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

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

Prologue
 

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

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

Chapter 16: Memories
 

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

***