Sailor Moon 4200: What has gone before
Crystal Tokyo was destroyed in the year 3478. Civilisation fell; a dark age began. Now, the year 4200 is a time of renaissance, and the city of Third Tokyo is defended by a new generation of Senshi. Some of them are old faces, reborn yet again. Others are newcomers. But all of them are in trouble—because the enemy that annihilated Crystal Tokyo was never defeated. And it is waiting for them…
In recent chapters:
The five Senshi are together at last, under the mentorship of Artemis, his great-granddaughter Bendis, and Itsuko (once Hino Rei). * Mistakenly thinking that their friends are in danger, Venus, Mars and Uranus return to the warehouse where they last fought Lady Blue. There they encounter an 'M' Division team on a secret mission, but are tricked into believing that the team are actually from the criminal Sankaku Clans. In a battle between the groups, Sailor Mars' powers develop an unexpected new facet. * Itsuko is startled to discover that Suzue is a member of the Church of Serenity; later, she is further taken aback when Suzue refuses to accept that her beliefs are wrong, insisting that it is Itsuko who is mistaken. * Beth learns that her fantasy boyfriend, Eitoku, has really been dating Nanako all along. During a combined group training session, as the five Senshi begin to come together as a team, she realises that she will have to reevaluate her friends. * The 'S' Division team who are investigating the Olympus discover Itsuko's true identity, and learn that the cat they have been searching for, Bendis, is staying with her.
By Angus MacSpon
Sailor Moon 4200 Home Page
Based on "Sailor Moon" created by Naoko Takeuchi
Bendis flew up the stairs of the Olympus as if pursued by wild dogs. It was as good as true.
On the second floor she raced past the vacant eyes of a night receptionist nearing the end of her shift, and into the gymnasium offices. Then out through a half-open window; up the fire escape with frantic, erratic bounds; and in another window on the top floor. She found Artemis snoozing on the couch and woke him with a hasty claw.
"What!" he shouted, jumping up and looking around blearily. "I didn't do it! It was—" His eyes finally focussed on her. "Bendis?" he said, seeing her frantic state. "What's wrong?"
"Help! They're after me!" she gabbled. "We have to get away!"
He froze. "After you? Who?"
She started to explain. Artemis listened for almost twenty seconds before he ran to wake Itsuko up.
In the street below, 'S' Division were on the move.
All those weeks of patient investigation had at last borne unexpected fruit. The team responded smoothly and efficiently. Hiiro was gratified; he had feared that so much inactivity might have blunted them. But his team worked together like a well-oiled machine, moving into position with only a word or two of orders. Even Kitada, the Irregular newcomer, fitted in without trouble.
The command van, for so long parked in a back street behind the Olympus, had withdrawn a block or two. Its transformation from a dilapidated wreck to a functional, if nondescript, vehicle had taken less than thirty seconds: the rear wheels, apparently stolen long ago, slid down out of their concealed wells, and the missing side panels clipped back on in a moment. In the rear, Lieutenant Mitsukai simultaneously coordinated the team's movements, monitored the swarm of cameras that surrounded the Olympus building, and acted as communications liaison with headquarters, reporting their findings and requesting immediate backup. In the front, Kitada acted as driver, while remaining ready to move in to back up any of the others if required.
Captain Hiiro stood guard at the main doors to the Olympus. The net gun he held in the crook of his arm was casually hidden by a jacket slung over his shoulder. Kuroi and Aoiro, similarly armed, watched two of the side doors. It was not enough, not nearly, but Hiiro was working on that.
He nodded politely to a middle-aged woman as she walked past him into the building. However, most of his attention was on the voice in his ear. "Captain Murasaki reports he'll be with you in four minutes," Mitsukai reported over the commlink. "Lieutenant Giniro should be there two minutes later."
"How many people have they got?" Hiiro asked in a low voice. Belying his calm posture, his eyes never stopped moving, constantly checking the door and the street around him. "Do they have nets?"
"Giniro's team do. They stopped to pick them up; that's why they're late. She has five in her team; Murasaki has seven."
He swore under his breath. "Nineteen people to surround a building this size," he muttered. "And half of us without nets."
He was exaggerating, though, and he knew it. They wouldn't need to surround the building; he was pretty sure he knew exactly where they'd find their target. His eyes strayed to a window on the top floor.
"Headquarters say the next team that can get here will take another ten minutes," Mitsukai told him. "Unless you want them to come by Opal—"
"Hell, no," Hiiro snapped. "Not unless they want the whole city to know we're up to something. Bring in Opals and we'll have newsies popping out of the woodwork, asking what's going on." He broke off as a passing man in a suit gave him an odd look.
"Yes, sir," answered Mitsukai patiently. "Another four minutes until Murasaki arrives."
"All right. We have to cover what we can. Tell Kitada to move in. If the cat went upstairs, I want him covering the fire escapes at the back. And listen, warn everyone: don't expect it to act like a cat. It's as smart as a human, maybe smarter…"
Over the next five minutes a tight cordon wove itself around the building. But there was nobody to cover the entrance to the underground car park until too late; and the private car with the white-haired woman at the wheel drove away from the Olympus entirely unnoticed.
Itsuko pulled over to the side of the road, a few minutes later and three kilometres away. "All right," she said. "What now?"
"I want to go home," muttered Bendis from the rear seat.
"Oh, very good," said Artemis acidly. "Any constructive suggestions?"
Bendis have him a stubborn look. "I want to go home," she repeated. "To Beth-chan's house. It'll be safe there."
"That's not what I…" Artemis sighed, and gave in. "Okay. Fine. Let's not even consider the implications of what just happened—"
"Oh, don't take on," said Itsuko quietly. "Nobody's suggesting that we just ignore it.—Bendis, who were they? Did you see anything that would identify them?"
"I didn't have time," the younger cat protested. "I just looked inside the van, and then they tried to grab me. One of them threw something at me—like a jacket, or something—and I ran back to your place."
"Right," said Artemis grimly. "You ran inside, with him chasing you. You could have led him away from the Olympus, but—" He broke off with a sigh. "No. Never mind that. What did you see?"
"It was all full of computers and vidscreens," Bendis said, remembering. "And nine or ten people, I think. But outside, it was really old and beaten-up, like somebody just dumped it there."
Itsuko raised her eyebrows. "Hmm. I may have seen that van, come to think of it. But who could they be? What are they watching the Olympus for?"
"To find us," said Artemis impatiently.
"Yes, but why? Are they working for Lady Blue? Or the Sankaku, for heaven's sake? Who?"
"Whoever they are," the white cat mused, "they have to be the same ones who bugged your office. It…doesn't seem Lady Blue's style, somehow. She's the direct type."
"The Sankaku, maybe?" Itsuko thought about it. "After what they tried last week…you know, it could make a kind of sense. Capturing Senshi, or Moon Cats—if they couldn't use you directly, you can bet they'd at least be able to hold you for ransom. The Serenity Council would have to pay; the public outcry if they didn't would be enormous."
"And they just happened to stumble onto us at the Olympus by accident?" Artemis scoffed. "That's pretty thin."
"Back when we saw them putting up those cameras…Venus had just made her first appearance back, remember," Itsuko pointed out. "And not all that far from here. Yes, I know, it's thin. But Artemis, what else makes sense?"
Bendis listened to them argue, and remained silent. She was thinking about another time when she had spoken aloud without thinking, to a man who had given her a fish. She thought about the Opals that had pursued her and Artemis in the weeks which followed that moment of carelessness; and she thought about the Opal in the warehouse yard, five days ago, when Mars, Venus and Uranus had nearly been captured. She thought about it all; and then she thought about what Artemis would say if he heard that she had spoken in front of the people in the van. And she remained silent.
Captain Hiiro glided silently up the final flight of stairs, web gun at the ready. Kuroi and Aoiro were behind him, followed by three men from Giniro's team. As they emerged at the top, Hiiro gestured and the others began to spread out, their eyes watchful.
Down below, other agents were working their way through the building. The lower floors and the basement levels were as secure as three—now five—teams of 'S' Division Regulars could make them. A cat that could get through the cordon they had set up would have to be invisible. And most of the customers had never noticed a thing. Civilians!
Hiiro's eyes flicked left, right. He started toward the nearest door, Kuroi moving to cover him, reached out a hand for the knob—and then froze as his commlink chirped.
"Orders from headquarters," said Mitsukai's voice. "Pull back."
"You have got to be kidding," he said.
At the sound of his voice, the other men in the corridor looked around. One of Giniro's men rached up to touch the commset in his own ear.
"I'm sorry, Captain," Mitsukai replied. "This comes direct from Colonel Shiro. Suspend all operations at the Olympus building. All teams to pull back to headquarters, and us especially. He wants to see you."
"I bet he does," said Hiiro grimly. "'Suspend,' huh? Right. Damn him! He's just seen your report on what we've found out, and he knows how explosive this could get."
He thought for a moment longer, threw one more longing look at the door, and then let out a long breath through his nose. "Okay," he said. "Get Kitada back to the van. Tell the other team leaders thanks, and we're pulling out now."
"Already done," she said.
"Yeah. I'll be with you in four minutes."
He turned to the agents behind him and saw that Giniro's people had already received the word and left. "Come on," he told Kuroi and Aoiro, not trying to keep the disgust from his voice. "We're going home."
Aoiro raised an eyebrow. "Somebody at HQ got cold feet?"
"Pity." Kuroi's tone was light, but the two of them had been friends for years and Hiiro could see the hidden anger in his eyes. "I've never gone up to a Senshi and told her we had to arrest her cat before."
"Yeah, well, you've never been fried in your boots before, either." Hiiro was not, in fact, sorry to be leaving. Knowing that Pappadopoulos was Hino Rei, and that their target was almost certainly a Moon Cat, made for an uncomfortable feeling. He would have done it, obeyed his orders, if he'd had to; even if the chances of a fireball up his ass were dangerously high. But fireballs notwithstanding, he was relieved that he didn't have to. Going against a Senshi would be too much like…being the bad guy.
All the same…"I just hate leaving a job half-finished," he grumbled as they walked downstairs again. Fortunately, both Aoiro and Kuroi were too intelligent to answer.
When he got back to the van, he found even more good news waiting for him. Mitsukai had finally had a chance to start going through the recordings from their surveillance cameras, which had been building up, unobserved, for a couple of weeks now. Except that there were no recordings. Somehow, they had been erased. Every last one of them.
Itsuko left Bendis at Beth's house, then—after some argument—took Artemis to Dhiti's. It seemed the safest choice. Putting him in the same house as Bendis would be asking for trouble, and she understood that Iku's family ran to dogs rather than cats; while leaving him with Suzue was flatly impossible, of course, though (to his great irritation) she refused to say why.
Which did not mean, she thought as she drove away again, that putting Artemis and Dhiti together was not going to cause a different brand of trouble. The idea made her grin, but not for long. There were too many other things to worry about.
They had been assuming that it was the cats who were being chased. But she had to face the possibility that, if too much more attention were drawn to the Olympus, somebody might start asking questions about Itsuko herself. That could make things very awkward indeed.
Once she got back to the Olympus, and saw Miyo off to school, she went into her secret room and meditated before the sacred fire for some time. The flames cleared to show a number of fleeting images—a girl with glowing red eyes; a shadowy figure holding a fire-pot; a puppy—but nothing that she could make sense of.
She was about to give up when the flames cleared one last time. She saw Sailor Moon—unquestionably Sailor Moon, though the girl's back was turned, her face invisible—embracing a naked woman.
Troubled, she returned to her office and tried to get some work done. She spent the rest of the day at it, but accomplished very little.
Toyotomi Sese arrived at 'A' Division central headquarters to find a mountain of work waiting for her. That was not surprising; there was always a mountain of work waiting for her. She was Number Thirteen of the Serenity Council, the director of 'A' Division, and the work flowed onto her desk in a never-ending stream.
Her schedule showed that she had ninety minutes before her first meeting of the day. There were another six lined up after that, and she would be lucky if any of them finished on time. The last one was scheduled at eight in the evening. In between, there was endless paperwork, reports to read, decisions to make. If all went well, she would be able to leave the office by eleven that night, to catch a few hours' sleep before starting the whole cycle again tomorrow. And people thought politicians had cushy jobs, she told herself, and snorted.
One of today's meetings was with a newsie, she noted with a sigh. She tried to keep up a good public face, but lately there was only one topic that every interviewer wanted to talk about: the Senshi. Inevitably, her full name was bound to come up.
('Serabi'…what kind of name was that to inflict on a child? She had started to insist that everyone call her 'Sese' when she was only eight. Even today, though, cartoonists sometimes drew her in a Sailor V mask and miniskirt. It wasn't just embarrassing; it was—for a dumpy-looking woman of fifty-five—ridiculous.)
Well, Sese would be polite to the newsie when he showed up. But the first mention of Serabi, or Sailor V, and the interview would be suddenly over. She wasn't in the mood to take any cheap shots today.
With a sigh, she lifted the top folder from her in-tray: the latest draft of a new set of fishing quotas in the Osumi Strait. Simple enough, but somehow it had ballooned to over three hundred pages. She was just beginning to run through the summary when her commset rang.
She lifted the remote with a sense of relief. "Yes," she said brusquely.
Her impatience faded suddenly as she listened to what the voice at the other end told her. The fishing quotas on the Osumi Strait went forgotten, which would please the fishermen. When the caller finished, Sese said quietly, "All right. Let me know if you hear anything else." She hung up the remote without saying good-bye.
For some minutes she sat at her desk, staring at the wall. Suddenly she had a decision to make, one that she had been putting off for nearly a week. Or, depending on how she looked at it, for six years.
She stood and walked over to a framed photograph that hung on the wall. Her swearing-in as a Council member; had it really been that long ago? A well-earned honour, she had thought then, even if the seat was a low-ranking one. She had been working toward this point all her life, and she was ready for the challenge.
But gradually, in the months that had followed, she'd come to realise that a different, hidden kind of politics was going on all around her. There were things that the other councillors kept from her. Meetings she was never informed of; memoranda which never reached her desk; planning sessions which somehow excluded her. Very subtly done, and seldom anything she could put her finger on. She could easily have missed it. For a long time, she tried to ignore it.
Last week, for the first time, she had challenged the rest of the Council. It had seemed a trivial point—'S' Division agents being assigned to hunt for a lost pet—but when she raised the question, she found that it was anything but trivial. 'S' Division were hunting moon cats. Chairman Fukuda had explained the matter away, and he had been plausible enough, but…
But he had been keeping it secret from her. And the reactions from the rest of the Council showed that they had all known.
What else were they keeping secret?
And now this. A call from Tomiko in the 'S' Division dispatching office, and some disturbing news. Tomiko was an old friend; she knew that Sese was interested in the cat-hunt because the two of them had spoken about it a couple of weeks ago, while Sese was trying to decide whether to raise the subject with the Council. Now, Tomiko had some more interesting gossip to share.
Early this morning, several teams of 'S' Division Regulars had been dispatched to a downtown shopping centre. Most of the teams had been equipped with net guns, of a size and type generally used for animal control.
The moon-cat hunt was still under way. Number One had told her that it was being called off, and Number Three had confirmed it.
They had lied to her.
There was a pain in her hands. She opened her fingers and saw with distant surprise that her fingernails had left cuts in her palms. Only then did she realise that she had been clenching her fists; and only then did she realise how angry she was.
They had lied to her!
She turned away from the picture. Had she thought that she had a decision to make? No. They had made it for her. The only question now was how to respond.
She sat down at her desk once more, and lifted the commset remote. "Sven?" she said quietly. "Can you come in here for a moment?"
Her private aide walked in a few seconds later and closed the door behind him. Ersson Sven was tall and lanky, with faded sandy hair; his Japanese was only faintly accented. He had been working for Sese for nearly fifteen years, and there were few people she trusted more.
"What kind of contacts do we have in 'S' Division?" she asked without preamble.
He blinked once, then half-closed his eyes in concentration. "I assume you mean people who're supposed to keep their mouths shut, but who'll talk to us?" he said. "Tricky. They keep things very tight there."
"That's to be expected. Admin people, though? Filing clerks? Anyone who owes you a few favours?"
"Just as tight," he answered. "You know that." When Sese did not respond immediately, he added, "It would help if I knew what you're looking for."
Sese hesitated for an instant longer. "Cats."
"You've heard about it, then."
"It's practically notorious," Sven said, raising an eyebrow. "What about the famous cat hunt?"
She told him, and watched his face grow suddenly still. "All right," he said after a minute or two. "There are some avenues. We could start through 'C' Division—a working group on strays, maybe. There's quite a population of feral cats and dogs in some parts of the country. That gives us an excuse to ask some innocent questions—"
"Be careful," Sese cautioned. "They know I'm interested, so they'll be on the watch. We've got to keep this tight, Sven. If Takeda finds out we're getting nosy, things could get awkward." He nodded. "So. Draw up some ideas and get back to me tomorrow morning. I'll be making a few discreet enquiries of my own, as well."
"Right." He turned to go, then looked back for a moment. "Was that all?"
"Yes…wait. No." She looked away, back to the picture on the wall. Six years in office, she thought. Six years.
"See if you can find a reliable hacker, would you?" she said.
Later, after showing a pair of newsies into Sese's office, Sven closed the door and waited for the interview to get under way. He gave it a few minutes, then pulled out a mobile commset and dialled a number from memory.
"Altair reporting," he said when a voice answered. "She's realised that something is wrong in the Council. She wants to investigate what they're up to."
"Well then," said the voice at the other end, "perhaps we should help her out a little."
Beth walked to school slowly, and with some trepidation. There was a confrontation waiting for her when she arrived, and she was not looking forward to it.
Just above her head, Bendis trotted along the top of a fence. In a low voice, the cat filled her in on what had happened that morning. Beth giggled briefly at the thought of Artemis and Dhiti living together; but it did not distract her for long. She was going to have to face Nanako and Eitoku when she arrived, and she honestly had no idea what to say to them.
Itsuko had told her that the two of them would probably be very apologetic. That did sound likely. She wondered, though, just how sincere the apologies would be. Her best friend had been lying to her for months. Could she believe anything Nanako ever said again?
She put the question to Bendis, who said, "I think you're overreacting. Nanako seems a bit too fond of secrets, but that doesn't mean she'll lie to you again."
"Oh, fine," Beth grumbled. "So says the cat who's never even met Nanako. A lot you'd know about her."
There was no answer, and she glanced up. Bendis was not there. She looked back, surprised, and saw that the cat had stopped a few metres back, and was staring at her with an expression that looked almost guilty. "What's wrong?" she asked.
Bendis gave herself a shake, then moved slowly up to join Beth once more. "Nothing," the cat said. "It's just…nothing."
"It's obviously something," Beth said impatiently.
"Well," Bendis said reluctantly, "I was just thinking. Sometimes a person might keep something secret with the best of intentions. You know? Only, once you've started doing that, it…can be awfully hard to stop it again. Without it seeming like a—"
"Betrayal," Beth finished thoughtfully.
The cat looked away. "Yes."
"I think I see. You mean, Nanako might have—? But that's silly! She never had any reason to keep it secret in the first place!"
"Oh…I don't know." Bendis still seemed peculiarly subdued. "Look, we're nearly there. I'd better go."
"I guess. See you later, Bendis-chan."
Odd, Beth thought as she walked on alone. Normally Bendis was quite happy to visit the school; it gave her an excuse to spend hours begging titbits from obliging students. What was wrong with her today?
Then she remembered that she had other worries. School was just ahead, and she still didn't know what she was going to do when she met Nanako and Eitoku. And that was unfortunate, she realised with a sinking feeling, because Nanako was waiting for her at the gate.
Nanako let out a silent breath as she saw Beth come into view. The other girl saw her at the same time and visibly hesitated. Nanako bit her lip. Then Beth came on, stopping in front of her and waiting.
"Hi, Beth-chan," Nanako said.
Beth stared at her for a minute longer. "Nanako-san," she said.
Nanako looked away, wincing. "Okay," she said. "You have every reason to be angry with me. I wouldn't blame you if you never wanted to talk to me again. I wouldn't even—but that's not important. Beth-chan, you have to believe one thing. Eitoku-kun and I never meant to hurt you. Never."
Beth's eyes narrowed. "You have an odd way of showing it," she said.
"It wasn't meant to be this way!" Nanako insisted. "If you'd just—"
"Oh, come on! You two've been together all along, and you deliberately decided to hide it from me when I…what was it? When I started 'hanging around'…but you didn't mean it to be this way?" Beth's face was flushed and angry. "Just how blind, how stupid do you think I am?"
For a moment, Nanako's temper got the better of her. "Blind enough," she heard herself say.
"What? What did you say?"
She hadn't meant to bring this up. She really hadn't. But perhaps it was for the best after all. "Beth-chan," she said, choosing her words carefully, "how could you have spent all this time with Eitoku…watching him, drawing pictures of him, even writing those little poems about him, and don't think we didn't notice…how could you possibly do all that, and still not know a thing about him?"
"Wha—?" Beth froze, visibly stunned. Then she burst out, "That's not true!"
"Yeah? What's his birthday, Beth-chan?"
"What's his favourite food? C'mon, you must know that, you've watched him eat it a couple of dozen times at least. What's his best subject in school? What sports does he like?"
"You don't really know anything at all, do you? You watch him, and all you see are your own fantasies."
"Shut up! Shut up!"
Nanako sighed. It was no good after all. She should never have expected any different. "Don't you see?" she said. "It was never meant to come to this. I swear! We just thought—no, I just thought—that if I pulled you in, made you actually talk to the guy…sooner or later, you'd have to see the truth." She let out a short, humourless bark of laughter. "Guess I got that one wrong."
"All right," said Beth wildly. "Then I can still—"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, open your eyes!" With some effort, Nanako got herself back under control. "Beth-chan, it went too far. A lot too far. I admit it. By the time I realised that you weren't going to give up, it had gone too far already. But now…it's past time, and you've got to accept it. There is absolutely no chance that Eitoku-kun would ever fall in love with you. None."
Something seemed to crumple in Beth's expression. "Why?" she asked bitterly. "Am I so stupid that I'm not worth considering?"
"No, Beth-chan. It's got nothing to do with that." Nanako took a deep breath. "Eitoku-kun would never consider you because you are a Claver."
Beth stared at her, incredulously, for what seemed like an age. Then she said, "That is a dirty lie."
Nanako shook her head mutely.
"It is! I know it is! I—" Beth broke off, then went on in a rush, "I know it is! A few weeks ago, when I was…when I was having some problems, he talked to me! He gave me advice! He helped me! He likes me, I know he does!"
Sadly, Nanako shook her head again. "It's not the same," she said. "Beth-chan, he doesn't dislike you. That's true. He'd be happy to be your friend, if you'd just open your eyes and back off a little. But that's all. I'm sorry; I really am sorry. But that's all."
"So you get him because you're Japanese," Beth whispered. "That's…not fair."
"I get him because I already had him," Nanako corrected her. "But otherwise, you're right. It's not fair."
"I'm as Japanese as you are!"
"You were born in Japan, Beth-chan. Maybe your parents were, too. But your ancestors came from Scotland."
"What?" For a moment, the hurt in Beth's eyes became confusion. "No, my great-grandparents were from Dunedin."
"Umm…" It was Nanako's turn to be confused. "Whatever. The point is—"
"I know what your point is. You and Eitoku-kun and probably Iku-chan as well get to laugh at the poor little Claver who's too dumb to realise when she isn't wanted, that's what the point is."
"None of us is laughing at you, Beth-chan," Nanako said. "And you're not unwanted. I swear. We're your friends. I—" She paused, realising how that must sound. "I know you may not believe that right now," she continued after a moment. "But I promise you—"
"Friends?" Beth's face twisted into a crooked, humourless smile. "'With friends like these…'" she quoted. "Good-bye, Nanako…san. I'll see you around."
She walked into school.
Eitoku arrived a few minutes later, and found Nanako still standing there. "Has she—" he began, then broke off as she nodded. "How did it go?" he asked.
"Not as well as I'd hoped," said Nanako morosely. "She wasn't happy."
"Did you really expect her to be?"
"If I could just make her see…but she didn't want to see. She got really upset when I told her you don't think much of Clavers."
"You what?" Eitoku stared at her. "What are you talking about? I'm not prejudiced—"
Nanako poked an elbow into his ribs, not gently. "Dummy. Of course you're prejudiced. And we can't have that in a would-be politician, can we?" She poked out her tongue at him. "You do hide it fairly well most of the time; I'll give you that."
"I do not—"
"Oh, stop. You could stand to open your eyes once in a while too, you know."
He was silent for a little. "I was never really sure why you picked her up in the first place," he said at last. "Or Iku-chan, for that matter."
Nanako frowned. "You don't approve of my friends?" she asked dangerously.
"It's not that. It's just…everyone always kept well away from Iku-chan. And Beth-kun was a loner too. But you…you were one of the most popular girls in the class, once, until you started letting them hang around."
"That's why I let them hang around," Nanako said icily. "Because everyone always kept well away from them."
"I…" He trailed off, his eyes widening. "Really?"
"Yes." Her voice was flat, emotionless. Inside, she felt so angry that she wanted to hit him. "I might say the same thing about you, as well, Shiomi Eitoku, though you were never quite as isolated as Iku-chan. Now, are there any more personal confessions you want to hear, or is this discussion at an end?"
He swallowed hard, still staring at her. "I…I'm sorry."
"Good," she said, and turned her back on him and started to walk away.
"Wait!" he shouted. She heard him run after her, felt his hand on her arm. "Is that why you—is that all I am to you, then?" he demanded. "You felt sorry for me? Is that all?"
There was real fear in his voice; and at the sound of it, her anger began to ebb. She stopped, letting him catch up, while she tried to puzzle out what answer to give him.
"No," she said at last. Her voice sounded oddly distant in her ears. "That's not all. Maybe…maybe at first, but not any more. Not for a long time now."
"Oh," he said. There was relief in his tone, swiftly hidden. "Don't go making me worried, Nana-chan."
"Yeah, yeah. Your fragile male ego can't take it, I know." Nanako looked over to the school building, ignoring his outraged snort, then shook her head to clear it. "Whatever. Look…we need to get a move on, or we'll be late."
She bent down to pick up her satchel. As she straightened again, she noticed a patch of white on his left forearm: a dressing of some kind. "What have you been doing to yourself now?" she asked wearily.
"Hmm?" He followed her gaze. "Oh. It's nothing; just a scratch. Got it yesterday." Impatiently, he waved her on through the gate. "Come on; if we're going, let's go!"
"Right. Okay." Lost in thought, she followed him in to class.
McCrea Helen finished drying the last plate and put it away briskly. A quick glance up at the clock; it was a little after nine, and the morning was still cool. She had time to get in a bit of serious work in the garden before she had to shower and leave for work at eleven.
She hung up her apron and changed quickly into a pair of old, sturdy trousers. A pair of canvas shoes, just as old, were in the cupboard with her tools. She stepped outside, closing the back door behind her, and was just starting down the path when she heard it.
She looked back, puzzled. There was only the distant noise of traffic, and nearby, a pair of sparrows chirping to each other. Then it came again: muffled voices; and a moment later, a snatch of music.
She returned to the back door and pressed her ear to it. The voices became clearer. Someone was talking inside her house.
Silently, she eased the door open. The sound became clearer; and an instant later, she recognised it. The viddy was on. It had definitely not been going when she left the house.
Frowning thoughtfully, Helen stepped back inside. Soundlessly, she slipped her shoes off and started toward the living room.
A few steps short of the living room door, a floor-board creaked beneath her foot. She thought she heard a sudden scuffling sound from the living room. Abandoning her effort to keep quiet, she burst in.
The viddy was playing to an almost empty room. On the floor in front of it, in the middle of a patch of sunlight coming through the east window, lay her daughter Beth's cat, sprawled out and apparently asleep. The viddy control was on the floor a few centimetres away, right where it could have been accidentally stepped on.
It could have been an accident.
Helen picked up the control and turned the viddy off. "Silly cat," she murmured aloud, shaking her head with a smile. She put the control on a shelf, well out of reach, and went back outside to do the gardening.
Once she was outside, and the door safely closed, her smile widened. "Silly cat," she repeated.
Captain Hiiro opened the office door and walked in, uninvited. Two men looked up sharply as he entered. One of them, seated behind a broad wooden desk, was the owner of the office. The other, who was standing, made as if to protest at the interruption. Hiiro ignored the protest, took him by the arm, and propelled him gently out the door, closing it behind him. Then he turned to face the man at the desk.
"All right," he said. "Talk."
Colonel Shiro raised a bushy, imperturbable eyebrow. "'Good morning, Colonel,'" he said ironically. "'Nice to see you. How have you been?'"
Hiiro's expression did not change. "Talk," he repeated.
"Oh, get off your high horse," Shiro told him. "And sit down. I won't have you towering over me." Hiiro glared at him, then obeyed. "That's better. I expected a little more professionalism from you, Captain."
For a few seconds, Hiiro only stared at him. Then, unwillingly, his lips twitched. "'Good morning, Colonel. Nice to see you. How have you been?'"
"Why, thank you, Captain. It's nice to see you, too. And since you asked…" Shiro sat back and scowled. "I've been up to my neck in it, that's how. This is a real hornets' nest you've knocked over this time, Hiiro."
"Yes, I'm sure. Well, now we know why we were hunting cats, eh? And if you thought that secret was well-protected, I assure you it's nothing compared to the security clamp that came down on your latest little revelation."
"Surprise, surprise." Hiiro scowled. "What have they decided, then?"
The colonel picked up a piece of paper from his desk and glanced at it for a second. "Official word from Number Three," he explained sourly. "Effective immediately, the cat-search is cancelled. Sorry, did you say something?"
"Very restrained of you. Let me see, now…'Since the cat we were searching for has unexpectedly turned out to be a Moon Cat, we are of course halting the search. 'S' Division would never dream of interfering with the Senshi or their allies.'" Shiro laid the paper back down with a scowl that matched Hiiro's. "In a pig's eye.
"Nevertheless, Captain, you and your team are to remain on duty. These are my orders, not Number Three's. Keep an eye on the Olympus…but from a distance. No more inside work. Absolutely no contact with the occupants. You understand me?"
"Something's not right here. The search would never have been ordered in the first place if someone didn't have a pretty clear idea of what they were after. And then there's this…" Another piece of paper. "Sailor Mars was seen in a battle at a music store last Thursday, but the eye-witness descriptions don't match Hino Rei…or Pappadopoulos Itsuko. That may not mean anything, of course." He shrugged. "And then there's your surveillance recordings. Have you found out yet how they were erased?"
"No." Hiiro rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I've sent my EE specialist home to get some rest; she'd been working for over fifty hours straight. Captain Kuroi has taken a look at things, but he says it's pretty clean; no obvious sign of how it was done."
"Mm. Probably better to keep him away until your specialist is back."
"That's what he said, too."
Shiro nodded slowly. "Speaking of EE…that was pretty sharp work, spotting Hino's cover. Lieutenant…Mitsukai, is it? You might want to put her in for a commendation."
"I've been thinking about that, yes."
"Good. Hiiro…" The colonel looked at him for a few seconds. "This is a real mess, I don't have to tell you that. Nobody knows how to handle it. Everything's up in the air, and I don't know which way the division's going to jump. It'll probably go up to the Council, if it hasn't already. In the meantime, all we can do is stand ready. You understand?" Hiiro nodded. "That Irregular of yours…what's his name…"
"Yes. Keep hold of him. It could be that we really will back down and let the Senshi keep doing…what it is they do. But I have my doubts. And I want you and your team prepared…just in case."
Hiiro nodded, his anger of a few minutes before forgotten. Like Shiro, he had his own doubts. He trusted Shiro, though, all the way; the old man was always square with his people, and in 'S' Division that was more valuable than gold. He should not have forgotten that.
"Very well, then. You'd better get moving," the colonel said, adding, "Oh…on your way out, you can let my ADC back in, please."
"Right." Hiiro got up, repressing a grin, and headed for the door. Half-way there, he paused. "Your ADC? But I thought Lieutenant Midori is your—"
Colonel Shiro's face froze. "Lieutenant Midori," he said, "is on medical leave. That will be all, Captain."
Hiiro took the hint and left, not forgetting to send the new ADC in as he went. His mind was on other things, though. Only moments before, he had been thinking that the colonel was always straight. But now…
Medical leave, right. In a pig's eye.
Less than a kilometre away, Lieutenant Midori Koji sat in a small, dingy hotel room. He wore only a pair of trousers. His body and his hair were greasy; his face was unshaven. The blinds were drawn.
He was flipping rapidly through a women's magazine. He muttered to himself under his breath as he did so. He had been doing this for some time now: sometimes speaking out loud, or even singing. The sound was soothing, like a blanket of white noise. It seemed to help him think; or perhaps (it had occurred to him once, long ago) it helped him not to think. He had never noticed when the words had degenerated into a constant drone of meaningless, random gibberish.
Finishing the magazine, he tossed it aside and picked up another. The pile of discarded magazines was quite large, but he no longer noticed that, either. He began to flip through the new one, glancing at each page as he went.
Half-way through, he froze as he came to a photograph of a woman. He stared at it for several seconds. Then, his hands shaking a little, he tore the picture out and held it up to the light. His breathing quickened.
He picked up a marker pen and coloured her hair in green.
"Yes," he whispered. "Oh, yes."
There was a box of thumb-tacks on the desk, half-empty. He took a couple and carefully pinned the picture to the wall. Then, stepping back a pace, he surveyed the result.
The wall was lined with pictures, hundreds of them: a sea of women, all of them tall and slender and dark-skinned. Every one of them had long hair, raggedly coloured-in green.
"Soon," he promised them. "I'll find you."
He turned away from the pictures and went to the window. A telescope was standing there, aimed at the street below through a gap in the blinds. He set his eye to the lens, adjusted the focus, and began to watch patiently.
He would find her yet. Maybe then he would be able to remember why he was looking for her.
Lunch-time arrived. Nanako, Eitoku and Iku sat in their usual spot for the entire break, eating their lunches and talking quietly. Iku even unbent so much as to join in a few times.
Nanako was jumpy. Every time anyone came near the group she started to get up, a smile on her face and a welcome on the tip of her tongue—only to sink down again, the greeting unsaid, when the face was that of a stranger.
Beth never showed up.
The afternoon passed as slowly as Monday afternoons at school always do. When the final class let out at last, Dhiti hung back, staring at the math test results on the desk in front of her.
She'd gotten a 'B', which was fine. The teacher's comment written below the grade was not.
All right, so she hadn't studied. But she'd taken a couple of minutes during lunch break to flip through the last couple of chapters of the textbook, and her memory was good. She'd done okay, so what was the problem?
It wasn't as if she needed to knock herself out studying. She'd still have passed if she hadn't bothered. A 'B' was good enough. Most of her classes were boring, so why make an effort? She always aced history, but the rest just weren't worth the trouble.
But there was that note on her test paper. Most of the teachers didn't bother any more. The note said, "Disappointing, as always." It annoyed Dhiti.
It was obvious what Ihara-sensei was trying to do. She was trying to goad Dhiti into applying herself. That was okay, too; better teachers than her had tried it, to no avail. All the same…it rankled. Dhiti did not like to be called a failure. Especially when she had not failed; she had done exactly as well as she'd intended to do.
Annoyed at herself for being annoyed, she stuffed the paper into her satchel and trudged outside. She stomped around there for a while, looking for something to take her mind off the test.
Eventually she ran into Miyo. That would do, she decided.
"Yo, Hayashi," she called. "You busy?"
Miyo had been watching some of the boys playing basketball out in the fields. At the sound of Dhiti's voice she jumped, then relaxed. "No," she said firmly. "What's up, Dhiti?"
"Oh, nothing." Dhiti stepped closer and said in a low voice, "About this morning. Did Itsuko-san find out anything more about…you know?"
"About—? Oh." Miyo shook her head, then glanced around quickly. "Not before I had to leave for school. Come on, Dhiti, you think I won't let you know as soon as we find out anything?"
"Huh. You're not the one who's going to have to deal with a cranky cat tonight, Hayashi. You're not the one who's going to have to explain this to my mother, either. Or my father."
Miyo suppressed a grin. "Now that, I don't envy you." She glanced around at the field again.
"Yeah. Thanks." Dhiti eyed her, puzzled, and then realised that Miyo was keeping an eye out for Mark. It was almost too much. Was she that set on avoiding him? Damn it, he had apologised! Wouldn't she ever forgive him?
And then another thought came to her. In a sudden, delicious moment, she realised that Miyo was not trying to avoid Mark at all. She was trying to find him, and make it seem like an accident.
Best of all, she was fairly sure that Miyo didn't realise what she was doing.
"There has to be a way I can use this," she muttered.
"Use what?" asked Miyo suspiciously.
"Oh. Sorry, Hayashi. Talking to myself." Dhiti gave her a superior smile. "Sometimes I feel the need for intelligent conversation."
"So did you just hunt me up to insult me, or was there something else?"
"Oh, Hayashi. Don't be silly. Insulting you is what makes my life worth living. You know that." She did the smile again; then, before Miyo could start to take offence, she added, "Actually, I was thinking we could go downtown. You know, hang out. Eat junk food. Window-shop. That kind of stuff."
Miyo stared at her. Then she reached out a hand to touch Dhiti's forehead. "You don't have a temperature. Are you feeling well?"
Knocking the hand away in irritation, Dhiti said, "Believe it or not, I do do normal things sometimes."
"No, you don't. What is this, a setup for some kind of practical joke?" Miyo blinked suddenly. "Wait a minute. You're looking for an excuse so you don't have to go home and deal with Artemis!"
"I—" That was actually a terrific idea, and Dhiti was sorry that she hadn't thought of it herself. "I am not," she denied automatically. "I was thinking that we could pick up some of the others. It might be fun."
"The others?" Miyo looked blank.
Dhiti gave a long-suffering sigh. "McCrea. Suzue. Iku. Remember them?"
"Oh!" The other girl had the grace to look abashed for a moment. "Actually, that is a good idea. Sure, why not? It'd be nice to have some…you know. Just regular girl time."
"You don't say?" said a voice. Dhiti looked around, startled, to see Kin standing behind them, smiling innocently. She had just enough time to think, Uh-oh.
"All right, I'm game," the golden-haired girl said brightly. "So where are we going?"
"Um—" Miyo began.
Dhiti thought fast. "Downtown," she said firmly. "There are ice-cream parlours in this city that I do not feel we have sufficiently terrorised. This needs to change, and you are just the girl to help us do it, Kin-chan."
"Well, I wouldn't want an ice-cream parlour to feel left out," Kin mused. "Lead on, kemo sabe! You're paying, right?"
"Absolutely." Dhiti could feel Miyo's eyes on her. She ignored them. A more immediate concern was the state of her purse. "Um, we may have to rob a few small banks on the way, if you don't mind."
"Umm. How about some larger banks? There's a pair of shoes I've been looking at—sober, dignified ones, with 'Okamura Kin' spelled out in flashing lights on the toes—and I thought—"
"A mere trifle. Say no more. Actually, you couldn't have picked a better time for it. For we have with us none other than 'Iron Teeth' Hayashi, the world-renowned master criminal and safecracker! With her on our side, how can we fail?"
"I'm sure we can find a way, if we try hard enough," muttered Miyo.
"Pish to this defeatist attitude! We have the strength of ten, for our hearts are black."
"You know, that isn't how that saying actually goes," pointed out Kin.
"It isn't? Well, I'm sure my way is better."
"Of course it is!" Kin fell to her knees before Dhiti, and raised shining eyes in adoration. "Teach us, Master Dhiti! Pour out your great wisdom upon us!"
"Wisdom?" Dhiti blinked. "Hrm. All right." She spread her arms wide, lifting her hands in a benedictory pose, and intoned, "Eat your greens. Brush your teeth before bed. And…be excellent to one another."
Miyo and Kin looked at each other.
"Words to live by," mused Kin.
"Hey, don't knock it," Dhiti protested. "These are deep philosophical truths. Tell her, Hayashi."
"Don't mind me," said Miyo. "I'm only a master criminal and safecracker."
"Aha! A touch, a touch, I do confess." Dhiti raised an imaginary foil in salute. "So, would the evil genius care to accompany us to the vanquishing of sundry sordid ice-cream parlours?"
Miyo considered. "It could be arranged," she admitted.
"Let's go!" Kin cheered. She tucked her hands behind her back and began an almost elfin saunter toward the school gates. As she went, she paused to say over her shoulder, "I assume we're picking up our friends on the way?"
"Friends?" asked Miyo.
Dhiti stifled a curse.
"Mm," said Kin. "These other girls you were talking about before. McCrea, Suzue and…I forget. Funny thing; I didn't quite recognise the names." She cocked an eyebrow. "Not," she added lightly, "that I am for a moment implying that you were avoiding me, or planning to leave me out of things, or anything like that. I was just wondering. That's all."
"Actually," said Dhiti after a pause, "there's no reason—"
"Kin! Kin-chan!" came a voice from off to one side. They looked about to see Liam, waving a hand in the air. He started toward them at an easy lope.
Kin watched him for a moment, then snorted and glanced back at Dhiti and Miyo. "Saved by the bell, huh?" she said.
"Kin-chan—" began Miyo.
"I'd better see what he wants," Kin said. "Another time on the ice cream, Dhiti-chan. Seeya, Miyo-chan. Try and think of a good story, will you?"
She jogged over to meet Liam, not looking back. Dhiti and Miyo saw the two of them talk for a minute or two. Then Kin slipped an arm through Liam's, and they walked away in the opposite direction.
"Weren't they fighting about something?" asked Miyo absently.
"I guess they made up." Dhiti bit her lip, then said, "I think we're going to have a problem with her."
"Yeah. Damn it!" Miyo swore suddenly. "Damn it all! Why didn't I see this coming? I must be going round with my eyes closed! I ought to have—"
Dhiti touched her arm, cutting her off. "Look, don't get so upset," she said. "All right, so Kin-chan's noticed we're not telling her things. But she isn't mad about it. We've just got to think of…a good story."
"She's not mad about it yet," Miyo corrected her. "You really think she won't be watching us now, though? Damn it, this…no. I won't allow this. I won't let it happen. She is not going to become another Naru."
"Another…" Dhiti frowned. "Who's Naru?"
Miyo gave her a bleak look. "Someone I used to know. A long time ago."
"…Right." Dhiti hummed tunelessly under her breath for a second. "Okay, then, we're not going to let that happen. Whatever it is. So what are you planning to tell Kin-chan? The truth?"
"Don't be ridiculous."
"Well, why not, anyway? Okay, okay, you don't have to glare like that. Sheesh, Hayashi. So we'll think of a story to tell her, and she'll probably pretend to believe it, and then everything'll be fine, except that Kin-chan won't trust us any more. That certainly sounds good."
"What," said Miyo icily, "would you suggest, then?"
"Introduce her to the others, of course."
"Oh, come on. We don't have to tell her the truth, if you're so set against it. Say you met them at the Olympus, or something. That's almost true anyway. Take everyone out for ice-cream or a movie. The chances are, Kin-chan won't think twice when she hears their names after that."
Unbidden, a sudden mental image of Kin meeting Iku came to Dhiti's mind. The idea made her grin. There was something about the shy girl, and the shell she had built around herself, that fascinated Dhiti. She wanted to crack that shell and see what was inside; and Kin might just be a perfect nut-cracker.
Miyo considered the suggestion. "That might work," she admitted reluctantly. "Why didn't you suggest it before, while she was still here?"
"I was busy getting my nails done. Come on, Hayashi, why do you think? I had other things on my mind."
"Okay, okay. Sorry." Miyo had the grace to look slightly abashed. After a minute she said, more quietly, "Do you really think this is a good idea?"
"Dunno." Dhiti winked at her. "I expect we'll find out soon enough. Why don't you talk it over with Itsuko-san? See what the wisdom of the ages has to offer."
"Say that to her face. I dare you."
"Ummm. Maybe not."
"Ha! Dhiti backs down! This is a day to live in history!"
"Yeah, yeah. Yock it up, Hayashi, enjoy it while it lasts. All the same—" Dhiti became serious for a moment. "You will talk to Itsuko-san, right?"
"Of course I will—" Miyo stared at her, and began to smile. "You're actually concerned, aren't you? You don't want Kin-chan to get hurt."
"Oh…don't get mushy on me. You always read too much into this stuff, you know?"
"Uh-huh. After all, we can't have people thinking you're nice."
"Nice?" said Dhiti indignantly. "What are you talking about? Babies for breakfast, that's me. Sometimes twice a day!"
"Right. Silly me. You'd never do something like…say, breaking into someone's house to steal her stuff and bring it to her."
"Never! I mean—well…that's not fair, Hayashi."
"Mm. I guess I'm not being very nice, am I?"
"Look, let's just change the subject, okay?" Dhiti had a nasty feeling that she was somehow on the losing end of the exchange; and that was clearly impossible. She cast about furiously for a way out. Stealing things, house-breaking—
Then she did think of something, and immediately wished she hadn't.
She had done her best to forget about it, days since; and in the end she had very nearly succeeded. Now, a chance comment brought it back. The timing could hardly have been worse.
She schooled her expression, but Miyo could be pretty quick at these things sometimes, considering. "What is it?" the tall girl asked.
"Oh…nothing. Just a wild thought."
"Look, it's—" Dhiti made the mistake of looking up, and found herself staring straight into Miyo's eyes. She saw the concern there; and something else. The trust. The trust made it all the harder.
It had been just a few days before. The night she broke into Miyo's house; she had been asked to deliver a message. She had promised to do it—promised the girl's own brother.
And she had lied.
She had thought about it, the following day; about her friend, and all the pain in her life; and the source of that pain. She thought about it all…and decided that Miyo was better off not knowing this. Quite coldly and deliberately, she kept it to herself.
It was all for the best, it really was. But looking into her friend's eyes, Dhiti thought again about promises. And about trust.
She wanted to curse out loud. This was going to kill Miyo.
"I…have a message for you," she said uncomfortably. "I meant to pass it on, but I kept forgetting until now. It's from—"
She took a deep breath. Best to just spit it out, perhaps.
"It's from your brother, Fujimaro." She saw Miyo flinch, and carried on in a rush. "He said…he said a lot of things. He said he doesn't care what your father says. He said he just wants his sister back. He wants to meet you."
Miyo's face was frozen, but nothing could hide the shock and sudden pain in her eyes. "When was this?" she asked.
"Last Wednesday. Um. Sorry about the delay."
Miyo did not reply for some time. Her eyes were closed, her expression taut. Dhiti tried to imagine what she must be thinking, and found herself mentally shying away from the idea. At last, when she had begun to wonder if her friend would ever speak again, Miyo said quietly, "All right."
"Uh—'All right'? That's all?"
"Isn't that enough?" Miyo gave her a bleak look. "Unless there are any more little messages you'd like to give me."
"…Right." She had gone too far, Dhiti realised. She tried to think of a way to apologise, but all that came to mind was, "Sorry." And even Dhiti could see how hopelessly inadequate that was.
"Go home, Dhiti-chan."
"I—yeah." She hesitated for one moment more. Then, defeated, she turned to leave. At the last moment something made her look back and ask, "Will you meet him?"
Miyo looked up at her words, but her eyes were fixed on something far away. "How should I know?" she said.
Dhiti nodded shortly and headed for home. Her math results no longer bothered her at all.
"So," said Minoru. "How did your lesson go on Saturday?"
"Pretty well, thanks," said Suzue.
Hama Minoru was tall, dark-haired and lanky. He had an easy, cheerful grin and a face that people trusted. He was popular in class. He was intelligent. And none of these seemed to matter very much, when he was with her.
He had known Suzue for three years now, at least as well as anyone knew her. They had started out as simple acquaintances, and slowly drifted into something more. Finally, a few months ago, he'd worked up the nerve to ask her out, and she had given one of her rare smiles and said yes.
The two of them had been going out regularly since then. They were playing it very casual; they did not call it 'dating,' they did not talk about love, and they had not kissed yet. But she did not object when, from time to time, he took her hand.
School was out and the two of them were wandering aimlessly down a narrow, tree-lined lane. Nobody else was in sight, and Minoru was thinking that before they reached the end of the street, he might dare putting an arm around her shoulder. Not just yet, though. For now, walking with her was enough.
"I had Ashida-san this time, and she's a lot better than my last instructor," Suzue went on.
One thing was certain: he could never find her boring. In some ways, he occasionally thought, she was like an onion. However much he learned about her, there was always another layer below, some deeper level that she kept hidden. Her religion was one of the outer layers, or the way she made her own clothes. But who would have guessed that, beneath that, she was a passionate bridge player? And that was nothing to his surprise when he'd learned how she spent her Saturday afternoons.
"How long until you solo, now?" he asked.
Suzue shrugged. "It varies. Probably another four or five hours flying time. After I solo…another thirty hours or so, until I can get my private pilot's license."
He shook his head, chuckling. "Suzue-chan, the airline pilot. Hard to believe."
"Well, the airline transport license is a little further down the road," she said dryly. Then: "Why is it hard to believe?"
"Uh—" There was no anger in her voice. Nonetheless, he realised he had better pick his words carefully. "You don't even like the outdoors much," he said. "It just…seems odd that you'd like…" Running out of inspiration, he waved a hand upward.
"It's not the same thing at all," Suzue protested.
"I suppose," he said, not sure that he agreed. "Anyway, you have to admit it is kind of…unusual. I always thought you'd be, you know, a fashion designer or something."
"I've thought about it," she acknowledged. "I do like making my own clothes. But Minoru-kun, you like playing baseball. Does that mean you want to be a professional athlete?"
"I guess not," he admitted. "But—"
"So." She shifted her school satchel from one hand to the other, her expression softening. "I like to fly, too. I may make a career of it, or I may not. Either way…" Her eyes almost seemed to glow for an instant. "It's worth it. When I have my license, I'll take you up one day, Minoru-kun. Then you'll see. There's nothing like it."
He grinned in reply. "Sounds like fun," he said. "It's a date."
He realised, a moment too late, what he had said, and nearly bit his tongue; but she merely raised an eyebrow, then nodded.
They walked on in silence for a minute. After a little he said, "You're more cheerful today, at least. Did you manage to work things out with your friend?"
Suzue did not answer at once, and he wondered if he had made another mistake. She had seemed a little distant lately; last week, especially, she had been upset about something. When he'd asked, she had grudgingly admitted to an argument with a friend; but it did not take a genius to see that there was more to it than she was saying.
After a little she said slowly, "We…reached an understanding, I think."
"Oh." Minoru considered this. "Not the sort of understanding that involves pistols at dawn, I hope?"
"What?" Suzue looked at him, confused, before realising he was joking and looking away again. "Don't be silly." He suppressed a grin. Suzue was one of those unfortunate people who simply had no sense of humour.
"I might have to do some research," she went on thoughtfully.
"Research?" he repeated, startled. "Why?"
"For the argument." Suzue cocked her head to one side. "Although I suppose you could say it's become more of a debate, really."
"Good grief." He had a mental image of Suzue in a debate and had to shake his head. Whoever this friend was, he or she was in for trouble. Minoru had never known Suzue to give up at anything. "What's this…debate about, then?"
"Mm. Kind of a philosophical point, actually." She pursed her lips for a moment, then said, "So how was your weekend?"
She didn't want to discuss it, and she wouldn't give up at that, either; he knew from experience. He decided to give in gracefully. "Not bad. We won our game yesterday." It hadn't exactly been one of high school baseball's finest moments; but a win was a win. "I tried to call you, but you weren't home."
She stiffened: almost imperceptibly, but he happened to catch it. Her pace did not quite falter, but there was a momentary pause before she went on. And something swam across her face: an expression that he could not identify. Not guilt, but perhaps something close to it.
"I was out with some people I met recently," she said steadily. Her tone was so natural that he wondered if he had imagined it. "Sorry; I should have let you know."
"It's okay," he said. The only answer he could give, of course. Inwardly, he started to wonder. Suzue did not make friends easily. "Where did you go?" he asked curiously.
"Oh, nowhere in particular. I'm sorry I missed your game." She started to ask him questions about how it had gone, and before long he found himself describing the game in detail. It wasn't a bad way of spending time with a girl.
Later that afternoon, he did finally work up the nerve to put his arm around her. She didn't seem to mind. She even snuggled closer and rested her head on his shoulder for a few moments. So ended a perfect day.
…Well, nearly perfect. After they parted, he stood for a while, watching her walk away. She was worth watching; but there was more than the movement of her hips on his mind. More even than the memory of her head on his shoulder.
She had distracted him very well, and he had to admit that he had been willing to be distracted. But Suzue had never shown so much interest in baseball before. And she'd been oddly reluctant to talk about what she had been doing on Sunday.
Could it have been something to do with her church, perhaps? He knew about her beliefs, of course—with the amount of teasing and general bullying she took from the other students, it would have been impossible to miss. He did not share those beliefs, but he wasn't about to mock her for them either. That had been one of the reasons they'd first gotten together, actually.
No, he decided; it couldn't be a church matter. If it had been, she wouldn't hesitate to say so. She wouldn't try to pass the matter off as unimportant, and then spend the rest of the afternoon distracting him from asking further. Whatever was bothering her, it was something he wasn't supposed to know about.
He thought about talking to Shoda Keiko about it. She and Suzue were best friends, and Keiko would know what was going on if anybody did. If not, he could always try keeping a surreptitious eye on Suzue next weekend, to see if she—
At that point, he realised what he was planning.
He shook his head in disgust. What was the matter with him? Had he actually been planning to spy on his girlfriend?
He started for home, shaking his head in disgust. If Suzue didn't want to talk about something, well, she had the right. The least he would do was trust her!
After all, it would be a hell of a world if people couldn't trust each other.
"So," said Liam hopefully, "does this mean you've forgiven me?"
Kin sniffed. "Don't get your hopes up," she said.
He looked down at her arm, which was linked through his, and decided not to push the matter. "So what was that with Miyo-kun and Dhiti-kun?" he asked instead. "You looked like you were having some kind of fight there."
"Nothing," she said. "And we were not having a fight. We were just…discussing things."
"Okay, okay," he replied, waving his free hand placatingly. "No fights. Heaven forfend. Why, I remember some of the discussions I used to have with the lads back in Kilkenny. We were grand ones for discussions, me and the lads."
"Will you quit it?" she snapped. "We were planning a bank robbery, if you must know."
"Oh!" He considered this. "Well, and that's a bigger discussion than I was thinking."
"I bet," she said grumpily.
They walked in silence for a minute, passing behind the main school building and heading for the rear gate. At last Kin sighed and said, "I'm sorry. I just…don't know what to do."
"About what?" His voice was gentle.
"Miyo-chan and Dhiti-chan," she admitted. "I think they're avoiding me for some reason. And they've got some kind of secret they don't want to tell me."
Liam thought about this as they walked. "Secrets," he said slowly. "That's a hard thing, sure enough. Do you trust them?"
"Of course I—!" Kin broke off. "I think so," she went on, more subdued.
"But?" he prompted her.
"Well…they were planning something. And talking about a whole bunch of girls I've never heard of. And the last two weekends in a row, I haven't been able to get hold of them, but Dhiti-chan's mother thought they were with me…"
"You know how Dhiti-kun is, though," Liam pointed out. "She and her schemes and make-believes."
Kin grimaced. "I suppose so," she said. "But today…I saw Miyo-chan's face. It wasn't just playing today."
"So, follow them. Find out what they're up to."
"I can't do that!"
"Why not?" he insisted.
"Because…" Kin had to stop to think. "Because they're my friends," she said at last. "And if I do that…then maybe I'm not their friend."
"So." Liam nodded. "As I said: do you trust them?"
Kin did not answer.
"You do realise that there's probably some perfectly obvious explanation for it all, don't you?"
"Like what?" she demanded.
"Hmm. Is your birthday coming up?"
"No, that's not until—" Kin broke off and glared at him. "Nice try, buster. I'm still not telling you when it is."
Liam grinned back at her. "Wasn't even thinking of that," he said. "Honestly. They could have been planning some kind of surprise."
"Well, it's not that," she grumbled. "Anyway, Miyo-chan looked so…so guilty."
"I could ask Mark for you, if you want," he offered. "He might have some idea."
"No!" she said, looking horrified. "I don't want everyone in the school to know about this!"
For the first time, Liam frowned at her. "Believe it or not," he said, "Mark is not, in fact, a gossip."
"I'm sorry," she admitted, instantly contrite. "It's just, after what happened with Miyo-chan…well, you know. Look, forget it, okay? It'll probably turn out to be nothing. I'll pin Dhiti-chan down tomorrow and get the story out of her."
"The idea of anyone managing to pin Dhiti-kun down—"
"Will you knock it off?"
"All right, all right." Liam lifted his hands in mock surrender, grinning. "Let's change the subject. Do you want to go for an ice cream, or something?"
Kin blinked. "Everyone tries to bribe me with ice cream," she said plaintively. "You're all trying to make me fat." After a moment, though, she gave him a twisted grin. "All right, buster, let's go. You'd just better have a full wallet, though."
"Why does this always happen?" he asked the world philosophically as she dragged him away.
So there was ice cream, and laughter. They made jokes; they discussed their respective days at school. They compared dreams, and daydreams. They took a leisurely stroll through the nearby mall, pretending to window-shop but actually paying far more attention to each other than the window displays. For a time, secrets were forgotten.
Later, on their way home, they walked through Tomoe Park, arms wrapped about each other, talking idly about anything and nothing. The park was ruddy with the setting sun. And as they meandered down the narrow path through the trees in the centre of the park, they realised suddenly that they were alone. There were distant voices from the playing field, some way off, but here among the trees there was only the two of them.
Slowly, hardly daring to move but unable to help himself, hardly daring even to breathe, Liam looked down at Kin. She was staring back up at him. Her eyes in the fading light were enormous.
Then, somehow, they were together; and their first kiss was everything that a first kiss should be.
They stood together for a while longer, as the evening deepened around them. Suddenly shy, they drew apart a little, and walked on, sneaking glances at each other and smiling. After a little, Kin reached out silently and took Liam's hand.
There was a park bench nearby. They sat down, and kissed again.
Later still, they sat together, Kin leaning back against Liam, his arms wrapped securely around her. It was nearly eight o'clock. Now and then people would pass them, smile, and walk on.
After the fervour of a little earlier, Liam felt relaxed and peaceful. The trust and the warmth of the body in his arms; the gentle movement of her chest as she breathed; the scent of her hair in his nostrils…so ended a perfect day. He could have sat there, murmuring affectionate nothings in her ear, forever.
And then she stiffened in his arms, and pulled away from him. "There you go again," she said.
At first, still sunk in a pleasant daze, he did not quite realise what had happened. He automatically reached for her to draw her in again.
She slapped his hands away. He stared at her.
"Why don't you just go join the Loonies?" she demanded. "They've probably got a place for people like you."
"What?" he said, stupefied. "What?"
"I'm not some puppet for you to play with, you know." She stood up sharply, staring down at him for a second. There was a curious mixture of anger and regret in her eyes. "Isn't it time you grew up a little?" she said softly. Then she turned and walked away.
"Grew—? Kin-chan, what are you—Wait! Wait!" Liam scrambled up and dashed after her. But when he caught up and put a hand on her shoulder to stop her, she only shrugged it off.
"Go home, Keenan-san," she said coolly. She did not look up at him again. "Good night." And she walked on.
"What are you talking about?" he shouted after her. "I didn't do anything! This is crazy!" He started after her once more; he saw her stiffen at the sound of his footsteps. Abruptly he realised that there were other people in the park staring at him.
He turned sharply and went home.
Later that evening he called Mark, and the two of them spoke for some time. Something was obviously bothering Kin; and the most obvious explanation was that it was something to do with Miyo and Dhiti, and the secret Kin claimed they had. It took little encouragement for Mark to agree to talk to Dhiti the next day. Whatever was going on, they would get to the bottom of it.
Dhiti got home at half past eight. Her first evening class in ikebana had run a lot longer than she had expected. The class had been pretty interesting—she had never expected that there was so much to flower arranging—but she was fairly sure that she was going to drop the subject after another couple of weeks anyway. Still, you never knew.
Her father looked up as she came in, shuffling into a pair of rather elderly house slippers. "Good evening, Father," she said warily. She and her father had a rather prickly relationship. Which was odd, because she was fairly sure that she got her sense of humour from his side of the family.
To her relief, he said only, "Welcome home," and returned to his newspaper. She walked past him and started up the stairs to her room. Just as her foot touched the first step, he said, "I see that we now have a cat."
Dhiti froze, looking around sharply. He had not even lifted his head from the newspaper. How did he always manage to do this to her?
"Umm, yeah," she said. "Just temporarily, though. Probably."
"You are minding it for a friend?" he said, in his clipped, precise way.
"'Him,' not 'it,'" she answered, nettled. "And, yeah."
"Just so." Her father turned another page, still not lifting his eyes. "That is kind of you, then."
Dhiti waited, but he seemed to have finished. She turned once more and started upstairs—and again, as her foot touched the first step, he spoke, making her freeze in place.
"This needy, cat-loving friend," he said. "This would be the Hayashi Miyo of whom we have been hearing such interesting things?"
She turned back yet again, eyeing her father. "What sort of interesting things?" she asked cautiously.
"Hmm. The grapevine has been quite active. Disowned by her parents, it appears, and possibly guilty of a remarkable variety of offences, from drugs and violent assault to theft and prostitution." He turned another page. "An impressive record, at her age."
With difficulty, Dhiti kept her temper. Shouting at her father never helped. Besides, he—
Wait a minute. Her father had met Miyo, several times. They had taken an instant disliking to each other and remained coldly formal ever since, but he had to know Miyo better than this! Didn't he?
"Yes," she said coolly. "He's Hayashi's cat."
Did her father nod, just slightly? It was hard to tell. "You are loyal to your friend," he said. "That is good."
"Damn right," Dhiti said. She waited a moment for him to make another sarcastic remark, but he still did not budge from his newspaper. She snorted, and started up the stairs.
—And just as her foot touched the first step, he said, "I trust you have eaten?" Dhiti gave an yelp of frustration and sprinted up to her room.
Her father smiled into his newspaper.
Artemis let out a silent groan as he heard Dhiti elephanting up the stairs. "So, you finally made it home," he said as she came in.
"Don't you start," Dhiti warned him.
"Oh, don't mind me," he said testily. "I'm just a cat. I get traded from house to house whenever I become inconvenient, and then once I've been stuck somewhere nice and out of the way, I get to wait around for hours, wondering if something's happened to my latest…latest care-taker!"
Dhiti stared at him. "You could have called me," she said. "I had my communicator."
He sighed. "I know. I'm sorry. I just…hate this pass-the-pussy game. It makes me feel like…oh, I don't know. A child's toy. Having to stop people noticing who I am all the time. And being cooped up without knowing what's going on!"
"I can leave the window open," Dhiti suggested.
"Yeah. Thanks." He made an effort to relax. "Well. So how was your day, then?"
"Oh, the usual." Dhiti dropped her satchel in the corner and sat down on her bed. She suddenly looked tired. "A little fun; a little flower-arranging; a little abuse; piss your friends off; you know how it goes."
He blinked. "I thought I did."
"Never mind. It's nothing to do with you." She lay back, staring up at the ceiling. "Why do people have to be so complicated?"
Artemis started to answer, then saw her face and realised she was serious. He paid her the compliment of taking her question seriously. "If they weren't, they wouldn't be people at all," he said at last. "They'd be robots."
"Mnn." Dhiti considered this. "That doesn't really help."
"The truth often doesn't." He eyed her curiously. "You yourself," he went on reflectively, "are a bundle of complications. I don't think I've ever seen you this serious before."
Dhiti gave a short laugh. "I couldn't talk to Hayashi this way."
"No? But she's supposed to be your friend. Why am I easier to talk to than she is?"
"Because you're a cat." But Dhiti frowned. "No. That's the cheap-laugh version. It's too…facile." After a moment she said, "Maybe it's because you're not my friend."
"Thank you," the cat said dryly. Itsuko, he remembered, had had almost this same conversation with Beth, just yesterday. "Perhaps you need to re-evaluate what being a friend means. If you can't talk to her about things that are important to you, then how much of a friend is she? And how much are you?"
"Yeah. I've thought about that," Dhiti admitted. "But it's still too simple an answer. Everyone has things they don't talk about, even to friends."
"Certainly. Not everyone hides what they're really feeling behind quite as solid a mask as you do, though."
Dhiti cracked a smile. "Iku-chan does."
"Yes, and I'm more than a little concerned about that. But we were talking about you. You said you'd pissed off your friends. I assume you meant Miyo?"
"…Yeah. Kin-chan too, actually. But Hayashi the worst."
Artemis let the silence grow for a few seconds, wondering who Kin was. "What happened?" he asked at last.
She turned her head to look directly at him. "Who was Naru?" she asked.
"Na—? What brought that up?"
"Kin-chan. She's starting to notice that we're leaving her out of things. Hayashi got…kind of upset about it. She said she wouldn't let Kin-chan be another Naru."
He debated with himself for a moment, then decided to tell the truth. "Osaka Naru was a friend of Tsukino Usagi," he said quietly. "Probably her best friend. But not even a footnote in the history books, it seems." He shook his head. "Anyway. Usagi became Sailor Moon, and naturally she started spending most of her time with the other Senshi. She and Naru grew…more distant."
Dhiti grimaced. "Yeah. That does sound like the situation with Kin." She fell silent, and for an instant Artemis hoped that she would let it lie. But then she said, "What happened?"
He bit back a sigh. "The Senshi revealed their identities to the world. You may have heard what happened then…"
"Mass hysteria. Media frenzy. Mobs invading the Hikawa Shrine."
"Hmm. I suppose that's about right, as far as it goes. Well, after things settled down a little, Usagi went to see Naru to talk about it. She hadn't had a chance beforehand; the announcement was pretty rushed…no, never mind that. The point is, Naru wasn't there any more."
He shrugged. "Everyone at their school knew that she was Usagi's best friend. She got hit by the media too, before she'd even heard the news. They were pretty ruthless. Suddenly she had a dozen hacks asking her about her 'relationship' with Sailor Moon…and she didn't know Sailor Moon was Usagi until they told her."
"Ouch." Dhiti made a face. "What did she do?"
"By the time Usagi came, her mother had sent her to stay with relatives in Kyoto. She never came back. Usagi went down to visit her a few times, but…the damage was done. Later, when Crystal Tokyo was founded, Naru didn't come."
Dhiti did not say anything for a long time. Downstairs, they heard a creak of floorboards and an almost inaudible rumble of speech as her parents moved about.
"Would it have been so bad?" she asked finally. "If Tsukino-sama had told Naru what she was. If…if Hayashi and I told Kin. Would that really be so bad?"
"You saw what happened when Miyo's family found out," he said, his voice full of regret.
"Yeah, but—" She shook her head. "The situations aren't the same. They aren't even close to the same!"
"Perhaps." Artemis shook his head with a sigh. "I can't answer for you," he told her. "I can't tell you what to do. I've never even met this Kin. Just…ask yourself. How well can you trust her? What would she do, if you did tell her? Would she, could she keep it to herself? Or would she want to try and get involved somehow? And if she did…could you keep her safe?"
Dhiti stared back at him.
"Whatever you decide," he urged her, "talk it over with Miyo first. Talk it over with all the others. This affects them too."
"Hayashi's got her own problems to worry about," Dhiti said flatly.
His eyes narrowed. "What now?"
"Her brother wants to talk to her. Fujimaro."
"Oh, dear." Artemis looked away for a moment. "Well, that could be a hopeful sign," he said cautiously.
"Yeah, or it could tear her up worse." She sighed. "I suppose I should tell you that he, um, probably knows that I'm Mercury."
"Ah." He refrained from cursing. He refrained from saying that it probably hadn't been very hard for Fujimaro to work it out. Instead he said mildly, "Well, then, you've got an extra incentive to decide what to do about Kin, haven't you?"
Tuesday morning was bright and clear, and the day promised to be blistering hot. Fortunately, the air-conditioning in the chairman's office was first-rate. It had to be; without it, the heat on his gloved hands would be completely unbearable.
The heat was the last thing on his mind, though. "I have had no further word since the order to hold," he repeated to the two others in his office.
"How long can it take to make a decision?" asked Number Three angrily.
"Do you wish to put the question to Twelve yourself?" the chairman returned, his eyebrows raised slightly. "It can be arranged."
Three blanched, his bullet head turned suddenly away. "No. Of course…no."
"Good." The chairman smiled faintly. "In any case, such a question would be unavoidably delayed. Number Twelve is presently…absent."
"Do you know where?" asked Number Two. He was a middle-aged man with short, dark curly hair, a frank, open face and a smile that made him seem instantly trustworthy. This stood him in good stead as the head of 'D' Division, the diplomatic corps. That 'D' Division was also Japan's external-espionage agency was an added bonus.
"I would assume that she is Down Below," the chairman said. Down in the Master's chamber, two kilometres underground. "I have not gone to check personally, you understand."
"That's all very well. But my division is ready to move," Three insisted, "and the longer you hold on the decision, the worse our chances get. We've probably lost the cats again already. We run the risk of losing Hino, too."
"I repeat that the decision is not mine to make," the chairman said. "In any case I suspect that capturing the cats is now irrelevant, though of course the Master may disagree, when he chooses to speak. He may even elect to leave Hino free."
"She would be an ideal avenue to establishing the identities of the other Senshi," Two pointed out.
"Obviously," Three said with a snort. "We're already looking into that, of course. Hino actually has a teenage girl living with her! And another one sleeping over every week. But Hiiro's team already confirmed that the Aizawa girl isn't a Senshi. We're still looking into Hayashi."
"Such a pity that all the surveillance records of the building should have…vanished so conveniently," purred Two.
Three gave him an angry look. "We're looking into that, too. Hiiro's one of our best men, never fear."
"If you say so. Naturally, I would never dream of doubting your word." Two smiled, and Three tensed visibly at the sight.
"Enough bickering," the chairman interrupted. "We may take no further action against the Olympus without the Master's sanction. That may be some time coming—he is still only half-awake, remember. Number Three, you will simply have to cope with the delay."
"Very well," said Three shortly. He made little effort to conceal his frustration.
"Good. Until then, gentlemen, try to remember that we also have other calls on our time." The chairman smiled. "We still have a country to run, and I suggest that we get back to it."
The commset buzzed, and Okuda Jiro picked it up. "Yes?" he said brusquely.
"It's me," said the voice at the other end. "Ready to scramble."
Jiro raised his eyebrows. He threw a quick glance at the small grey box on his cluttered desk. It looked like a music player—there was even a pair of headphones plugged into it—but inside, it was anything but. A small green light glowed innocently on one side of it. "Ready," Jiro said.
Three short beeps came from the commset. On the third beep, he touched a switch on the grey box. There was a momentary burst of static in his ear, and then silence. "So what's up?" he asked.
"Stay on your toes," the voice told him. "We may have to move fast. Shinpo's cyber division ran their crack on the Opal net."
Jiro raised his eyebrows. "No go?" he asked.
"Just the opposite. They got clear access for seventeen seconds, stripped the key-shift protocols, and got out again before the system could shut them down."
"Did they get away clean?"
"They think so."
"But you're scrambling anyway."
"Okay." Jiro considered for a few seconds. Maybe they were clear; but if the Serries had detected the penetration of the Opal communications network, they would be quick to react. Scrambling as a precaution made sense.
"We'll be ready," he promised. "Anything else?"
"Hmm." He pondered for a moment, then said, "We may have a new breakthrough at this end. A new contact."
"Oh?" The voice sounded mildly interested. "Promising?"
Jiro smiled. "Very."
Deep underground, in a laboratory that never saw the light of day, a computer blipped. An alert icon began to swirl in the screen's status bar.
Across the laboratory, a head lifted in surprise. A lean figure with lank, greying hair walked across to the computer and touched the icon curiously. Instantly, the screen filled with data.
"Well, well," the figure said.
Full records of the break-in, in every detail. The hackers had been very clever, but this network had a whole extra layer of security specifically designed to record intrusions without blocking them. There was no way for a hacker to know it was there, and consequently no way to evade it. The detection system was very reliable; M had written it personally.
"How interesting," M said, and smiled. And erased all record of the intrusion.
"So what happened to Sailor Venus?"
Nanako jumped at the voice from her elbow. She looked down and saw an unwelcome face beneath a shock of unruly blond hair.
"Nothing," she told Hideo firmly. "Mind your own business."
The twelve-year-old was not deterred in the slightest. "This is my business," he said. "We're partners, remember?"
And wasn't that a mistake, she thought privately. But she'd needed him once. "Yes, we are," she agreed, "and nothing has happened to…her. She's just not here at the moment."
"I know," the boy said, with just a hint of infuriating smugness. "She's eating her lunch over on the other side, by the pool."
"She is?" Nanako blinked. Then she glared at him. "Wait a minute. You're still spying on her?"
"Of course I am. Why, aren't you?" He gave her a puzzled frown. "I thought you were staying here to cover Sailor Mars. I mean, we're the Senshi Watch, remember?"
"…Senshi Watch. Right."
"We ought to get someone who can follow Bendis, too, but that's hard. So what did happen to Sailor Venus? She usually eats with you."
Nanako took a deep breath. "Beth-chan has succumbed to a combination of unrequited love, morbid self-pity and acute angst. She has therefore decided to isolate herself for the foreseeable future."
Hideo hesitated. "What?"
"She's gotten herself into a royal snit and now she's giving the rest of us the cold shoulder. That clear enough for you, kid?"
He bridled visibly at the 'kid,' but said, "What's she mad about? Maybe we should talk to Bendis. I bet she could help."
Nanako tried to picture what Bendis would say if they approached her again. She was pretty sure that it wouldn't be a warm welcome. "I think that might be a bad idea," she said cautiously.
"Whose side are you on, anyway?" Hideo have her a mutinous look. "You've been trying to get rid of me ever since I told you about Bendis."
"Not true," she lied automatically. "Look, kid, trying to butt in isn't going to do any good. What do you want, anyway? We already know who these two are. It's the other three we want to find."
"So what have you found out about them?" He made a face at her. "Never mind. You wouldn't tell me anyway."
He walked away quickly. Nanako thought about going after him—or going around to the pool to try and talk to Beth again—but remained where she was instead. After all, he was perfectly correct.
All the same, one of his questions kept running through her mind, unexpectedly troubling.
Whose side are you on?
Dhiti watched Miyo carefully. Something was wrong.
The tall girl had not mentioned her brother's message at all today, and Dhiti was glad of that. The subject cut too deeply; it could bring nothing but pain, and if Miyo didn't feel like talking about it, Dhiti was happy to let it lie.
No, Miyo was certainly quiet and somewhat reserved today, but that was to be expected. She did not appear too upset; simply…thoughtful. Whatever the problem was, it was not that. It looked to be much more interesting.
Dhiti had to watch her for most of the morning to be sure. Then, finally, she had it. Miyo wasn't just keeping quiet because she had something on her mind. She was limping. The effect was faint, and she was obviously trying to cover it up; but she was obviously in some discomfort.
The possibilities were too delicious to ignore.
Dhiti waited patiently through most of the lunch break until she got her chance. Finally, Miyo was alone, and in a convenient spot. Dhiti walked silently up behind her and said in her ear, "Something wrong, Hayashi?"
Miyo jumped, then yelped aloud at the sudden movement; and Dhiti felt a moment of perfect inner satisfaction.
"Ow," Miyo said, clutching at her back ruefully. "Don't do that, Dhiti-chan."
"What on earth have you been doing? If any other girl I know showed up walking funny like you are, I'd think she—"
"Don't even go there." Miyo sat down with a groan. "If you really must know, I started training again last night. I thought it'd help take my mind off…things." She rubbed her back ineffectually. "Ow, ow, ow. I didn't think it'd hurt so much."
Dhiti raised her eyebrows, intrigued. "Training? In what?"
"Oh…aikido. Tai chi. What does it matter?"
Dhiti smirked. "Let me guess. You used to do martial arts, um, before, so you just tried to do everything you remember, right? It's a wonder you didn't sprain something."
Miyo shot her an irritated look. "Itsuko said the same thing. 'You've got to take the time to build up your muscles and reflexes.' I just didn't think it'd be this bad."
"Serves you right. Now, when I was learning tai chi—"
"You? When did you take tai chi? No, wait. Of course you've tried tai chi. How long, three lessons? Four?"
"…Something like that." It was Dhiti's turn for an irritated look. "Look, never mind that now. Have you decided what to do about Kin-chan yet?"
"Interesting segue." Miyo cocked an eye at her and said, "No, I have not decided what to do about Kin-chan."
"Um. I talked to Artemis about it last night."
"Did you now. And what did he say?"
Dhiti shrugged. "He doesn't know."
"Oh, that's a big help," Miyo grumbled. "I suppose you noticed that she's been avoiding us all day?"
"Yah. Actually, I think she may have had another fight with Liam. Mark-chan was trying to ask me some funny questions about her before school this morning."
"Wonderful. That's all I need. What kind of questions? What did you tell him?"
"Weeeelll…he started to get kind of nosy, so I told him Kin-chan was probably having her period. And then he turned such an interesting colour."
Miyo was turning an interesting colour, too. "Dhiti!" she said. Then she started to laugh.
"That's better," Dhiti said with satisfaction. "Look, don't worry about things so much, Hayashi. It'll all work out in the wash."
"Easy for you to say," Miyo muttered.
"Well, of course. It's not like I have any problems. Just a cranky cat to deal with."
"My heart bleeds for you." But she was still smiling. Miyo's dark mood was broken, Dhiti decided with satisfaction.
"So-o-o," she said. "Tai chi, huh?"
"You still on about that?" said Miyo. "I wasn't what you'd call a serious martial artist, last time around, but I studied a few things. Used to get into fights all the time, so I picked up some moves."
"'Last time around.'" Dhiti snickered. "Whereas this time, of course, you are a peaceful soul, dedicated to harmony and enlightenment."
"I'll enlighten you, in a moment," Miyo threatened. Then, more thoughtfully, she said, "Actually, it's funny about training. Itsuko's been saying that she wants to get Iku-chan coming to the Olympus."
"Yeah? I guess that makes sense. She seems like she could use the, er, conditioning."
"Mm. Suzue-chan's going to be there this evening, too."
Dhiti blinked. "Damn, am I going to have to join up now?"
"As if I'd expect you to stick it out more than a week!" Miyo dodged a mock blow. "No, that's the funny thing. She isn't going in for training. She's set up some kind of appointment with Itsuko in her office…and Itsuko was kind of hinting that she'd appreciate it if I was out at the time."
"She what?" said Dhiti, startled. "That's…interesting."
"Yeah. I'm not sure what to do about it, though."
"The first thing that springs to mind is to leave a communicator in Itsuko-san's office, locked on 'send,' and listen in."
Miyo swatted her. "Seriously."
"Yes, seriously! Okay, okay, don't get torked up, Hayashi. So why would Suzue-chan want a private meeting with Itsuko-san?" Dhiti thought for a moment. "Maybe she's thinking about becoming a miko."
"In a gymnasium?"
"Well, why not? Oh…whatever. Look, you've got two choices. Either you can just ask Itsuko-san—or Suzue-chan, for that matter. Or you can spy on them."
"Or I can just let it go." Miyo made a face. "I don't suppose I need to guess which one you'd pick."
"Of course not! Spies have more fun, you know that."
"Maybe." They walked in silence for a minute. Finally Miyo said, "But Itsuko wouldn't do this without a good reason. And if I can't trust Itsuko, who can I trust?"
Dhiti cocked an eyebrow at her. "So you need to find something to do this evening until it's okay to go home."
"Wanna go to an ikebana class?"
The living room was quiet as McCrea Helen came in. She stood at the door for a little, watching her daughter. Beth was sitting quietly in an armchair, reading a book. Her cat was perched on the chair-back, looking down intently, for all the world as if it were reading over her shoulder.
It looked peaceful enough. But there was something about Beth—something stiff, uncomfortable, as if she were forcing herself to sit there—that rang alarm bells.
Beth looked up suddenly and saw her. "Hi, Mom," she said listlessly.
She shifted slightly as she spoke, and Helen caught sight of the book cover. It appeared to be something about hydroelectric dams.
That could wait, though. Of more immediate concern was the depression in her daughter's voice. Something had been bothering Beth for several days now; and this was not the first time.
"Beth, dear, is there something wrong at school?" she asked.
She hoped it was at school. Not…somewhere else.
The cat jumped down from the back of the armchair and walked slowly out the door. Beth watched it go, a strange look in her eyes. Helen did not. "Beth?" she said again.
Her daughter looked back up at her, and something shifted in her expression. "It's Eitoku-kun," she said. "He—he—"
It all came pouring out. The deception; the betrayal; and finally, the basic racial prejudice of the boy she had set her heart on. Helen sat on the arm of the chair, put an arm around her daughter's shoulders and held her, listening quietly until she ran out of words.
At the end of it all, Beth looked up at her with dry, wounded eyes and said, "What should I do, Mama?"
Helen did not answer for a long time. She sat, rocking Beth gently in an unconscious memory of the days when she had been an infant, and wondered how the years had gone by so quickly.
"What do you want to do?" she asked at last.
Beth leaned over, resting her head in her mother's lap. "I don't know," she said. "I don't know if I…if I can face him again. Knowing he's thinking of me…that way."
Helen reached out a hand to brush a wisp of light brown hair from Beth's face. "I know how hard it is, when you run into it for the first time," she said. "How it feels." Her voice was soft, almost meditative. "And there's really nothing that can make it better. All you can do is tell yourself that you have nothing to be ashamed of. That it's their problem, not yours. That it's no bad thing to be a Claver. And to remember that without us, Japan would still be in ruins, and the world would be in the dark ages. That we were the ones who made everything happen."
"But why can't he see that?" Beth whispered.
"Perhaps because he already had a girlfriend," her mother pointed out. "And even then—"
Helen broke off, debating with herself. Finally she said, "You know, when I was young—your age, or a little older—I was considered quite the beauty. Quite a few boys used to be…interested in me." For the first time in years, she felt herself blushing.
She looked down and saw that Beth was blushing, too. "Mama—!" the girl said.
Helen smiled. "We never like to think about our parents that way, do we? But listen to me, Beth. This is important." Her smile faded. "There came a time, when I was twenty or so, when I became…quite strongly attached to three different young men. After a while, I realised that I had to make a decision."
She could feel her daughter's eyes on her. She said, "All three of them were fine people, Beth, and I think I could have been happy with any of them. But the fact remains…that I picked your father because of the colour of his skin."
After a while she dared to look down. Beth was staring up at her, mouth slightly open. At last the girl said, almost soundlessly, "Oh."
"Yes. That's the dreadful thing: that it's so easy. I loved your father then, Beth, and I love him now, and I have never regretted choosing him. But I—" She stopped, for a moment lost for words. "I don't know what I'm trying to say. The heart isn't logical, Beth. Perhaps I could have loved Hikaru or Toshio. But I chose the way I did, and sometimes I feel…lessened by that."
"I'm sorry," Beth whispered.
"What for? You haven't done anything wrong." Helen took a deep breath and stood up, pushing her daughter's head aside gently. "I need to start work on dinner. Dear, if you want a suggestion…?"
"This boy, Eitoku. I'm sorry, dear, but I think you know that he will probably never love you." She saw Beth wince, and then nod slowly. "All the same," she said, "I think he may need you…as a friend."
Beth looked confused. "I don't understand."
"As a reminder," Helen told her.
She went into the kitchen to start dinner. As she worked, she hoped that Edward would get home soon. She needed to talk to her husband. She needed to feel his arms around her. And she hoped that Beth would not be too scandalised by any noises that she might hear coming from their bedroom that night.
Beth sat in her room a little later, talking to Bendis. "Why do people have to be so complicated?" she asked mournfully.
Bendis thought about it for a few moments. "If they weren't, they wouldn't be people at all," she said at last. "They'd be cats."
Beth gave her a look. "That doesn't make any sense at all," she said accusingly.
"No? When was the last time you saw a cat judge another cat by the colour of her fur?"
"Well, I—I—that's not fair!" Beth protested. "Anyway, Artemis judges you because of your—you know."
"Oh, fine. Bring that up again. Rub my nose in it, why don't you?"
"Well, you started it!"
"I did not!" Bendis paused. "Did I?"
"I—" Beth had to stop and think herself. "I'm not sure any more. Look, never mind that! What am I going to do tomorrow?"
The cat gave a very human shrug. "I like what your mother said. Smart woman, that."
"What, stay his friend anyway? I don't know if I can do that."
Bendis bared her teeth in what might, possibly, have been a smile. "Show him what he's missing," she suggested.
Suzue stood at the office window, looking down at the city. It was evening, and the lights were beginning to come on. The dome of the Royal Archives, in the distance, was already glowing a pearly white.
"I like your view," she said.
"Thank you," said Itsuko.
There was a clink of cups, and Suzue turned from the window. They were not using the desk in Itsuko's office; instead, Itsuko had produced a low chabudai table from somewhere. She knelt at it now, pouring tea. Suzue knelt down opposite her and picked up her cup, holding it in both hands for a moment before sipping.
After a little she said, "What can I say that would convince you?"
"Nothing," said Itsuko. "What can I say that would convince you?"
Suzue sipped her tea again. She said, "Tell me about her."
"Tell you?" Itsuko laughed softly. "Where do I start?"
"How did you first meet her?"
"Oh, now. That was a long time ago." Itsuko paused to think. "She and Ami-chan came to my shrine one day. They thought I might be a youma." She laughed again. "There was something funny going on at the time. Something about…people disappearing? I forget the details."
"You forget?" said Suzue, surprised.
Itsuko gave her an amused look. "It was more than two thousand years ago. How well do you remember the day you met your best friend? That was probably, what, in the last ten years?" Suzue shook her head, chastened, and Itsuko sighed. "The days back then…they all run together. It's hard to keep them separate now. I wonder how Setsuna manages…"
Suzue ignored the distraction. She said, "It was just her and Lady Mizuno, though? Not any of the others?"
"Oh, we didn't meet the others until later. There were only the three of us, then; and of course Usagi didn't even realise who she was, at the time. She thought she was just another Senshi."
"She didn't realise who she was," repeated Suzue.
Itsuko gave her a sharp look. "That doesn't mean anything, Suzue-chan."
"Mm." Suzue sipped her tea. "Keep going. Tell me about her. What was she like?"
"Well—" With little more encouragement, Itsuko began to talk. Despite her protests, her memory was quite good; as she went on, her words came more and more smoothly, with fewer pauses to recall details. She spoke of the malevolent queen, pawn of a still greater darkness, who had destroyed the Silver Millennium; she spoke of a strange pair of plant-aliens, and of an attack from the future by the lords of Nemesis. She spoke of a possessed scientist who sought to draw an extradimensional intelligence to Earth; of a shadow from the dark moon, and a light from Elysium; and of an invasion by Senshi from other worlds. Of other adventures; of the coming of the Great Ice, and its ultimate reduction. Of Crystal Tokyo. She spoke of the Senshi; the princesses of the inner planets who had been her comrades, the ladies of the outer worlds who had ultimately become her friends, and the prince of the Earth whom she had once thought might be more than that (Suzue's eyes widened). Of the three visitors from the distant planet Kinmoku, and their own princess; of Galaxia, consumed by chaos but ultimately redeemed; and of the strange impostor who, at the ending of the Great Ice, claimed to be the Senshi of the Sun, and of what became of her.
Most of all, she spoke of a girl named Tsukino Usagi. An enigma of a girl; an awkward teenager with a braying laugh and a bottomless appetite, whose schoolwork was appalling and who could burst into tears if she dropped a cookie; and yet at the same time, a girl who burned with passion, and who—when, now and then, the veil was lifted for a moment—shone with the light of her own pure soul. A girl who could see straight into the hearts of her friends with breathtaking insight; who would willingly sacrifice herself rather than let those she loved be hurt. A girl who would risk the world rather than sacrifice a child. A girl for whom feeling would always outweigh thinking. A girl to whom life was love…and love was life.
Outside the office, the sky became dark as Itsuko spoke on. Suzue listened with unflagging interest, her eyes seldom leaving Itsuko's face. The tea grew cold, unnoticed.
At last, the white-haired woman fell silent. The room became very still. There was only the distant sound of traffic from outside.
Suzue stirred, tasted her tea, made a face and put it down again. She said, "I don't know if we have anything to argue about any more."
"Oh?" said Itsuko. Her voice was hoarse from speaking.
"I think," said Suzue carefully, "that you've already been worshipping her…for more than two thousand years now."
There was no answer for a moment, and Suzue glanced up. Itsuko looked as if she had thrown a bucket of cold water in her face. "That," the older woman said clearly, "is a contemptible thing to say."
"I'm sorry," said Suzue at once. "I shouldn't have said that. Please, forget I spoke." She made a wry face. "I just…wish that I could have been there. To see her too."
"It might have done you good," Itsuko said with a sniff. But her glare faded. "I wish you could, too," she said, a little wistfully.
"And Miyo-chan and Artemis can remember all the way back to the first paradise—to the Silver Millennium," Suzue mused. "What that must have been like! Do—do you remember it at all?"
"Hardly anything," Itsuko answered. Her eyes grew distant. "I think I could once—a little. For a while after I became Sailor Mars. But now all I can see are the ruins on the Moon. It's all faded away. All lost…"
"The ruins…" Suzue shivered suddenly. "Didn't you tell us that the Bles—I mean, that the queen had been thinking about having her birthday celebrations there, just before the Fall?"
"Eh? Oh—that. No, that was just a joke of hers." But Itsuko shook her head, distracted. "She was cooking up something for her birthday, though, her and Endymion, just before the attack. Some kind of proclamation. I never found out what."
"A public holiday, maybe?"
"Mm…I doubt it. But Serenity played it very close to her chest; wanted it to be a surprise. She got this silly smile whenever I tried to get it out of her."
Itsuko stared down at the table, lost in introspection, for some time. Then, suddenly, she jerked upright.
"It's getting dark. What time is it—? We've been talking for hours!"
Suzue looked down at her communicator-watch, startled. "Oh, my. So we have. My parents are going to be angry."
"You can call them from here," Itsuko offered. "Then you'd better get moving. No, better yet—" She looked at the clock on her desk and made a quick mental calculation. "We've both missed dinner, and Miyo-chan is off with Dhiti-chan somewhere. What say you call home, and then we go out and get something to eat? My treat."
Suzue did not have to think twice. "Sure."
As they stood to leave, she glanced over at Itsuko and smiled. "This still isn't over, though," she said.
Itsuko grinned back. "Certainly not."
"Pappa-san's leaving," said Aoiro over the commlink. "Want me to follow her car?"
"You'd better," said Hiiro. "See if you can get an ID on the man she's with. Chances are it's nothing, but—"
"Man?" came Aoiro's voice, puzzled. "She isn't with a man; it's a girl. Teenager. Not one in our records."
"What?" Hiiro froze. "Hold one." He whirled to Mitsukai, seated at her terminal in the back of the van. "Confirm that," he ordered.
Mitsukai slipped a headset back on. "The voice-print from the transmitter in her office is male," she said after a moment.
"Damnation. What the hell—?"
"Run a pattern analysis on the signal," said Kuroi over his shoulder. "If we've been compromised…"
This took Mitsukai longer. "Confirmed," she said after a couple of minutes. "I have a third-level synthesis match. We're being fed a false signal." Her fingers flew over the keyboard. "The patterns correspond to Sankaku simulators."
"Shit," said Kuroi. "She's been onto us all along."
"Aoiro," said Hiiro urgently into the commset. "Did you get that? Stay on her at all costs. We need an ID on the girl."
The commset was silent for a minute. Then, "Negative," said Aoiro. "Traffic's heavy. I lost her at the lights."
Hiiro put a hand over the commset microphone. "Goddam—"
Aoiro's voice went on. "I tried for a picture of the girl, but it was too dark. It's just a silhouette. Sorry."
Hiiro and Kuroi exchanged looks. "Another Sankaku link," said Kuroi.
Hiiro nodded. "Call it in."
Sese inspected the man with some skepticism. "Sven tells me you can be trusted," she said coolly. "The real question is, how good are you?"
Asking Sven to find her a hacker had been impulsive, and she was already regretting it. The man he had found her, Honda Kunio—though he preferred to be called "Trio," for some inane reason—was doing little to allay her doubts. Small and rat-faced, he had, like Cassius, a lean and hungry look. He reminded her of the kind of street vendor who, having picked your pocket one day, would try to sell you your own empty wallet the next.
Trio gave her a toothy smile that was almost a sneer. "That depends on what you want me to do," he said.
It was nearly midnight, and Sese—as on far too many days—was still in her office. Outside her window, in the middle distance, was the huge glowing hemisphere of the Archives. A fine setting for conspiracy, she thought sourly.
"How much has Sven told you?" she asked.
"Nothing," said Sven quietly. He was standing to one side, so quietly that she had almost forgotten he was there. At her sharp look, he added, "He is reliable, Sese. I'm certain."
"That's good to know," she shot back, "considering how much I'm risking just by talking to him."
There was still time to back out, she knew. She had done nothing irrevocable…yet. She could send the man away and return to her duties with a clear conscience.
But she was not sure that she could go back to lying to herself.
"I want you to investigate the Serenity Council," she said crisply. "I'll give you my own 'I' Division access code; that should make a good starting point. In return, I want you to find out what the Council are doing…that they're not telling me."
The look on his face almost made knowing that she had just broken her oath of office worth it.
Wednesday morning was grey and dreary, though the rain was expected to hold off until tomorrow. An hour after sunrise, the day was already hot and sticky.
Sharma Dhiti kept up a running stream of chatter with Artemis as she got dressed—not at all bothered by changing in front of the cat—and departed for school, immensely satisfied with herself for having been able to make him lose his temper three times in five minutes.
Itagaki Suzue thoughtfully added another title to the list of religious texts she wanted to look up in the library after school, as reference material for her next meeting with Itsuko. She doodled an airplane in the margin.
Kodama Iku ate breakfast in silence, before returning to her room to dress. The room was clean and meticulously tidy, and she was careful to keep it that way. Finally she picked up her satchel and walked out the front door on her way to school. In silence.
Hayashi Miyo walked to school as usual. On the way, she stopped and stared fixedly at a flower-bed for nearly five minutes, before clucking to herself in exasperation and walking on.
McCrea Beth arrived at school and severely puzzled her friends by greeting Nanako and Eitoku warmly.
Pappadopoulos Itsuko reviewed the list of aerobics sessions she would be leading during the day, and gave a loud groan.
The 'S' Division mobile outpost near the Olympus building continued its round-the-clock vigil.
Dhiti visited the school library at lunch time. She spent fifteen minutes going through the meagre collection of late twentieth-century history, before giving up. Reluctantly, she turned to the library's computer system.
She had never liked computers much. It was, perhaps, ironic that of all the Senshi, she was the one who was expected to be good with them. (If she ever found out who was responsible for that particular irony, there was going to be trouble.) Still, practice with the Mercury computer, however unwilling, had taught her a little.
Access to the library system was keyed to her student ID. She entered it, glanced through the query screen that came up, and typed in a simple search key.
The computer paused for perhaps half a second. Then the response came back: NO MATCHES.
Dhiti looked at it, feeling obscurely saddened. Not even a footnote in the history books, she thought, remembering Artemis' words. She wondered if, two thousand years from now, anyone would remember Kin.
She thought about looking Naru up in the Mercury computer, but in the end it didn't matter. She knew enough already.
Signing off the computer, she went out looking for Miyo.
The air outside was thick and muggy, without a breath of wind. It was like walking around in a sauna. Any sensible person would have stayed inside, in the air-conditioned buildings. That did not seem to apply to the sport enthusiasts, though. The playing fields were filled with pupils, all of them apparently competing to see who could get heatstroke the fastest. Shouts and laughter from the tennis courts, not far away, showed that the madness was not local.
Rather as Dhiti had expected, she found Miyo sitting on a grassy bank near the fields. "'Lo, Hayashi," she said as she strolled up. "Listen, have you had a chance to think about—"
Too late, she saw the smaller figure sitting at Miyo's side. "Oh, hi, Kin-chan," she ended rather lamely.
"Hello, Dhiti-chan." Kin's tone was noncommittal.
Dhiti kept her face under what she hoped was firm control, and sat down beside the pair. "So," she said in a cheerful voice. "What brings you two here? No, wait—let me guess." She waved out at the field. "Mark-chan and Liam-kun are out there. Right?"
When there was no reply, she looked around. Both Miyo and Kin were glaring at her. "What?" she said, genuinely surprised. "Did I say something wrong?"
Miyo put a hand to her forehead. "Sweet timing, Dhiti-chan," she said wearily.
"Wrong? Of course not," said Kin, her teeth clenched. "What could Miss Tact possibly say wrong?"
"Oh, come on, you don't mean you and Liam-kun have broken up again? Kin-chan, the two of you are perfect together. Everyone knows it. What's he said that's got you so bothered this time?"
"He told me I—" Kin broke off suddenly, and her face took on a calculating look. "Tell you what, Dhiti-chan, I'll trade you. I'll tell you what Liam said…if you tell me what you were going to ask Miyo-chan about just now."
Worse and worse. Dhiti waved the question away with desperate casualness. "Oh, that was nothing," she said airily. "Just something about tai chi. Did Hayashi tell you she's started learning martial arts? She—"
"Forget it." Kin gave her a long, flat stare. "It's too easy for you, isn't it? You can weasel your way out of anything."
The small blonde girl stood up, still looking at Dhiti. "You know what the really sad thing is?" she said. "I can still talk to you, when Miyo-chan isn't around. And I can still talk to Miyo-chan, when you aren't there. But put the two of you together, and this…secret of yours gets in the way." She grimaced. "I thought you were supposed to be thinking up a good story, Dhiti-chan."
Dhiti could not think of an answer.
"Yeah. Well, see you around. Later, Miyo-chan."
She walked away without looking back. Dhiti watched her go, still wordless. At last she sat down beside Miyo. "Um," she said.
"Yeah," said Miyo. "'Um' is right."
"Oh?" Dhiti's temper flared for a moment. "I didn't exactly notice you helping me out there!"
Oddly, Miyo refused to take the bait. "We were just talking about you, actually," she said, "and lo and behold, there you were. What was so important that you wanted to ask me about, anyway?"
Dhiti let out a short bark of laughter. "I wanted to talk to you about Kin-chan. And lo and behold, there she was." After a moment she added, "I've been looking up Osaka Naru in the library."
"Ah." Miyo's face went blank. "And did you find anything?" she asked after a moment.
"You know I didn't."
"No." Her lip curled. "There's a lesson there, if you want."
"Not a very comforting one." Dhiti hesitated, then said, "Hayashi, I think we ought to talk about—" Before she could finish, the school bell rang behind them. All around, students began to head back in to class. "Damn! Look—" she said quickly as Miyo began to get up, "can we go somewhere after school, and talk about this?"
Miyo paused for an instant. "I'll call you later," she said. "There's something else I have to…take care of after school."
Dhiti frowned. That sounded ominous. "Trouble?" she asked.
"Family business," Miyo said curtly.
"Oh." And that, Dhiti realised, told her all she needed to know. More than enough, in fact.
It also left Dhiti on her own after school, at a loose end. Now who was being shut out?
To all appearances, they were just an ordinary bunch of kids, two boys and a girl. Three boys, counting Hideo. Ordinary was good, though. Ordinary could be an advantage.
Hideo had chosen them all carefully. Children around his own age, eleven or twelve; but not the rowdy, hyperactive sort. The quiet ones; the ones who nobody noticed much. The kind who knew how to use their eyes, and how to disappear into the background. The natural spies.
"All right," he told the others. They fell silent with gratifying speed. "I declare the first meeting of the Senshi Watch open."
There was a lot for them to do. They had to expand their numbers, covering more schools, building a network of members. They had to build communications links, so that new information could be passed along as quickly as possible. They had to maintain strictest secrecy. And above all, they had to watch for Senshi activity.
He kept three names to himself: McCrea Beth, Kodama Iku and Bendis. He had promised, after all. Fortunately, that still left him a lot of leeway. The initial guidelines were easy: Watch for cats with moon markings. If there's a battle nearby, keep your eyes open. Stay out of sight. Try to follow any Senshi you see. Look for crystalline monsters, or women with jewels in their foreheads, but don't get in their way.
Hideo had a lot of ideas, and his first three recruits had plenty of their own. They spoke for some time.
"Don't do it," said Liam. "It'll only be trouble."
"Easy for you to say," said Mark, as he watched Miyo head back in to class.
Liam laughed; but there was an edge to it. "I'm already in trouble," he said.
"Dammit, look at her!" Mark said, ignoring him. "You can see she's down. She never smiles any more. And you're saying I can't even try to help her?"
"You wouldn't be helping, though, now, would you?"
"I could try!"
"No, you couldn't. She wouldn't let you. She'd just have to push you away again, and that would only make things worse." Liam touched his shoulder gently. "Mark, boy, the best thing you can do is stay away until she's ready for you to come back."
"And when's that going to be?" Mark asked bitterly.
"Now if I knew that, I'd be the rarest man on Earth!" But then Liam grew thoughtful. "All the same, if I had to guess…I'd say sooner than she thinks."
"Oh, that helps."
"What did you expect? I've found the girl of my dreams, and I can't hold onto her either." The two boys started toward the school building, joining the other stragglers from the playing fields. As they walked, Liam sighed, and said, "Sometimes I think we'd be better off opting out of the game altogether."
"Oh, yes. If it weren't the most important thing in the world."
The air rippled in the chairman's office, and a slender figure appeared, floating a few centimetres off the floor. She was clad in midnight blue, with silver bands at her wrists and waist. There was a jewel embedded in her forehead, the size of a walnut. It was a dull grey colour, but now and then it flickered for a moment with a cold, pale light.
"I am here," she said.
The chairman did his best to look at her with equanimity; but as always, he found it hard to meet her eyes. It was not just that he knew how dangerous she could be. She could reduce him to ashes with a glance, if she chose. No, far worse was knowing that what had been done to her, could just as easily be done to him. If he failed.
She had been an ordinary woman, not so many days before: Araki Mamiko, Number Twelve of the Serenity Council. Now, whatever had made her human was gone. She was a shell; a soulless puppet, dancing on the strings of the Master. The eyes that looked at him now were as devoid of warmth and feeling as a computer screen.
Sometimes he wondered if, deep inside, Araki was still there. Buried, hopelessly lost, but aware. And screaming.
"Welcome back," he replied. "Has the Master reached a decision about Hino, then?"
Twelve shook her head. "Not quite. There is a final test to be made, first. We must confirm her true position."
He frowned. "I don't understand."
"That is of no consequence. There will be another attack today; one that will…stretch the Senshi a little." Twelve gave him a condescending smile. "No doubt you will want to make sure that your emergency services are prepared."
He did not bother to wonder if she actually cared about emergency services. Of course she did not. Instead he said, "Very well. When will the attack be?"
"After school." She smiled again. "After all, we wouldn't want to make it difficult for them to respond, would we?"
The day ground its way onward. When school let out, Hayashi Fujimaro walked out of the gates alone. Most of his friends had been avoiding him lately. The rumours about Miyo had spread pretty fast.
He headed for home automatically, his mind almost blank. He had no idea what he would do when he arrived. Spend the rest of the day not talking to his family, probably. None of them seemed to talk any more. Miliko was still approachable, but even she was starting to give up.
The departure of Miyo had left a hole in the family. If they had tried, they might have been able to close ranks, to draw together and fill the gap. But none of them, not his parents or his older brother or Fujimaro himself, had had the will. Instead, the void had spread. Now it was threatening to swallow them all.
Perhaps that was fitting. After all, they had brought it on themselves.
Pause at the corner. Wait for traffic to clear. Cross. He went through the motions, hardly aware of what he was doing.
You knew that it was wrong, she had told him. You knew, and you watched it all happen…and you didn't do anything. He turned the corner and walked on, his eyes cast down, unseeing, at the pavement in front of him. In his head, the litany continued. It was all true. You never spoke up. You never said a word. And that makes you just as guilty. He heard her in his dreams, most nights. Guilty. He could not deny it.
Burn the house down? he remembered saying to Dhiti. Maybe you'd be doing us a favour.
Past the corner bakery. Right turn, into a narrow, tree-lined street. He had tried to bury himself in schoolwork, but found that empty study only emphasized the emptiness within himself. His friends stayed away from him. His family no longer spoke. At school or at home, he was alone.
There was a pair of legs just ahead. School-uniform trousers. He glanced up, puzzled. A figure, leaning against a tree.
And then a flood of recognition; and the emptiness fled away from him and the world vanished and there was only her, standing in from of him, arms folded, staring at him coolly.
"I hear you wanted to talk," she said.
Fujimaro whispered, "Oneesan."
Beth and Iku wandered through the mall at a leisurely pace, stopping here and there to look in shop windows before moving on. Beth had not been here for a while, and meant to enjoy it. She had half-expected Iku to be spooked at the idea of coming here, but the other girl seemed content enough…though she kept a wary eye open whenever anyone else came near them.
Beth kept her own eyes open. They were supposed to be meeting Suzue and Dhiti, but so far there was no sign of them.
The call to come here had been a surprise, but a welcome one. Things had been rather strained between her and Nanako and Eitoku today; so when Dhiti had called, saying something about "needing to get away from it all" and suggesting that they all go to the mall, Beth had been glad of the excuse.
Spending the afternoon with the other Senshi sounded like fun, in any case. Iku had been loosening up a bit lately; Suzue seemed nice enough, if a little stiff; and Dhiti was mad, but interesting. Apparently Miyo couldn't make it for some reason; that, in Beth's opinion, was Miyo's loss.
Zarigani Mall was not especially large, but it was convenient to the girls' three respective schools. Its cheerful logo, a cartoon crayfish with a big, slightly stupid grin, was everywhere. The interior was clean and well-lit; the air-conditioning was doing its job; the ambient music was catchy and fairly recent; and the air was filled with the chatter of a thousand young people. Not bad at all, in fact.
There was an ice-cream stall ahead that looked better than not bad. She tapped Iku on the shoulder and pointed. "You want to get something while we wait?" she asked.
Iku looked surprised, then pleased. "Okay," she said.
A minute later, licking their ice creams, they wandered on. Beth decided that this was much better than sitting at home, trying to read a dry stack of text-books. She eyed a music store just ahead, and mentally compared it to the shoe shop next door. She didn't need anything from either, but that was hardly the point. Sneaking a look at Iku, she tried to decide if the other girl looked interested in either.
"So," she said. "Music, or shoes?"
Iku considered for a moment. "Craftwork?" she said hesitantly.
"Huh?" Actually, there was a craftwork supply shop a little further on. "I didn't know you were into that," Beth said, surprised.
"I knit," said Iku, almost shame-faced. "It's…relaxing."
"Really? Maybe you could show me how sometime." Iku's eyes widened, but Beth did not notice. A sudden idea came to her, and she giggled. "Maybe I should get a ball of wool for Bendis," she said.
Iku thought about this. Her lips twitched.
"A-ha," said a voice from behind them. "Making evil plot without us, are you?"
"Hello, Dhiti-chan," said Beth without looking around.
"We were talking about knitting," added Iku.
"Oh!" said Dhiti. "Well…if that doesn't sound evil, I don't know what does."
Beth turned, to see the dark-skinned girl standing with Suzue not far off. "Do you even know how to knit?" she asked suspiciously.
Dhiti looked disconcerted. "Um, well, not…as such. I did try crocheting for a while, but it was kind of dull."
"Oh?" Beth glanced over at Iku. "I've heard it can be very relaxing." She winked at the other girl.
"Traitor! How can you doubt my word?" Dhiti declaimed. "I detect a challenge to my obvious supremacy—"
"Excuse me, but…why are we talking about knitting, again?" said Suzue. "I thought we were here to—" She paused. "Why did you call us here, anyway?"
"Just to hang out, really," said Dhiti, relaxing from her declamatory pose. "I mean, training sessions are all very well, but…we ought to be getting to know each other, right?"
Suzue shrugged. "Mm. I'm not sure that's really necessary. But I…suppose it's not a bad idea."
"Good to know you're so enthusiastic," said Dhiti dryly.
"Well, it makes things a little more awkward," Suzue replied. She wore a slight frown. "I think my boyfriend has already noticed that I'm not telling him things."
"Boyfriend?" said Beth, interested. "That's right, you did say you've got a—"
"Let's not get side-tracked," cut in Dhiti, though she looked equally intrigued. "Actually, Hayashi and I have a, well, a similar problem."
"You mean, your boyfriends are—?" began Beth.
"Try to stay on the subject, Beth-chan. Hayashi's problem with her boyfriend is that she doesn't realise he's her boyfriend yet. Um…I meant a different friend. She's getting kind of suspicious." Quickly she laid out the situation to the others.
Beth thought it over. Fortunately, she had no such problem; Nanako suspected nothing. She could see the others' difficulty, though. "What we need," she said slowly, "is an excuse to be meeting. Some kind of perfectly innocent reason to be getting together after school, or on weekends, or whenever."
"Some kind of club?" said Suzue. "Or a sports team?"
"The All-Senshi Planetary Defence Knitting League," said Dhiti.
"Seriously," said Beth, giving her a pained look. "A sports team could work pretty well, actually. It gives us an excuse to go to the Olympus all the time."
"Some kind of sport that takes five people?" Dhiti said dubiously.
"Well…we can pretend to have more. Or—"
"Softball," suggested Suzue. "Nine players for nine planets."
Dhiti grinned. "It could be a while before we can field a team."
"That's not the point," Beth said impatiently. "As long as it gives us an excuse to meet, that's all we need."
"But what if Dhiti-san's friend wants to watch a game?" asked Iku.
That brought the discussion to a halt. They threw ideas back and forth for a while, but all of them seemed to fall down in one way or another. After a while things started to get heated, and Beth suggested they break for a little.
"Let's get something to drink," she told the others. "We're in a mall; we ought to buy something, at least."
They retired to a nearby juice stand and stood looking at the price board for a little.
"I can't decide which sounds worse," said Dhiti; "the Natural Algae or the Prune'n'Pineapple."
"Try both, mixed," suggested Beth with a smirk.
"I will if you will!"
They were staring at each other in open challenge when Iku said, very quietly, "I still don't understand why you can't just tell your friends who you are. If they're your friends, can't you trust them?"
Beth, Dhiti and Suzue eyed each other. "As a matter of fact," said Dhiti slowly, "I was talking to Artemis about—"
Beth never found out what Dhiti had been talking to Artemis about, though; because at that moment, there was a sudden, ear-splitting crashing sound, followed by a chorus of screams. They looked around and saw something moving at the far end of the mall, pulling itself out of a mound of wreckage and broken glass. Something huge and unmistakably crystalline.
"Cat got your tongue?" asked Miyo sardonically.
Fujimaro stared at her, lost for words. "Oneesan," he said again.
Her face twisted into a scowl. "I knew this was a waste of time," she said. She turned her back and started to walk away from him.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
Miyo froze. "What?" she said, her back still toward him.
"I—I'm sorry. Miyo-oneesan, please…I'm sorry. I was wrong. It was all wrong. It…" He trailed off, unable to go on for a moment. Then, in a low, determined voice, he said, "It's still all wrong. Nothing…nothing has been right since you went away."
"Then why?" she said. Her voice had changed; when he glanced up he saw that she was facing him again. "Why, Fuji-kun?"
"I don't know!" he cried out, startling her into taking a step back. "I don't know," he repeated in a lower voice. "When you said…when you showed us you were a…you know…" He glanced around guiltily, but there was nobody in sight. "That was scary," he went on, speaking more freely now. "Scary, but exciting. But…then you said…"
"I know," she murmured.
"You said you were her. You were there…back there…with Queen Serenity. And even before…on the moon…"
"The Silver Millennium."
He nodded. "And I was scared. You were so much…more…and where was my sister in all that?"
Miyo did not answer for some time. At last she said, "I was born on Callisto. One of the moons of Jupiter. My parents were the rulers of the Jupiter realm. I visited all the planets of the Solar System, except Saturn and Pluto, before I was ten. I've walked in the forests of the Moon, and bathed in the golden wells of Venus, and seen the courts of Atlantis before it fell. I have fought at the command of Serenity, the last queen of the Silver Millennium…and in the service of her daughter. And I've walked the streets of First Tokyo, and fought beside the Senshi of nine worlds there. I saw the descent of the Great Ice, and the way it ended. I helped to build Crystal Tokyo, and I was one of its guardians." She took a deep breath. "I've died four times now, and I'm here talking to you. Fuji-kun, that scares you?"
He nodded again. He could no longer meet her eye.
Her voice was unexpectedly gentle. "Then why did you tell Dhiti-chan you wanted to see me?"
Fujimaro said something inaudible. "Pardon?" she inquired.
"I said, because it doesn't matter." His words were soft, but firm. "Oneesan, what did you give me for my tenth birthday?"
Miyo blinked. "Your—? How am I supposed to remember that?" Then she thought again…and a hole opened in her mind. "Wait a minute. Oh, I know. It was that ratty old scarf, wasn't it? You used to wear it all the time, even after it got so torn up Mom said it should be burned. I even caught you tying it to your bicycle once, like some stupid kind of flag—"
She broke off suddenly, realising what she was saying. "Oh," she said. "Wow. You really liked that thing, didn't you? I never…realised before."
"But you patched it up for me, three times."
Miyo frowned. "Four times," she said. "You always forget the time when you—"
He was smiling. "Big sister," he said.
And in another moment, his arms were around her.
She froze, startled. Looked down at the head on her shoulder. He was shaking, she realised. And he was still smiling, but there were tears in his eyes.
She thought about it. Then, slowly, she brought her own arms up to embrace him in return.
"Yeah," she said. "I guess I am."
They stood for what seemed like a long time, but could not really have been more than a minute. At last Miyo let her arms fall from around him. He released her at the same moment and stepped back.
"Hell of a reunion," she said.
"Reminds me of another one I had, just a few weeks ago." Her lips quirked at the memory.
"Oneesan…" Fujimaro seemed to take courage from the smile. "You'll come home now. Won't you?"
Her smile froze. "Fuji-chan…"
"You'll come home, and everything will be all right again. You will, won't you?" He stared at her, his face desperately earnest. Then, as she remained silent, his expression crumpled. "You…won't."
"What would Father say?" she asked softly.
"He—" The realisation in his eyes was awful to see. "He. He b-burned all your pictures, oneesan."
That, she had not expected, and she felt the blood drain from her face. Oh, how deeply a loved one could wound.
"It's not my home any more, Fuji-chan," she said faintly.
"Then…can I come where you're staying? Please?"
Miyo took a deep breath. "No," she said. "That's…not really possible."
Even as she said it, she knew that it might not be true—that it might, somehow, be possible for him to come. Itsuko knew how things were. She might say yes.
At the same time, she knew that it would be a mistake. She was sundered from her family, probably forever. Allowing her brother to join her could only further the damage. Too, it would put him squarely in the centre of the Senshi—potentially, directly in harm's way.
Looking at him, she saw that he had been expecting her to say no. "Then can I visit you, at least?" he begged. "Oneesan, don't…just go away again."
"Oh, Fuji." She shook her head, but now she could smile, at least a little. "Of course you can."
"Mili-chan, too." Miyo hesitated, then said, "And what about Ichiyo? And…and Mother?"
He did not answer for some time. At last he said, "I don't think they'd come, oneesan." Reading the shocked dismay on her face, he went on, "Ichiyo-niisan—he cares; I know he does, really. But I think…" He bit his lip. "I think he's started to hate you, as well."
"Hate." Miyo said it flatly. Then: "He blames me. For all of this."
Fujimaro nodded. "I don't think he realises it. But…"
She gave a short, bitter laugh. "And you wanted me to come home! Fuji-chan, maybe I should take you with me after all." Then she shook her head. "No, forget I said that. It…just wouldn't work. But what about—" She started to ask him about their mother, then stopped herself. She knew that without hearing the answer. Hayashi Aki would not act against her husband's will.
"At least Mili-chan still cares," she said bitterly.
"I'll bring her," Fujimaro promised. "I will. Oneesan, where are you living? Where do we go?"
"I'm at—" Miyo broke off in sudden dismay. "Oh, Fuji-chan, I can't say. I'm so sorry! I…have to talk to someone first. The person I'm staying with. She—" She shook her head helplessly. "Wait; please. Just a day or two, I promise. I'm sure she'll say yes. But I can't…can't just tell you. There are reasons—"
He barely flinched. "Is she another…one of you?" he said.
"She—no, she's…Fuji-chan, I can't say. I truly am sorry. But I—"
Before she could say more, she was interrupted by a sudden beeping sound, making them both jump. With a sinking feeling, Miyo looked down and saw that the noise came from her communicator.
She stared at Fujimaro for a moment. Then, deliberately, she touched the communicator, activating it, and brought it up so she could see the screen. "I'm here," she said.
Dhiti's voice came from the tiny device. "Oh, hi, Hayashi. Hate to disturb you, but we've got a bit of a situation here…"
"Zari—whoa! That came a bit close." There was a hasty scuffling noise from the communicator, and what sounded like something breaking. "Zarigani Mall. You know it?"
"On my way," Miyo said.
In one swift, practised motion, she produced her henshin wand and raised it up, the words already on her lips. Then she glanced at her brother.
His lips shaped the word, "Go."
"Jupiter power, make-up!" she said fiercely. Light and energy filled the lane, bearing her away and returning her transformed. The Senshi of Thunder gazed down at Fujimaro.
"Call me," Sailor Jupiter told her brother. "I can't tell you where I live yet…but you can call me." She recited the private comm number for Itsuko's suite. "Don't spread it around, okay?"
She turned and sprinted away, without looking back.
The fight was not going well. This vitrimorph was big and frighteningly quick, and their attacks were having little effect on it. The indoor setting did not help; the mall had five levels, and the creature could leap from floor to floor to dodge anything they threw at it.
It was massive and very heavy, so its leaps were causing a lot of damage. Railings were torn away, shopfronts smashed open and merchandise strewn everywhere. Shattered glass and rubble littered the floors. Here and there, sparking electric cables dangled from broken ceiling tiles. There were fires breaking out in a few places, but the sprinklers had them under control. The wail of alarms filled the air. Fortunately, most of the shoppers had fled when the attack began.
The vitrimorph itself was of glittering crystal, its shape something half-way between a bear and an ape. It moved on four legs, but there was another pair of limbs, arm-like, emerging from its back. The Senshi had already seen that its hands could crush stone.
It was tough, too. Mercury had managed to hit it in the shoulder once; the creature was knocked down by the impact, but it got up again immediately without visible damage. Uranus' sonic beam seemed to bother it more, but it jumped away effortlessly whenever she caught it. Venus' chain and Mars' Burning Mandala seemed to have no effect.
They needed a plan.
Sailor Venus paused for a moment to take stock. Mercury was talking on her communicator, as Uranus gave covering fire; Mars was nowhere to be seen…and the vitrimorph was coming far too close for comfort. Venus decided to take some of the heat off the others.
As it approached, she darted out and sprinted across its path. It wheeled in her direction instantly, much faster than she had expected. Venus ducked frantically as it swung a massive crystalline fist at her head, missing her by a hair. The next blow followed a fraction of a second later. She dodged back, then leaped for safety. There was an open balcony a level up; she caught hold of the railing and flipped herself over. The floor was slippery with water from the sprinklers, and she skidded as she landed.
The monster followed her. Even as she caught her balance, she heard the thunder of its legs, and then a sudden silence. She dodged again, instinctively. The vitrimorph landed where she had been standing, with an impact that made the floor shake. Faux-marble tiles shattered under its feet.
Venus was already moving away. She vaulted over a twisted pile of clothes racks and headed down a nearby corridor. Behind her, she heard the racks smashed aside. The sound of the vitrimorph's feet did not falter.
The corridor led into a multi-level switchback. Cursing under her breath, she ran up the first two zig-zags, then leaped from level to level up the rest. The pounding footsteps followed. They sounded as if they were coming closer.
At the top, the switchback opened out into a long, straight hall lined with shops. Venus' heart sank. Getting caught in a shop would be suicide; but there was no cover at all in the hallway. She was going to be an open target. And the vitrimorph was right behind.
She accelerated into a sprint. Speed was her only hope now.
A pair of frightened eyes watched from within a shop as she passed. Not everybody had fled. Venus could only hope that the vitrimorph did not notice the watcher. She ran on.
Perhaps the footfalls behind her grew too regular. Some instinct warned her, and she ducked to the left. A pale golden bolt of energy shot past her ear, passing through the spot where she had just been. She yelped out loud. From somewhere she found a little extra speed.
She had not realised that this one could fire energy bolts. Another problem to juggle.
The bolt hit something up ahead with a burst of glass and rubble. Venus rolled head-over-heels, letting the worst of the splinters pass overhead, and came to her feet once more. She was running for her life, she realised.
Just ahead, to her relief, the hall opened out again. She covered the last few metres at an all-out dash, and burst out into a giant five-level concourse. She had no time to slow; instead, as she reached the railing, she jumped out into open space. And realised, too late, that the gap was very deep—and far too wide for her to reach the other side.
She spun in mid-air, shouting words of power. Her Love-Me Chain shot upward and wrapped itself around a girder in the roof, high above. Her fall became a swoop.
She had just enough time to remember the last time she had done this: swinging from an Opal, it had been. This time was not as much fun. A second ball of energy sizzled past her, leaving a long, painful burn down her right arm. Then she was on the other side, dropping clumsily to the floor on the fourth level. Her chain vanished as she released it.
There was a moment of silence. Venus caught her breath and looked around, clutching her burned arm. On the far side of the gap, the vitrimorph was looking back at her. She could almost think that its face had a frustrated expression. Then it lifted its head slightly. Its open mouth glowed pale gold, and another lambent burst of energy spat across the gap.
Gross, Venus thought vaguely. She did not try to dodge; the bolt was going well over her head. She wondered why it had even bothered. A fit of pique, perhaps.
Then the roof fell on top of her.
Uranus wiped a strand of wet hair from her eyes, sagging back and watching for a moment as the enemy monster followed Venus away. She was bone-weary. Her attack was draining, and she had fired a lot of them today. All too few had hit.
She heard the click of a footstep nearby, and glanced up. Sailor Mercury had finished her call for help and was pulling herself out from cover. There was a thin smear of blood down her left arm, remnant of a flying splinter. She looked tired, too; nearly as tired as Uranus felt.
"You okay?" Mercury asked.
"Give me…a minute." Uranus leaned back on the wall. It felt deliciously cool.
"Sure." Mercury glanced away, in the direction Venus had gone. "Quite the mover, isn't she?" She grinned suddenly. "Makes you wonder."
"If you'd been trained by Bendis too, would you be jumping around that way?"
Uranus closed her eyes and tried to imagine this. It was disturbingly easy. With a grunt, she pushed herself upright once more. "I think we have other things to worry about right now," she said primly.
"I suppose so. Have you seen—oh, there she is." A little distance away, Sailor Mars was picking her way toward them. "You okay, Mars-chan?" Mercury called.
The girl opened her mouth, then closed it again, shrugging helplessly. She was dirty and bedraggled, and looked as weary as the others. But there was a hopeless, defeated look in her eyes.
Uranus felt a brief moment of sympathy for her. Mars was no fighter, that much was clear. She fled when the vitrimorph came near; when faced with a physical challenge, she froze up or backed off, every time. What must it be like, to be constantly so afraid?
But she kept trying. Uranus had seen her concentrating so hard on her Burning Mandala that it glowed sun-bright, and left her half-fainting from the strain…and all to no avail. A slight singeing was all she could manage. You could see it in her eyes; she was beaten before she started, and she knew it. And she kept trying anyway.
Yet for all her sympathy, Uranus could not help but feel a dull resentment. They were facing a serious challenge, and one of their number was simply not up to the job. What a sad irony, that they were stuck with Iku here, while back at the Olympus was one of the most powerful women who had ever lived—if she could only use her power again.
They had traded a warrior of fire for a wet squib. The only thing this new Mars was good for was a distraction.
She squelched the dark thought before it could go any further. As she herself had said, just a few moments ago, right now they had other things to worry about.
"Come on," she said. "Let's get after Venus."
Mercury and Mars nodded. Uranus took a deep breath, glanced about quickly, and set off. The other two fell in just behind her. She did not try to repeat Venus' jump to the balcony; there was a upward walkway nearby and she aimed for it without hesitation.
The next level was empty, but it was easy to tell which way Venus and the vitrimorph had gone. The trail of rubble and broken floor tiles made the path clear. Twisted metal fragments that might once have been clothes racks were strewn across the floor. The girls ran past them without pausing, Mars lagging behind the other two. Faint and far off, the sound of sirens could be heard.
As she reached the switchback leading up, Uranus paused for a moment. A nearby wall-board showed a directory of the mall, and the map gave her an idea.
She waited impatiently for Mars to catch up. Then she indicated their position on the board, and the long hallway at the top of the switchback. "I'll follow Venus," she said to the other two. "But look; there's another way up, here." She pointed on the map. "If you two go straight ahead, through here, then down the gallery and up this other walkway—"
"We'll be able to catch the monster between us!" finished Mercury, her eyes lighting up. Then her face fell. "But we'll have to time it just right, to attack at the same moment—"
"Use your computer," said Uranus impatiently. "Shouldn't you be able to track where I am?"
"My—" Mercury froze for a moment. Was she flushing? On her face it was hard to tell. "Um, right. That'd work."
"All right. Get moving, then. Don't be late."
Wasting no more time, Uranus ran toward the switchback. She heard Mercury and Mars hurrying away behind her. As she started up the first ramp, she realised that Mercury had never even thought of her computer until now. Typical.
The top of the switchback opened out into a long, open hallway. She started down it, not moving too fast. Mercury and Mars had farther to go, and she did not want to arrive before they did. She tried to reckon in her head how long it would take them. Why couldn't she have had a computer like Mercury's?
From far up ahead, there came a drawn-out, grinding crash. It sounded like half the building was falling in. Uranus slowed for an instant. Then she started to run for all she was worth.
Mercury dropped her visor over her eyes as she ran. Interestingly, her vision became much clearer at once. The device was filtering out the smoke and the constant shower of water from the sprinklers. A neat trick, that.
She pulled her computer out and opened it as she ran, hoping that it was water-proof. The screen lit up with displays. And, yes, there was a tracking function. This might actually work…
But there was a sound that was missing from her side. She stopped to look around, and saw how far behind Mars had already fallen.
It must have shown in her expression. As Mars caught up, Mercury could read the resignation in the other girl's face.
"Just go," Mars said quietly. "Sailor Uranus needs you. I'll…I'll catch up." Something twisted in her face; she fell to her knees, staring down at the floor, and waited.
A thousand thoughts raced through Mercury's mind. The impulse to say something funny, instantly suppressed. The urgency of the situation. Uranus, who was depending on them. Venus, who might already be in trouble. And Mars…Mars, who was waiting for Mercury to run off and leave her.
How many times has someone left her already?
The idea left a peculiar, hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach. Sailor Mercury thought about it, thought about going ahead. It was the rational thing to do; it was the best way to help Venus and Uranus. And yet…and yet. She made a decision.
She knelt down at Mars' side and took her hand gently. The other girl looked up, startled.
"Come on," Mercury said. She smiled. "You're one of us now. You're a Sailor Senshi. And we don't leave other Senshi behind."
Mars' eyes widened. For a moment, something bloomed, deep behind them. Something glorious.
"I'll slow you down," she whispered.
"Have a little faith in yourself," said Mercury. And then, because somehow it seemed required: "I believe in you."
She stood up, still holding Mars' hand, and waited. After a moment, Mars rose from her knees. They stood in silence for an instant more.
Then they ran.
For a few seconds Mercury thought it was not going to work. Mars' pace was ragged, clumsy; she could not keep up. Then, almost magically, it happened. The girl's footfalls found a rhythm. Her breathing steadied and her body began to move in harmony at last. Mercury could almost hear her relaxing, even as her speed increased. Side by side, they ran.
They rounded a corner and started through the broad gallery that Uranus had indicated. It was wide and roomy; the ceiling was higher here, and far off at the opposite end it vanished altogether as the gallery expanded into a giant multi-level concourse.
They ran. Here and there, a few bewildered-looking mall staff, dressed in yellow emergency jackets, turned to watch them pass. The sirens they had heard earlier were closer. There was another sound, too, like the irregular beating of a drum, coming from above. But the walkway to the upper levels was not far ahead—
Then the roof came tumbling down.
The two Senshi skidded to a halt, just in time. With a sound of thunder, hundreds of tons of wreckage plummeted down out of the concourse at the end of the gallery. Beams and girders, crumbling sections of walkway, stone and wooden panels, sheets of disintegrating glass and, everywhere, thick, billowing clouds of dust; a torrent of ruin, descending from on high. The air was filled with alarms, sirens, shouts and screams of terror and pain, and, overwhelming all, the roar of destruction. It seemed to go on forever; whenever it began to slow, it suddenly picked up again as more sections of the mall, damaged by the avalanche, gave way.
At last the onslaught began to truly subside. The rumble of falling wreckage slowed to a trickle. The air was thick with dust and grit, leaving a foul taste in Mercury's mouth. At least she could still see through her visor. There was a hiss of water, gushing from broken pipes. More fires had broken out. Up ahead, the pile of wreckage overflowed the edges of the concourse. Walls had been crushed aside, and most of the pillars around the edge were buckled or broken. With a sudden chill, Mercury realised that they might give way at any moment.
She began to turn to Mars, to tell her to go back to the emergency staff and get them out of the mall. Before she could complete the motion, one more object came down from above, not tumbling but clearly jumping, to land with an ear-splitting crash in the midst of the rubble. Something large and glittering.
The vitrimorph did not appear to be damaged at all.
It pulled itself out of the wreckage, two arms and four legs moving smoothly, and looked around. The bear-like head turned in Mercury's direction. It started toward her.
There was no more possibility of retreat. She and Mars were the only things between it and the emergency staff. Mercury took a deep breath, coughed on dust, and prepared to cast another Ice Spear.
Beside her, she heard Mars shout out, "Burning Mandala!"
The lines of fire tracked themselves crazily across the wreckage, spiralling in upon the vitrimorph. They met in the centre, and a few sparks danced off its crystal body. Useless, as always.
But Mercury saw the attack, for the first time, through her visor. She saw the lines of analysis that her computer obligingly displayed. And she thought: Well, what do you know?
Venus tried to dive for cover as the roof collapsed, but there was simply no time. A heavy ceiling tile struck her on the shoulder in mid-air, knocking her sprawling. Before she could recover, something heavy smashed her in the small of the back. Her chin hit the floor, hard, and the world became scarlet with pain.
More debris hammered into her. She cried out, but the sound was lost in the falling wreckage. She was pinned in place, helpless. More and more fell, each new blow fresh agony; the thunder of ruin was all around her, and the weight mounted endlessly…And then, miraculously, the onslaught began to die away. A few last chunks fell, and no more.
After a long time, she managed to open her eyes. It was dark; she was completely buried. The pain in her back was immense. A strong taste of salt was in her mouth. She could not breathe through her nose; she could barely breathe at all. There was no air. The weight pressing down on her was almost overwhelming.
She was alive.
More than that; she was a Senshi. She was a hero. And she was damned if some crystal bugbear was going to bring her down.
The pressure on her left arm was a fraction less than on the rest of her body. With some difficulty—ignoring the pain in her back and her mouth—she forced the arm to move. Leverage was what she needed. Get the palm on the floor. Slide it in, toward her body. Press hard. She groaned with the effort, with the renewed agony, and pushed harder.
Something shifted; the weight on her shoulders seemed to lessen. She pushed again. And then she heard the rubble sliding; something that felt like a brick landed on her fingers and she groaned again; but suddenly there was enough room for her to turn her head, and a distant light filtering through the wreckage; and when she inhaled, she had all the air she wanted.
With a little more room to move in, she managed to work her shoulders free of the beam that lay across them. That gave her the use of both arms. Little by little, she worked her way out of the pile of wreckage.
It seemed to take forever. When she finally managed to sit up, she realised that it could not have been more than thirty seconds.
She coughed, spat blood, and felt her nose gingerly. It did not seem to be broken. Then she stood up and looked out across the concourse once more.
The vitrimorph was staring back at her.
As she watched, dismayed, it spat more bolts of energy. They were aimed successively higher and higher. With a sudden, cold horror, Venus realised that it was going to bring the whole building down on her.
There was a drawn-out scream of tearing metal and disintegrating stone from above, and hundreds of tons more wreckage began to fall toward her. She looked around wildly. All around her, she was surrounded by the debris from the first shot. There was nowhere to run.
Well, one place.
She fired her Love-Me Chain across the concourse, and swung out across the gap once more. Straight back toward the vitrimorph.
She ought to have made for another floor, above or below, but the angles were tricky and she simply had no time. The first new fragments from above struck her shoulders, hard enough to sting, as she swung out. She paid them no heed. Her eyes were fixed on the enemy.
It stood there, waiting for her. Massive arms reached forward, those hands which could crush stone ready to receive her. It could have fired again—she was an easy mid-air target—but it did not have to bother. She was going to land right by it. She braced herself, ready to flip out of reach the moment she landed…and knowing that she did not have a chance.
And then something dim and shimmering struck the vitrimorph from behind. There was a faint singing in the air; a tingling on her skin. Like music, Venus thought, entranced. The music of the spheres.
The vitrimorph stiffened; it seemed to shudder at the touch of the beam. Then, in a movement that was almost too fast to follow, it leaped away. Venus did not have time to see where it went. The balcony was coming up to meet her, fast. She released her chain, letting it wink out of existence, and landed sprawling on the spot where the creature had stood.
A slim figure stepped out of the hallway to meet her. "Invited by a new millennium," it intoned gravely, "Sailor Uranus…acting gracefully."
Venus raised a bloody face to her saviour. "You betcher ass," she said.
The bolt of ice hit the vitrimorph in the neck, flipping the monster backward to land, upside-down, in the mountain of wreckage that filled what had once been a bright, open concourse. There were scattered cheers from the mall staff who still remained in the gallery, watching. Mercury tried to ignore them. She knew that it was far from over.
Sure enough, there was a sudden explosion of movement from the rubble. The vitrimorph burst out of the heap, sending splinters of stone and shattered glass flying in all directions. From behind Mercury came a hoarse scream of pain. She ignored that, too.
Once upon a time, the monsters just stole your life energy, or your heart crystal, or whatever. They didn't try to tear you limb from limb. They searched for beautiful dreams; they didn't go around killing innocent people. Above all, Mercury was pretty sure that they went down a lot more easily than this.
Of course, there was a Sailor Moon in those days. That probably made a difference.
The vitrimorph stalked closer. Mercury watched, narrow-eyed. It could move a lot faster than you'd expect, when it wanted to. She braced herself to get out of the way.
It did not rush her. Instead it opened its mouth and spat out a pale golden bolt of energy at her.
The only thing that saved Mercury was that she'd seen a vitrimorph do it once before. The one back in the theatre; that had fired energy bolts, too. She saw the glow in its mouth and had a fraction of a second to dodge to one side.
And that moment, once she was committed, caught in mid-move, was when it charged.
It hit her like an express train, a massive blow that knocked the breath out of her and sent her flying as effortlessly as if it were swatting a fly. It did not even hurt; the shock was too great for her to feel a thing. Then she hit a wall, and that hurt a very great deal.
She staggered to her feet, gasping with the pain, and looked around wildly. Somebody screamed a warning—Mars' voice—and she started to turn, but before she could complete the motion it was on her from behind. Glittering crystal filled her eyes; there was a sudden hot, wet feeling, and the world went black.
She opened her eyes a second later, half-surprised to find that she still could. It was standing over her, looking down. One glassy fist was raised to strike—this blow would be the end, she knew—but for one instant it was motionless. It's waiting for me to see it coming, she realised. It's playing with me.
No. Somebody is playing with me…through it.
Sparks danced across its body. Somewhere, Sailor Mars was making one last desperate attempt to save her. Mercury could have told her not to bother. The fist began to descend.
Then a voice cried out, and the thunder answered.
Mercury's eyes were filled with light. The vitrimorph flew backward, rolling end-over-end. Its body was lit up with a blue, electric glow. It hit the floor once, bounced, and again. The sound it made as it struck was like breaking glass. Mercury managed to get up on one elbow to watch as it ground to a stop. For a second, she dared hope.
Then, once again, it started to get up.
There were hands at her elbows, helping her up. Mars…and Jupiter, Jupiter, of course. "Took your time getting here, Hayashi," she managed to say.
Sailor Jupiter grinned through the concern that was plain on her face. "You know how traffic gets," she said.
"Excuses. Always excuses." Mercury coughed. Her ribs hurt.
Jupiter nodded toward the vitrimorph. It was motionless for the moment, possibly sizing them up. It still glowed; but otherwise, if Jupiter's lightning bolt had hurt it, the damage was not visible. "What's the story?" she asked.
"Nothing affects it," said Mars quietly.
"Uranus' music thingy seems to bother it," Mercury corrected. "But it's too fast; she can't hit it for long enough to do the damage."
Jupiter nodded, frowning. "Then if—"
"However," Mercury said, unable to restrain a grin, "I do have a plan. And those—" she pointed—"are just the people I need to do it."
Mars and Jupiter looked around. Uranus and Venus were coming toward them from a nearby staircase. Venus looked as bad as Mercury felt; her fuku was stained, her nose and upper lip were bleeding and she was limping. Her expression was undaunted, though. Uranus appeared…stern, but at the same time, oddly satisfied. Both of them looked glad to see Jupiter.
In the distance, the vitrimorph stirred; then, with a prodigious leap, it bounded away and was lost to view.
"So let's hear it," said Jupiter.
Mercury's grin widened. It hurt her mouth; she probably had a smashed lip herself. But it was worth it. She continued to grin as she told them all what they were going to do.
Five minutes later, Jupiter scouted through the hallways of the mall, keeping a wary eye open for the enemy. She had a giddy feeling of unreality as she went; it was like walking through a dreamworld. This mall should be a familiar place; she had been here dozens of times before. Some parts of it still looked the way she remembered. But so much of it was reduced to wreckage and rubble, half-lit, fire-damaged and streaming with water. Even places where the vitrimorph had never come were damaged, torn apart by the stress as the roof over the grand concourse had been torn down.
Off to her left, something grated. Her distracted, almost fugue-like state vanished; her head snapped around, her hands rising, ready to throw lightning. After a second, she stepped gingerly in the direction of the sound.
The grating noise came again, and this time she saw it: a broken length of wood, hanging from a cable that dangled from a gaping hole in the ceiling. As it swung to and fro, the cable rubbed against the edges of the hole, making the sound she had heard. Relieved, she started to turn away.
Then she froze. It must have been hanging there for some time now. Why was it still swinging?
The vitrimorph burst out through a broken shop window just ahead, thundering toward her at full speed. It was no longer glowing. Its arms were outstretched to grab her; its mouth was open, ready to fire another energy bolt. Floor tiles burst under its feet as it charged.
Jupiter was already moving. She called out, "Supreme Thunder!" and felt the power collect on her tiara, then leap out at the monster. The vitrimorph tried to dodge but the lightning clipped its left shoulder, knocking it to the floor with a crash. It glowed blue once more.
Before it could get up, Jupiter started to run. She tapped frantically on her communicator and yelled out, "It's here! I'm on my way!" In another moment she had ducked around a corner, just in time to avoid the monster's own returning fire.
She was on the third floor of the mall, two levels up from where their rendezvous point. The quick way down would have been to jump from a balcony into the concourse; but that would have landed her in the massive pile of wreckage below. Instead she had to take the long path, with an enemy dogging her heels every step of the way. For a brief, insane moment she wished she were a runner like Haruka.
The corridors and halls of Zarigani Mall became a nightmare, full of dim, flickering lights, the stench of smoke and the certainty of imminent death. Somehow she made it to a flight of emergency stairs and leaped down them eight at a time. The stairwell was narrow enough to slow the vitrimorph, but the lights was even worse than in the main corridors and she nearly broke her neck three times. Finally, chest heaving, she flung herself out on the ground level and sprinted across the gallery. An arm reached out and Sailor Uranus pulled her into cover behind a pile of broken boxes.
A second later, there was an explosion from the direction she had come. Jupiter peeked through a gap between two boxes and saw the vitrimorph burst out of the stairwell. It came to a halt, the bear-like head turning this way and that. Looking for her.
Silence fell. The vitrimorph took a step forward, then paused once more. A heap of burning books, spilled from the shattered facade of a nearby shop, cast ruddy glints from its body.
On opposite sides of the gallery, Mercury and Venus stepped out of hiding.
The vitrimorph saw them; it turned, very quickly, and then paused. Its head tracked from one girl to the other, then back again. The two Senshi were standing a good twenty meters apart; there was no way for it to face them both. It seemed to hesitate.
Behind the boxes, Jupiter stirred: wanting to move, wanting to help, wanting to do anything but watch her friends in danger. Uranus' hand on her shoulder tightened, and she held still.
Then, slowly and deliberately, Mercury took one step to her left. The vitrimorph shifted again, almost imperceptibly.
Another step. And the vitrimorph moved, leaping toward her with terrifying speed…and came to a halt once more, as Venus took a step of her own, to the right. Widening the gap between the girls. It looked at Venus, and then back to Mercury.
Sailor Mercury had frozen when Venus moved. Her body was stiff, tense. Now, she took another step to her left.
At the same time, Venus stepped right. The vitrimorph's head turned from one side to the other. It moved a few metres toward Venus, then paused once more.
"Just a little further," Uranus whispered.
Mercury stepped left. The vitrimorph followed.
Venus stepped right. The vitrimorph froze, then followed her.
They were leading it on a zig-zag path, Jupiter saw: left to right, to and fro, but always forward. Just a little further…
Together, Mercury and Venus stepped directly back. The vitrimorph surged forward, paused, and took one more step. Its foot came down, oblivious, in the pile of burning books.
Mercury shouted, "Now!"
And Sailor Mars stepped out of the bookstore.
A wink of light, like a flash from a giant searchlight. A circular pattern of fire that etched itself across the floor of the gallery. It rotated, the lines shifting, wheeling, sweeping in toward the centre, faster and faster…and then, as it passed over the burning books, its colour changed, took on a darker cast. The air above it seemed to shimmer. The books flared up with a roar, and were gone.
And the vitrimorph's leg began to glow a cherry-red.
Uranus could feel the heat radiating from the circle. Even from this distance, it was like putting her face to an oven door. She blinked twice, her eyes suddenly dry.
She had no idea why Mars' attack had suddenly become so powerful…but suddenly she began to see what Mercury had planned.
Across the gallery, Venus was sprinting to help. But the vitrimorph was still moving; its leg shone red-hot, leaving glossy, liquid-looking marks on the floor tiles, but it continued to advance. Sailor Mercury took a few steps back, sudden apprehension on her face.
Then Venus was at her side, and Mercury came to a halt. The two girls shared one quick, resolute glance. Mercury lifted her hands and shouted. At the same moment, Venus cried out words of her own.
"Ice Spear!" "Venus Chain Thing!"
Mercury's attack shot toward the vitrimorph—and in mid-flight, it was struck by Venus' chain.
With an ear-splitting crack, the spear shattered.
The vitrimorph was showered with countless tiny fragments of ice.
Steam bellowed up with a roar. The vitrimorph groaned: not a vocal sound at all, but the sound of material stressed to the breaking point. Irregular white patches appeared across its leg. It took one more step forward, and Uranus could see the white patches splitting and reforming with a fragile grinding sound.
At Uranus' side, Jupiter stood up. "Supreme Thunder!" she shouted; and a bolt of lightning struck the vitrimorph. There was a dull ringing sound, and its leg was blown completely off. Fragments of dark, semi-molten crystal sprayed across the floor, starting new fires of their own.
The vitrimorph staggered, but still did not fall. Its arms reached vainly toward Mars.
Uranus stepped out into the open. "Music of the Spheres," she said clearly.
Her sonic beam caught the vitrimorph squarely between the shoulders and shattered it into a million pieces.
A long, sullen hush descended upon the mall. Outside, the clouds thickened. It would rain by nightfall.
Crowds of people were gathered around the twelve mall gates. Most of them had been inside when the attack began, but an increasing number were coming to watch the show. The police hovered nearby, but so far the people were well-behaved.
As if on some unseen signal, the crowds stirred. Sirens wailed, and the emergency vehicles began to move in. Police began ordering the spectators to disperse. An Opal that had been hovering nearby veered off and began to move rapidly away.
Over the next two days, fire crews from 'C' Division and ambulance teams from 'O' Division, police units from 'P' and civil defence squads from 'W' combed the mall, inspecting the damage and searching for survivors. In all, only seven people died. Another sixty-eight received medical treatment; nineteen of them needed temporary hospitalisation.
If it occurred to anybody that so many emergency services, drawn from four separate divisions, had been on hand very quickly—almost as if they had already been prepared—then at least nobody said a word.
A full fifth of the mall structure would ultimately need repairs or total reconstruction. The process would take fourteen months. Dozens of retailers suffered damage to stock or fittings; some of the insurance claims would still be in arbitration four years later. The stock price of Yamada Holdings, who owned Zarigani Mall, dropped to a twenty-nine year low, though it eventually rebounded.
Two hundred and fifty-three people saw the five Senshi leave the building and run off. Some of the watchers applauded; some did not. Two weeks later, the number of those claiming to have seen the girls depart was over a thousand.
"Inventive of them," said the chairman.
Number Twelve grimaced. "If you say so," she said.
"You don't approve?"
"They didn't fight as well as I'd expected. I had to hold it back, or it would have killed one or two of them."
"Mm. Still, they do improve."
"They have a long way to go. We need to push them harder yet. In the end, they'll have no alternative but to—" Twelve broke off, and smiled. "Give us what we want," she finished.
The chairman hid a frown. "Very well," he said. "In the meantime, you've destroyed a mall, done billions of yen worth of damage…You told me this was some kind of final test. I trust it was successful, at least?"
"Indeed. I'm waiting confirmation of that now. In fact—" The commset on the desk buzzed, and Twelve smiled. "Here it is now, I suspect."
The chairman watched as she touched a control in the commset. How had she known it was going to sound at that moment?
"Araki here," she said.
"Ah, Araki-sama," said a nervous voice from the desk speaker. "This is Iwahashi Toru. You had asked me to verify that—"
"Of course," she said. Her voice had none of the colder tones it had held moments before. She sounded…human. "And your findings?"
"Uh…" Iwahashi, whoever he was, sounded flustered. "Well, I didn't find anything, really. I'm very, very sor—"
"You what?" Twelve's face darkened. The chairman shied away from her imperceptibly. He had a feeling that the luckless Iwahashi was about to very luckless indeed.
"I'm sorry, Araki-sama! But there just wasn't anything to see. She didn't do anything at all, honestly! The girl wasn't there at all, and Pappadopoulos just sat in her office the whole time!"
"Ah." Suddenly the anger in Twelve's voice was gone. "Very well, Iwahashi-san. In that case, I'm sure you did your best. Good-bye."
She switched the commset off again and turned back to the chairman. "You see?" she said.
His brow furrowed in thought. "He said Pappadopoulos never left her office. But—"
"But Sailor Mars was just fighting at Zarigani Mall. You see? Either Pappadopoulos isn't really Hino Rei, or—"
"Or she isn't Sailor Mars any more," he said.
Twelve grinned. "Indeed. Either way, there is no longer any need to hold back, don't you think?"
"Of course. I'll tell Takeda he can send his team in to arrest—"
She held up a hand. "Not now," she said. "Tomorrow morning, I think."
"Haven't you studied the security reports?" Her voice was mocking. "Pappadopoulos has taken in a guest. A teenage girl who she only met two weeks ago. But out of the blue, she took this Hayashi Miyo in and seems to be treating her like a daughter. Don't you think that's interesting?"
"Another Senshi," he breathed.
"Almost certainly. This girl, by the way, was not at home during the attack at the mall."
"Which one is she?" he asked. "Shouldn't we arrest her as well?"
Twelve shrugged. "Why?" she responded. "I don't know which one she is, but really, what does it matter? If we leave her alone, and arrest Hino while the girl is at school tomorrow…it may just spur her on a little. Don't you think?"
She smiled, and the chairman was no longer able to restrain a shudder.
There was a small park six blocks east of Zarigani Mall. A sheltered area in one corner, bordered by low hedges, held a children's playground. It was almost empty, even at this hour; three small boys were playing disspiritedly on the carousel, supervised by a bored-looking woman, but the evening was too hot and sticky for most.
At one side of the playground, on a low, grassy bank, five girls sat speaking quietly among themselves.
"It was a lot tougher than the ones we've fought before," said Miyo thoughtfully.
"I thought it was never going to go down," said Beth.
"But it did," said Suzue. "Though I'm still not sure why."
Three heads turned to the fourth girl.
The fourth girl shrank back a little from the sudden attention. "I—I didn't do anything special," Iku said nervously. "I just…attacked when Dhiti-san said…"
Four pairs of eyes converged on the fifth girl.
Dhiti buffed her fingernails on her shirt and inspected them with elaborate casualness. "I thought you'd never ask," she said. There was more than a hint of smugness in her tone.
"What, do you want us to go down on our knees and beg for the answer?" snapped Suzue.
Dhiti's eyes widened. "Would you really?" she asked hopefully.
With a sigh, Miyo reached across and rapped her on the head with her knuckles, not gently. "Get on with it," she said.
"Spoilsport." Dhiti leaned back and stretched, then coughed delicately. "Sorry; all that dust in my throat," she explained. "You know, maybe we could go somewhere and get a drink—? Oh, all right, Hayashi. Don't get your panties in a knot. What I did was, I worked out what Iku-chan's attack does." She stopped and beamed around at the other four.
"That's all?" said Beth.
"'That's all?'" Dhiti raised a supercilious eyebrow—somehow giving the impression that this was exactly what she had wanted someone to ask—and said loftily, "My dear cat-girl, not to blow my own trumpet, but I seem to recall that Itsuko-san herself was baffled by this very question, just last week—Ow! Hayashi, stop doing that!"
Suzue said, in a weary voice, "What she means is, she finally remembered to use her computer."
"Geez, you take all the fun out of it, Suzue-chan—"
"I might, if you'd said anything funny."
Dhiti stared at her. "Now, that hurt."
"Iku-chan's attack," said Beth thoughtfully. "It must be some kind of electric pulse, right? The way it made that Opal drop out of the sky last week—"
"Aha! You'd think so, wouldn't you?" Dhiti's wounded look vanished in an instant. "Except that Sailor Mars uses fire, not electricity. Now if Hayashi had zapped that thing, it might make sense. Not Iku-chan."
"So what did I do?" asked Iku in a soft voice. Her eyes were wide; she did not look nervous at all now.
"Well you might ask." Dhiti beamed at her, and patted her hand. "What your attack does, my dear, is to concentrate heat. It pulls in everything within its circle and focuses it toward the centre. On a cold floor, that doesn't do much. But when there was a pile of burning books for it to draw on—"
"It felt like a furnace, even from a distance," said Miyo thoughtfully.
"Right! You should have felt it close up." Dhiti glanced at Beth, who nodded. "As for that Opal…well, I don't exactly know how they work, of course. But it's not hard to guess that their engines must put out some heat."
"It just burned itself out," murmured Beth.
Suzue turned an incredulous look on Iku. "You'd better be very careful with that attack," she said. "You could burn down the city if you weren't careful!"
Iku shrank back. "Sorry," she said meekly.
"You haven't done anything to be sorry for," said Miyo, giving Suzue a reproving stare.
"No, but—" Suzue hesitated, then shook her head. "Never mind," she muttered.
"You will have to be careful how you use it, Iku-chan," Beth said judiciously. "But…well, I suppose most of our attacks are pretty dangerous, aren't they? When you think about it."
"Maybe we should ask Bendis to train her," suggested Dhiti with a glint in her eye.
"What, are you insane?" demanded Beth, sitting bolt-upright. "Wait. Don't answer that."
The two laughed, and Miyo joined in. Even Iku smiled. Suzue rolled her eyes at the four of them, but leaned back in the grass, relaxed once more.
Down in the playground, two of the boys had left the carousel and moved on to the swings. One of them was drifting back and forth in the usual way, but the other was standing on his seat and trying to get the swing to move with jerks of his body. He was not succeeding very well.
"Actually, speaking of training," said Miyo slowly, "I have a message for you, Iku-chan. Itsuko says she'd like you to start going to the Olympus for some sessions there."
Iku stiffened slightly at the news. Her face lost all expression. She said, "Do I have to?"
"What?" Miyo looked taken aback. "Well, I—"
"Don't you think Iku-chan's already got that covered?" interrupted Dhiti. "You didn't see her today, Hayashi. She's…she just needs a little encouragement. Right?" She winked at Iku, and after a moment Iku smiled back.
"Um…well, I can talk to Itsuko," said Miyo uncertainly. "Is there some kind of problem, Iku-chan?" But Iku only shook her head, refusing to answer.
"We're missing something about today's attack," said Suzue suddenly.
Beth looked up, startled at the sudden turn. "What?" she asked.
"It was too hard. It did too much damage." Suzue frowned, shaking her head. "Don't you see? If this vitrimorph was so tough, what about the other ones we've fought? Why were they so weak?"
"It could just be a…natural variation," said Beth tentatively.
"Or somebody's holding them back," said Dhiti. She scowled. "I'd almost forgotten…there was one point today where that thing could have gotten me. Easily. But it just stood there, waiting, until Hayashi hit it."
There was a short silence. "So," said Miyo. "We already knew they were stronger than they looked. Now…it looks like the person in charge has decided to ramp things up a bit. Make us work harder."
"Training us," said Iku.
Miyo stared at her. "Maybe," she said. "That's a nasty thought."
"So what do we do about it?" mused Suzue.
Beth gave a cynical laugh. "Do? We play along. What else can we do? Until we can find out who the 'person in charge' is."
"Lady Blue," said Miyo. "If we could find her…damn it, I know I've seen her somewhere before. Somewhere outside these attacks."
"We didn't see her today," said Beth. "I wonder if she was there at all."
"And if not," added Suzue, "what she was up to instead."
They lapsed into silence again. Below them, the woman who had been supervising the children in the playground rounded them up, over their protests, and led them away. A hush fell, broken by the distant wail of sirens.
Beth stirred at the sound. "Maybe we should move on," she said.
"Probably," agreed Miyo. "It's been a long day." She stood up and stretched.
The other four joined her and they started north from the park. Behind them, a column of smoke rose into the sky; but it was fading quickly. The streets were filling with rush-hour traffic.
As they passed a viddy store Dhiti glanced in and saw that most of the screens were showing news stories about the mall. She looked around, and her eyes met Beth's. They exchanged nods and kept silent as the group walked on.
It was a little past five o'clock. The air was still and close. The five paused and bought drinks in a little square that held a statue of Okwu Jan, the first man to circumnavigate the globe after the Fall.
"Hayashi," said Dhiti as she finished her juice, "I meant to say. We called you away from your, um, meeting, didn't we? Sorry 'bout that." She glanced quickly up at Miyo, and then away again. "Did it…?"
Miyo shook her head. "It's okay," she said. "I think…we'd said everything that needed saying."
"Mm." Dhiti stared down at the paper cup in her hand. Her hand closed, crushing it, and she tossed the remains into a rubbish bin. She said, "Maybe it's time I went to a meeting myself."
"Eh? What are you—oh!" Miyo's eyebrows shot up. "Are you sure?"
Dhiti returned her look steadily. "Are you saying no?"
Miyo did not answer at once. At last she said, "It's your decision."
"…Thanks, Hayashi." Dhiti's lips twitched in something close to a smile. Then she looked around at the other three girls, who were listening with varying expressions of incomprehension. "I've got to go, you guys," she said. "See you later, 'kay?" With a brisk wave, she started away from the group in a brisk jog.
"What," said Suzue, "was that all about?"
Kin's music club met after school on Wednesdays. When she came out of the building, carrying the long leather case that held her instrument, she found Dhiti waiting for her.
She eyed the dark-skinned girl warily. "Something on your mind?" she asked.
"Sort of." Dhiti stared at her, looking oddly uncertain. At last she said, "Can we talk? In private?"
Kin took her time answering. Something about Dhiti had changed, but it was impossible to tell what. As always, the girl was maddeningly elusive. But there was always the chance…
Making up her mind, she said, "Sure."
Turning, she led Dhiti back into the school building. She had an excuse to be in the music room, and it would be empty by now, so she headed for there. Dhiti followed silently.
Inside the music room, Kin laid her instrument case down carefully and said, "So?"
"Yeah." Dhiti bit her lip, then said, "There's something I haven't been telling you."
Dryly, Kin said, "I'd noticed."
"It's…kind of private. But I…can trust you, can't I?" Dhiti broke off suddenly, then said, "No. Don't answer that. I can trust you. And you deserve to know."
"Gee, thanks," said Kin. "So, what then?"
Her friend brought her hand out of her pocket. She held a short rod, looking rather like a pen. One end was marked with a curious symbol: a western astrological sign, Kin thought.
Dhiti glanced quickly over her shoulder. The room door was closed. Then, quietly, she said, "Mercury power, make-up."
Beth, Suzue and Iku listened quietly as Miyo told them about the situation. When she had finished, none of them spoke for a few seconds. Miyo was glad of that. At least they weren't condemning Dhiti's decision outright.
"Do you think she made the right choice?" Suzue asked at last.
Miyo thought about it and said, "I don't think she made the wrong choice. Kin-chan can be trusted." Then she added, "Within reason, anyway. I'm not suggesting we tell her who all of you are."
Although, she remembered a moment later, Kin had already heard their names. But it had only be a casual reference; she could easily have forgotten…
"So," said Suzue cautiously, "if the rest of us have the same kind of problem, you think we can—"
Miyo held up a hand. "Just…be sure," she said. "Be very sure that you can trust your friends. You can guess how much depends on it."
"Not a problem for me," said Beth cheerfully. "Nana-chan and Eitoku-kun don't suspect a thing…right, Iku-chan?"
Iku gave her a hooded look, and said nothing.
Suzue said, "I…might have to tell my boyfriend. Not yet; it's not a problem yet. But I think he's noticed something."
"Just let us know if you do," said Miyo. "Artemis and Itsuko may scream blue murder, but—" She shrugged.
"This Naru must have been a good friend," said Beth.
"Mm." Miyo smiled. "She was a nice girl. I wasn't so close to her myself, but…she was Usagi-chan's best friend, once."
"So," Beth said suddenly, "how do you think Dhiti-chan's friend will take it? Will she be mad, do you think?"
Miyo's face took on a curious expression. "Actually," she said slowly, "I think Dhiti-chan may be in for a bit of a surprise."
"What?" Sailor Mercury demanded furiously. "What do you mean, Hayashi already told you?"
Suzue's eyes widened. Beth burst out laughing. Iku smiled.
"It was at lunchtime today," Miyo confessed. "The really ironic thing is, Dhiti came along just after we'd finished talking about it…and she was, well, you know how Dhiti is. So Kin got mad and stormed off, and then the bell went, and…it just didn't seem the moment to tell Dhiti about it."
Beth continued to laugh. "If only I could see her face…"
"I'm going to kill her," vowed Dhiti. She had changed back, more quickly than usual, when Kin started laughing. "Something slow and lingering."
Kin smiled blissfully. "If only you could see your face," she said.
"I don't want to see my face," Dhiti grumped.
"That swirly bit when you change is kind of neat. A bit ecchi, though."
"Don't make me hurt you, Kin-chan."
"It must be quite a sight when you all change at once."
Dhiti paused to think about that. The mental image was…disturbing.
"Seriously, though," she said after a while. "You okay with this, Kin-chan?"
"Did you know you're blushing?" asked Kin cheerfully. She ducked a swat. "Be that way, then.—Yes, I'm okay, you idiot! What did you expect, I'm going to slit my wrists over it?"
"Well, not unless you really want to," Dhiti said generously.
Kin made a rude noise. "In your dreams. It's not my fault if your talking cat chooses to overlook real quality in favour of—You, uh, do have talking cats, right?"
"The trick is to get them to stop talking," Dhiti said with feeling. She had a sudden mental image of Artemis. He would probably have heard about the incident at the mall by the time she got home. The blasted cat was going to be unbearable tonight.
"Cool. So, then—I have two important questions." Kin was starting to smile again. Actually, it was more like a smirk. "First: can I have your autograph?"
"You couldn't afford my signing fee," said Dhiti loftily. "Next question."
"What's it like to be a historic figure?"
Dhiti raised her eyebrows. "Kin-chan. What are you thinking? I've always been a historic figure."
"Hmm. Point. How do you explain Miyo, then?"
With a sigh, Dhiti said, "Sometimes, you just have to take the rough with the smooth."
"Funny. That's what she says about you."
"Yeah, well, what does she know?" Dhiti broke off and gave Kin a look. "You sure you're okay with this, Kin-chan?
This time Kin did not answer immediately. At last she said, "I will be, Dhiti-chan. Give it time. At least…at least now I know why."
Dhiti nodded. "Thanks," she said simply. Then she cocked an eye at her friend. "Actually, while you're thinking that over, there's something else you could be helping me with."
Kin raised her eyebrows. "Oh? What's that?"
"Concocting a suitable revenge on Hayashi."
"Oh." She began to smile. "I think I can handle that."
Night rolled in, and the rain came with it in a torrential downpour. Across the city, gutters overflowed and pedestrians hurried along under their umbrellas, cursing their wet feet. Minor landslips were reported in hilly areas.
In an apparently-unremarkable van parked a few blocks from the Olympus building, Captain Hiiro received an unwelcome signal from headquarters. He had been expecting it, and had planned accordingly, but this did not stop him from uttering a few curses of his own. Then he began to issue orders.
Several kilometres away, the hacker known as Trio muttered under his breath as another lead petered out on his computer screen. His fingers danced furiously over his keyboard.
In a suite above the Olympus, Hayashi Miyo briefed Pappadopoulos Itsuko on the fight at the mall. When told about Sailor Mars' new power, Itsuko was surprised. She had never heard of a Mars power like that, never. It was strange…
And far, far down, in a place where the sun had never shone, a dim light pulsed. Faded. Pulsed.
Iku went to bed that night jubilant. For once, nothing could drown her happiness. She was a Senshi, and she was, at last, worth something. She was needed. She had a place.
Her elation lasted until the moment, as she finally fell asleep, when the dry, cold voice spoke in her mind. This is not for you, it whispered. You do not belong here. Your true future lies elsewhere.
And, just for an instant, she saw her path clearly; the long, long road she must follow, and the battlefield at sunset where it inevitably led.
She awoke, and found her pillow wet with tears.
Artemis dreamed of Crystal Tokyo. He walked the shining streets again, accepted the respectful looks from passers-by, and was content. The air was sweet and crisp, spring air. And when he looked up, he could see, a little distance ahead, a familiar figure waiting for him. The face most treasured, most loved. The eternal, cheerful smile. The long blonde hair. He started to run to Minako's side—
The scene changed in mid-bound, and then, terribly, he was there at the end. Once more, unable to act, he saw her fall before the throne. Saw the king fall in his turn. Saw the queen's final transfiguration.
Afterward, he walked with Serenity for a little, spoke with her, before she sent him away. In his dream he saw again how pale and unwell she looked, after months of inactivity; how clumsy, heavy on her feet. Her skin so pale it was almost translucent. And yet, the steel and the determination in her eyes; and, yes, the love.
He saw her die again; and he saw what he had told nobody else, ever: how he had buried her, working alone in human form, the tears running down his cheeks. Lifted her fragile body, the weight more than he had expected, and laid her in the shallow grave.
Lastly, most terribly: how he had returned, long afterward, to move her to somewhere more fitting. And found the grave empty.
It was past midnight. The rain was still beating hard against the windows, but otherwise the house was silent. He started to lie back down, but found he could not bear to do so. The memory of his dream was still too vivid. He had not thought of it in a long time; had avoided it whenever possible.
Which meant, perhaps—as the new Sailor Venus had once said—that in truth, he had been thinking of little else.
He got up from the cushion Dhiti had found him and prowled for a while, his feet silent on the wooden floors. This house was still full of unfamiliar smells; he let them distract him. At last, tired once more, he returned to Dhiti's room.
He was drifting off to sleep again, warm and comfortable, when a voice jerked him wide-awake. He leaped to his feet, looking wildly around the darkened room. All was silent, and he wondered if he had imagined things. Then it came again: Dhiti's voice, and he realised that she was talking in her sleep.
"No…it's not like that," she mumbled. "I'm not…"
The words trained off into an incoherent tangle. He heard her give an odd half-gasp, almost like a sob. Then she turned over, and there was nothing but the sound of her breathing.
He listened for another half an hour, but she said nothing more. At last he settled down once more and fell into an uneasy doze.
And elsewhere in Third Tokyo, not that far from where a moon cat lay pondering his lot, a girl—or perhaps a young woman—knelt on the floor and stared up at the ghostly form that hung in the air above her.
It was a figure of light and shadow, this apparition, its features misty, half-unseen. The girl found it hard to focus on. At times it was nearly solid; moments later it would almost vanish in the light from the wall lamp.
But there were certain details about it that were hard to miss. It was unmistakably the figure of a woman. And it had wings…and two long pony-tails hanging from buns on either side of its head.
The girl watched the phantom for a moment longer, her face absorbed, almost as if she were listening to it. Then she said, "So let me get this straight. You're the ghost of the old dead queen, and I'm the reborn soul of your daughter…and now you want me to go into the old family business. Is that it?"
The ghostly figure seemed to incline its head gravely. There might have been a smile on its face.
With a slight clatter, something rolled across the floor, stopping a few centimetres from the girl's knee. It was a small object: a brooch, with a circular emblem on the front.
"All right," the girl whispered. "I understand. I'll do what you want."
A shadowy hand reached out and rested for a moment, intangibly, on her head. Then, still silent, the ghost began to fade out of sight.
Just before it was gone, the girl lifted a hand to touch her hair and said thoughtfully, "But there's going to have to be one important change made."
Outside her window, there was a faint scuffling sound.
"I hate this," said Hiiro.
"I know," said Kuroi.
Masao remained silent. He wanted to agree with Captain Hiiro, but saying anything right now felt like a bad idea.
The rain had lifted off during the night and the morning was bright and clear. That made it all feel worse, Masao thought. Dirty deeds should be done in the dark.
They walked in through the main entrance of the Olympus building. Hiiro checked his watch, and Masao automatically looked down at his own. Ten fifteen; they were right on schedule.
"She's supposed to be one of the good guys," said Hiiro.
"Then why's she been playing with the Sankaku?" asked Kuroi.
Hiiro sighed. "Yeah. I know."
"If it comes to that, why's she even alive? After all, they say the queen and all the other Senshi got slaughtered in the Fall. But here's Hino, alive and well, not a mark on her…" Kuroi shrugged. "You have to wonder."
Hiiro stared at him. "You think we should have reported this weeks ago, don't you? Back when we first saw Artemis."
"You didn't say anything."
Kuroi gave him a quick glance. "I didn't have to," he said. "You knew what I thought. But you're the boss."
Masao listened to them as the three walked up the stairs to the second floor. He wished he were somewhere else; anywhere. Even back in the old insurance office, before he'd been activated.
A middle-aged woman wearing glasses looked up as they approached the gymnasium reception desk. "Can I help you gentlemen?" she asked.
Hiiro pulled out a slim wallet from his jacket pocket and showed her the contents. "We're from 'P' Division," he said calmly. "We'd like to speak with Pappadopoulos-san, please."
The woman was startled, then frightened. "Oh, dear," she said. She dithered for a moment, looking lost, then said, "I'll just call her. Won't you take a seat, please?"
The three of them obeyed. As he sat, Masao tried to convince himself that everything was going to go smoothly, and failed. He thought about Mitsukai, waiting back at the doors with her taser. He thought about Aoiro, down in the underground car-park. He shuddered.
Kuroi must have noticed. The burly man glanced at him and said under his breath, "Calm down, idiot."
The woman at reception put down her commset and waved at them. She no longer looked worried. "Just go on up, then turn left," she said, pointing toward the stairs to the third floor. "Pappadopoulos-san will see you."
Hiiro thanked her politely, and the three of them walked upstairs. At the top, a corridor to the right ran down the centre of the building. To the left, it took a sharp turn and ended in a door labelled with Pappadopoulos' name. Hiiro knocked briskly.
A young-looking woman with short white hair, wearing a well-tailored business suit, opened the door. "Come in," she said pleasantly. "I'm glad to see you. I'm Pappadopoulos Itsuko."
Hiiro and Kuroi exchanged surprised glances as they followed her into her office. Pappadopoulos did not notice; she continued, "I'd almost given up hope of hearing anything. It's been weeks since the break-in."
Masao could not help himself. "Break-in?" he asked.
That got her attention. She had been about to sit down at her desk; now, she turned and studied them all carefully. "You're not here about the break-in?" she said slowly. "I was burgled on the twenty-fourth; nearly a month ago now. But—Who are you people?"
Hiiro shot Masao an angry look. Then he stepped forward and handed Pappadopoulos an identification wallet: not the same one he had shown downstairs.
She studied it for a few seconds. "'S' Division?" she said. If she was not genuinely puzzled, she was an excellent actress. "What do you want with me, then?"
Captain Hiiro took a deep breath. "There are two things I need to say to you," he said. "First, we know who you are." She showed no reaction, and he added, "We know that you are Hino Rei."
Now she did react. Her body became quite still; all expression drained from her face. "And the second thing?" she asked levelly.
"The second thing is that…by the authority vested in me as an officer of the security forces of Third Tokyo and of Japan, I am placing you under arrest."
When Artemis awoke, his dream of the night before was still with him. He brooded about it for hours, prowling around the house until, driven to distraction, Dhiti's mother threw a wet sponge at him. His dignity mortally offended, he went outside; but even the sight and smell of the Sharmas' impeccable flower garden, alive in summer blossoms, could not drive the mental images away. He needed to talk to someone.
Miyo would have been perfect; but she was in school, and he did not care to run a gauntlet of students. The same applied to all the others…except Itsuko. And going to see Itsuko, with the renewed danger at the Olympus, would be mad.
He thought about doing it anyway.
The answer was pretty obvious, he realised after a while. He could call Itsuko on her communicator, she could pick him up, and they could go somewhere and talk things over. They had a fair bit to discuss, even besides his dream. The previous day's attack, for example.
He snaked his way through the city streets, heading for a convenient alley he knew; close to the Olympus, with plenty of privacy. He could call her from there, and wait to be collected.
He had almost reached the alley when he started to get a bad feeling.
It was hard to say what caught his eye about the little group of people climbing out of a van on the other side of the road. Four men and a woman; nothing exceptional about any of them. The van was completely nondescript. But something made him shrink back into the shadows.
It might have been the way the five carried themselves, or the way none of them spoke as they moved off. Their faces were serious; one or two of them almost looked grim. And his fur was standing on end.
He took another look at the van. It seemed familiar.
He stared at it for a minute, trying to place the memory. Then, with a cold shock, he got it. The wheels were in place now, and all the side panels were there; the windscreen was clean. But it was still the same van that he had seen, several times, parked behind the Olympus. It was still the van that Bendis had jumped into, just a few days before, and nearly been captured.
And those five people had been walking in the direction of—
He threw caution to the winds and started to run. By the time he reached the Olympus only the woman was in sight: standing outside the main entrance, as if waiting. He cursed and ran down the side of the building; jumped up onto a low wall, and from there to the fire escape. He raced up to the third floor and paused for a moment, panting, under the window to Itsuko's office.
He heard voices from inside.
Her mind raced. She had always had to live with the possibility of being discovered; she had run through countless scenarios, time and time again. Being put under arrest had featured in lamentably few of them.
Keep control. That was her only chance.
"My name is Pappadopoulos Itsuko," she said to the three men. "You've made a mistake."
The tall one who'd given her his ID shook his head. "No, Hino-san." He looked uncomfortable saying the name. "I don't think we have."
He stepped forward and spread a sheaf of documents on her desk. She started to leaf through them; did not have to look far. They had been very thorough. The photographs of her past identities on their own were damning enough.
At least, she thought distantly, he had not called her 'Lady Hino.'
"Very clever of you," she said coolly. "Well, what of it? Why this nonsense about arrest? Is it some kind of crime to be thousands of years old?"
The question ruffled him, as she had hoped. His mouth opened and closed; for the first time, he looked unsure of himself. But then the third man, the burly one with the unshaven stubble, opened his mouth.
"No, that's not a crime," he said. There was a subdued anger, a danger, in his voice. He would be a bad one to cross. "But how about forgery? How about fraud? Are they enough for you?"
"Is that your real name on your ID? How about on this building's ownership papers? There are probably tax charges there, too, if it comes to that."
She stared at him. "You can't be serious."
He shook his head; but the hardness in his eyes did not diminish. His voice remained cold, matter-of-fact. "No. Those are just the icing on the cake. The real charge is conspiracy against the government of Japan."
Never, never in her maddest nightmares of discovery had she dreamed of this. She had expected an invasion of newsies; questions, cameras, the full weight of the world's attention. Or perhaps a slyer approach: the knowing smile; blackmail; even the suggestion of sexual favours in return for silence. Or finding the Loonies camped out on her doorstep; or public revilement, or death threats; or a hundred other variations. But never—
"Conspiracy? Are you out of your mind?!"
The first man, Hiiro, had recovered his poise. He shook his head at her, and she realised belatedly that the same look of danger was in his own eyes, though in him it was better-hidden.
"You shouldn't have done it, Hino-san," he said. "For someone with your record, your stature…you shouldn't have started working with the Sankaku."
"The Sankaku! But I—"
"Please," he said impatiently. "I'm not here to discuss the evidence. All I want to know is: are you coming peacefully, or not?"
She stared at him, her mind churning, close to panic. If they thought she was Sankaku they would be merciless. She saw visions of prison cells, of star chambers. Endless interrogations; perhaps worse things. Even if she could persuade them she was no Sankaku, there were still the other charges, and more that they had not mentioned; and of those she was undeniably guilty.
In the end, there was no alternative. She could not afford to be imprisoned. Not when the enemy was at work.
"You're making a mistake," she said. "And I can't come with you." As she spoke, she slipped the drawer of her desk open.
They saw the movement; of course they would. Suddenly there were weapons pointed at her. Her heart froze. It came to her, in that moment, that she knew this scene; she had dreamed it, long ago.
"Relax, gentlemen," she said mildly. "It isn't a gun."
And she pulled out her henshin wand—holding it so they could see what it was—and then raised it up and cried out, "Mars Crystal Power, Make-Up!"
They flinched back.
That was her only chance: that they would know what to expect. It gave her a fraction of a second to act. She ducked down, put her shoulder under the desk, and heaved it at them. They reeled at the impact, and she leaped past them to the other door, the door into her suite, and ran for her life.
But they were trained men. They recovered too fast. She was half-way down the corridor when she heard a voice shout, "Hold it!"
She stumbled to a halt, barely three metres from safety. One last glance at the door ahead of her, just out of reach. Then she turned back. The tall one, Hiiro, was pointing a gun at her. She knew he would not miss. She raised her hands.
A voice shouted, "Nooooooo!"
Something hit Hiiro in the face. He staggered, shouting in surprise; his gun went flying. A white cat clung to him, clawing and spitting and biting. He yelled again, this time in pain, trying to shield his face. Then, with a heave, he flung the cat away from him. It landed on the floor between him and Itsuko.
Artemis stared at her for an instant. There were crimson flecks on his muzzle. "What are you waiting for?" he shouted. "Run!"
He whirled and darted back through the office door, headed for the window and safety. There was a strange chuffing sound. Behind him, Captain Hiiro wiped blood from his eyes and turned a maimed face back to Itsuko. Then he dove for his gun.
Itsuko turned, opened the door, and ran.
It was the door to her private staircase—the same one Miyo had used to get in, weeks before. Itsuko had had it built when she first moved into the Olympus, decades before. Always have an escape exit; a lesson she had learned well. As she hurtled down the stairs, two or three at a time, she could hear Hiiro pounding after her, not far behind, and she knew she had not escaped yet.
Four floors down, another door opened into the underground car park. She flung it open and sprinted toward her car.
Another figure stepped out of the shadows: blond, lantern-jawed. She had seen him before, in the gym. Behind her, Hiiro shouted, "Aoiro! Stop her!"
He moved toward her smoothly, competently. Another agent, no doubt well-trained in subduing escaping prisoners. Another dangerous man. Itsuko ducked her head, stuck her shoulder out, and hit him at waist-height. He folded over her with a strangled wheeze. She flipped him over her shoulder, into the path of Hiiro, and ran on.
She might not be a Senshi any more. But she had been a survivor for centuries.
There was no hope of using her car now. By the time she got the door open they would be on her, and she had little chance against two trained men at once. She sprinted up the exit ramp. Behind her, too quickly and far too close, came two sets of footsteps.
Two flights of concrete ramp; an up-hill running race, against armed men. She staggered out into the street, gasping for breath, knowing they were catching up, and looked around wildly.
Nowhere to hide. Off to one side, from the direction of the building's main entrance, another figure was sprinting toward her: a woman, this time. More reinforcements. She was lost.
Then, suddenly, the furious whine of an engine. A deep blue car roared around the corner, its horn buzzing, and screeched to a halt directly in front of her. The door opened and a well-known voice shouted, "Get in!"
Itsuko's eyes widened. "Setsuna…?"
But there was no time. Even as she spoke, she raced forward and threw herself into the vehicle. The green-haired woman at the wheel floored the accelerator and they surged away.
Hiiro and Aoiro ran out of the car-park, just too late. The car disappeared around a corner and was gone.
And in Itsuko's office, two men looked down at the tiny bundle on the floor. "Not a bad shot, if I say so myself," Kuroi said with some satisfaction.
From between the strands of netting, Artemis stared back at them.
Masao swallowed. "Right," he said. "Only…now what do we do with him?"
S A I L O R M O O N 4 2 0 0
END OF CHAPTER ELEVEN
Next: Two escapes, some questions answered, a new life, and a quest for the ashes of the old.
Sincere thanks to the pre-readers who helped improve this chapter: David McMillan, Jed Hagen, Aaron Nowack, Helmut Ott, Elsa Bibat, Bert Miller, Chris Angelini, AnimeJanai, and Steve "Komodo" T.
Draft version: 18 September, 2004.
Release version: 14 November, 2004.