
not in the habit of informing others of her comings and goings; a result, no doubt, of spending so
much time alone.  Hotaru sighed.
     Her impromptu swim had left her physically spent, and although her thoughts still buzzed in
her head, she thought she might be able to finally sleep, or at least rest.  The effects of the
previous night's broken sleep were making themselves felt at last.
      Rising, she caught sight of her clothes, strewn along the tiled floor.  Ordinarily, she would
have gathered them and perhaps even folded them neatly, then towelled off and found a robe to
wear.  Tonight, though, something in her rebelled at those thoughts.  Why should she get dressed?
It was her house, after all, and she'd walk naked through it if she pleased.  And as for her clothes,
they could stay where they were.  Tomorrow was soon enough to retrieve them.
     Striding through the darkened halls, she felt oddly unencumbered.  It was as if her bare skin
allowed her to sense the night directly, in a way she never had before.  Water drying on her skin
felt cool but not unpleasantly so, and she felt like laughing aloud.  If taking a dip naked did this
for her disposition, she should do it every night.
     In her room, she didn't bother with the light.  Her night vision had always been excellent, and
when she was alone she often didn't bother lighting the house at night.  Boldly she strode to the
glass doors that led to her balcony, throwing them wide and closing her eyes as the cool night
wind burst in on her.  Her skin prickled and tightened as the cold air hit it, but she just held her
arms aloft and breathed deeply of the scents it bore to her.
     The night really was wonderful.  It made her wish she had someplace to go.
     But she didn't, and her body felt deliciously heavy.  Whether she slept or not, her bed would
feel wonderful.  Turning, she went to her dresser to find something to wear.  She considered not
bothering at all, but once she opened the top left drawer she abandoned that thought immediately.
There were fairly sedate nightgowns there, but for some reason her hand went immediately to the
back corner, pulling out a small bundle of sheer silk.
     She held it up by the thin spaghetti straps, letting the material fall like liquid to reveal its form.
It was a very deep purple, cut daringly low in the front and high at the thigh.  Panels of lace ran
down the sides, providing tantalizing glimpses of the wearer through the fine, intricate patterns.
This scrap of nothing was much more sinful than bare flesh could be, and just holding it made
Hotaru feel decadent.  Having seen it in a shop months ago, she'd felt compelled to buy it.  Since
then, though, it had languished in her drawer.  After all, it was the sort of thing that required an
audience to be truly appreciated.
     But tonight, she wanted something that matched her mood, and this was it.  She slipped it on,
shivering at the sensation of cool silk on bare skin as it slithered into place with exquisite
familiarity.  Almost impishly, she stopped at the full-length mirror on her way to the bed, turning
this way and that.  The negligee hugged her curves, showing a generous amount of cleavage and
making her legs look even longer than they were.  It left her back nearly bare, and with her hair
still slicked back against her head she looked like a wanton stranger caught, unashamed, in some
lascivious act.
     This time she did laugh aloud, a throaty sound that swirled in the shadowy corners of the
room.  Her earlier worries about Haruka and Michiru's progress faded; they would report when
they reported.  Pulling back the heavy covers of her bed, she slipped in, revelling in every
sensation, in the pure physicality of the act.  Her earlier restlessness had mellowed into something
languid, and she sighed happily.  She felt good, relaxed, for the first time in what seemed like
forever.  This was a feeling to be savoured.
     Hotaru stretched, her toes curling as she luxuriated in the feel of silk against her bare skin.
Then she let her breath out in a long, gentle sigh.
     And drifted off into the welcoming embrace of the goddess of sleep.

***

     For a time, there was no sound in the room save for the gentle susurration of Hotaru's
breathing.  As she slipped deeper into sleep, though, the shadows within the room roiled, coiling
in a most unnatural manner.  They shifted and slithered like living creatures, coalescing into a pool
of even deeper darkness at the head of her large bed.
     Hotaru moaned in her sleep, twisting and flinging one arm out, dislodging her covers in the
process.  Her skin was alabaster pale against the darkness of her skimpy negligee and raven hair,
almost glowing with a gentle pearlescent light.
     Something emerged with slow, unearthly grace from the darkness near her head, a slim hand as
pale as Hotaru's own.  Another followed it, extending forth to reach into the room.  Hotaru
moaned again and twisted, her bedcovers now rumpled down around her waist, her arms outflung
untidily.  Her twisting and turning had pulled the sheer nightdress tightly against her body in a
provocative manner, and her eyelids twitched as the eyes beneath them flicked back and forth with
jerky motions.
     And still the arms emerged from their inky cocoon, at last being followed by shoulders, a neck,
a head.  With predatory grace, Wynneth crawled out onto Hotaru's bed, curling lazily beside the
sleeping woman's head.  Her long ebony locks pooled on the sheets and draped over the second
pillow as she moved, gazing down  fondly at the sleeping form.  Her ruby lips curved into a smile
as Hotaru whimpered and twitched fitfully.
     Hotaru's lips parted slightly as her breathing became more rapid, and she shifted again, her
head lolling back so that her neck was exposed.  Wynneth hovered over the sleeping form,
breathing in her scent, savouring it like fine wine.
     "My, how you have grown," she whispered silkily.  "How beautiful you have become."
Hotaru's only response was to whimper softly in the back of her throat.
     "And such lovely dreams," Wynneth purred, reaching out to brush her fingers across Hotaru's
forehead as the girl's restless twisting subsided, the rise and fall of her breasts the only movement.
"So very full of sweet sin and delicious hunger ..."
     Wynneth moved so that her face was directly over Hotaru's, letting the curtain of her hair fall
around them, forming a sweetly scented intimate barrier that isolated them from the world
outside.  She placed her full lips next to Hotaru's ear, fingers still tracing light teasing circles along
Hotaru's cheek, jaw, mouth.
     "Dream for me," Wynneth whispered, her husky voice all dark promise and temptation,
captivating enchantment made silky sound. "Dream a dream for me and me alone."  Hotaru
whimpered again, but it was a weak sound, barely a whisper.
     "Yes," Wynneth crooned, caressing the girl's face with her gaze and her teasing fingers.
"That's it.  Show me.  Show me something nice ... my sweet daughter."
     And Hotaru dreamed.
 
 

end part five