TSC Interlude

OACDYCSF
 

Prologue:

     Milo staggered through the door, propelled by a wind that
was almost feral in its intensity.  Kei yelped as icy rain invaded the
room, spattering across the formerly dry floor.  He glared at Milo's
back as the younger man leaned against the door to get it closed.
     "Gods, Milo," he grumbled, grabbing at loose papers which
had taken flight on errant streamers of sodden wind.  Milo swept
back the hood of his slicker and shot his partner a sour look.
     "Don't give me that," Milo gasped, shaking water from the
slicker as he shucked it like a second skin.  "That frigging storm is
brutal!  Gods, I thought the wind was gonna blow me clear to the
old city!"  Kei was not a superstitious man by nature, but the
mention of the old city on such a night gave him a chill nonetheless.
Such things were best not spoken of on nights when the wilder
forces held sway.
     "You get it?" he asked.  Milo held up a large plastic bag and
grinned, his brown hair plastered wetly to his forehead.
     "Coffee, large, black," he announced, "and a half dozen
doughnuts, lemon jelly.  Stuff'll kill you, man."  Milo set the bag
down on the counter near his partner, who set about retrieving his
booty.
     "Without coffee and doughnuts, youngster, life wouldn't be
worth living," Kei sighed.  Milo sat beside him, sighing as he put his
feet up on the counter and opened his own coffee.
     "Chocolate dipped?" Kei asked around a mouthful of
doughnut.
     "Dutchies," Milo responded.  "Don't wanna get in a rut, old
man.  Not like you."  Kei grunted and sipped his coffee.  Still hot,
despite the trip from the main terminal.  He sat back, wincing as the
huge panes of glass rattled under the wind's relentless fury.
     "Man, I can't believe they made us stand duty up here for
the night," Milo moaned.  "We're so far from everything!"
     "Got the best view in the place, kid," Kei told him.
"Regulations, you know."
     "View?" Milo asked, incredulous.  "We can't see squat!"
That was true enough; heavy rain sheeted down the windows,
distorting the few lights that were visible outside.  The impenetrable
dark ruled the spaces between actinic bursts of lightning.  The
dimly-lit tower was like an oasis in a sea of chaos; he and Milo
could have been the only two people left in the world.
     He shuddered again.  Stupid old man, he chastised himself
silently.  He couldn't help remembering, though, the stories he'd
heard at his father's knee so long ago, of the forces that were
loosed on the world during such storms.  And it was on a night
much like this one that his father disappeared into the night, never
to return.
     "Kid, there's nothing to see," was all he said.  "Anyone with
any damned sense is inside, riding out the storm.  But regulations
say we got to maintain minimum staff in the tower at all times, and
we're going to.  So sit back and enjoy the show."  Another burst of
lightning appeared, a huge fork of blue-white light lancing down
from the roiling clouds to highlight the city's skyline.  Kei blinked
away the afterimages, frowning as thunder slammed into them,
rattling the glass.
     "Whoa!" Milo grinned.  "That one was close!  Baby!  Man,
if I could get the cutie from the doughnut shop up here, this duty
would almost be worth it!  Instead, I got ... Kei?  Watcha doing?"
Kei didn't reply, reaching instead for his farsensors, fitted snugly
into their cushioned pocket.
     I did not just see that, he told himself.  No way.  But he'd
been a controller too long to ignore his instincts.  He brought the
heavy glasses up to his face, fitting the long narrow eyepieces to his
eyes and sweeping them slowly across the area he'd been watching
when the lightning had flared.  Frowning, he touched the mystic
rune on the top, enabling full vision enhancement as well as all
filters.
     "Hey, old man," Milo said.  "Even with filters on, it's gonna
hurt if you look at one of those bolts with those turned up all the
way."  Kei didn't answer, transfixed by what he'd found.  Silently,
he handed the glasses to his puzzled partner.
     "Take a look, Milo," he said quietly.  "There."  Milo
followed the line of Kei's extended finger, then raised the glasses to
his eyes.  The kid was pretty good, Kei thought wryly.  He found it
quickly.
     "Running lights?  Kei, those are running lights!  Damn, I
don't believe it!"  Kei reached for the main comm crystal.
     "Kid, work here long enough and you'll come to believe in
the stupidity of human beings," he told the younger man.  At his
touch, the crystal rose into the air, floating serenely in front of his
face, flashing green to indicate the channel was open.
     "This is Savendi traffic control to incoming airship, Savendi
traffic control to incoming airship.  Please acknowledge."  He
paused, but the crystal remained silent.
     "Incoming airship, you do not have clearance to approach
skydocks," he said slowly and clearly.  "We are closed to all traffic,
all our approach markers are red at this time.  Incoming airship, do
you copy?"
     "Geez, Kei," Milo said, still watching.  "From the look of
his lights, I think this guy's coming straight in.  Is he crazy?  He
can't dock in this, the storm'll wreck him!"
     "Incoming airship, are you in distress?" Kei called.
     "Their lights are rigged for cruise," Milo said slowly.  "No
distress beacons visible.  I ..."  He broke off as a series of lightning
bolts hammered to the earth, lighting the sky with an intense
electric glare.  Milo cried out and snatched the glasses away from
his eyes, but Kei took advantage of the moments of light to search
out the shape he'd seen so briefly.
     There.  There it was.  A transport, a big one.  He snatched
the glasses back from Milo, who was still blinking the tears away
from his eyes.
     "Dammit!" Milo snarled.  "Kei, can you see him?"  The flare
faded, but Kei found the ship again quickly.  It had gotten fairly
close under cover of the storm, and he was beginning to make out
some details now.
     "Yeah, I see him.  A Shinohara VT-41, can't make the
registry.  Looks to be under full power, the props aren't slowing ...
and heading straight in.  Running lights are on, but all the windows
are dark."  The words were in his head before he could stop them
forming, summoned by the darkest fears of the subconscious, realm
of fears that were laughed at in the light of day.
     Ghost ship.
     Milo was squinting out through the sheets of rain, trying to
discern something through the storm.  He'd retrieved his own
glasses and joined Kei in peering at their guest.
     "Nobody home, huh?" he asked, sounding a tad nervous.
"Maybe they lost their crew somehow."
     "Well, they've got good altitude, anyway," Kei remarked.
"If the winds don't force them down, they're gonna sail right over
Six Dock and keep right on going."
     "Forever."  Milo's remark might have been intended as
levity, but it ended up sounding like the dread voice of prophesy.
Kei lowered his glasses and faced the crystal again.
     "Incoming airship, do you read us?  Flash your lights if you
can read me."  He glanced at Milo, who shook his head after a few
seconds, and sighed.
     "I'd better put in a call to Operations," he said.  Keying the
crystal set in his console, in moments he was updating a wavery,
semi-transparent image of the duty chief on their situation.  The
chief, a bull-necked old bear named Tenkawa, looked the way Kei
felt.
     "I'm going to have to put in a call to the RSAF," he
growled when Kei had finished.  "If this thing crashes into the city
we 'll have a real mess on our hands."
     "It's already over the city, chief," Kei reminded him.  "And
I'm not sure the RSAF can do any good in this crap anyway.  Even
if they can fly, they can't shoot it down until it clears the edge of
the city, right?"  Tenkawa looked, if possible, even more sour.
     "Kei?"  Kei straightened up abruptly.  Something in Milo's
voice told him that things had, somehow, just gotten worse.
     "What?" he asked, dimly aware of Tenkawa's face peering
up at him from the console.
     "Somebody's gotta be on the flight deck," Milo said stiffly.
"The nose is coming down."  Kei felt a cold sweat break out on the
back of his neck.
     "What?" Tenkawa's voice bellowed from the tiny image.
"What's he say?"
     "They're losing altitude?" Kei asked.
     "They're DIVING, Kei," Milo gritted.  "Still under power,
too ..."
     "Chief, that bucket's coming in," Kei snapped to Tenkawa.
"Descending towards Six Dock, but she's not in a landing profile!"
Tenkawa's image disappeared from the crystal, and seconds later
Kei heard the first sirens winding up from below.  All the lights
began coming on, searchlights stabbing up into the inky night in
search of the approaching airship.  At least there's nobody here
tonight, Kei thought.  Only duty staff.  If that thing plows right
through the dock, it could hit the terminal building ...
     Milo yelped as one of the searchlights abruptly went out.
     "Hey!" he gasped.  "Hey!  Was that lightning?"  Kei glanced
down, blinking as another light failed, seeing it explode in a shower
of tiny motes.
     "No," he said, turning his gaze back to the sky.  "Not
lightning."  Not lightning, but he had no clue what had done that.
 The lights were going out faster now, darkness reclaiming its
domain.  Over the sirens and the rain, Kei could hear the faint
throbbing of the airship's engines.  It was close; now he could make
out running lights with his naked eye, approaching from the sky.
     Lightning flared again, and this time he could make out the
silhouette of the big transport boring through the dark and the rain.
It was headed towards the dock, Kei saw.  No.  Not headed.
AIMED.  A sensation of dread clawed at his stomach, cold fingers
reaching their way up as he watched with helpless fascination.  The
engines were louder now, the pitch constant.  All of the ground
lights had failed, although the sirens were still wailing their warning
tone.
     In the moments before the transport impacted, a series of
white-hot starbursts of lightning exploded in the sky around them,
as if harbingers of the doomed ship.  In that fierce strobing, Kei
could see the ship clearly.  There weren't any lights in any of the
windows, but there was life.  In those moments, the ship was
thrown into stark relief, and Kei saw it.  A form, standing atop the
bridge superstructure, arms raised in defiance of the storm's fury,
riding the doomed ship down.  The head was thrown back, and Kei
had the impression of a man, tall and powerfully built.
     And, insane as it was, Kei was certain that this man was
laughing.
     Then the airship hit.

***

     If it had been just a dream, that would have been bad
enough.  But over the years, she'd come to know the difference
between a mere nightmare and one of her visions.
     This was definitely one of the latter.
     She stood at a crossroads, chill wind tugging at her clothes
and hair as it swept across the monochromatic gray landscape.  She
didn't recognize the place, but somehow she didn't doubt that it
existed somewhere outside of her subconscious.  Buildings
crouched over the streets around her, obviously long abandoned ...
at least by anything remotely human.
     Then she heard the screams, carried on the barren wind like
broken splinters on a brackish stream.  And she ran, not away but
towards them, fighting the dreadful sensation of being too late.
     Because she recognized those voices.
     She burst from the street into a wide plaza, stopping dead at
the sight which greeted her.  Bodies were scattered like leaves over
the broken paving stones, sprawled untidily in poses of abject
defeat.  Their uniforms were tattered and stained with blood, and
she couldn't tell whether they were unconscious or dead.  It was
clear, though, that they had put up a fierce fight.
     Beyond the fallen forms, a tower of black stone dominated
the plaza.  Somehow, despite the fact its peak was lost in the slate-
gray clouds, she hadn't seen it before.  It was there now, though,
and two forms stood in its unnatural shadow.  One was large,
imposing, the other small and slight, but she could make out no
more detail than that.  The larger one moved just then, though, and
twin points of red light blazed from where its eyes should be as it
spoke.
     "The promised time has come."  The voice filled the plaza
with its deep resonance, masculine in a way that was almost primal.
     "Who are you?" she shouted, but the wind seemed to shred
her voice, tossing the tatters about carelessly.
     "The Eye does not see," the larger figure boomed, his voice
filled with gleeful malice.  "Neither does It know.  The Way is
unguarded.  She is the lock, and the key approaches.  Behold!"  On
the side of the tower, a circle began to inscribe itself, starting from
a point and burning around in a flare of red fire.  Watching it made
her want to cry out, but she was frozen in place, trapped by the
vision, ashamed of her gut-churning fear that ratcheted up notch by
notch as the circle grew.
         "There is no safety for you, children of the light," the voice
sneered, shattering her control.  "The Eye does not watch over you
now.  We have struck It blind, and all who sheltered under Its gaze
shall be ours!"  The circle was complete, and now the spark of red
light was tracing a horizontal line through the middle of the huge
circle, heading inexorably for the far side.  Once it had completely
halved the circle, the spark guttered and died, and she felt a
moment of giddy relief.  Over, it was over, it was ...
     The line widened, parting, pulling back with the sound of a
thousand million damned souls screaming all at once, drowning
out all rational thought.  The top and bottom edges pulled away,
like a
     like
     a giant eye opening just like
     it
     It was.  An eye, a giant eye, set in the side of the tower.  But
something was wrong with it.  It was clouded, milky white and
blank, all unseeing.
     And something was pinned in the middle of it.
     No.  Not something.  SomeONE.
     The girl's arms were spread out to the sides as if in
supplication, spikes driven through her wrists and into the eye itself.
Another spike held her crossed ankles in place.  The dark fluid that
snaked down the surface of the hideous eye might have been her
blood, or its own ichor.
     Or a mixture of both.
     The fuku was badly torn, the twin ponytails tangled by the
despairing winds, but there was no mistaking the figure pinned in
the eye's centre.
     "Usagi!"  Her cry echoed hollowly, but the girl must have
heard, for she lifted her head just then.
     Her eyes were blank, clouded as the one upon which she
hung.  Tears coursed down her smudged face, and her lips moved,
framing a word, her strengthless voice impotent against the cutting
wind.  The dreamer didn't have to hear Usagi's voice to know what
she'd uttered, though.  Her name.  She'd called out to her.
     "The Way is unguarded," the hateful voice rumbled again,
"and the Key approaches.  Not even the White Moon's light can
defeat our beautiful dark.  Behold!"  A spark of light appeared now,
drawing her gaze to the second figure, the small one.  The light was
blue-white and intense, centred on the figure's chest, and as it grew
it dispelled the shadows around the second figure, revealing it to be
a girl.
     The lonesome wind tugged at loose, boyish clothes that
couldn't hide her feminine curves, and made her long red braid coil
sinuously.  Under unruly bangs, though, her eyes were empty, dead,
and she didn't react at all as the light grew stronger, forming a
strange shape on her chest, a shape like a key.  Nor did she
react as the hulking man approached her.  The aura of light didn't
dispel HIS darkness; he remained cloaked, anonymous.
     The tower began to hum, throbbing with power, and the
clouds around its peak started to swirl and churn as bolts of
lightning the same colour as the girl's light tore through them.  The
closer the dark figure came, the more frenzied the power running
up through the tower.  Usagi stiffened, throwing her head back, and
this time her scream was audible, but still intervention was
impossible.
     She could only ride the vision to its end.
     The clouds began to part, spreading away from the presence
of the tower, revealing the perfect black sky beyond and,
silhouetted perfectly against the full moon's silvery face, the tip of
the tower.
     "What good is a key?" the resonant voice cried, pulling her
gaze back down.  The mysterious figure was standing behind the
motionless girl now, shadows swirling about her feet.
     "What good is a key?" he repeated, "save to unlock that
which has been sealed?"  The girl turned, expressionless, and her
head tilted up, staring straight at Usagi's broken form.  She raised
one fist, streams of light escaping in flat planes through her
clenched fingers, and pointed it at the captive girl.
     "What good is a key?"  Usagi spasmed, a silvery crystal
appearing in the air before her body.  Quickly, though, the hulk's
shadows invaded it, and only flares of that blue light shone upon its
surface.
     "What good is a key?"  Mocking, taunting, but she couldn't
even move.  Lightning danced and thunder spoke, drowning out the
screams of the captive girl staked upon the altar of the Eye as
shadows rose up around the one below.
     "We have waited for you," the dark man intoned, his
glowing eyes looking down upon the red-head hungrily.  "And you
have finally come.  Now, fulfill your destiny, and show us."
     The huge eye, streaked with blood, shed a single tear.
     "Show us."
     The air trembled.  The sky screamed.  The wind vented its
pent up fury.
     And still she could only watch, rooted by the vision, not
even her rising anguish able to break its hold.
     "What good is a key?"
     This time she heard Usagi's scream even above the
pounding thunder.  The sky split asunder, and the white moon
shattered, and the darkness, unbound, came pouring in from
everywhere, gibbering and ravenous.
     And at last, she screamed.
     And screamed.
     And ...

     She was hunched over herself, sweat dampened hair
hanging in her face, awakening to her own strangled cries.  Eyes
wide and uncomprehending, she convulsed, arms wrapped
desperately tight around her own trembling body.  Fighting to draw
breath through her painfully tight throat, she tucked her chin against
her chest and drew her knees up, dislodging her already badly
tangled blankets.
     Bad.  Very, very bad.  She drew a shaky breath, then
another, fighting for control.  Her nightclothes were plastered to
her body by icy sweat, and even with her arms wrapped tightly
around her knees, her whole body was shaking.  Gritting her teeth,
she willed her heart to slow, her breathing to even out.  Slowly, her
discipline began to have an effect, and the dregs of terror receded.
Finally she raised her head, staring at the shadowed gloom of her
bedroom.
     That vision.  She'd never had one that bad, never.  It had
been strange, oblique in the way visions usually were, but one thing
was undeniable.
     Something was coming.  Something awful.
     And they were all in danger.  Especially Usagi.
     In the distance, thunder rumbled, drawing her attention to
the window.  The storm that had been raging when she'd gone to
bed had abated somewhat, but it was far from over.  Sheets of rain
occasionally rattled her window, driven by the vagaries of the wind,
and the sound of the downpour was constant.
     Rei bowed her head and raked her fingers through long dark
hair, combing it back from her face roughly.  A perfect night for
such a vision, she thought darkly.  Towers and eyes and dark,
menacing figures.  Lots of raw material to be interpreted.  But
certain elements were particularly disturbing.
     Like Usagi.  The others had been in the vision, but only
Usagi ... or rather, Sailor Moon ... had been sacrificed upon that
foul altar.  What did that mean?
     Abruptly, Rei swung her feet out of bed and stood, heading
for the door.  The floor felt like ice under her bare feet and her
sweat-sodden nightgown clung to her body, but she didn't even
stop for a robe.  Suddenly, inexplicably, she had to see Usagi.  Just
to ... just to make sure that she was okay.
     Stupid, really.  Just ridiculous.  The stupid girl was probably
cowering under her blankets, cringing at every little crack of
thunder and whining.  There was nothing to be concerned about.
     Nothing.
     Rei padded down the hallway, silent as a phantom.  Usagi's
room was around the corner and at the end of the hall, and as Rei
walked she listened to the sounds of the huge house.  Nothing
stirred; only the storm seemed to share the night with her.  She
stopped at Usagi's door, her hand resting on the cool metal handle.
     This is SO stupid, she told herself sternly.  Nothing's wrong
here.  Certainly, she didn't sense anything amiss; but still, the desire
to just peek didn't fade in the least.  Cursing herself silently, she
opened the door a crack.
     The room was untidy.  Nowhere near as bad as Minako's,
but still far below Rei's own standard of order.  She eased the door
open a little more, hoping it wouldn't squeak.  Dim light from the
neighbourhood filtered in through the window, casting enough light
so that she could make out the form curled up on the bed.
     Well, there, she told herself.  Satisfied?  And she was;
whatever strange geas the vision had placed upon her was dispelled
by the sight of those twin blonde ponytails spilling out over the
covers.  All was well, and since it was damned cold in the hallway,
perhaps she could consider going back to ...
     A sound from the room made her freeze just as she was
about to pull the door closed again.  Usagi stirred restlessly, and the
sound was repeated.
     A whimper.
     As Rei stood there, indecisive, Usagi twitched and moaned
again.  It appeared that bad dreams were making the rounds.  It was
certainly the night for such things to be abroad.  Rei hesitated, and
Usagi muttered something in her sleep, thrashing.  Rei's breath
caught in her throat, and as she stood there Usagi repeated her soft,
plaintive cry.
     "Mama ..."
     That dream.  Before she could think, Rei was standing over
Usagi's bed, gazing down at the girl's contorted face.  Yes, she
thought bitterly, nature unleashed her fury back then as well.  Did
the storm call up those memories, Usagi, the way it sometimes does
for me?
     Usagi thrashed again, her head tossing from side to side on
the battered pillow, and Rei eased down onto the bed, reaching her
hand out tentatively.  It hovered above Usagi's face, uncertain, and
she clenched her fingers as she wondered whether she should
chance it.
     "Nuh-no ... mama ..." Usagi moaned.  Rei caught a glimmer
of light, her gaze drawn to the moisture gathering under the
sleeping girl's long lashes.  Her expression softening, Rei spread her
fingers and gently brushed the bangs off Usagi's forehead.
     "Shhhhh," she soothed in a soft whisper.  "Shhhh, Usagi,
it's okay.  Everything's okay.  You're safe."
     "S'fe?" Usagi mumbled drowsily, the wistful tone in her
voice bringing a hot lump to Rei's throat.
     "Yes," she replied, lightly stroking the girl's hair.  "So go to
sleep, okay?"  Rei waited as Usagi's breathing slowed and evened
out, and the tension began to seep from her body.  Her eyelids
fluttered, but she didn't wake, and Rei watched the sleeping girl's
face with a mixture of exasperation and fondness.  Had Usagi been
awake, she never would have let her mask slip so badly, but here,
for these few moments, it was safe.
     Have I forgotten my vow so soon? she wondered, her
fingers light as a butterfly's wing as they continued their soothing
ministrations.  Never to care about anyone again, never to open
myself to that pain?  This was just supposed to be a way to get off
the streets, to milk that woman for some free food and good pay
until I found something better.  What is it about you, little princess,
that makes me want to protect you?
     The blonde settled, and as the last of the tension left her
face, her features in repose took on a cast that was at once regal
and innocent.  Like the princess they say you are, Rei thought.
Ruler of the outcast and unwanted, serving a dark and enigmatic
queen.
     She sighed softly and turned to get up, only to catch sight of
eyes like jewels, catching the faint light as they watched her.  She
stifled a gasp, adrenaline spiking before she realized what she was
seeing.
     Luna.
     The cat was nearly invisible, curled at the foot of the bed,
her eyes almost appearing disembodied.  Rei felt a flush of heat rise
to her face as she realized what the feline had probably seen.
     "Not a word from you," she growled under her breath,
brows drawing down into a scowl.
     "My lips are sealed," Luna replied, and if there was derision
in her voice Rei couldn't hear it.  She hesitated, then got up
carefully so as not to wake Usagi.  Before she went she paused to
glare down at Luna, but the cat only closed her eyes and twitched
her ears.  Turning, Rei flipped her hair over her shoulder with a
haughty, practised motion and slipped out the door, easing it shut
behind her.
     I hope you're satisfied, a little voice nagged her.  She
ignored it as she stalked back to her room.
     Her whole body felt like it was blushing.  But at least she
didn't feel cold anymore ...

***

     Luna lay there for a few moments after Rei had left, then
opened her eyes lazily.
     "You're awake now, aren't you?" she asked.  Uasgi didn't
respond, and Luna twitched her ears lazily.
     "Must be nice," she murmured, "to have such a fierce and
lovely guardian angel ..."
     "Not a word out of you," Usagi mumbled drowsily.  Luna
obediently shut up.
     But she couldn't help noticing that, as Usagi rolled over and
snuggled into the bed, she was smiling.

***

     A figure stood shrouded in the gloom, sheltered from the
rain by the overhanging roof of a nearby shop.  Her heavy black
cloak hung down from wide shoulder guards, completely hiding her
body and blending nicely with the darkness.  From her vantage
point she could make out clusters of lights and small crowds of
people in front of the main skydock terminal, but the damage
caused by the crash was hidden.
     The sound of steady rain lulled her somewhat, but even so
she was not unaware of her partner's approach, stealthy though it
was.
     "Well?" she asked quietly, just before the taller girl stepped
out of the night and into view.
     "Strange," her partner replied.  Her shoulder guards
gleamed wetly from the rain, one bearing the symbol of the crescent
moon, the other her own personal crest, that of Uranus.  The
blonde glanced down at the girl whose cloak bore the symbol of
Neptune, appearing somewhat preoccupied.
     "Strange?" Neptune replied, half-amused and half-
exasperated.  "Strange is nothing new for us, Uranus.  After being
woken up in the middle of the night and hauled out here, however, I
was hoping for something a little less vague."  Uranus shot her a
grin, slightly cocky and, to Neptune, thoroughly endearing.
     "Very strange," the blonde clarified.  Neptune sighed.
     "Ah," she murmured.  "Well, if it's VERY strange ..."  They
turned as one and headed towards their car, parked nose-in beside
the darkened shop.
     "So," Neptune sighed as she eased into the deep contoured
seat, reaching for her seatbelt.  "Is this report going to make her
happy?"  Uranus settled into her own seat and closed her door,
staring out the windshield with a small frown.
     "I'm not certain," she admitted at last.  Neptune didn't
bother to prompt her; the two were intimately familiar with each
other's rhythms, and she knew Uranus was just marshalling her
thoughts.  Finally the tall girl fired up the engine, flicking on the
heater but making no move to leave.  Instead, she turned in her seat
to face Neptune.
     "That airship shouldn't have been here," she said.  Neptune
raised one elegant eyebrow.
     "I should think not," she replied with a faint smile.  "Even
now, with the peak of the storm past, the weather is too bad to
consider bringing in an airship ..."  She trailed off as Uranus shook
her head.
     "You don't understand," the taller girl said softly.  "The
port authorities were able to trace the registry of the airship.  It left
Ostera two days ago, bound for Port Augai.  That wouldn't bring it
near Saeni at all."
     "Ostera," Neptune repeated, her voice heavy with
comprehension.  "Is that why she sent us out here?"  Uranus
shrugged, the motion barely visible through the cloak.
     "I try not to wonder why she does things," she answered
dryly.  "But if it is related to what happened there, and to the other
incidents, we have a very big problem."
     "Why?" Neptune asked, the skin on the back of her neck
prickling at the expression in Uranus' eyes.  The blonde looked
away from her, staring out into the darkness.
     "Because," she replied softly.  "When the crash teams made
it inside the wreckage, they found that everyone was dead.  That in
itself was hardly a surprise; however, the bodies they found didn't
die in the crash."
     "Then how?"
     "Murdered," Uranus replied softly.  "Slaughtered like
animals, every one."

***

     Rei was generally an early riser, but sleep had eluded her
after she'd returned to her room, and she found herself waking in
the gray light of morning to the steady patter of rain.  Cursing, she
leapt out of bed and grabbed a uniform out of her closet.  Dressing
in record time, she ran a brush through her hair a few times,
splashed some water on her face from a basin, and raced
downstairs.
     The others were gathered in the dining room, already well
through breakfast.  To add insult to injury, Usagi was already there.
Usagi!  When had she ever been later than Usagi?
     "Well, well," Minako smirked.  "Look who finally decided
to grace us mere mortals with her presence."
     "You're cutting it close," Makoto mumbled through a
mouthful of food.  Ami, as usual, kept her eyes on her plate and
said nothing.  Rei sniffed haughtily, deciding not to show her
mortification and to accept her punishment with total equanimity
when Usagi spoke up.
     "You're off the hook, Rei," she said, taking time out from
wolfing down her breakfast to glance at the other girl.  "Haruka and
Michiru aren't around."
     "Bah!" Minako grumbled.  "How come SHE gets so lucky?
The one morning it's actually HER being late, and she doesn't get
caught!  I ALWAYS get caught!"  Rei sat gracefully, not letting her
relief show, and began filling her plate from an ornate silver platter.
     "Maybe if you were late less often, you wouldn't get
caught," she said coolly.  "I mean, it's not like you have far to go.
Just be dressed and down here by 7:30."  Minako scowled.
     "Oh, stop gloating!" she snapped.  Rei just raised an
eyebrow and tilted her chin up slightly, knowing it would irritate
Minako to no end.  It succeeded, and she took a small bite of her
breakfast, chewing slowly while Minako resumed attacking her
meal.
     "So where are they?" she asked.  Usagi shrugged.
     "Haruka and Michiru?  Don't know," she mumbled.
     "They went out very early," Ami said softly, still
methodically dissecting her breakfast.
     "Strange," Rei frowned.
     "Hey, maybe it means some action," Makoto said.  "That
would beat all the training and studying we've been suffering
through lately, wouldn't it?"
     "All I know," Usagi grinned, "is that if Haruka isn't here,
then no combat drills today!"
     "Did I hear my name taken in vain?" a voice asked from the
hall.  Haruka came into the room, Michiru close behind.  As usual,
the two older girls were poised, confident, and utterly lovely.
Haruka smiled as Usagi flushed and hunched down in her seat.
     "Oh, er ... how's the weather?" Usagi asked weakly.
Haruka strode over to Usagi's chair and gazed down at her sternly.
     "Lousy," she replied.  "Just like your last set of scores on
the drill course."  Usagi shrank even further into her chair as
Michiru watched, amusement in her sea-green eyes.  Rei stifled a
sigh.  Usagi really did make things hard on herself sometimes.
     "We're not really going to train in this, are we?" Makoto
asked plaintively.  Haruka shook her head.
     "No, as it happens, you're not," she replied.  "We'll be
concentrating on your studies today, some nice dry inside work.
Won't that be nice?"  There was a marked lack of enthusiasm from
the five girls that seemed totally lost on the tall, athletic Haruka.
     "First, we've got to meet with the chief," Michiru added.
"So finish up and get your books together.  I'll meet you in the
classroom when we're finished."  A chorus of groans rose up.
     "Unless you'd RATHER train in the rain ..." Haruka added
with a gleam in her eye.
     "Yay, studying!" Minako blurted weakly.  Haruka smiled.
     "That's the spirit," she said.  Rei watched as she glanced at
Michiru, and together the two left the room.  It had always seemed
almost spooky to her, the way those two could communicate so
much with just a look or gesture.
     "Well, it may be boring," Makoto pointed out, "but it'll beat
running around in the rain, right?"
     "Hey, maybe we can get Michiru to tell us what's going
on," Usagi added.  Rei snorted delicately.
     "Good luck," she said.  But still, she wondered.
     Could it have anything to do with her vision?

***

     When Haruka and Michiru had finished speaking, a heavy
silence fell over the plush study.  The figure behind the heavy oak
desk sat and absorbed what she'd been told, fingers steepled in
front of her face as she stared moodily out at the falling rain.
     "How long had the passengers and crew been dead?" she
asked at last.  She spoke softly, her voice velvety smooth, but both
senshi knew that steel lurked beneath the surface.
     "Initial reports indicated they'd been dead at least twenty-
four hours," Haruka replied.  "Possibly longer."  The slim woman
nodded absently.
     "Michiru?" she asked.
     "I scouted the area around the port while Haruka was on
the scene," the green-haired girl reported.  "No sign of anything
unusual, but the storm would have erased most evidence.  If
whoever did this WAS still on board ..."
     "The tower controller said the ship dove deliberately just
before the crash," Haruka broke in.
     "He also said he saw someone standing on top of the ship
seconds before the crash," Michiru reminded her partner.  "But
there was no sign of a body outside the airship."
     "So we have a mystery," Haruka said with a wry smile.  "Or
do we?  You pulled strings with the police and got us in there, so
this must be important.  Do you want to tell us what's going on,
Hotaru?"
     The woman behind the desk swivelled her high-backed
leather chair back and stood with languid grace.  Unhurriedly, she
stepped around the desk, her exotic violet eyes sweeping the room
as she moved.  She appeared to be the same age as the other two,
save for those eyes.  Gorgeous though they were, they seemed to
harbour darkness both fey and dangerous in their depths.
     Hotaru leaned her slim body against the edge of the desk
and regarded both Haruka and Michiru in turn, cupping one elbow
in the opposite hand and tapping her finger against dark, full lips.
Her clothes were simple but striking, black high-waisted pants
tucked into glossy boots and a white bouse open at the throat,
revealing a black choker cinched around her slim pale throat.
Glossy black hair framed her face, cut blunt so that it just brushed
her shoulders.  She was quiet for a time, but neither of the girls
facing her tried to hurry her.  She would speak when she was ready.
     "How are the girls coming along?" she asked at last.
Haruka and Michiru traded a glance.  That wasn't the question
they'd been expecting.
     "Is this going to involve them?" Haruka asked.  Hotaru
turned her cool gaze on the tall blonde and cocked her head
slightly.  Haruka sighed under her breath.
     "They've come a long way," she replied when it was clear
Hotaru wasn't going to answer her.  "They're at least starting to
learn to fight together, and the retrieval of the ginzoushou gives
them even more power at their disposal."
     "They did quite well with Beryl's generals, all things
considered," Michiru added.  "The telling point would have been
letting them face Beryl alone."
     "I couldn't risk that," Hotaru murmured.  "I was not about
to allow that witch to endanger everything I've worked for."
     "Maybe," Haruka said evenly.  "But until we put them out
there on their own, we'll never know what they're really capable
of."
     "Enough," Hotaru said shortly.  "We do not need to have
this conversation again.  What about on a more personal level?"
Again, Michiru and Haruka were taken off-guard.
     "They are five very different girls," Michiru said carefully.
"And they all bear the scars of growing up in this city."
     "They fight," Haruka said bluntly.  "They squabble.  I'd
hoped fighting the four generals would forge them into a more
cohesive unit, but there is still too much distrust and outright
hostility between them."
     "Although," Michiru said with a faint smile, "Usagi does
seem to have charmed them all somewhat.  She is a ray of light, that
one.  If anything has a chance of bringing them together, it's her."
     "Because she was their princess back in the Silver
Millennium?" Hotaru asked tightly.  "We won't repeat the mistakes
of the past.  Besides, the Lunar Court is dead and gone.  Here, she
is princess of nothing."
     "The ginzoushou gives her great power," Haruka reminded
her.
     "But does she have the will to use it?" Hotaru returned.
"She won't do as field commander.  I still want Rei groomed for
that position.  I need someone who can be ruthless when
necessary."  Haruka bowed her head fractionally to indicate her
acquiescence, although she clearly didn't approve.
     "Of course," she said smoothly.
     "The girls don't have to love each other," Hotaru said
evenly.  "But they should work well together.  When the time
comes, I need them to be able to achieve their full potential."
     "I've been drilling them constantly, as well as tracking the
occasional monster along the border of the Old City," Haruka told
her.  "They're already starting to show signs of fatigue.  I don't
want to push them any harder or they might start getting sloppy."
     "Maybe more practice isn't the answer," Michiru mused.
Hotaru raised an eyebrow.
     "How so?"
     "We've been driving them pretty hard," Michiru said softly.
"Perhaps the way to create more esprit de corps is to let them
spend some down time together, to bond a little.  They were thrust
into their role as senshi quite suddenly, and we've imposed a lot of
structure on their lives since then.  It might be helpful to let them
relax a bit and get to know each other as girls, rather than senshi."
Hotaru stood up and strode over to one book-lined wall.
     "You two have my confidence in this matter," she said,
running one slim finger along the spines of the books stored there,
worn smooth by years.  "Use your discretion, but I want them able
to fight as a unit."  The statement was a dismissal, but Haruka
wasn't finished.
     "It would help if we knew more," the tall senshi pressed.
"For instance, whether this airship crash represents a threat we'll
have to deal with."  Hotaru stopped, her finger resting lightly on the
dark spine of a book that bore no title.  A tension seeped into the
room, sharp but uncertain.  Hotaru did not like to be pushed, a fact
both Haruka and Michiru were more than familiar with.  But neither
girl was afraid to stand up to Hotaru when they believed it
necessary, a fact their boss relied on.
     "That matter," Hotaru murmured, pulling the book from the
shelf, "is still unclear, as are its ramifications for us.  Should I
discover that there is a threat, rest assured you will be informed.
For the time being, I wish you to concentrate on the girls while I
look into this further."  When it was clear that Hotaru had finished,
the other two bowed slightly and left the room.  Moments after the
door had shut behind them, another opened behind Hotaru.  She
smiled faintly, paging through the book she'd chosen.
     "You came," she said without turning.
     "You called," a low voice replied.  She closed the book
softly and returned it to the shelf, turning to face the tall woman in
the sailor fuku.  Her keystaff gleamed in the soft light, and as usual
Hotaru was taken with the quiet sense of power that surrounded
the woman.
     "A drink, Pluto?" she asked, moving back to the desk.  The
tall senshi shook her head, sending ripples through her long emerald
green hair.
     "Nothing, thank-you," she murmured.  Hotaru nodded and
moved behind her desk again, waving Pluto to a plush chair.
     "News?" she asked.  Pluto sat, resting her keystaff across
her knees.
     "The distortion in the time stream has grown worse," she
said softly, something lurking in her dark eyes.  "I can tell you little,
save that I believe the source of the distortion may be drawing
nearer."  Hotaru sat back, her violet eyes narrowing.
     "The Outsider," she breathed.
     "Perhaps," Pluto cautioned.  "However, we cannot be
certain that there really is an Outsider."
     "These incidents are all related," Hotaru said, leaning
forward, intensity lighting her delicate face suddenly.  "I know it!
It's the only explanation that makes any sense!"
     "Even if that is true, we haven't managed to identify who
the Outsider is or what he's looking for," Pluto pointed out gravely.
Hotaru let some of the tension drain out of her as she settled back
in her chair.
     "Oh, I know very well what he's after," she breathed.
"Maybe not all of it, but enough.  And when we're ready, I'll
dangle it in front of him, and then ..."  She smiled, a hungry twist of
the lips that transformed her whole face, making her look savage,
feral.
     "How are the senshi progressing?" Pluto asked, startling
Hotaru.  The malefic sneer faded, and Hotaru blinked.
     "Oh.  They're ... coming along slowly, actually.  I had no
idea how difficult this would be when I decided to attempt to gather
them.  Still, Haruka and Michiru are working with them, and they
seem to be making some progress."
     "And the princess?" Pluto inquired innocently.  Hotaru's
eyes narrowed again.
     "She's not a princess now," she replied sharply.  Pluto
nodded.
     "You hate her," she said simply.  Hotaru stared back, her
compelling eyes unblinking, but Pluto was one of the few people
who could match her unnerving gaze.  At last, Hotaru let out a
small breath that might have been a snort, or a chuckle.
     "It's unfair, I know," she breathed, shaking her head
ruefully.  "But when I look at her, I see her mother ..."  She trailed
off, gazing into space.  Pluto shifted slightly in her seat.
     "It is unfair," she said softly.  "And allowing your personal
feelings to interfere with the training of these new senshi is a grave
error."  Hotaru became very still, fixing Pluto with another stare,
even colder than the previous one.
     "You question my judgement?" she asked, her voice
dangerously quiet.  Pluto smiled then, a small enigmatic expression.
     "You are trying to keep her from becoming the heart of the
senshi, Hotaru.  Even if I accept that your motives are not petty and
personal, I cannot think you will succeed.  She draws them all, now
as then.  It is her gift."  Hotaru slammed her palm down on the
desk, anger banishing the grace from the lithe lines of her body as
she leaned forward.
     "Ah yes, the legendary kindness of the Royal House," she
breathed, her voice low and venomous.  "You may recall that my
perspective on them is somewhat different than the popular one."
     "Hotaru," Pluto said softly.  "You, more than anyone, know
what is at stake here.  Would you jeopardise everything we've
worked for out of spite?"  Hotaru stared back at her, emotions
warring in the depths of her dark eyes.  She stood abruptly, striding
over to the window before Pluto could see which emotion won.
The emerald-haired senshi watched Hotaru's stiff back as she stared
out the window at the gray curtain on rain.
     "Do you think me so cold?" she asked at last.  Her voice
sounded weary, and pain lurked there too.  Pain, and loneliness.
Pluto was not unfamiliar with those two emotions.  Quietly, she
stood and set her staff down, then moved toward Hotaru, coming
to stand directly behind her.  Hotaru didn't react to her presence,
just crossing her arms tightly as she stared out the window.
     "They could all die," she said at last, bowing her head so
that her glossy hair swung forward and shielded her face partially.
"If the enemy is as powerful as I believe, then I may have to send
them to their deaths.  I am not so cold that that thought doesn't
hurt, Setsuna.  But it has to be this way."
     "And will you send them off not knowing what awaits,
Hotaru?" Pluto asked.  Hotaru's slim shoulders quivered with a
faint, humourless chuckle.
     "And what should I ask them to die for?" she asked bitterly.
"Me?  I'm the mysterious woman who plucked them from the
bowels of this city and set them on this path.  Any gratitude they
feel is tempered by suspicion and wariness.  They do not even like
me, let alone love me enough to die for me.  That is just as well, I
suppose.  The betrayal would be all the worse if they trusted me ..."
She broke off as Pluto's hands settled on her shoulders, warm and
comforting.  The muscles of her jaw tightened and she dropped her
gaze, but did not pull away.
     "You've put it off too long again," Pluto murmured, feeling
Hotaru's body stiffen under her hands.  "It eats away at your
control, clouds your judgement, when you try to hold it at bay for
so long."  Hotaru didn't look up.
     "I know," she whispered strengthlessly.
     "The weather can't be helping.  The dark fury of a storm ..."
     "I'm in control," Hotaru said sharply.  Pluto leaned in so
that her body pressed lightly against the shorter woman's, and felt
Hotaru stiffen in response.
     "For now," she whispered directly into Hotaru's ear, feeling
her shudder at the intimate sensation of hot breath against delicate
flesh.  "But not, I think, for much longer.  And if your control
should slip ..."
     "All right," Hotaru snapped, jerking away from the
maddening contact.  "I understand, Pluto."  Pluto didn't push any
further.
     "If you understand," she murmured, "then call me.  Tonight,
tomorrow at the latest.  At this point, I think that would be safest.
I will help you, as in the past."  Hotaru raised her eyes and stared
out the window again, nodding, not trusting her voice.  Pluto
sighed.
     "As for the girls," she went on when Hotaru didn't speak
further, "if they are to realize their full potential, they must have
something to fight for, to protect."
     "Like what?" Hotaru asked blackly.  "I know all about their
pasts.  None of them have had easy lives, growing up here.  They
only accepted my offer to escape the lives they had wrestled from
the underbelly of the city; the shame, the pain, the mistakes and
losses and betrayals.  In return for the shelter of this House they are
required to hone their abilities, to fight as I command.  They are
mercenaries that I bought with an offer of shelter from the past, an
offer that is more a sham with every passing day.  Mercenaries fight
because they are paid, Pluto, as these girls are paid, in coin of the
realm as well as the status as retainers to this House.  Shall they
pledge their hearts and souls to an employer?  I think not.  The only
chance is to forge them into a weapon, one that answers its
mistress's hand instinctively.  Armed with that weapon, perhaps we
can prevail at the last, for my own power must be saved for the
heart of the foe."  Hotaru was not given to long speeches, and
seemed to catch herself all of a sudden.  She fell silent, brooding,
and Pluto turned to retrieve her keystaff.
     "Hotaru."
     "Yes?"
     "You paint a bleak picture," Pluto said.  "I ask you to have
some faith.  These are no ordinary girls you have gathered here.
And no matter what scars they bear from childhood in this pitiless
city, no matter what obstacles they face, if you trust in them their
true light will prevail.  Together, they are more then the sum of
their parts, much, much more.  They always have been.  Just a little
faith, Hotaru.  It isn't so much to ask, is it?"  Hotaru didn't move,
creases appearing around the corners of her mouth as she fought
some internal struggle.  Cloth rustled softly as Pluto turned to go,
but at the door she paused and looked back at the solitary figure by
the window.
     "No later than tomorrow," she murmured.  "I will await
your summons."  Then she left.
     And Hotaru was alone once again.
     Alone.

***

     Michiru lurked in the doorway to the room that served as a
classroom for the girls, watching them surreptitiously.  Growing up
in the chaos of Saeni in the years following Darkfall, their formal
education had suffered greatly.  Of course, the streets taught other
lessons, ones more suited to survival in a harsh and dangerous
environment.  Hotaru hadn't shared everything she knew about the
girls' backgrounds, of that Michiru was certain.  However, she
herself had seen enough to make some educated guesses about how
the girls had survived.
     Makoto lounged in her seat, long legs stretched out in front
of her and a scowl on her face.  That scowl belied her nature;
Michiru had found that, despite her reputation as a brawler, the girl
was quite easygoing.  She looked strangely at home in an apron,
working in the kitchen surrounded by bubbling pots.  She'd been a
gang enforcer before, though, and Michiru could just imagine why.
Always tall for her age, she'd have been the natural choice in any
group when muscle was required.  And when it came to hand-to-
hand combat, she was quite dangerous.
     Beside her sat Ami, nose in an open book.  Ami contrasted
sharply with Makoto.  She was quiet and shy, painfully so most
times.  Somewhere along the line she'd learned to read, and she
devoured Hotaru's library readily.  In fact, that was the only time
she seemed to show any enthusiasm.  She rarely had anything to
say, and never anything about herself.  However, she watched and
listened and missed nothing; if only she and Haruka could get her to
share her astute observations with the others, they'd have finally
made some progress.
     Minako was staring off into space, clearly bored.  The
beautiful blonde loved being the centre of attention, but had little
patience for things which bored her.  Minako was gregarious and an
outrageous flirt, constantly making little passes at and suggestive
comments to everyone and anyone.  Michiru knew she'd been
working in a popular club as a waitress and dancer before Hotaru
had found her, a place with a reputation both dark and wild.
Despite her outgoing nature, Michiru had quite disliked the girl at
first, pegging her as a braggart and a self-involved minx.  From time
to time, though, she had glimpsed something in the girl, something
quiet and sad that sheltered behind the constant chatter and flirting,
something that made her wonder how much more there was to
Minako Aino than met the eye.
     She wondered much more about Rei.  Even sitting in the
plain classroom, the girl was a study in aloof self-possession.  Her
dark beauty was complemented by her easy grace, lending her a
sensual allure far beyond her years.  Where Minako seemed
constantly trying to provoke a reaction, Rei was content to leave
others guessing at what secrets lurked behind her maddeningly
enigmatic smile.  At first glance her restrained nature and cool
under pressure seemed to justify Hotaru's choice to groom her as
field commander of the Inner Senshi, but her temper, once aroused,
was tempestuous at best.  She was a startlingly beautiful girl, and
could be faultlessly charming as well, knowledgeable about many
topics, able to dress well and comport herself in many different
social settings.  Hotaru hadn't revealed all of Rei's past to them,
but both Haruka and Michiru suspected how and why a girl with
beauty but no money and no family had been trained thus, and
neither of them liked it much.
     And then there was Usagi.  She was sitting on the end,
nearest the window, bent over her notebook and frantically writing.
Trying to finish the homework assignment at the last minute again,
no doubt.  That girl was, in some ways, the most puzzling of all.
She could be loud, reckless, clumsy, whiny, and infuriating by turns,
and yet none of that seemed to take away from her essential nature.
Her light was hard to hide; even though she, like all the others, had
been orphaned at a young age, she'd somehow managed to grow
up in the ruins of Saeni's inner city without losing her optimistic
view of life.
     Usagi was just, at heart, a good person, and others
responded to that almost instinctively.  The five girls had not taken
to each other at all in the beginning, and they still maintained
barriers between them when they weren't working.  The exception
was Usagi; as time went on, Michiru had seen her jolly Makoto out
of her black moods, draw Ami out of her shell, connect with
Minako like a sister, and get under Rei's skin when nobody else
could.  She was the bright centre towards which they were all
drawn, even if they wouldn't admit it.
     Which made Hotaru's intransigence all the more maddening.
     Michiru could understand her feelings about the Royal
House back in the Lunar Court.  She knew enough about what had
happened back then that she couldn't blame Hotaru for harbouring
bitterness.  But Usagi was not her mother, and the Lunar Court was
long dust on a dead moon.  They needed to worry about the present
now, and the threat that Hotaru believed would return one day to
finish what had begun so long ago in the Silver Millennium, and
more recently during Darkfall.
     The girls had power, there was no denying that.  But they
didn't work as a team, didn't rely on each other.  When Michiru
fought beside Haruka, she knew instinctively that she could depend
on her partner no matter what.  It wasn't even a matter of their
personal relationship; fighting with Setsuna was nearly the same.
They had fought together before, and knew that no matter what
they could depend on each other.
     These girls were different.  They were so closed to each
other, for starters, so full of wariness and mistrust.  Legacies of the
past, perhaps, but still a formidable obstacle.  Another problem was
that Hotaru had sheltered their development far too much.  They
had always fought under strict conditions, never having the
opportunity to stretch themselves, to test their limits.  That would
be dangerous, of course, but only by risking it all could they truly
come to understand and rely on each other.
     Michiru thought again of the early morning trip to the
skydocks, and of the grim discovery there.  With a sudden,
unnerving intensity she prayed that the incident didn't presage the
appearance of the enemy Hotaru was expecting.  She needed more
time; together, she and Haruka could get through to these girls,
could make them into a true team, cohesive and confident in their
abilities.
     More time, she thought wistfully.  She could only hope they had
it.

***

     The class went about as well as it ever did.  Michiru and
Haruka divided all the instruction between them, sometimes
working together, sometimes alone.  There were rewards to
teaching the girls, Michiru had to admit, but there were also days
when she just wanted to call it quits.
     Today wasn't that bad, but it wasn't great.  In an effort to
expand the horizons of their younger charges, she had taken to
getting them to read poetry.  After all, being a soldier of the light
was all well and good, but they needed to be well rounded
individuals as well, at least in her view.
     If not in their own.
     "Minako, where is your assignment?" she asked, dreading
the answer.  Minako looked up at her, blue eyes guileless and fairly
glistening with innocence.
     "Is that a new blouse?" she asked.  "It really brings out the
colour of your eyes, you know."  Minako reached out, running her
hands lightly over Michiru's blouse, quite accidentally brushing her
fingers teasingly along the older girl's ribs.  Yes, quite accidentally.
     "Minako ..." Michiru began.  Minako ran her fingers
through her thick blonde hair in a gesture so carelessly sensual that
it had to be calculated.  She slipped the tip of her pen between her
lips and chewed it lightly, all the while staring deeply into Michiru's
sea-green eyes.
     "You know, Michiru-sensei," she said breathily, "I've been
having trouble with this material.  I think I might need some
tutoring ... private tutoring.  You know, one-on-one?"  She cocked
her head, lowering her lashes demurely, and Michiru resisted the
sudden urge to applaud Minako's performance.  Instead, she leaned
down and stared into the girl's dewy eyes from only inches away.
     "Tomorrow," she whispered, "I want your assignment."
Minako sighed, feigning disappointment, but Michiru knew the
blonde believed she'd won a reprieve.
     "Copied over three times," Michiru continued with a slow
smile.  Minako sat bolt upright.
     "What?" she blurted, all flirtatiousness gone.  "But ... but
..."
     "You may be incapable of learning the intricacies of
Goriyn's epics," Michiru told the flabbergasted girl, "but I think
you can be taught not to trifle with women who are clearly out of
your league."  Minako turned pink as Makoto and Usagi burst out
laughing, and Rei gave her a superior smile.  Only Ami didn't join
in as Michiru strode to the desk at the front of the room,
impervious to the heat of Minako's glare.
     "Now," she said, picking up her lesson book, "who'd like to
start reading?"
     They had all made remarkable progress in a short time,
Michiru had to admit.  But they were all far from children; most of
them were already eighteen years old, and their experiences
growing up without families in this city had lent them a matruity
beyond their years ... in some things, at least.  Still, they resented
being forced to endure constant instruction, as if they were
schoolchildren and not girls on the verge of becoming women,
gifted with incredible powers.  It was becoming harder and harder
to keep them in line; she figured it was only a matter of time before
one of them decided to challenge the new authority figures in their
lives.  Haruka concurred, but until that happened they could only
do their best with the girls.
     When she'd completed the lesson, she dismissed the girls,
hiding a smile at the sullen glances Minako shot her on the way out.
When the last girl (and Ami was last to leave, as always, head down
and alone) had filed out, Haruka slipped in and leaned her long lean
frame against the doorframe, hands in the pockets of her tailored
slacks.  Michiru's heart still quickened every time she set eyes on
the lanky blonde, and this time was no exception.  As usual, though,
she radiated an aura of elegant detachment.  That was, after all, the
way they played the game.
     "Hey there, teacher," Haruka grinned.  "I think I need to be
kept after class."
     "Oh?  Have you been bad?" Michiru asked lightly.  Haruka
pushed off the wall with her hips and sauntered down towards the
desk.
     "Well, I've been thinking about being bad," she returned.
"Does that count?"  Michiru closed her book, shaking her head.
     "I'm a teacher," she said dismissively.  "It sounds like you
need a priestess."  Haruka came to stand beside her, perching
lightly on the corner of the desk.
     "I noticed Minako giving you the evil eye on the way out,"
Haruka said, still smiling.  "Let me guess.  She ditched the
homework and tried to charm her way out of it."  Michiru smiled,
toying with the pleats of her skirt.
     "Actually, she was desirous of some private time with
teacher," Michiru said impishly, studying Haruka from under
lowered lashes.  The blonde blinked.
     "What?" she blurted.  "That little tramp!  What nerve!"
Haruka shook her head as Michiru giggled.
     "Jealous?" she asked.  Haruka raked her fingers through her
hair, snorting derisively.
     "That girl is all talk," she muttered.  "She comes on to
everybody, you know.  If you called her on it she'd back down."
Michiru studied her manicured nails carefully.
     "Well, maybe I should then," she said.  Haruka glanced at
her wryly.
     "Do tell?"
     "Well," Michiru continued, "we have taught them so much:
tactics, combat, the basics of language and math and science and
magic and history ... perhaps they could benefit from our
experience in other ways as well."
     "Tired of me already," Haruka teased.  Michiru clasped her
hands demurely in front of her and smiled.
     "Are you going to tell me the thought has never crossed
your mind?" she asked sweetly.  Haruka slipped easily of the desk.
     "Uh, oh," she muttered.  "Entering dangerous territory now.
Time to retreat."  Michiru swung her shoulders slowly, scuffing one
foot lightly against the floor.
     "I'll tell if you will," she murmured, favouring Haruka with
a smile she knew the other girl couldn't resist: enigmatic, but with
just a hint of wickedness.  Haruka's eyes flickered in response, but
she didn't give in so easily.
     After all, that wouldn't be fun.
     "You'll tell anyway," she promised.  Michiru arched one
eyebrow.
     "Oh, really?  And why should I do that?"  Haruka's smile
matched Michiru's own.
     "I can be very ... persuasive," she said, wiggling her fingers
languidly.
     "And just how much persuading do you suppose I'll
require?" Michiru inquired, striving to sound only moderately
interested.
     "If you're lucky, a couple of hours worth," Haruka said
airily, falling into step beside her.  Michiru sniffed, giving her head a
small but haughty toss.
     "I can hold out for a lot longer than that," she said.
Haruka's smile widened.
     "I'll remember," she said throatily, "that you said that."
They walked out into the third floor hallway of the east wing and
turned towards the main past of the house.
     "So, did you come to trade repartee with me," Michiru
asked as they walked, "or was there something more important on
your mind?"
     "There's nothing more important than trading repartee with
you," Haruka pointed out.  "But there was something else, yes.
We're going out again, to check into the details of the other
occurrences.  Hotaru wants us to try and find any details that will
tell us if what happened at the skydocks last night is related to these
other incidents, and if so what we can expect next."
     "One assumes we'll once again have access to official files
and reports not generally available to the great unwashed," Michiru
murmured.
     "One assumes," Haruka agreed.
     "I wonder what sort of contacts she has to get access to
such things?"
     "I doubt even Setsuna knows for sure," Haruka replied.
"But one thing's for certain.  If this thing does get hot on us, we're
finally going to have to insist she share everything she's been
holding back."  Michiru smiled, a warm tingle forming in her belly.
     "Insist," she repeated softly.  "That ought to be fun."  Haruka
glanced at her and sighed ruefully.
     "Fun," she said, "was not the word I had in mind."

***

 
 
     That's all, folks.