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 8: Showdown
 

     Gulls dove and swooped over the water, the mid-day light
picking out points of gleaming white on their bodies.  Minako
fancied that they were doing it because for the sheer exhilaration of
dancing on the winds, and not merely to scavenge garbage from the
shallow waters.  Whatever their true nature, though, sea gulls had
the most mournful cries; the sound always made her feel
melancholy.
     "You're awfully quiet," Ranko said.  They were sitting on
the hood of her car, parked near the remains of an old dock.  It was
a nice quiet place to come and think; the sound of the waves against
the rotted old pilings, the cry of the gulls and the frenetic sounds of
the city, soothingly distant.  Minako dumped the last breaded
octopus ball out of the greasy cardboard container into her palm
and popped it into her mouth.
     "Thinking," she mumbled as she chewed.
     "About Rei?" Ranko asked cautiously.
     "Yeah," Minako sighed.  "About Rei."
     "Should I ask?"
     "Probably not," Minako told the red-head wryly.  "It's
complicated.  Let's just say the fact that she didn't transform to
fight those demons shook me up some."
     "You don't do a sailor transform thing, though," Ranko
pointed out, draining the last of her soda and crumpling the cup
between her palms.
     "I do, actually," Minako told her.  "I just modified my
costume.  Rei was using a type of power I've never seen her use
before."
     "Some Dasma dark-priestess thing?" Ranko asked.
     "Yeah, you could say that."  Minako leaned back against the
cool windscreen, lacing her fingers behind her head.  "You know,
Ranko, sometimes we just make things so complicated for
ourselves.  You'd think caring about people would be enough, but
then there are misunderstandings and wounded egos, and of course
pride always manages to get in the way too.  You see what I'm
getting at?"
     "Weirdly enough, I think I do," Ranko muttered.  "Pride has
put me in a few tight spots in my time."
     "Heh.  Yeah, I know the feeling.  Sometimes you can try to
do the right thing and end up messing everything up, too.  I just feel
like we had it just in our grasp to make things better, then wham!
Everything went spinning in different directions, and the longer we
wait the further apart the pieces get."
     "You always think there's going to be enough time to make
things right," Ranko said softly.  "Until one day, there's no more
time.  And you're left wondering what could have been."
     "Exactly," Minako said emphatically, surprised by how
astutely Ranko had summed up her feelings.  "That's it exactly.
Seeing Rei like that made me realize how serious this thing is.  I
never thought she'd choose her old life over us, but what if she
really does?  She's so stubborn that she might really do it."
     Ranko had no answer to that, and they sat in silence for a
time, listening to the lonesome cries of diving sea birds.
     "It's nice and quiet down here," Ranko said at last.
     "Yeah," Minako replied.  "This dock used to be used to
bring supplies into that old rail line."  She gestured off to the left
where an expanse of rusty steel rails lay overgrown with scrub
brush, disused and forgotten.  "Those lines led to the manufacturing
plant in Tassik district, but it was lost when the Old City appeared,
and the company that ran all this never recovered.  I guess it wasn't
worth anyone's while to rebuild this close to the ruins ... or maybe
ownership is still in dispute."
     Minako glanced over at Ranko to find the red-head staring
at her, and she smiled self-consciously, something she rarely did.
     "What?" she asked the petite red-head.
     "It's just ... you seem to know an awful lot about the city,"
Ranko said.  "Like the old subways and forts and stuff, and the
lighthouse, and now this.  I just didn't expect it."
     "Pretty smart for a bimboid sex-kitten, you mean?" Minako
asked archly, and Ranko flushed.
     "I ... I didn't mean ..." the girl stuttered.
     "Aw, forget it," Minako sighed, waving her hand
negligently.  "I get it all the time.  People act like that's all there is
to me, but what am I going to do?  I'm not ashamed of how I am.
Why should I be?  I can like to have fun AND have the odd brain
cell."
     "I really didn't mean to sound that way," Ranko mumbled,
her face as red as her hair.  "I guess, um, maybe I did judge you
though, sorta.  And it was kinda unfair and, um, well ... sorry.  I
didn't mean anything by it.  Really."
     Minako raised an eyebrow, somewhat surprised by Ranko's
apology.  It was awkwardly delivered but charmingly sincere, and
she smiled at the girl.
     "I like a girl who can admit to her mistakes," Minako said
huskily.
     "I learned to do that the hard way," Ranko admitted with a
weak grin.  "And, honestly, after seeing you in action I don't think
you're some bimboid.  And I'm not just saying that."
     "Thanks," Minako grinned.  "That's sweet.  Kind of.  But,
to actually answer your question, there is a reason I know so much
about the city's history.  You see, my father was an historian who
specialized in the history of the city."
     "Really?"
     "Yup," Minako said proudly.  "And my mother was an
archeologist.  She was always dragging him away from his books
and into some old tunnel or ruin or something.  They were quite a
pair, all right.  He was shy and she was bold.  He was a thinker and
she was a doer.  But together they were something pretty special."
     "That sounds incredible," Ranko said.
     "Oh, it was," Minako told her.  "My childhood was full of
adventure.  I heard stories of the city at my father's knee from as far
back as I can remember.  It seemed that every building or place I
asked him about, he knew something important about how it had
come to be.  And my mother taught me to climb walls and negotiate
ruins almost as soon as I could walk."
     "Wow," Ranko said.  "So what do they think about what
you do now?  Working in a club, I mean?"
     "Oh, they're both gone," Minako replied.  "The Long
Dark."
     "Oh," Ranko blinked, obviously taken aback.  "I'm sorry, I
... didn't know."
     Minako noticed how troubled Ranko was, and recalled the
story the girl had related that morning.  Surely part of Ranko's
distress related to the loss of her own family, not to mention this
Akane girl.
     "That's all right," she told the red-head.  "It's not like I
can't talk about them any more without it hurting."
     "Really?"  Ranko was trying hard to seem casual, but
Minako could tell that she'd captured the girl's attention.
     "Uh-huh," Minako replied, stretching her long legs out
along the hood of the car.  "See, in the beginning it was pretty bad.
I loved my mom and dad a lot, and to lose them both at once was
pretty awful.  But I wasn't alone.  During that time, a lot of people
lost the people that they loved.  But I remember one thing
especially clearly from that time.  I remember seeing a grown man
sitting in the street, just sitting there.  He wasn't hurt, at least not
physically, but his eyes were just ... blank.  That man had given up
on everything and was just waiting to die.  And he wasn't alone,
either."
     She closed her eyes and stretched, feeling the warmth of the
spring sun penetrating her skin.  It felt nice, full of promise of long
summer days to come, and she felt herself smiling.
     "I knew then that no matter what happened, I didn't want to
end up like that," she went on, opening her eyes to look up at the
sky.  "My parents had given me life, and they'd loved me and
taught me and cherished me.  I owed it to them to make the most of
my life."
     "But you must have missed them," Ranko said softly, and
the grief that lurked deep within those words made Minako's heart
ache.
     "Oh, yes," she told Ranko.  "I still miss them.  But when it
got to be too bad, I'd remember something my mother had said
about my grandmother when she passed on, and it always helped
me."
     "What did she say?" Ranko asked, trying to watch Minako's
face without looking like she was staring.
     "She said, "Good-bye, mama.  I'm glad I knew you."  I
thought that was the simplest but most beautiful way to put it, and
through the years I just always tried to remember.  Whenever I was
at low ebb, I'd call up my memories of our time together and smile,
and I would be glad I'd known them, even if only for a little while."
     "Did that help?" Ranko asked, looking away.
     "Yes," Minako said simply.  "Yes, it did.  And through the
years, I decided to live life to the fullest, every single day.  I saw
enough death as a child to realize that it was a fact of life, but I
became determined that when my time came, I wasn't going to
have any regrets.  Some people don't understand, but what can I
do?  I'm okay with what I am.  I take life in big bites and I push my
luck and so what if some folks don't approve?  Life's too short to
be timid, that's what I think."
     She stopped, feeling a tiny flush rise to her cheeks.  She
hadn't intended to go quite that far; she'd just wanted to broach the
subject of survival with Ranko, maybe show the girl that memories
didn't have to be painful.  She stole a glance at the red-head, who
seemed to be lost in thought.
     "You make it sound almost easy," Ranko said at last, and
Minako thought she sounded a little envious.
     "Not easy," Minako chided.  "I'm not saying that.  There
were bad days for a while, but fewer and fewer as time went by.  I
guess you know how that is, right?"
     "Yeah," Ranko murmured.  "Yeah, I guess I do."
     "Maybe it would be easier to talk about it."
     "Um," Ranko replied.  "I don't want to seem ungrateful or
anything, but I really don't want to talk about that any more than I
have."
     "Okay," Minako said with a smile.  "I understand.  But
think about it.  It can be helpful."
     "I will," Ranko promised.
     Minako leaned back against the car.  It was almost time to
forsake this quiet oasis and fling themselves back into the heart of
the city and their search for answers, but she didn't want to go
quite yet.
     "I hope you didn't think I was too out of line last night,"
she said to Ranko.  "I mean, I was kind of pushy.  I didn't mean to
insult your customs and such."
     "It's okay," Ranko shrugged.  "I'm just not used to being so
open with that stuff, that's all."
     "Yeah, but you are in an interesting position," Minako said,
turning her head to look at Ranko.  "I mean, you can experience
what it's like to be both sexes.  That must be wild!"
     "Are you kidding?" Ranko snorted.  "The first time I turned
into a girl, I freaked out totally.  It was so ... what?"
     "Girl?" Minako asked.  "You mean boy."
     "No," Ranko frowned.  "I mean when I fell into the Spring
of Drowned Girl and ended up with this body for the first time."
     "Wait a minute," Minako said, holding up her hand.  "I
thought you were a girl who turned into a boy."
     "Wh-wh-what?" Ranko stammered.  "What are you talking
about?  I'm a guy!  A GUY!  This body is my curse form!"
     "Huh," Minako mused.  "Really?  I just assumed, I guess.  I
mean, you were a girl the first time I saw you.  And, well, Ranko is
a pretty girly name, you know."
     "That's not my real name," Ranko grumbled.  "It's just a
name I used to use when I was in girl form sometimes.  I use it now
as a girl to avoid awkward questions."
     "Not your real name?" Minako echoed.  "Well, what IS
your name then?"
     "Ranma," the red-head told her.  "Ranma Saotome."
     "Huh," Minako said.  "Ranma.  Hmmm."
     "What?" the other girl asked suspiciously.
     "I can't decide," Minako said gravely, "which I like best.  I
mean, you are a charming girl, after all."
     "I'm not girly!" Ranko blurted.  "I can't believe you thought
I was!"
     "What else am I supposed to think," Minako asked, eyes
twinkling with mischief, "when you wave those around?"  She
levelled a finger at the swell of the girl's full breasts where they
pushed tautly at the black silk of her shirt, and Ranko's face
tightened.  Minako sighed to herself.  She really wished that she
could draw Ranko into a little harmless flirtation, but even the
suggestion of it still made the girl close up, and Minako figured it
didn't take much to understand why.
     "Well, now you know," Ranko grumbled, sliding off the
hood of the car.  She picked up her garbage and sauntered over to a
rusty old dumpster to dispose of it.
     Minako sighed again.  Ranko, or Ranma, was turning out to
be quite an interesting person, and one she wouldn't mind getting
to know better.  But to do that, she'd definitely have to compete
with the ghost of a dead girl.  And she just didn't know if she was
up to that.  Even if she was, Ranma might not be ready.  In fact, he
might NEVER be ready.
     And really, didn't she have enough problems in her life
already?
     She watched the red-head's graceful form walking away
from her, gazing straying downwards.  At the very least, boy or
girl, Ranko or Ranma, that one was fun to watch.
     Minako placed her palms on the hood and levered herself
off the car, walking around to the driver's side, grabbing her purse
from the back seat before sliding in.
     "What are you doing?" Ranko (or Ranma, as she supposed
she should think of him now) asked.
     "I'm going to call Artemis and see how things are going,"
she replied absently.  "He ... oops.  Damn."
     "What?" Ranma asked.
     "My phone," Minako sighed, pulling it from the cluttered
depths of her purse.  "I dropped it a few days ago, and it's been
acting up ever since."  The display was dark, even though the unit
should have been on and fully charged.  Minako hit it lightly with
her palm, and the display fluttered to life.
     "Better?" Ranma asked, getting into the passenger side.
     "Yeah," Minako muttered absently.  "Something must be
loose.  I wonder if it's the battery.  Probably the sigil disc, though,
since those are so expensive and hard to replace ..."
     She was cut off by the musical tone of the phone, and she
grinned wryly at the displayed number.
     "Artemis," she sighed.  "Probably worried when he couldn't
get hold of me."  Worried, perhaps, about the Outsider?  Minako
stole a glance at Ranma as she pushed the button to answer the
phone.  Even if Ranma really was the Outsider, Minako was more
certain by the minute that the girl posed no threat to them.
     "You've reached Minako Aino, lascivious sex goddess," she
purred into the phone huskily.  "If you'd like to be nibbled on, press
one.  If you ... yes, Artemis, I'm finally here.  What ...?"
     Minako pressed the phone more tightly to her ear, sitting up
in the seat as all traces of playfulness evaporated.  She was
peripherally aware of Ranma's intent gaze on her as she listened.
     "I understand," she said crisply.  "Where?  Yes, I know it.  I
can be there in about forty minutes.  What about Usagi?  She has?
Good.  Okay.  Don't worry about me, tomcat.  You just watch
your tail, and Luna's too.  I'll see you soon."
     She ended the call and set the phone down on her lap, biting
at her lower lip.  This was not good, not good at all.
     "What's wrong?" Ranma asked.
     "Remember what I told you about the Sisterhood that Rei
used to belong to?" Minako asked.  "Well, they tracked Makoto
down at her place earlier and tried to grab her."
     "Is she okay?"
     "Yeah," Minako nodded.  "Yeah, she got away.  But to be
safe, we can't go back to my place for now.  We're going to meet
the others and figure out what to do."
     "Oh," Ranma said.  It looked like she was going to say
something else, then she stopped herself and sat back in the seat.
Smart girl.
     Minako started the car, remembering what Rei had said to
her.  Stay away from Saekianna and the Sisterhood.  Had Rei
known what was going to happen?  That was sure to be the
question the others would ask as well.
     Minako jammed the car into gear and gunned it, sending the
nimble vehicle spinning through a half-turn and rocketing towards
the collapsed gate.
     This was turning into a bitch of a day.

***

     They arrived at the meeting place a little later than Minako
had thought, due to traffic being heavier than usual.  There had
been more monster problems, and the police had been forced to
shut down part of the expressway.
     The sprawling park had an official name which nobody ever
used.  Commonly, it was known as Cherry Park due to the clusters
of cherry trees there.  With the weather warming, the blossoms
would soon be spectacular and the park would be crowded with
people.  Now, though, it was the middle of a work week and there
was plenty of room in the parking lot.  Minako spotted Makoto's
bike right away, parked off by itself on one side of the main lot.  As
she drew closer, she could see a small crowd around a park bench
set along the path; it appeared as if they were the last to arrive.
     Bringing the car in beside Makoto's bike, she climbed out
and went to meet the others, Ranma following close behind.
     "Everybody okay?" she asked.  There were nods all around,
although Usagi was sitting hunched over and looked as if she was
mildly ill.
     "Hey, how's my princess?" Minako asked, crouching down
beside the girl and taking her hand.  Usagi smiled wanly.
     "Okay, I guess," she told Minako.
     "Where were you, anyway?" Artemis demanded.  "I was
trying to reach you for over an hour before I finally got through!  I
was worried that something had happened!"
     "My phone's still on the blink," she told him.  "And I'm
afraid I have some more bad news."
     Suddenly she became the centre of attention, and she felt
Usagi's fingers tighten around her own.
     "Let's have it," Makoto sighed.  She looked delicious in a
dark, form-fitting leather riding suit unzipped to mid-chest, but
Minako figured this was not the best time to mention that particular
fact.
     "I went to the club today to find that it had been bought,
literally overnight," Minako told them.  "One guess who was behind
that."
     "You can't be serious!" Artemis blurted.
     "Oh, I am," Minako said grimly.  "And the one and only
Nightmistress is the new boss.  Aaaaand ... she's been asking
around about Mistress V, how often she visits the club, et cetera."
     "Oh, this is just fantastic," Makoto growled.  "They're
really making a move!"
     "I guess it's a good thing we got out of the house when we
did," Luna said, hovering protectively near Usagi's shoulder.
     "Actually," Minako pointed out, "I always got paid in cash.
And the information in my file is, shall we say, a little misleading.
They won't get my address from there."
     "But Rei knows where you live," Makoto said.  Silence
followed that, and Minako bit back a sharp retort.  She waited to
see if Usagi would say anything, but the princess just sat with her
head bowed.
     "That's true," Minako said, standing.  "But she's also the
one who warned me that the Sisterhood's activities were probably
aimed at the senshi."
     Usagi's head came up sharply at that, her eyes seeking out
Minako's.
     "You talked to her?" Usagi asked, eyes practically
swimming with emotion.
     "I ran into her at the club, then again during a little street
fight with some baddies," Minako told the girl, aware of everyone's
eyes on her.  "All she would say was that I should keep away from
the club and keep all of you away from the Sisterhood."
     "Easier said than done," Makoto grumbled.
     "I won't believe she knew anything specific," Minako went
on.  "If she'd known there was a plan to snatch Makoto, I know
she would have warned me."
     "Well, why is she with them at all?" Makoto asked tightly.
     "I didn't say she was," Minako shot back.
     "She's obviously been in contact with them, though.  I
mean, if she knows enough to warn you about their plans," Makoto
pointed out.
     "She was at the club to see the Nightmistress," Minako
admitted, hating the way Usagi practically flinched at that.  "That
doesn't mean she's been talking to her about us."
     "Look, let's not argue about this," Ami broke in, surprising
everyone.  "We can all just agree that we have to be careful right
now without worrying about blame.  That's what's important,
right?"
     "Ami's right," Artemis said gravely.  "Our priority is to
make sure that we're safe before we start worrying about what to
do next.  One thing seems clear, though.  The Sisterhood is actively
targeting the senshi."
     "But they went after Makoto, not Jupiter," Minako
frowned.  "Unless they knew ..."
     "They only sent one Sister," Makoto said, standing with her
arms crossed.  "She never said anything about Jupiter, and I didn't
transform in front of her."  Her gaze was somewhere off to the side,
avoiding all the others with deliberate casualness, and Minako felt a
hundred questions bubbling up inside her.
     "We can talk about this later," Artemis said firmly.  "First,
we need a sanctuary, someplace to hole up and talk this through,
come up with a plan."
     "Mamoru's?" Makoto asked, glancing at Usagi.
     "His place isn't that big," Usagi mumbled.
     "And I don't think he'd be thrilled to have all of us around,"
Minako pointed out.  "Although we are going to have to get him
into the loop pretty soon."
     "My place," Ami said.  She blushed as everyone turned to
her, but pressed on.  "Nobody knows where it is, and there's lots of
room.  I think it would be perfect."
     "Great,"Artemis beamed.  "That's great, Ami.  I think we
need to regroup and get our heads together before we try and sort
through this thing and decide what to do next."
     "Okay, I can get behind that," Makoto said.
     "Me, too," agreed Minako.  "Let's go.  Ami, directions?"
     As Ami started explaining the route they would need to
take, Minako glanced at Makoto's brooding form and frowned
again.
     The brief account of what had happened earlier piqued
Minako's curiosity, and she really wanted to talk more about it with
the other girl.  She had a feeling, more intuition than anything, that
there were answers to be had about Makoto's anger, if only she
could ask the right questions.
     Things were beginning to get ugly, and the senshi needed to
be united; now more than ever.

***

     Ami clung to Makoto's waist as the taller girl guided her
motorcycle along the twisting road, trying to suppress the doubts
that were nagging at her with sharp, tiny teeth.  There were certain
to be awkward questions when the others saw where she lived, and
Ami still wasn't sure how she was going to handle them.
     Foremost in her mind was how Rei's past had exploded in
the girl's face.  If her own secrets were exposed, how would the
girls react?  They were her friends, and she didn't want to
disappoint them, didn't want them thinking less of her.  Of them all,
though, only Makoto knew about her activities as an information
broker, and even Makoto didn't know where some of the more
esoteric tidbits came from.
     Still, the group had been in trouble and Ami had reacted the
only way she could have.  There were so many bad memories
surrounding that place; the least it could do was to provide
sanctuary now, in her time of need.
     Almost reflexively, she tightened her grip, and the tall girl's
helmeted head turned.
     "You okay?" Makoto called back, her voice muffled by the
helmet.
     "Yes!" Ami replied.  "Um, the turn is coming up, okay?"
     "Got it!"  The bike roared along, and Ami sighed deeply,
letting her head rest against Makoto's back.  She would have been
too scared to drive a motorcycle herself, but riding with Makoto
was exhilarating, like flying.
     The road they were on wound down into the wooded river
valley, running parallel to the expressway at first but then dipping
so that the other road was out of sight.  There wasn't much traffic
at this end of the valley, due to its proximity to the border zones
and the Old City.  The road's surface was cracked and pitted, but
Makoto manoeuvred easily around the worst of the damage.  Ami
doubted Minako was having as easy a time of it behind them, but a
quick glance over her shoulder showed that at least the others were
keeping up.
     The driveway came into sight, although it was so
overgrown with ragged bushes that it would have been easy to
miss.  Ami tapped Makoto on the shoulder and the tall girl nodded,
slowing the bike in response.  She pulled over to the shoulder at the
end of the narrow drive, and shortly afterwards Minako pulled up
beside them.
     "Man, what a lousy road!" Minako complained.  "This
neighbourhood's been flying under City Works' radar since the
Long Dark, methinks!"
     "I didn't know there were any houses still down here,"
Usagi said, shooting Ami a concerned glance.
     "It's a little off the beaten path, but it's quiet," Ami said,
striving to sound casual.  "There's a gate just around the bend back
there.  The combination on the keypad is 96141, just so you know."
Just the act of sharing the gate code felt at once frightening and
wonderfully intimate, almost dizzying.  Makoto gunned the engine
and lifted her feet off the ground as the bike surged ahead, the car
following slowly.
     The trees and brush crowded the edges of the drive, which
was more of a problem for Minako's car than the bike.  Ami had
never bothered much with tending the grounds; of them all, only
Keiichi had really cared much for that sort of thing, and he was
gone these many years.  A couple of the others had made cursory
tries at keeping up the grounds after the headmaster's
disappearance, but one by one they also had gone, and with one
small exception, Ami didn't much care what the grounds looked
like.
     Makoto pulled up to the barred gate set in an imposing
stone wall, stopping beside the pedestal with the keypad on it.  She
keyed in the code Ami had given, and the gate clanked and swung
open slowly.  They drove through with Minako and the others close
behind, following the winding drive through the trees.  When they
reached the open area that revealed the neglected front lawn and
the main building, Ami tried to see the place as they must be seeing
it, with fresh eyes.
     The main house was three stories in most places, more in
some where turrets and gables broke the roofline.  The style was
old; Ami knew for a fact the building had been built early in the last
century, and featured intricate patterns in the heavy stone, carved
gargoyles and beast-men along the roofline, and heavy wooden
shutters covered with warding symbols.  Rising as it did from the
ruin of the neglected grounds, it must have seemed at once
breathtaking and imposing.  Makoto pulled up the circular drive
that led to the front door and stopped, kicking the bike's stand
down and pulling her helmet off to gape at the house.
     "Welcome," Ami said quietly, "to my place."

***

     "A school?" Minako asked as they walked through the
marble-tiled foyer.
     "Yes," Ami replied, nodding.  "It was a private school, set
up after the Long Dark.  There were never that many of us
attending here, and the school has been shut down for some time
now.  I stayed here because I didn't have any place else to go."
     "Until Hotaru recruited you," Makoto said.
     "Yes," Ami sighed.  "And after things went bad, I just came
back."
     "It's awfully close to the border here, Ami," Usagi
murmured with a worried glance.  "And isolated, too.  Doesn't it
scare you to be so far from help?"
     "By road it's quite hard to get to, but there is a path down
by the river that leads to the Donnra Drive bridge," Ami pointed
out.  "From there I can reach the north part of Gerrissimi ward in
about fifteen minutes on my bike."
     "You have a motorcycle?" Usagi asked, aghast.
     "Bicycle," Ami corrected her with a smile.  "Come on, I'll
show you around."  The group moved off, but Makoto hung back,
tapping Minako on the shoulder.  The two girls lingered, watching
the others pass through a doorway and out of sight.  Minako
glanced at the taller girl, suppressing a sigh.  Makoto clearly had
heavy thoughts on her mind, and seemed intent on sharing them.
     "Ami seemed a little evasive outside about this place," Minako
murmured, hoping to steer the conversation in a safer direction.  "I
wonder why?"
     "She's never talked much about her past, even to me,"
Makoto answered with a shrug.  Her form-fitting leather jumpsuit
was unzipped in front again, and the shrug did spectacular things to
her full breasts.  Minako had to remind herself to focus on the
matter at hand, hard as that was.  "But that can wait.  How did
things go today?"
     "Things?" Minako asked, trying to hide her alarm.  Had
Makoto heard about Rei's battle already?
     "You've spent the most time with the Outsider," Makoto
said patiently.  "I wondered if she's ..."
     "He," Minako corrected.
     "Pardon?"
     "Ranma's really a he, as it turns out."
     "Ranma?"
     "That's his name."
     "Uh-huh," Makoto said, eyes narrowed as if this piece of
information was somehow particularly incriminating.  "Well, I was
wondering if HE had done or said anything, you know, strange or
unusual.  Anything, I don't know ...
     "Suspicious?" Minako offered helpfully.
     "Exactly," Makoto said, nodding for emphasis.
"Suspicious."
     Everything about Ranma was pretty much either strange or
unusual; regardless, Minako made a show of contemplating the
matter carefully.
     "Well, now that you mention it," she said slowly, "there was
one thing that seemed a little odd."
     "Really?" Makoto asked, practically quivering with
attentiveness.  "What happened?"
     "Well," Minako breathed, leaning closer so as to confound
eavesdroppers, "we were walking down the street, when suddenly,
his eyes began to glow red, and his head spun around, and he
screamed out, 'I have come to feast on the flesh of the innocent!'
You can imagine my surprise."
     "Swell," Makoto growled.
     "'Bring me your puppy dogs and kitty cats and yea, even
your adorable bunny rabbits that I might kill them in all sorts of
horrible ways', he says ..."
     "Can't you be serious for just one second?" Makoto
snapped.
     "Serious?" Minako shot back.  "I'm tired of serious, girl!
Everything is so serious now, so full of dread and despair and
hopelessness and I am just bloody sick of it!  We used to be able to
relax together, to laugh and joke and have fun!"
     "Maybe it escaped your notice, but things aren't going so
great right now, what with Rei bailing and weird goings-on and
Hotaru being a vampire and now this Outsider thing," Makoto said,
her temper beginning to flash behind angry green eyes.  "And you,
you're just tired of having to be serious?"
     "Don't say it like that!" Minako cried.  She clamped her jaw
shut, swallowed the angry retort she'd been about to throw at the
other girl.  Instead, she just looked at Makoto, really looked at her.
The whole thing with Rei had polarised the group, scattering
emotional land-mines around the landscape with careless abandon,
but for the first time Minako forced herself to try and forget her
feelings about what was happening, her own needs and
uncertainties, and to see Makoto's.  Her searching gaze made the
other girl suddenly uncomfortable, but Minako found that she could
see some of what was going on behind Makoto's eyes if she looked,
if she really looked.
     Makoto's anger was familiar to them all; her temper, while
easily provoked, also tended to pass quickly.  There was another
element to her anger, though, an old, deeper pain that rarely
surfaced.  Minako knew she was seeing that anger now, not some
fleeting mood, and she saw something else, more clearly than ever
before.
     That anger was tangled up with fear; whether that fear was
for herself, their princess, or all of them together Minako wasn't
certain.  But looking into those verdant emerald depths, she was
reminded at a visceral level that this girl, difficult as she could
sometimes be, was her friend.
     And she was hurting too.
     "I miss you," Minako said softly.  That wasn't what she'd
been going to say, but her heart had leapt into the gap, as it was
wont to do.  "I miss the way we used to be together, all of us.  I
love your smile, your laugh.  You used to hold a lot of yourself
back, in the beginning; that's why your smiles became so precious.
They showed that you started to trust us, to open up around us.  It
happened with ALL of us, remember?"
     "I remember," Makoto said, the tension flowing slowly out
of her body.  "You always used to try to make me laugh, doing
outrageous things all the time."
     "And I was pretty good at it," Minako pointed out.
     "Yeah," Makoto said with a wry smile.  "I guess you were.
You got me a few times."
     "I want that back," Minako said, her voice soft, gentle.  "I
want our life back."
     "I'm sorry, Minako," Makoto replied, her face sombre.
"But I'm not sure we can go back anymore."
     "But we can try," Minako told her.  "Even if it hurts us, we
have to try, we have to trust in our hearts to lead us back."
     "It's easy for you, isn't it, Minako?  Your heart tells you to
just believe and everything will be okay."  Makoto's gaze dropped
as she turned away.
     "And yours doesn't?" Minako asked.
     "It's easy for you," Makoto repeated, her mouth set in a
hard line.  "But me, I believed once.  I believed with all my heart,
and I trusted the wrong person."
     "Makoto ..." Minako said softly.
     "Can't you understand?" Makoto asked, her tone pleading.
"Can't you?  I'm afraid, Minako.  Usagi, she means so much to me.
If I was the one at risk, then I'd take the chance, but how can you
ask me to risk our princess?"
     "Because she's worth it," Minako said with utter
conviction.  "Because WE are worth it.  I'm asking you to
remember that, Makoto.  When the time comes, remember what we
are, the five of us together.  That's all, just remember."
     "You really think you can fix this, don't you?" Makoto said
with a hoarse laugh, shaking her head.  "What if Rei really is gone,
though?  What if she chooses her old life over us?"
     "If you really believe she would do that," Minako asked
gently, "then why didn't you transform right away when the Sister
attacked you?"
     Makoto didn't answer, but Minako saw the truth in the
other girl's eyes.
     Pushing Makoto always made her stubborn, though, so
Minako just smiled.
     And walked away.

***

     "So no luck?" Artemis asked.  Usagi blinked, taken off-
guard.  She'd been brooding, trying to concentrate on the events
that were overtaking them, but failing.  Even the news she had
about Hotaru had taken a back seat to one thought.
     Rei.
     She wanted to see Rei, to talk to her.  She wanted Rei to fix
her with that faintly contemptuous glare in her exotic violet eyes;
she wanted Rei to tell her to stop being such a wimp.  It was almost
like a physical craving.
     It was all well and good for her to tell the others that
investigating the recent mysterious occurrences had first priority,
but in every unguarded moment her thoughts returned to her fiery
senshi.  Where was she now?  What was she doing?  Did her heart
ache from their separation?
     "What?" she asked blankly, aware that Artemis was staring
at her.
     "Luck," he repeated patiently.  "With Mamoru."  She shook
her head, looking up as Minako followed Makoto into the room.
     "Here you are," Minako said briskly.  "Where's Ami?"
     "She went upstairs to check her computers," Luna told her.
"She said something about information drops or something like
that."
     "Information drops?" Minako frowned.
     "Ami's an information broker," Makoto said, sitting on one
of the sofas in the spacious sitting room.  Dust puffed up in a cloud
as she sat, and Makoto grimaced.  Most of the furniture they'd seen
so far was covered with white sheets to keep off the dust, and the
rest looked as though it was seldom used.
     "Information broker?" Artemis asked.
     "Yeah," Makoto replied, stifling a cough.  "She has her
computers filter out stuff from different sources and sells
information.  She used to do it before Hotaru found her, so I guess
it was natural to go back to it.  I use her myself; that's how I got a
lead on the shifter I bagged the other night."
     "Isn't that dangerous?" Usagi asked, a vague sensation of
alarm chiming in her chest.
     "She does all her business at arm's length through an alias,"
Makoto assured her.  "Don't worry, Usagi.  She doesn't put herself
in danger."
     "But if she's an old hand at this, she might have come up
with something good for us," Minako nodded.  "Cool.  I guess
that's why she made the association with Ranma and the incidents
in those cities so quickly.  I swear, sometimes that girl is almost
spooky."
     "Ranma?" Luna asked.
     "Uh, yeah," the red-headed girl said sheepishly.  "Me."
     "I thought your name was Ranko," Usagi said, feeling
confused.
     "Apparently, she's also really a he," Makoto grumbled.
     "It's just the body," Ranma replied, a bit testily Usagi
thought.  "I mean, geez, did everybody think I was a girl?"
     There was a general murmur of assent, and Ranma flushed.
     "Well, I'm not," the girl protested.  Usagi took a look at the
way the petite red-head filled out her clothes and wondered how
she was supposed to think of Ranma as a boy.
     "Well, this place should be safe, at least for a while,"
Makoto sighed, leaning back against the couch gingerly and lacing
her fingers behind her head.  "So maybe we'll have time to catch up
with all this stuff, like shape-changing Outsiders and the Sisterhood
and all that."
     "Speaking of which, you never answered my question,"
Artemis said to Usagi, causing her to start guiltily.
     "Oh," she replied.  "Um.  What question?"
     "What did Mamoru have to say?"
     "Oh.  Well, he was pretty busy," Usagi began.  She knew
she would have to tell the others about her talk with Haruka and
Michiru as soon as possible.  If she was honest with herself, she
could admit that she was only delaying because the others would be
furious.  That morning she had been determined to prove herself,
but Michiru's words had been gnawing at her since she'd left the
cafe.  Yes, sneaking behind the backs of her senshi was unworthy of
their devotion to her, and they were going to be not only angry, but
also hurt.
     But she HAD to tell them.  Not only was Hotaru not their
enemy, but a vampire was loose in their city ... quite possibly the
same one who had created Hotaru in the first place, according to
Haruka and Michiru.  The trick, of course, was deciding how to tell
them.
     Before she could begin, however, Ami came back into the
room.  Usagi felt relief at the interruption, but that feeling was
short-lived.  Normally Usagi had no trouble getting a read on her
reticent friend, but now Ami had brought down steel shutters
behind her blue eyes, allowing no view inside.  Usagi's gaze darted
to the sheet of paper in the other girl's hand, her heart plummeting.
     "Ami?" Makoto asked.  "What is it?"
     "Gods, not more bad news," Minako moaned.
     "I have my systems set to trigger certain protocols if any
input is detected which indicates the presence of sailor senshi," Ami
said, her voice soft and carefully modulated.  She stood stock still,
not looking at any of them.  "Data is automatically accumulated and
tagged for my attention."
     "Okay," Artemis said cautiously.  "And?"
     "There was an incident earlier today," Ami went on.
"Down by the expressway."  Usagi saw Minako flinch guiltily.
     "Um, Ami," Minako began, eyeing the paper with distinct
unease.
     "Three girls took out a group of monsters," Ami went on,
her voice toneless.  "From initial descriptions and the odd picture
gleaned from local security cameras, it is clear that the first was
Sailor Venus, or rather Mistress V."
     "Ami, wait," Minako said, taking a step towards the other
girl.  Ami turned her gaze on the blonde, stopping her in her tracks,
and Usagi felt a sense of foreboding creep up her back with icy
claws.  Her eyes were pulled to the paper in Ami's hands, and she
knew in that instant that she did not want to see what was on it.
     "The second girl exhibited remarkable martial arts abilities,
according to one eyewitness, and her physical description matches
Ranko's.  But the third ..."
     "What in the hells is going on?" Makoto asked, rising to her
feet.  "Minako, what are you hiding?"
     "Let me see that."  Usagi barely recognized the brittle voice
that silenced the room as her own.  Minako turned to block Usagi's
path, her eyes clouded with a jumble of emotion.
     "Usagi, wait," Minako implored.  "Just wait, okay?"
     "Were you even going to tell her?" Ami asked, and now
finally emotion was creeping into her voice.
     "Tell me what?" Usagi asked, and now the sense of dread
was nearly overwhelming.  "It's Rei, isn't it?  Minako?"
     The blonde stared at her, struggling to speak, and Usagi
finally brushed past her.
     "No, Usagi, listen to me."  Minako's words tumbled out as
she grabbed at Usagi's arm.  "You believe, remember?  You believe
in her, and that's important.  You ..."
     Usagi took the sheet from Ami with her free hand, ignoring
Minako's pleas.  It was a picture printed off a computer printer, or
part of one.  Usagi guessed numbly that what she was looking at
was an enlarged portion of a larger shot; the picture was somewhat
grainy, but she could see what she needed to see.  A girl had been
caught, frozen in the act of spinning around.  Her dark hair curved
around her body, hiding part of her face, and one of her hands was
raised to hold a ward in front of her like a weapon.
     The picture was black and white, but Usagi would have bet
that the coat that swirled around the girl's lithe form was red.
She'd given Rei that coat, after all.  She couldn't see all of the girl's
face, but what she could see was more than enough.  There was no
way she could mistake Rei; the girl's form, her being, was engraved
upon Usagi's consciousness.
     The black spidery patterns that lay across every inch of
Rei's exposed skin, though, were something she'd never seen
before.  Something she'd never dreamed she would see on that
perfect pale skin.
     Shadow wards.
     Grief bubbled up inside her, everything she'd been trying to
hold in bursting free at once.  With a cry, she flung the picture away
and ran, past arms that tried to hold her, past alarmed cries, away
from everything.
     Just away.

***

     Minako stood, transfixed by the sight of Usagi as she fled
the room, sobs tearing free from her throat.  She noted how
Makoto picked up the fallen picture, how the girl's eyes darkened
as she saw what was on it.
     Minako didn't have to see it to know what it showed.  And
she understood the shock the others felt; she'd seen it in person,
after all.  It had affected her, too.
      But ... but it was still Rei.  It was.
     "What have you done?" she asked Ami, her voice paper
thin.
     "You knew," Ami replied, her brow creased.  "You knew,
and you weren't going to tell her."
     "How could I?" Minako cried.  "You saw what it did to
her!"
     "Only the strongest of the Sisterhood can wield Shadow
magic that way," Ami said softly, her lower lip trembling ever-so-
slightly.  "There are rumours that you can't be Nightmistress unless
you can call your own shadow to you.  That's what you saw, isn't
it, Minako?"
     "I'm going after her," Luna announced, starting for the
doorway.
     "No, let me," Minako blurted.  "I have to ... to talk to her.  I
have to ..."  She broke off as Makoto moved to block her path.
     "No," the taller girl said.  "You've done enough."
     "Move," Minako said, her voice catching in her throat.
     "No."  Makoto was implacable, but not angry, and that
somehow made it worse.
     "Move!" Minako shrieked, tears burning at her eyes.
"Damn you, Makoto, don't you get it?  This is it!  If I can't make
her see the truth, then this is it, it's over!  We might as well forget
about ever being a team again!  You can't tell me you don't care
about that, because I know better!"
     "Look," Makoto said, her voice terrible in its gentleness.
"Look."  She held up the picture so that Minako could not help but
see it.  "It's already over, Minako.  She's made her choice."
     "No!  She hasn't chosen anything, damn you!  She's just
afraid!  Makoto, it isn't too late, not yet!  It isn't!"  Tears spilled
down Minako's cheeks now, and she made no attempt to stop them
as they traced arcs down to her chin.  She could feel it all slipping
away, inexorably, and she had to make them listen, listen and
understand.  There was still a chance.
     "Mina."  Artemis' voice was hushed, grave.  She wouldn't
listen, though.  She wouldn't be told to be sensible, to accept things
the way they seemed.  Not her.  She wouldn't accept it, she
absolutely would not.  Clenching her fists, she rushed by Makoto,
running through the doorway and deeper into the unfamiliar house.
     She ran through long hallways, past rows of doors closed
tightly like sentries guarding dark secrets.  The details were a blur;
there was a sense of disuse about much of the house, but that
seemed to filter directly into her subconscious.
     Finally she stopped, shoulders heaving as she paused,
panting, at a branch in the corridor.  There were twin doors at the
end of this new hall, and they were standing carelessly ajar. Minako
tarried a moment longer, fighting to compose herself before heading
down.  This was bound to be difficult enough without her having
another outburst.
     The doors lead out onto a stone patio ringed by a matching
waist-high rail.  Usagi stood at that rail, leaning heavily against it,
her head bowed and her slim shoulders shaking.  Minako took a
deep breath, making sure to wipe the remnants of her own tears
from her cheeks before venturing out.
     The yard might have once been landscaped, but years of
neglect showed here.  The grass was overgrown, bushes ran to
riotous profusion and the large pond beyond the patio was covered
with leaves, the water dark and uninviting.
     "Usagi?"  Minako flinched at the sound of her voice in the
silence; Usagi didn't react at all.  Minako moved across the leaf-
strewn patio, stopping directly behind her stricken princess.
     "Usagi?" she repeated.  "I want to explain it to you.  Why I
..."
     "It doesn't matter."  That hoarse whisper didn't sound at all
like the girl Minako loved, the princess she was so devoted to.  It
sounded broken, defeated.  Desolate.
     "You can't lose hope," Minako went on, trying to hide the
desperation in her voice.  "Not now.  Not after we've come so far.
     "Can't lose hope?" Usagi echoed, the line of her back
painfully rigid.  "She promised me she'd be with me, that she'd stay
with me until the end.  She promised, but she went off to that
woman, didn't she?  She's wearing HER colours, not mine, and she
never even bothered to say good-bye.  I guess Saekianna was right.
I guess I am just a naive little girl after all."
     "No!" Minako clenched her hands into fists, trying to will
Usagi to understand.
     "Just go away," Usagi whispered over the sough of the
breeze.  "Please.  I ... I just want to be alone."
     Minako could only stare as Usagi's shoulders slumped, that
horrible tension evaporating and leaving an equally painful air of
defeat in its wake.  Usagi was not a girl who sought solitude when
life wounded her; she shone in the company of others, always
willing to comfort or be comforted.
     But Minako knew that Usagi meant what she said.  Her
princess didn't want the comfort of her loyal senshi's shoulder to
cry on, and wasn't that partly Minako's fault?  She'd kept the truth
from Usagi, after all, thinking to spare her the shock of knowing
Rei had forsaken her senshi persona totally, but she had only ended
up adding to the betrayal.  And all because she hadn't wanted to
force the issue with Rei.
     Silently she turned, taking one last look at the lonely figure
of her princess to harden her heart.  Then she slipped back inside
the house, feeling resolve flow through her body.  It burned, but she
welcomed that heat as it lessened the ache in her chest.
     This had gone far enough.  Usagi needed Rei, and Minako
was going to make that happen.  There would be no more talking,
no more discussion, no more arguing about taint and darkness and
what was best for Usagi.  Rei was going to face her princess even if
Minako had to drag her haughty, high-tempered ass back here
kicking and screaming.
     Of course, she didn't know where Rei was.  But she had a
good idea who would.
     And since that woman had gone to so much trouble to get
her attention, it seemed only fair that Mistress V should respond to
the invitation.
     And perhaps show the Nightmistress of the Sisterhood what
it meant to trifle with the hearts of Minako's people.

***

     I shared the roof with several gargoyles and a naked female
figure with the head of an eagle, her wings spread wide.
Fortunately, my companions were all stone.  Or maybe that was
unfortunate; after watching another emotional scene, I was in the
mood to scrap again.  At least that was clean, simple.
     Not that I understood the situation completely, but I
guessed that Rei choosing to fight without her senshi powers had
hurt Usagi in some personal way.  Maybe it had something to do
with this Court of the White Moon thing Minako had mentioned.
Usagi had been a princess or something, not that I was too clear on
how that worked either.
     Minako had asked me not to mention seeing Rei, and I'd
agreed.  Now, of course, it seemed like that had only made matters
worse.  The others were all upset, so I'd found a kettle and
retreated to the roof to get away from the intense emotional vibes.
It wasn't like I didn't have my own problems to worry about, like
what this whole Outsider thing might really mean, and if someone
was actually tracking me through the key and killing innocents as a
challenge.
     I poured the contents of the steaming kettle over my head,
that familiar tingle sweeping through me as I changed.  The heat of
the water quickly faded in the cool night air, and I reflected that it
was a wonder I'd never caught pneumonia.  Somewhere below
there was the sound of a slamming door, and I found myself peering
over the edge of the high roof despite my best intentions to remain
uninvolved.
     From my vantage point I saw Minako storm out from the
front porch, blonde hair streaming out behind her.  The pants with
the flared legs and sleeveless top with the plunging neckline were
plainly visible since she'd forgotten her black coat (or Rei's black
coat, as it were).  She had her keys in her hand and was making for
her car when Artemis chased her out onto the large paved loop
where the vehicles were parked.
     "Don't go off like this, Mina," he begged her.  She spun,
and I could see she was still upset, although she seemed to be
channelling it into determination now.
     "This ends tonight, Artemis," she shot back.  "I won't let
this go on any longer.  It's destroying us, and I won't just sit back
and watch.  I'm going to make Rei talk to Usagi."
     "This is reckless, Mina," Artemis maintained, crossing his
arms and trying to stare her down.  "What about Usagi?"
     "She'll be safe here.  No one knows this place, remember?
But it won't be much of a sanctuary if her heart is breaking."
     "Mina, wait!"  She ignored him, stomping over to her car
and sliding behind the wheel.  He followed her, still trying to make
her see reason.  I felt for him; she seemed like the stubborn type.
     I had some experience with stubborn women.
     "You don't even know where she is!" he shouted above the
roar of the engine.  "Where are you going?"
     Her only reply was to make the tires squawk as she
accelerated away, leaving Artemis standing there watching her
taillights recede down the curved drive until they disappeared.
Then, with a disgusted sigh, he turned around and went back inside.
     I sat back, leaning against the steep pitch of the roof.  I
could understand Minako's feelings, the urge to do something
about the mess they were in.  I could also understand Artemis'
frustration.  If this Sisterhood was hunting them, then they
definitely needed to regroup and plan their strategy.
     Not really my problem, though.  Nobody had asked me
what I thought; in fact, I'd been mostly ignored, except for the
occasional glare from Makoto.  Well, that was fine.  Whether or not
I was the Outsider, I was an outsider in a more mundane sense.
     I stared at the sky, which was becoming more and more
overcast as the sun touched the horizon, spreading darkness earlier
than usual.  I had an idea where Minako might be going, as it
happened.  She'd been pretty wound up after coming out of her
club, and now I knew why.  If Minako couldn't find Rei, she'd
probably just go after the person at the top and ask her.  At the very
least, it would give her a chance to vent her aggressions on
someone.
     Hell, that was what I would have done.
     Not that it was any of my business.  No one had asked for
my help.  And anyway, she was gone.  What was it to me?
     But, a little voice reminded me, she has to go the long way
around.  If what Ami said is true, you can go nearly straight to the
bridge, and from there catch a ride down towards the Triangle.
You wouldn't end up that far behind her.  If you wanted.
     Yeah.  If I wanted to, I probably could.  But maybe she
wasn't going to the club after all.  And even if she did, there wasn't
anything I could do there.  This was a personal fight and it didn't
involve me.  Minako could fight her own fights and take care of
herself.  Even if the girl she called her princess was crying, that
didn't mean she'd do something stupid.
     Or dangerous.
     And anyway, it was really none of my business.
     Yeah.
     Yeah ...
     The solitary wind blew, rustling the leaves on the trees as it
passed through on its way to no place in particular.
     It was getting cold, up here on the roof.

***

     Saekianna was preparing to leave when a gentle tap came at
her study door.  At her bidding, the door opened to admit the Black
Rose.
     The woman was exquisitely beautiful, her intricate silk robes
flowing softly with her every demure motion, her long midnight hair
bound up with gleaming jade combs atop her head.  Her poise was
perfect as she bowed her head to the Nightmistress; her flawless
porcelain skin and dark eyes that seemed to draw the room's light
into their gorgeous depths were breathtaking indeed.  She was at
once delicate and ravishing, as enticing as her namesake.
     And as dangerous.  As a rose had thorns, so did this vision.
Her elegant manner and bewitching beauty were her finely honed
weapons; those combs in her hair might have sharp tines coated
with mind-befuddling drugs or poisons, the flowing lines of her
robes almost certainly concealed tiny vials and darts, and at least
one of her long ruby nails was painted with a substance that, if it
broke the skin, could paralyse a man in seconds.  Saekianna knew
the woman had once strangled a sorcerer in his own bedchamber
with her unbound hair, calmly walking out through his mansion past
unwary guards with the dead man's book of spells under her robes.
     "Yurina," the Nightmistress murmured.  "I was not
expecting you."
     "I beg your pardon, Nightmistress," the woman replied, her
voice soft and melodic, as pleasing to the ear as her appearance was
to the eye.  "Ordinarily, I would not trouble you unannounced in
such a manner.  If I am intruding ..."
     "Of course not," Saekianna said smoothly.  "But I am
leaving shortly."
     "Indeed," Yurina murmured, taking the seat offered with
languid grace and settling her robes carefully about her with her
pale, slim hands.  "It is about just that matter that I wish to speak
with you."
     Saekianna hid her consternation with practised ease as
Yurina pulled a fan from the sleeve of her robe, opening it carefully
to reveal a pattern of black roses on red silk.  That fan could also be
wielded as a weapon, something that would have seemed
unthinkable to an outsider watching this delicate woman and her
precise, supple movements.
     As head of the Maidens of the Rose, Yurina embodied one
aspect of the Sisterhood's power, an aspect which had once
encompassed the Sisterhood itself.  In ages past, when men had
ruled the empire that had once covered almost all of the known
world, women had been possessions, property.  They had been
expected to serve their men in all ways.
     But still it had been possible to wield a kind of soft power,
and as the Sisterhood had been born into such a world, they had
cultivated arts which allowed them to exert influence.  They could
beguile and enchant, both with their own charms and with magicks
and drugs.  They could manipulate and spy, ignored by the
powerful as tactics and secrets of state were discussed.  And, when
necessary, they could kill, swiftly and unseen.  Such murders in
those days were always attributed to shadowy clans of assassins;
no man had suspected that the women of his harem could be
capable of such bold and deadly action.
     As the empire of the dreaded Genrous had fallen and the
complexion of civilization had changed, the Sisterhood had
embraced other, more direct powers and become a force openly
acknowledged.  There were still those, however, who argued that
the Sisterhood's real strength still lay with the discrete application
of that soft power.
     Yurina was one such woman.  As Black Rose, she had
position and prestige within the Sisterhood, and although she could
not openly challenge the Nightmistress it was not wise to ignore
her.  Saekianna had forged an alliance with Yurina out of necessity,
one which had allowed her to topple Griitna; had the Black Rose
been able to wield Shadow magicks, she very well might have
challenged for the position of Nightmistress herself.
     Saekianna sensed that she and Yurina were about to clash
once again, as they had many times since she'd taken power.  Such
clashes were conducted with silken words and tiny gestures, but
they were no less fierce for forsaking volume and open displays of
anger.
     "I take it, then, that you disapprove of my plan?" Saekianna
said softly, leaning back and steepling her fingers.
     "It is not for me to disapprove," Yurina replied, lowering
her eyes demurely.
     "Come, Yurina," Saekianna sighed.  "Let us not mince
words."
     "Very well," Yurina said, her rosebud lips curving into a
maddeningly enigmatic smile.  "Let us speak plainly then, for time
grows short.  There is a lesson to be learned in Vi's failure,
Nightmistress.  Whether we agree that it was necessary to retrieve
this girl you wanted, the means were direct to the point of being ...
vulgar."  Yurina raised her fan for a moment, only her dark eyes
visible as she gazed up at her Nightmistress though long, sooty
lashes.
     "This is an old argument," Saekianna said simply.
     "Indeed.  However, had I been given the task of bringing
this girl in, I would have insinuated my way into her confidence,
gained her trust, and found the flaws within her which would have
allowed us to bend her to our will.  The root of our power lies
within the old ways, Nightmistress, a fact your predecessor
ignored."  With one slow, elegant sweep of her hand, Yurina folded
her fan and ran her nails almost absently along its length.
     "I do not doubt your skills, oh Black Rose," Saekianna
replied, choosing to ignore the veiled threat in those pretty words.
"But we simply did not have that kind of time.  And, I must point
out, we still do not.  Much as I wish we could spin a fine web
around our adversaries, sometimes direct action is necessary.  This,
I assure you, is one of those times."
     "This sailor girl may very well rise to the bait you have set,"
Yurina conceded.  "And I have no doubt you wish to test your
strength against hers.  I ask, however, that I be allowed to
accompany you tonight."
     "We do not have time for sweet, honeyed traps," Saekianna
told the woman.  "Much as I enjoy watching you work, Yurina,
Baniesti is nearly upon us.  These sailor girls are an unknown
factor, and if I do not take their measure our plans may be
disrupted."
     "You are correct," Yurina confessed.  "That is more your
strength than mine.  But the unexpected cost you your prize earlier
today.  If I am near, I may be useful should another ... unfortunate
episode occur.  And, as you have said, success is vital."
     "She may not come," Saekianna said, trying to hide her
irritation and mostly succeeding.  She did not like the implication,
veiled though it was, that she might prove unable to handle this
sailor girl.  She knew better than to press Yurina on the matter,
however; the woman would simply flutter her eyelashes and deny
she'd meant any such thing.
     And the most irritating part was that Yurina was right.  It
would not hurt to have a hidden reserve in case something did
happen.  Yurina, like her maidens, did not wield significant magic
and thus her absence would not affect the preparations that
were underway.
     "Just as you say," Yurina agreed, bowing her head.
     "Very well," Saekianna said briskly.  "You will accompany
me to the club, and see if you can find out any more about any of
our targets.  And if the girl does show, you may observe her
defeat."
     "You are gracious, Nightmistress," Yurina murmured.  She
rose in a rustle of silks, bowing again to her superior.
     "Change into something appropriate and meet me
downstairs in twenty minutes," Saekianna told the woman.  Yurina
nodded and glided to the door, but then paused.
     "Have you considered the possibility," she asked quietly,
"that all of these senshi may come tonight?"
     "Do not trouble yourself," Saekianna told her with a hard-
edged smile.  "I have plans for that contingency."
     Yurina smiled back and left the room in a whisper of silk
and a tantalizing whiff of perfume.  Saekianna rose from her chair
and walked to the window, gazing out across the carefully
manicured grounds.  The Black Rose may have had an agenda, but
her points had validity.  It was the Sisterhood's way to use guile
and subterfuge, weaving a careful snare around those they would
manipulate or defeat.  Saekianna knew that there was danger in the
route she was taking, and for a moment she wondered if she should
delay her plans, let Baniesti pass this time and lay low, taking the
time to ensnare or destroy all possible obstacles to success.
     But just as quickly as she had the thought she dismissed it.
Missing this chance meant waiting nearly two years, and conditions
would never be as good as they were now.  If the White Sisters
somehow discovered her plan, then she might never succeed.  No,
there would always be risks no matter how carefully they planned
and schemed, but if she acted quickly and decisively then she would
bring the Sisterhood's greatest desire to fruition.
     The light glinted off the signet ring she wore as she held it
up in front of her face.
     "Tonight," she whispered.  "Tonight you will taste the
blood of the enemy, my sweet, after so very long.  I can feel it.  She
will come."

***

     "Don't look at me like that," Makoto growled, making
Luna start.
     "Like what?" the dark-haired girl asked, her brow furrowed.
     "Accusingly," Makoto replied, crossing her arms.  "This
isn't my fault, you know."
     "But you do feel vindicated, don't you?" Artemis asked.
"You were right about Rei after all."
     "Hey, I didn't want to be right!" Makoto snapped, feeling a
rush of anger at Artemis' words.  "I'm not happy with the way
things turned out, okay?  But better that we know now than have
Usagi go to bed every night thinking that Rei might come back.  At
least now we can get past this.  Somehow."
     Makoto's words were certain; she hoped the others couldn't
see that her heart wasn't.  She felt a pang in her chest at the
thought of Rei lost to them, wearing the colours of the enemy.
That wasn't the way it should be.
     But that was how it was.  Betrayal was a terrible sin, and its
stain could not be washed clean by wishing.  All she could do now
was try to heal her princess's heart while she protected her friends
from the darkness that seemed to be all around them.
     "How is she?" Luna asked, anxious, and at first Makoto
thought the question had been directed at her.  Then she caught
sight of Ami, who just sighed and shook her head.
     "I made up a room for her," the quiet girl told them.  "But
she's absolutely inconsolable.  She won't talk to me at all."
     "Maybe I should try," Luna said, standing, but Artemis put
his hand on her arm and drew her back.
     "Let her be for a while," he told Luna.  "I think she needs to
be alone."  Luna looked at him, clearly torn, but at last sank back
down on the couch beside him.
     "Where's Ranko, er, Ranma, anyway?" Makoto asked,
glancing around.
     "He asked me for a kettle earlier," Ami shrugged.  "I
haven't seen him since."
     "He didn't go with Minako, so he's got to be around
somewhere," Artemis said.  "Although I think he's the least of our
troubles."
     "Yeah, well, I'd feel better if I knew what he was up to,"
Makoto grumbled.  "Think I'll have a look around."
     "Wait, I'll come with you," Ami said quietly, moving to
stand beside the taller girl.  Makoto flashed her a brief smile,
leading the way out of the room and into a wide hall.
     "That Minako, what a maniac," Makoto muttered as they
walked.  "What does she think she can do, running off like that?
Even if she finds Rei, what can she do?  That picture was pretty
plain; Rei isn't a senshi any more."
     Makoto caught sight of Ami's expression out of the corner
of her eye and stopped abruptly.
     "Ami," she said, "you aren't feeling guilty about showing
Usagi that picture, are you?  Because you did the right thing, don't
think you didn't.  Minako was wrong to hide the truth."
     "Usagi is heartbroken," Ami replied, misery in her voice.  "I
took away her last hope, didn't I?"
     "It was a false hope," Makoto reminded her gently.
     "But why?  Why would Rei abandon her and ... and all of
us?  Isn't there anything we can count on in the world anymore?"
Ami wrapped her arms around herself as if she were cold, not
looking anywhere in particular.  "I hate it, this feeling.  It feels like
the world is collapsing, and I'm going to lose everything good.  For
so long, I never thought there would be anything in my life like all
of you, and now ... now I ..."
     Makoto took Ami gently by the shoulders, feeling the
thrumming tension in the smaller girl's body as she turned it to face
her.
     "Hey," she said.  "Ami.  I'm not going anywhere, okay?  I
promise, I'll be there for you whenever you need me.  I promise."
     Ami's blue eyes rose hesitantly to meet hers, and although
they were suspiciously shiny no tears fell, and the girl finally
managed a smile.  It was beautiful, that smile, and Makoto
treasured it.  It had taken Ami so long to open up to any of them,
and Makoto was never quite certain why the two of them had
become such good friends.  But they had, and that friendship was
important to her.
     "Thank-you," Ami said, her gratitude warm and genuine, its
honesty making Makoto shiver slightly.  "That means a lot to me."
Then her expression darkened slightly, and her eyes slid off to the
left.  "But there are things I haven't told you, and now that you're
here you probably have a lot of questions."
     "Some," Makoto admitted, puzzled by Ami's sudden
reticence.
     "I've been thinking a lot about it lately," Ami went on.
"Since this whole thing with Rei, I mean.  About the past, and the
hold it has on us.  There are things about my past I wouldn't have
wanted exposed the way Rei's secrets were.  I wonder if things
might have turned out different, if it hadn't been sprung on us the
way it was."
     "Ami!"
     "If it was all in her past, then maybe all we've done is drive
her away," Ami went on doggedly.
     "Rei doesn't let other people push her around," Makoto
mumbled, unnerved by Ami's words. "Anyway, I'm quite sure there
isn't anything in your past as bad as what she was hiding."
     Ami looked up at her, seemingly on the verge of saying
something.  Finally, though, she just sighed and looked away.
     "There's something else," she told Makoto just as the taller
girl was about to press the issue.  "After I got Usagi settled, I
checked my nets.  Rin Suzuki is leaving messages on public drops,
wanting to meet with you tonight.  He doesn't specify where ..."
     "I know where," Makoto said with a long, slow exhalation
of breath.  "That guy never quits, does he?"
     "You won't go, will you?"  Ami's blue eyes were wide,
beseeching.
     "I don't really want to leave you guys so short," Makoto
muttered.  "But with everything that's going on, we can't afford to
have a whole clan of shifters after our butts too.  Maybe I can strike
a deal with Rin.  He likes me, after all."  She delivered this last with
a flirtatious smile, but Ami was having none of it.
     "I'm not worried about being short here," she told Makoto.
"Nobody knows this place.  I'm just worried about you going out
there with no back-up.  It's probably a trap, you know."
     "The meet is in a public place," Makoto assured her.  "It'll
be okay."
     "So you're going."  Ami glared at her, and Makoto fought
the urge to dig her toe into the floor and squirm.
     "I brought this trouble on the senshi, Ami.  If I can clear it
up, then I owe it to all of you to try."
     "You really don't want to ask Rin for a favour, do you?"
Ami asked her.
     "No," Makoto said wryly.  "Not really.  He's the sort to
take advantage of a situation like that.  But I'm no fainting lily, you
know.  He wants me, and I can use that against him.  Relax,
everything will be fine."
     "You keep in touch," Ami said, stubborn now.  "If you miss
a check-in, then we'll come after you."
     "Fine," Makoto sighed, secretly pleased by the other
girl's concern.  Too many nights after their break-up she'd gone out
without anyone to worry about her.  She was finding that she'd
missed that.  She'd missed it a lot.  "But it'll be okay."
     "Don't do anything reckless," Ami urged.  "And hurry back,
all right?  Usagi will need all of us to get through this."
     "I will.  And if Minako calls in, tell her to come back, would
you?"
     "Not that she'd listen to me," Ami sighed, rolling her eyes,
"but I will."
     Makoto hesitated a moment longer, wondering if this was
really a good idea.  After all, the Sisterhood was still out there;
what if they were looking for Jupiter as well as Makoto Kino?
     The alternative, though, was to huddle in this ruined
mansion like a timid mouse, hoping nothing bad would ever
happen.  And that just wasn't her style.  She'd go get Rin and his
bunch off the senshi's backs, lightening the load on her princess's
slim shoulders.
     And if Rin gave her any of his lady-killer attitude, he was
going to be one sorry pussycat.

***

     It had been a piece of cake, getting inside unseen.  After all,
she knew the place like the back of her hand.  Now that night had
fallen, the place would be packed as usual, which might have
allowed her to blend in and check things out surreptitiously.
     If that had been her style.
     But she'd come here to answer the subtle challenge issued
by Saekianna der Kae, and she wasn't going to play that woman's
game.  The Nightmistress of the Sisterhood might be accustomed to
making people dance to her tune, but Minako Aino was nobody's
puppet.
     Nor, needless to say, was Mistress V.
     She'd taken a voluminous hooded cloak from one of the
upstairs rooms and put it on, sweeping down the stairs and across
the crowded floor, taking in her surroundings as she went.  There
was no sign of Saekianna, but V knew she was there; the woman
had parked her fancy car in the manager's spot.
     There was also no sign of Rei.  V had hoped that her friend
might be here with Saekianna, only because that would make her
easier to find.  Otherwise, she was just going to have to convince
Saekianna to tell her where Rei was.
     Which might be fun ...
     V approached the stage where the house band was
playing softly, wondering how many spies the Sisterhood had in the
room looking out for her.  The staff might even have been
encouraged to tell their new boss if they saw Mistress V, and the
girls wouldn't have necessarily seen anything strange in that, would
they?  V was something of a celebrity locally, after all, and the
owner might just want to meet her.
     Well, V wasn't about to make it hard on them.  She reached
the foot of the stage and leapt up, the cloak billowing around her.
The guitar player, a lanky, quiet looker everyone called Rawlie,
frowned and backed up a step.  V noticed that his playing didn't
falter even for a moment.  The mournful wail of the sax died off,
though, and V found herself in the sights of a pair of blazing blue
eyes belonging to Madoka, a stunning brunette with a legendary
temper to match her musical talent.
     "It's not open mike night, sweetie," the girl said with
deceptive softness.  V recalled the rumours of how Madoka had
been nicknamed "the Pick" during her younger days running the
streets; even now, it was common knowledge that crossing her was
a bad idea.
     V just smiled, though, whipping the cloak off in a theatrical
gesture that sent it spinning into the crowd.  An excited murmur
arouse as both patrons and staff recognized her, and V basked in
that rising undercurrent in spite of herself.
     "Aw, come on," she said, shooting Madoka a sly, knowing
smile.  "Just one song?  I'm in the mood."
     "You should leave," Madoka murmured, moving closer, her
sax hanging by its strap against the girl's body.  Madoka's gaze
locked with V's, and in that instant V saw that the sax player knew
something was off.  She'd obviously developed good survival
instincts out on the street, and V was pleased that the tempestuous
girl had tried to warn her.
     "That would be rude," V returned, "seeing as the new
owner has gone to so much trouble to draw my attention."
Madoka studied her face carefully for a few moments, then smiled
knowingly.  It was a smile that made V want to see what kind of
music the girl could really make.
     "So," Madoka nodded, fingering her sax.  "What's it to be
tonight, then?"
     "Vows in Moonlight," V told her, basking in Madoka's
approving smile.  The music had trailed off, and everyone's
attention was focussed on the stage now.  V strode to the mike
stand, gripping it with her gloved hands and waiting as the slow,
sensuous sound of the sax started up, her body swaying in time to
the music.  Then the faint throb of the drums and bass joined in, and
finally she began to sing.
     The song was a slow, torchy number, and V purred through
the lyrics, her husky voice lingering in all the right places.  She
gazed out from under the brim of her cap, revelling in the way all
eyes were fixed upon her.
     Gods, but she loved being the centre of attention!
     All eyes, of course, included those she'd come to capture.
As she sang, she searched the room slowly, and while she didn't
spot Rei she did find Saekianna.  The woman stood against the
back wall by the bar, arms crossed as she watched V's impromptu
number.  Her lovely features were carefully neutral, but V thought
she was probably getting the message.  The song was, after all,
about two lovers who pledged their hearts by lovely moonlight.
And even though many trials parted them, they never lost hope, and
in the end they were reunited under that same moon, finally to kiss
under its cool pure rays.
     The last notes of the song wove their way through the
warm, smoke-filled air as V bowed her head, hands cradling the
mike to her face.  There was a moment of silence, then the crowd
erupted, dancers crowding toward the edge of the stage as they
clapped and whistled and called for more.
     Ordinarily she'd have been inclined to oblige them, and
nobody would have complained; not even Madoka, whose band had
just been upstaged.  But not tonight.  Tonight, a different dance
would take place, and only two people were invited.
     "Thank-you, everyone," she called out, beaming at the
crowd.  "It's nice to see everybody having a good time here
tonight.  I don't think we'll be having any uninvited visitors for a
while."  She struck a pose, and the crowd roared at her reference to
the recent wraith attack.  Her defence of the club had only
increased her popularity, and the trouble apparently hadn't hurt
attendance at all.
     "But I've hogged the spotlight here that belongs to the
band," she went on.  "I hope you'll appreciate their music while I
take a break and go talk to someone.  I'll see you all later, okay?"
She turned and blew a kiss to Madoka, who inclined her head with
easy acceptance, although her blue eyes held a grave look.  She also
bestowed kisses on Rawlie, the little blonde bassist whose name
was Hikaru, and the drummer, a good-looking guy named
Kyosuke.
     Then she was down off the stage and moving easily through
the crowd, smiling at the praise and squeals and occasional lewd
comment.  A tall guy approached her, sleek russet hair the same
shade as his silk shirt, asking for a dance.  She promised to keep
him in mind with a casual wave.  Then two of the girls zeroed in on
her, eyes sparkling.  The shorter of the two, Mimi, bounced on her
toes and thanked her breathlessly for her actions the other night.
Lia, the statuesque brunette, was more direct, leaning in to kiss her
cheek.
     Not to be outdone, a petite porcelain beauty with long midnight
hair and a dangerously brief black cocktail dress rose on her tiptoes
to press her crimson lips tantalizingly against V's mouth.
     "Hurry back," the girl whispered, dark promise in her eyes.
     "Only if you'll be waiting," V replied, slipping away with
practised ease.  She felt a flash of anger as she reached the edge of
the dance floor; this was her place, her sanctuary.  How dare
Saekianna buy it up and taint it for nothing more than some petty
power play?
     The woman herself still stood by the bar, looking like a
queen holding court.  Well, good for her, but V was not one of her
subjects, and she wasn't going to let the Nightmistress dictate the
terms of their meeting.  She'd gotten Saekianna's attention, now
she was going to make the woman work a little.
     V strode through the tables and booths, taking time to smile
at several of her sometime coworkers, finally wandering to the edge
of the seating area.  Then, abruptly, she turned away from the bar,
moving with long but unhurried strides through a camouflaged
door that led into the staff section of the club.
     Familiar as she was with the club's layout, she slipped
through the maze of narrow hallways to the back door.  She met no
one along the way; all the girls were out front, tending to the paying
customers.  Once through the door she was out into the cool night
air.  Spring's promise softened the days, but this night still had a
lingering bite of winter's chill clinging around its edges.
     V moved easily through the darkened alley, sliding from
shadow to shadow, alert for any of Saekianna's minions.  Her initial
scouting of the area hadn't revealed any lurkers, but she was
dealing with cunning and dangerous adversaries here, and it would
be a mistake to forget that even for a moment.
     There was a multi-level parking garage down the street,
with a small surface lot running along one side.  The club's manager
had a reserved spot at the back of the surface lot, and V headed
there, drawn by the gleaming beacon of a low-slung red Ferrengetti.
She stopped beside it, running one hand sheathed in gleaming black
leather lightly over the car's sharp lines.  The woman had taste, V
had to admit.
     Then she leaned back against the car's flank, crossed her
arms, and waited.
     It didn't take long.
     No more than two minutes had passed before she spotted a
swirl of windblown platinum hair and purple silk.  Saekianna
crossed the lot, her face unreadable.  V fancied, though, that she
saw a glimmering of irritation there, and suppressed a smile.
     Get used to it, lady, she thought.  Your night is only going
to get worse from here on in.
     She waited until Saekianna was standing only a few feet
away, then raised her gaze lazily, staring up from under the polished
brim of her cap as insolently as humanly possible.
     "I hear you've been asking around after me," V murmured
by way of greeting.  She let her eyes linger on the purple silk blouse
with its fancy cuffs and the dark pants that clung to long legs in a
way that should have looked cheap but didn't.
     "Indeed I have," Saekianna replied.  "For the record, I
dislike people who lean against my car."
     "Fair enough," V replied with a faint smile, not moving.
"For the same record, I dislike people whose schemes affect those
under my protection."
     "I'm certain I don't know what you are speaking of,"
Saekianna sniffed, her expression giving nothing away.
     "Tell me," V said softly, "that the Sisterhood didn't buy this
whole place just to get my attention."
     "You think a great deal of yourself," Saekianna smiled.
"Not that you are necessarily unjustified.  And that outfit suits you
more than a sailor fuku, I must say."
     The two women smiled at each other dangerously, gazes
crossing like naked steel.
     "Well, here we are, then," V murmured.  "I don't know why
you've set your sights on the senshi, and I suppose it wouldn't help
to tell you that you're in over your head."
     "It wouldn't, even if it were true," Saekianna told her with a
courtly bow of her head.  "But tell me, do you not serve the White
Lady?"
     "We serve only our princess," V said with fierce pride,
pushing off the car with her hips and standing ready.
     "Ah, the tales of the White Moon Court," Saekianna
breathed.  "Fascinating.  Could they be true?"
     "You have bigger problems at the moment," V pointed out.
"Like the fact that you have gone out of your way to irritate me.
And that you have answers I want."
     "Have I indeed?" Saekianna smirked, no trace of caution in
her stance.  "What a coincidence, there are questions I wish to ask
you as well.  It appears that we must clash, my lovely Venus, and
the winner will have her way with the loser.  That is how we do
things in the Sisterhood."
     "Don't be so sure you'll win," V said, all traces of her smile
gone now.  "You don't know what you're up against."
     "Foolish girl.  I always get what I want, haven't you
realized that yet?  It appears that you are the one ignorant of what
she is up against."  Saekianna raised one hand slowly into the air,
and V tensed to move, only to be brought up short by a rush of
light-headedness.  She blinked, surprised, as one foot seemed to
miss its footing and skid slightly on the pavement.
     "Oh, dear," Saekianna purred, her dark eyes gleaming.
"Are you feeling quite all right?"
     V felt a queasy chill in her stomach.  What the hells was
going on?  She swallowed, shifting her weight slightly.  Something
just felt off; her muscles were a bit slow to respond, her balance
was a little uncertain ...
     Drugged?  But how?  The woman hadn't even touched her
...
     V raised her fingers slowly to her lips, which were tingling
now, ever so slightly.  Saekianna laughed, a low throaty sound.
     "Did you think you could challenge me on your terms, girl?"
The woman placed a contemptuous emphasis on that last word.
"You thought you were so smart, so in control, but you were in my
web, sweet little butterfly.  You should have been more careful."
     Saekianna's hand described a lazy pattern in the air, and
suddenly she was holding something dark and roughly cylindrical.
V's eyes widened even as she cursed herself silently, and she tried
to bring her arm up to attack.
     "Come, White Moon girl, and see our power," Saekianna
whispered with sweet venom.
     And something dark coiled out of the woman's hand,
lashing out at V.  She tried to react, but she was slow, so slow ...
     The whip slashed across her body, trailing fire as it threw
her back against the side of the car.  She gasped as the breath was
driven from her body, rolling away to stagger back.  Saekianna's
whip, she saw with dismay, was no mundane weapon; it snaked and
danced in the air as the woman slowly advanced on her.  V raised
her hand and fired a Crescent Beam, but her aim was unsteady and
her opponent slipped away, darting between parked cars.
     V moved as quickly as she could along the wall of the
parking garage.  The drug must have been of the slow-acting type,
if that harmless-seeming little kiss back in the club had been the
culprit, as she suspected.  Her only chance was to either escape or
take Saekianna out before its effects overcame her completely.
     But if the delicate little doll who'd delivered the envenomed
kiss was also a Sister, then Saekianna might have more
reinforcements lurking in the wings.  The Sisterhood was not
renowned for its dedication to fair play.
     That left escape.  Saekianna would have to be cautious for
the moment, knowing that V's beam attack could strike her down
from a distance.  She had to open up some space between them; if
she could gain enough of a lead, she could transform into plain old
Minako and hide in the club, where she would look like just one
more inebriated clubgoer.  Saekianna would have no reason to
make a connection between her and Mistress V.
     Gathering herself, she paused, listening for any clue to
Saekianna's position.  She heard nothing, and decided to go for it.
Bold action was all that would save her now.  She summoned her
own whip, sending it snaking quickly up to twine around a light
standard towering above the top deck of the parking structure.  In a
flash she was climbing, trying to ignore the vertiginous spinning in
her head and the itch between her shoulder blades as she braced for
an attack.  Despite the slowly increasing weight in her limbs, she
made it up to the top of the four level garage in a flash, chest
heaving as she swung onto the top over the waist-high retaining
wall.
     Made it.  She would never bitch at Artemis again for
making her train so hard.  Now she had the advantage; from here,
she'd be able to see Saekianna and pick her off at her leisure.  She
leaned carefully over the wall, extending one hand, forced to steady
it with the other.
     She spotted Saekianna quickly, almost right below her, then
something was blurring through the air straight up at her.  She
barely had time for shock before the lengthening whip caught her
square in the middle of the chest.
     Pain exploded inside her, white hot, as she was thrown back
by the impact.  Her body spun loosely in the air before hitting
something; a car, by the sound of breaking glass.  Then she
collapsed heavily to the cold concrete.
     Her senshi form was much tougher than an ordinary person,
but the attack, coupled with the effects of the drug, left her dazed,
struggling to gain her feet.
     Her hair hung in her face as she tried to look up; her cap
lost either during her abbreviated flight, or in the sudden stop at the
end.  A gleaming length of whip was wrapped almost exactly where
her own had been, and as she blinked through the haze it shortened,
drawing Saekianna up with it.  The maddeningly superior smile on
the woman's face as she stepped easily to the top deck made V
want to scream, but she merely gritted her teeth and rose shakily to
her feet.
     "Going so soon?" Saekianna asked, setting her whip to
dancing in the air around her.  "I don't think so."
     V fell back against the damaged car behind her, focus
narrowing as she brought her hand up quickly.  Just one shot, she
though through the pain and drug-haze.  Just one and I'll put her
arrogant ass right back down where it came from ...
     She fired, a perfect shot.
     Saekianna's whip coiled, blocking the beam.
     V gaped.  Had it blocked the beam, or had that ebony
surface actually absorbed it?
     "Is this the best you can do?  What a disappointment you
are," Saekianna pouted.  "Still, perhaps your screams will entertain
me for a time ..."
     V forced herself to concentrate; if her beam couldn't get
through, then she needed something that Saekianna couldn't block.
She tried to summon a storm of golden hearts to overwhelm the
Nightmistress' defences, but Saekianna struck first, that enchanted
whip snaking out to strike at V viciously.  Again and again it
struck, forcing V to the defensive.  Her body felt so heavier by the
moment, her normal grace deserting her.  It was all she could do to
remain standing as the lash struck again and again, leather tearing
away to reveal bare flesh streaked with fine trickles of blood.
     She tried to time a move between strikes, but the whip
changed course in mid-strike to coil around her neck, cutting off
her air.
     "Oh, my dear," Saekianna said, not even sounding winded.
"You aren't planning on trying to duck out early, are you?  I have a
party planned, you see, and you are the guest of honour.  We are
going to talk, you and I, about your people, and you're going to tell
me all about them.  You're going to tell me everything I want to
know."
     The horrible part was, Saekianna could probably make good
on her threat.  V felt panic bubble up inside her as she clawed at the
iron-hard coils of the whip.  How had her plan gone so wrong?
She'd only wanted to help her princess, and now she might be
forced into betraying her?  That couldn't happen, it couldn't!
     But Saekianna drew her closer, reeling her in with a
knowing smile on her face.  V was having trouble keeping her feet;
her outfit was in tatters, barely clinging to her body, and her vision
kept blurring and shifting.  She couldn't seem to summon the focus
necessary to use her powers.
     She couldn't do anything.
     She was going to lose.
     Saekianna had her at arm's length now, giving her battered
body an insultingly slow once over.  The smile on the other
woman's face said it all; she was enjoying herself.
     With a hoarse cry, V threw herself forward, trying to land a
blow, but Saekianna met her feeble effort with contemptuous ease,
jamming the handle of her whip into V's solar plexus.  Dark bolts of
energy arced through V's body from the point of contact and she
screamed aloud, convulsing.  Before she could collapse, however,
Saekianna grabbed her by the throat and pushed her up against the
light standard, pinning her easily.
     "What a pathetic performance," the cruel beauty sneered.  "I
do hope the others provide more sport than you did, dear Venus.  I
do think I'll enjoy breaking you, though.  You are quite beautiful
..."
     V struggled to focus on Saekianna's frowning face.  Her
arms weighed a ton each, and she couldn't lift them.  Her whole
body was so heavy, battered mercilessly and lulled by the drug in
her system.  She longed for the strength to hit the other woman
right in her smug face, just once.
     "What is this?" Saekianna murmured.  "There is something
you're hiding from me, girl.  Subtle magic ... a glamour?"
     V felt panic rise anew as Saekianna's mesmerizing eyes
narrowed.
     "Yes," the Nightmistress hissed.  "It IS.  Why are you
hiding your appearance behind such magic, girl?  Show me.  Show
me the truth."
     Saekianna's fingers tightened around V's jaw, forcing her
face up as she examined it closely.  V's attempts to raise her own
hands only resulted in weak trembling, and she grit her teeth, trying
to keep from weeping in impotent rage.  Somehow she felt
Saekianna probing at her protective magic, and she focussed on one
thought; don't let her see the truth.  It was all she could do now to
deny the woman total victory, and she clung to that thought
desperately.
     Snarling, Saekianna jammed the whip's handle into V's
body, again unleashing those excruciating bolts of dark energy.  V
screamed again, helpless, her focus shattering.  Through the
swirling dark, she saw realization dawn in Saekianna's eyes, heard
the whisper of disbelief.
     "You ..."
     Then the darkness closed in around her, and she was falling,
falling forever ...

***

     Rei had prescient flashes, had been having them all her life.
They were the short, blindingly bright version of a vision; brief and
powerful, they came upon her when they would, unlike the way she
could sometimes focus her power by touching an object or by
meditating.
     She was nearing the club when it hit her.
     Minako was in trouble.
     Just that.  No details, no visual component, but she had
come to learn these flashes were more than intuition.  Minako was
in trouble, bad trouble.
     She hesitated.  That was all well and good, but what could
she do?  She didn't even know where Minako and the others were.
     Damn, this was maddening.  What could be the ...
     She was distracted by a flash of light, looking up reflexively.
Lightning?  But no, although clouds were scudding in, there was no
rain, no lightning.  And there had been a sound, a familiar sound ...
     Her skin prickled.  Minako's power.  That had been the
flash; she wasn't certain if that was prescience or intuition, but
suddenly she was certain it was right.  She felt a dizzying rush of
power, a strange feeling of being inside and outside herself at the
same time, and a sense of urgency.  But where ...?
     (mistress)
     Her head snapped up, her gaze coming to rest on the
parking structure she was walking past.  Up there.  She wasn't
certain how she knew, but she did.  She had to go up there.
     Someone else might have wrestled with doubt or ignored
the strange compulsion altogether, but Rei was accustomed to
trusting her inner self.  She turned and darted across the street, long
legs scissoring as she banged through the battered steel door at the
bottom of the dank concrete stairwell and raced up the stairs, two
at a time.
     She was nearly halfway up when she heard the first scream.
     Her heart clenched; that had been Minako's voice.  Rei
continued, cursing to herself as she ran.  The cracked stairs seemed
to go on forever, rising up into the wan light of bare bulbs huddled
behind steel cages, and as she finally neared the door that led out
onto the top deck she heard another scream.  She burst through the
door, images colliding with her consciousness in a dizzying
kaleidoscope.
     Across from her, she could see V's battered body pinned
against a pole, leather outfit in tatters, her head slumped forward
limply.  Saekianna was holding her there, an expression of disbelief
on her face.  Banri coiled languidly in the air, her tip sliding along
an expanse of V's taut flesh like a hungry snake.
     All this she saw in an instant, understanding instinctively what
had happened.
     Damn you, Minako, why didn't you listen to me?  Why
didn't you stay away?
     That anguished thought was all she had time for; in the next
instant, everything changed.
     Something blurred through the air between Saekianna and
V, a furiously spinning disc of black and yellow.  There was barely
any space between the two women, but somehow it knifed through
what there was, and Saekianna reacted instinctively by pulling back.
That opened up some space, just enough for a black-clad body to
drop into with uncanny grace.
     Saekianna lost her grip on V as she backpedalled, taken off-
guard; she tried to bring Banri up, but before she could the
newcomer's leg extended sideways with piledriver force, propelling
her back to tumble across the concrete.  Rei could only gape as the
newcomer neatly caught V's body before it could hit the ground,
scooping her up in his arms and pivoting to face Saekianna, who
was already climbing to her feet.
     Ranko?
     He stood, his blue eyes awash with the elemental force of
his battle spirit, his long dark braid snaking out on the same breeze
that tousled his dark, unruly bangs.  V's body might have been
weightless for as much effort as he seemed to expend to hold her,
and Rei wondered how badly her friend was hurt.
     "Well, now," Saekianna growled as she regained her feet.
"A hero to the rescue.  How sweet.  I'll only say this once, boy.
Give her to me or you'll join her."
     "Not going to happen," Rei heard Ranko say defiantly, and
something inside her seemed to loosen, like a muscle that's been
cramped so long that you become accustomed to it.  Ranko was
protecting a girl that he hardly knew, putting it all on the line to do
what he thought was right.  It was so simple when you looked at it.
     So what about her?  How could she be so confused, when
things were so simple?  At the end of the day, could she say that
she'd given everything she could to protect what she loved?
     Because that was what was important.  Not how much she
hurt, or her fears and insecurities.  Funny.  Funny how she'd lost
sight of something so basic.
     The stairwell door was partly shielded by a large van, and
she saw through its tinted windows more forms moving towards
Saekianna, three, no, four ... and another lagging behind.  Ranko
was going to have his hands full, trying to fight the Sisterhood and
protect V at the same time.  That would be difficult, and dangerous.
     By himself.
     "You should never come between a woman and what she
wants, boy," Saekianna was saying, lashing Banri into a black fury
of motion.  "It's time you learned that lesson."
     Banri began to snake out, and Rei was there, standing
between Saekianna and her prey.  She saw her former lover's eyes
widen, saw Banri brought up short.  There was confusion in
Saekianna's gaze, but none in Rei's own heart for the first time in
days.
     "Go," she said over her shoulder.
     "But ..." Ranko muttered, glancing at the approaching
women.
     "I'll handle it," Rei replied, her voice steely.  "You keep her
safe, or you'll have to answer to me.  Got it?"
     He hesitated a moment longer, then nodded curtly.  His legs
tensed, and then he was gone, leaping out into space as Saekianna
cried out.  Rei stooped and retrieved the flying disc from where it
had embedded itself into the concrete, watching in amazement as it
crumpled into soft cloth as she pulled it free.
     Nice trick, she thought wryly as she faced Saekianna.  One
of the other Sisters tried to rush to the edge of the deck, and Rei
raised her hand in a warning gesture.  The other Sisters were
looking at their Nightmistress, who was staring at Rei with absolute
incomprehension.  And there, behind the Sisters, Rei saw ... was
that Yurina?  It was, the Black Rose herself.  Well, this was bad.
     But she felt no fear, only exhilaration.  Her gaze sought out
Saekianna's, and she waited.
     "What are you doing?"  The woman's voice was hoarse,
raw with disbelief.  "She was mine.  I had her.  Rei, you have no
idea what you are doing!"
     "Yes I do," Rei replied calmly.  "Listen to me, Sass.  Let it
go.  Whatever is going to happen, you have to leave them out of
it."
     "Are you mad?" Saekianna shouted.  "You know why I'm
doing this!  Rei, this is what we always wanted!"
     "All I want is for you to forget about the senshi, Sass.  If
you don't, there will only be heartbreak."
     They stood there for long moments, the uncaring wind
moaning around them.  The disbelief in Saekianna's eyes was
fading, something darker creeping in from around the edges.
     "The Aino girl," she hissed, too low for the others to hear, and
Rei tensed.  "And you knew, didn't you?  You knew the whole
time."
     "Sass ..."
     "And how many others, hiding behind pretty glamours while
they do our enemy's bidding?  That lovely amazon?  Your precious
blossom, Usagi?  Is even she White, Rei?"
     "Don't do this," Rei said softly.  "It doesn't have to be this
way."
     "You have forgotten who you are, Rei!" Saekianna snarled.
"How could you protect them when they threaten us and everything
we're trying to accomplish?"
     "They don't!"
     "You are pledged to the Dark Lady, body and soul!  You
have betrayed your oath, Rei!  Why?  Tell me!  Damn you, tell me!"
But Rei didn't speak; there was nothing she could say that would
satisfy Saekianna now, and she knew it.  The others were edging
forward, and she readied herself to meet their attack.  She
recognized most of the girls, had trained with them.  And she'd
been better than any of them, except Saekianna.  But was she better
than all of them?
     "No."  Saekianna whispered it, her voice torn by the gusting
wind.  "No, it can't be.  You can't truly ... have fallen in love with
her.  Not you, Rei."  Saekianna's dark eyes fixed on her, and Rei
felt a pang deep in her chest; this woman had meant something to
her once, as much as anyone could have in those days, and this
wasn't easy.
     "Not you, Rei," Saekianna said, her voice nearly pleading.
"You were strong, and glorious.  You couldn't have fallen like that.
Tell me, Rei.  Tell me you don't truly love a girl so ... unworthy."
     Rei was silent, feeling the weight of their eyes, knowing that
each moment she occupied their attention Ranko was bearing V
further and further away.
     "Say it, Rei."
     Nothing.
     "SAY IT!"
     She slid one foot across the concrete, and as she did so her
arm brushed her coat lightly.  There was something in her pocket, a
familiar weight, and although it was impossible she knew what it
was.
     Her henshin rod.
     Saekianna's shoulders jerked, the tendons in her neck
standing out rigidly against her pale flesh.  Slowly she brought
Banri up, lashing her once, sharply.  The crack was loud, sharp.
Definite.
     "I am Nightmistress," Saekianna said, no sign of doubt in
her eyes now.  "You will answer to me, Sister."
     "I am no Sister," Rei said, her chin rising.  "Not anymore."
     "Forever," Saekianna hissed.  "Ours, forever.  Take her!"
     Rei's hand was dipping into her pocket as she thrust out a
ward, when suddenly there was a moment of disorientation like
she'd felt before, then a fluttering sound, and ...
     (shield your eyes, mistress.  quickly!)
     She didn't understand, but understanding wasn't all there
was.  Her heart told her to trust and she did, throwing up her arms
as a tiny sun blazed to life in the space between the attackers and
herself.  The nova light washed everything out with its actinic glare,
and Rei squinted even though she wasn't looking at it, feeling the
light's intensity almost like a physical pressure.  There were startled
screams from the other women, who had no doubt thought
treachery and surprise to be their weapons alone.
     (run, mistress!  run!)
     She didn't question.
     She ran.

***
 

     Saekianna stumbled, lashing about blindly.  Her vision was
slowly clearing, although she already knew what she would see.
     Rei was gone.
     Betrayed me, she thought, alternating between numbness
and fury.  Rei, of all people.  I waited all this time, I finally found
her, and she ...
     It was inconceivable, but the awful truth had been rubbed in
her face.  Rei had interfered, had let Venus escape.  Rei had
challenged Saekianna, denied her own destiny.
     All for that little ... White ... bitch.
     Worse, she had consorted with the enemy.  She'd known
Venus' true identity, Saekianna had seen it in her eyes.  Dark Lady,
had Rei violated every belief she'd once held so dear?
     "Nightmistress," someone gasped.  She turned, barely
making out the blurry outline of one of the Sisters staggering
towards her.  "She's gone ..."
     Saekianna lashed out, knocking the woman flat with Banri.
     "Do not presume to tell me what I already know," she
hissed with such venom that the others all backed up immediately.
All but Yurina; she held her ground.
     "Should we give chase, Nightmistress?" she asked with a
calmness that would have been nearly soothing if not for the fact
that Saekianna knew she was being mocked.
     "We have been outmanoeuvred," Saekianna gritted.  "One
of our own has turned against us.  Pursuit would be fruitless now,
they're gone."  She let that impotent rage build inside her, knowing
she needed it to shield herself against the pain.  Of all people, she
could least afford to show weakness.  "We must ensure that our
preparations have not been compromised."
     Yes.  As she had the thought, she knew that was the heart
of her vengeance.  Once their Dark Lady was free, then Rei would
be made to suffer for her actions.
     Oh, how she would suffer.

***

     Minako thrashed about in a quagmire of sticky darkness,
trying desperately to break through to the light.  Some unseen force
seemed to weigh her down, like in a nightmare where her feet
wouldn't obey commands to run.
     But was this was mere nightmare?  Her thoughts were chaotic,
overlaid by a primal need to escape.  But from what, from who?
And why?  She could nearly reach it, but that knowledge remained
tantalizingly just out of her grasp.  If she could just push a little
harder, just find the way, just a little more ...
     Her breath rushed out between dry lips with explosive force,
and she gasped, forcing her eyes open.  It rushed back to her in one
disorienting instant, and she gasped in cool air, body bucking.  She
was caught, captured by an enemy that would turn her mind inside
out and take whatever they wanted, and the rage and fear and grief
escaped her in an inarticulate cry as she fought to escape ...
     "Whoa!  Hey, Minako, take it easy!"  That voice.  It was
familiar, and she ceased her struggles as she tried to take stock of
the situation.  She was lying on her back on a hard surface, but her
head was pillowed on something softer and warm, someone's lap in
fact.  She gazed up into a pair of concerned blue eyes that carried
just a hint of stormy gray, the panic in her throat easing.  This
couldn't be real, couldn't be.  But ...
     "Ranma?"  Her voice was hoarse, nearly a whisper, but the
dark haired vision smiled as she said his name, the relief in that
gesture touching her.
     "Yeah," he said softly.  "Just lie still, okay?  You took quite
a beating out there."
     Her breath trembled as she let it all out, almost unable to
believe it was true.  They were obviously on a rooftop somewhere,
the troubled night sky above lit by the garish neon of the Triangle.
She didn't know how he'd managed it, but that was a matter for
later.  For now, only one thing mattered.
     She was safe, and so were her secrets.  And her princess.
     Or not.  She frowned, remembering Saekianna's face
through a haze.  The woman had been trying to penetrate her
protective glamour, but had she succeeded?  As Minako lay there,
she began to think that the Nightmistress had indeed seen her true
face.  A problem, that, but one that could be dealt with.
     During their rematch.
     "How are you feeling?"  Ranma's voice was quiet, an
almost diffident concern spicing the words, and she looked up at
him again.  His dark hair hung in his eyes in a most endearing
manner, and if she could have lifted her arms she would have
brushed those soft locks away.  But she still felt sluggish, pain
lurking under the effects of the drug, and only managed a small
smile.
     "I've been better," she mumbled weakly.  "Boy, I really
screwed up this time, didn't I?"  Tears threatened to spill suddenly,
and she fought them back.  She'd been beaten, had slipped into
unconsciousness expecting to wake up a prisoner.  Until now, she
hadn't realized just how much that terrified her; they would have
stripped her of her dignity, her strength, everything she'd worked
so hard for.  They would have broken her, and that was the worst
fate she could conceive of, to lose everything that made her who
she was, her identity as a person.
     "Hey," Ranma said, looking vaguely alarmed.  "Hey, it's
okay now.  Take it easy.  It's okay."
     She smiled in spite of herself; Ranma seemed on the verge
of panic at the prospect of a few tears.  How like a man.
     "You saved my ass again, blue eyes," she murmured, staring
up at him.  "A girl could get used to this, you know?"  She noticed
two things at that point.  Ranma was wearing only his torn tank-
top, his lean arms and abdomen bare to the night air.  A quick
glance showed that he had given his shirt to her; the loose silk shirt
covered her badly torn outfit, falling in soft folds down to her
thighs.
     A gentleman.  She closed her eyes for a moment, savouring
the feel of that silk against her skin, trying to ignore the dull ache of
her injuries for as long as possible.
     "I, uh ... your clothes were pretty ripped up," Ranma said,
noticing her glance.  "I thought you'd get cold."
     "Thanks, handsome," she replied softly.  Changes in
temperature didn't affect her nearly as much in senshi form, but he
didn't need to know that.  "You're like my own guardian angel."
     "Not just me," Ranma said, his expression troubled.  "Rei
showed up after I grabbed you from Saekianna.  She told me to
take you and go, said she'd handle it.  I didn't want to, but I figured
to at least get you someplace safe first."
     Minako cursed under her breath.  It was Rei she wanted,
but not only hadn't she found her, she might have put the girl in
danger.  She tried to sit up, but her head swam with the sudden
movement and dark blotchy spots clouded her vision.  With a
squeak she began to list, forcing Ranma to grab her quickly.  She
found her face pressed against his chest, and breathed deeply as she
placed her palms gently against the flat, hard muscle there.
     If I had more strength, she thought, I'd show you how
grateful I am, Ranma Saotome.
     "You're still too beat up to walk," Ranma said, gripping her
shoulders.  Her hair blew against him in the stiff breeze, and he
tensed slightly, something she might not have noticed if she hadn't
been touching him.  It made her sad, a little; the ghost of a dead girl
haunted every woman's touch for him, no matter how innocent.
She wanted to tell him it was wrong, but that wouldn't have helped.
It might not even be true.  After all, nobody could make him be free
of grief, or guilt.  He had to do that himself.
     That was a shame.  The more she saw of Ranma, the more
Minako thought he was the kind of guy a girl could get serious
about.  But a girl, especially a girl like her, would have to be crazy
to try and tackle a weary, battle scarred heart haunted by the past.
     And if she kept telling herself that, maybe she could steer
clear of heartbreak.  Gods knew she had enough of that already.
     "I'm not sure if it's the beating or the drug," Minako
muttered into Ranma's chest.
     "Drug?" he echoed.  "They drugged you?  That's low!"
     "The Sisterhood believes in winning," Minako said with a
shaky laugh.  "How isn't that important."  She thought again of the
delicate beauty with the husky voice and the drugged kiss; what a
lovely weapon, an alluring dagger in the back.  Beryl and her
generals had never been so subtle.
     "Ranma," she said, tilting her head back so that she could
look him in the eye.  "I need to find Rei.  I need to know that she's
okay, and I have to talk to her.  Usagi needs her.  We all do."
     "You're in no shape to go looking for anyone," Ranma told
her, a crease appearing between his eyebrows.  "You can't even
stand up."
     "I know," she told him.  "That's why I need your help.
Please," she added quickly when she saw doubt flicker in his eyes.
"I made things worse for everybody tonight.  I need to fix this, and
I ... I don't know how!  Please!"  Those tears threatened again, fed
by her own momentary self-loathing and impotence, and she bowed
her head to hide them from his sight, only to slump bonelessly
against his chest again.  The tears spilled out and wet his shirt, and
Minako could feel the distance between them, even though their
bodies were so close.
     "I'm sorry," she whispered.  "I'm making this so hard for
you, after you went through so much to help me."
     "It's okay," he replied, discomfort heavy in his voice.
     "It isn't," she sniffed.  "You're a guy who can't ignore a
woman in distress, even though it makes you think of her.  Even
though it makes a part of you go far away, deep inside."
     "I ... I don't do that," he said, sounding confused.
     "You're a good guy, Ranma," Minako breathed, her voice
thick with emotion.  Gods, her defences were really scrambled
tonight!  She pushed weakly away from him, letting her head hang
down so that her long hair shielded her face.  "I just want you to
know I'm not such a bitch that I'd stir up your ghosts like this just
for my own ego."  She reached up slowly to her shoulder and
grasped his hand, bringing it down to her face where she kissed his
knuckles gently.
     "Sometimes it hurts just to go on, doesn't it?" she asked,
remembering those long ago days when she thought she'd die of the
pain in her heart.
     "Sometimes," Ranma said softly.
     "Just remember that, whatever happens, wherever you go,
you've got a friend.  I won't forget what you did for me tonight."
     She held his hand for a few moments, wondering if he
would pull it away.  He didn't.  But that tension didn't go away
completely, either.  Well, so be it.  He'd saved her and she couldn't
return the favour, not so easily, anyway.  But maybe he'd remember
what she'd said someday, when it might matter.  That was all she
could do.
     "What are you doing?" he asked as she dropped his hand
and leaned back.
     "Getting up," she told him.  "And going after Rei."  She
managed to reach a standing position, but her triumph was short-
lived as her balance deserted her without warning and she began to
topple.  Strong arms circled her, scooped her up as if she weighed
nothing.
     "You are so stubborn!" Ranma gritted, and Minako found
herself cradled against his chest, gazing up at those beautiful eyes of
his.  The wounds of his heart weren't visible there now, only an
aggrieved look that nearly seemed to be tinged with affection.  Or
was that wishful thinking?  "What does it take to get through to
you?"
     "A big hammer.  Maybe explosives.  You know, subtlety,"
Minako grinned weakly, trying not to let on how comfortable it was
in his arms.  "But I was serious, Ranma.  You've done so much for
me already.  I can't drag you any further into this."
     "Well, you can't do this by yourself," he sighed.  Minako
fought the urge to snuggle into Ranma's chest like a contented cat;
that would only bring back that hurt distance, and she didn't want
to be responsible for that.  "Let's go to your car.  Your phone is
there, right?  You can call Artemis and get some help."
     "'Kay," she muttered, feeling safe and drowsy in spite of the
bite of the night air.  Ranma walked to the edge of the rooftop,
leaping with ridiculous ease to the adjoining building, his muscles
rippling like a panther's as he moved.
     I don't know anything about you, Akane, Minako thought
as Ranma carried her through the night.  But he loved you a lot.  I
wonder if you had any idea how lucky you were?

***

     Rei eased down the alley, senses fairly twitching as she
quested about for signs of pursuit.  She reached the end and leaned
back against the cold stone of the wall, breathing deeply.  It
appeared there was no pursuit to detect.
     She had gotten away cleanly.
     But not alone.  That voice in her head, somehow familiar,
had bought her the opening she'd needed.  That had saved her from
having to fight Saekianna and the others.  She was grateful for that;
in spite of everything, she had to hope there was a way to reach
Saekianna, a way to convince her that open conflict between the
Sisterhood and the senshi was not necessary.
     Rei closed her eyes, breathing deeply.  When next they met,
she would try to reason with her former partner, but if she couldn't,
then they WOULD fight.  Rei could no longer deny that her heart
belonged with her sister senshi; the sight of Minako, beaten and
helpless, had reached a place no argument could.
     Even if they could no longer accept her, Rei at least had to
accept herself for what she was.  A former Sister of Shadows who
was also Sailor Mars, commanding elemental fire magic, shadow
magic, and spiritual powers, it was no easy task to categorize her.
All these things were a part of her, though, and she couldn't be
whole if she denied any of them.
     (mistress)
     In an instant her eyes were open as she stepped away from
the wall, long coat swirling around her legs as she searched the
shadows for the source of the voice.  But there was no one, only
two crows perched on the railing of a rusty fire escape.
     Two crows.
     Watching her.
     Rei frowned.  They were only birds, and yet ... there WAS
something about them, a feeling, an echo of a memory perhaps.  As
if her gaze were a cue, the two birds took flight, rising from their
perch to glide easily across the small courtyard.  Some instinct
made Rei hold her hands out, palm up, and the crows came to her
as though called.  Each alighted in one palm as she watched in
wonder.
     And glowed.
     Twin flashes of light swallowed the crows, light similar to
the blinding flash back at the parking garage but nowhere near as
intense.  When it cleared, Rei found herself staring, breathless.
     In each palm now stood a perfect miniature girl.  They
seemed to be twins, each with pale skin and long flowing hair black
as a crow's feathers, tied at the nape of the neck.  The one on her
left palm was wearing a demure, high-collared white sleeveless
dress with short, lace-trimmed white gloves.  The long skirt was slit
up the sides, the border decorated with an intricate pattern.  Her
wings were white, feathers ruffling lightly in the breeze.
     The other wore a low-cut affair of black leather, with thin
lacings crossing the gaps at both sides.  She wore long matching
gloves that came down to a ring on each middle finger and stiletto-
heeled boots that ended just below her brief, hip-hugging skirt.  She
was adorned with flashy silver earrings in contrast to the other's
tiny diamond studs, and her wings were sleek, black, and leathery,
like a bat's.
     And Rei knew them.  They had appeared to her on
occasion, in her visions.  They gave guidance, led her through the
tangle of illusion and memory, and she had never suspected that
they might be real.
     "Mistress," the white clad one murmured, bowing her head
as she knelt on Rei's open palm.  "At last we have found you.  I am
Phobos."
     "Deimos, Mistress," the dark sister said huskily, bowing to
kiss the inner aspect of Rei's wrist, her hair tickling the tender flesh
there.
     "You're real," Rei breathed.  She couldn't help it, and the
twins didn't seem at all insulted.
     "Before, we could only touch your dreams," Phobos said,
her eyes lowered, hands clasped before her.
     "Now we can touch much more," Deimos said with a
wicked grin, staring boldly up at Rei.  "Ain't nothing like the real
thing, eh, mistress?"
     "Deimos, behave!" Phobos snapped, and Rei couldn't stop
herself from smiling.
     "You two showed up in the nick of time tonight," she said,
looking them over carefully.  "But how?  And why now?"
     "We lacked the power to cross from Aethyr to your realm,
mistress," Phobos said softly.  "For so long, we had to be content
with appearing in your visions, trying to help you from afar."
     "But we recently hitched a ride here with the Lady
Mercury," Deimos told her.  "She didn't know us, of course, but
we figured if we hung around her place we'd find you sooner or
later."
     "Wait a minute," Rei frowned, her skin prickling.  "You're
saying that Ami went to Aethyr and found you?"
     "Well, we found her," Deimos shrugged.  "If she's the one
the local fairies talk about, she's been crossing for some time.  We
just got lucky."
     "Twice lucky," Phobos murmured.  "When the Lady Venus
left the manse, we followed her, and thus found you."
     Rei opened her mouth, paused, closed it.  Ami, crossing the
barrier into Aethyr?  Shy, timid Ami?
     "Mistress, we were uncertain of what to do," Phobos went
on as Rei thought.  "Lady Venus was in dire straits, but then we
saw that boy from the manse at the same time we sensed your
presence, and so ... I hope you are not angry at our interference."
     "Angry?  Don't be silly," Rei said.  "You kept things from
getting ugly up there."  Then she had a thought.  "So it was you
two who brought my henshin rod to me?"
     "Mistress?" Deimos asked.
     "I left it behind tonight, but now it's in my pocket."
     "The henshin rods are ancient artifacts," Phobos told her.
"They yet have secrets, but we do know that they are part and
parcel of a senshi's power.  It would not surprise me that one might
come to its mistress in a time of need."
     So, Rei thought.  I thought I wasn't a senshi any longer, but
you knew better, eh?  Guess I was the only one I was fooling.
     "Well, now that you're here, ladies, what do we do?" Rei
asked.
     "We are at your service, mistress," Phobos intoned, bowing
deeply.
     "We only want to be able to be near you and serve you
well," Deimos added, her dark eyes blazing with sincerity.
     "Very well," Rei said, looking from one to the other.  "I
accept your pledge, Phobos and Deimos.  You are sworn to the
service of House Mars, which means to me."
     "Mistress!" Phobos cried out joyfully.
     "You can count on us," Deimos purred, her eyes gleaming.
     "Good," Rei said.  "Because I am sworn to protect my
princess, no matter what."  She paused, took a deep breath.
     "No matter what," she repeated softly.  "I've been running
away from the consequences of my past, ladies.  It's time to face
the music, no matter how painful that might be."
     "We'll do everything we can, mistress," Phobos promised.
     "Well, for starters, you can start calling me Rei," she told
the two.
     "What?" Phobos started.  "We ... couldn't possibly!"
     "I had enough of mistress this-and-that as a Sister," Rei told
her.  Neither of the twins seemed surprised at that revelation, and
Rei reflected that since they'd appeared in the vision that had
shown her the truth about the Sisterhood, they must know of her
past.  "So give it a try."
     "All right ... Rei," Deimos said, squirming a little.
     "Rei-sama," Phobos said softly, peering up from under the
curtain of her hair.  Rei smiled a little.  In the high tongue, that was
a very respectful form of address.  Such forms were not commonly
used any longer, but it would do.
     "Good enough," she said.
     "All right, Rei-sama!" Deimos grinned.  "So, are we going
back to track the enemy?"
     "No," Rei informed her.  "No, right now what I want is for
you to show me where Minako parked her car."

***

     I eased through the alley, on the lookout for any of the
women I'd seen up on that parking garage.  Minako was still
huddled in my arms, unnaturally quiet except to give me directions
as we went.  I didn't think her injuries were too serious, but the
fight seemed to have shaken her up pretty badly.
     I almost hadn't made it there in time.  Back at the mansion,
I'd decided to take a walk down by the river.  After all, nobody
really needed me for anything; with all the hurt feelings and stuff,
I'd only be in the way.  And once at the river, I'd seen the bridge
and set off towards it.  Just to see, mind you.
     And then I was at the road, hitching a ride on the back of a
passing truck.  I'd found my way to the club just in time to see a
flash that looked like a familiar beam.  Seeing V cornered like that,
I'd reacted without thinking.  One thing that had surprised me was
finding out that Saekianna der Kae, the woman from the club that
night, was this woman they called the Nightmistress.
     Small world.
     I hadn't liked leaving Rei behind, either, but from what
everyone had been saying she had once been one of these Sisters,
so they probably wouldn't hurt her.  At least, that was what I kept
telling myself.
     "Down there," Minako said suddenly.  She surprised me; I'd
thought she might have drifted off, she'd been so quiet.  The place
where she'd parked was a secluded spot a fair distance from the
club.  At least she'd been careful about that.
     But not careful enough.  As I rounded the corner, I saw
someone leaning against her car, as if waiting.
     "What is it?" Minako asked as I tensed.  She followed my
gaze, then let out a sigh.
     "Rei," she whispered, and I blinked.  It was Rei.  The girl
looked up as we came closer, pushing off the fender of the car with
her hips and watching us.  Her eyes were shadowed by the
streetlight, so I couldn't see her expression.
     "I was beginning to think you two weren't going to show,"
she said when I reached her.
     "Rei," Minako murmured.  "Just the girl I was looking for.
The plan, if you must know, is for me to thrash your ass and haul
you back to Usagi by force."  We were close enough that she could
reach out, weakly tapping the back of her hand against Rei's arm.
     "Whack," she said.  "Whack.  There.  I think that's
enough."
     "You really think you could thrash Rei-sama's ass?" a voice
asked.
     "Really, how impertinent!" another added.  I blinked as two
miniature Reis, complete with wings, appeared on her shoulders.
     "Uh, I must've got hit harder than I thought," Minako said
slowly.  "I'm seeing triple, or something."
     "Minako, Ranko, may I present Phobos and Deimos," Rei
said.  The two winged fairy girls, or whatever they were, bowed to
us.  "They distracted the Sisterhood, allowing me to escape."
     "The Sisterhood," Minako echoed.  "Rei, Saekianna ... she
said she could see my glamour.  She tried to pierce it, and I think ...
I think she did.  Is that possible?"
     "I'm afraid it is," Rei said heavily.  "And she did succeed.  That
certainly isn't going to make matters any easier.  What in all the
hells were you thinking, anyway?  Didn't I tell you to stay away
from her?"
     "Yes," Minako replied, her voice small.  "But I needed to
find you, and she was my only link.  Usagi saw a picture from this
afternoon, of you fighting with Shadow magick."  I watched Rei's
face; her normally pale skin went bloodless white at that.
     "She's torn up, Rei," Minako pressed on.  "You can't keep
doing this.  You have to talk to her, or it's going to be the end for
everything we fought for."
     "I know," Rei said.
     "And ... you do?"  Minako stirred, looking surprised.
     "Yes, Minako.  You were right.  It's time for me to go and
face Usagi.  I just wonder how the others are going to react to
seeing me, especially Makoto."
     "Rei," Minako said softly.  Then she turned her gaze up to
me.  "Ranma, set me down, would you?"  I did so, trying not to
show my reluctance.  Minako clung to me, still unsteady on her
feet.
     "Ouch," Rei murmured, pulling the collar of the shirt open
to glance at the ugly welts on Minako's body.  Then she met
Minako's gaze, and frowned.  "Damn.  What did they get you
with?"
     "Um, a brunette?" Minako said weakly.
     "Let me guess.  Petite, long dark hair?" Rei sighed.
     "Well, how was I supposed to know she had some exotic
drug on her lips when she kissed me?" Minako grumbled.  "People
do that all the time in the club."
     "I know," Rei sighed.  "I know.  Did it take affect right
away?"
     "No, not for a while," Minako said, lowering her eyes
sheepishly.  "I thought I had Saekianna right where I wanted her,
then I started getting dizzy, and my body felt heavy ..."
     "Okay, I know what she used," Rei nodded.  "It'll pass out
of your system soon enough.  You should get those welts cleaned
and dressed, though.
     "Yes, I think I owe Ranma a new shirt," Minako said,
rueful.
     "Ranma?" Rei echoed, puzzled.
     "Hey, forget it," I said.
     "Not a chance," Minako replied.  She fixed me with an
uncomfortably direct stare, and I fought the urge to fidget.
     "Well, at the very least we have to get someplace safe, until
we can figure out what to do about the Sisterhood," Rei said.
"Phobos and Deimos said something about following you from a
mansion."
     "They did?" Minako asked, surprised.  "Um, well, they must
mean Ami's place.  That's where we're holed up for now."
     "Well, then," Rei said.  She seemed outwardly calm, but
suddenly I knew she was nervous about what was going to happen.
No, nervous didn't do it justice.  Afraid probably wasn't too strong
a word.  I knew the horrible butterflies in the stomach feeling that a
person got before an emotional scene; it had always been especially
bad for me, because I was so lousy at talking about my feelings.
     "Well, then," she said again.  "I guess we should go."
     There was nothing more to say.
     So we went.

***

     The place was more than half-full tonight, and Jupiter let her
gaze sweep the crowd without being obvious about it as she moved
away from the door.  Bounty hunters ran the gamut from flashy to
low-key, icy cool shooters to thrill-seeking borderline loonies, and
the entire spectrum seemed to be represented already tonight.
     Junior was alone behind the bar, his three waitresses keeping
a brisk pace as they shuttled drinks to the tables.  Jupiter spotted
Rin quickly; he was at a table in the back corner, along with another
of his pack, a young man whose name was Sek or Sech or
something like that.  Rin was speaking to the boyishly handsome
young man, leaning forward to stroke the delighted lad's cheek
softly.  That was merely a show, however; as she strode up to the
table, Rin's eyes followed her the entire way.
     He was wearing a loose white shirt of some shimmery
material tonight, unbuttoned to below his breastbone to show
tantalizing glimpses of his smooth chest.  His tawny hair framed
that high-cheekboned face perfectly, causing Jupiter's pulse to
speed up in spite of herself.
     Damn, but he was beautiful.
     Even his companion paled in comparison.  Sek/Sech was a
younger member of the pack, all youthful bluster and cocky
attitude.  Unruly black hair hung in the boy's eyes, and he tossed it
out with a sharp motion as he caught sight of Jupiter.  A scowl
darkened his boyish features until Rin reached out again and ran his
fingers slowly through the younger man's hair.  He murmured
something in the lad's ear, his eyes on Jupiter's as he let his mouth
linger intimately.
     "But Rin," the lad protested.
     "Now, Srek," Rin replied in a voice that brooked no
disobedience.  Srek's scowl deepened, and Jupiter wondered how
the lad would react if she told him he was much cuter when he
smiled.  Probably not well; Srek struck her as being a little unsure,
the way some youngsters are when they find themselves constantly
trying to prove themselves.  Srek doubtlessly took himself a little
too seriously, as she once had.  Therefore she merely nodded at him
as he pushed by her and stomped over to the bar.
     "I was beginning to think you weren't going to show," Rin
said, his voice a lazy, sensual treat.  As always.
     "Hope I didn't interrupt your date," Jupiter replied archly.
     "Jealous?" Rin asked, his green eyes sparkling.  "I didn't
know you cared so deeply."
     "You wish," Jupiter shot back.  She should watch herself
here; Rin had a way of getting under her skin.  "So, I hear you've
been looking for me.  Hoping for a rematch?"
     "Please, sit," Rin said by way of reply.  He waved to a chair,
making Jupiter frown slightly.  The table was in a corner, and the
chair he was indicating would place her back to one wall, with his
against the other.  Not only was he ceding her equal status instead
of playing subtle dominance games, he was also going out of his
way to give her a vantage point which would make it impossible for
anyone to ambush her.
     Very curious.
     Shrugging, she sat.  Rin watched her, an odd expression
lurking in those barely tamed eyes.  He lifted a long-stemmed
goblet of something dark red, cradling it in his slim fingers as he
drank.  His eyes, though, never left her face, and she fought to keep
from blushing.
     "What?" she snapped.  "I have something stuck in my
teeth?"
     "I was just wondering if it was really true," he said, cocking
is head.  The motion sent that glossy mane of red-gold hair sliding
in a silken slither across his broad shoulders, and she tried not to
watch.  She could swear that he did that on purpose.
     The bastard.
     "If what was really true?" she asked patiently.  Remember,
this is for Usagi, she told herself.
     "If you and your sisters are really the reincarnations of the
senshi of the White Moon Court," Rin murmured, leaning forward.
"Or have you just adopted their personas?"
     Jupiter couldn't keep her surprise from showing.  That was
the last question she'd expected.
     "Does it matter?" she asked at last.
     "That isn't an answer," Rin smiled, his voice soft.  "Is it a
secret, then?"
     It wasn't, not really.  Telling Rin something personal,
though, just felt ... dangerous.  It would probably be a bad idea to
let him direct the conversation this way.
     "It's true," she replied, trying to sound casual.
     "Perhaps that is why you fascinate me so," Rin mused.
"You once lived on the White Mother, the moon which holds such
sway over my kind.  What was it like?"
     "Rin, you didn't call me here for this, did you?" Jupiter
asked sharply.  "Because I have other duties to fulfill ..."
     Rin held up one hand, sighing gently.
     "Yes," he said.  "I suppose you do.  I apologize, Jupiter.  I
am simply in something of a mood tonight.  Perhaps it is the lovely
company I find myself in."
     "Just the other night," Jupiter reminded him, "you were
going to teach me a lesson, right here in this very bar.  A public
lesson, if you'll recall."
     "Indeed," Rin replied.  "However, what was between us
seems to have spread to include your sister senshi.  You are aware
by now, I should think, of Yui's ill-advised attack on three of your
comrades."
     Three included Ranma in the count, but Jupiter saw no
reason to correct Rin on that, so she merely nodded.
     "This thing is going to get ugly, Rin," she said, leaning
forward slightly.
     "I quite agree," he said, surprising her again.  "It was never
our intention to start a war between our pack and the Sailor Senshi.
That would benefit no one."
     Jupiter sat back, trying to conceal her astonishment.  Was
Rin actually ... backing down?  She'd hoped to establish a sort of
armed truce with his group, yet here he was being accommodating.
It was actually a little unnerving.  If he was hoping to throw her off-
balance, he'd succeeded.
     "What's up, Rin?" she asked.  "My princess is pissed about
this, you know, and now you're telling me you didn't mean
anything by it?"  Rin would have no idea that the shifters were the
furthest thing from Usagi's mind at the moment.  Jupiter wanted to
see, however, just how far she could push this thing.
     "I am saying," Rin replied carefully, "that Yui's action was
unauthorized.  Gareth did not approve it, and regrets that one of
our people acted in such a way.  Rest assured she will be punished
for her indiscretion."
     "You're serious," Jupiter gaped.  "You're going to hang
Yui out to dry so your boss can claim his hands were clean on
this?"
     "That isn't what I said."
     "Rin, don't talk down to me!  Even if that little fracas out in
the Zone was Yui's idea, she did it for you or Gareth.  Or both.
There's no way she'd have tried that if the senshi had been declared
off-limits."  Rin said nothing to that, merely crossing his arms and
meeting her eyes silently.
     "Why?" Jupiter insisted.  "Why suddenly do you want a
truce, badly enough to sacrifice one of your own?"  Jupiter knew
that Yui's punishment would be painful, and most certainly
humiliating.  Rin was many things, but at least she had respected his
dedication to his own.  This ... this was beneath him.
     "You want to know why?" a new voice asked.  Jupiter's
gaze had been locked with Rin's; they broke at the same time to see
a tall figure in jeans and a tight black t-shirt come up to their table
and plant his hands against its surface solidly.  Jupiter stared in
amazement at Yoshi's face; she hadn't expected to see him here,
much less jumping into the middle of her meeting with Rin.
     "Sakamura," Rin said, his voice flat.  "I guess if you leave
your doors unlocked, all manner of mangy curs might wander in."
Jupiter looked from one man to the other, shock piling on shock.
She'd had no idea that Rin and Yoshi knew each other; by the looks
they were trading, they not only knew each other but disliked each
other as well.  She saw Rin make a subtle hand gesture, turned her
head to see Srek ease back down into his stool, clearly frustrated.
     "Smart," Yoshi said, never taking his eyes from Rin.  "Never
send a boy to do a man's work and all that.  So, why don't you
answer the lady's question, Rin?"
     "You are velpurg, boy," Rin replied, his low voice verging on a
snarl.  "But even one with no pack must know that we do not
discuss the pack's secrets with outsiders."
     "It's not the pack's secret, Rin," Yoshi replied with
deceptive softness.  Jupiter could smell liquor on Yoshi's breath,
and saw disquieting signs in his manner, his stance.  Violence could
break out here easily; she wondered if this was an aftereffect of
what had happened earlier.
     "Are you guys going to let me in on what's going on?"
Jupiter asked.
     "No," Rin said, his eyes narrowed as his gaze bore into
Yoshi.
     "Word's on the street, darlin'," Yoshi said with an
unpleasant smile.  "There's a vamp in our fair city."
     Jupiter's gut clenched painfully.  Could they mean Hotaru?
     "Yoshi, are you sure?" she asked sharply.
     "Oh, the source is good," Yoshi murmured, his pale gray
eyes still locked on Rin.  "So you see, this isn't some good-will
gesture by Gareth One-Eye, Jupiter.  No pack leader is going to
risk open warfare with a group as powerful as yours, not when
there's a vampire about.  One front they could handle, but two
fronts, especially when one of them is a vamp, well, then you need
to cut your losses and batten down all your hatches, baby.  Isn't that
how it is, Rin?"
     "You have overstepped your bounds, BOY," Rin breathed.
     "The lady's a friend of mine," Yoshi replied, and although
the look in Rin's green eyes chilled Jupiter's blood Yoshi appeared
unfazed.  "I won't have you playing games with her."
     "That," Rin replied, the faintest feral snarl roughening his
voice, "is between us, and no concern of yours."
     "I beg to differ, puss," Yoshi grinned, his knuckles
whitening against the surface of the table, which creaked
alarmingly.
     "All right, boys," Jupiter intervened abruptly.  Gazes were
beginning to turn to their table as the other hunters scented trouble.
"That's enough."  Yoshi and Rin held their respective positions,
and Jupiter understood instinctively that neither was going to do
anything which might give the merest appearance of backing down.
Some of that probably had to do with her presence; at any rate, she
was the only one who could defuse the situation before it got out of
hand.
     Although, just for a moment, she wondered how it would
shake out if Yoshi and Rin went toe to toe.  Couldn't blame a girl
for just wondering, could you?
     "I don't like being played, Rin," she said as she stood, her
voice stern.  Rin tensed and Yoshi smiled.
     "You tell him, J," the blonde werewolf said, satisfaction
dripping from his words.
     "Yoshi, would you give us a few minutes here?" she went
on, causing Yoshi's smile to freeze and dissipate.
     "What?" he asked her.  "But you don't have to ..."
     "Yoshi," she said patiently.  "I'm grateful for the info, truly.
But this is senshi business.  I'm here because my princess sent me,
and I'm not done yet."
     "I believe," Rin said softly, "that you have been dismissed.
Boy."
     Jupiter sensed the tension in Yoshi's body as she leaned
across the table, placing herself between the two men.
     "One more crack like that, Rin Suzuki, and I'm walking out
of this meeting," she snapped.  "You don't use me to score
personal points against your rivals.  Clear?"
     "Crystal," Rin acknowledged.  Jupiter turned her head and
met Yoshi's eyes.
     "Okay?" she asked him.
     "All right," Yoshi said grudgingly, with one last glare at
Rin.  "I'll be at the bar."  With that, he stood up and moved away.
Even stiff with anger, his body possessed a supple animal grace that
she couldn't help but watch.  When she turned back, she realized
Rin had been watching her watch Yoshi, and she sank back into her
seat gracelessly.
     "You could do much better," Rin said, his eyes throwing
back the room's light in gleaming green.
     "Don't change the subject," Jupiter said, hoping Rin's keen
senses couldn't pick up on the effect he had when he looked at her
that way.  "This vamp thing is now the subject."
     "The reason for the truce is immaterial, is it not?" Rin asked
her.
     "Maybe.  But Yoshi was right, this isn't any particular good
will from your boss, and this puts me in the driver's seat, so I'll ask
the questions if you don't mind.  Is Gareth really so spooked about
one vamp?"
     Rin looked at her, picking up his glass for a moment before
setting it down again.  Jupiter wondered what he was drinking; it
was possible to get a fair selection of beverages here, far more than
the decor would suggest, but she didn't think she'd ever seen any of
the patrons drinking out of a glass goblet before.
     "You do not understand," he said at last, and his eyes were
shadowed, darkened by something she couldn't see.
     "Enlighten me."  It was nice to have Rin at an advantage for
a change.
     "Before the Long Dark, the shifter clans had become quite a
force in this city," Rin said, staring through his wine into the past.
"The leaders had even aligned themselves with the vampire lords,
seeking to raise our kind up by riding their quest for power."  He
paused, took a drink.
     "But we all know how that turned out," he continued after a
moment.  "What some seem to forget, however, is that when
Darkness fell the shifters saw the evil behind what the vampires had
engineered.  My kind turned and fought with the humans, and were
slaughtered in the fighting that followed.  Scarcely one in ten
survived."
     "I lived through the Long Dark, Rin," Jupiter said.  "We all
lost people to it.  No one was untouched."
     "Indeed," Rin said with a small, bitter laugh.  "And yet
today, you are a citizen.  And my kind?  Good enough to fight for
the light, to die in the streets like animals, but still not good enough
to share the privileges that ordinary humans possess in this
kingdom.  You think us harsh in our justice, but the pack looks
after its own, when kingdom justice turns a blind eye.  That young
man you apprehended hurt us all by his actions, giving the humans
more fuel for their fears.  How many of our kind will be shunned,
denied shelter or medical care or even friendship because of what
he did?  The pack is family, and you do not betray family.  That is
the only way we can survive in a world that barely tolerates us."
     "And what about Yui?  She didn't betray the family, Rin,
the family is betraying her," Jupiter said, a low angry buzz in her
skull.  She recognized the truth of his arguments, but she'd been a
street rat, unloved and unwanted, and she knew that shifters
weren't the only ones to suffer in a cold, hard world.
     "Yui is a good soldier," Rin said softly.  "She will
understand the necessity."  Jupiter watched him, seeing for the first
time ever something akin to guilt in Rin's eyes.
     "You sent her out there, didn't you?" she asked before she
could stop herself.  Rin dropped his gaze to his drink, looking at it
as if he'd never seen it before.
     "Gareth wishes that there be no hostilities between his clan
and your senshi," the werepanther said, his voice carefully
modulated.  "What news shall I bring him?"
     "Before I answer, tell me something," Jupiter murmured.
"If you were leading the pack, would you do this, or would you
find another way?"
     "I find your question impertinent," Rin replied with a trace
of his usual hauteur.  In response, Jupiter leaned over and took a
handful of his loose shirt in her fist.  She didn't shake him, but he
became very still.
     "Would you like to go back to Gareth and tell him that your
ego blew this thing for him, or would you like to answer the
question?" Jupiter asked, her voice soft but full of hard edges.  One
lesson she'd learned early in life; when someone wanted something
from you, you had the leverage.  It was all in how you used it.
     "As you said," Rin breathed, "I sent her out there."  That
was all the answer he was going to give, but it was enough.  Jupiter
could see what she needed to see, there in his eyes.  Carefully, she
released his shirt, smoothing the wrinkles out gently.
     "Rin," she said slowly as she sat back, thoughts racing.  "How
would you like to owe me a favour?"
     "Go on," Rin said, his voice neutral.  Those beautiful green
eyes, though, flashed with emerald fire.
     "You go back to your boss, and tell him that we're willing
to consider this whole thing as water under the bridge, no hard
feelings ... on one condition."
     "That being?"
     "Yui doesn't get punished," Jupiter said simply, then shut
up and waited.  Rin's face gave little away, but she could see she'd
surprised him.
     "I had no idea you were fond of Yui," he said finally.
     "I'm not," Jupiter told him.  "But I think you are.  And
frankly, I'm not keen on buying peace at her expense."
     "And you can get your princess to agree to this?"
     "Oh, yes," Jupiter smiled.  "In fact, I can assure you that she
wouldn't have it any other way.  Make sure you tell old Gareth
that, too."
     Rin stared at her for so long she began to worry that he was
going to do something unpredictable, but just as she was about to
break the silence he smiled.  It was all she could do not to gasp;
Rin's smile was no mere curving of the lips.  It was apparent in the
angle of his head, the line of his jaw, and most especially the way
his eyes gleamed.  His smile washed over her like a sensual, sexual
heat.
     "You are quite a woman, Sailor Jupiter," he breathed, and
she fairly shivered, as if his breath was tickling her bare flesh even
from across the table.  "A magnificent woman, strong-willed and
tough minded, bold and beautiful.  We would make an exquisite
pairing."
     "Spare me the sweet talk," she replied, grateful that her
voice didn't tremble.  "We have a deal?"
     "We do," he replied, leaning towards her.  "Shall we drink
to successful negotiations?"  He placed one hand on the far arm of
her chair and brought his face close to hers.  A curtain of sheer
silken hair swept across her bare arm, and when Jupiter met his
eyes she knew he'd done it on purpose.
     "My lovers enjoy running their fingers through it," he
whispered huskily.  "Imagine it sweeping over your bare flesh as we
lay together ..."
     "I don't trust any man who's prettier than I am," Jupiter
told him, her voice hoarse.  "Don't you have a report to make?"
     "Why do you deny me, Jupiter?" Rin asked, not backing off.
"Tell me now that you do not desire me, and I shall never offer
again."
     "That's not it," she said, her voice sounding weak.
     "Then come with me, tonight," Rin murmured huskily, his
scent washing over her, all male musk and faint spice.  "Come with
me and know the passions of the night."
     "I have to return to my princess' side," she said, not without
a sense of regret.  "And anyway, you only want me because you
can't have me.  If I agree, I'll be just like one of those pretty boys
and girls you always have on your arm."
     "Never.  They are for play, sweet Jupiter, for the pleasure of
the moment," he smiled.  "Not for love.  They could never be my
equal as you could."
     "Stop talking like that and get out of here," she whispered.
"That shirt looks expensive.  It'd be a shame if some hot-headed girl
was to put a lightning bolt through it."
     "Until next time, then," he said after a moment, pulling
away.  Jupiter managed not to whimper as his hair slithered across
her arm again with the motion.  "But I shall not forget that I owe
you a debt.  Already, I am thinking of ways to repay it."  By the
look in his eye, those ways all involved his bed.
     Jupiter watched him cross the floor, gazes male and female
tracking him as he went.  Srek hopped up from his stool and fell
into step behind Rin, casting a suspicious glance back at her as he
went.  Jupiter heaved a sigh, wondering when her heart rate might
return to normal.  Her blood was definitely up, and all she had to
look forward to was going back to the mansion.
     Of course, Minako would be more than happy to help her
relieve the tension; she'd offered on more than one occasion, but
Makoto didn't want that sort of complication in her life if she could
avoid it.  Anyway, she rarely bedded girls.  That Ranma, now, he
might ...
     She shook her head.  Rin was like a drug; just being near
him made her crave the pure sensual pleasures of sex.  It was
distracting, to say the least.  She was getting to be as bad as
Minako.
     Jupiter stood and looked around, spotting Yoshi at the bar.
There was no way he hadn't seen what had happened, and she
sighed.
     This conversation was not going to be easy.
     She eased up beside the werewolf, noting the tension in the
flesh around his eyes and the way he hunched over his drink.  Some
of that was because of Rin, but was Yoshi still hurting from what
the Sister had done to him?  She wished she could just ask, but
Jupiter sensed Yoshi's mood; he wasn't likely to open up to her,
not tonight.
     "Hey," she said under her breath as she took the stool next
to his.  "Listen, thanks for the info.  It gave me some leverage to
use on him."
     "No problem," he said, not looking up from his beer.  She
stifled a surge of irritation.  Male egos could be touchy, and she got
the feeling she'd managed to wound Yoshi's somehow.
     "Are you pissed because I made you leave while I talked to
him?" she asked bluntly.
     "I'm not pissed," he said, sounding, to her ear, distinctly
pissy.
     "Well, that's good," she said sarcastically.
     "I just thought you were too smart to get taken in by a guy
like that," he went on, finishing off his beer and waving the mug
negligently.  Junior eyed her, but she shook her head.  Alcohol
would not help her temper.
     "Since when have I been 'taken in' by anything Rin says?"
she asked, choosing her words carefully.  It had been a long day for
both of them, and she kept reminding herself of that fact.
     "I saw you with him," Yoshi said, turning his gray eyes to
her at last.  They roiled with suppressed emotion, and she felt his
turmoil in the air like electricity.  "I smelled you."
     "What in the hells is that supposed to mean?" Jupiter shot
back.  "You smelled me?"
     "A woman's scent changes in certain ways when she's
aroused," he said softly.  "That scent is still clinging to you now,
like perfume.  He may make you crazy, but you still want him.  And
he knows it, don't think he doesn't."
     She closed her eyes for a moment, mentally counting
backward from ten.  She only made it to seven before her eyes
opened again.
     "Yoshi, Rin is desirable, okay?  And I'm only human.  That
doesn't mean I'm going to jump in the sack with him.  But if I
wanted to, I don't see why that would be a bad thing.  His
reputation precedes him, as they say, and I bet he'd show a girl a
great time."
     It was a mistake, throwing that out in front of Yoshi, and
she knew it as soon as the words were out.  But she thought of all
the lovers she'd seen him with, all those girls and boys who'd been
beautiful but shallow, a waste of Yoshi's affections; all the times
she'd sat and smiled politely while someone else had made those
gray eyes burn with desire, all the times she'd swallowed cutting
remarks about his potential bedmates.  She'd always treated his love
life as his own business, no matter what her feelings for him.  It was
more than a little aggravating to listen to a lecture just because
some good-looking guy had driven her needles into the red zone
and made her scent go all tell-tale.  A little innocent lust never hurt
anyone.
     "He's a complicated man, all mysteries and puzzles and
deep emotional barriers," Yoshi snorted.  "Smart and suave, dresses
good, knows how to talk and what to do and is just aloof enough to
get a woman interested.  He's playing with you, and you're letting
him."
     "I met with him tonight on business, Yoshi," Jupiter
snapped.  "I don't know what your problem is, but I don't need to
sit here and listen to you read a bunch of stuff into what happened
tonight.  But I will tell you one thing, Yoshi Sakamura.  I'm not a
little girl anymore, and I am certainly capable of deciding who I
want to bed on my own.  I never complained about the choices you
made, all I'm asking from you is the same respect.  That doesn't
seem like too much to ask."
     Yoshi drew back slightly, looking at her with mingled shock
and what almost seemed to be alarm.
     "Hey ..." he began hesitantly.
     "Forget it," she snapped, her temper flaring.  "I don't want
to discuss Rin with you any more.  I've gotta go."  She slid off the
stool, wondering if he would try to stop her, half hoping he would.
He didn't, though, and she stalked through the bar and out into the
night, blood simmering in her veins.
     Men.
     On top of everything else that was going on, this was
something she just absolutely did not need.

***

     Ami looked up as Luna came into the room.
     "Well?" she asked anxiously.
     Luna just heaved a sigh and shook her head.
     "She won't talk to you?" Artemis asked.  "At all?"
     "No," Luna replied quietly.  "She just wants to be left
alone."
     "That's not like her," Ami fretted.  At times like this, she
actually wished for Minako to be around.  The free-spirited girl had
a way of lightening Usagi's mood that was uncanny to watch.
Unfortunately Minako had run off on some fool's errand, and Ami
knew she herself was the last person who could cheer someone up.
     "Did you get hold of Mamoru, at least?" Artemis asked.
     "No, he's still unavailable," Luna sighed.  "And I don't want
to leave our location with anyone but him personally.  I'll try again
later."
     "I wish Makoto was here," Ami muttered.
     "She made her check-in on time, Ami.  Don't worry, she'll
be fine," Artemis told her with a comforting smile.  "I'm more
worried about Mina.  That girl is a real loose cannon sometimes."
     Before Ami could reply, there was a buzzing from the foyer.
     "What's that?" Luna asked, eyes wide.
     "Just the gate annunciator," Ami reassured her.
"Someone's coming in, but they used the code.  That means either
Makoto or Minako."
     She went to the foyer, peeking through the window.  Two
sets of twin headlights; yes, Minako's car.  It pulled up to the front
of the drive, close to the doors, and Ami stepped outside to greet
the girl.
     But Minako wasn't alone.  Someone was helping her from
the car, as if she were hurt.  Ranma?  Yes, it was him.  But if he
was helping Minako out of the passenger side, then who was that
behind the wheel?
     Ranma supported Minako, her arm slung around his broad
shoulders as they made their painfully slow way to the front door.
Ami, though, only had eyes for the girl who climbed out from the
driver's seat.  For some odd reason, Ami wasn't surprised to see
Rei.  She was not at all certain whether this was a good thing or a
bad thing, but there it was.  Artemis brushed by her as she stood
there, rushing to Minako's side, but Luna stopped beside her,
seeing what she saw.
     "Oh, don't fuss, Artemis," Minako was saying weakly as Ranma
helped her up the shallow steps.
     "What do you mean, don't fuss?  That's what I do.  And
just LOOK at you," Artemis muttered as he moved to her other
side.  Ami watched as Rei came to the bottom of the steps,
stopping to gaze up at her evenly.  She was dressed in her usual
sleek, alluring manner, but tonight she was carrying two rather
unusual accessories on her shoulders.
     "So," Rei said, her voice low and slightly husky.  "Here we
are."
     Ami sensed Luna's presence at her shoulder, but she
couldn't tear her gaze away from Rei and what appeared for all the
world to be twin fairies of some sort.  She recalled Makoto's anger
in the wake of their confrontation with Rei, wondered how Makoto
would react if she were standing there with them.  But Makoto
wasn't there; Ami was, and although she felt a tumult of emotion,
she felt in no way threatened.
     She knew somehow that how she reacted here would prove
significant, perhaps for some time to come.  Rei would remember,
and that was important to Ami.  Makoto was her best friend among
the senshi, her best friend period really, except for Usagi.  But the
senshi had been something important to her, and Rei was a part of
that.  In that moment it came to her that she didn't want Rei to look
at her and see someone who had met an extended hand with a
turned back.  She wanted things to be the way they had been, even
if that dream seemed impossible.
     "I was beginning to wonder if you would ever come back,"
Ami said softly.
     "So was I," Rei replied.  "But I think it's time I stopped
running away from my past."
     "And so here we are," Ami repeated.
     "Yes," Rei murmured.  "Nice place you have here, Ami.
Not really the sort of place I pictured you in, though."
     "It's a long story," Ami said, swallowing her anxiety.  That
story would have to come out sooner or later, and seeing Rei's
careful facade of detachment only emphasized how a person's past
could still hurt them.
     But time for that later; right now, she had to decide whether
to extend her hand to Rei or to let suspicion rule.  She'd fretted
about what she might do but, in the end, the decision was startlingly
easy to make.
     "Don't stand out there all night," Ami went on blithely,
peripherally aware of Luna letting her breath out as if she'd been
holding it.  "It's getting cold."
     Rei just nodded, but Ami saw something in the girl's violet
eyes at that, a deep sparkle that she'd only just realized had been
absent.  She climbed the steps to stop beside Ami, finally permitting
herself a small smile.
     "Ami, Luna," she said gravely, gesturing in turn, "may I
present Phobos and Deimos.  Although I suppose you two have
already met Ami."
     "Yes, but we haven't been properly introduced," Phobos
said softly, clasping her hands and bowing.
     "There wasn't really time, considering how fast the lovely
Lady Mercury bugged out once Dragon showed up," Deimos
added, a wicked twinkle in her eyes.  Ami blinked, a strange chill
spreading under her skin.
     "What did you ...?" she began.  Deimos leapt into the air,
spreading her wings, and her slim body began to glimmer with light.
That light swallowed her, and from the blazing nimbus a large crow
fluttered down to perch on Ami's shoulder.  She couldn't help but
recognize it; it was one of the birds that had come back from
Aethyr with her, she was somehow certain of it.  The crow's talon's
dug lightly into her shoulder for a moment before it glowed again,
and when the glow faded the only thing digging into her shoulder
was a pair of tiny stiletto heels.
     "We owe you big for helping us meet our mistress," the
fairy girl said to Ami's bewildered stare.
     "Phobos and Deimos," Luna said slowly, looking from one to
the other.  "They were guardian spirits pledged to the senshi of
Mars."
     "And still are," Phobos told her.
     "I think one of the things we'll have to discuss is just what
you've been doing going into Aethyr," Rei said, her voice so soft
that only Ami could hear.  Ami flinched; it appeared her secrets
might be revealed sooner than she'd expected.
     "It's ... complicated," Ami whispered.
     "Believe me, I understand," Rei replied wryly.  Ami was
saved from further awkwardness by Luna, who stepped forward
and grabbed Rei's hand in her own.
     "Rei, now that you're here," the girl began, "you have to
talk to Usagi.  She won't talk to any of us, not since she saw ..."
     "A picture of you from this afternoon," Ami interrupted.
"Using Shadow magick."
     "I heard," Rei sighed softly.  "Maybe she won't want to talk
to me yet."
     "You have to!" Luna blurted.  "Rei, you're the only one that
can make this better for her!  Just talk to her, tell her you haven't
abandoned her, please!"
     "I'll try, pussycat," Rei assured her, a terribly sad look in
her eyes.  Ami realized that, no matter how hard this had been for
them, it had been just as difficult for Rei.  "But I suppose I'll have
to run the gauntlet first.  Where's Makoto?"
     "She's not here," Ami said.  "She had to take care of
something."  And good thing, too, she added silently.  Makoto was
still angry, and she wasn't likely going to be happy to see Rei.  If
Rei could make up with Usagi first, that might help avoid another
blow-up.
     "Oh," Rei replied.  "In that case, I suppose I should just go talk
to our princess."
     "I'll show you her room," Luna offered eagerly.
     "Thanks, Luna," Rei said.  "Phobos, Deimos, you two stay
down here, okay?  I won't be too long."
     "As you wish, Rei-sama," Phobos replied, flying off Rei's
shoulder.  Deimos remained on Ami's, apparently quite happy with
her perch.  Ami watched as Luna led Rei into the foyer and towards
the stairs, a strange tightness in her chest.  She wondered what Rei
would say to their princess, how Usagi would react.  There was so
much hurt between them now, so many secrets that had been
unearthed unexpectedly.  It made her wonder what would happen
when her own secrets were laid bare, as they now must certainly be.
Would the others look at her differently, treat her differently?
     She had a moment, just one moment, of startling clarity.  In
that moment, she felt she understood what it had been like to be Rei
and have her past suddenly exposed to the judgement of those she
cared about.
     It was an intensely unnerving moment.

***

     Now that the moment was at hand, Rei hesitated.  Luna was
watching her, eyes expectant and full of hope.  It was a touching
display, but Rei wondered if Luna had lost sight of just who had
caused Usagi so much pain in the first place.
     Steady, she told herself sternly.  You did this, now fix it.
And if, after you've said your piece, she refuses to forgive you,
that's her prerogative.  You aren't entitled to any degree of comfort
here, Rei Hino.  This is your duty, to your princess, your friend.
     To the person who means the most to you.
     She knocked, but there was no response.  Luna began to
fidget, and Rei sighed.  Fine, then.
     Opening the door gently, she went in.  Usagi was sitting on
a narrow, steel-framed bed that made Rei think of dormitories and
institutions.  The girl had her back to the door, staring silently out
the room's single window into the darkness.  Rei closed the door
and crossed the floor until she was standing beside the bed.  If
Usagi was aware of her presence she gave no sign.
     Rei glanced at the small, unadorned table by the head of the
bed.  A few items had been placed there: a box of tissues, a glass of
water, a hairbrush, Usagi's brooch.  An overnight bag sat on the
floor, although it couldn't be Usagi's; she hadn't left Mamoru's
with one.  It was probably Minako's, Rei thought.
     Moving slowly, almost afraid to disturb the utter silence,
Rei eased herself onto the bed behind Usagi.  The bed shifted
slightly, but still Usagi didn't react.  Rei's heart thudded in her
chest as she breathed in Usagi's scent, felt the nearness of her.
Gods, this was going to be so hard.
     Tenderly, she undid Usagi's odango, first one and then the
other, letting the girl's blonde tresses cascade loosely down her
back.  She twisted and plucked the hairbrush from the table, then
turned back to Usagi.  The brush was just touching the crown of
the girl's head when Usagi's voice broke the silence,
heartbreakingly dull and lifeless.
     "I'm sorry, Minako," she whispered.  "Could you leave me
alone right now?"
     Rei understood Usagi's confusion instantly.  Minako often
brushed out Usagi's hair when their princess was feeling down or
upset.  It was a ritual they had that went back to the early days, and
Usagi had assumed it was Minako who had come to comfort her.
Rei swallowed the lump in her throat, steadying her nerves.
     "I guess I should be insulted," she said in a low voice,
"being mistaken for a blonde lunatic like her."
     Usagi stiffened and drew a quick, sharp breath, the line of
her back tightening as if she'd been doused in ice water.  Rei
waited, but Usagi didn't turn, didn't say anything.  Well, why
should she?  Rei was the one who had things to say, even if she
wasn't certain where to begin.  She reached out with her free hand
and drew Usagi's hair back over her shoulder slowly, combing her
fingers through it, arranging its fall.  Then, slowly, she drew the
brush down from the crown of Usagi's head, watching the golden
strands shimmer in the soft lamplight.  Slowly, some of the stiffness
went out of Usagi's shoulders, but that odd electric tension
remained in the air between them, arcing and tightening until it
seemed that the space itself must break.
     Rei knew she had to speak, to say the things that had to be
said, but faced with the reality of the situation she realized she had
no earthly idea where to start.  She was afraid that she would sit
there, horribly mute, until Usagi finally spoke, when it came to her
with startling clarity.
     When in doubt, begin at the beginning.
     "When I was a little girl," she began, the brush faltering
mid-stroke.  She swallowed, her stomach knotted, but Usagi let out
a little sigh, arching slightly so that her head nudged the brush.  Rei
blinked, absurdly grateful for that little motion, and began again.
     "When I was a little girl, I was angry.  All the time.  I saw
my mother die that night, I've told you that.  And there were times
I was furious at her for dying, even angry that she died so horribly
and that I had to see it.  It doesn't make any sense, but I had
thoughts like that, and I hated myself for them.  I was angry at her,
at my father for failing us, at myself for living, for being too weak
to help her ... and there was enough anger for everyone around me,
too.  More than enough."
     Her voice seemed to weave a spell in the room.  Usagi was
relaxed now, though silent; her breathing soft and even.  Rei knelt
behind the girl, brushing with long, slow strokes, losing herself in
the tactile sensations of the ritual as she dug deep for the truth her
princess needed to know.
     "Maybe that was one reason why the Sisterhood recruited
me," she went on after a time.  "Oh, I was lovely even as a girl, and
I had spiritual power even then, but anger made me excellent raw
materials.  You see, what really appealed to me about the path the
Sisterhood follows was that I didn't have to feel guilty about
anything.  They taught me that I was special, elite, and most
importantly strong, and so I was entitled to take what I wanted
from others.  The stronger I got, the easier it was to believe.  After
all, if someone wasn't strong enough to resist, then they were just
inferior, and was that my fault?"
     She paused a moment, the bed creaking comfortably as she
shifted her weight.  Then she went on, because there was nothing
else to do.
     "When I was old enough, I was inducted into the dark, sensual
side of the Sisterhood.  Sex became just another weapon in my
arsenal, a way to gain dominance over others, a lever to achieve the
goals of the Sisterhood.  I learned everything they could teach me
about pleasure, but nothing about love."
     "What about her?"  Usagi's voice was soft in the still air,
and it pulled Rei back from the place she'd drifted.  There was no
need to ask who Usagi was referring to.
     "Saekianna and I were partners and lovers," Rei murmured,
picking up where she'd left off.  "We were equally matched, so we
came to respect each other.  And we shared passion, so hot it
burned away everything else when we were together.  I had been
taught that was the way it ought to be between equals, and so I
didn't question the restlessness and disquiet I felt back then.
     "But the more I saw, the more I did, the less clear things
became.  There were mutterings that Saekianna and I would end up
vying to replace the Nightmistress when the time came, and I knew
that, no matter what had been between us, she would not hesitate
to fight me when that time came.  I began to yearn for something ...
different, something I couldn't even articulate.  And I hated myself
for having doubts.  Anyone who doubted was weak, and the world
ground up the weak and destroyed them.  Better to be the one
doing the grinding, better to be the one who was strong, because to
be strong meant dominating those weaker.  That was what I'd been
taught, and if that wasn't true then none of what I'd done in the
Sisterhood's name could be justified.  And I'd done some pretty
unpleasant things."
     "Rei," Usagi whispered, stirring.
     "No," Rei said softly, her hand resting on Usagi's slim
shoulder.  "Let me finish.  I'd participated in activities that were
depraved, debauched, and just plain low.  I'd seduced people and
betrayed their trust, I'd lied and deceived, I'd manipulated and
schemed.  And in the end, it all turned out to be for nothing."
     For a moment, Rei felt a familiar blackness coiling within
her, the sense of fury and betrayal she'd felt when she'd learned the
truth about the Sisterhood.  But wasn't that a sort of justice?
Shouldn't she taste the bitter betrayal that she'd wrought on others?
     "In the end, I found out the truth and left the Sisterhood.  It
was hard at first, living around normal people.  I had to learn that
the world wasn't black and white anymore.  And it was hard, so
hard ... so hard there were times I just wanted to give up.  It would
have been so easy to just slip back into their trap and take what I
wanted because I was strong.  I didn't know what else to do.
They'd given me purpose, direction, an outlet for my anger and
pain.  And now I was alone again.
     "And then I met you."
     Rei recalled that first meeting, the memory so strong it was
nearly painful.  It made her smile, albeit wryly.  She could tell that
Usagi wanted to speak, but was holding back because Rei had
asked it of her.
     "I thought at first it must be some sort of trap, of course.  I
mean me, a girl who'd risen high in the ranks of the Sisterhood?
There was no way I was some sort of legendary warrior of the
White Moon.  I thought Hotaru was either insane or running some
sort of scam, but I played along.  It was just you and Ami back
then, remember?"
     Usagi nodded silently.  Rei swallowed, knowing that there
was no way she could sugar coat the truth.  Usagi had to know it
all; it was the only way.
     "I hated you on first sight," Rei muttered, her voice low and
hoarse.  Usagi became terribly still under Rei's hands.  "You were
everything I'd been taught to despise," the priestess went on, her
heart thudding.  "You showed too much of yourself, didn't guard
your secrets at all.  You were clumsy and idealistic and didn't wield
what power you did have with any sort of ruthlessness.  As soon as
we met, I determined that I would usurp your power and become
the leader.  Whatever this power was that I'd been granted wasn't
going to be commanded by a girl like you.
     "So I waited and watched, biding my time.  And you kept
screwing up, but everyone always helped you.  They wanted to be
around you, and no matter what happened your light never seemed
to dim.  You welcomed me, and when I was serious and stern you
teased me.  Nobody had done that to me before.  Nobody had made
me feel the things that you made me feel, things that I'd been taught
were weak and wrong.  But you, you made them seem natural.
And I kept biding my time until, as Makoto and finally Minako
joined us, I realized that I couldn't fool myself any longer.
Somewhere along the way, I'd lost my desire to tear you down.
You taught me things that I needed to know without even trying,
lessons about friendship and trust.  And love."
     Rei's heart thudded almost painfully and she dropped the
brush from clumsy fingers.  She left it, combing back Usagi's
tresses with her fingers.  She couldn't see her princess' face and
wondered what expression the girl was wearing.  No matter; Rei
needed to finish this, and then accept the consequences, whatever
they might be.
     "I fell in love with you," Rei sighed, her face bent down so
close to Usagi's head that she was breathing in the perfume of the
other girl; fruity soap and shampoo, warm skin, and that indefinable
something that clung to the girl like ... springtime.  "I didn't want
to, but I did.  You made me feel things that I'd never felt, and for
the first time in my life I felt whole.  But the more I loved you, the
closer I grew to the others, the more afraid I became.  You were all
so different from what I'd known, what I'd been.  I never wanted
you to know about that side of me.  I was afraid to hurt you.  I was
... I guess I was afraid of looking into your eyes and seeing
disappointment, or even disgust."
     "Rei!  I'd never ...!"
     "Stop it!" Rei hissed, gripping Usagi's shoulders tightly as
she leaned forward.  "You have to hear it all.  I hated being the
cause of your pain that night when you found out, hated myself for
letting you down.  So I went and sought out the only person I knew
I couldn't let down.  I spent that night with Saekianna, Usagi."
     "I ... understand," Usagi said, her voice so soft it was nearly
inaudible.
     "Don't understand!" Rei blurted.  Usagi's shoulders were
warm through her blouse, delicate yet strong as befit a princess.
"Don't understand everything!  I hurt you and then went to her, and
I don't know how to make it better!  Everything I was, you'll have
to see now when you look at me!  I could lose you, the part of you
that was most important, the part that trusted and loved, and I'm ...
afraid."
     That last word did it; tears welled up in Rei's eyes, and she
held them back fiercely.  This was what she'd dreaded, and when
Usagi pulled away she let her hands drop limply to the bed.
     "Rei."  Usagi said her name, and Rei took a deep,
shuddering breath.  She owed it to Usagi to at least look her in the
eye.  She raised her head, seeing bright unshed tears in Usagi's
crystal blue eyes.
     "I never meant to lie to you," Rei whispered.  "I just never
wanted to hurt you.  I swear."
     Usagi's response was to lunge forward so suddenly that Rei
rocked back, nearly losing her balance.  Usagi's arms locked around
Rei's neck, and the girl buried her face in the crook of Rei's
shoulder.  A delicate, intimate heat blossomed along Rei's body
where her princess pressed against her, and she raised her face to
the ceiling in silent appeal at the twin sensations of tears and hot
breath against the delicate flesh of her throat.
     "I was so scared," Usagi breathed.  "I thought you weren't
coming back."
     "Have you listened to a single thing I've said?" Rei sighed
resignedly.
     "Yes," Usagi whispered.  "Enough talking, Rei.  Just hold
me for a while, okay?"
     Rei couldn't argue, couldn't resist Usagi's need for comfort.
With a shuddery sigh, she wrapped her arms around the girl's back
and held her close.
     They stayed that way for a long, long time.

***

     Saekianna didn't turn from the window as Yurina and Mirra
entered the room at her curt bidding.  Knowing how the two
women felt about each other, Saekianna was mildly surprised to see
them together.  Right now, though, that was the least of her
worries.
     "All preparations will be complete within the hour,
Nightmistress," Mirra reported, her ice-blue eyes flashing with
barely contained energy.  "There are no reports of unusual activity
in the area."
     "Good," Saekianna grunted.
     "If the traitor has never been here, Nightmistress, what
makes you so certain she will come?"  Yurina's soft words hid
edges of razored steel, and Saekianna found herself wanting to
rise to the bait.
     "This was my mother's mansion," the Nightmistress said,
still staring out into the dark.  "It will be an obvious place for her to
look."
     "Let her come," Mirra snarled.  "For betraying us and
assisting our enemies, I will see her ..."
     "Enough!"  Saekianna whirled, her voice lashing out with all
the authority at her command.  Mirra froze, and even the normally
serene Black Rose paled under the force if that single word.
     "Enough," the Nightmistress repeated, fixing each woman
in turn with her icy glare.  "I will deal with the traitor personally.
As Nightmistress, I reserve that privilege for myself.  The rest of
you have your assigned tasks.  We must not allow this setback to
delay our preparations.  I will see to it that our wayward Sister is
offered to the Dark Lady upon her revival."
     "And the others?" Yurina murmured, slipping her fan open.
"They still elude us, and although we now know that they are
protected by glamourie, we have not been able to capture and break
any of their number.  A pity you did not have time to penetrate the
girl's disguise."
     "Indeed," Saekianna said coldly.  Did Yurina suspect that
her Nightmistress was being less than totally forthcoming about
what had happened?  Well, what of it?  She could prove nothing,
and even if she could, even the Black Rose was merely a Maiden.
As Nightmistress of the Sisterhood, Saekianna also reserved the
right to claim the sweetest prizes for herself.  That little minx
Minako had made a fool of her, after all.  Had she felt superior,
traipsing around in front of the Nightmistress while her identity as a
sailor girl was safely hidden?  Saekianna thought that was very
likely.
     She also thought the girl would pay dearly for playing such
a dangerous game.  And if Minako was secretly a senshi of the
White Moon, then who else?  The Kino girl?  Perhaps even ... that
fragile little blossom, Usagi?
     No.  Surely not that one.
     "Our last practice run saw completion of the circle a full six
minutes faster than our previous best time," Mirra said, subtly
moving to overshadow Yurina.  "We will be ready, Nightmistress."
     "You had best be," Saekianna replied curtly.  "Our enemies seek
to rob us of our precious opportunity.  We must remain hidden until
the last possible moment, then strike swiftly and mercilessly."
     "I understand," Mirra said, and Saekianna knew she did.
No matter what petty personal differences or animosities existed
amongst her flock, they all desired to see their beloved Dark Lady
freed from her bondage.
     And they all knew just who had brought them this far.
     "Very good.  Then you are dismissed."
     Wordlessly, the mismatched pair turned and left her to
brood.  Once again, Saekianna was left alone with her pain.  And
her anger.
     Rei, she thought blackly as she stared out into the night.
     Why?

***

     "Hey," Rei said softly.  "Are you still with me?"
     "Mmm-hmmm," Usagi responded.
     Rei sighed.  Usagi had been curled up in her lap for a while
now, head on Rei's shoulder.  While Rei was enjoying the situation,
she knew that they couldn't remain here indefinitely, no matter how
seductive the notion.  The world wouldn't stop just for them.
     "Isn't there anything you want to say?" Rei asked finally,
her heart thudding.  "After I hid my past from you, then ran off into
the arms of my old lover and ended up by using dark magick
instead of my abilities as a Sailor Senshi, I mean."
     "Um ... don't so it again?" Usagi murmured inquisitively.
     "I'm serious," Rei said wearily.  "You can't just act like
none of this happened, you know.  The others certainly won't."
     "You're right," Usagi said.  "There is something I need to
say to you."  Usagi raised her head from Rei's shoulder, moving so
that the two were face to face.  Rei searched those sky-blue eyes
for even the faintest trace of recrimination, but found none.
Unbound, Usagi's hair softly framed her face, giving her a tousled
sensual look that made Rei's breath catch in her throat.  "Welcome
home, Rei."
     "Home?"  To Rei, the word held a lonesome quality, like
the hollow echo of footsteps on stone or the sound of wind over a
rocky crag.
     "Wherever we all are, that's home, Rei.  And that's what
matters."  Usagi slipped one arm from Rei's shoulder, placing her
palm gently between the swell of the raven-haired senshi's breasts.
     "What are you doing?" Rei whispered.
     "I can feel your heart," Usagi replied, her eyes closing languidly.
"Just a few hours ago, my own heart probably would have broken if
I'd found out that you slept with her, but after everything you've
told me, I only pity her.  She told me that you wanted to rejoin the
Sisterhood, that I never knew you, but she was wrong.  You may
have shared your bed with Saekianna, but she never truly possessed
your heart, did she?"
     "No," Rei said faintly, because it was true.
     "But I do," Usagi went on, opening her eyes.
     "Yes," Rei sighed, feeling some strange tension within her
ease.
     "I promise to take good care of it," Usagi breathed, "as it is
so precious to me.  But you have to promise me something in
return, Rei.  Will you?"
     "Anything," Rei said, and meant it.
     "You have to trust in me," Usagi said, her words strong yet
gentle at the same time.  "I won't break if you tell me something
bad.  I'm not fragile.  Whatever you once were and whatever you
did, you became the girl I know and love.  You are my friend, my
heart, and my loyal senshi.  If that means anything to you, then you
must understand that it is no kindness for you to treat me as though
I needed to be protected from the world.  I have to live in it, and I
want you with me."
     "Minako has said much the same thing," Rei said heavily.
"But I've seen so much darkness, and I've seen what it can do to a
person.  I couldn't bear to see you sullied."
     "Who says I'm so pure?" Usagi asked, irritation and
obstinance in her eyes now.  "Maborra's tits, Rei, I didn't grow up
in a glass bubble you know!"
     Rei's eyes widened, and Usagi giggled at the sight.
     "That's a pretty good curse, huh?" Usagi said in a
confidential tone. "Not the best one I've heard, though.  Let's see
..."
     "I'll take your word for it!" Rei snapped.
     "It's always tits and testicles with the gods and goddesses,"
Usagi mused.  "I wonder if they're really so obsessed with sex?"
     "Usagi, that's not funny!"
     "Well, what else have they got to do?" Usagi asked, her
eyes twinkling.  Rei had missed that mischievous sparkle, much
more than she'd realized.
     "You'll have to hear it all, you know," Rei said heavily.  "All the
things I did back then.  I need you to, and it won't be easy to hear."
     "Maybe not," Usagi replied evenly.  "But I think it'll be
harder to tell.  After all, I know how you turned out.  You've done
a lot to atone for your mistakes, Rei."
     "I hope everyone agrees with you."
     "They will," Usagi assured her.  "We all have pasts to deal
with, you know.  But now we're together, and together there's
nothing we can't do.  Nothing."
     "You make me believe," Rei said, shaking her head.  "Do
you have any idea how incredible that is?"
     "Well, incredible is my middle name," Usagi said primly.
They sat on the bed for a moment, just looking at each other, and
Rei finally felt as though, impossible as it seemed, everything really
was going to be okay.
     "I hear you saw a picture of me from this afternoon," Rei
said at last.  Usagi started.
     "Mmm," she nodded.  "It was ... shocking."
     "I couldn't very well tell you that I could use Shadow
magicks, could I?" Rei asked.
     "Well, when I saw you fighting without your senshi powers,
it was like ... like you'd turned your back on us.  Like you were
fighting under someone else's colours."
     "It wasn't that," Rei told her.  Reaching into her pocket, she
fished out her henshin rod and held it up so that its surface caught
the light and gleamed.  "I felt like I was drawing darkness to me,
and I didn't want it to associate me with all of you.  Maybe that
doesn't make sense to you, but I wanted to protect you."
     "I'm glad that's all it was," Usagi stated, reaching to take
Rei's henshin rod from her hand.  As Rei watched, Usagi cradled it
in her hand, then slowly brought it to her lips and kissed it tenderly.
That motion sent a shiver through Rei's body, hot and cold all at
once.  Through the lingering kiss, Usagi's eyes remained locked
with Rei's, an electric current flowing through their gaze.  Memory
rose within Rei; a garden at night, warm breezes heavy with the
scent of flowers, the earth full and blue in the sky.  And her
princess, bestowing a kiss upon a henshin rod emblazoned with the
symbol of House Mars.
     "That time," Rei breathed, certain that Usagi remembered as
well.  "You'd been afraid of me, wouldn't go anywhere alone with
me.  I was hurt, and that only made things worse.  It was like a cold
war between us, and nobody knew what to do about it.  Your
mother was at her wit's end, and there were mutterings
that House Mars might have to withdraw me from the palace."
     "Until that night," Usagi acknowledged, still holding the henshin
rod in one slim hand, "when our stubborn hearts finally got through
to each other.  I made you my senshi that night.  Mother had made
the decision to summon the candidates from the Great Houses, and
she was responsible for determining suitability, but after that night
you were mine."
     "I still am," Rei told her, throat suddenly hot and tight.
     "Then you know what to do," Usagi replied, and even
sitting there in a spartan room on a narrow bed, wearing borrowed
clothes with her hair spilling loosely around her body, Usagi was
suddenly regal, every inch the princess.  And Rei remembered what
she had done to seal their pledge that night so long ago when Usagi
had returned her henshin rod.
     Rei reached out, took the offered henshin rod.  A spark
seemed to arc along her nerves when her hand touched Usagi's, but
she ignored it, sliding from the bed to stand before her princess, a
thrill racing along under her skin.  The lonely doubts of the last few
days were suddenly forgotten; once again, she was where she
belonged.  And she would never doubt that she did belong, ever
again.  She would never doubt this remarkable girl.
     "I pledge my heart to you, above all others," she said, the
words she'd spoken that night coming back to her.  "I pledge my
strength, my magick, my life.  From this day forward, you are my
princess.  And I am your senshi, bearing the power of Mars, and
loyal to you unto death."
     And then she held her henshin aloft, fancying she could still
feel the brush of soft lips along its length, memory and reality
merging, overlapping.
     The power was summoned, and at long last her transformation
swept over her again.

***

     Minako smiled up at Artemis as he wrung out the cloth and
lay it on her forehead.
     "Better?" he asked solicitously.
     "Mmm-hmmm," she murmured.  "Thanks, tomcat."
     "You're just lucky that you're too beat up for a really good
lecture," he sniffed.  "I mean, that was stupid and reckless and ..."
     "Yeah, good thing there isn't going to be a lecture," she
sighed.  A quick glance showed Ami staring up at the ceiling.
Minako didn't blame her; she, too, wondered how things were
going between Rei and Usagi.  They'd been up there for a while.
     "Saekianna really saw through your transformation glamour?"
Luna asked, hovering behind Artemis anxiously.  "I didn't know
that was possible."
     "I guess the Sisterhood are experts when it comes to deception
and the like," Minako sighed.  "And just when I thought things
couldn't get worse."
     Her train of thought was interrupted by a loud buzzing
noise, and Ami leapt to her feet.
     "Makoto's back!" the girl announced, dashing out of the
room.
     "What was that?" Minako frowned, trying to ignore the
throbbing pain in her body.
     "The gate system buzzes whenever someone comes in,"
Artemis told her.
     "Huh," she replied, closing her eyes for a moment.
"Artemis, I didn't want to say anything before, but this place has a
lot of security features, serious stuff that isn't obvious unless you
know what to look for.  I've been wondering why a school would
need that kind of security.  And for that matter, why have a school
way out here?  Something's hinky about this whole thing."
     "I agree," Artemis said heavily.  "Ami's avoided every
attempt I made to find out more about this school and what
happened to everyone.  I think she's hiding something."
     "Well, our Ami always plays it pretty close to the chest,"
Minako sighed.  "If anyone's going to get it out of her, it'll be
either Makoto or Usagi.  And I have the feeling Usagi's attention is
going to be dominated by a certain senshi of fire for some time."
     Minako shifted on the couch, craning her neck slightly as
someone came into the room from the doorway opposite where she
lay.  Ranma was shaking his head as Phobos and Deimos flew
circles around him.
     "You do!" Deimos insisted, her black wings seeming to
drink in the light.
     "I'm not any kind of sorcerer, even if I do smell like magic,"
Ranma said wearily.
     "But there is a sense of magic about you," Phobos added,
demure where her twin was brash.  "It is unfamiliar, and it
permeates your body, mingling with your aura."
     "Oh," Ranma said, stopping.  "That's probably just my
curse.  Hey, Minako, feeling better?"
     "Curse?" Deimos chirped, clearly intrigued.
     "Yes, thank you," Minako smiled.  Ranma was still without
his shirt, since she was wearing it, and she let her gaze linger on the
smooth, clear lines of the muscles in his shoulders and arms.  His
muscle shirt showed a glimpse of his tightly muscles abdomen as
well, the beginnings of scars visible there.
     Yummy.
     "Hey, who cursed you?" Deimos asked, soaring up to land
on the top of Ranma's head.  She grabbed his bangs and leaned
over until she hung, inverted, in front of his face.  "Was it a
vengeful lover?  I bet it was a vengeful lover.  You know, you
should be careful how you dump somebody.  Vengeful lovers can
be incredibly troublesome.  Of course, maybe you deserved ..."
     "It wasn't," Ranma said with what Minako viewed as
extraordinary restraint, "a vengeful lover."
     "An evil wizard?" Phobos asked.
     "Ooo!  An evil wizard that you were boinking, and then you
cheated on him ..."
     "If you must know, I fell into a cursed pool at a training
ground," Ranma gritted.
     "Why would you let your lover send you someplace like
that?" Deimos asked.  "Especially if you knew he was an evil
wizard ..."
     "There wasn't any evil wizard!" Ranma blurted.  "And no
lovers!  Just my old man, who was kind of an idiot!"
     "Really?" Deimos asked, sounding disappointed.  "Geez,
you need to make up a better story than that."
     "A jilted lover would sound more poignant," Phobos
pointed out.  Minako started to giggle at Ranma's predicament,
then winced as her ribs twinged.
     "Oh, stop teasing him, you two," Minako said.
     "Thank you," Ranma said to her, his attempt to look solemn
somewhat ruined by Deimos' leather clad butt sticking out past his
forehead.
     "I reserve that privilege for myself!" Minako announced,
causing the two fairy girls to laugh appreciatively.
     "What's going on?" Makoto asked as she entered and took
in the scene.  "What happened to you?"
     "Long story," Minako replied.
     "Um, there are some things ..." Ami began hesitantly.
Makoto's brow creased and she crossed the floor, her helmet
swinging idly from one hand, gloves sticking out of it.
     "What in the world?" she muttered, peering at first one,
then the other winged girl.  "Where'd these two come from?  Hey,
Minako, this one's got your tailor!"
     "I am Phobos," the modest girl announced.  "And this is my
sister, Deimos."
     "Hey, gorgeous," Deimos grinned, pulling herself back up
onto Ranma's head so she could get a better look.
     "You never mentioned anything about fairies before,"
Makoto frowned at Ranma.  Minako winced; Makoto hadn't
connected the names with Mars yet.  She'd hoped to ease into the
fact that Rei was upstairs, like maybe over the course of several
hours.
     "Um ..." Ami began.
     "You see ..." Luna said at the same time.
     "We don't serve him," Deimos scoffed.  "We belong to Rei-
sama."
     "Rei ... sama?" Makoto echoed, the muscles in her face
twitching fitfully.  "You mean our Rei?"
     "Our Rei-sama," Phobos corrected prissily.  "Although we
might share her with ..."
     "Okay, somebody tell me what's going on here."  Makoto
turned her glare on each of the others in turn, and Minako sensed
the possibility of a peaceful resolution evaporating.
     "Short version," Minako mumbled, letting her head fall back
against the battered pillow.  "I tried to face down the Nightmistress
and got laid low by a sneaky sucker punch, Sisterhood style.
Ranma and Rei saved my butt.  Now Rei's upstairs talking with
Usagi."
     "Just like that," Makoto said flatly.
     "Makoto, please," Luna pleaded, moving to stand in front
of the taller girl.  "Give her a chance."
     "Isn't this all a little sudden?" Makoto asked.  "After everything,
Rei just waltzes in here and needs to see Usagi alone?"
     "Hey!" Deimos objected.  "Are you trying to say that our
Rei-sama might hurt the princess?"
     "It's unthinkable!" Phobos agreed, swooping through the air
on graceful white wings to hover before Makoto's face.  "We are
her guardians, we've guided her visions!  Rei-sama's heart is true!"
     "She was a Sister," Makoto pointed out stiffly.
     "We know," Deimos said.  "We know all about her past.
But her heart is that of a senshi."
     "She would sooner die than hurt her princess," Phobos
declared, nodding her head emphatically.
     "Come on, Makoto, ease up," Minako said gently.  "At least
listen to what Rei has to say, all right?  Please?"
     Makoto's glorious green eyes met Minako's gaze for a
moment, then flicked back to Phobos, settling at last on Ami.
     "I'll listen," the tall girl said at last.  "But someone has to be
sceptical here, you know.  If it were up to Usagi, she'd forgive
anyone."
     "I know you don't want to see her hurt," Artemis said,
tugging at the cuffs of his shirt nervously.  "None of us do.  But
give Usagi some credit.  She's a hard person to lie to."
     Whatever response Makoto had been planning was lost
when a dull thump came from somewhere in the house.
     "What was that?" Makoto asked, eyes narrowed.
     "I don't ..." Ami began.  Then, somewhere upstairs, a door
banged open loudly, and footsteps clattered along the floor.
     "What on earth ...?" Luna muttered.
     Then Minako heard it; the sound of her own doom.
     "AINO!  YOU ARE A DEAD WOMAN!"
     It was Rei's voice, and both Phobos and Deimos streaked
off towards it as the others stood, transfixed.  Minako grabbed the
back of the couch, struggling to a sitting position as the anger in
Rei's voice registered.  Anger?  Fury was more like it, and directed
at her?  But why ...?
     "Ooops," Minako breathed, as something she'd forgotten
for days suddenly came back to her.
     "Mina?" Artemis asked, puzzled.
     She never got a chance to reply, as Phobos and Deimos
backed into the room ahead of their mistress, moving in high
temper and with a full head of steam.  Her violet eyes, ablaze, found
Minako in an instant.
     "You," she growled as the others could only gape.  Even
Makoto, who'd been clearly braced for trouble, was flabbergasted.
Rei ignored them all, her nova-hot gaze searing Minako.  "You
did this."
     Under any other circumstances, Minako would have been
delighted at the sight before her.  Rei, or rather Mars, stood before
her clad in pure ivory gossamer, a construct of silk and lace
seemingly woven together from spider's web and fantasy.  The
body of the costume, what there was of it, covered very little.  The
only parts of it that were opaque were the small cups that covered
the tips of her full breasts, the panels that ran down the side of the
senshi's ribs, and some of the triangle that hugged the space
between her legs.  From that triangle, filmy lace extended up in a V
shape to Mars' breasts, the point of the V a good inch below the
narrow slash of her navel, the wedge of alabaster skin criss-crossed
with lacings.  Fingerless gloves extended nearly to the girl's
shoulders, shimmery stockings to mid-thigh.  High-heeled white
pumps adorned her feet, narrow straps encircling slim ankles.  To
top off the ensemble was a three inch band of transparent lace
around her throat.
     "Um," Minako stated.  "Uh, feeling dizzy.  Wounds more
serious than ..."
     Mars cut her off by stalking deliberately over to the couch,
placing her hands firmly against the back and leaning down so she
could stare directly into Minako's eyes from a dangerously close
distance.  Ordinarily, Minako's thoughts would have been
consumed by the way Mars' stance formed her back into a supple
curve and showed off her toned posterior.  Now, however, self-
preservation was winning the day.
     "Where?  Is?  My?  Fuku?"  Mars' words were clipped and
deliberate, causing Minako to shrink back as far against the end of
the couch as humanly possible.
     "I can fix this," she said weakly.
     "For your sake," Mars growled, "I dearly hope so."
     "Minako Aino, did you do what I think you did?" Artemis
asked, aghast.  "I didn't show you how to change the costume
templates so you could play practical jokes!"
     "I don't know, I think it's lovely," Phobos opined.
     "A little too sub for our mistress, though," Deimos added.
Minako could see Usagi now, standing in the doorway that led to
the stairs.  Horrifyingly, the girl had her hands clamped over her
mouth and her blue eyes were wide; Minako knew the signs well.
Usagi was trying not to laugh.  For everyone's sake, but especially
her own, Minako hoped her princess was successful.  Any laughter
and her ass was history.
     "I'll need your henshin rod," Minako said meekly, and Mars
stood up, flicking her glossy raven mane back over her shoulder
with a sharp toss of her head.  She thrust her hand under Minako's
nose, and glowing motes coalesced there.  When they were
transformed, their henshin rods disappeared but could be
summoned at will.
     "When did you do this, anyway?" Mars demanded as Minako
fiddled.
     "Um, that night at my place when you were chasing Ranma
in kitty-cat mode," Minako told her, gripping the smooth round
head of the henshin rod.
     "So this whole time, if I'd transformed to fight I'd have
ended up looking like an extra from "Passions of the Tyrian Slave
Harem?"
     "It's not that bad ..." Minako began, her mouth shutting
with an audible click as Mars glared down at her.
     "Fix it."
     "Yes, ma'am," Minako squeaked.  She pulled the head of
the henshin rod up, and it separated from the body slightly;
although there didn't appear to be anything joining the two parts,
Minako knew they would act as though an invisible rod still
connected them.  She turned the head a quarter turn counter-
clockwise until she felt a small but distinct click, then pushed the
head back down to its fixed position.  As soon as she did so, light
flared around Mars' body, and she stood before them in her
customary red and white sailor fuku.
     "You," Mars breathed, "are going to pay for this one,
Minako.  And pay and pay and pay."
     "I wasn't going to let anyone else see," Minako objected.
"Just you.  Things got out of hand right after that, though, and it
kind of slipped my mind.  Kind of."  Mars' violet eyes narrowed,
and Minako blurted, "I'mreallysorryreallyreallysorry!"
     "You're lucky you're injured," Mars growled.
     "Come on," Usagi said cheerfully, running up and jumping
on Mars' back.  "No harm done, right?"
     Mars staggered, righting herself with difficulty.  "That's all
you have to say?" she asked over her shoulder, sounding grumpy
but less homicidal than moments before.
     "No," Usagi added after a moment's thought.  "You can
also punish Minako however you see fit when she recovers."
     "What?" Minako blurted.  "I mean, sure," she added as
Mars glared at her once more.  "That seems fair.  I guess."
     "Absolutely," Usagi declared, jumping down off Mars'
back.  Minako couldn't believe the difference in their princess;
where she'd been absolutely despondent only hours before, now she
was her old self, full of light and life.  Whatever she and Rei had
said to each other upstairs, it seemed all was once again right with
the world.
     Mostly, at any rate.
     "So," Makoto said.  "Here we all are."
     "Yes," Usagi beamed.  "All together again, at last.  And,
um, I have some things to tell you all."
     "Yes, I think it would be good if we discussed ... some things,"
Makoto said, scowling.
     "Makoto," Ami began hesitantly.
     "I'll go make some tea or something," Makoto said shortly,
turning and stomping out of the room.
     "Mako-chan," Usagi murmured.  Ami started to go after the
girl, but Mars stopped her.
     "Ami," she said, reversing her transformation.  "Let me
have a few moments with her, okay?"
     "Are you sure?" Ami asked, clearly torn.  Rei turned to
Usagi, who nodded.
     "It'll be okay," Rei told her.  "Trust me."
     Minako wondered what Ami would do, but the quiet girl
finally nodded, and Rei followed Makoto's path out of the room.
     "Is this a good idea?" Minako murmured.
     "Everything is going to work out," Usagi assured her.
"They'll be fine.  Say, Minako, that was a dirty trick you played on
Rei."
     "I'm sorry," Minako sighed.  "Really ..."
     "That outfit," Usagi mused, feigning nonchalance.  "It's still
in her henshin rod's memory or whatever, right?"
     "Uh, yeah," Minako said cautiously.
     "Good," Usagi said with a sly smile.  "I'm going to get her
to wear it for me."
     "Gah!" Minako blurted.  "Usagi, you're going to get me
killed!"
     "Oh, pooh," Usagi sniffed.  "Rei's a pussycat if you know
how to handle her."
     "Not feeling a sense of confidence here," Minako grumbled,
and Usagi plunked herself down on the couch next to the aching
girl.
     "Hey," Usagi frowned, "what's that you're wearing?  Is that
Ranma's shirt?"  She plucked at the collar, revealing the welts
beneath it.
     "Yeah, it already had blood on it," Minako said
apologetically.
     "Minako, what exactly happened to you?" Usagi bleated
with alarm, finally becoming aware of the fact that Minako was
injured.
     "Welcome back to the land of the living, princess," Minako
replied ruefully.  "Have I got a story for you ..."
 
***

     Rei took one wrong turn before she found the kitchen.  It
was quite large and well-appointed, but looked to be suffering from
disuse.  Only a small part of it seemed to have been used regularly.
     Makoto was rifling through the cupboards, and from what
Rei could see the girl was fighting a losing battle.  Makoto was still
wearing her one piece leather riding suit, and Rei couldn't help but
notice the way it clung to the tall girl's curves.  She smiled a bit at
that thought; flirtation wouldn't be any help here.
     "It looks like Ami lives on instant noodles and crackers,"
Rei remarked.  If Makoto was surprised at her presence, she gave
no sign.
     "She never takes care of herself, that girl," the tall senshi
replied sourly.  "I keep telling her she needs fresh fruit and
vegetables."
     "I'm sure she'd be happy to let you cook for her," Rei said.
Makoto didn't reply, finally retrieving a box of tea bags and
plunking it disdainfully on the counter.  Then she bent down and
clattered amongst the lower shelves until she came up with a dented
but serviceable kettle.
     "You're pretty angry," Rei said softly.  "And you're hard to
talk to when you're mad.  But we can't let this just sit between us
and fester.  We need to clear the air."
     "Fine," Makoto snapped.  "Okay, I'm angry.  Happy?"
     "No," Rei said.  "I don't want you angry with me.  I don't
want you suspicious of me.  I want things to be ... I want what we
had once.  Back then.  You remember?"
     Makoto stopped with her back to Rei, her head hanging as
she paused in her tea-making efforts.
     "I remember some," she said at last, something new in her
voice.  A trace of wistfulness, perhaps.
     "We all remember parts of it," Rei nodded, easing her hips
back against one cold counter.  She'd considered using her magicks
to put Makoto at her ease, had discarded the idea almost
immediately.  She needed to establish some trust here, and if
Makoto thought she was being manipulated Rei would lose any
chance of healing this rift.  And anyway, Makoto was a sister
senshi.  She deserved better.  "I remember, for instance, the first
time I saw you."
     Makoto's back stiffened, and Rei knew the other girl
remembered too.
     "On the moon, you mean," Makoto mumbled, busying herself
with the tea.
     "You were missing home, it was your first time away from your
family," Rei said, memory making softening her words like filmy
gauze.  "You were to report to the palace the next morning, but
that night you just had to go out and have a few drinks, then sneak
into the grounds of the capital gardens after hours and go for a
swim."
     "It was warm," Makoto muttered.  "And back home it was
customary to swim naked."
     "When I saw you standing up out of that fountain, you
looked like a goddess," Rei said, shaking her head.  "Bathed in
earthlight, with water beading on your skin ..."
     "And you never told anyone," Makoto said softly.
     "I'd promised you I wouldn't," Rei smiled.  "Although I
was floored when the Senshi of Jupiter was presented the next day,
and it turned out to be you.
     "I nearly fainted when I saw you there," Makoto admitted.
"I figured if the queen found out, I'd be leaving on the next
transport."
     "Things started off a little rocky back then as well, but we
became a team," Rei told her.  "Closer than that, we were like
sisters.  I think we could be like that again, Makoto.  I was ashamed
of my past, but we're going to sit down out there and I'm going to
tell it all.  I just hope that you all can accept me even though I was
a Sister of Shadows.  Usagi is my princess, and before I met her
there was a part of myself I didn't know.  She taught me to be a
whole person."
     Makoto fiddled with the kettle for a bit.  Rei could tell the
girl was thinking about what to say, which was a good sign.  It was
when Makoto spoke hastily in anger that people had to worry.
     "I don't think it'll be easy," Makoto said at last.  "We all
have pasts that haunt us.  Maybe there's just too much there.
Maybe the walls are just too high for us to ever be what we were
back then."
     Maybe," Rei agreed.  "But she makes me believe that
anything is possible."
     "I know," Makoto said, sounding a little sad.  "I know."
     "You want help with that?" Rei asked.
     "No."  Makoto shook her head, turning to face Rei.  "But I
want you to answer a question for me."  Those green eyes were
firm, rock-steady, and Rei could see determination there.
     "If I can, I will," she promised.
     "Did you know that the Sisterhood sent someone to my
place to snatch me?" Makoto asked, and Rei's chest tightened.
     "Yes," she sighed.  "Minako told me on the way back."
     "Did she tell you that Yoshi got in the middle of it?"
     "Yes," Rei repeated.  "I'm sorry that ..."
     "Forget that," Makoto said shortly.  "This Sister stuck
Yoshi with a black rose.  She seemed to think that she'd be able to
control him."
     "Are you saying she couldn't?" Rei asked, incredulous.
"Does Yoshi have some sort of mystic defences?"
     "No.  And no, she couldn't control him.  When she tried, he
went berserk and attacked her.  He would have raped her if I hadn't
stopped him.  And when he caught me, he would have ... he ..."
     Makoto trailed off, her throat working spasmodically.  Rei
could see the turmoil beneath Makoto's careful facade, and
understood it immediately.  This was a bad situation.
     Because now Rei knew what the question was going to be.
     "You stopped him?" Rei asked, to delay the inevitable.
     "I transformed," Makoto confirmed, nodding, her arms
crossed tightly across her chest.  Rei didn't have to use her
ingrained skills at reading body language to know how tightly
Makoto was clinging to her control.  "He saw me."
     That made two outsiders in one day learning a senshi's
secret; three in a week, including Ranma.
     "Makoto ..."
     "That wasn't supposed to happen, was it?  But you know
why it happened, and I want you to tell me."  Makoto's eyes fairly
glowed with verdant fire as she stared Rei down, and it was of faint
consolation to Rei that the taller girl's anger was no longer directed
solely at her.  Perhaps she'd reached Makoto after all;
unfortunately, just because it had been robbed of its primary target
did not mean Makoto's anger would dissipate so easily.  And the
answer to her question would only fuel the flame.
     "You're considering not telling me," Makoto said in a low,
tight voice.  "Do us both a favour, Rei.  Don't hold out on me.  A
Sister of Shadows would hold out.  A friend wouldn't."
     "That's not fair," Rei protested.
     "You're the one who invoked the old days, Rei.  I don't
want to think you did that just to get me to trust you.  Were those
just empty words before?"
     "I've seen what you describe," Rei said, her voice breathy and
without inflection.  She thought again of the tarnished silver
earrings they'd found in the old subway station, of a younger girl's
secret longing for that special somebody her heart yearned after.
"And I can see that Yoshi is very special to you.  But this is his
secret, and if I tell you it might affect how you see him, how you
think about him.  I could wound the part of your heart where his
memory lives.  I used to do things like that deliberately, Makoto,
but when I left the Sisterhood I abandoned that path.  The right
thing to do is to go to him and ask him.  If he told you ..."
     "You don't know Yoshi," Makoto said, implacable.  "If it's
as bad as you say, he won't tell me.  And I have to know."
     Rei took a deep breath, wishing she could refuse.  But, right
or wrong, Makoto would take that refusal as a sign of bad faith.
And maybe, just maybe, it would be helpful if she knew.  Rei knew
nothing about Yoshi, having only met him in passing, but she was
willing to bet his brush with the Sisterhood was having some pretty
nasty aftereffects.
     "The Sisterhood," Rei began softly, "is not the only
religious sect which uses dark magicks centred around sex.  There
are others whose activities make what the Sisterhood practices
seem benign."  Rei stopped, steadied herself.
     "There are some groups that worship the lesser known dark
gods, like Paravena and Dios the Fallen.  I've seen what they do to
people for fun, and it isn't pretty."
     "Are you trying to say," Makoto said, holding herself
dangerously still, "that Yoshi is one of those lunatics?"
     "No," Rei breathed.  "I'm trying to tell you that I think he
was a victim of one such group."
     Makoto's cheek twitched, and her eyes widened with
horrified comprehension.  Rei was tempted to leave it there, but a
part of her recognized that Makoto would not back off so easily.
     "I saw a man once who killed two Sisters when they tried to
beguile him," Rei went on, keeping her voice low and gentle but
free of persuasive compulsion.  "We later discovered that he'd been
a captive of such a group, and they had reduced him to a state of
raw, animalistic lust for their own amusement.  When a Sister tried
to tap into his libido in order to control him, it triggered that older
conditioning."
     "You're saying that somebody did that to Yoshi," Makoto
whispered, the tendons in her neck rigid like steel under the skin.
"You're saying that somebody ... hurt him that way."
     "I believe so," Rei said, consumed with sadness at the way
Makoto's lithe frame trembled.  "Makoto ..."
     Her words were lost in a savage cry, as Makoto whirled and
swept her arm through the pots and pans littering the counter.
They scattered before her rage, raining to the tile floor with a
metallic cacophony, and Makoto pivoted to hammer the wall with
punches, one, then another, then another, until even the sturdy old
wall cracked and gave way under the onslaught, her fist sinking in
up to the wrist.  Makoto's head hung down, and Rei could see the
pained grimace on the girl's lips and the single crystalline tear that
coursed down her cheek.
     Rei turned as Usagi burst into the kitchen, followed closely
by Ami.  The noise had drawn them, but Rei stood before Makoto,
blocking the girl with her body as much as possible.
     "Everything's okay," she said as the two girls skidded to a
halt, eyes wide.  She could only imagine what they must have
thought; it had probably sounded to them like Makoto was killing
her.
     "Rei," Usagi gasped breathlessly.  "Mako-chan, what's
wrong?"
     "Give us a minute?" Rei asked, not giving ground.  "Please?
We'll be out in a minute."
     "But ..." Usagi objected, her gaze troubled.
     "It'll be okay," Rei told her.  "I promise."
     "I ... well, all right," Usagi said, sounding dubious.  She
turned to go.
     "Don't take too long," Ami said quietly.  Her eyes were not
for Rei; they were fixed on the rigid line of Makoto's back.
     "We won't," Rei assured her.  There was a fiercely
protective look in Ami's eyes, one that was rarely seen.  As Rei
waited, the two girls left the kitchen, Usagi pausing at the doorway
for one last look over her shoulder.
     "It's okay," Rei mouthed silently, and Usagi smiled back,
following Ami down the hall.  Rei sighed, turning back to Makoto.
     "Why?" Makoto whispered, her voice full of jagged
anguish.  "Why does the world have to be so full of pain and hurt
and ... and shit?"
     "I don't know," Rei replied, her voice gentle.  "But it's not
all bad, Makoto.  There's a girl out there who shines so bright, and
everyone who comes near her feels their heart ease in that light.
It's a light I want to protect, and I know you do too.  In a world
where so many terrible things can happen, that light is precious.
And I think you can take a piece of the light and let it shine in his
heart.  You can't change the past, Makoto.  Believe me, there have
been times when I wished that was possible.  But you can try to
make things better now.  You understand what I'm saying?"
     Makoto remained as she was, head bowed, her long auburn
ponytail hanging down and obscuring her face.  Rei waited; that
was really all she could do now.  Finally, Makoto took a deep
breath, letting it out in a rush as she straightened up, her leather
creaking comfortably as she carefully pulled her hand from the wall.
     "I'm sorry," Makoto said, not turning as she wiped her
cheeks with the edges of her hands.  "I understand now why you
didn't want to tell."
     "It might not be the case," Rei said.
     "You don't really believe that," Makoto replied, her voice
heavy.
     "No," Rei sighed.  "I suppose I don't.  But Makoto,
confronting him about this could be a mistake, especially if he's
kept it hidden from everyone."
     "Yeah," Makoto muttered, turning.  "But he's having a hard
time of it.  I saw him tonight, and I sure as all the hells didn't make
it any easier."
     "You didn't know," Rei offered.  "Next time ..."
     "Next time," Makoto said with a small laugh.  "Yeah, next
time.  Come on, help me clean this up, would you?  I'd better see if
I can scrape together something decent out of Ami's larder."
     Rei watched Makoto bend down.  Then, silently, she joined
the other girl, and they began to clean up the mess as best they
could.
 
 
 

end chapter 8
 

Footnotes: Guest stars Madoka (the Pick) Ayukawa, Kyosuke
Kasuga and Hikaru Hiyama from the series Kimagure Orange Road
by Matsumoto Izumi