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 9: The Unquiet Ghosts of the Past
 

     It had been quite a night.  Little did I know just how
interesting things were going to get.
     We were all gathered in one room on the ground floor, a
large parlour or something.  Minako was curled up on one of three
large if slightly tattered couches, a heavy blanket draped over her.
She looked better than she had when I'd rescued her; her eyes,
though, were wary somehow, watchful, and I wasn't certain if that
was because of what had happened to her or because of the
undercurrent of tension in the room.
     Artemis sat beside her, elbows on his knees, hands clasped
loosely together.  The three sofas formed a rough U shape; the one
facing Minako held Makoto and Ami, the former lounging with a
slight scowl, the latter sitting primly with her hands pressed
between her knees.  The two were a study in contrasts, all right, but
they seemed strangely at ease with each other.
     The two sides of the U were connected at one end by the
third sofa, which held Usagi, flanked on one side by Luna and on
the other by Rei.  Considering how upset Usagi had been that
afternoon after seeing Rei's picture, I had expected a little more
distance between the two girls.  Usagi, though, sat very close to
Rei, constantly stealing glances at her.  There was no accusation in
her eyes, no anger or resentment that I could see.  If anything, she
seemed almost afraid that Rei might disappear if she didn't keep
looking.  Luna, for her part, was curled up with her head in Usagi's
lap, looking very much like the cat she sometimes was.  Usagi
stroked the girl's dark curls absently.  Phobos and Deimos, Rei's
little flying friends, were lounging on their mistress, the one in white
perched on Rei's shoulder, the one in black lounging casually on the
girl's thigh, toying with a lock of the Rei's long raven hair.
     And me?  I was standing at the open end of the U, next to
the fireplace.  The thing was as tall as I was, and a fire had been lit
to chase away the damp chill of the night.  I leaned against the wall,
grateful for the warmth;  Minako had transformed back long since
but still had my shirt on, and it was my last one too.  I didn't have
the heart to ask for it back just yet.
     I could hear the faint sound of rain outside as everyone fell
silent, having helped themselves to tea and crackers with some sort
of flourescent orange cheese spread.  I wasn't sure what was
coming, but I figured that explanations were due on at least a
couple of fronts.  Usagi hadn't said much about the commotion in
the kitchen earlier, but neither Makoto or Rei had been bruised or
limping when they'd come out, so it couldn't have been that bad.
     "Well," Usagi said at last into a silence that had begun to
become uncomfortable.  "There are some things we have to talk
about."
     "I'd like to go first, if that's all right," Rei declared.  Usagi
hesitated for a moment, finally nodding her acquiescence.  All eyes
turned to Rei, and I could feel the expectancy in the air, heavy and
electric.
     "I know the truth about my past came as a shock to
everyone, and I can't blame you all for being upset," Rei said softly,
meeting everyone's eyes in turn.  "I probably should have come
clean about it in the beginning, but that's the past and it can't be
changed.  All I can do now is open up that dark place for you, so
you'll be able to judge me for yourselves."
     "Um," I said nervously.  "Maybe I should go.  I mean, if
you want to talk about personal stuff."  I was acutely aware of
being an outsider; my physical distance from the others was the
clearest sign of that.
     "You should stay," Rei countered.  "You opposed the
Sisterhood, Ranma, and now you'll be considered a target too.
You deserve to know what you're up against, and why.  Anyway,
we heard about your past, so I suppose it's fair."
     I thought about arguing the point, but decided not to.  After
all, if I was going to be fighting this Sisterhood then I probably
should know more about them.  And, although I wouldn't have
admitted it aloud, it was kind of nice in here, warm.  I had spent
many nights alone over the years, but suddenly I didn't want to go
brood in this empty old mansion.
     Rei took a deep breath, and I saw Usagi reach over and
clasp her hand, fingers twining together tightly.  Rei didn't
acknowledge her, but I saw her squeeze Usagi's hand, saw Usagi
smile.  Whatever Rei had said while the two were together had
certainly swung Usagi's mood around.
     "Everyone knows by now that I was a member of Dasma's
Sisterhood," Rei began, the firelight picking out gleaming violet
highlights in her hair.  "I had quit by the time I was discovered by
Hotaru, in case anyone is curious."
     "Did Hotaru know?" Minako asked.  I didn't know who
Hotaru was, but her name seemed to make the others somehow
uncomfortable.
     "I don't think so," Rei replied.  "I never told her.  At any
rate, I couldn't quite believe what was happening in the beginning.
It seemed impossible to me that I could be a senshi after what I had
been.  Once I finally accepted what I was, though, I lived in fear of
you finding out about my past.  And once you finally did, I acted
like a coward.  Worse, I didn't trust the one person I should have
known would believe in me no matter what."
     Rei stopped as Usagi leaned over, wrapping her in a fierce
embrace.
     "All right," Rei said, her voice rough as crimson spread
across her sculpted cheeks.  "I'm never going to get through this if
you can't control yourself, you know."  Usagi's answering giggle
was muffled by her face being pressed against Rei's shoulder, and
when the girl pulled away her eyes were bright with unshed tears.
     Of course, Rei's were suspiciously shiny, too.
     "Anyway, as I was saying," Rei went on with a glare at
Usagi which was answered with a protruding tongue.  "I did things
in the past, things that I'm not proud of.  And those memories are
made all the worse by the fact ..."
     "Rei?" Usagi murmured when Rei trailed off.
     "I'd better backtrack a little bit here," Rei sighed.  "It's
important that you all understand what's going on here and why."
     "I'm mostly interested in why the Sisterhood is targeting
us," Makoto said.  She seemed to be testy, just like every other
time I'd seen her, but her anger was for once muted, unfocussed.  I
wasn't sure this was a good thing, but I couldn't do anything about
it, so I stayed quiet.
     Staying quiet was a skill that would have been valuable to
me earlier in life, had I ever learned it.
     "I'll get to that," Rei promised.  "Basically, the Sisterhood
started back during the rule of the Genrous, after the fall of the
Silver Millennium.  Women were reduced to servitude during this
period, existing only as the property of men of power.  AsterGate
had been closed since long before the rise of the White Moon, the
gods sealing themselves away in Nihkien.  There were a handful of
gods, though, who did not hide themselves away from the world of
man after Godswar.  Some old stories say they refused to go,
others say the Elder Gods refused them sanctuary for whatever
reason."
     "I've never heard that," Usagi said.
     "I have," Ami murmured.  "There is little written of which
gods they were, though.  Gods can be killed outside of Nihkien, and
most of the ones who were exiled, or what have you, were
presumed to have been killed during those turbulent times.  The
only ones I've ever heard mentioned by name are Dios, who
became Dios the Fallen, his sister Anisthyia, and Arvus the Mad."
     "Yeah, that guy lived up to his name, didn't he?" Minako
grinned.  "They say he created the Marble Sea when he died
fighting the last Dragon Clan."
     "That's a myth," Ami told her.
     "No it's not," Deimos said languidly,  rolling over and
wrapping the lock of Rei's midnight hair around her waist playfully.
     "But ... scientists have determined that a meteor strike must
have been responsible for the creation of that sea," Ami objected.
     "Scientists," Deimos snorted.  "We know better."  She seemed
to shoot a look at Ami when she said that, and I saw the quiet girl
blush.  I had no idea why.
     "So you're saying that Dasma was one of these gods?"
Artemis asked, leaning back against the sofa.
     "Yes, according to the Sisterhood's history," Rei told him.
"The Genrous created an empire that encompassed nearly the entire
world, and within it women were virtual slaves.  Even though it was
forbidden, however, some priestesses nurtured their beliefs and
prayed for succour.  The Sisterhood's history tells that of the gods
who heard these prayers, most counselled acceptance of their lot,
promising redress in the afterlife."
     "The Genrous were said to have possessed forbidden magicks
and artifacts that pre-dated Godswar," Ami said.  "If that history is
accurate, it is more likely that a mere handful of renegade gods
feared open conflict with them."
     "Quite possible," Rei admitted.  "However, one goddess
sought out those who still worshipped her.  Dasma had not been a
particularly well known goddess; her domain had mostly been the
sensual arts.  She'd been a patron of dancers, courtesans, and the
like, those who sought to stir desire.  All in all, an unlikely saviour
for oppressed women.  And she certainly lacked the power to take
on the Genrous High Lords, or even their vassals."
     "So what happened?" Luna asked, still clinging to Usagi.
     "She began to advocate the use of what you might call soft
power," Rei said, her voice taking on a sort of dreamy quality.  I
had the feeling she was remembering something, perhaps the first
time she'd heard this story.  "She delved into every secret she had,
and embraced all the dark knowledge she could gain.  Then she
began to school her priestesses in the subtle arts of control and
manipulation.  First, she taught them forbidden arts of pleasure, so
that they could use their bodies as weapons to manipulate the men
who ruled them."
     "Are you seriously telling us that Dasma taught her priestesses
to fight the Genrous with sex?" Makoto asked, sounding dubious.  I
was inclined to agree with her skepticism; it sounded loopy to me.
     "That isn't as insane as it sounds," Rei said with a small,
enigmatic smile.  "Many powerful men and women over the ages
have been laid low not by their opponents, but by their own lust,
whether it be for sex, power, riches ... lest we forget, one beautiful
but ruthless woman brought down an entire Great House in old
Villaria, and she had no armies, no vassals, no political power
or riches, nothing but her own desirable self.  The Lord of the
House had all those things except her, and in the end she destroyed
him utterly."
     "Point taken," Makoto said, spreading her hands.
     "Dasma also revealed to her loyal priestesses dark arts that
let them control others.  There were drugs they could make in
secret and use in their make-up, painting mind numbing substances
or even deadly poisons onto their nails or lips."  She said this last
with a pointed glance at Minako, who blushed and ducked her head
ruefully.
     "They became intimate with the secrets of the body, able to
pleasure with a mere touch.  They could also kill swiftly and
silently, with poisons or other subtle means.  The Sisterhood
became a phantom, slipping into and out of the bedchambers of the
powerful.  But they could not act openly; if the Genrous ever even
suspected that the Sisterhood existed, they would be ruthlessly
hunted down, rooted out and exterminated.  None of them doubted
that.  Thus, of necessity they learned how to scheme and plot, using
the quarrels of the High Lords and their underlings to their own
advantage.  If they needed to kill a man to protect a woman, they
learned to make it look as though a rival lord was responsible.
They also subtly encouraged strife to help cover their activities.  A
whisper in the bedroom, a rumour given credibility by a hypnotic
drug in the master's wine, and lesser lords would end up at each
other's throats.  And in such strife, men died or went missing, even
men who abused their harem or cut the tongue from a maid for
speaking without leave.  Rival clans were clearly to blame; only a
madman would suspect a bunch of women, mere harem girls and
maids and midwives.
     "Dasma continued to seek ever more effective ways of
controlling a person through drugs, magicks, sex, or a combination
of the three, thus increasing the power wielded by her order.  The
reach of her Sisterhood increased over time, her thirteen
Nightmistresses communicating with their priestesses through
covert means passed from woman to woman.  It seems astounding
that they were never discovered, but the Genrous High Lords were
busy indulging their vices.  They performed profane magical
experiments on human beings, pushed the boundaries of what was
known, and generally began to believe themselves to actually be
gods."
     "Their empire lasted a long time, but even that had to end,"
Ami said softly.  "They didn't believe they would ever die, because
they had found ways to extend their lives by feeding on the lives of
others."
     "As bad as vampires," Makoto snorted.  "But I take it they
got theirs in the end?"
     "Ancient history isn't my strong suit," Minako said slowly,
"but didn't some barbarian from the mountains start a revolution?"
     "His name was Garven d'Or," Rei told her.  "And yes, he
lead the revolution.  In fact, when he raised his banner at Terrin
Ver, he committed heresy in the eyes of the Genrous, even
admitting some women to the ranks of his army.  Not much is
actually known about him, although many suspect that he was in
actuality one of the rogue gods in human guise.  At any rate, some
of the women who ended up in his army were Sisters, and the cover
of the revolution gave the Sisterhood plenty of cover to wreak
havoc within the ranks of the nobility, extending even to the halls of
the High Lords themselves."
     "So Dasma was a hero, and is just misunderstood," Makoto
sniffed.  "How convenient is that?"
     "I just want you to understand what you're up against," Rei
said, apparently unfazed by Makoto's snide attitude.  "The
Sisterhood has always been proud of their history.  They despise
those who meekly accepted their lot under the Genrous, gods and
human alike, and resented the way Dasma was treated when
AsterGate finally reopened.  Dasma ended up embracing her
censure by the Elder Gods, becoming the Dark Lady, and her order
continued to seek power that they might never be subjugated again.
     "The Sisterhood eventually polarised, if you will, into the Sisters
of Shadow and the Maidens of the Rose.  After the Genrous were
smashed, women no longer suffered in abject servitude, at least not
everywhere.  They took control of their own destinies, gained other
types of power, magical, political, military.  The Sisterhood
changed as well.  The Sisters wielded the lessons of the Genrous'
rule and the new magicks as well as the old ways, taking a more
active role.  The Maidens possessed no magicks and were thus
subordinate to the Sisters; they chose to refine the Dark Lady's
"soft power", forsaking more direct means of conflict for the hidden
blade sheathed in silken desire."
     "So if you didn't have Shadow magick, you would have had to
settle for being a Maiden?" Artemis asked.
     "That's ... not something we should get into now," Rei said,
appearing uncomfortable with that question for some reason.
     "Rei," Ami asked into the silence that followed, "would I be
correct in assuming that you would be punished for revealing the
Sisterhood's secrets to us?"
     "Rei?" Usagi asked, sounding vaguely alarmed.
     "You would be correct," Rei told Ami, inclining her head
ever so slightly.  She didn't look happy at having to reveal that, but
didn't seem exactly upset either.  Resigned, maybe.  It had occurred
to me that an organization that had survived for so long through
secrecy would probably punish someone who spilled their secrets,
but considering everything that was going on I'd just assumed it
was the least of anyone's worries.
     "What punishment?" Usagi demanded.
     "It hardly matters," Rei replied.  "I ..."
     "It matters!  What punishment?"
     "The Nightmistress could have me killed," Rei said
reluctantly.  "Believe it or not, that's likely the best I could hope
for."
     "Rei," Usagi whispered, horrified.  "Would she really kill
you?"
     "I defied her and protected her enemy.  Even if she never
discovered I was a senshi, that would be enough.  I also left the
Sisterhood, which is forbidden.  Once you're in, you don't leave."
     "I'd like to hear about that part," Makoto interjected.  "Why
DID you finally leave, especially if it was so dangerous?  Was it
your conscience?"
     "Mako-chan!" Usagi blurted.
     "That's a fair question," Rei said, seemingly relieved by the
change of topic.  "I told you that I'd done shameful things, and that
was true.  Supposedly, we needed to maintain power and influence
from the shadows in order to protect the Dark Lady's followers.  If
ever anything like the Genrous came along again, the loyal would
be protected.  Of course that meant that everyone who wasn't one
of us was at best a pawn, at worst a threat to our power.  We could
do anything to anybody while in the Dark Lady's service; if they
weren't strong enough to resist us, then that simply showed the
superiority of our path.  If they were, we found a way to get to
them.  The Sisterhood couldn't raise an army like Urrik's order,
couldn't calm the fury of a storm like the weather witches of Lady
Cerine.  What they could do better than any was find a person's
weaknesses and exploit them."
     Rei paused, but the room was absolutely silent again except
for the snapping and popping of logs in the fireplace.
     "What was so seductive about the Sisterhood in the
beginning," Rei continued, staring at the floor, "was that they gave
me an outlet for my anger.  I hated the world, and I got to punish
all the weak and pompous and stupid people who got to be alive
and happy when my mother was dead.  I didn't have to feel guilty
about hurting anyone; it was what they deserved.  They were all
just hypocrites who would have done the same as we were doing if
they'd had the power.
     "But while it was easy for a girl to believe that, things
became less simple as I grew older, less black and white.
Everything was about power and control; I saw people around me
become consumed with the need for more, like it was a drug.  I'd
look at a person on the street and see them in terms of how long it
would take me to break them, or of what the most effective method
would be to coax something from them, be it information, money,
sex, a favour.  I viewed people with contempt because I felt I was
better than they were, and I felt superior not only because I could
take what I wanted from them, but because often I could make
them WANT to give me what I wanted."
     Rei's quiet words were affecting the others deeply, to judge
from their expressions.  I didn't know how to feel about what I was
hearing, since I didn't know her that well and had no expectations
about what she was like.  No matter what she said, though, I kept
remembering the first time we'd met and how she had thrown
herself between Usagi and me.  Actions really do speak louder than
words, in my book anyway.
     "There was a part of me that questioned what I was doing,"
Rei continued, the line of her shoulders rigid as she stared into
space.  "I ached somewhere inside.  I knew all about pleasure, but
nothing of tenderness.  I had been taught that such soft emotions
and longings were wrong, weakness, chinks in my armour that
would allow others to master me, so I drowned my doubts in self-
indulgence, pleasures of the flesh, drugs and material
extravagances.  That only made me feel worse, which fed what was
becoming a self-destructive spiral.  And there was no one I could
confide in.  I was a golden girl, one of the most accomplished
Sisters for my tender age, and much was expected of me, but
there were also many waiting to take my place.  Had I continued as
I was, I might have burned out, or turned my back on my doubts
and buried the rebellious part of my soul once and for all."
     "But instead, you did the unthinkable and quit," Usagi
murmured, reaching out to brush her fingertips against Rei's hair.
     "No," Rei said with a fleeting smile.  "Instead, I had a
vision."
     "A vision?" Ami echoed.  "Did you see your destiny as a
sailor senshi?"
     "No, as I said I was quite surprised when Hotaru revealed
my past to me.  What my vision showed me was something else, a
truth I had never suspected."
     "Ably assisted by her trusty spirit guides," Deimos pointed
out, rolling in Rei's hair kittenishly.
     "Yes," Rei murmured, gently chucking Phobos under her
chin with one fingernail.  "I haven't forgotten that."  The winged
girl smiled with delight, blushing demurely.
     "You mean Phobos and Deimos appeared in your visions?"
Luna asked, breaking her silence.
     "Sometimes," Rei told her.  "Visions are funny things, but a
spirit guide can help make sense of the images and feelings.  And
these two really earned their keep on this particular occasion."
     "So what was the vision, already?" Makoto asked, leaning
forward so her elbows were propped on her knees.
     "It was about the labyrinth at Caostye," Rei said.  The
puzzled silence told me that I wasn't the only one who failed to see
the significance of that statement.  Rei sighed.
     "One more bit of background," she said, shedding some of
her melancholy mood for a brisk, lecturing tone.  "This labyrinth
was discovered only twenty years ago, under an old temple which
had been buried by the upheavals of the Second Sidhe War.  It was
an important find for a Sisterhood whose ranks and prestige had
been decimated for decades.  Hidden from the eyes of the White
Order, it had survived virtually intact and unscathed.  And the
labyrinth was a wonder itself.  Legend held that it had been created
as a test of the faithful, and that great power resided in its heart.
The labyrinth itself contained locked gates which were impenetrable
by any means known."
     "The vision showed how to open the gates!" Usagi crowed.
"Right?"
     "No," Rei replied, wagging her finger sternly.  "And you
stop interrupting.  The gates could be opened in one way only.  The
reigning Nightmistress would receive visions, or strange messages
in blooming black roses.  These would be challenges, tasks,
different things, sometimes strange or apparently meaningless.  But
once the tasks were complete, a gate would open by itself.  Slowly,
the Sisterhood was penetrating the depths of the labyrinth, and
every Sister hoped to be the one to complete the final task and open
the very last gate.  What secrets might reside there?  Perhaps, even
the power to summon the Dark Lady herself back to her
Sisterhood."
     "And what did you see?" Ami asked, her eyes intent.
     "I saw the truth," Rei said simply.  "And the truth was
horrifyingly simple.  There was no secret to the labyrinth, no power,
no subtle direction from an imprisoned goddess."
     "What do you mean?" Usagi frowned.  "You said ..."
     "Oh, we all believed," Rei said, her tone bitter.  "Just as we
were supposed to.  You see, whatever the labyrinth's original
purpose, one person decided to use it for her own designs.  The
Sister who originally found the hidden temple, Griitna, rose to the
position of Nightmistress soon afterward, without ever revealing
one important fact.  There was a key to the labyrinth, and she had
found it that day."
     "Then ... I don't understand," Minako said, her brow
furrowed.  "What about the challenges and all that?"
     "She was using the labyrinth," Ami said in sudden
understanding.  "Wasn't she?  To give the Sisterhood purpose ..."
     "She used the labyrinth, all right," Rei confirmed.  "But not
for such a noble purpose.  You see, there never were any challenges
or tasks.  Griitna was the one who opened those gates.  With the
key, she could pass through the labyrinth unseen at will."
     "But why?" Minako persisted.
     "Quite simple, really," Rei replied, and there was no
mistaking the disgust in her voice.  "She had turned the Sisterhood
into lackeys who served, not a goddess, but whoever could afford
the fee.  The visions, the mysterious messages, they were just jobs
she solicited from wealthy clients.  When I think of some of the
things we did, depraved and dangerous and just plain wicked ... the
only consolation I ever had was that we were serving our goddess.
Except, as it turns out, we were only serving the avaricious nature
of a woman far more evil than any of us."
     "And none of you ever suspected?" Artemis asked,
incredulous.  "She got away with this for years?"
     "We were all fixed on the goal," Rei shrugged.  "We
thought our resolve and skills were being tested by a divine force.
None of us ever thought one of our own would betray us, much
less the Nightmistress herself.  But that one vision showed me the
truth; there was nothing in that labyrinth but cold, empty darkness.
We were being fooled."
     "So what did you do?" Usagi asked in a half-whisper.
     "I set out to prove what I knew to be true," Rei told her.  "But
there was no proof, nothing I could show to the others.  I told my
story to a few others, Sisters like myself.  None of them believed,
though, not even Sass ... Saekianna.  If I couldn't convince her, then
I wasn't going to be able to convince anyone."
     Usagi looked uncomfortable at the mention of Saekianna's
name, fidgeting a little in her seat.  She didn't move away from Rei,
though.
     "I knew that word would get back to Griitna sooner or
later," Rei went on.  "The senior Sisters were always jockeying for
position and power, and my "supposed" vision would have been
taken as an effort to undermine the Nightmistress for my own
purposes by all except Griitna, who would have known her secret
was out.  Either way, my chances of lasting out the week dropped
to nearly zero, but I was prepared.  I'd been running an operation in
Terrin Kay with Saekianna.  I went out that night to scope out a
target and simply never went back."
     "They must have looked for you," Minako pointed out,
shifting gingerly on the sofa.
     "I'm certain they did.  Remember, though, that I was a loyal
and accomplished Sister.  Only Saekianna and a couple of others
would have known I'd had any reason to run away.  We had a fair
amount of leeway in our operations, and by the time anybody
thought to look for me I was long gone, my tracks well-covered.
As for the others, I suspect they kept what I told them to
themselves for whatever reasons, which was undoubtedly wise.
Saekianna, at least, must have sensed a grain of truth in what I told
her.  At some point, she too learned the truth of Griitna's devious
games.  I don't know whether she managed to find support
amongst the Sisterhood, or whether she just challenged Griitna
directly, but Griitna is gone now and Saekianna is Nightmistress."
     "And we're targets," Makoto reminded her.  "Why?  What
could any of this have to do with us?"
     "I'm not sure," Rei sighed.  "But Saekianna gained the key
when she defeated Griitna, and she told me she'd plumbed the
labyrinth's depths and found items of power in its heart."
     "You said the heart was empty," Artemis said.
     "It was," Phobos declared.  "We touched that vision, guided
it.  I know what Rei-sama saw, and it was truth."
     "If there'd been anything to find, Griitna would have taken
it for herself," Rei confirmed.  "And yet, Saekianna has Banri."
     "Dasma's whip?" Luna gasped.
     "Yes.  It's what she used on Minako tonight," Rei told
them.  "And she claims to have other artifacts, which should be
impossible.  I don't understand it at all, but I do know she's
planning a ceremony for Baniesti."
     "Baniesti?  What's that?" Usagi asked.
     "It's a lunar conjunction," Artemis said slowly, frowning.
"When the moon and Nemesis come together, overlap in their own
realms to share one spot in the sky.  It's fairly rare and occurs in an
irregular cycle.  The influence of Nemesis is at its strongest during
the period the two are in phase."
     "So what's she planning to do?" Makoto demanded.  "Did
she tell you?"
     "Oh, yes.  Saekianna believes that she now has the means to
break the seal on the Dark Lady," Rei said softly.  "And that, I
believe, is why she is after the senshi, because of our association
with the White Moon.  Alieva's followers are a known element, but
we are not, and she wouldn't want an unknown variable in the mix
that might screw up her plans."
     "Can she really do that?" Artemis asked.  "Revive Dasma, I
mean."
     "I don't know," Rei said, shaking her head.  "It's been tried
before, but she seems certain of success."
     "Why here?" Ami asked.  "If their power base is in Caostye,
and the temple and labyrinth, then why come all the way here?"
     "I don't know that either," Rei admitted.  "We're going to
have to try and find out more, and what I do know is that will be
dangerous.  The Sisterhood is a ruthless and cunning foe who will
use any means to bring down their enemies."
     "But we have you," Usagi announced, grabbing Rei's hand.
"You know how they fight, how they think.  That gives us an
advantage."
     "Yes, but they might know who we are," Rei said grimly.  "At
the very least, Minako's identity is compromised."
     "What?  What's this?" Makoto cried.  I knew what Rei was
talking about; she and Minako had mentioned this by the car earlier.
     "Saekianna had me beat," Minako said heavily.  "And up
close, she saw my disguise glamour and tried to penetrate it.
Apparently, she was successful.  I'm sorry, princess."
     "I'm just glad that you're all right," Usagi replied with a
forgiving smile.
     "It's not that simple," Minako countered, looking
uncharacteristically glum.  "Rei warned me to stay away from that
woman, but I didn't listen."
     "You never listen to me," Rei said with just a touch of wry
humour in her voice.  "I'm not surprised that you didn't start now.
And what's done is done.  Believe me, I know what I'm talking
about."
     "Well," Minako said, brushing her hair back out of her face
with both hands.  "Speaking of what's done ..."
     "You don't have to," Rei cut in quickly.
     "I promised I would," Minako told her.  "And I keep my
promises.  Anyway, I can't let you be the centre of attention, can
I?"
     "Um, am I the only one who doesn't know what they're
talking about?" Usagi asked as she glanced from one girl to the
other.  A series of baffled expressions greeted her.  I was glad that
once again I wasn't the only one in the dark.
     "We all have pasts, princess," Minako sighed.  "And I guess
we all have our demons, too, our shadows that we hide away from
everyone, even each other.  I didn't think it was fair that Rei had to
be put under the microscope, so I told her one of my secrets."
     "Oh, man," Makoto breathed.  "If you're some death
priestess or something, I swear I'm going to have an episode."
     "No, nothing like that," Minako assured her with a wan
smile.
     "Mina," Artemis said quietly.
     "Oh, hush," Minako replied, waving her hand at him
impatiently.  "It'll be okay, tomcat."
     "Artemis knows?" Rei asked.  "What am I saying?  Of
course he knows."
     "Knows what?" Usagi blurted.  "Come on, you guys!
What's going on?"
     I watched Minako as she fiddled with the blanket draped
around her shoulders, obviously trying to decide how to start.
     "Um," she said finally.  "Usagi, have you ever heard of the
Highview Cat?"
     "Sure," Usagi said, clearly still confused.  "She's only the
most famous cat burglar in the city.  Mamo-chan was even assigned
to investigate some of her jobs at one point.  Why?"
     "'Cause you're looking at her."  Minako met everyone's
gaze in turn, trying to look bold and nearly succeeding.  The room
was rendered silent once again, as everyone tried to digest this
latest revelation.  Me?  I didn't have trouble imagining her doing
something like that.  She seemed like an anything goes type of girl.
     "You," Usagi said carefully, "are a cat burglar."
     "Afraid so," Minako said ruefully.
     "A cat burglar?" Makoto echoed.  "Try THE cat burglar.
You've robbed some of the richest, most powerful nobles in the
city.  Do you have any idea how high the bounty on you is?"
     "Oh, yes," Minako said, and I could have sworn there was a
trace of pride in her eyes and that her chin came up ever so slightly.
"The standing bounty on the Highview Cat has consistently been in
the top ten for a single non-demonic capture.  You ever try for it,
Makoto?"
     "You can't catch a shadow," Makoto said, shaking her
head.  "Gods know it's been tried.  If half the stories I've heard are
true, you have Lady Fortuna in your pocket."
     "She has a thing for blondes, does the Lady," Minako
smirked.
     "But ... the money," Luna said.  "Where is it all?"
     "Oh.  Er.  Well, a girl's got to live," Minako said evasively.
     "You blew it all?" Rei asked.
     "Of course not.  The house I live in?  I actually own it,
through a shell company," Minako admitted.  "I rent out parts of it
through a property management company that doesn't suspect one
of the tenants is actually paying rent to herself."
     "You did that?" Ami asked.
     "She had help," Artemis remarked.
     "Artemis!" Luna blurted, shocked.
     "Well, she isn't good at that sort of thing," Artemis
muttered weakly.  Minako was ignoring their exchange, her gaze
fixed on Usagi.
     "Hey, princess," she said softly.  "How we doing?"
     "I don't understand," Usagi replied, shaking her head.
"Why did you become a thief?"
     "Well, that's kind of a long story," Minako sighed.
     "I'd like to hear it," Ami murmured softly, apparently
surprising the others as much as she did me.
     "So would I," Usagi said.  Minako closed her eyes for a
moment, smiling when Artemis put his hand on her shoulder.  She
looked tired and drawn, and I wondered if she was really feeling all
right.  I had taken some beatings in my time, and I knew how much
it could take out of you; not just the physical injuries, but also the
wounds to your pride.  Being beaten, especially thoroughly as she
had been, really ate at a person.
     "Okay, here's the short version," Minako said finally.
"After the Long Dark, I was alone.  Hells, the city was full of
orphaned kids, nothing special about that.  The only thing I ever
had going for me was looks.  I was a cute girl, and as I got older
that became more of an asset in some ways."
     "But you can't work in clubs or any exotic industry unless
you're eighteen," Usagi said with a frown.
     "Legally," Rei added, staring intently at Minako.  "But there
are less discriminating places, where the law isn't followed so
closely."
     I wasn't sure I wanted to know what these "less
discriminating" places were like, judging by the look in Rei's eyes.
The prospect seemed to shock Usagi into silence, but Minako just
laughed self-consciously.
     "Yes, well," the blonde said carelessly, banishing the subject
with a grin, "be that as it may, there were plenty of pretty, hungry
boys and girls fighting for a place in the city's belly, then as now.  I
used to go around in the ruins near the border to supplement my
income, using the techniques my mother had taught me to climb
and dig and get into places the looters and gangs and scavengers
hadn't reached yet.  And then one day, I was no more than thirteen,
I heard some handymen talking."
     "Handymen?  You mean like enforcers for the Tier?"
Makoto asked.
     "Yeah," Minako nodded.  "I was hiding in some ruins and
they stopped nearby.  They were talking about some noble's place,
and how he was getting ready to move his cache of jewels.  They
talked about the location and layout and how they were going to do
it to punish the guy because he had been holding out on them.
Well, we all know that a lot of nobles got rich after the Long Dark
by taking advantage of the chaos.  I always hated people like that,
profiting from suffering and hoarding their riches while we had to
scrape by on the streets.  The Crown always talked about punishing
profiteering and all that, but they really couldn't afford to anger
their power base, not with the political situation the way it was, and
a new young queen and everything ..."
     "So you decided to steal the score out from under both a
ruthless crooked noble and the Tier," Makoto said in frank
disbelief.  "A thirteen year old girl.  I can't believe you got away
with it."
     "Well, I knew some stuff in advance," Minako pointed out.
"And I knew when they were planning to go.  I got in by a means
they hadn't even considered, and I managed to score some jewels.
Not everything went right, though.  I was almost caught when the
handymen showed up early, but I did get away."
     "Thus beginning your career as a cat burglar," Artemis
sighed.  "You were lucky not to get caught, learning the ropes the
hard way as you did.  And it took you forever to find a way to
fence some of the heavier stuff without drawing the Tier or the
police."
     "Say what you want," Minako told everyone, her mouth set
in a defiant line.  "But it was the cleanest work I ever did.  Anyway,
you wouldn't believe some of these people, crying to the crown for
financial assistance while riches they supposedly lost during the
Long Dark were hidden away.  You think I'm famous?  A lot of the
stuff I stole could never be reported, because it wasn't supposed to
exist anymore!  And it wasn't just the money, either.  It was the
rush.  I went places I wasn't supposed to go, found out secrets I
wasn't supposed to know.  I led the police on chases across
rooftops, dodged the heavy hitters and private heat and bounty
hunters in every alley and sewer in this city, and I always came out
on top.  Everyone kept waiting for me to slip up so they could bring
me down, but you know what?  I never did.  They hated that I
never paid off anyone, never answered to anyone.  They always
hate it when someone doesn't play by their rules."
     "You didn't just not play by the rules," Artemis pointed out.
"You rubbed their noses in it.  Your famous calling card, for
example."
     "Yeah, you left those little black cat statues at the scene,"
Makoto said, eyes flickering with recollection. "That was kind of
showy."
     "That was because some smart ass told the police I'd
robbed him when I hadn't," Minako groused, face flushing.  "He
was running an insurance scam.  Just for that, I found out where the
stuff was and really did steal it, and left my calling card.  After that,
the idea just appealed to me.  It was like a game."
     "It was more than that, wasn't it?" Ami asked.  Her voice
was pitched low and soft, but I noticed that everybody turned their
attention to her when she spoke.
     "What do you mean, Ami?" Usagi asked.  She'd been
awfully quiet through this, and I wondered if she was getting upset
all over again.
     "As an information specialist, I kept track of the Highview
Cat's activities," Ami said with a small, secretive smile.  "And I
tried to find correlations in what might seem to be unrelated data,
anything that might gain me some insight into her, perhaps even let
me anticipate her next move."
     "You're kidding!" Minako gaped.  "You mean I was up
against AMI?   I can't believe it!"
     "But you didn't catch her, after all," Artemis pointed out,
sounding a little smug.
     "Well, I did find something," Ami retorted, blue eyes
reflecting the dancing firelight.  "I found a correlation in anonymous
donations to orphanages, shelters and other such institutions within
a three day period after each of her jobs.  The donations were
spread out so that they weren't large enough to draw unwanted
attention, but there were quite a lot of them, always where help was
needed."
     Minako's mouth was working silently, a crimson flush rising
steadily up her cheeks until her entire face looked like a tomato.
She seemed, for the first time since I'd met her, to be at a total loss
for words.
     "After I discovered that fact," Ami continued with a
mischievous glint in her eyes, "I decided that I shouldn't pursue the
Highview Cat quite so vigorously after all."
     "Now you know the awful truth," Artemis chuckled.
"Mina's really a marshmallow, all soft inside."
     "Hey!" Minako blurted.  "I didn't give all the damn money
away, you know!"
     Usagi got up and walked over to Minako, kneeling beside
her and wrapping her arms around the startled girl.
     "I like that you're a marshmallow, Minako," she said softly.
     "Aw, geez," Minako muttered.  "So, how mad are you?"
     "Just tell me one thing," Usagi said, drawing back to look
the other girl in the eye.  "Have you ever used your senshi powers
to steal?"
     "No, never," Minako said emphatically.  "After I found out
about my heritage, I always kept those parts of my life separate."
     "Good," Usagi sighed breathily. I didn't know what
difference that made, but apparently it did matter to Usagi.
     "Feel better now?" Rei asked.
     "I'm sorry, princess," Minako sighed in response.  "I know
you've got a lot to deal with just now, but I did promise Rei."
     "What am I going to do with you all?" Usagi muttered, but
she looked pretty damned happy to me.
     Minako demurred as Makoto got up and began collecting
dishes.
     "You don't have to do that," Ami protested.
     "It's fine," Makoto replied, but Ami began helping her.
They carted off the lot tot the kitchen between them.
     "Rei," Minako said softly.  "Things got noisy out there
earlier.  Everything okay with Makoto and you?"
     "I don't know about okay," Rei replied.  "I think she's got
me on probation for the time being, but it seems like she's going to
give me a chance to prove myself.  That's the most I could hope
for."
     "Yeah," Minako said slowly, frowning.
     "What?" Usagi demanded.  "What's that look?"
     "Nothing," Minako answered quickly, but even I could tell
she was lying.  "I was just thinking that while we were clearing the
air, maybe we could get Makoto to open up a little about why this
thing with Rei pushed her needles so far into the red.  I mean,
something about this really got under her skin, and frankly I'd like
to know what."
     "That's because you're nosy," Makoto's voice came from
the doorway.  Usagi started and even looked a little guilty, but
Minako just glanced over at Makoto.
     "Guilty as charged," the blonde said.  "And if you don't
want to talk about it, I'm sure everybody would understand.  But
Rei came back here to face us all, especially Usagi, and that can't
have been easy for her.  Remember what I said to you earlier, about
wanting things back between us the way they were?  I think that
might happen a lot faster if we clear the air."
     "Mako-chan, it's okay," Usagi assured her.  "If you don't
want to ..."
     "I don't," Makoto said heavily.  "Not really.  But I think I
should.  Minako has a point, and if she can tell everybody her secret
then the least I can do is tell mine.  For us."
     Ami stood behind Makoto, hands clasped nervously and
looking uncertain.  The tall girl prowled the floor briefly, and I
figured she was going to take notice of me and ask me to leave.  I'd
have gladly volunteered, except I didn't want to draw attention to
myself.
     Then the opportunity had passed as Makoto started talking.

***

     "I was a street rat back in the day," Makoto began.  She'd
thought it would be harder to talk about this, but somehow once
she'd begun the words just seemed to push their way out.  She felt
everything, her anger at Rei, her anger at herself, slowly loosening
its death grip on the soft unprotected parts of her soul.  "I was
alone, like Minako.  But where she had looks going for her, I had
toughness.  I grew up bigger than other girls my age, and had a
reputation early on.  I lived up to that reputation, fighting anyone
who got in my face, no matter how big or tough they were.  That's
how I ended up in the Black Dragons, really.  Yoshi got to know
me from around the neighbourhood and introduced me to the
gang's leader."
     "Yoshi was in the gang with you?" Usagi asked, sounding
surprised.
     "No," Makoto said, smiling softly at the mental image of young
Yoshi literally pulling her from the gutter, "but he knew them, and
they respected him.  A werewolf can be a powerful ally.  And once
I was in the gang, things got better for me.  We were always
hungry, but at least we had each other to count on.  I got to be a
sort of big sister to some of the younger kids, watching out for
them and keeping them out of trouble ... when I wasn't in trouble
myself.  And I got into plenty of fights, but at least now they were
for us instead of because somebody called me too-tall or amazon or
something.  We had our turf, our own place near the Zone to call
home.  I started to feel human again, like I mattered.
     "And then one day, something happened that ended up
changing everything."
     The fire was burning low, and she watched Ranma as he quietly
grabbed another couple of logs and placed them in the fireplace.
The others were watching her silently, but it was like they were all
connected somehow, like telling these things was a spell or ritual
that was drawing them together.  Makoto realized that she didn't
feel as if the others were sitting in judgement of her, not even Rei
who'd suffered the burn of Makoto's own indignation.
     "I was scoping out the market one day for some food to steal
when I came across a couple of thugs chasing a girl.  They chased
her into a dead end alley, and it was pretty clear what was on the
menu.  Unfortunately for them, they were a little too fixated on her,
and I got the drop on them.  When the dust cleared, there were
three goons laid out in the dirt and one scared girl hanging onto my
blouse and crying.
     "I was nearly fifteen then, and she was probably the same
age, but I could tell that this girl was something special.  Under her
cloak she was wearing these flowing silks, and even with her
clothes torn and her hair tangled and dirty she was delicate and
beautiful.  It was like ... like finding a single rose in the middle of a
garbage dump.  When she calmed down she thanked me about a
million times, following me through the market and staring at me
with those big dark eyes of hers.  She told me her name was Lily."
     Makoto stopped for a moment, feeling Lily's nearness for the
first time in a long time.  It was as though saying her name out loud
somehow invoked the girl's presence .
     "I didn't know what to do with her," she went on after a time,
twining her fingers absently.  "The gang already had too many
mouths to feed, and it was clear she didn't know anything about
living on the street.  But tough as I was, I couldn't just dump a girl
like that into a shark tank like the Triangle.  I just couldn't do
it."
     "Of course not," Usagi said, inclining her head and smiling.
"That's not my Mako-chan."  Makoto blinked, Usagi's comment
bringing her back to the present.  She smiled gratefully at her
princess; leave it to Usagi to always find the best in everyone.
     "There was something about her," Makoto went on, her voice
soft.  "I don't know what, but even a suspicious street rat like me
with callouses around her heart liked her right off.  I found a place
for us to hole up for the night, and she told me about herself ... how
she'd been traded to a rich man in exchange for her mother's debts
at a young age, how she'd gone from being a maid in his house to
being a pleasure doll for his whims.  That night she fell asleep on
my shoulder, and the next day I was begging our leader to take her
in.  He was the oldest and the toughest of us, and called himself
Riot.  Probably because it sounded tougher than Rufus.  Anyway,
he ended up saying yes.
     "People said yes to Lily a lot.  She drew you to her like
flame draws a moth, and for a while I thought there'd be trouble.
But Lily knew how to handle men and women both, and spread her
favours around without causing any serious jealous spats.  Believe
me, that was a small miracle for our group.  Everyone quickly came
to love her, but she seemed to have a special affection for me, I
guess because I saved her and brought her in."
     "Which made it all the worse when she betrayed you," Rei
said softly.  Everyone turned to her except Makoto, who just stared
off at the fire with a small but bitter smile tugging at her lips.
     "Not hard to guess where this is going, hmmm?" the tall girl
murmured.  "Well, you're right.  You see, a little while before I met
Lily, I'd overheard Riot talking with this weaselly guy I'd never
seen before.  The guy wanted Riot to cooperate in some kind of
scam or something.  The thing was, he kept asking Riot about this
signet ring.  Riot clammed up, said he didn't have any such thing,
and the weasel went away frustrated."
     "What's that got to do with Lily?" Usagi asked.
     "Well, first off Riot was lying.  I knew the ring existed,
because I'd seen him with it once.  He'd been pretty drunk, and I
remember that he told me his mother had given it to him during the
Dark, just before she died.  Apparently she'd told him it was proof
of a promise his father had made, and that he should hold onto it
always.  I wrote it off as drunk talk, though.  I mean, if I had a
copper for every street rat who had a story about being the lost heir
to some noble house, I'd be rich."
     "But he was telling the truth, wasn't he?" Rei said, shaking
her head sadly.
     Makoto shrugged.  "I don't know for sure," she said.  "But
after this guy found him, Riot started digging around, trying to find
out what angle the weasel was chasing.  I guess he figured there
was no need to go through a middle man if someone was looking
for a guy with that ring.  Our Riot, he liked to brood a little too
much, and he thought he was the gods' gift to women, and he hated
to work when there was an easier way.  But he looked out for us,
and nobody from the other gangs wanted to mess with him.  He
wasn't a bad guy, and he didn't deserve what happened."
     She fell silent then, emotion surging in her belly as the
memory of that night came back to her in a rush.  Pretending to be
tired, she bowed her head and rubbed the back of her neck to cover
any sign of what she was feeling.  The others stayed silent, waiting
for her to go on.
     "One night," Makoto said at last, "Lily started coming on to
Riot.  There wasn't anyone who could resist Lily when she set her
sights on them, not that I recall anyone trying, and sure enough they
ended up going off together.  I don't know for sure what happened
afterwards, but I can make a pretty good guess.  Lily played coy,
batted her eyes, and strung Riot along.  'Oh, what's this I hear
about a ring you've got?' she might have asked.  'I'd really like to
see it, Riot.  Jewellery makes me soooo hot ...'  Or whatever.  He
obviously had the thing hidden, but she'd have gotten him to show
it to her.  And then one thing led to another, as it tends to.
     "The next morning, Lily was gone.  And so was the signet
ring."
     "Damn," Minako breathed.
     "You think Lily was playing you all from the beginning?"
Rei asked.
     "I didn't want to think so at the time," Makoto sighed,
rubbing her eyes with the palms of her hands.  "But it all made
sense.  The weasel finds out somehow about Riot and tries to
recruit him.  He fails.  Maybe he tried to have Riot rolled after that.
The guy sure came home beat up enough times, but I figure he was
smart enough to hide the ring.  So maybe weasel boy decides to get
smart and hires lovely Lily to get inside.  She charms everyone,
tricks Riot one night, and good-bye ring."
     "That's terrible," Usagi said, her eyes full of sympathy.
Makoto could tell that her princess didn't get it.  Minako did,
though; Makoto could see it in her eyes.  And Rei, too.
     "I don't understand how the signet ring could have been
worth all that trouble," Ami murmured.  "Even if it was an
imprinted House signet, if the House in question had no assets then
it was virtually worthless.  And none of the established Houses
would be ..."  Ami trailed off, and Makoto suppressed a bitter
smile.  Ami'd gotten it just that fast; if only a younger Makoto Kino
had understood as readily.
     "Ami?" Usagi asked, clearly lost.
     "The Houses in Altua were all given title originally by the
Crown, and only the Crown can bestow House status," Ami said
slowly.  "The lord or lady of a House can sit on the Council, and
thus has political power in addition to prestige and position at
court.  Some of the seats in the Council have sat empty since the
Long Dark, when entire Houses were wiped out.  If the ring was
taken as proof that Riot was entitled to membership in a House that
had been completely destroyed, then he would become the legal
heir."
     "But if Riot was an heir, then why not claim his legacy instead of
joining a street gang?" Artemis asked.
     "Riot wasn't noble born," Makoto told them.  "But his
mother, it turns out, had been a lord's mistress.  If she'd been given
a House signet for her son by the lord of the House ..."
     "He could have become a member of the House," Rei
nodded.  "But if the House was wiped out, then he might well have
been the only legitimate heir."
     "But he didn't know any of that then," Makoto said.  "None of
us did.  Anyway, I found out afterwards that some reconstruction in
one of the old neighbourhoods turned up some old buried vaults,
and suddenly a small forgotten House was worth something again.
And somehow this weasel put things together, figured out Riot was
the key to getting at riches plus some political power.  But Riot
wouldn't play ball, and the weasel knew that if Riot figured out
what was at stake, he might just cash in himself."
     "So, did this weasel pull of his plan?" Minako asked.  "Did
he claim a minor House?"
     "He sure tried," Makoto told her.  "But first he had to tie up
loose ends."
     "Loose ends?" Usagi asked, her brow furrowed.
     Makoto hated to that she would put an expression of horror
on that face, but she had to finish.  "Riot knew the truth, Usagi, and
he wasn't the kind of guy to cut his losses.  Even if he wasn't
anyone special, why risk the attention he might bring to a delicate
operation?  On the street, you learned that there were people who
would kill you for a mouldy piece of bread or a few coppers, or
even just for looking at them wrong.  For a chance to be the power
behind a noble House, even a small one, it would be nothing to kill
a street rat.  Or a bunch of them."
          "Oh," Usagi gasped.  It was a small sound, equal parts
comprehension and horror.  Nobody else said anything.
     She must have known," Makoto murmured hoarsely.  "She
must have known that the scam couldn't work if someone started
calling the wrong kind of attention to the claimants.  She just didn't
care.  Riot was banging around the place, going out of his mind, but
I went out to find that bitch.  That was all that was on my mind,
finding her and beating her senseless for betraying us.  Imagine, I
thought that was her worst betrayal.  At least until that night, when
I ended up back at our hideout."
     A log popped loudly in the fire as Makoto sat there,
astonished at the rage that bubbled up in her.  This is what it's all
about, she thought despairingly.  Of all the things that have
happened to me, it's things like this that mark me, make me what I
am.
     "They'd come in with guns, using our secret entrance, not
the booby-trapped main door.  It was clear they caught the
look-outs by surprise.  After that, they just seemed to go room to
room, killing everyone they found.  The bodies were just left where
they fell, all of them.  Sparks, Kilroy, Meeps, Little Foot ... just a
bunch of street trash that nobody else cared about, butchered like
animals.  And of course Riot.  He must have put up a fierce fight,
because there were more holes in him than I could count.  And
when I heard the noise outside, I knew they'd left someone to mop
up any stragglers.  If  Yoshi hadn't shown up, they would have
gotten me too, because I just went charging out there like a
maniac."
     Nobody said anything to that.  Not, of course, that there
was anything to say.  Makoto recalled the feeling well; she'd lost
one family in her life, and that night she'd lost her surrogate family
as well.  She'd run out there expecting to die, only wanting to take
a few of the bastards with her.  It had been Yoshi who had dragged
her, kicking and screaming, back from the edge of the abyss.
     "The Crown got to keep the assets of that House, since no
heir ever stepped forward," Makoto went on finally, breaking the
heavy stillness.
     "The weasel?" Minako asked.
     "Vanished without a trace soon afterwards," Makoto said with a
mirthless smile.  "Must have been his conscience."  Then the rictus
faded, and she stared at the fire again.  "So anyway, now every year
I go out and buy thirty-one flowers, one for every dead Black
Dragon, and I throw them into the river one by one.  And I
remember how I killed them by trusting the wrong person."
     "Don't," Rei said softly.  "You can't blame yourself for
something like that.  Either she was weak and took advantage of
your kindness when the opportunity presented itself, or she was
cunning and set you up from the beginning.  Either way, there was
no way you could have known."
     "I tell myself that some nights, when I lie awake and hear
their voices in my head," Makoto snorted softly.  "But it doesn't
make their shades rest any easier.  I tried to find out about her
afterwards, but she was like a ghost.  Nobody knew anything about
her.  If I'd checked sooner, if I'd been at least a little suspicious
instead of letting her charm me, then maybe I could have stopped it.
If, if, if ...  So you see why this thing hit home for me.  Betraying
your friends is the worst sin there is, and I can't be wrong that way
again.  I just ... can't."
     "Mako-chan," Usagi murmured.
     "I understand," Rei said.  "What Hotaru did must have
reopened that wound for you, and I rubbed salt in it.  But Makoto,
I have to ask you something.  Can you believe in me now?  Can you
bring yourself to trust me again?"
     "Usagi trusts you," Makoto replied, not meeting the other
girl's gaze.
     "That isn't what I asked."
     "I can see why you did what you did," Makoto said
grudgingly.  "I just ... I hate that you kept so much secret.  I feel
like I didn't know who you really were."
     "Do you feel that way about me?" Minako asked.
     "I have no trouble reconciling you with the image of a
trouble-making cat burglar," Makoto informed her wryly, making
Minako grin.
     "What about me?"  Everybody started at those quiet words,
turning to look at Ami.  The reticent girl was staring at her clasped
hands, eyes shadowed by her hanging bangs.  "Will you feel like I
lied to you, I wonder?  Will your feelings about me change?"
     "Ami?" Makoto said slowly, a feeling of dread in her belly.
"What are you talking about?"  The past haunted them all, but
surely Ami's held no horrors.  Surely.
     "The past," Ami said mournfully.  "All the dark things that
we kept hidden, even from each other.  We had to learn all about
ourselves once before, in our old lives.  It isn't fair that we should
have to do it again, is it?  It's so hard ..."
     "Ami, what are you talking about?" Usagi asked, clearly
alarmed as she rose from Minako's side and crossed to the other
girl.
     "It's about this place, isn't it?" Minako asked.
     "More than that," Rei said, her eyes narrowed.  Phobos and
Deimos kept silent, but they were also staring at Ami.  "But Ami, if
you're not ready ..."
     "No."  Ami's voice was stronger, as if she had come to a
decision.  "No, now is the time.  Whatever is coming, we have to be
strong together.  We have to be able to trust each other the way we
once did, and for that we need the truth.  Rei told her dark secrets,
Minako and Makoto too.  So now I will."
     Makoto did the only thing she could; she reached out and placed
one hand over Ami's, while Usagi slipped her hand over Ami's
shoulder and propped her chin on it.  It was such a comfortable,
intimate scene that for a moment Makoto felt the bond between
them.  It was strong, stretching as it did over time from the moon
to the Earth.  But was it strong enough?

***

     "Ami, it's creepy down here," Usagi said nervously.  Ami
didn't bother to reply; she knew full well just how creepy it was.
She had led the group to the basement, revealing a hidden door
behind a cobweb-festooned old wine rack that opened onto another
set of stairs.  Ami hadn't come down to this hidden sub-basement in
years, and her heart began to beat faster as they descended by the
harsh glare of naked bulbs which lined the cold stone wall.
     "I have no idea what this sub-basement was originally used
for," Ami told them as they clustered in the barren space at the
bottom of the narrow stairway.  "But it is clearly as old as the
house itself.  Perhaps it was a shelter of sorts, or a place to hide
illegal goods."
     None of this was particularly relevant, of course, but Ami
was trying to put off the moment when she had to begin her story.
The others looked around with clear disdain, Usagi shivering from
the chill in the air.  Artemis supported Minako as they investigated
one of the corridors that led off from the chamber they were in.
     "Ami," the brash blonde said slowly.  "What am I looking
at?"
     "This," Ami said, her stomach fluttering wildly despite her
outward calm, "is the real school that I attended."
     She walked across the floor of stone, worn smooth by years
of use.  Minako was staring at her, confusion and concern mingling
in her gaze.  The others followed until they could see what Minako
had already discovered.
     "Ami," Usagi gasped, her gaze sweeping the double line of
heavy wooden doors with their small barred windows.  "What is
this?  It looks like a jail!"
     "This," Ami said, her voice terribly soft, "is the dormitory.
This is where I grew up."
     There was silence behind her as she walked forward, trailing
her fingertips along the cold stone.  Every detail was engraved in
her mind, of course; it wasn't as though she'd forgotten any of it.
No, she was cursed never to forget, not any of it.
     "Ami, what went on here?"  Rei's voice drifted up to her,
calling her back from that haunted past, and she turned to see them
looking at her, all of them wearing those horrified expressions she
hadn't wanted to see.
     "As I said, this place was a school," Ami told them.  "It was
started after the Long Dark, and its purpose was to nurture young
minds that might otherwise stagnate, neglected by an overwhelmed
system.  Or so he said."
     "He?" Makoto said, her green eyes shadowed.
     "It was started by a man named Fas Inme," Ami stated.  "In
the beginning, he had two assistants, Hiroshi Kusage and Saki Li.
One thing the Long Dark created in abundance was orphans, as we
all know.  The city, the kingdom itself, was in a shambles
afterwards, and there were never enough resources to handle all the
children.  Inme must have seemed like a gift from the gods, going
to orphanages and recruiting children."
     "This guy went around," Makoto asked tightly, "and the
people in charge just GAVE him kids?"
     "He had credentials," Ami shrugged.  "And permits from
the crown.  Nobody was too anxious to question such good
fortune, even if he did only want the brightest children.  As it turns
out, he also had money, which may have purchased those permits
and paid for those credentials.  Money greased a great many wheels
where he was concerned, I expect.  At any rate, no inspectors ever
came here that we knew of.  Things ran as he wanted them to, and
we either pleased our 'headmaster' or we were punished."
     She stopped for a moment, not wanting to dwell on
thoughts that punishment.  She still woke in the night sometimes,
cold sweat prickling her skin and terrified cries clawing their way
out of the deepest, darkest part of her.  She had to tell them the
truth, but she didn't have to let them see everything.  No, that
would just be cruel, especially to Usagi, who would hurt for her
friend.
     This was going to be bad enough as it was.
     "This was my room," Ami murmured, pushing lightly at one
of the doors.  None of them were locked, and it swung ajar with a
mournful horror movie creak.  "Boys were on that side, girls on
this.  Not all of the children he picked turned out to be useful, so
the rooms weren't always full."
     "Ami," Minako said, leaning against Artemis while keeping
any sign of discomfort from her face.  "What in the hells was this
guy doing?  Why did he want all of you?"
     "Because," Ami whispered.  "Because we were young, and
could be controlled.  Because we had raw talent.  But mostly
because, when our luck ran out, nobody would miss us."
     "Ami," Makoto murmured, moving closer.
     "Follow me," Ami said, moving ahead of them.  "I want to
show you something, something that will help you to understand."
Briskly she strode down the gloomy tunnel that bore through
unforgiving stone, passing a storage area and the abandoned
classroom.  The others hurried to keep up, but at least this way she
had a chance to regain her composure.  This was harder than she'd
expected; Ami had new respect for Rei and how she'd handled the
telling of her tale.
     She stopped before a set of large double doors, the huge
padlock broken and rusted, hanging drunkenly from the open hasp.
These doors parted under the pressure of her hands with barely a
creak, revealing a spacious, high-ceilinged chamber cut into solid
rock.  There was nothing in the room besides the lights which threw
the centre of the chamber into harsh relief.  Ami walked inside as
she had many times in the past, stopping before the complex pattern
on the floor.  The others crowded around her, and a tiny smile
fluttered at her lips as a hand reached out to grasp hers.  Usagi, of
course.  The princess sensed Ami's pain and longed to ease it.
     If only it were that simple.
     "Is this an Aethyr portal?" Rei asked, breaking the silence.
Phobos and Deimos flew around the chamber once before returning
to their mistress's shoulders.
     "Of a sort," Ami told her, squeezing Usagi's hand.  "This
was the heart of Inme's scheme.  The secrets of how to make an
Aethyr portal have been lost to mankind for a long time.  The Sidhe
supposedly still have this knowledge, but they guard it closely.  I
don't know how Inme discovered this.  I've often wondered if the
pattern was already here when he acquired the property.  It is an
incredible feat of mystic engineering, though."
     "It's beautiful," Usagi said softly.
     Ami could see why she would think that.  There were two
main circles, one very large, one smaller.  Each circle was itself
made up of an outer circle and an inner one.  The space between
the outer and inner was about one and a half times the length of
Ami's foot, and that space was filled with strange and wonderful
sigils and runes.  The smaller of the two ports was connected to its
larger counterpart by a triangle of three tiny circles, somewhat
resembling the ports themselves.  The overall impression was of
something mysterious and enchanted, a work of great power and
even greater subtlety.
     All of which was true, as far as it went.
     "I don't get it," Artemis piped up.  "What does an Aethyr
port have to do with a bunch of orphans?"
     "As I said, this is quite a piece of work," Ami continued,
gazing fixedly at the twin circles.  "It isn't just an Aethyr portal.
Do you see the smaller circle there?  That's what Inme called a
supervisor's circle.  I doubt very much he designed it, but he knew
just how to make use of it."
     "What does it do, exactly?" Makoto asked warily.
     "Quite simple, really," Ami said, feeling a sense of
detachment from what was going on.  "An operator, someone
capable of activating a portal, sits in the supervisor's circle.
Another person, who need not be able to initialize a portal, sits in
the larger circle.  The operator can activate the portals and send
them into Aethyr."  She paused, taking a breath.  "Of course, such a
complex set-up isn't necessary to take a person into Aethyr with
you.  It does, however, have benefits, at least from the operator's
point of view."
     "What benefits?" Makoto asked, eyes narrowed.
     "With this particular configuration," Ami told them, "the
person in the supervisor's circle controls the dive, and can perceive
what is happening to and around the person in the subordinate
portal.  They are like a ghost, able to see and be seen, but they
cannot affect anything on the other side.  Of course, nothing can
affect them either.  They are quite safe."
     "What about the person in the subordinate circle?" Luna asked.
     "Vulnerable," Ami confirmed.  "But they can be given
instructions, directed, commanded by the supervisor.  And if
anything happens to the diver, there is a safety system which breaks
the link between the two circles, like a circuit breaker, preventing
any sort of dangerous feedback from reaching the operator.  As I
said, quite ingenious."
     Appalled silence greeted her.  Ami mentally bet herself that
Minako would be the one to break it.
     She won the bet.
     "Are you saying that this guy, Inme, and his flunkies, sent a
bunch of children into Aethyr?" Minako asked, colour flaring high
on her cheeks.
     "While they supervised, safe from any harm," Deimos spat.
"Cowards!"
     "That is exactly what they did," Ami admitted, eyes averted.
"The classroom we passed was where we were taught about mystic
languages and artifacts.  They needed subjects who could be taught
what to look for, how to avoid hazards and stay alive long enough
to bring back something valuable."
     "They made you scavenge for treasure in that place?" Usagi
blurted.
     "Aethyr is quite dangerous, even more so for humans,"
Phobos said quietly.  "It is very chaotic, and humans cannot survive
there long without the protection of a portal.  Only those with Fey
blood can roam there freely.  Aethyr can be a treasure trove,
though.  It is said to intersect all other realms, perhaps even
Nihkien itself.  Because of this, ofttimes things appear there, things
which have been lost to the human world.  And not only artifacts,
but knowledge as well, spells and magicks that manifest themselves
physically.  A canny man could no doubt reap great rewards from
such a project."
     "Not to mention secrets," Ami told her.  "Whispered by the
shades of the passed."
     "The Grim?" Deimos hissed.  "He made you chance the
Wastes around the Grim?  Even the Fey risk madness if they
venture there!"
     "Yes," was all Ami said.
     "Ami," Rei said softly, moving to stand beside her.  She
didn't try to touch, though; Ami knew Rei was sensitive to body
language, and undoubtedly realized that Ami's nerves were almost
painfully on edge.  "What happened?  How did it all end?"
     Ah.  That was Rei, cutting right to the heart of the matter.
But it had to be told; once begun, there was no turning back, even
if cold dark winds howled around her treacherous path.
     "Over the years, Inme and his cohorts went through quite a
number of divers," Ami told them.  "And at one point, Saki
disappeared without explanation.  Then, when I was thirteen,
Kusage got into an argument with Inme and he, too, vanished soon
after.  They'd both been able to activate the portal, but perhaps
they'd become liabilities.  Who can say?  Things were beginning to
get ... out of control.  It's hard to explain."
     "That's okay," Usagi murmured, grasping Ami's hand
again.  "Take your time."
     Ami shot her a brief but grateful smile.  "There were only
four of us from the original group left, and Inme seemed to be
having trouble finding new blood.  The children he did procure
weren't lasting long, and despite his successes the strain seemed to
finally be getting to him.  He drove us, the experienced divers, to
take greater risks, and I knew in my heart that it wouldn't stop until
we were all used up."
     Ami stopped, her gaze pulled inexorably to the pattern on
the smooth stone.  She recalled the sensation in the pit of her
stomach, dread mixed with terror, that presaged most of her dives
through the barrier into Aethyr.  Every time she'd stepped into that
circle, she hadn't known if she would ever be coming back.  And
there had been times, near the end, when she'd actually begun to
believe it might be better if she didn't make it back.
     "He had to be stopped," Ami said, her voice hoarse and
without inflection.  "That's why I killed him."
     There, a little voice inside her said primly.  Now you've
done it, haven't you?  You didn't have to tell that part, you
could've said one of the others did it, stupid Miss Goody-Two-
Shoes.  Rei lied and Minako stole and Makoto was betrayed but
you, you're THE WORST ...
     "Oh, Ami," Usagi whispered.  Ami found herself in a fierce
embrace, Usagi's unbound hair brushing her cheek in a silken wave.
"Oh, Ami.  My poor Ami ..."
     A pair of hands clasped her shoulders from behind with
tender strength, and Ami knew that must be Makoto.  She
struggled to speak, but her throat seemed heavy, tight.
     "I'm sorry," she managed to breathe at last.
     "Were you afraid to tell us this?" Makoto replied softly, her
mouth near Ami's ear.  "You don't have to be sorry, Ami.  He was
a monster, and he deserved what he got."
     "He's lucky he died before I got to him," Minako added.
Ami tried to reply to them, but she still couldn't speak, and her eyes
stung as she tried not to cry.  Usagi had no such reservations; she
held Ami tight, crystalline tears coursing down her cheeks.
     "You should have told us," her princess whispered, her
voice breaking.  "You shouldn't have had to carry such a thing
alone."
     Ami laid her head on Usagi's shoulder, unable to form a
coherent reply.  Somehow, despite the fact she'd been terrified to
reveal this part of her past, she was glad she'd told.
     Now she was free.
     "Come on, guys," Rei murmured.  "Let's go back upstairs.
I don't much want to be down here anymore."

***

     Usagi sat beside Ami on the sofa, holding the girl's hand
tightly.  Even now, it was so hard to believe that Ami, gentle Ami,
had grown up in such terrible surroundings.  It just went to show
how strong Ami really was, stronger than most people would have
believed.  Makoto brought in some more tea, setting the tray down
with ease on a long, low table and handing Ami a cup.  The quiet
girl accepted gratefully.
     "So you're saying that you turned out to have the ability to
use a portal after all?" Minako was asking.
     "I'm not certain if there is a particular type of magical ability
necessary to activate a portal, or if any kind of innate magic will
suffice," Ami said quietly.  Usagi released the girl's hand so she
could cup her tea in her palms.  "But it became obvious to me over
time that I could sense a portal, feel its energies.  The four of us
who lasted the longest, we all could use a portal, although we were
careful to hide that fact from Inme.  I ended up using my talent to
hack into the supervisory circle's protections and turned them
around.  On our next dive into Aethyr, I made sure to attract the
wrong kind of attention, a pack of wraithwolves.  Inme seemed
distantly interested as the creatures came towards us, probably
wondering if I was trying to commit suicide.  I wonder how many
of the others did just that over the years.  Anyway, Inme could
activate a portal, but I don't think he ever really understood such an
artifact.  He never suspected what I'd done, not until the last when
they caught him."
     "Ami," Usagi murmured.  "It must have been so terrible for
you, having to make that decision at such a young age."
     "I expected to feel something," Ami sighed softly.
"Remorse, or guilt.  But I was never sorry for what I'd done to
him, and I used to wonder if that made me as bad as him."
     "No!" Usagi blurted, shaking her head emphatically.
     "She's right, Ami," Makoto said.  "You were protecting
yourself.  He called the tune, you just made him dance to it.  Don't
ever doubt that."
     "What happened to the others?" Rei asked as Ami ducked
her head slightly.  "You said there were four of you left by then."
     "Four from the original group," Ami mumbled.  "And by
then, it was three.  Plus two relative newcomers.  When I came
back, I let them all out.  We didn't really know what to do then,
whether we should tell anyone or hide what had happened.  In the
end, everyone just drifted away, one by one.  I was the last one left
here, and none of the others have ever returned."
     "How could you stay here?" Minako asked.  "After all that
happened?"
     Usagi watched Ami's face closely, and in that moment she
was certain that there was something Ami was holding back, some
little part of her life in this place that she still clasped close to her
heart.  Well, that was all right.  A girl was entitled to her secrets,
after all.  Ami'd told what she needed to tell.  The rest, well, a
charming princess might coax such a tidbit from her friend some
long, lazy sleepless night.  And there would be such nights now for
all of them, she was certain.
     "I had nowhere else to go," Ami shrugged.  "Inme
somehow arranged to get utilities for this place, although I've never
seen any bills.  I was left alone, which suited me."
     "And you went back into Aethyr."  Rei's voice was gentle,
but undeniably compelling.  Usagi always found it hard to ignore
Rei; the girl could draw your attention without having to shout or
resort to any sort of histrionics.
     "Yes," Ami said with a wry smile.  "I went back."
     "I can't believe you'd use that thing again," Makoto
protested.
     "Oh, I didn't," Ami informed her.  "I designed my own
portal.  It's in my room."
     "But why go back?" Usagi pressed.  "If it's so dangerous
there, Ami, why did you return?"
     "Aethyr is a strange place," Phobos piped up, perched once
again on Rei's shoulder.  "It exerts a strange pull over people, it
always has.  Ami obviously has an affinity for the place, so I'm not
surprised she continued to go for her own purposes."
     "Yes," Ami said, smiling more openly.  "It has its own
beauty, its own mysteries.  I could spend all my time there and not
even begin to scratch the surface."
     "Well, you can't spend all your time there," Usagi sniffed,
"because you have to spend most of your time with us!  Right,
everyone?"
     "The princess has spoken," Rei sighed.
     "But she has a point," Luna said from where she lounged,
head on Artemis' shoulder.  "Tonight has been emotionally
exhausting, but I think it will help everyone come together again."
     "All I can say is thank goodness it's over," Minako sighed,
laying back against the sofa with a grimace.  "I don't think I could
take another revelation."
     "Oh," Usagi said guiltily.  "Um.  Maybe just one more?"
     Usagi fought the urge to squirm as everyone stared at her
with varying degrees of shock and dismay.  She'd begun, though,
and had to finish.  It was important that the others know what she'd
learned, and so what if she felt trepidation over how they might
react to the chance she'd taken?  Over the course of the night,
they'd all bared a part of their souls that had remained hidden to the
world.  Having witnessed that courage in her senshi, she could
scarcely shame it by shirking her own duty.
     "Usagi, you?" Rei managed at last.
     "It's not what you think," Usagi rushed to assure her.  "I
mean, there isn't some hidden part of my past that I need to talk
about.  It's something a little more recent.  Like, um, today."
     "Today?" Minako echoed.  "Usagi, what on earth are you
talking about?  You've been with us all day."
     "Except for when you went to visit Mamoru," Luna added.
     "Well, the thing is, I made a little stop on the way," Usagi
told them.  "I mean, with things the way they were, I just felt like I
had to do something to try and fix ... things.  Um.  Because
everyone was drifting apart, you know, and I wanted to go to the
source and try to, well, figure it out.  And do something to help.
So that's why."
     "Usagi," Rei said after a moment of baffled silence.  "That
was scatterbrained, even for you.  What are you trying to say?"
     Usagi closed her eyes, took a deep breath.  There was no
sense trying to sugar-coat it; best to just get it out in the open and
take her lumps.
     "I went to Haruka and Michiru today."
     Silence.  Utter, complete silence that somehow managed
to be more accusing than any words could be.  Or so she thought
until it was broken ...
     "WHAT?"
     "You did ...?"
     "Are you out ..."
     "Of all the ...
     "... bloody reckless IDIOT!"
     "Well," Usagi winced.  "You all took that very well."  Her
attempt at humour fell flat as her senshi, as well as Luna and
Artemis, regarded her with something akin to horror.
     "How could you go to them like that?" Rei demanded, dark eyes
flashing.  "Alone, without even telling anyone?"
     "That's just what Haruka asked," Usagi admitted
sheepishly, unable to look any of them in the eye just then.  "And
Michiru told me that it was an insult to my senshi to act behind
your backs.  She was right, and I'm sorry for that.  I realize now I
shouldn't have done it.  But the distrust and anger that was tearing
us apart, it all started with Hotaru and what she did.  I had to know
the truth, no matter what.  There was too much at stake."
     "And what would we have done if we'd lost you?" Rei
demanded, kneeling in front of Usagi and grabbing her hands
roughly, forcing herself into her princess' line of sight.  "If those
two had decided to take you back to Hotaru, we wouldn't even
have known you were in trouble!"
     "That's just it!" Usagi shot back, imploring Rei with her
gaze.  "Things aren't how we thought!  I found out the truth about
Hotaru!"
     "The truth?" Makoto asked, clearly sceptical.  "From people
who lied to us from the beginning?  Usagi, why would you believe
them?"
     "For the same reason I believe in all of you!" Usagi cried.
"When everything is falling apart, when I can't believe in anything
else, I still believe in you ... Rei.  Ami.  Mako-chan.  Minako.  It
seems impossible to me that there was ever a time when I didn't
have all of you.  You're my friends, and my senshi.  If I'm going to
be worthy of being your princess, then I have to protect the bonds
that hold us together, even fight for them when necessary."
     "You've never been unworthy," Rei told her gently.
     "But everything was crumbling," Usagi told her, hoping to find
the right words to make her understand.  "And a princess wouldn't
just stand by and let the people she cared about be torn apart."
     "I understand," Makoto replied, moving to stand beside her.
"And I'm as guilty as anyone of making things hard the past few
days.  But Usagi, you can't take everything on yourself.  If we're
going to be a team, we all have to work together."  Usagi noticed
how Makoto glanced at Rei and Minako in turn, and fought the
urge to panic.  She wasn't going to let this turn into another
squabble, not after how far they'd come this night.
     "We are a team," she told the others firmly.  "We were on
our way to becoming as close as we were back in our days on the
moon, and I know we'll be that way again.  All of us, even the
Outers."
     "How can you say that?" Makoto demanded, a furrow appearing
between her eyebrows.  Usagi knew that furrow; it presaged
trouble.
     "Perhaps," Ami interrupted quietly, "we should let Usagi
tell us what she learned."
     Usagi shot the girl a brief but grateful smile.  Once this was
done, she could get on with the work of trying to bring her people
back together, and she wasn't going to try fooling herself into
thinking that it would be easy.  It was just like Ami, though, to be
perceptive and thoughtful, taking the wind out of Makoto's temper
with a soft word and allowing Usagi to say what she needed to,
even after her own difficult admissions.
     The others were clustered around her and, taking a breath,
Usagi began.  She related the encounter in the cafe carefully, telling
the others how pleased Haruka and Michiru had been to see her,
then recounting the story of Hotaru's tragic youth.
     When she was finished, she waited for the others to react.
In their eyes she saw the same horror and bewilderment she herself
had felt while listening to the tale.  She couldn't blame them; even
now, the skin on the back of her neck tightened, the tiny hairs
standing on end.
     "That's extraordinary," Artemis muttered.  "I never
suspected anything."
     "Nor I," Luna admitted.
     "But can it be true?" Ami asked.  "Could such a thing really
happen?"
     "I've never heard of it before, but it would explain a lot,"
Rei sighed.  "Like why Hotaru can walk in the sun and eat normal
food, for instance.  Only a part of her is vampiric, and she kept it
hidden from us."
     "I don't blame her," Minako said quietly.  "If I'd known
that she had vampire blood, I probably never would have agreed to
join up.  I mean, once you're under a vamp's spell, you're like a
puppet on strings, or so they say."
     "But she never tried to do that to us," Usagi pointed out.
"That wasn't what she wanted."
     "Usagi," Makoto said, wariness lurking in her emerald green
eyes.  "Even if we take this story at face value, that doesn't change
the fact that they lied to us, kept this a secret all along.  Hotaru can
be dangerous, and they never warned us.  That was wrong."
     "I know," Usagi murmured, taking Makoto's hand in hers.
"It was wrong.  But it wasn't unforgivable, Mako-chan.  Think of
all the things we've heard tonight, all the painful pasts.  We all
thought of Hotaru as an ice woman, untouchable.  But I think she
was scared, just like any of us, so she kept her painful secrets
buried.  I can understand that now, and I hope you can too.  Can
you tell me you don't miss them, Mako-chan?"  Usagi looked up at
the taller girl, her eyes wide and beseeching, and Makoto's inner
conflict was clear on her face.
     "I do," Minako admitted.  "Strange as it sounds, I
really do miss them.  And even though I'm still a little mad about
the high-handed way they kept things from us, I say she's right.
This doesn't have to be a permanent rift."
     "I don't think it will be easy," Rei said softly.  "But I agree,
it is worth trying to heal the damage.  If Hotaru herself is willing."
     "What's that supposed to mean?" Usagi asked, frowning.
     "One thing I noticed about Hotaru was that she was always
very much in control," Rei mused.  "She hid herself away behind
high walls of ice, not unlike some of the Sisters I knew.  That
control is precious to her, a part of her identity, and we all saw her
stripped of it.  We witnessed her naked, possessed by a savage
hunger.  It will be very hard for her to face us again after that, I
think."
     "I ... hadn't thought of it that way," Usagi said breathlessly.
     "Princess," Makoto sighed at last.  "If it's important to you, then
I'm willing to try to get us together with them.  But trust has to be
earned, and they betrayed ours, so they have to work to get it back.
If they don't understand that, then things will never work out."
     "All I ask is that we try," Usagi said, favouring Makoto
with a heartfelt smile.  She noticed that it was now the Inners
versus the Outers; nobody was questioning that the Inner Senshi
were once again a team.
     Good.
     "Usagi," Luna said sternly.  "Did you ever even go to see
Mamoru?"
     "Of course!" Usagi replied.
     "Did you tell him about meeting with Haruka and Michiru?"
Rei asked, her gaze capturing Usagi's.
     "Well, yes," Usagi told her.  "Because ... oh.  There's one
more thing I haven't told you yet."
     "Gods," Minako muttered.
     "All right, let's have it," Rei sighed.
     "Before I left, Haruka told me that Mamo-chan was at the
mansion this morning," Usagi said.  "He threatened them because
he thought Hotaru was attacking people."
     "Why did he think that?" Minako asked with a frown.
     "Because there have been several vampire attacks over the
last few days," Usagi told them.  "A female vampire who binds her
victims with her long black hair.  Mamo-chan thought it was
Hotaru, but Haruka and Michiru suspect that it might be the vamp
who attacked Hotaru's mother."
     "That's a little convenient," Makoto frowned.
     "But also possible," Ami said, holding one finger in the air.
"I read a study once which theorised that secondary magical
characteristics could indeed be passed along when a vampire
created another vampire from its blood.  The study was not
conclusive for several reasons, but there was a plethora of
anecdotal data that suggested such traits did often follow vampiric
bloodlines."
     Usagi had to suppress a giggle.  Ami was so different when
she lectured; she forgot her self-consciousness altogether for a time,
and her eyes gleamed with the sheer pleasure of just knowing
things.  Usagi wished she could capture that and show it to Ami
sometime when she was feeling shy and unattractive.  That gleam
didn't just make Ami shine; it made her startlingly beautiful.
     "That's still pretty thin," Minako said.  "Out of all the
vampires in the world, why would it be her?"
     "And why come here?" Makoto added.  "Altua's been a bad
place to be a vampire since the Long Dark, and Saeni's the hottest
city of all for bloodsuckers.  And if this one has the police on her
trail, she can't be very smart."
     "Or subtle," Usagi nodded.  "She was behind the airship
crash a few days ago."
     "What?" Ranma asked, sounding startled.  He'd been so
quiet, off in the corner, that Usagi had almost forgotten he was still
there.
     "At least the police think so, though Mamo-chan didn't say
why.  And apparently she uses wraiths to help her, like when she
attacked this strange church ..."
     "Wraiths?" Rei blurted.
     "Wait a minute," Minako said slowly.  "Back up a second.  This
vampire, who may have created Hotaru, is also linked to the airship
crash?
     "And thus to the other incidents across the kingdom," Ami
breathed.
     "And to the wraiths that we've seen several times in recent
days," Rei added tightly.
     "And some of those incidents were related to Ranma and this
key, which would mean that the vampire who created Hotaru is
after the Outsider, the person Hotaru warned us about ..." Makoto
trailed off.
     "If this is true, then we aren't looking at a series of unconnected
incidents after all," Ami mused, staring at nothing.  "There is an
underlying pattern, something we can make sense of."
     "Well, I guess," Usagi said, "but I haven't been able to
make any sense out of it yet.  Of course, I've had other things on
my mind, but ..."
     "Usagi."  Ami's voice was firm now, her eyes blazing with
intelligence.  "I want you to tell us everything that Mamoru told
you, from the beginning.  Everything."

***

     Hotaru prowled the halls of her mansion like a caged
tigress.  Once again the night seemed to call to her, stoking the fires
of restlessness that lay barely banked deep within.  To this was
added the need to take some action, to do anything that might lead
her to this rogue vampire.  After all these years, to have the
opportunity to destroy the creature who'd created her so close at
hand yet just out of reach was maddening.
     She burst through the doors into the main sitting room,
taking in the scene at a glance.  Haruka was lounging in her
favourite chair, long legs extended and crossed at the ankles.
Setsuna was seated on one sofa, Michiru standing behind her.
Setsuna's eyes were closed as Michiru's fingers worked gentle
circles around the emerald-haired woman's temples.
     "Good," Hotaru said briskly.  "You're all here.  What have
we found out?"
     "The police are being tight-lipped," Haruka remarked as
Hotaru came to stand at a point mid-way between the chair and
sofa.
     "For which we can hardly blame them," Michiru added.
     "It isn't doing them too much good," Setsuna murmured,
eyes still closed.  "Word has begun to filter to the street.  The
police have managed to mostly keep a lid on things, but with the
level of activity and the places they've been searching it's only a
matter of time before this matter becomes public knowledge."
Michiru pulled the woman's head back slightly, eliciting a soft
moan, and Hotaru frowned.
     "Are you all right, Setsuna?" she asked.
     "She has a headache," Michiru replied.  "Because she insists
on trying to look into the Time Gate, even though she knows it's
pointless."
     "So call me stubborn," Setsuna sighed.  "I am its guardian,
you know."
     "But the gate has been badly affected by whatever's coming,
so even if you weren't the only person who could unlock it, nobody
could use it anyway," Haruka pointed out.  "Face it, you're just a
masochist at heart."
     "That has possibilities," Michiru murmured throatily.
     "People, can we focus?" Hotaru snapped.  "There is a
vampire loose in the city, and there is at least one person who
thinks that I am responsible for this creature's rampage!"
     Silence followed that, but Hotaru knew better than to
assume that the others were cowed by her outburst.  In fact,
Haruka and Michiru were exchanging one of those glances wherein
they communicated volumes with just a look.
     "You lost the toss," Michiru reminded her partner.
     "What a cruel woman you are," Haruka replied ruefully.
     "Would it be too much to ask what you two are talking
about?" Hotaru asked with thinly veiled impatience.
     "I think you will not have to worry about Detective
Constable Chiba or his alter ego in regards to this matter, Hotaru,"
Haruka said at last, looking up from under her sleek bangs.
     "Haruka," Hotaru said slowly.  "I trust you haven't done
anything ... impetuous."
     "Not at all," Haruka replied, her eyes twinkling strangely.
"Quite the contrary, in fact.  We were the recipients of some
youthful impetuosity today."
     "Will you please talk some sense?" Hotaru gritted, all
pretense of patience fled.
     "We had a visit today, Michiru and I," Haruka informed her.
"From a certain princess of our acquaintance. "
     Hotaru felt as though every molecule in her body was
slowing down at once, as if stillness was invading her.  There was a
strange taste in her mouth and a high pitched humming in her ears.
     "You didn't," she managed to say.
     "No," Haruka said softly.  "We all agreed, after all.  No, our
princess came to us, sought us out in a place she knew we'd be.  It
seems she decided it was time to reach out across the divide."
     "She knew nothing of Mamoru's suspicions or of his visit to
us," Michiru added.  "Not until we told her."
     "And what else did you tell her?" Hotaru asked, although
she was afraid she knew the answer.  She still felt as though she
was swathed in stillness, but inside her heart began to pound.
     "The truth," Haruka said simply.  "All of it."
     "You," Hotaru breathed, her fists spasming at her sides,
"had no right."
     "Right?" Haruka returned evenly.  "No one has more right
than Usagi to know the truth, Hotaru.  She wanted to believe in
you, even after all that happened.  This isn't just about you
anymore.  We all kept your secrets, just as you wanted, but for
better or worse that's over.  And I, for one, will not have those girls
hating you, fearing you, because your pride won't allow you to tell
them the truth."
     "Better they should pity me?" Hotaru asked, bitterness like
bile in her throat.
     "Why do you assume that?" Michiru murmured.  "They all
suffered their own pain, after all.  They don't pity each other."
     "And lest we forget," Setsuna added, her eyes open now,
"there is a very dangerous vampire in this city.  We need all the help
we can get right now.  And, if you are correct and the Outsider
draws nearer, then we can not afford to be divided."
     "If you choose not to see her, then no one can force you,"
Haruka said, cocking her head to the side lazily.  "But that girl
looked up to you, Hotaru.  In the beginning, when she was scared
and clumsy and full of self-doubt, you convinced her that she
needed to embrace her destiny.  You made her believe in herself.  I
think you owe her more now than to hide from her light when you
helped kindle it."
     "Pretty words," Hotaru said, her back stiff.  "But I'm still
the woman who lost control and drank her blood.  I'm still the
woman who said all those things to her, called her worthless, put
that broken look in her eyes.  Can she forgive all that so easily?"
     Haruka smiled then, her entire face lighting up.
     "I only know one way," the lanky blonde said, "to find out."

***

     In spite of everything, Rei had a momentary urge to smile.
     Ami had made a graph.
     Well, a sort of flow chart really.  The girl was really quite
intense when she was in the grips of intellectual fervour, and she
had sketched out lines and arrows connecting words on the large
plastic tablet until, at last, order began to emerge.  Of her earlier
emotional turmoil there was no sign, and although Rei knew such
things were more complicated than one night's telling of secrets
could cure, Ami did seem to be feeling much better.
     "All right, here's what we have," Ami said, tapping the
capped marker absently against her lower lip, the firelight gleaming
off her wire-framed glasses.  The others were clustered around her,
caught up in the moment.  The prospect of actually having a
problem they could tackle head on after all that had happened was
exhilarating.
     "The centre of the problem, as we can clearly see, is this
female vampire," Ami said.  "We have to make a few assumptions
here, but they seem valid enough.  If she was responsible for the
airship crash, it seems likely that she engineered the other incidents
as well.  And she seems to control these wraiths, which are drawn
to Ranma's key when it activates.  So the incidents and the vampire
and the wraiths are all related, and the focus of their attention
seems to be this hyperlink key."
     Ranma looked uncomfortable at that, Rei noticed.  Ami was
oblivious to the boy's discomfort, though, and plowed on.
     "Another link is here," she stated, tracing a long line to the
words, "Church of the Sentinel".  "Now Ranma, you are certain
you've never heard of them?"
     "Positive," Ranma said.
     "Yet they seem to have something to do with this Eye.  We
heard mention of it from the mysterious phantom singing that
accompanied Desidinder, and also from my most recent journey
into Aethyr."
     "We've heard some of the stories about the Eye," Deimos
said helpfully.  Rei glanced at the winged girl, who was perched on
her shoulder.
     "You have?" the priestess asked.
     "Legend and myth and stuff," Deimos shrugged.
"Supposedly the Eye served the ones who came before the gods."
     "The Eye resided in a dark tower, keeping watch," Phobos
added from Rei's other shoulder.  "Although for what, no one
seems to know.  It is spoken of in whispers even amongst the Fey,
for when the Old Ones left, it is said the Eye remained behind to
maintain its lonely vigil."
     "Is it evil or good?" Usagi asked.
     "It may not even be real," Deimos remarked.  "Maybe it
was just a boogey-man to keep the young gods in line way back
when.  Nobody knows."
     "Well, that Church was attacked and everybody inside was
killed," Ami mused, tapping the marker against her lip again as she
regarded the chart critically.  "It must have been important, or why
else would the vampire risk exposure?  Her greatest weapon is to
stay hidden."
     "Unless she already has an army of blood-drugged slaves,"
Minako said grimly.
     "At the very least, she has her wraiths," Rei said.  "As a
vampire, her blood is very powerful, and so are the wraiths she
calls.  A weaker sorceress might call a few wraiths at a time, and
those would essentially be mindless eating machines that could be
aimed more than commanded.  Very risky.  These, though ..."  Rei
broke off, recalling her encounter with one of the creatures earlier.
"One of them tried to cloud my thoughts, and it could speak.  To
create wraiths with these abilities, their mistress must be very
powerful indeed."
     "Great," Makoto said sourly.
     "One other thing," Rei told them.  "This vampire also
commands at least some Shadow magick.  We saw it before in the
wraiths, the way they used shadows to move around.  That will
make her tough to corner.  We'll have to be prepared."
     "Good point," Ami murmured.  "We should look into
binding magicks.  Would Minako's whip hold her, or one of her
wraiths, prevent it from entering Shadow?"
     "I believe so," Rei said.  "But it's hard to say for sure."
     "Yah, bring 'em on!" Minako crowed, thrusting one hand in
the air enthusiastically before wincing in pain.  Artemis patted her
on the back, rolling his eyes where she couldn't see.
     "So," Ami said.  "Ranma is the Outsider, with a key to other
worlds that is somehow broken, or perhaps sealed.  This vampire
seems to be searching for him, presumably to find the key.  She has
left a trail of destruction across the kingdom without ever revealing
herself, at least until now.  There are other forces at work as well,
as evidenced by the appearance of Desidinder and the girl's voice
singing about the Eye, as well as this mysterious Church of the
Sentinel.  Rei had visions of Ranma and the key that augured
danger for the White Moon, and Hotaru has told us of this
mysterious Outsider that brings the Silence in its wake.  Everything
seems to boil down to the vampire and the key."
     "I wonder if Hotaru knows anything about this key thing,"
Usagi pondered.  "I mean, she knew about the Outsider, right?"
     "That's a good question," Makoto said.  "Maybe eventually
we can ask her."
     "I was thinking maybe tomorrow ..." Usagi began.
     "Let's not rush things," Minako cautioned.
     "I agree," Rei said.  "We have a lot of things to work
though ourselves.  We should concentrate on that before we take
on any more problems."
     Rei had expected debate from Usagi, but her princess
merely batted those big blue eyes of hers innocently ... a sure sign
that she intended to try and charm Rei at a later date.  Gods.
     "The only present problem that doesn't fit into this," Ami
said, a cute little crease appearing between her eyebrows, "is the
Sisterhood.  Unfortunately, we can't ignore them, especially since
they may know who we are.  That means dividing our attention at
this critical juncture."
     "And we have to worry about what they'll be doing on
Baniesti," Rei reminded her.  "If they really can summon Dasma,
this vampire may end up being the least of our problems."
     "There's one more thing I want to show you all," Ami
announced.  "I'm not certain how well it will work, but ... here.
Wait a moment ..."
     Rei watched as Ami stood, fishing out her henshin rod.
     "Minako hasn't been near that, has she?" Usagi asked with a
twinkle in her eye.  Ami blushed and Minako ducked her head as
she caught Rei glaring at her.  Yes, Miss Aino would have to suffer
Rei's retribution for THAT little stunt, no doubt about that.  Rei
glanced back as Ami transformed, the familiar outline of a sailor
fuku coalescing around the girl's lithe form.
     "All right," Mercury mumbled, calling up her visor.  "Let
me see, now ..."  Seconds later, a jumble of multicoloured static
appeared in the air in front of them.  Mercury pulled out her pocket
computer and fussed it with briefly, and finally the static resolved
itself into a fuzzy three-dimensional picture.
     "Ah," Mercury said, nodding.  "Yes, this is it."
     "What are we looking at?" Artemis asked.
     "That's Aethyr realm," Deimos said, peering intently at the
image.  "I can see the Abyss."
     "Correct," Mercury told them.  "I was recording some data
while I was there.  Let me run through this first."
     Rei watched as the picture began to move.  It was clear that
Mercury was moving towards some trees that had been damaged.
In the middle of the shot was something strange, a distortion of the
image where things seemed to bend and invert.
     "Hey, I know that thing," Ranma said.  "It's a big shiny
mirrored ball with a door on one side, right?"
     "How did you know?" Mercury gaped.
     "The DTF guy that rescued me had a thing like that,"
Ranma told her.  "He called it a Door, used it to travel between
worlds.  It could go anywhere, with just the door part showing up
in the real world.  After he took the thing out of it that made it
work, a transit core he called it, it couldn't stay invisible anymore
and showed up like that."
     "Transit core," Mercury echoed, with a faraway look in her
eyes.  "Yes ... so that's it.  I wonder ..."
     "Hey, what's that?" Minako called.
     "There we are!" Deimos crowed as two black forms
fluttered at the edge of the shot.
     "Not you guys," Minako said.  "There was something else.
Ami, can you back up the shot?"
     Mercury obliged, and Rei saw what had caught Minako's
attention.  Mercury froze the shot, showing something large in the
distance, slightly blurred by the motion of the recorder.
     "That looks like a castle," Minako breathed.
     "I think it is," Makoto agreed, straining to look closer.
     "Oh, that.  You're right," Mercury told them.  "Here, let me try
to clean up the image a little."
     The picture jumped, blurred, then began to clear up as
Mercury focussed on the distant structure.  Rei felt a queer
sensation in her chest as she looked at the image of the castle
growing larger.  Something about it was unnervingly ... familiar.  A
floating castle made of dark crystal, four main outer towers rising
from the smooth walls, one central tower soaring above them all ...
     "I know what that is."  As Rei spoke, all eyes turned to her.
She, however, had eyes only for the sight that greeted her.  There
was no mistaking its form, its outline.
     "What did you say?" Mercury asked, clearly dumbfounded.
     "I know that place," Rei repeated.  "That's Osiren Black."
     "Osiren what?" Usagi blinked.
     "Wait a sec," Minako said slowly.  "One of the crystal
fortresses?  Weren't there were five originally ...?"
     "And Osiren Black was the last," Rei murmured.  "Lost
in the mists of time, hidden away in the depths of the deadlands."
     "So the stories go," Mercury said.  "But how could that be
Osiren Black?  Nobody was even able to find it after the Fall.  Not
even the Genrous."
     "I'll tell you a secret," Rei said, feeling blood rush through
her with every beat of her heart.  She ignored the vertiginous
sensation, eyes fixed on the image before her that was so real, she
felt she could touch it.  "Something very few people know.  Over a
century ago, when Alieva and Dasma fought their climactic battle,
the battleground was Osiren Black.  The Sisters who fought there,
at least the few who escaped, later returned to that spot, only to
find the entire fortress gone.  Legend has it that Alieva sealed her
fallen nemesis within Osiren Black, then somehow hid it so that
Dasma's followers would be unable to reach their goddess."
     "Are you saying," Minako breathed, "that Alieva hid an
entire fortress in Aethyr?"
     "That would take a lot of power," Makoto said dubiously.
     "Not necessarily," Mercury said.  "All it would require
would be an Aethyr port large enough to surround the building.
Although it would be beyond the capabilities of a normal person, a
goddess would certainly have enough magick to activate such a
large portal."
     "That thing came up from the Abyss," Deimos said.  "It goes
down forever.  If Alieva had hidden it somewhere down there, the
chances of it being found by anyone would be pretty near nil."
     "But upheavals in this world sometimes have effects in
Aethyr," Phobos pointed out.  "One such event may be responsible
for the recent flood of things coming out of the Abyss."
     "Just wait a second," Artemis interrupted.  "Are we saying
that Dasma is imprisoned in that thing?"
     "Quite possibly," Rei said.  "And I have to wonder what, if
anything, this has to do with Saekianna's claim that she can rouse
the goddess."
     "Maybe we should check it out, then," Usagi said.
     Silence.
     "I beg your pardon?" Minako asked.
     "Well, could we?" Usagi pressed.  "Ami, could we go
there?"
     "I ... it's possible," Mercury said, flustered.  "I can transport
us to Aethyr, but it can be very dangerous.  And even if we go
there, there's no guarantee that we can enter Osiren Black."
     "And let's not forget we've got this vampire problem,"
Makoto reminded her.
     "But Baniesti is nearly here, right?" Usagi asked with a
glance at Rei.
     "Three nights from now," Rei confirmed.
     "So we have a deadline," Usagi said, spreading her hands.
"If we can somehow keep the Sisterhood from freeing Dasma, then
we'll only have to concentrate on this vampire.  And the one place
we know the vampire isn't, is there."  She pointed at the frozen
image.
     "There may not be a vampire there, but there are other
threats," Mercury cautioned her.
     "Like Dragon," Phobos stated.
     "A dragon?" Usagi asked.
     "No," Mercury said.  "Dragon.  I'll run the rest of this, and
maybe you'll understand a little better."
     The picture began moving forward again, but Rei found her
attention wandering.  Saekianna's pipe dream was starting to seem
more and more real, but if the Dark Lady could really be released,
then that left one important question.
     What would she think of one of her priestesses abandoning
the Sisterhood and going to work for the enemy?  And just what
was the best defence against a pissed off goddess?

***

     Wynneth lounged in her desolate throne room, regarding the
kneeling wraith with lidded eyes.
     "Such a powerful girl," the vampiress mused.  "And adept
at Shadow magicks.  Oh, how lovely.  Yes, I will definitely want
that one for my collection.  I shall have to find the appropriate bait
to lure her out.  But first things first, as they say."
     The wraith looked up, abject adoration in her crimson eyes,
but Wynneth ignored the creature.  She tired of this cold, sterile
place, tired of petty frustrations and, most especially, she was tired
of waiting.
     (It would be foolish to act precipitously, especially now,
when your goal is nearly within reach.)
     She cocked her head, gazing off into the clustered shadows.
     "Yet the Warden still eludes me," she said petulantly.
Wynneth had long since ceased to find it odd that she responded to
the voice by speaking aloud.  Even though it was merely a part of
herself, she rather enjoyed carrying on these conversations.  They
often helped her clarify her goals.
     (Once you have the lock, the key will come to you.  It will
be drawn, inexorably.  That is the way of things.  You have been
patient for so long, you need only suffer a matter of days.)
     "Indeed," she sniffed.  "I wonder, though, if I shouldn't
secure the lock now.  At the very least, my darling daughter is easy
enough to find."
     (If you take her now, the others will be on their guard.
Your time will come, and when it does, you will be able to claim
your rightful prey with impunity.  The force of destiny cannot be
resisted; once it begins, all the pieces will fall into place.  Soon.)
     "Soon," she crooned aloud.  "So soon.  Yes, I have waited
so very long.  A few mortal days are nothing to me.  But I grow
weary of this place.  If the Warden wishes to hide like the mouse
that he is, then so be it.  But I wish to taste hot blood, feel warm
supple flesh in my arms.  And then, perhaps, I shall visit my
daughter again.  And have her dream for me."
     Laughter echoed hollowly in the large chamber, then the
shadows gathered, and the laughter, along with its mistress, was
gone.

***

     The girls had watched the remainder of the record of Ami's
trip to Aethyr with astonishment.  The tragic end of the machine
called Gwen had brought a lump to Usagi's throat; Ranma had told
them afterwards that the Door he'd encountered had possessed a
similar guardian, and that one had also "died".
     The recording had ended with the appearance of the
mysterious entity known only as Dragon; Ami had not captured an
image of it, but Phobos and Deimos had agreed that Dragon was
not something you wanted to get close to.  Usagi had been
surprised to learn that the twin winged girls had actually come from
Aethyr, hitching a ride here with Ami.
     After that, there had been some discussion of what course
of action to take; whether they should investigate Osiren Black, or
try to locate the mysterious vampire who seemed to be at the centre
of the subtle, complex web that seemed to have ensnared them all.
     In the end, though, no decision was reached.  The hour had
grown late, and the baring of old wounds had taken its toll, so
decisive action was put off until the morning.  Ami had made up
rooms for everyone, and they'd shuffled up the stairs in a loose
group, yawns starting to make themselves known.  It was probably
for the best that no further plans should be made until after
everyone had gotten some badly needed sleep, Usagi thought.
She'd just gotten her girls back together again; she wanted to enjoy
that feeling for a while.
     Usagi said goodnight to Makoto, slipping her arms around
the taller girl's neck and kissing her affectionately on the cheek.
Ami was next, receiving a light buss on the forehead and a quiet
whisper of concern.  Ami just smiled and assured her princess that
she was fine, but Usagi could tell from the way Ami's eyes flickered
that the reticent genius knew what Usagi's intentions for the night
were.  Usagi might have felt guilty if she hadn't been sure that Ami
intended to seek out some company to help her make it through the
small hours.
     She stepped into Minako's room next, where the blonde
was gingerly lowering herself onto the bed with Artemis' help.
     "Hey," Usagi said softly.  "How're you doing?"
     "I'll live," Minako said ruefully.  "Hey, why don't you bunk
in with me tonight?  I'm looking forward to being fussed over and
nursed back to health."
     Usagi just smiled, walking over to the bed and sitting
gingerly beside her dear friend.
     "Sorry," she murmured, cupping Minako's cheek gently.
"Not tonight, Minako."
     "Ah-hah," Minako said, here eyes widening slightly.  "I
know that look.  That look means that I'm not going to get Rei into
bed before you do.  And, also, that I'm not going to get you
into bed before Rei does.  Double drat."
     "Well, if she cooperates," Usagi said lightly.
     "Right," Minako snorted.  "Who do you think you're
talking to, sister?  That innocent act doesn't fool me, you know.  If
you want her, you'll get her."
     "Minako," Usagi said softly, leaning in close.  "You're not
jealous because Rei will be first, right?"
     "Of course I am," Minako sniffed, peering at Usagi out of
the corner of her eye.  "Terribly jealous."
     "But ..." Usagi blurted, stricken.
     "So you'll have to do something special for me when it's my
turn," Minako continued.
     "It'll be special anyway," Usagi beamed, throwing her arms
around Minako.
     "She means "special" as in kinky, I bet," Artemis grumbled
from the other side of the room.
     "Hey, I've been putting a lot of thought into this, I'll have
you know," Minako shot back.  "I've come up with something I
want my princess to wear for me."
     "What?  What is it?" Usagi asked, excited.  Minako put her
lips next to Usagi's ear and whispered.
     "Oh," Usagi breathed as her face grew warm.  "Oh, my.
Minako, that's brilliant!  Can I see it?"
     "Nope," Minako replied.  "Not until it's time for me to
seduce you."
     "You're the best, Minako.  Really."  Usagi gazed at her
friend, heart bursting with affection.  "You really came through for
me during this whole thing, you know.  You never gave up on Rei,
or on all of us."
     "Yeah, but I screwed up tonight," Minako said with a
humourless chuckle.  "We'll all end up in trouble because of that."
     "Trouble always finds us," Usagi reminded her.  "I wouldn't
have you any way other than how you are.  Remember that."  Usagi
leaned close, pressing her lips to Minako's and kissing her softly.
Minako responded in kind, and it was with real regret that Usagi
finally pulled away.
     "Take care of my Minako tonight, Artemis," Usagi
murmured, brushing her senshi's blonde hair back tenderly.
     "Don't I always?" Artemis said wryly.
     "Have fun," Minako mouthed silently.  Usagi nodded,
squeezing Minako's shoulders one last time, then getting up and
going to the door.  She paused one last time to blow a kiss to
Minako, who caught it with a crooked grin.  Then she stepped out
into the hall and closed it behind her.
     "Are you coming to bed?" Luna asked from down the hall.
Usagi walked up to her, hands clasped winsomely behind her back.
     "Luna," she said sweetly.  Immediately, the dark-haired
guardian frowned.
     "Oh, gods," Luna said.  "I know that look.  What are you
planning?"
     "I'm not planning anything," Usagi scowled.  "Why does
everybody always go on about my 'looks'?  I was just going to go
in and say goodnight to Rei."
     "All right," Luna said slowly.  "I'll wait in our room, then."
     "Um," Usagi said.  "I was thinking maybe you might want
to sleep with Artemis and Minako.  You know, for the company."
     Luna stared at her for a moment, comprehension dawning in
her dark eyes.
     "Usagi," Luna said, gazing searchingly into her princess'
face.  "Are you certain this is the right time?  With all that's
happened recently ..."
     "Luna," Usagi said with a smile, reaching out to stroke dark
curls.  "I've been keeping the people I love waiting because I didn't
want to hurt any of them.  But now it's time to stop playing it safe.
No matter what happens to us, I don't want to have any regrets."
     "I used to despair," Luna sighed softly, "of you ever
maturing.  But I can't protect you from everything.  Your heart is
your most powerful asset, and you wouldn't be our princess if you
didn't believe in it.  Follow your heart, Usagi, wherever it takes
you.  And know that I'll always believe in you."
     Usagi wrapped the girl in a fierce embrace, a tumble of
fragrant dark curls tickling her nose as she burrowed into the crook
of Luna's shoulder.
     "Thank you," she whispered at last.
     "Just be good," Luna whispered back, her own voice
quavery with unshed tears.
     "Good?" Usagi beamed, wiping her eyes with the back of
her hand as she pulled away.  "I'll be better than just good!"
     "That's my princess," Luna sighed, knuckling a stray tear
from the corner of her eye.
     "Good night, Luna."
     "Good night, Usagi."
     And then she was alone in the hallway, standing outside
Rei's door.  She knocked lightly, twice, then entered at the sound
of Rei's voice.
     Rei was seated on the bed, Phobos and Deimos kneeling in
her hands.  Sleeping garb had been cobbled together from what was
available; Rei, who typically wore sleek creations of silk to bed,
was clad only in a pair of black panties and a man's plain white shirt
with the sleeves rolled up nearly to her elbows.  The white of the
shirt contrasted beautifully with the sleek silken cloak of her sable
mane.  If possible, she looked even more beautiful than usual.
     "Usagi," Rei said, her violet eyes lidded with pleasure.
Usagi loved Rei's eyes; they were, like the rest of her, exotically
beautiful, tilted up slightly at the corners like a cat's.
     "Hey," Usagi said cheerfully.  "Everybody's crashing, so I
came in to say good-night."
     "Deimos, now would be a good time to go exploring, don't
you think?" Phobos asked her partner lightly.
     "Yes, I believe you're right," Deimos agreed.  "We'll see
you later, Rei-sama."
     "All right, but stay out of trouble," Rei admonished the pair
as they took flight.  Usagi blinked as she realized their wings had
been retracted nearly all the way into their shoulder blades; she
hadn't known they could do that.
     As they flew by her, Phobos smiled and Deimos winked.
Usagi realized what had motivated their sudden urge to explore,
and smiled secretively.
     She owed the two a big favour.
     "Well," she said, closing the door behind her.  "It's been
quite a night."
     "Mmmm," Rei agreed, plunging her fingers into her raven
locks and tossing them back over her shoulders.  They slithered
sensuously down her back, and Usagi had to suppress a sigh.  "I
wonder if everything that happened will end up making us
stronger."
     "I'm certain it will," Usagi told her.  "I'm going to have to
talk some more with the others, especially Ami, but I feel like ...
like an infected wound has been lanced."
     "Now there's a mental picture," Rei said dryly, and Usagi
stuck her tongue out playfully.  This felt familiar, wonderfully so.
She sat on the bed, gazing around casually.
     "This is a nice room," she remarked.
     "It's not bad," Rei agreed.  "But most of the rooms in this
mansion haven't been used in quite a while.  This one could use a
good airing out."
     "Well, it's nicer than the room I'm in," Usagi said.  "Rei?
Can I sleep in here with you tonight?"
     "Sure," Rei said, smiling tolerantly.  "This bed is plenty big
enough.  Ami left a couple of big t-shirts in here, you can use one
of them as a nightgown."
     Usagi sat back and unbuttoned her blouse, peeling it off and
tossing it aside, where it landed on a chair still draped with a white
dust cover.  In contrast, Rei's dress, stockings and bra were neatly
folded on a low cherrywood dresser.  That was so like her.
     Usagi took her time undressing, slowly shimmying out of
her skirt, then arching her back as she unhooked her bra and added
it to the pile.  She took the t-shirt from Rei, slipping it over her
head, noting that Rei was watching her rather closely.
     Perfect.
     The shirt was quite large, the neck big enough that it could
slide down over one of her shoulders as it fell to mid-thigh.
     Also perfect.
     Usagi slipped her hands in under her hair, pulling it out from
under the shirt and giving it perhaps just an extra little toss as she
moved slowly around the room, finally coming back to the bed and
sitting slowly.  Rei watched her with those bottomless dark eyes,
looking altogether too serious for Usagi's liking.
     "I guess we should talk," Rei said softly.
     Usagi responded by crawling across the bed towards Rei on
her hands and knees.  Her body swayed with the slow movement,
and she knew that the loose neck of the t-shirt afforded Rei an
unobstructed view of her unencumbered breasts.
     "Rei," Usagi murmured, her voice husky.  "We can talk
later."
     "Whoa," Rei said, backing up until she was pressed against
the high headboard.  "Take it easy, Usagi."
     "Why?" Usagi demanded softly.  "I've missed you, you
know."
     "I don't think we should rush into anything," Rei said, her
eyes avoiding Usagi's.
     "Rush?" Usagi repeated.  "How long have we known each
other, Rei?  I think most people would agree this is long overdue!"
     "I just ... I always wanted to protect you," Rei muttered.
     "I know," Usagi breathed.  "But Rei, I don't need to be
protected.  I'm a big girl, and I know what I want.  Your past isn't
between us anymore, so you have no more excuses.  Unless ... you
don't want me?"
     Usagi bit her lip, and Rei's head came up sharply.
     "You know that isn't true!" Rei cried.
     "Then stop being so difficult," Usagi purred, moving
forward until she was straddling the uncharacteristically reticent
Rei.  Usagi ran her fingertips along the loose edges of the shirt,
tracing the bare flesh that led up to Rei's collarbone.  Leaning in
close, she breathed in Rei's dark, sultry scent.  It occurred to her
that Rei was dressed much as she herself had been that day a million
years ago when she'd greeted Rei in Mamoru's apartment.
     "Usagi, what about ...?" Rei began.  Usagi growled in her
throat; she was tired of Rei's protestations.  Rei kept acting as
though Usagi was some naive schoolgirl; perhaps it was time to
disabuse her of that notion once and for all.
     Usagi leaned in and ran her tongue up the taut flesh of Rei's
throat to the girl's ear, taking the lobe between her lips and sucking
it gently before bringing her teeth into play.  At the same time, one
hand slipped easily beneath the loose shirt, stroking and caressing
its way down across Rei's flat belly and back up to the swell of her
breast.  Usagi's ministrations were greeted with a gratifyingly sharp
gasp as Rei's body went rigid.
     "Princess," Rei whispered as Usagi pulled back to meet the
girl's shocked violet eyes with a haughty gaze.
     "Princess?" Usagi purred with a wickedly seductive smile.
"Angel, in bed you'll call me ... Queen."

***

     Minako looked up as her door opened.
     "Hi," Luna said shyly.  "Would you mind if ...?"
     "Come on in," Minako told her.  "The more the merrier."
     "I heard that," Deimos crowed, shooting in over Luna's
shoulder.  Phobos followed at a more sedate pace.
     "It looks as if we're extra baggage tonight," Luna sighed.
     "I bet this happens all the time," Deimos snickered, pulling a
loop in the air and landing on the bed.
     "Actually," Minako said, suppressing a pang of jealousy,
"this has been a long time coming, but they've never actually done
the deed."
     "Whoa.  Really?" Deimos asked.  Minako reached down to
Artemis, who was in his cat form, and scratched behind his ears.
     "Really," she said glumly.
     "Mina's jealous," Artemis said without opening his eyes.
Minako thrust out her middle finger slightly and thwacked her feline
sidekick on the head.
     "Ow!" Artemis yelped.
     "You deserved that," Luna sniffed, her body shimmering as
she changed into her feline form and leaped onto the bed.  "Can't
you even understand a girl's feelings?"
     "Yeah!" Minako grumbled.  "Jerk.  Anyway, I'm surprised
you and Luna aren't off somewhere."
     "Been a long day," Artemis sighed.  Minako watched as
Luna walked in a fastidious circle before settling on the bed beside
her.
     "Don't worry," Luna told Minako.  "You know there is a
special place in Usagi's heart for you."
     "I know," Minako said, scratching Luna's ears this time.
"Thanks, Luna."  Oddly enough, it did make her feel better to hear
that.  Minako wasn't a jealous person by nature, but she couldn't
help but feel a tiny bit neglected.  Here she was, all beat up, and
nobody had offered to sit up with her, soothing her fevered brow
and tenderly dressing her wounds.  Well, except Artemis, but he
didn't count.
     "Oh, damn!" Deimos blurted.
     "What's wrong?" Minako asked.  The small winged girl was
standing on the bed, staring down at herself with a vexed
expression.
     "I can't change my clothes," Deimos sighed, exasperated.
     "Well, I don't imagine we have anything here that would fit
you," Minako began.
     "That's not what she means," Phobos said with a smile.  "In
Aethyr, many things are affected by the realm's chaotic nature.
Any creature with will can affect their immediate surroundings to a
certain extent, which basically means we're used to being able to
change clothes whenever we want just by thinking about it."
     "No way am I going to be stuck with the same outfit for
good," Deimos grumbled, plopping down and trying to pull one of
her high leather boots off, grunting and muttering all the while.
     "Here, let me help," Phobos sighed, kneeling in front of her
twin and grasping the boot firmly, one hand cupping the heel and
the other over the instep.
     "Chaos," Luna muttered.
     "Huh?" Minako asked, caught up in watching the two
miniature girls and their struggle.
     "It's been quite a night, hasn't it?" Luna asked.  "So many
things were lurking in our pasts.  I can't believe that you are
actually the Highview Cat."
     "Don't get her started talking about herself," Artemis
grumbled.  "None of us will get any sleep."
     "I'm more concerned about Ami," Minako admitted,
absently thumping Artemis again.  "I think she held a lot back about
what happened here while this Inme jerk was in charge.  I think it
would do her good to talk about it, but she doesn't open up to me
very easily."
     "Makoto or Usagi would be the best choice," Luna agreed.
"I'm sure both of them are thinking about how to approach her."
     "You talk about her like she's fragile or something,"
Deimos said, then squawked as her boot came off, sending her
tumbling back against Minako's ribs.
     "Ami's shy," Minako said.  "Very shy.  And she doesn't talk
about herself, even when things are bothering her."
     "Maybe," Deimos shrugged.  "But she's kind of well-known
in Aethyr as being smart, and a tough cookie to boot."
     "She is?" Artemis asked.
     "Yes," Phobos told them, going to work on Deimos' other
boot.  "Humans occasionally acquire the means to venture into
Aethyr realm, but some of them just can't handle the transition.
Others blunder around blindly, making noise but not accomplishing
much.  By Ami's story, she has been making the crossing since she
was young, and she has acquired a reputation amongst the denizens
of the realm.  None of them trouble her without cause save,
perhaps, Dragon, but he is a special case."
     "We'd heard about the human girl who came and went, but
until we saw her in her uniform we didn't realize she had any link to
our Rei-sama," Deimos remarked.  "We were fortunate to take
advantage of the situation and hitch a ride across the barrier with
her."
     "Well, as a senshi Ami's as powerful as any of us," Minako
murmured.  "But I've got to admit, I'm surprised to hear she's got
such a reputation in your neck of the woods.  It just doesn't seem
like her."
     "It's always the quiet ones," Deimos opined, then sighed as
her other boot slid off.  She stretched, stripping her form-fitting
outfit off until she stood naked on the bed, a small but perfect doll
with stubs of wings on her lithe back.  Looking around, she stepped
over the blanket-covered lump of Minako's leg and draped her
naked body over Artemis.
     "Mmmmm," she purred throatily, wriggling about.  "This is
fantastic.  Phobos!  You've got to try this!"
     "H-hey!" Artemis blurted.
     "Excuse me," Luna hissed at the same time.
     "Aw, come on, Artie," Deimos pouted as Minako fought
the urge to laugh.  "Don't be stingy."  The small guardian rolled
onto her back, luxuriating in the sensation of fur on her bare skin.
     "Artemis," Luna gritted.
     "Deimos, you're going to get Artemis in trouble with his
girlfriend," Minako scolded, her eyes twinkling.
     "I just want to use him as a blanket," Deimos objected.
     "I think not," was Luna's reply.  She carefully unsheathed
her claws as she glared at Deimos, and the winged girl scampered
to safety, turning to stick out her tongue.  Minako snickered
quietly; if it wasn't impossible she'd have sworn that Artemis was
blushing.
     "Don't cause so much trouble," Phobos scolded her partner.
"We are guests here, remember?"
     "Sorry," Deimos said ruefully, scratching the back of her
head.  "Things are pretty loose in Aethyr compared to here, I
guess."
     "That's okay," Minako assured her.  "Here, you can sleep
with me."
     "Yay!"  Deimos moved up to Minako's shoulder and knelt,
burrowing happily into the tumbled mass of blonde hair there.
Phobos joined her as soon as she had undressed while Luna
watched suspiciously.
     "Your hair is as long as Rei-sama's," Phobos marvelled,
picking up a thick lock in her hands and letting it spill down over
her.  "But it smells different.  Lighter, somehow."
     "You two are going to have to get over this shyness thing,"
Minako said dryly.  "Are all fairies like you?"
     "I suppose we're sort of Fey, since we had no trouble living
in Aethyr," Phobos told her, gazing up with dark eyes, "but we
aren't really fairies.  We are guardians sworn to the service of the
princess of House Mars."
     "We're aliens," Deimos added, rolling around in Minako's
hair.
     "Aliens?" Minako echoed.
     "From Coronis, originally," Phobos confirmed.  "Although in
this time, we were reborn in Aethyr."
     "Just like Artemis and Luna are from Mau," Minako
murmured.  "Huh.  Tell me something, darlings.  Do you remember
the Silver Millennium?"
     "Mostly," Phobos nodded.  "Don't you?"
     "Our memories of that time are still a little spotty," Minako
sighed.  "But I'd like to hear some more about it.  Especially
anything you guys remember about us back then."
     "Oh, my," Phobos said, clasping her hands together.
"Where to start?"
     "Where else," Minako said with a wicked grin.  "Start with
the good stuff."

***

     Makoto knew who was at her door as soon as she heard the
timid taps.  Truth be told, she'd been expecting this visit.
     "Come in, Ami," she called softly.  The door opened, Ami
silhouetted by the light from the hall as she entered and closed the
door behind her.
     "You knew it was me," Ami said softly.
     "Uh-huh," Makoto replied.  She sat up in the bed, not
thinking of her nudity until the sheet slipped away and Ami turned,
her furious blush visible even in the dim light.
     "Sorry," Makoto chuckled.  "But your spare pajamas
wouldn't fit me.  Anyway, I like sleeping nude."
     "I remember," Ami mumbled.
     "Come on," Makoto sighed, patting the bed beside her.
You know I won't bite.  I'm not Minako."
     "Thank goodness," Ami said, and Makoto knew she was
smiling.  Ami came over and sat on the bed gingerly, looking
adorable in her conservative pajamas with the tiny blue dolphin
pattern on them.  Makoto shook her head.  She and Ami were such
opposites; how was it that they had become ready friends?
     "Here," Makoto murmured, moving over.  Ami stretched
out beside her, and Makoto pulled the blankets up over them.  She
plucked a heavy quilt from the chair on the other side of the bed,
since she knew from experience that Ami liked more blankets than
she did.
     "Thank you," Ami murmured.  She was lying on her back,
and Makoto propped herself on one elbow so she could watch her
friend.
     "Quite a night, huh?" she said at last.
     "Mmm," Ami agreed.  "I wonder if everything is really
going to be all right?"
     "Well, I don't know about Hotaru and the others," Makoto
sighed.  "But I think we're going to be able to work things out with
our group.  It'll be a little awkward at first, sure, but we've had
rough patches before."
     "I hope you're right," Ami mumbled.  "There were so many
secrets that came out all of a sudden.  I wonder how everyone's
going to act once they've had a chance to think about things."
     Makoto knew what Ami was talking about, but she also
suspected that Ami was easing her way into asking what Makoto
thought about the mansion and its history.
     "You okay?" Makoto asked gently.
     "Hmm?  Oh, of course," Ami said quickly.  "I mean, it's all
in the past, anyway.  It's nothing to worry about now.  I meant
about Rei's past, you know, and Minako, if you can believe that ..."
     Makoto reached over and slid her arm across Ami's
shoulders, cutting off the torrent of nervous babble instantly.  Ami's
body went rigid and still for a moment; Makoto knew Ami was
twitchy about being touched sometimes, but she left her arm there
until Ami let out her breath in a long rush.  Then the taller girl
carefully pulled Ami closer to her.  Most people didn't know that
Ami was a champion snuggler, and Makoto smiled as the quiet girl
nuzzled into the crook of her friend's shoulder, wriggling close
under the covers.
     "You okay?" Makoto repeated, her voice soft against Ami's
ear.  Ami trembled slightly, and Makoto gave her a comforting
squeeze.
     "I guess," came Ami's muffled reply.
     "I get the feeling there's a lot more to what went on in this
place than we've heard so far," Makoto murmured gently.  "Want
to talk about it?"
     Ami said nothing for a time, which was fine with Makoto.
If Ami didn't want to talk about it, she was free to just take
comfort in being close.  Minako was always trying to push Ami into
things for her own good, but Makoto preferred to let Ami do things
at her own pace.  She'd learned that, if Ami really wanted to do
something, she'd get there eventually.
     "There was something," Ami whispered at last into the
drowsy darkness.  "Something specific that precipitated the end.
Well, a chain of events, really."
     Makoto said nothing, just reaching up carefully to stroke
Ami's hair.  She felt eyelashes against her bare shoulder as Ami
closed her eyes.
     "Like I told you, it got harder for Inme to get children after a
while," Ami said softly after a bit.  "I don't know if the government
started cracking down as things got a little more stable, but it didn't
matter much.  He had a core of proven Aethyr divers who'd made
him a lot of money, and we certainly weren't going anywhere.  But
as time wore on, we weren't really children anymore.  I remember
this one girl, Katrina.  She was a little older than the rest of us, and
really pretty.  She had blonde hair and blue eyes, like Minako or
Usagi, and she was really sweet."
     Makoto's throat tightened.  She was very afraid she knew
where this was going, and all of a sudden she wanted to make Ami
stop.  But that wasn't fair; she'd offered Ami the shoulder to lean
on, after all, and Ami needed to tell this.
     "Then Inme started spending more time with her," Ami
whispered.  "And she stopped being so sweet.  There was this look
in her eyes, all the time.  This ... emptiness.  She stopped talking,
mostly anyway.  I'd seen it a couple of times before, in kids who
couldn't take the transition to Aethyr, or even the captivity itself.  I
knew she was looking for a way out.
     "And then, one day, it was her turn and he took her into
Aethyr.  He came back alone."
     "That bastard," Makoto gritted.
     "She found her way out," Ami breathed.  "He never told us
what happened, but I knew there were plenty of ways to get
yourself killed on a dive.  His supervisor's circle was designed to
protect him, after all, not us.  It was right after that when his second
crony disappeared, too.  After that, things were quiet for a while,
but eventually he started looking at the other girls a lot, staring at
us sometimes when we ate or did the chores.  I came to hate that
look.  It made me feel dirty, and scared."
     "Oh, Ami ..." Makoto whispered.  She'd felt so sorry for
herself, for her own shattered past, but she'd never suspected that
sweet, gentle Ami had endured much worse.
     "I might have found a way out myself," Ami went on,
snuggling up closer to Makoto.  "But there was a boy, one of the
originals like me.  His name was Keiichi, and he always made me
laugh.  It's hard to believe we ever could have laughed back then,
but his spirit never seemed to dim even when Inme punished him
for breaking the rules.  Keiichi had hair sort of like yours and the
strangest eyes, one blue and one green.  He always said it was
because he was half Fey, and if you asked him which half he always
said something different, like the right half or the top half or the
bigger half.  And I laughed every time.  I guess I was in love with
him almost from the beginning."
     Makoto just squeezed Ami gently, thinking of a tattered
street rat and the handsome young werewolf who'd treated her
sweetly when the world had seemed intent on crushing her spirit.
At least you had someone, Ami, she thought, even if just for a little
while.  I'm glad.
     "One time Inme pulled me aside during chores.  He'd been
doing it to all the girls, and I knew what was coming.  I was so
scared, but then a dirty mop hit Inme in the face, and the next thing
I knew Keiichi was there, shouting at him, saying if he was making
so much money why didn't he go buy some on the street instead of
forcing himself on girls."
     "I like this boy, Ami," Makoto rumbled, deep in her throat.
"A lot."
     "You would have," Ami murmured.  "He was really
something.  Inme beat him bloody for defying him, made us all
watch.  But Keiichi held it all in, and he didn't cry out, not once.  It
made Inme wild, and he beat Keiichi until he was unconscious.
Then, a couple of days later, it was my turn to dive, but Inme
changed the schedule.  He made Keiichi go in my place.
     "And just like Katrina, he never came back."
     "Inme was a monster," Makoto growled.
     "Yes," Ami agreed.  "I knew he'd cut Keiichi loose in
Aethyr, to slowly lose his identity and disappear into the chaos.
That was when I knew.  I'd been afraid for so long, afraid to try
and defy this man who controlled out lives.  But what I wouldn't do
for myself, I could do for someone else.  A plan began to form.  I
started doing experiments, things that would have gotten me
punished, or worse, if I'd been caught.  But Inme didn't catch me.
He was more and more busy in those days with his ... little
diversions."
     Diversions, indeed.  Makoto thought of those children, pretty
little caged birds being tormented by a man who'd come to think of
them as his possessions.  She wanted to cry out, but what right had
she to rage when Ami told her story so calmly?  There was a
suspicious wetness against her shoulder, but no sobs to accompany
it.  Makoto craned her neck and planted a kiss on Ami's forehead.
     "You can stop if you want," she told the smaller girl.
     "No," Ami whispered, breathless.  "I want to finish.  I
figured out how to hack into the sigils of his supervisor's circle, but
I needed to get at it while he wasn't around, and we were always
locked in our cells at night.  So I began creating an Aethyr port of
my own in my cell.  I had to create it in one night, then erase it
before dawn so he wouldn't see, so I devised what I needed in my
head and kept it there.  We had nothing to draw with, so one night I
cut myself with a sliver of glass I'd been hoarding and sketched out
my prototype circle in blood."
     "Ami!" Makoto gasped.  "Blood magick of any kind is
terribly dangerous, isn't it?  Ami?  Answer me."
     "I didn't care by then," Ami said by way of response.  "I
knew I could make it work.  Inme had always said how smart I
was, and now that I was motivated he was about to find out just
how right he was.  My circle used the same major sigils as the main
circle.  It was easy enough to memorize them after all the times I'd
seen it.  I got the two circles to resonate, and managed to link them
so I could transfer.  That just got me from one locked room to
another, but I was where I needed to be."
     "That's how you sabotaged his control circle."
     "I had to be subtle," Ami went on.  "If he suspected, he'd
surely kill me, even if I was a proven diver.  But by then he was
certain that Keiichi's fate had cowed us into being good.  Maybe he
was just overconfident.  But on our next trip, I ended up in control.
I cut him loose, and I listened to him scream as he realized what I'd
done, felt the bite of the wolves.  He offered me everything as I
began to leave, money, the house, anything I could want.  Except
for my childhood, of course.  Or Keiichi.  I remember not feeling
any sympathy for him as I left him to die slowly.  That was the first
time I wondered if I'd become as bad as him."
     "He was a monster, Ami," Makoto told the girl, conviction
in her voice.  "You should never feel any regret for what you did.
I'm proud of you, little sister."
     "You are?" Ami whispered, her voice breaking.
     "Yes," Makoto smiled.  "I am."  Then something struck her,
and she squeezed Ami gently.  "That's the real reason why you
started going back into Aethyr, isn't it?  You were looking for
Keiichi."
     "I used to dream that I would find him and bring him back,"
Ami whispered.  "But that was just a dream.  Humans don't last
very long in Aethyr without the protection of a portal."
     Ami's arms wrapped around Makoto then, and a tiny sob
escaped the girl.  Makoto sighed, rubbing one hand in circles over
Ami's back.
     "Let it go, Ami," Makoto whispered, holding the girl close.
"But don't shed any tears over the coward who preyed on children,
okay?  Cry for Keiichi, who was one of the good guys.  And for
little Ami, who had to grow up too fast.  Our pasts have been
chaining us down, Ami, and I guess it's time we buried them."
     "Can we really do that?" Ami asked breathily.
     "I want to show you something," Makoto said by way of
reply.  She'd kept it close at hand, suspecting this moment might
come, and she retrieved it from under her pillow, savouring the feel
of it in her palm.
     "Is that what I think it is?" Ami asked, her glistening blue
eyes wide with comprehension as she stared at the signet ring
nestled in Makoto's palm.
     "We really can bury the past," Makoto replied softly.
"Trust me, I know."
     "Thank you," Ami breathed.  "It's good to know that
somebody really understands."
     "I understand," Makoto told her.  "We don't feel grief for
weasels or monsters, only for the people we loved.  Deal?"
     Ami nodded against Makoto's shoulder, and the taller girl
smile.
     "Good," she murmured, stroking Ami's hair.  "Good."
     She held Ami close to her, creating a safe oasis in the night for
two girls who'd been treated badly by life.

***

     I sat on the roof in almost the exact spot I'd occupied
earlier.  The gargoyles were still doing their thing, scowling off into
space.  I preferred these stone versions to the ones I'd scrapped
with in the subway station; they were much easier to get along with.
     The wind had a bit of an edge to it, and I shivered as it
gusted along the rooftop, whistling through the peaks and gables
and whatever all the other weird projections and spiky bits were
called.  The area around the mansion was dark, spreading out like
an inky cloak in all directions.  The lights of the city were clearly
visible, but they seemed like a distant shore, with me adrift on a
black sea.
     It was kind of a peaceful feeling, actually.
     I leaned back against the cold brick of the chimney and
sighed.  Earlier, I'd listened to the goings on around me downstairs
with a sense of amazement.  Nobody was spending the night alone;
Usagi had gone to Rei's room, somebody had gone to Minako's,
and I'd spotted Ami knocking on Makoto's door.
     The things Minako had said to me at the lighthouse came
back to me, and I sighed again.  If everyone wanted to share their
beds, then I supposed it really wasn't any of my business, even if
they were all girls except for Artemis.  In fact, once upon a time I
would have been shocked and outraged at the thought, but that was
a lifetime ago.  Still, even if things were different here than I was
used to, I found it a little hard to adjust to how open and
uninhibited these people were about intimate matters.  By their
standards I was probably horribly prudish, but I couldn't help it.  I
couldn't just change my attitudes overnight.  If ever.
     My thoughts drifted to the things that had been revealed
over the course of the night, and I found myself feeling pangs of
sympathy.  Having brooded long and hard about my own past, I'd
lost sight somewhere along the way of the fact that other people
had pain to deal with as well.  Makoto had lost the gang she'd
considered family, and blamed herself for it.  Ami had grown up a
virtual slave, being forced to risk her life regularly.  Rei had let her
anger push her on to a dark path that still haunted her.  And
Minako, Rei had suggested that she might have had to do some
pretty unpleasant things back before she'd become a cat burglar.
     What a group these girls were.  And now they were thinking
of going to another realm or something and checking to see if a
real, genuine goddess was snoozing in some lost castle, so they
could concentrate on fighting a vampire who may have made their
ex-boss into what she was.
     And I'd thought Nerima was interesting.
     The question was, what was I going to do?  I'd been telling
myself all along that I had just been caught up in events, but now
things were getting complicated.  These girls knew my past, and I
knew theirs.  Somehow, I seemed to have gotten tangled up with
their mission, and even if I wanted to just walk away now I wasn't
sure that was possible.
     But it sounded like trouble was brewing, heavy trouble.
The kind that gets people killed.  I didn't want to have to see any
more people die, especially not when I was starting, against my
better judgement, to like them.  The prospect of trouble hadn't
bothered me for some time, but that was when I'd been alone.
Then, trouble just meant a way to vent my ever present anger.
Now I wasn't going to just have myself to worry about.
     If only there was some way to take the initiative, hunt this
vampire instead of letting her hunt me ...
     I froze.  When it was put that way, the answer was pretty
simple, wasn't it?  Damn, but I was an idiot.  I fished the key out
from under my shirt, letting it dangle in front of my face.  If the
vampire was attracted to the key when I tried to use it, then all I
had to do was lay a trap and let it shine.  She'd come running, or at
least send some of her pet wraiths.
     I had actually gotten up and taken a couple of steps before
reality set in.  What was it Rei had said?  It would be hard to corner
these things because they could use the shadows to slip away.  I
could kill the things easy enough, but catching one so I could
question it?  That might just be more than a streetfighter like me
could handle.  And what if the vampire came herself?  I kept
hearing how they could control people; did I really want to risk
getting into a fight with an opponent with such unknown abilities?
     Once upon a time, of course, I wouldn't have hesitated.
Ranma Saotome took on all comers with scarcely a thought of the
consequences.  But that was before ... before I had my nose rubbed
in the dirt by an uncaring universe.  We'd thought we would live
forever, but I'd found out the hard way just how arrogant I'd been.
I wasn't afraid to die, and when faced with any enemy I'd fight
without holding back.  But this, this was different.  Like it or not,
these girls were involved in whatever was going on.  Could I really
risk their safety just because I was impatient?
     The answer was no.  There were too many unknowns here
for me to go charging off.  Rei had seen me in her vision, after all,
causing destruction, and I was determined that wasn't going to
happen.  I also wasn't going to risk blowing what might be our only
chance to get to the core of the problem.  Most importantly, I
couldn't risk letting this vampire get hold of the key.  I'd have to
tell the others my idea and find out of there was any way to capture
one of the wraiths and hold it long enough to get some answers.
     Well, damn.  Being responsible sucked.  I sat back down on
the roof, letting out a long, discouraged sigh.  So now I had no
outlet for my frustrations, and I was too keyed up to sleep.  So I
stayed up on the roof, and thought.  Occasionally, I thought about
how warm those beds must be with so many people in them.
     But only occasionally.
 

***

     "You are a little vixen," Rei sighed softly, her fingers twined
in Usagi's unbound golden tresses.  "You know that, don't you?"
     "Of course," Usagi murmured.  "And now, so do you.  I
can't believe it took seducing you to finally convince you I wasn't
some innocent little doll."
     Rei's blood was still hot, simmering inside her as it pooled
sluggishly throughout her body.  She lay on her stomach next to
Usagi, who was on her back.  Rei's arm was slung over Usagi's
body as they faced each other on the pillow, blue eyes meeting
violet.
     "I'm convinced," Rei said with a sly smile.  Usagi reached
over and traced her slim fingers over Rei's back idly.
     "Hmmm," Usagi mumbled, and Rei stiffened as she realized
where the girl's fingers were.  "These are nasty.  Did she do this?"
     "Usagi," Rei said, tension roiling in her stomach suddenly.
"You don't have to compare yourself to Saekianna."  Rei wondered
if Usagi was suddenly going to make an issue of her recent
dalliance.
     "I'm not," Usagi told her with a wicked sparkle in her eye.
"I was just wondering if you liked it.  Being scratched hard enough
to draw blood, I mean.  Did she do it often?"
     "Usagi ..." Rei began, then gasped as the girl dug her nails
into one of the half-healed welts and dragged it, not quite hard
enough to draw blood but not holding back much either.  Rei stifled
a moan, tugging on the girl's hair.
     "Stop that!" she blurted.
     "I just want to know what you like," Usagi sighed.  "I have
to compete with a high priestess who knew all sorts of dark sexual
techniques, you know."
     "Usagi," Rei whispered, rubbing her leg along the other
girl's languidly, "you do not have to compete.  I love you for you.
I need you to understand that, and to believe it."
     Usagi gazed back at her, those crystal blue eyes regarding
Rei carefully.  Rei willed the girl to believe, to not be distracted by
Rei's indiscretion with her old partner.  Finally, Usagi smiled, her
face lighting up.
     "I love you too," Usagi told her softly.
     "Remember what I told you, about the Sisterhood
understanding all about pleasure but nothing about love?  Well,
Saekianna did mean a lot to me, but I never loved her the way I do
you."
     "I'm glad," Usagi murmured, nuzzling Rei affectionately.
"But I meant what I said, Rei.  I want to know what you like so I
can do it with you.  I don't want you hiding things from me because
you think they're too shocking or kinky.  Promise?"
     "All right," Rei sighed.  "But I'm not going to just tell you
all my secrets at once, you know.  You've got to work to discover
some things about your lovers.  I don't want to set a bad precedent
for Minako and Mamoru.  Among others."
     "Okay," Usagi said with a mischievous grin.  "But you'll
teach me some tricks I can use with them, right?"
     "I sometimes talk about such things," Rei growled huskily.
"When I'm completely ... sated."
     "Oooo," Usagi gasped.  "A challenge.  I like those!"
     "Princess," Rei murmured.  "My beautiful princess.  I can't
believe how close I came to screwing everything up between us."
     "Let's not talk about that now," Usagi said sombrely.  Rei
noticed gooseflesh breaking out across Usagi's naked skin, and
reached over to pull some blankets over them.  Usagi smiled
gratefully, rolling over to face Rei and reaching out to brush stray
tendrils of midnight hair from the girl's cheek.
     "We still have to talk about my past," Rei told her.
"Eventually."
     "Eventually," Usagi agreed.  She cuddled close to Rei, who
shifted position and put her arms around the girl, drinking in her
scent, her warmth.  Why had she denied herself this for so long?  It
was as if the entire world was suddenly better, cleaner, every
tomorrow filled with promise.  An image flashed painfully clear in
her mind just then, an image of Usagi's tear-streaked face above a
white flowing dress.  But Usagi was smiling despite her tears, and
in the night sky the earth hung full and blue behind her.  Rei
realized this was a memory of her and Usagi back in their previous
life, and she recalled with painful clarity that she'd put both the
tears and the smile on Usagi's face that night.
     It seemed that things were never simple between them, no
matter how powerful the bond they shared.
     "It was quite a night, huh?" Usagi murmured, her hot breath
tickling Rei's throat.
     "You realize there will be fallout from all of that," Rei told
her.  "A lot was revealed in a short time, and everybody has to deal
with things their own way."
     "You seemed to come to terms with Makoto," Usagi
remarked.  "She didn't seem as angry after you two talked.  Well,
not at you, anyway."
     "I hope you're right.  I can see why she was so sensitive
about the issue of betrayal now, and hopefully she can accept that
neither Hotaru nor myself deliberately betrayed her trust.  But trust
is a fragile thing, princess, and even if Makoto accepts that
everything happened for a reason, it will take time to establish that
kind of trust again."
     "I know," Usagi sighed.  "I know.  I take it you think it's
too early to go see Hotaru?"
     "Yes," Rei told her.  "I do.  We might make contact with
the others, but Hotaru needs to make the first move if she really
wants to heal the rift between us."
     "I suppose," Usagi said, sounding reluctant.
     "And what about this house?  I'm not sure Ami came clean
about everything that happened here."
     "I bet she's talking to Mako-chan right now," Usagi
mumbled, wriggling happily as Rei traced her nails lightly down the
muscles of her back.  "I'll get Ami to tell me more, too.  You just
have to get her in the right mood, is all."
     "Make sure she doesn't feel any guilt about getting that
human garbage Inme killed," Rei said grimly.
     "Don't worry, I will," Usagi promised.  "That Ami, she sure
can keep a secret, can't she?  I never even suspected.  I wonder if
Hotaru knew?  Say, and what about Minako?"
     "I doubt very much she knew," Rei said, deliberately
misunderstanding Usagi's question.
     "That's not what I meant!" Usagi snorted, nudging Rei
sharply.  "She's a famous cat-burglar and all that, but ... Rei?  What
did you mean when you were talking about what she did before
that?"
     "What do you mean?" Rei asked, feigning a yawn.
     "Rei.  I'm not stupid," Usagi chided.  "You mentioned
places where the law wasn't followed, places she might have
worked in.  Those places are pretty bad, aren't they?"
     "Usagi," Rei murmured, staring frankly into the other girl's
eyes.  "You know Minako.  She's all bombast and bodaciousness,
always strutting her confidence all around.  Weakness or
uncertainty, she keeps deep inside.  She's been like that since we've
known her, and I can only guess at the factors that forged her
personality into such a strong shield.  If she carries emotional scars
from those days, she won't show them easily."
     "She'd show them to you," Usagi whispered with a gentle
smile.  "She trusts you, you know."
     Rei was startled by Usagi's words, but she recognized the
truth in them.
     "You treat her like a nuisance sometimes," Usagi went on,
"but you really do like her, don't you, Rei?"
     "Yes," Rei admitted ruefully.  "I do."
     "She's been trying to get you into bed for so long," Usagi
commented, running her fingers lightly up and down Rei's taut
belly.  "You might at least give her a little encouragement."
     "Let her work a little more for it," Rei grinned.  She recalled
how Minako had pursued her after her past had been revealed,
always extending her hand, refusing to give up.  Yes, maybe it was
time to give Minako a little of the encouragement she so desired.
"Anyway, she'll reveal her secrets to you too, princess.  But you
should give things a chance to settle down a little first.  We're all at
the brink of suffering from emotional burnout."
     "I'm suffering from something else right now," Usagi
whispered enticingly.  "And you never answered my question."
     "What quest ... ungh!"  Rei tensed as Usagi raked her nails
fiercely along the welts on her back again.
     "Do you like that?" Usagi whispered, enunciating each
word with delicate care.
     "Am I going to have to tie you up to make you behave, you
little minx?" Rei demanded, her belly fluttering pleasurably at the
expression in Usagi's gorgeous blue eyes.
     "You haven't got any rope," Usagi teased her, fluttering her
eyelashes innocently.
     Rei weighed a lock of long blonde hair in one hand, eyes
narrowed thoughtfully.
     "I'll make do," she told her lover with an imperious glare.
     "You wouldn't dare," Usagi sniffed, raising her chin slightly
in a deliberately haughty gesture.
     Rei smiled.
     And dared.

***

     Stillness.
     There was a point in time, some interminable and
indefinable period that lasted somewhere between and instant and
eternity, when everything in the city seemed to fall still at the exact
same time.  Mamoru had pulled enough all-nighters to know about
this peculiar lapse in the heartbeat of the metropolis, which seemed
to always begin just before dawn.  He was in it now, and he closed
his eyes and relished the sensation.  Even the wind had fallen still.
     Perhaps part of its beauty was that so few people seemed to
recognize the moment, or perhaps its fleeting nature was what
made it so precious.  Nonetheless, Mamoru had always enjoyed
revelling in that almost mystic stillness; in those moments, it was as
if he could feel a bond to the city, even the world, around him.  He
wondered if it had been that way in the past, when he'd actually
been prince of this entire world.  Had he ever taken time back then
to close his eyes and feel his world?  He wasn't certain, but it
seemed to him that he had not.
     A pity.
     "Pivlionta," a voice murmured behind him.  Mamoru didn't
bother to glance up.
     "Bless you," he said.
     Yusaku laughed.  "It's an old Reinan word," his partner
explained, propping his elbows on the railing beside Mamoru and
gazing off the edge of the roof.  "It refers to the point of stillness
that divides one day from the next."
     "They have a name for that?" Mamoru asked, raising his
eyebrows.  "Seriously?"
     "Ah, my ancestors had names for everything," Yu shrugged.
"Gave 'em something to do besides drink and fight."
     Mamoru didn't feel the need to respond.  He and Yusaku
had been partnered long enough that silences didn't need to be
filled with chatter to avoid becoming uncomfortable.
     "Nice view," Yusaku sighed finally.  "Can't see the dirt
from up here."
     "You hear about Lakefront?" Mamoru asked.
     "Twelve Division?" Yusaku inquired.
     "Fourteen.  Lost two last night."
     "Shit," Yusaku said quietly.  "Monsters?"
     Mamoru gave a small, bitter laugh.  "Some kid on a routine
traffic stop.  He was blasted on glitter, attacked them for no reason
with a knife, then ran all the way to the old war memorial with six
bullets in him before he was run over by a garbage truck."
     "Irony.  How marvellous.  Too bad he couldn't have been run
over a little earlier," Yusaku sighed.  "We know either of the cops?"
     "One was a rookie, she died at the scene.  The other one's
name was Khira, used to work out of the marine unit apparently.
Made it all the way to the hospital.  I didn't know either."
     "Some days, partner," Yusaku muttered.  "Some days, I just
wonder why we bother."
     "That doesn't sound like you," Mamoru frowned, shooting
a glance at his partner.  Yusaku looked his usual self, designer
jacket freshly pressed, long blonde hair tied back neatly and
blowing in the wind like it had been trained to do so.  But there was
something in his eyes, a shadow that Mamoru had rarely seen.
Yusaku was the type to take things in stride, not obsess about
them.
     "You know, my ma had the mojo," Yusaku said off-
handedly.  "She never talked about it much, but she had it.  My
sister got it, too, but me, I got my dad's genes, the good-looking,
straight shooting ones.  And that's been fine with me, you know?  I
never much cared for the spooky stuff."
     Mamoru just stared.  Yusaku rarely spoke of his family; his
mother had died years before, his father and sister lived in a
neighbouring kingdom.  Mamoru had no idea what might have
brought this on.
     "Mamoru," Yusaku said softly, gazing off past the flashing
landing lights of the flier pad, "I need to talk to you about
something, and I need you to take me seriously.  So I'm going to
tell you a story that I've never told anybody, and afterwards it's
going to be like I never told you.  All right?"
     Mamoru stared into Yusaku's emerald eyes for a few
moments.  He wasn't certain what was going on, but he did know
one thing for certain.
     "I trust you," he said.
     "That's my boy," Yusaku said, showing a ghost of his usual
smile.  Then he slipped his jacket off and slung it over the rail and
began unbuttoning his shirt.  Mamoru watched, mystified, as
Yusaku pulled his shirt down to reveal one lean muscled shoulder.
     "You know what this is?" Yusaku asked, and as Mamoru
saw the tattoo on Yusaku's shoulder he suddenly understood, at
least a little.
     "Queen's Rangers," Mamoru said softly, taking in the
insignia of a unicorn on a shield topped by the royal coat of arms.
"I knew you served during the border troubles, but I didn't realize
you were in the special forces."
     "Border troubles," Yusaku said with a humourless smile.
"Yes, I suppose they were that.  First the Tyrians started getting
rowdy, then that whole thing with the elves.  But it all ended pretty
quick, Mamoru, and I bet you couldn't tell me why."
     Mamoru felt a queer tightening sensation in his chest and a
certainty he knew where this conversation was going.
     "You were at Terrin Saeche," he breathed.
     "Yes I was," Yusaku said, slipping his shirt back on and
buttoning it up.  "And while I don't know what really happened to
almost bring us to war with the elves after all this time, I do know
what happened those three days in Terrin Saeche to end it all."
     Yusaku fell silent for a moment, and Mamoru looked at the
man as though he was a stranger.  Even after all this time, the
historic border town of Terrin Saeche was strictly off-limits,
hulking in silent ruin behind a military cordon.  Mamoru
remembered those days, how border flare-ups had threatened to
explode into open warfare, how a kingdom still traumatized by the
Long Dark had teetered on the brink of disaster.  Breathless reports
had touted Terrin Saeche as the point of no return, where the
reclusive Sidhe would finally declare their intentions.
     And then the first reports of an attack, and ... nothing.  A
kingdom had held its collective breath as Terrin Saeche was cut off,
waiting for reports of either victory or defeat.  In the end, they
heard neither.  After three days, the crown had announced the
renewal of the truce with the Sidhe, the Tyrians stopped staging
troop exercises along the border, and all went back to normal.
Hidden in the collective relief, however, was a lingering mystery;
what exactly HAD happened at Terrin Saeche?  To this day, no
details had been released.
     "I remember," Yusaku said at last.  "I remember how it felt
that night, as we dug in around the remains of the old temple out in
the forest.  It got dark, and quiet, and I felt it in my bones, in my
skin.  Something was wrong, bad wrong.  I wasn't green by then,
and I knew what it felt like, waiting for an attack, but this was
different.  I'd never felt anything like it before.  We had two seers
with our unit, and they'd been getting squirrelly since we entered
the town.  One woke up screaming that night, screaming that he
was blind.  They had to sedate him, he just wouldn't stop.  The
other killed himself just before daybreak."
     The wind had picked up again, and that moment of stillness
that Mamoru had treasured was gone, but he stood still, enraptured
by Yusaku's story.
     "I didn't think I'd sleep that night, but somehow I did,"
Yusaku continued after a time.  "And I dreamed of my mother.  She
warned me.  I never had the mojo, but somehow she reached out to
me that night.  'It wants the temple', she told me.  'Ward your
dead'.  Any other time I might have dismissed it as just a dream, but
not that night.  I had the screaming heebie-jeebies when I woke up,
and I was sure I was going to die."
     "Yu, what happened to you out there?" Mamoru finally
asked as his partner fell silent again.
     "I can't," Yusaku said, his shoulders stiff.  "I can't talk
about it.  But my dream was right.  Whatever we were fighting
ended up targeting an old ruined temple, and it turned our own
dead against us.  If the elves hadn't fought with us, no one would
have walked away from there."
     "What?  They did what?"
     "It was bad, Mamoru," Yusaku said, turning to they were
face to face.  "The worst ever.  I was never so scared in my whole
life, and I never felt the way I felt that night in the woods.  Until
last night."
     "Yu, you're starting to scare me here," Mamoru said
slowly.
     "Good," Yusaku said simply.  "Listen to me, partner.  Last
night, I felt that old creeping terror, the one that told me something
bad wrong was coming.  And my mother visited again."
     "What did she say?"  Mamoru suddenly wasn't certain he
wanted to know, but Yusaku obviously had something to tell him.
The other man stepped closer, so close that they were nearly
touching.
     "She said Silence was coming," he murmured.  "She said
the White Moon would be covered by Shadow."  Then Yusaku
placed his palms flat against Mamoru's chest, sliding them slowly
up under the loose jacket, his eyes never leaving his partner's.
When he drew his hands out, Mamoru tensed as he realized Yusaku
had a red rose clasped between his fingers.
     "And she warned that the Red Rose would be beset by the
Black," he whispered.  Then Yusaku tilted his chin slightly and
kissed the stunned Mamoru on the mouth, lingering there while
brushing the dark-haired man's cheek with the purloined rose.
     "Yu," Mamoru breathed.  How much did Yusaku know?
He didn't know about Mamoru's other identity, did he?  Could he?
     "I'd hate to lose a partner who was such a good kisser,"
Yusaku said softly, green eyes softened with affection.  "I think you
might want to pay a visit to your sweet girlfriend today, before it all
hits the fan."
     "But ..." Mamoru began.
     "Don't worry, I'll cover for you," Yusaku promised.  "What
are partners for, anyway?"
     Mamoru stared at his partner.  He'd learned early on to
trust his partner's instincts; anyway, Mamoru was being given
something precious, and now was not the time to ask questions.
     "Thanks, Yu," Mamoru said.  "For everything."
     "Sure," Yusaku replied, handing the rose back.  "Just take
care of yourself, all right?"
     With that, Yusaku grabbed his jacket and turned, walking across
the roof and disappearing through the stairwell door.  Mamoru
watched him go, brushing his still tingling lips with the rose.
Perhaps Yu's vision, or whatever it had been, merely gave him a
hint as to how to get Mamoru's attention.  And even if he did
suspect something, Yusaku was the kind of guy you could depend
on.  A secret was safe in his hands.
     Mamoru turned back to look out over the city, but already
he could feel the distant thrum of activity as the new day began.
     Usako, he thought.  I'm coming.  Just stay safe until I'm
with you, okay?
     Then he turned and trudged across the roof, tucking the red
rose safely under his jacket until it was needed.

***

     "Rei?" Usagi murmured drowsily.  Rei stirred, peering
down at the vision of loveliness who lay nestled intimately in her
arms.
     "What, again?" Rei whispered in disbelief.
     "No, not that," Usagi giggled.  "I like it how we are now.
But I was just thinking ..."
     "Hmmm?"
     "The worst is past," Usagi sighed happily.  "We're finally
together, and we know that Hotaru isn't a monster after all.  There's
nothing we can't handle when we're all together."
     "I suppose you're right," Rei admitted sleepily.
     "Of course I am," Usagi mumbled, nuzzling closer to Rei
and sighing contentedly.  "You'll see.  From now on, everything's
really going to be okay."
 
 
 

end chapter 9

Foot Notes: The character of Dios is from Revolutionary Girl
Utena