Note: This is an incomplete draft. Anything you read here is subject to change. That said, if you see anything here that seems wrong, or inconsistent, or inelegant writing, or bad grammar, or whatever, please let me know.
And two months passed.
It was the summer holidays. It was a time of adjustment, of taking stock and settling into new roles. Until things began to go wrong again, it was even a time of rest.
It was not, in the greater scheme of things, very long.
The day after the battle at the Tenshin Institute, August 3rd, was Liam’s seventeenth birthday. He had planned to spend it quietly; in light of recent events, he had a lot to ponder. However, the girls decided otherwise.
Makoto started it. Her birthday in this life was the same as in the previous two—fate, perhaps, had a sense of humour—and she wondered aloud to Seki if Liam was the same. Seki looked up her backup copy of the Olympus customer database (telling Makoto with scorn that of course she had backups), and found that it was so. Makoto lost no time in spreading the word.
To Liam’s relief, Seki warned him in advance, so he was able to make sure that Mark was not around when the squadron of girls and cats descended on his apartment. He even managed to tidy up a little first.
On the whole, the party went very pleasantly. Most of the girls had bounced back with gratifying speed after the battle. Fast Senshi healing helped. Some of them tended to move gingerly at times, and there were a number of cuts and scrapes visible, but these looked faded, as if they were a few weeks old instead of a single day. Even that much was forgotten, in the laughter and general hilarity of the afternoon.
An onlooker, however, might have noted that at times, the laughter was a little strained, and even had a faint note of hysteria. They had all been through a lot, and at least for now, they were trying to forget. And, after all, it was the start of the holidays.
Makoto and Suzue stayed as far away from each other as possible; and when they could not avoid each other, they were scrupulously polite. None of the others were fooled for a moment; but they let it stand…for now.
Liam, for his part, took the opportunity to have a long private discussion with Seki and Artemis. None of them knew what tack the enemy might try next, with Lady Blue dead. All of them, however, agreed that it would not be good.
One thing in particular that they discussed was the announcement, on the radio that morning, that Serenity Councillor Araki Mamiko had been tragically killed in a traffic accident. The news was filled with details of the upcoming state funeral. But there was no mention, whether on the radio, the viddy or the nets, of any kind of incident at the Tenshin Institute. None at all.
Iku came to the party, though reluctantly. She was afraid to meet the others, now that everyone knew the truth. She told Dhiti that none of them would want to have anything to do with her. They would reject someone as damaged as her.
The truth that she could not tell Dhiti was that, privately, she was a little afraid that they would not reject her. She did not want their sympathy. She wanted to be left alone, that was all, so that she could start to forget. And perhaps be forgotten.
She expected that Dhiti would try to persuade her that the others were her friends, and they would certainly never reject her. In fact, Dhiti did nothing of the sort.
“You’re going,” she said flatly, “and that’s all.”
So Iku went.
In fact, it did not turn out nearly as bad as she had feared. She felt their eyes on her as she came through the door, and knew that they had all heard the story. She braced herself for the worst. But then Liam, who had been chatting with Makoto, gave her a quick grin and said, “Hi! Glad you could make it.” He threw her a can of drink and turned back to Makoto, and started to talk again.
And that was all. Nobody said a thing about it. Iku was so surprised that she drank half her can before she realised that it was beer, choked, and had to be helped to the bathroom. When she came back, everyone was laughing at her…and, unbelievably, it felt good.
That night, as she lay on a futon in the spare room at Dhiti’s house, musing over the day’s events, she remembered what Queen Serenity had said to her, a week before: [Things will have to take the other path after all. It’s a darker road, and it leads to a great deal of sorrow.]
In the darkness, Iku smiled in triumph and said to the queen: [I did it! I survived. Now the sorrow is over, and I can be happy. Can’t I?]
But the night-time held only silence. At last, Iku turned over and went uneasily back to sleep.
On Monday morning, Sharma Praket went to ‘P’ Division and had a long, serious talk about his new house-guest.
Praket had been quietly observing Iku over the last day, and he was not displeased with what he saw. He had been startled by the manner of her arrival, true, and by the attitude of his daughter, but he was not displeased by those either. And when he heard Dhiti’s story, and understood her just, holy rage—then, yes, his heart burned with pride.
But Dhiti was young and inexperienced, and for all her intelligence—Praket suspected that his daughter was more intelligent than he, though she seldom bothered to show it—she could still be naïve about certain matters of the world.
He sat in the police station for a more than half an hour. At last an officer with a round face, a friendly smile and thick, wire-framed glasses approached and waved him into a dingy meeting room. “Lieutenant Nishihara,” he said, giving Praket a quick bow. “How can I help you, Sharma-san?”
Praket studied him for a moment. Behind those glasses, Nishihara had sharp, quick eyes. Praket nodded back in lieu of bowing and said, “I wonder if the name Kodama means anything to you, Lieutenant.”
The smile disappeared. Nishihara regarded him for some time before he replied. “A curious question,” he said.
“I see that it is not unfamiliar. Something may have drawn your attention to her, perhaps?” Praket paused delicately. “Suggestions of child abuse, for example?”
“Child abuse?” Nishihara’s brow creased a hairline. “No, nothing of the sort.” There was nothing but honest surprise in his voice. “What are you trying to say, Sharma-san?”
It was Praket’s turn to pause. This discussion was not going according to plan. “I think we have been talking at cross-purposes. We may not even be talking about the same people. Lieutenant, of your courtesy, may I ask what has happened to draw the name Kodama to your attention?”
Nishihara considered, and then gave a shrug. “There is nothing terribly secret about it. The house of one Kodama Shuko-san burned down on Saturday evening. Only a kilometre or so from here. It was most unfortunate.”
“Burned down?” Praket had not expected this, not at all. Surely his daughter had not—no, unthinkable. “I trust Kodama-san is well.”
“Yes, she and her son. But her daughter went missing at the same time, and has not yet been found.”
“I see.” Praket thought for some time, and finally decided to lay his cards on the table. “If the daughter’s name is Iku-san, then I may say that she is currently staying at my house, as my guest.”
“Intriguing.” Nishihara’s face took on a gentle smile. “I see that we do indeed have things to discuss, Sharma-san.” He let a moment pass and then said, delicately, “I believe you mentioned child abuse?”
“Yes. Permit me to explain, Lieutenant…”
Praket laid out, in simple terms, what Dhiti had told him: that she and two other friends had gone visiting Iku on Saturday evening, and that they had seen Iku’s mother kicking and beating her in a stomach-turning manner. They had rescued the girl and brought her to Praket’s house.
“Kodama-san has mentioned nothing of this?” he enquired at last.
“Naturally she has not mentioned beating her daughter.”
“Of course. I meant—”
“Nor has she spoken of your own daughter, or of her friends. In fact, her actual story is…rather strange. She says that a Sailor Senshi set fire to her house.”
“A Sailor Senshi!” Praket’s voice nearly rose. It took a moment before he could speak again. “She is joking, surely. Or mad.”
“Who knows?” Nishihara gave an expressive shrug. “Of course we had to check, at least as far as possible. Our investigators found that the fire was a gas one, starting in the kitchen. Kodama-san then told us that the Sailor Senshi had pointed at her gas stove, and it caught fire.” He shrugged again and added, “You understand that I am telling you nothing which has not been released to the newsies.”
“I—” Praket paused. “Very well.”
“Just so. Your own information puts a rather different complexion on the matter. I need hardly add that when an accuser gives us one story, and then, when presented with contradictory evidence, suddenly changes her story to meet the new facts…well, then we pay a little more attention to what she is not saying.”
“You believe that she may have burned down her own house to conceal evidence of the abuse.”
“Child abuse did not occur to me, no; but of course there were other possibilities, especially considering her wild story. Drugs, or…well, I wondered. It was only speculation. Now, however, I will send our investigators back, and ask them to pay particular attention to the cellar.”
Praket nodded. Quietly, he said, “And what of the girl?”
Nishihara nodded in return. “She should be put in the custody of ‘O’ Division, of course.”
“Of course. But I wonder…” Praket cleared his throat. “I wonder if it is necessary to expose her to such attention. My family and I are willing—”
“Huh.” The lieutenant considered this for a minute. At last he said, “It’s not for me to say; I will have to refer it to my superiors. They will probably refer it to ‘O’ Division. Much will depend on whether the girl has other relatives who might take her in. But if your accusation bears fruit…well, the situation is not unheard-of. We will see what might be arranged.”
Praket inclined his head. It was no more than he had suspected. There had never been any chance of keeping official attention away; Nishihara had as much as admitted that they were looking for Iku. This way was better. It gave Iku a chance for the shelter she needed, without public shame or exposure. As long, he thought with a slight edge of concern, as Kodama Shuko was truly the monster that Dhiti claimed…
“Then,” he said, “I will hope for you to find ample evidence.”
That afternoon, Ochiyo went in to her job at the Olympus a couple of hours early. She took a friend with her.
Beth was rather dubious about the whole idea, once she learned what Ochiyo intended; but, as she was coming to realise, it was not easy to say no to the other girl. So, reluctantly, she was waiting outside the main entrance, armed with a shoulder-bag full of textbooks and a cat by her side and feeling profoundly out of her element, when Ochiyo arrived.
“You ready?” Ochiyo asked, smiling brightly as she rolled up. Without pausing to let Beth answer, she went on, “Great! C’mon, let’s go up.”
Beth tried to hang back as she went up the stairs, but of course it did no good. It only took a few seconds to reach the second floor. Down at her feet, she could hear Bendis muttering something about what a stupid idea this was, and she wished she could agree out loud.
A middle-aged woman with iron-grey hair sat at the reception desk: a Claver, by the look of her. She looked up and gave them a bright smile as they emerged from the stairwell. “Ochiyo-chan!” she said in a heavily-accented voice, and glanced up at the wall clock with a faint look of surprise. “You are early. There is no trouble, I hope?”
“Hi, Marisa-san,” Ochiyo said breezily. “No, everything’s fine. It’s the holidays and I thought I’d show Beth-chan around. That’ll be okay, won’t it?”
Marisa shrugged, her lips quirking. “I suppose so. All is quiet at the moment, and Yukimi-san will not be here until later. She hardly bothers to—” Her eyes flicked to Beth, and she broke off. “Well, never mind. Good afternoon, friend of Ochiyo-chan! I hope you are well? And who is this brave gatito, la?”
She was looking at Bendis as she said this last, and Beth hoped that it meant something complimentary. “I’m Beth,” she said, “and this is Bendis.” Then, in a moment of mischief, she scooped the cat up in her arms and held her out to Marisa for inspection.
“Ah, how sweet!” The woman began to coo over Bendis, stroking her with skilful fingers and scratching behind her ears. Bendis went rigid with indignation at the first touch, and Beth wondered if she had gone too far. But then, to her surprise, the cat relaxed and actually started to purr.
[Well, what do you know?] she thought. [She can be a real cat after all, when she wants.] The thought was rather unsettling, in a way: Bendis was her friend. Bothered by the idea, and not really sure why, she looked over at Ochiyo for help.
Ochiyo may have mistaken her look as a hurry-up. “Well, we ought to get moving,” she said briskly. “I’ll talk to you later, Marisa-san.”
Marisa did not seem perturbed at the sudden segue. “Very well, Ochiyo-chan,” she said. “Later, Beth-san. Later, gatito-chan.”
Ochiyo led Beth and Bendis through the door at the rear of reception, past the staff kitchen and break room, and into the gymnasium office: little more than a small room with a pair of computer desks and a rack of files. It was, as Marisa had said, empty.
“Interesting woman,” said Bendis thoughtfully. “She has very, er, very skilled hands.”
Beth looked down at her, mouth open as she tried to think of anything to say, and then firmly looked away. Casting around the room for a way to change the subject, she said, a little too brightly, “So, this is where Itsuko-san works.”
“Seki-san,” corrected Ochiyo with a definite hint of smugness. “And, no. Her private office is upstairs—you’ve seen it, remember?”
“Oh. Right. Shouldn’t we do this up there?”
“No,” began Ochiyo, “we—”
“No!” said Bendis sharply, overriding her. “Think, Beth-chan. If ‘S’ Division are after her, they’ll notice if anyone goes in there.”
“Er…yes,” said Ochiyo. She paused for an instant, looking suddenly bothered. Then, with a shrug, she went on, “Best if we do it from here, quickly, before anyone else comes in.”
Grumbling, Beth put down her satchel and began to pull out a set of books: accounting texts. Several of them had slivers of paper between the pages as markers. Together, they made a pile nearly twenty centimetres high.
There was an odd silence as she finished. When she looked around, she saw that Ochiyo was staring at her. “What?” she asked defensively.
“You’ve been carrying all those around with you?” enquired Ochiyo.
“Uh, yes. You asked me to. Why?”
“Wow. Just…nothing. Let’s get going, shall we?”
Ochiyo tapped at the nearby computer keyboard and the screen lit up with a password demand. She grinned, reached into her own satchel, and pulled out a piece of notepaper. “Seki-san’s password,” she explained. “It’s always this one word, followed by the current month.”
“What?” Beth bent forward to look, then frowned. “What does it mean?” she asked. The paper held a single word: YUUICHIROU.
“No idea. Maybe it was her father’s name?”
“I guess. How do you know it, anyway?”
“I do some data entry for her, now and then. She always gives me her own password…I’m not sure she actually knows how to set up a separate account on the system. Anyway, the first few times she changed her password afterward, but after that she stopped bothering.”
“Okay, okay.” More than Beth wanted to know, really. She entered the password and started to poke around the computer. It wasn’t hard; the files were organised in an almost painfully rigid system. Seki was clearly a woman who liked to be in control of her data.
“Right,” she announced after a minute longer. “This is it, I think.” She paused, glancing around at Ochiyo; but when she saw nothing but encouragement on the girl’s face, she breathed a faint sigh and opened the file.
The Olympus payroll system spread itself out for her. Again, she took a minute to look around, being careful not to change any numbers. But, like the file system organisation, the payroll was clear, simple, and easy to follow.
Beth paused at one page of data. “This is how much she pays you? Not bad.”
“What?” Ochiyo looked over her shoulder. “Hey, you weren’t supposed to see that! Don’t tell anyone, all right? You’d be—wait a minute, this is what Marisa-san makes? Wow. In that case…hang on.” She pushed Beth lightly out of the way and reached for the keyboard. “Let me find Yukimi-san. I want to see how much she—oh my god.”
She flopped back into the chair next to Beth, her face a picture of dismay. Beth studied her for a moment. “Come on, it can’t be that bad, can it?” She looked back at the screen and saw the hourly rate listed. “Oh, boy. You’ve got a long way to go.”
“Seki-san said she was competent. I guess I never realised how competent. It’s not fair! How can such a rotten women make this much?”
“Uh…maybe we should just get on with this.”
“Oh. Right. Okay, see here.” Ochiyo went across the room to a table near the door, where an old-fashioned ledger lay open. She brought this back and laid it on the desk beside the computer.
Beth looked at the pages cautiously, but the book was laid out clearly and simply, with columns for date, start time, end time, name, and signature. “Everyone just fills out their work hours in this?”
“Yeah. Why, isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be done?”
“Um, I think some businesses use a slightly more modern—oh, never mind.” Beth glanced at the pile of accounting textbooks on the table beside her, sighed, and started to shovel them back into her bag.
“Is something wrong?” Ochiyo’s expression was totally innocent.
“No, no.” Beth looked back at the ledger and suppressed another sigh. She turned back a page. “Okay, this is the last set of hours that got entered into the computer. So I should just be able to enter in everything after that…”
She started to work. She was done in fifteen minutes; it was less than two weeks since Itsuko had fled from the Olympus, so there was not a lot of unentered data. She carefully ticked off each line in the ledger as she entered it, trying to make her ticks look like Itsuko’s.
When she was finished, she sat looking at the screen for a minute, nervous and a little unhappy. After all, if she’d gotten anything wrong, she and Ochiyo were going to cause a lot of trouble. She looked around at the other girl, but Ochiyo was still watching her with an confident, expectant regard. No help there.
As she was dithering, a furry head poked over her shoulder and said, “You misspelled Mito-san’s name on line eighteen.”
“Huh? Oh. Thanks.” Beth corrected the data, then did a double-take. “Wait a minute! Bendis-chan, you know how this stuff works?”
“Nope,” said the cat. “But it doesn’t look very complicated, does it?”
Beth paused. Then, together, she and Bendis turned to look at the girl behind them.
“What?” said Ochiyo.
“You could have done this yourself, you know!”
“Me? Oh, no. I don’t know anything about this stuff. That’s why I asked, remember? You said you knew something about accounting.”
“But—” Beth gave up, and sighed. There was something about Ochiyo’s face, that look of utter confidence, that was quite unassailable. Instead, she looked back at the cat next to her. “Bendis-chan, does the rest of this look OK?”
“As far as I can see,” said the cat. “But I don’t know anything about accounting, either.”
“Neither do I!” Beth looked at the books in her bag once more. There were fourteen of them, and she had read nearly half of the first one.
She turned back to the computer, and the neat columns of data that she had just typed in, and she realised: waiting wasn’t going to make it any easier. “The heck with it,” she muttered, and clicked the SAVE button.
Immediately, and to her horror, a new window popped up on the screen. PROCESSING, it said. Before she could move, it vanished, to be replaced by a new screen. It showed a list of names and amounts, and at the bottom was a message: PAYROLL DUE. APPROVE PAYMENT?
Beth waited a moment for her heart to slide back down out of her throat. Then, quietly, she said, “Ochiyo-san, does this look right to you?”
Ochiyo came over and looked at the screen. “Hey, that’s pretty good,” she said. Pointing to her name, near the bottom of the list, she added, “That’s how much I usually get, yeah. How did you do that?”
“Never mind,” said Beth, resignedly. Before she could think twice, she clicked the YES button. Another window popped up. It said, CONNECTING TO BANK. Another list of messages scrolled past, too quickly to follow. Finally, the computer said, PAYMENT SCHEDULED. RUN COMPLETE.
She sat staring at the computer for a few seconds, and let out a breath that she had not realised she was holding. Then, quietly, she closed the payroll program and logged off the computer.
“All finished,” she said to Ochiyo, and she managed to smile.
With or without Seki…the future of the Olympus was safe. For at least a little bit longer.
Makoto found herself at a loss as the school holidays began. In the past, she would have done things with her family, or hung around with Dhiti and Kin and a few of her other friends at school. Now, things were…more complicated.
There was her family, for example. She could still see Fujimaro and Miliko, but only if they came to visit, or if the three met somewhere. In a way, it was as if they’d been reduced to the level of friends, not family. And it was astonishing how much that bothered Makoto, because back when she had been Hayashi Miyo, she’d usually though of the two of them as pests.
It was different now. At least she’d finally managed to talk to the two of them, discuss what was happening. When they visited her, last Saturday after the battle, she’d taken them inside and offered them tea; but the visit had stretched to almost two hours. There was so much to talk about; so many unsaid things to say at last. They knew she was a Senshi, and that meant she could be freer with them than with…well, almost anyone.
Not that she had told them everything, of course. Not who the other Senshi were, for example. They didn’t ask, though; Fujimaro was smart enough not to, and Miliko hadn’t even thought of the question yet. They did ask who Seki was, but Makoto answered vaguely, fudging around the truth, and to her relief they accepted it. Seki, for her part, made sure that the three of them had plenty of tea, smiled when they thanked her, and said nothing at all. Thank the gods for friends.
And then there were her…well, her friends. Dhiti and Kin were all that was left of that crowd; the others she had sometimes hung around with at her old school, like Junko and Mei and Seiji, had never been close enough to let into what was going on in her life now. The only other people she might have called “friends” were Seki and Liam; but while she had loved them both dearly in her past life, here in the modern age everything was different. Their new lives separated Makoto from Liam; and Seki was now centuries older than Makoto, to a point where talking to her sometimes felt like talking to Setsuna.
(And there was a thought. Setsuna was alive! Seki had told her, a long time ago, but with everything else going on, she had forgotten. So what was going on? Why did Setsuna never stop by to say hello? She would have to have a word with Seki about it.)
Dhiti and Kin, then. The two of them were always fun; but more to the point, they were true soul friends, girls she could trust with any secret. Girls who she already had trusted with her biggest secrets, come to that. The trouble was that, well, she was kind of on the run. If she went back and started hanging out with her old friends, she might as well be wearing a sign on her back that read, “Arrest me!”
It really didn’t leave her a lot to do.
She had the garden, at least. Seki’s house had a huge back yard, and most of it was overgrown with a mass of tangled vegetation. The more time she spent there, the more convinced she became that this had once been a really magnificent garden; but that, left to itself for years, perhaps decades, everything had grown together into a twisted, netted jungle.
She was having a lot of fun with it, and it was going to take her a good long while to get it into order. But she couldn’t work in the garden all the time.
Yesterday, she had complained to Seki about feeling bored. Seki told her to go and do a jigsaw. It was funny, at the time. Not any more.
She stripped off her gardening gloves and apron and want back to the house, removing her boots as she entered. Inside, she went looking for Seki, to have a talk about Sailor Pluto.
Seki was in the little room that she had started to use for an office; but she was not alone when Makoto opened the door. She was talking to another woman: young and a little heavyset, nobody Makoto knew.
“Oh,” said Makoto. “Sorry.”
The stranger started to get up, but Seki held out a hand. “It’s okay,” she said. “Eri-san, this is Makoto, my ward. Makoto-chan, this is Gensai Eri, an old friend of mine. Sorry; I should have warned you she was coming.”
“It’s okay,” mumbled Makoto. “I’ll, um, catch you later, Seki-san. Nice to meet you, Gensai-san.”
“You couldn’t get us some tea, could you?” asked Seki as she began to close the door.
Makoto muttered something back—not entirely polite, but she was pretty sure that Seki couldn’t hear her—and closed the door firmly. Then, with a sigh, she stumped away toward the kitchen.
“Will she be a problem?” asked Eri after a moment.
“Oh, don’t worry about Makoto,” said Seki. “She’s a good kid. I should have warned you she was around, though. Sorry.”
Eri shrugged “It’s okay. I assume she doesn’t know about…your side business?”
“No, and I’d like to keep it that way. I can do without all the recriminations.” Seki gave the other woman a wry smile. “She has a certain way with words.”
“Whatever you say,” said Eri, grinning. “Life is hell.”
“Only if you’re doing it right,” said Seki, grinning back.
“Getting back to your proposal…”
“Right.” Seki paused, trying to decide how to put this. “As I said at the fair the other night, someone helped me out once when I didn’t know the ropes. I feel a certain obligation to do the same. Pay the favour forward, you might say.”
“Ri-ight. You saw me having a rough time and thought you’d help me out, and I’m going to believe you because your motives are totally pure. The fact that you’ve completely changed your looks since I last saw you, so much that you’re probably on the run, is purely incidental. Is that it?”
Controlling her temper with a certain difficulty, Seki said, “I’m not acting out of pure altruism, if that’s what you mean. Don’t worry, I’ll expect something back.”
“Aha. Something like…what?”
Seki gave her a faint smile. “You’re going to owe me a favour. A big favour. And someday, depend on it, I’m going to collect.”
“Ah.” Eri nodded, several times. “Now that I understand. But now I have to wonder what I’m letting myself in for.”
“Well, there are a couple of ways you could think about that. First one is, you have my promise that it won’t be anything, well, too bad. Nothing that you’d really not want to do.” Seki paused and then added conscientiously, “Not that it’ll be something easy, mind you.”
“Right. You’re selling me a pig in a poke, but at least you’re guaranteeing that it actually is a pig. Assuming I believe you, of course! So what’s number two?”
“Well, the second way to think about it is…you’ve got a problem. And is there anyone else offering to help?”
Eri thought about it for about two seconds. Then she started to laugh.
Seki began to chuckle as well; and that was when Makoto came back with the tea. The girl gave them both such a suspicious look, as she laid out the cups, that she could not help laughing harder. Perhaps it was too much, for Makoto closed the door quite loudly as she left once more.
Seki winced. “Ouch. She’s going to be tough to live with tonight. Well, I suppose I deserve it.”
“Life,” repeated Eri, “is hell.”
“And hell is what we make it,” said Seki wryly. “Right. Where were we?”
“Getting down to some specifics, I hope.”
“Okay, okay. So. Your problem is that you have a decent line on some Americayan fakes, smuggled in from…where, exactly?”
Eri hesitated. “Let’s say, somewhere due East. I don’t think you need to know more than that right now.”
“Fair enough,” Seki admitted. “I’m guessing from the Uluru Republic, actually, but it doesn’t really matter. You can get the goods…but you don’t have any distribution, and you’re new at the game so you don’t have any reliable contacts who can do it for you, either. Someone told you where to find the last fair, but that was all you got.” She paused. “At a guess, you may not even know where the next one is. It can be tough for new faces to get a foot in the door once, let alone twice.”
The other woman’s face was so blank that Seki decided her guesses were mostly correct. “And so?” she asked.
“And so. Well. I deal in tea, myself. Brought in from India, and as you said yourself, you don’t need to know any more than that. I’ve been going to the fairs for a long time, and I do know the ropes.”
“Can’t have been that long,” commented Eri. “You aren’t that old. With or without this disguise of yours.”
“Thanks,” said Seki, mentally cursing at her lapse, “but I’ll tell you my beauty secrets some other time. For now…well. Recent events make it a problem for me to attend the fairs at the moment. So I—”
“I knew it! You are on the run!”
“Not…exactly,” said Seki with gritted teeth. “I’ve had to…change my circumstances, yes. But I should be fairly secure now; I’m not running…at the moment. However, I can’t go back to the fairs with my old face or name.”
Eri’s eyes narrowed. “So. You’ll show me the ropes and help me get started…and in return I’ll be your agent. Is that it?”
“That’s part of it. I can give you names and places, and some advice on distribution. In short, I can get you into the game. For your part, you’ll help me stay in the game. And later…in a few years…”
“A few years?”
“That’s the big favour I mentioned earlier. In a few years—perhaps ten years or so, once everyone has forgotten Pappadopoulos Itsuko—you’ll do the same for me. You’ll introduce me to the fairs, under my new face and name. And Hiyama Seki will pick up Itsuko’s old business, and nobody will be the wiser.”
She waited for it all to sink in. At length Eri said, “You’re taking quite a risk. Suppose I sell you out? Pretend to take your advice, but actually find out who’s looking for you and tell them where you are? I know your new name, what you look like, where you live.”
“It’s a risk,” Seki admitted. “But if you do that, you’ll be finished in the business, too. Nobody will ever trust you again. And…trust me. I have other friends, and other places to run if I have to.”
“Yeah,” admitted Eri. “I kind of guessed that.” She hesitated a minute longer, and then shrugged. “What the hell. Not like I have any other offers, do I? If you want a partner, I’m in.”
Seki relaxed for what seemed like the first time in an hour or more. “Good. Then let’s discuss specifics…”
As the holidays began, Suzue was in a jumpy mood. She flinched, expecting the worst, every time a car went by her house, every time she heard footsteps on the pavement below her window, and most especially every time someone came to the front door. Her daddy got a lot of visitors, so she spent the first few days in a state of almost constant nervousness.
She could not help it. She had, after all, recently committed her first act of arson.
As a matter of fact, it was her first crime of any sort (unless one counted the not-quite-accidental death of a neighbour’s goldfish when she was seven years old). As first crimes went, however, it was definitely a biggie.
So far, ‘P’ Division had failed to come to her house to arrest her. In fact, so far nothing seemed to have happened at all; the fire had barely rated more than a few bland words in the newsies. That hardly changed the fact that Itagaki Suzue was now a major criminal.
It did no good at all to tell herself that nobody could have recognised her, because she had been Sailor Uranus at the time. Actually, that made it worse, in a way; she had tarnished the image of a Senshi.
Then again, she had a feeling that her predecessor, Saint Ten’ou Haruka, might not have disapproved of her act. Suzue herself, when she reminded herself of the circumstances, could not make herself feel sorry.
Sorry, no. Guilty, yes.
But as the days rolled past, ‘P’ Division continued to fail to arrest her and throw her in prison. Slowly, she began to relax. And then, to wonder: what next?
Something Liam had told her came to mind.
She emerged from her house on Wednesday afternoon, having dressed with particular care, and caught a bus to the nearby shopping centre. As she got on, the bus driver saw what she was wearing and his eyes widened. He gave her a dark, suspicious look, and she wondered if he was going to throw her off. She met his eyes firmly, though, and after a few seconds he looked away.
The ride to the shopping centre was interesting. Nobody said anything…but nobody sat near her, either.
When they arrived, she dropped her money in the pay slot at the front—and then paused, looking back down the aisle. Almost everybody on board was watching her. Most of their faces were carefully blank, but she could see the hostility in more than one pair of eyes.
She gave them all a big smile as she stepped down into the street, and walked away without looking back. The bus rumbled off and she smiled again, this time for real.
They may have hated her…but somehow, it felt like triumph.
She walked through the shopping centre, not caring who saw her or how they reacted. After a few minutes she reached a little café that she knew well. Minoru and Keiko were waiting for her outside.
Keiko’s face lit up as Suzue approached. “Hi, Suzue-chan!” she called out gaily. “You’re late! Minoru-kun and I got here oh my god what are you wearing?!”
Suzue glanced down at the light blazer she had put on this morning. It wasn’t one she had ever worn in public before; up until now it had been reserved for church outings. The emblem of the Church of Serenity—a winged crescent moon—was sewn into the right chest, bold and very visible. On the left side were the words QUEEN HEART CHAPEL.
She looked back up at Keiko and said calmly, “It’s a bit cloudy today, so I thought I’d better put a top on.”
Minoru broke in. “Suzue-chan, are you sure about this? You might get some…some unwanted attention.”
“You promised you wouldn’t talk about this!” Keiko burst out.
Suzue faced them both as firmly as she could. It wasn’t easy; Keiko had been her best friend for nearly ten years, and Minoru was getting to be just as important to her—though in quite a different way. But Liam had been right. It was time to take the mask off.
“I’ve decided I’m not going to hide any more,” she said. “Keiko-chan, Minoru-kun…this is who I am. You know that, you’ve always know that. Well, it’s time to stop pretending. Keiko-chan…” she added, looking the other girl in the eye, “I’m sorry about the promise, and I’m not going to rub your nose in it again. But I think we’re all old enough now to stop playing let’s-pretend. Don’t you?”
She was being quite unfair to them, she knew. She was springing this on them without warning, and forcing them—in public—to either accept or reject her, without any chance to think.
On the other hand, she hoped, this way she had a much better chance that whatever they decided would be the way they really felt. If they’d had time to think about it first, who knew what they might convince themselves they had to do?
She waited for them to answer, and tried not to show that she was holding her breath.
“You utter idiot,” said Keiko. She dropped her satchel and put her hands on her hips in a classic pouting pose. But she stayed.
At the same time… “Suzue-chan,” said Minoru, “I have to think about this. I…I have to think.”
He gave her a nervous, apologetic smile.
Suzue watched him go, and tried not to burst into tears. In her heart, she had been quite sure that it would be the other way around: that Minoru would stay, and Keiko go. She had even been certain that she’d be able to bring Keiko around, in time; but she had never once considered that Minoru would leave her. She felt as though her whole world were crashing down upon itself—all over again.
Keiko looked at her, and her mouth quirked wryly. “You utter idiot,” she said again, this time without vitriol. “What did you think he’d do?”
“I—I thought—” Suzue began, and could not go on.
Keiko sniffed. “Balls. You didn’t think at all. You just thought you were thinking.” She shook her head and gestured toward the café door. “Come on, let’s go in. I’ll buy you an ice cream.”
“That…won’t help,” said Suzue shakily. “Will it?”
“Nope. But at least you can scare the waitresses.”
“I…I…all right.” They went in.
Grief, Suzue discovered, tasted of ice cream. And so did friendship.
Minoru walked away from the girls, his mind a whirl of confusion. it was all very well for Keiko, he thought, a little resentfully. She had been Suzue’s friend practically forever; everybody knew about the two of them, and Keiko was strong and assertive enough not to care what anyone said.
It was different for him. He and Suzue weren’t trying to hide their growing relationship, but they weren’t exactly being public about it either. In particular, they didn’t hang about together at school, the way some couples did. Both of them were, well, more privately-inclined.
It wasn’t as though he minded her beliefs. Not really. She did not hesitate to tell him if some kind of church matter came up…but she never went into details, and that was just fine. All the same, he had though about the subject seriously, back when he’d realised how much he was starting to like her. He’d decided that her beliefs didn’t matter much to him, not back then. Actually, it had been sort of cute—like discovering that a girl collected Passion Puff dolls. He supposed he’d simply assumed that she would grow out of it eventually.
Since then, the subject simply hadn’t come up. it was just a quirk, one that didn’t matter much. When she’d started taking flying lessons, that was a lot more interesting (and more alarming) than her religion.
Then the new Senshi arrived and suddenly it started to matter.
Not to him, mind you; not to Minoru. The two of them got on just as well as ever, and Suzue still never said a word. But he could tell, sometimes, that something was on her mind, and it wasn’t hard to work out what. The day after the incident at Zarigani Mall, for example, she had been quite tense. No wonder, when the ones she worshipped had just caused such an unmitigated disaster.
And now this. She wanted to start appearing in public. Openly wearing the Loonie emblem; positively flaunting it in fact. With him.
Couldn’t she see how much trouble she was going to cause? People accepted her, mostly, because she kept her head down. If she started pushing her beliefs in their faces, the tenuous thread of tolerance she had now would snap in a heartbeat. They would turn on her, and the occasional black eye she got now would be nothing in comparison.
And he, Minoru, would be tarred with the same brush. They would think he sympathised with Loonies. They might even think he was one himself.
That thought kept on coming back to him, over and over, as the afternoon wore on. They would turn on him too. He felt scared, and a little betrayed. He had trusted her. Trusted her to be safe for him to like.
And then, late in the afternoon, something in his head did a sudden, unexpected flip-flop. He had trusted her to be safe…and she was heading into danger. And he had walked away from that.
He was walking through a little shopping district some distance from the mall, head down and hands in his pockets, when that thought came to him. He froze in the middle of the street, and almost got hit by a bus before he came to his senses.
Was it really that simple? He thought about it, and the answer came remarkably quickly. It really was simple…and he was a first-class idiot.
Suzue was headed into trouble, and he had known her for long enough to understand that she would not change her mind easily. So, if that was where she was headed…then where did he want to be standing?
By her side. It was the only possible answer.
He headed back to the mall at a run and got there, gasping for breath, twenty minutes later. Of course, Suzue and Keiko were gone. He tried Suzue’s comm, and then Keiko’s, but neither of them answered. He searched the mall for them for half an hour, but there was no sign of either.
He went home, tired, frustrated, and a little afraid. Later that evening, he tried calling her home. Suzue’s mother answered, and he asked to speak to Suzue. After a minute, he heard Suzue’s voice.
“Suzue-san,” he began, “I—”
That was as far as he got. She hung up. He tried calling again, but this time nobody answered.
He sat in his bedroom for a long time, staring at the wall and trying to decide what to do, how to fix things. But nothing came to mind.
On Thursday evening, Beth went out on a date. It was on the third date she’d ever been on, and as it turned out, it was by far the least successful.
Which is not to say that it was a bad date. Not bad. Just…disappointing.
To begin with, it took four comm calls before Mark even invited her out; and two of those calls were her calling him. It was quite puzzling; vexing, even. She knew he liked her; that was obvious. So why was he so—well, uninterested?
She even asked him, on the fourth call, if he was seeing anyone. He paused for a couple of seconds before saying, in a funny voice, that he wasn’t. That was when he finally asked her if she’d like to see a movie.
The movie went OK, though she’d actually seen it already. (She had taken Bendis to a matinee on Monday. The cat went curled up in her shoulder bag, emerging when the lights went down. There wasn’t actually any rule against it. Not that she knew of.) But afterward, when she and Mark sat in a ramen-ya eating noodles and chatting…well, it was as if she were talking to her brother. (If she’d had a brother). Or Nanako. Or Bendis.
He was being friendly. And that was all.
Beth supposed that a platonic friendship with an attractive boy was better than nothing. But she couldn’t help feeling hard done by.
Later, at home, she talked to Bendis about it. The cat didn’t have any useful suggestions for what to do, which wasn’t surprising. (Well, she did have a number of suggestions; just not…good ones. Not for humans, anyway.) She did have some annoying speculations, though.
“Maybe he already likes someone else,” she said.
“No,” said Beth. “I asked. He doesn’t have another girlfriend.”
“Then maybe he’s pining for someone,” said the cat, licking a paw delicately.
“No,” said Beth with some force. “…No. Mark-kun is too smart for that.”
“If you say so,” said Bendis.
Beth knew Bendis was wrong. But, lying in bed that night, she lay awake for hours thinking about it anyway.
On Friday morning, Sharma Praket received a comm call from Lieutenant Nishihara at ‘P’ Division. He made sure that his wife, his daughter and his new house guest were well out of earshot before he spoke.
“You may be interested to learn,” said Nishihara, after they had exchanged pleasantries, “that a forensic team has uncovered some rather shocking evidence at the home of your, ah, guest.”
“Oh?” said Praket. He kept his voice calm and level, but deep inside him something relaxed, for the first time in days.
“Indeed. Indications which suggest that your guest may have been abused in a quite unpleasant fashion, at least once and possibly multiple times. The cellar, you see, was largely undamaged in the fire, and I’m told that some of the evidence found there is quite unmistakable.”
“I am deeply dismayed to hear it,” said Praket.
“As am I, as am I. It’s always distressing to consider what certain people may be capable of, don’t you think? I might add that a much more detailed examination of the rest of the house is now in progress, and while of course much has been obscured by the flames, I’m told that certain indication being found are…equally distressing.”
Praket said nothing. He was coming to admire Nishihara greatly. The man had a way with subtle innuendo.
“Naturally, this does change matters. Kodama Shuko was arrested yesterday afternoon, and her son is now in the custody of ‘O’ Division.” Nishihara paused slightly. “Both of them continue to claim that a Senshi set fire to the house.”
“Strange.” Quite unconsciously, Praket shook his head, forgetting that Nishihara could not see. “Is she…sane?”
“That remains to be seen. They also claim that the daughter, Iku-san, was kidnapped by several Senshi. Mm…that is, the mother does. The son claimed this at first, but during an interview alone, he suddenly changed his story. He has now said…a great many things, mostly about his mother. I think perhaps I should say no more on the subject.”
“Perhaps not,” said Praket slowly. He tried to imagine what sort of relationship a woman like that might have with a favoured son. The first possibility that sprang to mind was…bad. And probably untrue, he hoped.
“The question of the daughter is becoming more pressing, I am afraid. I have noted in the case file that she is staying with you, as your daughter is a close school friend. Otherwise, the investigation would certainly have found her independently by now, and this interview would be less…friendly, shall we say? I have also noted that your family are prepared to care for her indefinitely. We must hope that ‘O’ Division takes this into account, when they decide what is to become of her. I’m afraid that they will definitely require an interview with the girl—and with you.”
This was no more than Praket had expected. Dhiti would be angry with him…and he did not know how Iku would react. Still… “Very well. When?”
“They will visit your home tomorrow, at ten. You must arrange for yourself and the girl to be present. I am sorry for the inconvenience, but ‘O’ Division—they work according to their own requirements.”
“Yes. I understand.” Praket paused, and then asked quietly, “I realise that you may be in no position to know, but…have you any idea of what their response is likely to be?”
“It would be quite unethical to speculate. However…” Nishihara’s voice held a note of real sympathy. “The girl’s father cannot be found; but it appears that she has aunts and uncles, and also three grandparents.”
“I understand,” repeated Praket. And then there seemed very little left to say.
Senshi fever was still hard at work in Third Tokyo, and ‘S’ Division were equally hard at work monitoring all the rumours.
Colonel Shiro had never needed to be told to monitor Senshi sightings and reports. The matter was obviously of interest to the government, and he gave the order less than half an hour after that viddy news program played its grainy recording of Sailor Venus foiling a charging station robbery. Since then, the reports had poured in.
At first, ‘S’ Division simply recorded the data. Later, when crystalline monsters started to appear in the city—and especially after the incident at the department store fire—the colonel ordered his analysis section into action, to look for patterns and try to predict when the attacks would happen next. They soon concluded that the attacks seemed to have only one purpose: to provoke the Senshi. Colonel Shiro swore at the report, privately, but passed it on to his superior: Number Three in the Serenity Council. Number Three told Shiro to keep up the good work. Shirt swore at that, too, even more privately.
So ‘S’ Division kept on monitoring and analysing. All the same, there were limits to how much Shiro actually reported upstairs. For example, when one of his top teams reported that they had seen Artemis near a city gymnasium, he kept the report to himself…at least for the time being. Later, when they discovered that the gymnasium owner was the legendary Hino Rei, he would have liked to do the same—were it not for a suspected link between Hino and the Sankaku. He had to take action then, but to his private relief, Hino escaped.
(Not that he would stop looking for her, of course. He had his sense of duty. But he could allow other matters to take priority.)
Later, the situation escalated—in a bad way. The Senshi attacked ‘M’ Division, for some unfathomable reason…and one of ‘M’ Division’s top scientists was killed. There was some doubt that the Senshi had actually committed the murder, but they had certainly targeted the man’s office. And the office of Chairman Fukuda, for equally unfathomable reasons.
Shiro could no longer hold back. He had refrained, up until now, from probing into the identities of the Senshi. Not any more.
And then the Senshi attacked the Tenshin Institute—and a member of the Serenity Council was killed. The shit, as it were, hit the fan.
One of Shiro’s best men, Captain Hiiro Yoichi, investigated the scene and reported a nightmarish situation: evidence of some kind of hideous biological experimentation, and the half-disintegrated remains of frighteningly warped monstrosities everywhere. There was every chance that Councillor Araki had been killed by the monsters, not by the Senshi.
However, at about the same time, Shiro had been told—by Number Three, no less—that Captain Hiiro was unreliable, and possibly a double agent.
Shiro had known Hiiro for years, and considered him a friend. That he should be a traitor was hard to imagine. And how did Number Three know, anyway?
Shiro ordered a full-scale investigation of the Tenshin Institute: both to follow up the monster laboratory, and to confirm Hiiro’s report. But by the time his first team reached the Institute grounds, they found it swarming with Institute staff, cleaning up the evidence. It was all clearly illegal, not to mention deeply suspicious. The situation grew very tense, almost to the point of an armed stand-off, and Shiro was on the point of ordering the lot of them arrested and taken away for questioning—along with the Institute directors as well, for good measure—when he got another call from Number Three.
Highly sensitive work in progress…we appreciate that some of the experiments in progress may at first sight appear troubling…not uncommon in biological research laboratories…nonetheless, any reports you may have heard were doubtless highly exaggerated…all work was fully sanctioned and for the public good…cleanup best handled by institute staff…no need for ‘S’ Division involvement…
it stank. It stank even worse, coming from Shiro’s superior.
Nothing seemed to make sense any more.
To make matters worse, some weeks ago Shiro’s aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Midori, had begun to act erratically…and had then vanished completely. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. Midori had his flaws, but he had been superb at taking the administrative weight off Shiro. The colonel had launched yet another investigation, but so far without results. His new aide, Lieutenant Aodake, was doing her best; but she was still rather green and needed supervision. Shiro did not have the time to supervise her; but he had to do it anyway. Sleep, of late, was becoming a luxury.
(He made a note in an already-overflowing list of tasks: follow up the Midori investigation. Dammit, if the man had disappeared so completely, there had to be foul play behind it. Midori didn’t have the field experience to go undercover this well on his own.)
Wearily, Shiro turned his attention away from imponderables and back to something he could control: the Senshi investigation.
It should have been an easy one—they were looking for schoolgirls, after all. (That was a matter of supposition, actually; there was no reason he knew of why the Senshi had to be schoolgirls. But there was the historical record…and the only moden Senshi they had identified so far, Hayashi Miyo, had definitely been in school—before she went on the run with Pappadopoulos Itsuko.) Shiro commanded one of the finest intelligence agencies in the world, and schoolgirls should have been easy to find.
It hadn’t been as easy as expected, though. To be fair, he was up against difficult odds: supposedly, the Senshi were protected by magic. That was a term he hated, one that he would have given a great deal to deny; but it was backed up by every history in the Archives. And by real life, as well: because his agents, the finest in the world et cetera, had so far drawn a blank. Something just seemed to stop people noticing that their friends or relatives were running off and fighting evil dressed in skimpy seifuku. He might as well grit his teeth and call it magic. Nothing else could explain it.
Oh, they had plenty of false leads. Half the parents in Third Tokyo seemed to panic and jump to conclusions whenever their precious little girls were out late or couldn’t be found. A surprising number of them reported it to ‘P’ Division, who dutifully forwarded a copy of the report to ‘S’ Division…who had to investigate. So far, the long-suffering agents who had to handle it all had turned up a long list of school club activities and unsuspected boyfriends, plus more than a few girls with drug habits or who were streetwalking…and no less than three cases where the daughter had actually gotten pregnant, given birth, and was now living a frantic double life trying to care for the child—all without her parents having noticed a thing. When Shiro read that report, he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
He notified ‘O’ Division, at least. Let them sort it out.
Shaking his head at the memory, he tapped a key on his computer to turn to the next page. Before he had read more than a hundred words, he sighed. Another crazy. It seemed that the city was filling up with them.
A house had burned down, and the owner was claiming that a Senshi had set the fire. Shiro grimaced: so, the girls had gone from trashing government offices to this? Oh, very likely! He read on, and was interested to see a ‘P’ Division investigation docket attached to the report. Following investigation of the fire, evidence of child abuse had been found, and the owner was now under arrest. ‘P’ Division’s initial analysis was that one or other of the children was most likely to have had started the fire, or that the mother had done it herself to conceal evidence.
Shiro nodded at that. However, the report went on with a note from ‘S’ Division analysis that the house was within the Red Zone: the area within which, to date, all Senshi activity had occurred. The note recommended low-level scrutiny of the daughter, who was of target age, along with her host family.
With a sigh, Shiro approved the recommendation. It would not show anything, of course; none of them did. But at least they would eliminate another dead end…and possibly uncover more evidence against a child abuser. That was a bright point.
He noted, with cynical amusement, that his approval would annoy ‘O’ Division; it appeared that they had been planning to remove the girl from her host family, against the girl’s wishes. Well, wasn’t that a shame?
But the pleasure was fleeting; he tapped his computer, and another report appeared; and then another, and another, and another…
With a faint click, the hotel door swung open, and the locksmith stepped back with a quick bow to the waiting police officer. The officer bowed back in thanks, and stepped cautiously through. The room beyond was darkened; the curtains and blinds were pulled, though it was broad daylight outside. A dank, stale smell hung in the air. The officer fumbled for a moment, then turned on the light.
He recoiled as he got his first look at the room. Then, more slowly, he stepped back in and looked deliberately around. His face held an expression of revolted fascination, and the locksmith, catching a glimpse of it, back away from the door and quietly departed.
Every square inch of the room’s walls were covered with pictures of women. Many of them were photographs, neatly torn from newspapers and magazines; others were line art, just as neatly cut. Still others appeared to have been hand-drawn. They came from all races and skin colours. But all of them showed a similar type: tall, slender, with very long, dark hair. In fact—
The officer peered closer, his eyes narrowing. Then again, he took an involuntary step back, his mouth curling in disgust. Every picture had been altered; the hair had been coloured over with a deep green marker pen.
Drawing his sidearm, the officer tore his eyes away from the display and searched the room, quickly but efficiently, touching as little as possible. The bathroom and shower were empty. The closet was filled with piles of old newspapers and magazines. The bed…was unmade, and looked as though the sheets had not been changed in months. He bent down, sniffed, and wrinkled his nose. It smelt as though the room’s occupant had not bathed in months, either.
Piled on one end of the bed was a thick sheaf of maps. The officer did not touch them; that would be for a forensics team. He could see, though, that the top one was a street map of a district of Third Tokyo. Much of it was covered with minute notations in a crabbed hand, almost unreadable.
He turned to go back outside, and paused once more. The wall behind him, the one that contained the door, was covered with pictures like all the rest—but there was something else, something subtle. He hesitated, then stepped back as far as possible. Then he grunted as it became clear. These pictures had been arranged so that they acted as a mosaic: from a distance, they seemed to blend together into a greater picture. With some disquiet, he saw that it was the same picture—the dark-haired woman. But there was something else in this larger version. Something on the forehead; a circlet of some kind.
He shook his head once more, and stepped outside to call it in.
Dhiti woke late the next morning—some aspects of the school holidays were still a pleasant novelty—to find that as usual, Iku had gotten up before her. She had even folded her futon and put it away, all without disturbing Dhiti. It would have been pretty impressive, if Dhiti hadn’t know just how and why Iku had learned not to disturb others.
Yawning, she put that thought aside and climbed out of bed. Across the room, Artemis, who was lazily stretched out on the window seat, lifted his head, and then looked quickly away. Dhiti had started wearing pyjamas, as a concession to her new room-mate, but they were fairly skimpy and did not cover that much.
“I don’t know why you’re so bothered,” she said idly, scratching her ribs. “I mean, it’s not like we’re even the same species.”
“It’s a matter of courtesy,” he huffed.
“Yeah, but…you’re a cat. And I see you naked all the time—well, apart from fur, I suppose. I mean, we’re not anything alike.”
“So what’s your point?”
“Well, I guess it would be different if we had anything in common,” she said, slipping her pyjamas off and starting to get dressed. “Or if you could transform the way we can—into a human being or something. But you can’t, so I just don’t see the point of acting embarrassed all the time.”
“Uh.” Artemis kept his eyes fixed out the window.
“Oh, whatever. How long ago did Iku-chan get up?”
“About an hour.” Artemis looked around, finally, and seemed relived to see Dhiti tucking her T-shirt into her jeans. “She’d been awake for a while, though. I think she had the nightmares again.”
“Damn it. I thought she was supposed to get better, now she’s away from…that place.”
Artemis cocked his head to one side. “You don’t know a lot about long-term psychological trauma, do you?”
“Er, no. Why, is it bad?”
He grunted. “It may take her years to recover fully. If she ever does.”
“…What?” Dhiti stared at him, and sat down heavily on the bed. “No! That’s not…not fair. We rescued her! Everything is supposed to be better now!”
Artemis gave her a sympathetic look. “You rescued her, so now she has a chance to start healing. But it’s not instant, and it probably won’t be easy. I’m sorry, Dhiti, but Iku has been damaged, and there’s no magic cure for that—none that I ever heard of.” He shook his head and added, “She really ought to be getting proper counselling. But maybe it’s a little soon.”
“I—I didn’t know…” Dhiti hesitated. “So what am I supposed to do, then?”
“Exactly what you have been. Be her friend. Make sure she knows that you care, you and the other Senshi.”
“Hmm.” Dhiti narrowed her eyes in thought. “Care, huh? I can do that.” She began to sift possibilities through her mind. Some of them were just…too delightful to resist. “Yeah,” she said, still aloud but no longer really addressing Artemis. “Care. I’ll show her care. She won’t know what hit her…”
“What? Dhiti, no—”
But Dhiti was no longer listening. Her imagination whirling, and her dismay of a few moments ago already forgotten, she bounced out of the bedroom and started downstairs.
Half-way down, a sudden thought came to her, and she paused for a moment, peeking through the bannister. Her father was seated in his favourite chair down in the living room. He had a book in his lap, and he looked completely absorbed. He showed no sign that he had noticed her. That didn’t necessarily mean anything, not with her father, but still…
She walked down the rest of the way quietly, avoiding the two creaky steps. Her father never stirred. She was going to make it. For once, she was going to make it—
Precisely as her foot touched the bottom step, her father said, “Good morning. I trust you slept well?”
She whirled around to stare at him, infuriated. How did he always do that? He was still studying his book. He couldn’t have seen!
“Fine, thank you,” she said frostily, and stalked through into the kitchen.
Iku was curled up in a corner seat, working on her knitting, when Dhiti came down. She was so still and quiet that Dhiti never noticed her at all. It was not that Iku was trying not to be noticed; not the way she would have been at ho— at her old home. It was simply habit, that was all.
She watched the byplay between Dhiti and her father, trying to understand. She had been here nearly a week now, and this was the fifth time she had seen Dhiti get angry at her father. It was still a marvel to her: that Sharma-san actually tolerated his daughter’s bad temper. In fact, he almost seemed to enjoy it.
Even more interesting, this was the third time she had seen Sharma-san play this particular trick on his daughter. It obviously frustrated Dhiti; but why? Why did Shama-san do it, and why was Dhiti bothered?
Iku’s forehead creased. Her fingers were still busy, but she was paying little attention to the knitting now. If she could penetrate this mystery, then maybe it would be the key to finally understanding…so much more. About this house, this family…and about the maddening, elusive Dhiti herself.
As she was still pondering, Sharma-san carefully closed his book. As he started to rise, he looked around—and his eyes unerringly met Iku’s.
Iku stopped knitting. All her instincts told her to drop her eyes—to submit, to look away. Instead, somehow, she managed to hold the man’s gaze. Deep inside, the memory came: in all of her life, until he left, her father was the only one who never hurt her.
A handful of seconds passed. Then Sharma-san raised his eyebrows, just slightly. A moment later, he stood and walked quietly through to the kitchen, without looking back.
Iku’s heart was thundering in her chest. But in some incomprehensible way, she felt triumphant.
A few minutes later, when she felt more in control of herself, Iku followed the others into the kitchen. Breakfast was well under way, and she slipped quietly in place at the table beside Dhiti. To her relief, nobody paid any particular attention to her or tried to fuss over her, the way they had the first couple of days. Dhiti’s mother murmured, “Good morning, Iku-chan” and slipped a plate in front of her, but that was all. Iku ducked her head shyly in response—Sharma Salila had been nothing but kind to her, but still it was hard not to be wary—and began to eat.
The food was unfamiliar, but good. Iku had never eaten Indian food before she came to Dhiti’s house, but she had had a vague idea that it was nothing but curries. This, she was learning with pleasure, was not the case. She had no idea what she was eating now—some kind of steamed rice cake with chutney—but after a couple of bites she decided she liked it.
She had not finished half of it before the bombshells began to fall.
Dhiti’s father finished eating, took a thoughtful sip of coffee, and then, without looking at her at all, said, “Iku-san, were you aware that your mother’s house burned down last Saturday?”
Iku dropped her spoon. She stared at him in shock.
“The same evening that you came here, in fact,” he went on imperturbably.
“What?” said Dhiti, looking almost as incredulous as Iku felt. “That’s impossible, Pitaji. When we—I mean, when I was there, the house was fine. It wasn’t on fire! And you can’t believe Iku-chan would—”
“I believe nothing; I am not making accusations,” said Sharma-san. “I merely state the facts. The house has been destroyed.” He paused, for perhaps a heartbeat, and then turned his head to face her. “I regret to say that this has drawn some official attention to you, Iku-san. During their investigation, ‘P’ Division discovered certain evidence of your mistreatment. Your mother is now in custody, and ‘P’ Division would appreciate the opportunity to interview you.”
It was hard to make her mouth work. Fire? And…Mother…? Almost soundlessly, Iku said, “What—?”
Dhiti’s father went on ruthlessly. “Furthermore, ‘O’ Division have also taken an interest in the situation. They, too, wish to interview you…to decide whether you will be permitted to remain here, or placed with relatives, or in foster care.”
Iku flinched. She had thought she was beginning to feel safe here. Now, at last, she realised that she had been expecting this all along: the moment when everything fell apart, the instant when budding dreams dissolved into horror.
Her nightmare of the night before, almost forgotten, flooded back into her mind: the faces, the accusations, the shouting—the blame; always, the blame—and, at last, the backs turned toward her, as they always were. And she was left alone, as she always was, because who could want her?
When she had woken from the nightmare, early this morning, she had told herself that it was not true. She was with people who wanted her; people who even welcomed her. For a while, she had managed to believe it. But now, at last, the truth was revealed. She would be taken away from this place, and left alone once more; and that was right, Mother was right after all, because Iku was not worth—
Dhiti exploded up out of her chair. “No!” she cried out. “Pitaji, they can’t! It’s not fair! You mustn’t let them—”
“Daughter,” he said. His voice was still cool, but unexpectedly, there was a note in it that pulled Iku out of her fear and despair for a moment. She looked at him, and the expression in his dark brown eyes…was so unexpected that she almost forgot to be afraid, because she could almost think that what she saw there was compassion.
“Dhiti,” he went on, and now Dhiti too stood still, listening. “I know it is hard. But there was never a chance that Iku-san would not be found. There is no use in fighting this. Better to cooperate…and hope for the best.”
Dhiti stared at him for a long moment. “You don’t think they’ll let us stay.”
“I am hoping for the best,” he said simply.
“Um.” Iku cleared her throat nervously as everyone looked at her. “Um. I’m sorry to interrupt. Um. But…when do they want to see me?”
Sharma-san gave her a faint smile, slightly sad, and glanced down at his watch, and said, “In fifteen minutes from now.”
The ‘O’ Division inspectors were two women and a man. None of them looked friendly. They smiled once, briefly and with starched lips, as they were ushered inside. None of them smiled again.
Iku sat in the living room with the two women, answering questions. Dhiti and her father sat nearby, listening. Dhiti tried to put in a comment of her own, once, but a look from her father made her subside, glowering sullenly.
The older woman did most of the talking, while the younger one made took notes. Iku’s answers were hesitant at first, but nothing she said seemed to provoke any kind of reaction from the women—only more note-taking—and after a little she seemed to gain more confidence. Meanwhile, the man, who was armed with a clipboard, went all through the house, poking and prying into everything, anxiously followed by Salila. Several times, she asked him to stop, or to be careful with something. He never answered. He never stopped, either.
The questions put to Iku were mostly to the point: about her mother, her brother, and the way she had been treated, and about how she felt living with the Sharma family. Was she happy? Did she feel safe? Some of them, though, were…strange. Did her mother watch children’s viddy programs? Was she short of money at certain times of the week or month? Did she ever seem unusually happy, or elated?
As Dhiti listened to this line of questioning, an odd thought began to take shape in her mind. It seemed absurd at first, but each new question seemed to fit. At last she looked up at her father, caught his eye, and mouthed, Drugs? He looked startled, then narrowed his eyes, shrugged, and gave a tiny nod.
But why would ‘O’ Division think that Iku’s mother had been on drugs? Or—Dhiti shot Iku a startled look—was it possible that she had been? But Iku was answering the questions calmly, with a faintly baffled look on her face…
The next question shook her badly. Had Iku’s mother ever said anything about Sailor Senshi?
Iku, looking just as stunned as Dhiti felt, paused rather too long before saying, “No.” The two women exchanged glances, and the younger one scribbled furiously.
The interview ended not long after that. The man returned, with Salila right behind him, and gave a minute shake of his head. Apparently this was a signal, for the two women rose immediately.
The older woman faced Dhiti’s father. “Congratulations,” she said sourly. “—Though you can thank your friends in high places for that. All the same, if I’d found anything wrong I’d have said no, and damn the consequences.”
Dhiti’s father paused. “My friends in high places,” he repeated.
She snorted. “The girl’s uncle already said he’d take her, and he checks out all right. No chance she’d have been left here. But no, the word comes down from high-up.” Her lip curled. “Must be nice to have influence,” she said, and turned and walked away before he could reply. The other two inspectors followed her.
Dhiti looked up at her father with something rare for her: respect. “You talked to someone?” she said. “I didn’t know you knew anyone powerful, Pitaji.” She hesitated for an instant, then reached up and kissed him on the cheek.
He looked back down at her with something like uncertainty in his eyes, as if there were something he was about to say. But then he glanced over her shoulder, and seemed to relax. “You are welcome, daughter,” he said. “As is your friend.”
With that, he broke away and went back into the kitchen, calling to her mother for a coffee. Puzzled at his reaction, Dhiti turned to see what he had been looking at…and forgot her confusion.
Iku was standing there, and she was smiling. She was smiling.