By Angus MacSpon
Sailor Moon 4200 Home Page
Based on “Sailor Moon” created by Naoko Takeuchi
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 way. 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 was expecting that Dhiti would try to persuade her that the others were her friends, and that they would never reject her. As it turned out, Dhiti did nothing of the sort.
“You’re going,” she said flatly, “and that’s all.”
So Iku went.
As a matter of fact, it turned out to be not nearly as bad as she’d 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: But 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 perhaps 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 very 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 did what checking we could. 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 already 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 Ochiyo. 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 the other girl 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 the reception area, 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, 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, “Anyway, best if we do it from here, quickly, before anyone else comes in.”
Grumbling, Beth put down her bag—it made a heavy thump—and began to pull out a load of books. Most of them were accounting texts, and several 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 getting me into—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 woman 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. It was less than two weeks since Itsuko had fled from the Olympus, so there was not a lot of unentered data. She was done in fifteen minutes. 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 a 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 realised that 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 with some effort 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 thought 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.
Obviously, she hadn’t told them everything. Not who the other Senshi were, for example. But they didn’t ask; 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, but 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—right up until the woman had shown up at the Tenshin Institute. 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 went 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.
“So, 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 it forward, you might say.”
“Ri-ight. You saw me having a rough time and thought you’d help me out, and naturally I’m going to believe you because your motives are clearly 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. “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 strongly 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, eventually, 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… 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; I’m not actually 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…believe 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.
Her career as a criminal was definitely escalating. First the not-quite-accidental death of a neighbour’s goldfish when she was seven years old; then vandalising government offices…now this. Where would it end?!
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. (Actually, nobody had ever punished her for the goldfish, either.)
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. In a way, that actually made it worse; she had tarnished the image of a Senshi.
Then again, she had a feeling that her predecessor, Saint Ten’ou, 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 five 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 she remembered the words of Queen Serenity: if you value your beliefs, you need to be prepared to fight for them. And Liam: how can you expect them to trust you, if you can’t trust them? They 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 known 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. “Nonsense. 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 thought 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 Pinkku 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, to tell the truth, and a little bit angry. He had trusted her. Trusted her to be safe for him to like. And she had betrayed his trust. That was what she had done.
Then, late in the afternoon, something in his head did a sudden, unexpected flip-flop. He had trusted her to be safe, too…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—again—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 only 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 had taken 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 indications are…equally distressing.”
Praket said nothing. He was coming to admire Nishihara greatly. The man had a way with 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.”
“Oh? How 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 than that.”
“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 is 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 morning, 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 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. Shiro swore at that, too, even more privately.
So ‘S’ Division kept on monitoring and analysing. Nevertheless, 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, living under an assumed name, 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 reasons equally unfathomable.
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. However, by the time his first team reached the Institute grounds, they found it swarming with Institute staff, cleaning up the evidence. It was all completely 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. Coming from Shiro’s superior, it stank even worse.
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 modern 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.
But it hadn’t been as easy as expected. 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 possibly 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 children 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 went so far as to report 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 noticing 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 ended 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, backed 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 dark green marker pen.
Drawing his sidearm, the officer tore his eyes away from the display and checked 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 didn’t remember 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 still transform—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 relieved to see Dhiti tucking her T-shirt into her jeans. “She’s 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. “That’s…that’s 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 too soon.”
“I—I didn’t know.” Dhiti hesitated. “So what am I supposed to do, then?”
“Exactly what you have been, of course. 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, 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 house. 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 Sharma-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: throughout 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; 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 her stay.”
“I,” he said simply, “am hoping for the best.”
“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 then glanced down at his watch and said, “In fifteen minutes.”
The ‘O’ Division inspectors were two women and a man. None of them looked friendly. They did not bow. 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 with a sullen glower.
The older woman did most of the talking, while the younger one 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.
Most of the questions put to Iku were 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 with you. 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.
Early on Monday morning, Beth caught the bus into town. She carried a large backpack, and she went—to their mutual disappointment—without Bendis.
In town, she changed buses for the harbour. When she got off, she had to walk a few minutes to reach the correct dock, and on the way she started to wonder if she had packed too much. This was nothing new, though; it happened every time.
At the dock, she found a group of teenagers milling around: the rest of the school Hiking Club. They, like her, had backpacks and wore tough, durable clothing. Beth waved a greeting as she approached the group, said her hellos, and then, with a quiet sigh of relief, slipped her pack off and eased it down to the ground.
The trip to the Minami-Boso reserve had been planned for weeks, but for a long time Beth had thought the cost—thirty thousand yen—was out of reach. Then, a week before, her mother had suddenly come up with the money. It had been quite strange, too: they had been eating breakfast—Beth with her nose in a book, her mother listening to the news on the radio—when McCrea Helen had suddenly become rather quiet. After breakfast she went into town alone, and came back with signed permission forms and a receipt for the fee. As she passed them over, she said, “At least this will keep you out of trouble for a while.” Beth did not understand it at all; but she was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth.
She lost the train of thought as she saw someone else approaching: someone who was definitely not a member of the Hiking Club. “Nana-chan?” she said, startled. “What are you doing here?”
Nanako shrugged as she drew up to Beth. “Just came to see you off,” she said casually. “How you doing, Beth-chan?”
Then, glancing over Beth’s shoulder, she stiffened—but only for an instant. Moments later, looking relaxed and cheerful, she smiled and waved. “Oh, hi, Satomi-kun!” she called out. “I haven’t seen you for ages! Are you still going out with Michie-chan?”
Beth looked around, just in time to see one of the boys in the club stalking away, red-faced. “What was that about?” she asked, confused. “Who’s Michie-chan?”
“One of the girls in class 2C,” answered Nanako quietly. “An early developer, you know the type? Big boobs, very cute, still way too innocent for her own good. He’s been…talking about her. If you know what I mean.”
“2C? Eww. She’d be—what, thirteen?” Then it struck Beth. “Wait a minute. Is she really going out with him?”
“Who knows? Definitely not now—if she’s lucky, and enough of the senior girls heard that.”
“Huh.” Beth looked at her friend with new respect. “You’re smarter than you look.”
Nanako winced. “‘Subtle,’ Beth-chan. The word is ‘subtle.’” She paused, and smiled. “Speaking of subtlety, have you heard about Iku-chan? Apparently her house burned down a week ago.”
“Huh? What’s that got to do with su—” Beth broke off, her jaw dropping. “What? Her house burned down? Really? When?”
Nanako hesitated, pursing her lips. “Hm,” she muttered. “A hit and a miss.” She looked annoyed, but Beth could not guess why. She went on, “Yes, the weekend before last. It was in the news.”
“But…why? How? Everything was fine when—”
“Mm-hmm?” Nanako’s voice was light and casual, but suddenly Beth had the impression that she was paying close attention.
Uncertainly, she continued, “Well…I saw her a few days ago. You may not know this, but her mother was…was…not a very nice person.”
“Yes, she was, um, beating her and—and stuff.” Beth looked away uncomfortably for a moment. “My friends and I helped her. Helped Iku-chan, I mean.”
“Friends?” asked Nanako casually.
“Oh, Dhiti-chan and—actually, I don’t think you know them, Nana-chan. Um. Just some friends of mine.”
“No, I don’t suppose the name rings any bells. Uh. Is Iku-chan all right, then?”
“Yes, of course. She’s staying with Dhiti-chan—that is, with my friend.”
“That’s all right, then.” Nanako paused, and added in an oddly flat tone, “Lucky thing you went to see her, then.”
“Yes, isn’t it? It’s a funny coincidence, actually; you remember, a few days ago, you told me I ought to ask her about something…her puppy, right. Well, it turns out—”
“Isn’t that your teacher?” asked Nanako quickly, pointing behind Beth. Beth turned and saw Shimada-sensei, the teacher in charge of the Hiking Club, walking up with a backpack twice the size of her own over his shoulder.
“Oh. Right. I’ve got to go, Nana-chan. I’ll talk to you in a few days, OK?”
Nanako waved her off, and Beth picked up her pack and ran to join the rest of the club. She was just in time for the inevitable lecture about behaviour on an official away trip, before the ferry arrived to take them across the harbour.
Nanako watched her go with an expression that was half sour and half amused. To herself she said, “Well. A hit and a miss…and a couple more hits.”
The hike began well. Beth was pleased at how well she did; the track was rated “medium to difficult” but she was having no trouble. In fact, she was consistently holding her place in the front quarter of the group, something she’d never managed before. Perhaps it had something to do with becoming a Senshi? She wasn’t sure.
All the same, by evening she was pleasantly tired, and glad to stop. Her new-found fitness had its limits—which, she told herself, was probably a good thing.
That night, she lay on her bedroll—it was too hot for sleeping bags—and tried to ignore the stifled noises coming from the bushes not far away. “Fraternisation” between students, as the teachers put it, was strictly forbidden on away trips like this one, but everyone knew it happened.
She stared up at a patch of stars visible between the branches overhead and wondered again what her mother had meant about keeping out of trouble. Of course there was no trouble out here in the bush; but what kind of other trouble did her mother think Beth was in? It was quite mysterious.
There were, of course, problems that her mother knew nothing about; but Beth was no closer to solving them than she had been since they began. The whole struggle against the Enemy, for one thing; but that was not a problem so much as a duty. Nor was her sudden physical fitness a problem: quite the reverse. No, the real problem was Sailor Venus.
Who was Venus? Was she Beth, or was she Lady Aino? Or—to turn it around, and make it all the more disturbing—who was Beth?
Beyond that, what had happened to Venus? Back in the battle at the Tenshin Institute, Sailor Venus—the Sailor Venus that Beth knew, the one who was wild and passionate and who could do anything—had disappeared, and Beth was left in charge. She did her best; she was in fact prepared to die to win the battle; and it all worked out in the end. But the fact remained that it was Beth running the show, an impostor looking out from behind the mask of Venus.
Even worse, after it was over, Dhiti told her that she had been acting more like Venus than ever before. Which was totally wrong.
So what had happened? Where had Venus gone, and why? And what was she supposed to do about it?
Off in the distance, the muffled noises came to a climax and then died away. Beth yawned, sighed, and closed her eyes.
She might have all the troubles in the world; but right now, at least, she had a few quiet days in the bush to try and sort them out. Because obviously her mother was right: she was safe now. Nothing was going to need Sailor Venus out here.
With Beth out of the way, Bendis spent the morning wondering what to do. She had argued at the top of her voice that no one would mind if she went with Beth on the hike, but for once Beth had been immovable. Now, privately, the cat could admit to herself that Beth had probably been right. Not that Bendis would ever admit it, of course.
Still, that left her feeling bored and restless. Nobody was home. She prowled the house for a while, and finally went into the living room and turned on the viddy set. But there was nothing much on: only soap operas, and while she was momentarily intrigued by Miyako and Kaoru’s passionate affair, and whether the onmyouji would be able to cast out Daisuke’s vengeful spirit, she soon lost interest.
An odd idea occurred to her. Perhaps she could go and visit one of the other girls.
The more she thought about it, the more the idea appealed to her. After all, it wasn’t as though she belonged to Beth. She wasn’t obliged to hang around this house. There might be a ready supply of tuna here, to be sure, and…well, that was certainly something to consider. But still she was a cat, and she could do what she liked. She could, as they said, look at a king.
The tricky part wasn’t deciding who to visit, but knowing where to go. She knew where Iku’s house was, of course, but Iku didn’t live there any more. She knew where the Olympus was, but that was no good either. So who did she want to see, and where…?
And then suddenly the answer was obvious. She went and found her communicator (she had pulled one out of storage, after she heard that Artemis had his own, and cunningly hidden it in a shoe under Beth’s bed), and delicately touched the buttons with her nose.
The screen lit up, showing a startled face. “Hello? Who—?”
“Hi, Suzue-san. It’s Bendis. Where do you live?”
“What? I—what?” After a muddled few moments, and in a slightly incredulous voice, Suzue told her. She finished, “What’s the matter? Is Beth all right?”
“Oh, who knows? She’s not even here. Listen, stay where you are; I’ll be right over.”
Bendis clicked the communicator off, pushed it back into its shoe, and jumped up onto the window sill. Pushing the window a little further open—Beth always left it unlatched for her—she jumped out.
Suzue had spent the morning trying not to think about Minoru, or about arson. It was a difficult combination. Guilt and regret, hand-in-hand, had been warring in her mind for days now. Last night, she had actually dreamed that she was setting fire to Minoru himself, and warming her hands at the blaze. So, all right, maybe she was a little angry at him too.
Her parents inevitably noticed her moping, but she told them about Minoru and they were satisfied. Unfortunately, it led to her mother giving her a great deal of advice about her love life, which made Suzue want to scream a little.
Minoru himself had tried to call her again and again over the last five days. She hung up on him every time, and persuaded her mother to reject his calls when he tried the house comm. But every time her personal comm rang, and she saw the caller number, she felt a little worse.
Earlier this morning she had tried to distract herself by re-reading the Book of Serenity, but it hadn’t helped at all. After a few pages, she found that an overdose of wise words was making her want to throw the book against the wall, rather hard. She was paging through her flight training manuals instead, not taking in a single word, when her communicator beeped.
A short and very confusing conversation later, she sat back and stared out the window, her eyes focused on nothing, and tried to work out why a cat was coming to see her. Somehow, in the last weeks, a great deal of her life had stopped making sense. Was she, perhaps, being punished for something?
Mercifully, it was not long before she heard a scratching at her window. She slid it open and let the tabby cat in.
They sat facing each other for a minute: Suzue sitting at her homework desk, Bendis on the bed. At last Bendis said, “Hi.”
“Hi,” replied Suzue obediently. “Um…Bendis-san, is there something wrong? What happened to Beth-san? Why did you come here?”
The cat’s eyes narrowed. For a moment, she did not reply. Then she said, “Say that again.”
“Uh. ‘Is there something wrong? What hap—’”
“No, no. Before that.”
“Um…I can’t think of anything else. I just said, ‘Bendis-san, is there—’”
“Ahh.” Bendis closed her eyes for a moment in bliss. “‘Bendis-san.’ Yes! Finally, a little politeness…a little respect. Do you know how long I’ve waited to hear someone call me—”
“But what’s wrong?” interrupted Suzue. “Why did you come here? Is there a new monster attack?”
“No, of course not. Nothing’s wrong. I was just bored, that’s all.”
Suzue stared at her. “You were—”
“Well, Beth’s away on this hiking trip for a few days, and I had nothing to do. Do you have any idea what it’s like, cooped up inside all the time, without being allowed to talk to anyone? I’m sick of trying to read Beth-chan’s textbooks, and there was nothing on the viddy. So I thought I’d come and see you.”
“You…” Suzue paused, temporarily lost for words. “Oh.”
“Yeah! It could even be a good thing for you. I’m sure Beth-chan can’t be the only one who needs a little private tutoring, and after all, I am the more intelligent species.”
“…Oh,” said Suzue a second time.
“So, then. Where shall we start? Oh, I know. I’ve been dying to ask this, actually: you believe that Queen Serenity was a goddess, right?”
“Uh. Yes.” She shook her head, trying to clear it, and wondering whether the cat was actually serious, or simply mad. “Of course I do. You were there at the meeting when I—”
“Yes, yes. But here’s the important question: what do you think of Artemis? And, um, and other Moon Cats?”
Suzue froze, staring at the earnest face of the cat, as a number of connections suddenly formed in her mind. She remembered what Artemis had said about Bendis, back in the first big meeting when they had all gotten together. She remembered, especially, that he had mentioned how old Bendis was.
Smiling gently, she said, “Would you like a can of tuna, Bendis-san?”
“Eh?” The cat’s eyes widened. “Well, sure. If you have any to spare— Hey, wait! You can’t just distract me like that!”
But Suzue was already closing the door behind her.
When she returned, carrying a plate onto which she had emptied a small can of tuna, the cat was stalking around the room, her tail twitching impatiently. She whirled as the door opened and barked, “I thought you were supposed to be the respectful one! If you think you can— Hey, that smells pretty good, actually.”
Suzue set it down on the floor for her. “You’re just lucky we had some.”
“Don’t be silly,” mumbled Bendis, her mouth full. “Everyone has tuna. They need it for when cats come to visit.”
“Hm. I see. As for what the Church of Serenity thinks of Artemis…” Bendis looked up sharply. Suzue smiled once more and said, “I’ll lend you a copy of the Book of Serenity. You can find out for yourself.”
“Now you’re playing dirty,” said Bendis grumpily as she finished the tuna, delicately licking the last scraps from the plate.
“Just doing my bit to spread the faith. So, Bendis-san, what’s this about a hiking trip?”
“Oh, Beth-chan’s thing?” Bendis outlined the situation, more clearly this time. “So I thought I’d come over and see you,” she finished. “Beth-chan talks about you all the time, you know. Apparently you and she are partners, and she’s a bit freaked out by the whole religion thing.”
“Partners?” Suzue considered for a moment. “I suppose we have ended up working together a few times.”
“Yeah, that’s it. It happens quite often, Artemis says: two Senshi just find they click together in combat. Look at the last Uranus and Neptune, for example.”
“But Beth-san and I are nothing like Lady Ten’ou and Lady Kaiou! At least…uh, we aren’t expected to fall in love, are we?”
“As I understand it, that’s kind of optional. But getting back to this religion thing—”
“I think,” said Suzue firmly, “that Beth-san and I should sort that out for ourselves.”
“Oh, well, if you insist.” Bendis let out a haughty sniff. “Anyway, it’s still a good thing I came. You obviously need some help. Look at this problem you’re having with Minoru-san, for example—”
Bendis winced. “You don’t have to shout.”
“What,” said Suzue with great patience, “do you know about Minoru-kun?”
“Nothing at all, but I expect he’s your boyfriend. You’ve written his name nearly a hundred times on your desk pad, there.”
Suzue looked at the pad guiltily.
“And from the way you’ve crossed most of them out, the two of you are obviously fighting—”
“I think,” interrupted Suzue, “that we’re getting a bit too personal here.”
“Oh, nonsense. If you can’t trust a cat, who can you trust? So what’s the problem? You don’t want to have sex with him?”
Suzue jumped. She could not help it. “That,” she said frostily, “is definitely too personal. And it’s not true.”
“You do want to have—?”
“No!” shouted Suzue, almost panicking. “I mean— I mean, sex is nothing to do with the problem! And will you stop talking about it!”
“All right, all right. Geez! You humans, you’re so hung up about that. You should treat it more like cats. We go into heat, we get it over with, and then…um, it’s over with. What’s the problem?”
Suzue was feeling a long way out of her depth. “Humans,” she said, “do not go into heat. It’s a matter of biology.”
“Yes, yes, I know that. But don’t you think, if you made an effort—”
“I, uh, I really don’t think it would work, Bendis-san.” Privately, Suzue was beginning to feel a great deal of respect for Beth, if she had to put up with this sort of thing regularly. Come to think of it, maybe that was why she’d gone on the hiking trip. Alone.
“Bah. Beth-chan never wants to talk about it, either. She doesn’t mind talking about her boyfriend, but when it gets to the really interesting parts she clams up.”
That was something new, and a blessed change of subject. “Beth-san has a boyfriend?”
“Well,” said Bendis judiciously, “she’s trying to have a boyfriend. I don’t think it’s actually working out. I don’t think Mark-san is really all that interested in her.”
“Oh. Has he met you, then?”
“No, of course not.” Bendis gave her a suspicious look. “Why do you ask? …Anyway, back to Minoru-san. What is the problem, if it’s not—?”
“—Oh, all right,” said Suzue. “He—” She started to explain, and had to stop again almost immediately, as the memory of his betrayal came back full-force.
Bendis was watching her expression. “I see,” she said. “One of the soppy explanations, then. All right, spill it.”
Rather to her surprise, Suzue found herself doing so. There was something about Bendis—the way the cat was so obviously uninterested in any kind of human propriety—that made it easy to talk to her.
“So,” said Bendis thoughtfully when she had finished. “He doesn’t want anything to do with you because he’s afraid of your religion.”
“Well…yes. I mean, not actually afraid, but—”
“Geez, is everyone nuts about this church thing? Beth-chan, Makoto-san, Seki-san, Minoru-san, you…”
“I’m not nuts about it!”
“Don’t be silly, you’re the most nuts of all. Why couldn’t you have an ordinary hobby, like collecting stamps? Think how much simpler your life would be.”
“It’s not actually a hobby,” said Suzue, rather patiently she felt. Then she sighed. “But you’re right. Life would be simpler. It just…wouldn’t be as meaningful.”
“Hah. Meaning is where you find it. Ask any stamp collector.” Bendis snorted. “All right, then. He doesn’t want you, but you still want him. Right?”
“No! I don’t want him. Do you have any idea how that made me feel, when he walked out on me like that?”
“Sure. Like you were in heat, but the tom had gone off with some other queen, right?”
Suzue had to remind herself to stay calm. “No,” she said. “Not like that at all. Have you ever been in heat, Bendis-san?”
“Uh…we were talking about you, not me.” Bendis shot her a quick look and hastily went on, “Anyway, if you don’t want him, how come you’ve been writing his name on your pad, over and over like that?”
“I—because I’m angry with him!”
The words sounded false even to Suzue.
“Hmm. And if he doesn’t want you, then why does he keep calling you?”
“Because—” Suzue began.
And stopped. Because…and she could not think what came next.
“Because he does want me,” she whispered at last. “But…but Bendis-san, he hurt me.”
The cat shrugged. “Maybe he wants to say sorry.”
Suzue was silent for a long time. Then she said, “Maybe I’m not ready to hear it yet.”
“Ah,” said Bendis. “Well, that’s an entirely different problem, isn’t it? I expect you should take your time on that one. Only…”
“Well, you might want to let him know. ’Cause if he stops calling you before you’re ready to answer, then you’ll have to go to him. Which puts you lower in the scratching order, and I seem to recall that human girls prefer it the other way around.”
“You…you may be right,” said Suzue slowly. Astonishing, she thought. How could this idiotic cat-child have put her finger—or her paw—so squarely on the answer? Maybe cats really are superior after all…no, what am I thinking? “What about cat girls?” she added as an afterthought. “Do they prefer—”
“Us too. Of course.” A sniff. “That goes without saying.”
“You know, Bendis-san, you may just be a very wise person…in your own way.”
“Was it ever in doubt?” The cat yawned, showing plenty of sharp white teeth…and then fixed her with an unnervingly eager look. “Okay, that’s one solved,” she said. “What else is on your mind?”
“Uh—” All thoughts of admiration fled Suzue’s mind. “You know,” she said rapidly, “that’s all the problems I can think of right now. But—”
She hesitated as the idea came to her. Then the devil made her do it.
“—Have you thought of trying to solve Makoto-san’s problem? The way she’s so angry with me, I mean.”
The cat’s eyes lit up. “Ooh, a challenge! Right up my alley. I’ll get right on it—thanks, Suzue-san. I’ll see you later.” She got up and jumped to the window sill. Just before she sprang out, she glanced back and said, “Make sure you keep plenty of tuna handy.” Then she was gone.
Suzue sat, looking after her, for some time. After a while, in a faraway voice, she said, “Sure. Whatever.”
A little later, she got up and went out into the living room. Her mother looked up and said, “I heard you talking. Was that Keiko-chan?”
“Um. We talked for a while,” Suzue answered evasively. “Mother…”
“If Minoru-kun calls again, let him speak to me.”
Itagaki Aiko regarded her daughter fondly for a moment, and then rose to kiss her lightly on the forehead. “Yes, dear.”
The new mission didn’t go quite as well as Bendis had hoped. Makoto listened to her for nearly two minutes before she threw the first pillow. More pillows followed; Bendis raced away from the house, muttering to herself indignantly.
She thought about going to see one of the others instead—Ochiyo, say—but in the end she decided that enough was enough.
Secure in the knowledge that she had demonstrated the superiority of cats over humans sufficiently for today, she went home and took a long, satisfying nap.
Toyotomi Sese sat in the little office at the rear of her house, squinting at her computer screen and longing for aspirin. She had been working since seven this morning: first at the Serenity Council chambers, and then at home. That made it an ordinary day, for her. It was now eleven o’clock at night, and she was far from finished. Thank goodness she didn’t have a family. She needed more staff to take some of the load off her back, but it was so hard to find competent people she could trust…
The fluorescent light over her desk made her eyes feel dry and her head ache, and lately it had developed a slight buzz that was quite inaudible during the day—but which, at this hour, was driving her mad. She rubbed her eyes, sighed, and checked the teapot in the little alcove by her desk. There was only a puddle of wet leaves left at the bottom.
Sighing again, she went through to the kitchen to refill the pot. The smell of tea helped clear her head, a little.
When she got back to her desk, she glared at her computer screen again, then made up her mind and closed the document she had been reviewing. It was urgent—they all were—but it would have to wait until tomorrow.
Instead she pulled an unmarked data wand out of her pocket and plugged it into her computer. The wand’s contents would have gotten Sese into a lot of trouble if anyone in ‘P’ Division or ‘S’ Division knew she had it. It contained everything Trio had managed to learn about the Serenity Council.
The trouble was, none of it helped. Sese had been through the wand three times already, and found only questions without answers. Why, for example, had the Council been buying Arctic-exploration gear for the last seventy years, without having any discernible interests in the Arctic (or Antarctic)? Why did ‘M’ Division receive an annual budget more than seven times what it actually needed to operate? Why were all Council members who sustained head injuries legally required to be treated at the Tenshin Institute private hospital, and nowhere else? Why did ‘S’ Division keep detailed files on the children’s anime Queen Serenity and Her Senshi? Why had they spent insane amounts of money and effort hunting for a lost cat? Why had nobody ever seen Fukuda Ikemoto, the Council chairman, without his gloves on? And why, why, why were some Council meetings held in secret, and unminuted? That one was actually illegal.
There were dozens more riddles, smaller or larger, each inexplicable. None of them made any sense, and worse, none of them fit together. The data wand was a mass of unconnected mysteries.
The biggest question was: why were all these things being so scrupulously kept secret from Sese, who was a member of the Council and should be privy to all its dealings?
Trio was still at work, but the flow of information had recently become a trickle, and Sese had the feeling that he was about to run dry. To be sure, he might make a new breakthrough any day; but at the amount he was charging her, she simply couldn’t afford to keep him working for much longer.
She needed a new tactic.
She considered, for at least the twentieth time, talking to someone else in the Council. Even going directly to the Chairman and demanding answers. After all, she had a right to them. But there were just so many secrets being kept—the scope of the deception was so great—that she found that she was actually afraid of what he might do.
Perhaps he’d let you in on the truth…and you wouldn’t like what you found.
She shivered suddenly. Where had that come from? She didn’t like this business already.
No. She needed new alternatives.
She reached for her commset and touched the fast-call button for Sven. It was after eleven at night, but he answered within five seconds, without a trace of tiredness or annoyance in his voice. She happened to know that her Executive Assistant was married, but he never complained, whatever she demanded of him. That was fine. What his home life was like, she had no idea; all she cared about was that, if she was still working, so was he. Long and often irregular working hours were what her Executive Assistant was paid for.
“Yes, ma’am?” he said.
It was supposedly a private line, but she spoke elliptically anyway. “I’ve been looking through the new bundle from our friend,” she said. “It’s good, but it’s still not enough. I think he’s tapped out.”
“I see.” Sven paused for only an instant. “I can look for a replacement, but my information is that there aren’t many better.”
“No, I wasn’t think of anything like that. Sven, I think we need to try a completely new avenue.”
“Oh?” Another pause, microscopically longer. “Did you have something in mind?”
“I had in mind asking you.”
“I thought to myself: ‘Here is a man who knows how to contact some very, ah, clever people—ones who “there aren’t many better.” I wonder who else he knows how to contact?’”
“Uh. Toyotomi-sama, I didn’t exactly know how to contact him. I just know someone who knows—”
“I don’t actually give a damn about the details, Sven. I just want to know, can you get me what I need?”
“Well, what do you need?”
She dropped the roundabout speech. This, she needed to say plainly. “Surveillance,” she said.
This time, Sven hesitated for several seconds. “I’m not sure what you—”
“Surveillance. Spies. Listening at doorways. Eavesdropping. Breaking into offices and planting bugs. All that shit, am I making myself clear? Doing whatever it takes to find me answers.”
Sven did not say anything else, and after a little Sese quietly asked, “You still there?”
“I’m here,” he replied. “Toyotomi-sama…this could get us into a lot of trouble. Both of us, you understand?”
“All right. Maybe I do know somebody who can help. Friend of a friend, as it were. I’ll have to speak to them, see if they’re interested.”
“Naturally.” Sese noted, with interest, that mid-sentence his ‘friend’ had suddenly become plural. It renewed a suspicion that she had been pondering for a few days. After all, he had found that hacker rather easily.
“All right,” she said. “Give your friend a call. Just one question, though—”
“Your, ah, friends…wouldn’t happen to have three faces, by any chance?”
His silence was answer enough.
“Well,” she said flatly, “let me know how it goes. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” She disconnected the comm without waiting for him to answer.
So. Sven had multiple allegiances, did he? She should have guessed when she’d first heard the hacker’s name; it fit the theme so obviously. Trio. ‘Three sides.’
Sankaku: the triangle.
She tried to recall what she knew about the terrorist organisation, but it wasn’t much. Just that they were made up of three so-called ‘clans.’ And, of course, that there was no other group in the world so wanted by ‘S’ Division, no group so actively and remorselessly hunted—and no other group who, in spite of it all, had nevertheless been so successful for so long.
I’m dealing with the devil, she though, amazed at herself, and I’m doing it of my own free will. Do I really want to take things this far?
She shook her head. I can stop this any time I want to. After they give me what I want, I can even turn them in to ‘S’ Division.
…But am I really going to do that?
She thought about that for some time. And at last:
That depends on what they find.
Beth’s hiking trip went very well, right up until the point when it turned very bad.
It was late afternoon on Thursday, the last full day, and the hikers were working gradually toward their pick-up point. They would spend one last night camping out in the bush, and then—at least according to the schedule—reach the jetty early tomorrow afternoon and cross back to Third Tokyo. So far everything was going to plan.
Naturally, the trip had not all been non-stop hiking. They had breaks every now and then for necessities, and there was a decent amount of free time in the morning and evening. Most of the third afternoon had been spent canoeing along the shore, past heavily-forested cliffs and coves. Just this morning they had used a zip line to cross a deep, narrow gully. Beth had almost forgotten how much fun these trips could be.
All the same, they had been very active over the last few days and everyone was tired. Probably that was how the accident happened.
Beth had slipped away from the trail for a minute to pee in the bushes. (In theory they were supposed to wait for rest stops, which had pit toilets, but everybody got caught short now and then. Even the teachers.) When she had finished, she shouldered her pack once more, pushed her way through the undergrowth back to the trail, and started forward, hurrying a little to catch up with the group.
She had only been walking for a minute or two when she heard a thrashing noise, a little off to the left.
She paused, listening, but the sound was not repeated. The woods around her were silent: even the birds had stopped singing. She stood for a while, looking around uncertainly. Whatever had made the noise had not sounded small, and while there were foxes and tanuki in these hills, there were also bears. They weren’t supposed to come down this far, but you never knew— At last, when she heard the birds begin to chatter once more in the branches overhead, she started forward once more.
Then she heard a low moan.
That was no animal. She called out, “Who is it? Are you all right?” No answer came, and she stepped off the trail once more, pushing her way carefully through the bushes toward the voice.
It was a good thing she was being careful. Only a few metres away, as she stepped around a tree, the ground disappeared from beneath her feet. She yelped, started to fall, and caught herself on a branch just in time. Then she pulled herself back to safety and stood clutching the branch, panting in belated fear.
When she was a little calmer, she left her backpack a safe distance away and approached the drop once more, moving very cautiously. It was, she discovered, a deep, narrow gully, almost perfectly hidden by the undergrowth and the line of a fallen tree on the other side.
At the bottom, she could see a human shape, not moving.
For one horrified moment she thought she was looking at a corpse. The figure was sprawled over a mound of stones and earth, limp and ungainly. There was blood on its—no, his—head. Then she saw the boy move, trying to sit up, and moan again.
He needed help, urgently. That was clear. The gully was a deep one; the boy was four or five metres down. Nobody else was around. It was perfectly clear what she should do.
Almost without thinking, she found her henshin wand in her hand. She lifted it up and started to call out her transformation phrase: “Venus—”
Her mouth worked, but she could not seem to make the other words come out. Venus? Who was Venus?
Who was she? Was she Venus, or was she Beth? Aino or McCrea? Hero or hopeless?
With a vast effort, as if her neck had turned to stone, she turned her head and looked at the wand in her hand. It did not look at all magical. It looked like a cheap plastic pen.
Her mouth worked again, but this time she no longer knew what she was trying to say. Was it her transformation phrase? Or was it, Lady Aino, where are you? Or was it, please help me?
She could do it anyway; she knew that, from the battle at the Tenshin Institute. She could transform…but it would still be her, and not Venus, behind the hero’s eyes. And what good was that? Beth, the girl who spent her days writing bad poetry and making calf-eyes at a boy who didn’t even notice her, what good was she? It wasn’t fair.
It wasn’t fair, and the thought suddenly made her feel angry. She blinked a suspicious blurriness from her eyes, took a deep breath, and looked down the gully once more.
All right. She could do this much, at least. It was only a simple jump down and then back up again, carrying the boy, and she knew she could do that much. Even if she was only Beth, she could do that much. She could save this boy, and then when she got home she could give the henshin wand back to Bendis and tell her to find a real hero.
Holding the wand up once more, she began again: “Venus Pow—”
And broke off for the second time, as she heard the sudden crashing in the bushes not far away, and the chattering of excited voices.
It was the teachers, she realised, hurrying back to the rescue. Someone else had seen the accident before Beth had ever come along, and they had done the sensible thing and gone to get help.
There had never been any need for Venus at all.
The boy had a bad cut on his head and a broken arm, and the teachers had to radio for assistance. A hospital Opal flew out from Third Tokyo and took him away. A few hours later they got a call to say that he would be fine, thanks to the quick thinking of the student who had called the teachers. Nobody even noticed that Beth had been there.
That night, she lay in her sleeping bag, unsleeping, clutching her henshin wand to herself in shaking hands, and cried for hours.
But quietly, so that she would not disturb the others.
Ochiyo’s holidays began well enough. Two days after she and Beth sneaked into the Olympus offices and loaded the company payroll, her bank account was credited with the correct amount. Judging by the surprised commentary she heard when she went to work her shift the next day, everyone else had been paid as well. For the moment, everything seemed fine.
Within a week, though, things were turning uneasy once more. The next payday was coming up, and nobody knew what to expect. Most of the staff seemed to assume that the first time had been a fluke, something Itsuko had prepared before she left.
Ochiyo was fairly sure that she could handle the payroll without Beth; but as the date approached, she found herself growing nervous. Perhaps the staff mood was catching; all the same, it would look very bad if anyone caught her sneaking into the office to tinker with the computer.
She needed an ally, she decided at last. And as soon as she realised that much, she knew who it had to be.
The following Monday, two weeks after Beth had done the first payroll, Ochiyo asked Marisa if they could speak privately in the office. The Brasealan woman was strange, but she had been solidly reliable and loyal to Itsuko for as long as Ochiyo had known her.
She told Marisa the computer password and started to show her the payroll system—and Marisa stopped her almost immediately.
“Oho!” she said. “So that’s what it was. You did everyone’s pay two weeks ago. You and that other girl and the little gatito, so right?”
“So right,” said Ochiyo, grinning. “I mean, yes. That is—” She paused for a moment, and then said, “Look, Marisa-san, if everyone doesn’t get paid regularly, they’ll leave, you know they will, and that’ll be the end of the Olympus. And it’s not as if it’s doing anything wrong; it’s just—just—”
“We doing what Pappadopoulos-sama would do?” said Marisa, giving her an unnervingly understanding look.
“Well…yes. Every two weeks.”
Marisa gave her a crooked smile. “You going to be the new boss now, la?”
“Don’t be silly,” Ochiyo huffed. “This is just to…keep things going, until Itsuko-san gets back.”
“Hah. Well, we try if for a while. But, Ochiyo-chan…” The Brasealan woman shook her head. “This is a mushroom idea. You know it, true?”
Ochiyo shook her head, a little sadly. “Seems like everything is, um, mushroom these days.”
“So right, so true.” Marisa shrugged. “Okay. You better take the front desk now, girl, and I look this over.” Her lips quirked. “I call you if I get into trouble, yes?”
“So right,” said Ochiyo, smiling back, and went out to take the desk.
Marisa waited until she was out of earshot before she looked down at the computer and snorted. “Silly girl,” she murmured. “Payroll is well and good, but who gonna do the monthly tax forms for ‘T’ Division? Or all the other government forms? Or the utilities payments an’ everything else? You mushroom girl, you don’t even think of all that, now, do you?”
Marisa knew, though. She had been a receptionist at the Olympus for sixteen years, and in a small office, that meant she had seen pretty much everything.
She glanced at the door out to reception, and shook her head. “Mushroom girl!” she muttered. “Think you know it all, heh? Want to be a substitute Pappadopoulos-sama?” Her lips quirked again. “Hokay then. We give it a try…for a while. So right!”
Ochiyo went home that evening feeling perfectly satisfied with herself; but the satisfaction did not last long. Soon enough, after she was alone in her room with the door closed, she could not resist checking the news online. And, yet again, what she was looking for wasn’t there.
She could still find no mention of the Tenshin Institute, or of what had happened there. The battle at the Institute, and the horrid biological mess that the Senshi had left behind as a signpost, seemed to have gone entirely unnoticed.
What do we have to do, she wondered, send anonymous messages to a newsie? ‘Hey, look at this! It’s interesting! And disgusting!’
Tempting though that might be, it was probably too late. No doubt the Serries had cleaned everything up by now. No doubt they’d been the ones who’d stopped it getting into the news, too.
But why weren’t they doing anything? Why was the enemy so quiet? Two weeks had now passed since the battle, and it seemed as if the Serenity Council, like the schools, had simply gone on holiday.
After she had been paging through news sites for some time—muttering angrily to herself, though she hardly noticed it—she suddenly realised that she and the other Senshi had just destroyed the Council’s breeding chamber. What if they didn’t have another one? She found herself wondering if, perhaps, the Council wasn’t sending any vitrimorphs to attack them because they din’t have any more vitrimorphs to send.
And if that was so, then…what now?
She thought of calling a Senshi meeting to discuss the situation, but on reflection she decided against it. Best to keep this small for now: just the most experienced people: herself, Makoto, Artemis, and Seki. For a minute or two she considered adding her fath—er, Liam; but then the memory of that kiss came back—along with certain highly disturbing dreams that she’d had afterward—and she decided to leave him out. Let him turn up and throw his damn roses later, when we’re ready, she thought spitefully.
She called Makoto on her communicator and explained what she’d been thinking. Makoto pondered for a moment, and then asked a strange question.
“Have you been talking to Bendis?”
“To—?” Ochiyo blinked. “No, why?”
“Hah.” The other girl snorted. Then: “Forget it. Just some crazy new game, I think. She’s been pestering—” Makoto broke off, and then said, in a much milder tone, “No, never mind. Look, come over tomorrow afternoon. You’re right, we should talk about this. I haven’t been following the news, but…it has been quiet.” She let out a hollow laugh. “I was just relaxing and enjoying the break.”
“It has been nice, hasn’t it?” On impulse, Ochiyo added, “Hey, we should all get together. Not tomorrow, I mean, but sometime. Just to hang out. Have you seen that new play, Dream’s a Breath Away, at the Robata Theatre? It’s getting really good write-ups, and I want to catch it before it closes. Maybe we could go.”
“A play?” Makoto seemed to look surprised, though on the tiny communicator screen it was hard to tell. “Oh, boy. I haven’t been to live theatre in…uh. In this lifetime.”
“Really?” It was Ochiyo’s turn to feel genuinely shocked. “Oh, you totally should. There’s just no comparison to—”
“Okay, okay. Maybe we can…talk about it tomorrow.”
Ochiyo snorted. “You sound like my mother when you talk like that. Come on, you’ll enjoy it, obaasan!”
Something about Makoto’s expression made her pause, blinking down at the screen. “Was that right? Dhiti-san told me I should call you that, but she never got around to explaining why—”
She stopped again. Makoto had buried her head in her hands, and there was an odd sound coming from the communicator. It took Ochiyo a few seconds to recognise it. Makoto was laughing.
Ochiyo cleared her throat. “Ah, are you okay?”
“Yes, yes.” Makoto lifted her head again. “I ought to go, Aizawa-san. I was doing the dishes, and…and after that I have to go and strangle someone. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay? And…oh, why not? Go ahead and book me for that play. Hell, book all of us. You said you wanted an outing.”
“Sure. Okay.” Ochiyo turned her communicator off and stared at it for a while, her brow creased. No doubt this all made sense…somehow.
Oh, well. She was confident that she’d find out. Sooner or later.
The meeting the next day did not accomplish much. They were all concerned about the enemy’s continued silence, but in the end, nobody had any good ideas about what to do.
Lady Blue’s death was the cause of some heated debate. What did it mean for the future? In particular, what were the implications of her true identity—the fact that she herself had been a Serry? They were already sure that the Serenity Council was working against them, but to what extent? Were they the ultimate enemy, or was there someone behind them? And would other Serries come against them the way Araki Mamiko had?
“It’s not as though there isn’t plenty of precedent,” Seki pointed out. “Look at the five witches, one after the other, with Master Pharaoh-Ninety behind them. Or the Nemesis bunch, or the Dead Moon Circus, or—”
“Or just about everybody we ever fought in the old days, really,” added Makoto.
“It’s quite a self-defeating strategy, really,” said Artemis sententiously. “If you give someone opponents of gradually increasing power, you give them the opportunity to adjust their tactics and learn to handle whatever you’re throwing at them. Whereas if you send in your strongest fighter to start with, they won’t have a chance.”
“Hey, whose side are you on?” demanded Makoto.
Seki chuckled. “He’s right and wrong. I remember Haruka talking about it once. If you send in your strongest fighter to start with, most of the time you’re wasting her abilities. Also, if she’s always going up against weaker opponents, her own skills will start to slip. The best solution is to send someone who’s a decent margin stronger than your enemy, but not necessarily the strongest you’ve got—”
Ochiyo cleared her throat. “We, ah, seem to have gotten a little off-topic.”
“Oh, right,” said Makoto. “Well, where were we?”
“The fact is,” Artemis put in, “we’ve no way of knowing what the Enemy is planning. Or when, or how, he’ll strike again.”
“No,” agreed Seki. “But one thing I think we can be sure of—”
“We haven’t heard the last of him.”
That, at least, they could all agree on.
“So what do we do in the meantime?” grumbled Makoto. “Sit on our hands and think good thoughts?”
Ochiyo said, “Maybe we should do exactly what Artemis said.”
“Eh?” Artemis pricked his ears up, startled. “Me?”
“Take the opportunity to adjust our tactics and learn to handle whatever they can throw at us.”
Makoto considered this for a minute. “Okay, but a bit vague. Got any specific suggestions?”
“Develop the team,” said Ochiyo.
“Get them working together,” said Artemis.
But Seki said, “Get them playing together.”
After a pause, Artemis said, “Hm. I see what you mean. If they start to bond on a personal level, then they’ll work together better as a team.”
“It worked before,” said Seki with a shrug.
Ochiyo said, thoughtfully, “That means Makoto-san is going to have to, um, bond with Suzue-san.”
“…Uh.” Makoto froze. Then she said, “Now wait—”
Seki started to laugh. “Got you, Mako-chan.”
“Seriously,” said Artemis, “how long are you going to hold onto this grudge? You know that she’s just as serious, just as committed, as any of the others.”
“Maybe more so,” said Ochiyo thoughtfully.
“I know that,” snapped Makoto. She shook her head and went on, “It’s just…I just can’t stand the thought that she—that she—”
“We know,” said Seki with a sigh. “You needn’t spell it out all over again.”
“—And I can’t see how all of you can be so happy about it!”
Seki shrugged. “She and I have agreed to disagree.”
Artemis said, “She can believe what she wants, as long as it doesn’t affect her duty as a Senshi.” Darkly he added, “If you knew some of the things the old-time Senshi thought, back in the Silver Millennium—”
Ochiyo said, “I went to a service at her church.”
There was a long silence.
“You what?” demanded Seki at last.
“Well, I had to find out, didn’t I? It wasn’t anything like I’d been expecting, actually. Kind of…solemn. Respectful. I talked to one of the priests afterward and he was, well, rational.” She shrugged. “I mean, I didn’t buy into it, or sign up, or anything. But I can see why some people might. They didn’t come across as bug-nuts at all.”
“Uh.” Artemis cleared his throat, then said carefully, “But even so, is it really a good idea for you to associate yourself with—”
“Oh, get over it. I’m not associating myself with anything. I just wanted to know: if this is so important to her—and goodness knows I’ve seen her take enough garbage over it at school, so it must be important to her—then what’s it all about? I can’t just…shut her out without knowing what I’m talking about, can I?”
“There are plenty who could,” said Saki quietly.
“Hah.” Ochiyo have her a sardonic look. “You should see that place of theirs, Seki-san. They’ve got a little side chapel there with a painting of you. A pretty good one, very lifelike.”
Seki froze. Then she said, “I wish you hadn’t told me that.”
“And one of you, Makoto-san.”
Makoto glared at her. “Are you trying to make me mad?”
“No…yes! I’m trying to make you see how ridiculous all this is. Why are you wasting your time being afraid of her? What she believes—”
“I’m not afraid of her!”
“Of course you are. I talked to their priest-thingumajig…Intercessor…and he told me all about it, and he was right. You feel threatened by her and it makes you afraid, and that makes you angry. But why should you be? What she believes has nothing to do with you. Nothing!”
Makoto’s face was black with rage, but her voice was rigid with control. “I’m not afraid of her.”
“Then prove it!”
At that, Makoto shot to her feet, her fists clenched, her voice finally rising. “Girl, you may be Serenity’s heir but you have no idea what you’re talking about. I am not afraid of her. I am offended by her. And I’m getting more than a little tired of—”
Seki cleared her throat. It was a quiet sound, but somehow it cut through their voices, cutting them off instantly. She said, “Simmer down, children.”
Ochiyo sat bolt-upright, her own face flaming red. “Damn it, you’re not helping…and there’s no need to be so patronising! If you think that just because we’re—”
She broke off suddenly, looking at Seki with sudden intensity. Then, just as suddenly, she began to laugh. Seki listened for a few seconds, then allowed herself to smile in return.
Makoto said, pained, “If you two are quite finished…?”
“Yes, thanks,” said Ochiyo. “I’m sorry, Makoto-san. I shouldn’t keep pushing you like that.”
“I am trying,” said Makoto reluctantly. “I’m just not…ready to face her yet.”
“You…really think I’m afraid of her?”
“Otani-sensei said that people are afraid of the Loonies because they’re afraid they might be right.”
“I don’t think they’re right,” said Makoto flatly.
“Neither do I. But…”
Ochiyo paused. She might have said, “Serenity may not have been a goddess, but she was obviously more than a regular human. So what was she?” It was a question that had been much in her mind, since her trip to the Queen Heart Chapel. So far, she had not found any answers. Sometimes she found herself thinking that it might be interesting to go back and put her questions to Otani-sensei; but she was worried that he might have answers. And in that case…she might all too easily find herself heading down a road that she’d already decided not to follow.
Instead she simply said, “I don’t think they’re mad, either. Just wrong.”
“But how do we make Suzue-san see that?”
“Don’t try,” put in Seki. She made a wry face. “I talked to Serenity about this. She told me that Suzue-san is smart enough to see the truth, in the end.” She cocked her head to one side and added, “She said that Suzue-san may need her faith, in the days to come. I’m not sure what she meant by that.”
Makoto sighed, and said, “I hate prophecies.”
“With you on that,” said Ochiyo. At the same instant, Seki said, “Don’t we all,” and Artemis said a simple “Amen.”
All four of them looked at one another and laughed.
After a little, thoughtfully, Makoto said, “But, Rei-chan, you used to see the future all the time.”
“I still do,” said Seki carelessly—and froze, just for an instant, as if realising that she’d said too much. Then she shook her head, her mouth twisting in a grimace. “Trust me. More often than not, it’s a curse.”
The discussion rambled on for a little while after that, but without reaching any more conclusions. After a little, Makoto made tea, and the council of war became more like idle chatter.
Then Ochiyo asked, “What was the Pink Crystal?”
That brought the conversation to a pause. Finally Artemis asked cautiously, “Princess Usagi’s Pink Moon Crystal? Why are you thinking about that?”
“Just…something someone said to me. Was it the Princess’s? I wondered if—” Ochiyo frowned. “No, never mind that. What about the other one, the whatchamacallit? The Ginzuishou?”
“Oh, that was the Queen’s. You must know that! Ochiyo-san, what—”
“No, no. What happened to it? I mean, all the stories say it was so powerful. Wouldn’t it be useful? Shouldn’t we find it?”
Seki said slowly, “I thought I told you before. After the Queen died, I looked for it, but I couldn’t find it.” She thought for a minute. “I was pretty hurt in the last battle. I came back a few days later to bury her, but…even her body was gone. I wondered if she’d been…I don’t know, absorbed into the crystal somehow, but—”
Artemis looked up. “You what? Rei, I had no idea. I’m sorry.”
“I did it—buried her, I mean. After I…took care of Diana and made sure she was safe, I came back.” He shook his head. “We must have kept missing each other. But I didn’t see the Ginzuishou, and I looked all around where she—” He broke off, and finished in a rough voice, “where she fell.”
Seki did not answer at once. At last she said, “It was a long time ago.”
“But what?” asked Makoto when he did not continue.
“I don’t want to—look, don’t get the wrong idea, all right? I stayed away from the ruins of the palace for—I don’t remember. A year or two, maybe more. But after a while…well, I wanted to move her bones. It was only a shallow grave, and I wanted to put them somewhere more…fitting. A peaceful spot, somewhere I thought she’d rest easier.” The cat was speaking slowly, stumbling over his words, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “But when I went back to where I buried her…”
“What?” asked Ochiyo. There were cold shivers running down her spine.
“She wasn’t there. The grave was open. Empty. There was no trace of her.”
A long silence.
At last Seki said, “I hope you’re not suggesting—”
“Of course not!” Artemis snarled. “But…well, her body was gone. Somewhere. And I don’t know where, that’s all.”
Uneasily, Makoto said, “When she spoke to us, at the Olympus, she said…her spirit was locked inside the Ginzuishou. Somewhere dark.”
“But that could be anywhere. So where are we supposed to look?” Ochiyo wondered.
They lingered for a little while longer, drinking more tea and trying to talk about something else—anything—but the mood was broken. All of them felt subdued and uneasy, and when Seki suggested that it was getting late, everyone was obviously relieved.
As she put her shoes on in the genkan, Ochiyo paused for a moment, staring blankly at her feet. There was another question she had wanted to ask Seki, one that had been nagging at her since the woman’s cryptic comment about still seeing visions. It wasn’t the first time that Ochiyo had suspected that Seki knew more than she was saying, either.
How much are you not telling us? That was what she wanted to ask. But somehow the words never came out. It wasn’t because she was intimidated by the older woman; Ochiyo was pretty sure of that. It had more to do with the memory of seeing Seki kneeling before the ghost of Queen Serenity and saying, as if the words were being torn out of her, I’m so tired of living. And then being offered the chance to end her long, weary immortality, but choosing to go on after all. I still think I can do something. I might be able to help.
That kind of choice, in the face of such despair, made Ochiyo think that if Seki kept secrets from them, she wouldn’t do it idly.
Also, if she were honest, she didn’t want to ask the question because she suspected that Seki might lie.
Shaking her head, she finished putting her shoes on and stepped outside. As she started down the tree-lined lane, a pair of ravens fluttered up, calling out with a harsh ke-ke-ke. She paid little attention. The doubts continued to circle in her mind: were they all doing the right thing…or were they doing exactly what the enemy wanted?
Ochiyo hated doubts. She had made a lifelong habit of weighing her choices quickly and then acting decisively. People always said that your first gut-feel reaction to a situation was most likely to be right, and Ochiyo totally believed that. Okay, sometimes she got things wrong, but it was better to make a fast choice and move on, than spend your life agonising over what to do. Wasn’t it? Sure it was.
But now…now there were so many choices, none of them noticeably better than the others, that it was hard to know which way to go. Seki’s suggestion to spend more time with the other girls, getting to know and trust them better, was a reasonable choice, but it amounted to little more than saying, ‘wait and see what happens next, and then decide what to do about it.’
It put them in a defensive, reactive mode. It was a choice that was hardly a choice at all, and Ochiyo didn’t like it.
On the other hand—she brightened suddenly—it mean that they would all get to go and see Dream’s a Breath Away together. So it wasn’t a total loss.
As she rode the bus home, she tried to tell herself that that made it all okay, but she didn’t believe herself for a moment.
When McCrea Helen picked Beth up from the dock, she saw immediately that something was wrong. Having some experience with her daughter, however, she said nothing about it. She kept up a string of chatter as she drove home, and paid no attention at all to her daughter’s silence.
After a few days, though, Beth was still moping, and on Wednesday morning Helen decided that enough was enough. She called the school office—there was someone there, even during the holidays—and asked to speak to the teacher who’d been in charge of the hiking trip. She bore the delay patiently as the school administrators decided whether they could give her the man’s comm code. At last they gave in, and she called the man. She spoke to him for some time.
Afterward, enlightened but not satisfied, she spent the rest of the morning weeding the rear garden with unusual vigour as she tried to decide what to do about it.
The teacher had said that Beth was upset by the accident. So were a number of other students. Well, that was predictable enough. But Helen had a shrewd idea that there was more than that to Beth’s obvious distress. After all, she had more than a faint suspicion that Beth…well, that Beth had things going on in her life that the other students did not.
The idea nearly froze her in terror, sometimes. Every time she heard Beth sneaking out at night, she lay awake, her body stiff with dread, until she heard the squeak of the window sliding open and the soft creak of the bed as Beth snuck back in.
The injuries were the worst part. From time to time Beth came home covered in bruises, scrapes and cuts, and sometimes worse things. Once, it was burnt hands and a sprained knee. Occasionally there was blood on the bedsheets. True, Beth did seem to heal quickly—most injuries seemed to disappear within a day or two. All the same, Helen was a mother and the last thing in the world she wanted to see was her daughter get hurt.
She would have put her foot down long before, told Beth what she knew and laid down the law…except for one thing.
She had never seen Beth happier.
Up until recently, at least. Right now, Beth was just plain miserable, wouldn’t say why, and even the silly cat couldn’t cheer her up. As she worked away in the garden, dripping sweat and glaring at the plants, Helen started to think that she was going to have to break her own cover and discuss this situation with the two of them openly.
The comm call from Aizawa Ochiyo, inviting Beth out on Friday evening, changed everything. It wasn’t hard for Helen to guess who, or at least what, Aizawa-san was; and what she was, in this specific case, was a godsend.
Beth’s friends would be able to help her. Surely. That was what Senshi did.
Seki woke up late on Thursday morning. She had been out late the night before, well after midnight, talking and planning with Gensai Eri. Afterward, there had been a certain amount of drinking as well. Now, as she climbed stiffly out of bed, she didn’t quite have a hangover…but there was a definite tension in the back of her head, and her mouth was as dry as sandpaper.
She pulled on a blouse and leggings and started to head out for breakfast. On the way, she paused before the mirror and glared at her reflection. Her hair was filling out, no doubt about it, but it was still too short for her to stop using the wig. Ah, well. Give it a few more months.
Yawning, she went on out. Artemis was visiting, she saw, and he and Makoto were sitting in the living room, watching the viddy together. She glanced at them incuriously and went on into the kitchen. There was coffee, praise the eight million kami.
By the time she’d finished her first cup, the budding headache was gone. She refilled her cup, buttered a roll and took a first contented bite, and strolled back to the living room. Coffee and food; all was right with the world.
Her mood faltered somewhat when she saw what Makoto and Artemis were watching. It was that idiotic anime, Queen Serenity and her Senshi.
Seki had never really watched the thing—not really. She’d caught a few minutes of one episode, back when it first started, and that was enough. It wasn’t simply that she objected to it on principle—though in fact she did; the whole idea positively reeked of disrespect. But it was abundantly clear that the makers were not even trying to stick to the facts. And their rendition of she herself, as Sailor Mars, was…well, words failed her.
And yet, for some inane reason, Makoto and most of the other girls seemed to eat it up. Even Artemis, good grief; even Artemis. It was a mystery to her.
Grumbling under her breath, she found the morning newspaper and sat down in a corner, well away from the viddy screen. Perching her plate on the arm of the chair, she tried to ignore the sound of the program. The tension behind her eyes was coming back, a little.
All too soon, her breakfast was gone and the sound of the program, as it rose to a roar of action music and high-pitched voices, became impossible to ignore. She found her eyes drawn to the screen.
A few minutes later, in a slightly disbelieving voice, she asked, “Who is that they’re fighting?”
Makoto said, “That’s—uh. It’s Gendo the dfwkrsct…” Her voice fell away to a mumble.
Makoto sighed. “Gendo, the Death Phantom.”
“I see.” Seki took two or three deep breaths, and then closed her mouth again.
She kept watching. Insane things kept happening on the screen. When she saw how they were depicting the Starlights, she couldn’t decide whether she wanted to laugh or cry. A little later she saw that they were still showing Sailor Mars as a lush, and started to make an acid comment; but then she remembered what she had been doing the night before, and gritted her teeth.
Far too slowly, the episode ground its way to a conclusion. She breathed a sigh of relief as the credits began to roll across the screen, and started to get up. She wasn’t quite sure yet what she was going to say, but she intended to be pretty biting.
Then one of the credits on the screen caught her eye, and she froze in absolute thunderstruck disbelief.
It was gone again too soon, before she could quite take it in. She could only stare at the screen, open-mouthed, as more names crawled across it, while a montage of poorly-animated girls struck up action poses and a voice sang a cheesy song about the Sword of Love.
Then it was over, and she stood up…and lunged for the computer on the little desk in the corner.
She was vaguely aware that Makoto and Artemis were staring at her, but she ignored them. It only took a couple of minutes’ searching the nets to confirm what she thought she’d seen. There it was, among the production credits for Queen Serenity and her Senshi:
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER … FUMIHIKO SADAKO
CREATED BY … FUMIHIKO SADAKO
Snarling under her breath, she rummaged in the desk drawer until she found the business card that she’d been given, nearly four weeks before. And there it was: Suishou Productions; Fumihiko Sadako.
She stared at the card for a moment longer. Then she gave a bellow of rage and stormed out.
Makoto and Artemis watched Seki go. They turned to look at one another.
Then Makoto shook her head firmly, picked up the week’s viddy guide, and said, “Shadow Diplomats is on next. You want to watch?”
“Not really my favourite,” said the cat. “What’s on the other channels?”
Makoto bent her head to look.
Sadako was in her office, reading a batch of script proposals, when the ruckus began outside in reception. Frowning, she put down her pencil and started to get up. Before she had finished the motion, her office door burst open and a woman stalked in.
It actually took Sadako a few seconds to recognise her. She had only seen Rei in this disguise, with the changed hair and glasses, twice before.
Also, she had seldom seen her this angry.
She cleared her throat and held up one hand in a ‘stop’ gesture. Somewhat to her surprise, Rei actually stopped. Sadako stepped around her to the door, looked out at the worried faces in reception, and said calmly, “Don’t worry. Everything’s fine.” Then she closed the door, returned to her desk, and sat down once more.
“All right,” she said. “What is it?”
Rei’s eyes flashed—no, Seki’s eyes flashed. Face to face like this, it was easy to forget her new name. She found it hard to keep them all straight, sometimes.
“How could you?” demanded Seki. “How could you?”
Sadako paused, wondering what she was talking about. Now that she could no longer read the future probabilities, her life was full of mystery and surprises. She hated it quite a lot, actually. So why might Seki be so upset now?
“What—” she began. Then, in mid-sentence, it hit her.
She felt a giggle begin to rise, and managed to choke it back to a snort. At her age, she did not giggle.
“Oh, Rei,” she said. “You mean you never— You only just realised—”
And, leaning back in her chair, she quietly began to laugh.
Seki stood there, watching Setsuna laugh, and felt rather at a loss. Her anger was gone, as suddenly as it had come. Mostly, she just felt confused. Setsuna had always been able to make her feel this way, dammit.
No, not Setsuna; Sadako. Face to face like this, it was easy to forget her new name. She found it hard to keep them all straight, sometimes.
She went to one of the other chairs in the office and pulled it close to the desk, then sat down heavily. “Tell me about it, then,” she said. “Sadako…what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Sadako stopped laughing, wiped her eyes, and gave her a crooked smile. “What am I doing? Why, I’m making a quality viddy program, of course. What did you think?”
“Come on. Seriously.”
“Very well. What is the problem, Seki? Why are you upset? Seriously.”
“You—” Seki shook her head. “How can you just laugh this off? You’re dishonouring the memory of…of her; of us. Of everything we were.”
“All right,” said Sadako, nodding. “Let’s talk about that. Queen Serenity and her Senshi is a fictionalised account; of course it is. In fact, it would be fair to say that there’s very little in it that isn’t pure fiction. But Seki, everyone knows that. So what’s the harm?”
“What’s the harm?”
“Yes. Really. You know, making up stories about famous people has a long history. Think back when you were young: remember all those TV dramas like Mito Kōmon or Zenigata Heiji? In the West, they made up stories about Robin Hood and Wyatt Earp. Nobody minded. Why should they?”
“Yes, but—” Seki had to pause to gather her wits. “This isn’t just some jidaigeki drama we’re talking about. You’re making fun of us! That’s the problem.”
“And I ask again: what harm? How am I hurting anyone, Seki? Most of the people on my little program are, to be blunt, dead. You’re the only one with cause for complaint, and nobody associates Sailor Mars with Pappadopoulos Itsuko or Hiyama Seki.”
“The new Senshi do,” said Seki bitterly, “and they all love the program.”
“…Oh.” Sadako paused. “I…never thought of that. They do? Really?”
“You must know how popular this farce of yours is.”
“That’s enough,” she snapped. “I understand that you’re unhappy, Rei, but descending to name-calling is—”
Seki grinned at her. “So what would you call it, then?”
“I would say,” she replied, choosing her words carefully, “that I am keeping the queen’s memory alive. Hundreds of thousands of people watch my program every week and think about her, and they remember her family and friends, and the beauty and peace that they fought to protect. And some of those people, if the details on their screens aren’t quite correct, will get interested enough to investigate and find out the truth. And so the memory will live on another generation—and the flame will continue to burn. And that, in my opinion, is worth the effort.”
“…Oh.” Seki stared at her with grudging respect. “That’s—I mean, that’s almost— That’s really what you had in mind all along?”
“Oh, Rei.” Sadako sighed and shook her head. “Of course not.”
“Never crossed my mind for a moment. The truth is…the truth is, I just thought it would be funny, that’s all.”
And, seeing Seki’s expression, she leaned back in her chair and started to laugh once more.
They sat, a little later, drinking tea. “—Just couldn’t resist the temptation,” Sadako was saying. “I suppose it started sixty or seventy years ago, after I realised they were starting to put civilisation together again. I decided to get in at the beginning of public broadcasting.”
“Why?” asked Seki. “I wouldn’t have thought that was your, er, cup of tea.”
“Hm.” Sadako cocked an eyebrow at her. “You expected me to go into the fashion trade again? I hadn’t noticed that you’re doing the same thing as you were a few hundred years ago. ‘One man in his time plays many parts’—yes?”
Seki snorted, but did not reply.
“It was something different,” Sadako continued, “and I thought it might be interesting. And I knew a certain amount about it already, so I started with an advantage. Mind you, back then they were so disorganised, you only had to show up and they’d beg you to lend a hand. I stayed with it for a while, but eventually I had to drop out before my age became a problem. Then about nine years ago, I decided to come back—with a new name, naturally. I was able to give myself a good reference.” She smirked at the thought. “I had an idea that things were starting to move again—Senshi things, I mean—and being in broadcasting was quite useful: any time there was breaking news, I heard it first. Anyway, five years ago I had the opportunity to pitch a new series, and the idea popped into my head.”
“Queen Serenity and her Senshi,” said Seki, her voice flat.
“Mm. Well…look, have you ever had a private fantasy—nothing you’d ever do, just an idea that makes you laugh?” Sadako paused. “For me—I always thought it would be funny to tell a story about the Senshi, but make everyone into clowns.”
“Yes. That was all. And then, suddenly, I had the chance to actually do it for real…and I simply couldn’t resist.” Her smile was almost wistful. “Of course, we had to develop the idea quite a bit to make it more suitable for a target audience, but—”
“But…” Seki threw her a beseeching look. “Why did you have to make Sailor Mars a drunk? Why me?”
“Oh, Rei.” Sadako looked back at her and grinned. “You’ve always been so straight-laced. How could I not?”
Seki threw a mock punch at her; but she was starting to grin too.
Minoru called Suzue again, and she accepted the call. She let him speak for a minute or two, listening to his rambling, clumsy attempt to apologise, and remembered what that absurd cat had said to her. As she listened, she tried to decide if she was still angry with him or not.
Finally, she realised what she was feeling.
“Minoru-kun,” she said, and he broke off what he was saying at once.
“Not now,” she told him. “Not yet.”
She hung up the commset.
The days rolled past, and still there was no sign of activity from the Enemy. It was as if they were having a perfectly normal vacation.
On Friday night, they all went out to see the play Ochiyo was so keen on. Beth was quite dubious about the idea; she had never been to the theatre in her life. She had a vague idea that it would be all dramatic speeches and sword-fights, possibly while singing, and that the actors might be wearing Noh masks.
As it turned out, Dream’s a Breath Away was a light romantic comedy, without the slightest hint of music or murder, and she enjoyed it a lot. It helped take her mind off…things, and that was all too welcome.
Another distraction, though less welcome, was Suzue, who showed up wearing a blouse with her church logo on the shoulder. Beth could not help staring at her at first, but she had to look away again, embarrassed, when Suzue caught her and gave her an ironic smile. Then, after a little while, she noticed that a lot of other theatre-goers were also staring, and that Suzue was treating them exactly the same way. Most of them looked embarrassed, too. Beth found her own embarrassment fading, replaced by…well, she was not entirely sure what. Annoyance, perhaps. But in a funny kind of way, it almost felt like respect.
After the play was over, the girls left the theatre in a group, pausing at a yatai for something to eat, and then wandered along the street, chatting and laughing.
Beth ended up in a little cluster with Dhiti, Suzue and Iku, while Ochiyo and Makoto ranged a little ahead. (It was a given that Suzue and Makoto kept well away from each other.) She never noticed how or when it happened, but suddenly she looked around and realised that Ochiyo and Makoto were gone.
“Hey, what happened to the others?” she asked.
Suzue looked around too. “Huh. Did we get separated?”
“Duh,” said Dhiti cheerfully.
Suzue scowled at her. “Did you happen to see where they went?”
“Given how hot it is tonight, probably an ice-cream place.”
“Mm.” Suzue’s face changed oddly for a moment. “I could go for an ice cream.”
“Me too,” put in Beth. “Help wash down that ramen.”
“And me,” said Iku.
“Unanimous,” said Dhiti. “Okay, everyone, new game. Ten points for finding the others, and twenty for finding ice cream.”
Beth felt herself starting to smile. “How many if we find both at the same time?”
“Thirty, obviously,” said Suzue impatiently.
“Nah—no points at all,” contradicted Dhiti. “We want to find an ice cream place where they aren’t. That way they have to look for us.”
Suzue cocked her head at her. “Is this just random mischief, or is there some point?”
Beth said, “Actually, twenty points.”
Suzue glared at her. Iku smiled. Beth felt a moment of victory.
Barely half a minute later, Dhiti saw a kissaten across the road and awarded herself all the points. The four of them went in and sat down. Dhiti and Suzue ordered parfaits; Beth changed her mind and asked for juice, and Iku opted for iced tea.
After a few minutes, Suzue said, “Only half of us are having ice cream. Dhiti-san should lose ten points.”
Dhiti raised her eyebrows. “Is that a sense of humour I hear, struggling to be born?”
“Unlikely,” sniffed the other girl. “More like a sense of justice.”
“Justice, huh?” Dhiti looked thoughtful. “Okay.”
Suzue gave her a puzzled look and startled to reply, but broke off as Iku excused herself and went to find the ladies’. Dhiti watched her go, the thoughtful expression still on her face.
“Just while she’s gone,” she said, “got a question I’ve been wanting to ask you, Suzu-chan.”
“Don’t call me that. What is it this time?”
Dhiti pursed her lips for a moment. “Did you burn Iku-chan’s house down?”
Beth gaped at them both. “What?”
“What on earth makes you think…something so ridiculous?” asked Suzue, after a strained pause.
Dhiti nodded, looking smugly satisfied. “You did, then. I thought so.”
“You what what?” demanded Beth again.
“Why do you say that?” asked Suzue, ignoring her.
Dhiti shrugged. “When someone doesn’t want to admit something, but they don’t want to lie either, all they can do is deflect the question. Usually, they just answer with another question.”
“Um, not always,” put in Beth, a little desperately. “Surely?”
Suzue ignored her, keeping her eyes fixed on Dhiti’s. “How did you know?”
“Oh—I’m not certain. Little things. The timing, and the way you went off by yourself, after we left the house. It all just fit, somehow. Then, when you started talking about justice just now, I just pictured you…you know. Doing it.”
“Huh.” Suzue cocked an eyebrow at her. “Are you going to tell her?”
Dhiti paused, as if she hadn’t considered this. “That depends on why,” she said at last.
“Because…” It was Suzue’s turn to hesitate. “Because I couldn’t not do something. Just let them get away with it. It would be…unjust.” Her mouth twisted. “This probably wasn’t justice, either; but it was all I could think of.”
Dhiti stared at her for some time. Then she said, “I never thought I’d say this, but…I think I might be proud to know you.”
Suzue made a face, and shook her head. “Don’t be. I’ve regretted it every minute since I did it.” Then, unexpectedly, she gave a thin smile. “But I think I’d do it again, too.”
Beth had been staring at the two of them, open-mouthed, for some time. Finally, she burst out, “Wait, Suzue-san, you really did it? You really burned down Iku-san’s house?”
Suzue threw a resigned look at Dhiti, then said, “Yes, Beth-san, I really did. Could you possibly keep your voice down?”
“But…but…but what about her parents? And her brother?”
Suzue glared at her. “I made them get out first, of course. And I warned them not to talk about it afterward.”
Dhiti grunted. “Yeah, that one might not have worked so well, Suzu-chan. I heard that her mother’s been arrested—”
“—and when ‘O’ Division came to our house, they were asking funny questions about the Senshi. So I’m guessing they talked, all right.”
“What?” said Suzue indignantly. “But I told them—”
Beth could not help it. She laughed. Suzue glared at her, but somehow that only made it funnier.
“Anyway,” broke in Dhiti urgently, “let’s just keep this our little secret, hm? Now shut up, Beth-chan, she’s coming back—”
Beth shut up. But as Iku returned to her seat, picking up her iced tea once more, she could not help looking from her to Suzue and back again, and marvelling. She had thought Suzue didn’t even like Iku. She had thought that Suzue was so, well, religious that she’d never do something…bad. She had thought a lot of things, really.
“Close your mouth,” Dhiti advised her. “You’ll catch flies.”
Beth closed her mouth. Then, rebelliously, she muttered, “People are weird.”
“Yes!” said Suzue.
“Yes,” echoed Iku.
“Oh, God, yes,” said Dhiti. Then she winked at Beth. “That’s part of the fun.”
And somehow, when they left the kissaten, Beth found herself walking by Suzue and talking to her without even thinking about the logo on her blouse. People were weird. And complicated, and sometimes entirely incomprehensible. But mysteriously, for right now, that seemed okay.
And, for a while, she almost forgot her own problems. For a while.
And the days rolled past.
Early in September, Hiiro Yoichi went to visit an old friend. It was a Saturday evening, but he did not bother to call ahead. He was pretty confident that she’d be home.
Mitsukai answered the door and raised her eyebrows at the sight of him, but otherwise showed little reaction. “Captain,” she said. “Come in.”
Hiiro stepped inside and walked unprompted to her little living room. It wasn’t the first time he had been here, and the room was as cluttered as he remembered. He waited as she cleared a pile of hardcopy and data wands from a chair and sat down.
“I’m not your captain,” he said. “Not any more.”
Mitsukai sat down opposite him. Softly, she said, “You will always be my captain.”
He hesitated, unsure what to make of that, and eventually decided to ignore it. “How’s ‘M’ Division treating you?” he asked instead.
She paused for perhaps half a second too long. “‘M’ Division?” she asked.
Hiiro snorted. “Give me some credit. One of my best team members gets transferred out from right under my nose, and I’m not going to look into it? Sure, the transfer orders were secret, but they weren’t that hard to track down.” He frowned at her. “So what is this crap? SECINTEL? I didn’t know ‘M’ Division had an intelligence section. I certainly don’t know why they’d need one.”
Mitsukai remained silent for some time, refusing to meet his eyes. At last she said, “I can’t talk about it.”
“Damn right you can’t.” Hiiro grinned. “But tell me this much. Is it something I need to know about?”
Again she was silent for a long time. “…Yes.”
He nodded, and the grin faded to a scowl. “Okay. That’s about what I thought. All of this connects, somehow. If I could just get a handle on—” He broke off and shook his head. “I’ve been sidelined, did you know that? Not just me; the whole team. We’ve been reassigned to look into fisheries fraud. Fisheries.” The disgust in his voice was so strong that Mitsukai looked away. “Ryozo is away on a boat right now, probably puking his guts out. But he volunteered for it—now there’s a hero for you—so that I’d be free to keep working on things here. Aoiro is spending all his time buried in records at ‘I’ Division; he’s going half-blind, but out of all of us he’s probably the happiest. At least he gets to spend more nights with his boyfriend. Kitada finally got sent back to his day job—had you heard about that?—though he didn’t want to go, I’ll give him that. And me…”
“You?” Mitsukai prompted.
“I am working diligently on my assignment,” he spat out. “And in between times…I am trying to work out why. What is this all about? How does it all connect to Sailor Senshi and Moon Cats? What was that monstrous mess at Tenshin, and who killed Araki-san, and why? And what—” His voice almost broke for a moment. “What did we get so close to, that they pulled our team apart and sent us off to study fish to get us out of the way?”
He looked at her bleakly, almost pleading. “You were always my intelligence ace in the hole, Senritsu. They may have reassigned you, but if I’m still your captain…don’t fail me now.”
“That’s not fair,” she said, almost in a whisper.
“No, it isn’t. I’m sorry. But I’m out of options. Shiro won’t talk to me any more; he hinted that someone was leaning on him, right before he told me to go away and follow my orders. No one else has a handle on this. Where else can I turn?”
Mitsukai looked back at him, her face a study in indecision. Very quietly, she said, “Maybe you need to talk to someone outside the department.”
Hiiro gave a short bark of a laugh. “Meaning, you can’t help. Or you won’t. Or maybe that I should see a counsellor, not a spy. Or even—”
Then, in a very different tone, he said, “Or maybe I should do just that. You…” he shook his head, wondering. “…Thanks, Lieutenant. You’re an angel.”
Her lips twitched in a crooked smile. “Always.”
He grinned at her—and suddenly, now that his decision was made, the past few weeks seemed to catch up with him. Breathing out, he leaned back in the chair. Something crackled behind him—a bit of paper he’d missed, perhaps—but he ignored it and closed his eyes. “That feels good,” he murmured.
“You look tired,” he heard her say.
“Too tired,” he admitted.
She made a tiny sound: the ghost of a chuckle. “You never do get enough sleep when you’re on a case.”
“Not just that. Lately, I—”
He paused. He did not like to say that for the past few weeks, his sleep had been haunted by strange dreams. They were filled with a crushing darkness, and a coldness so deep that it made his very bones ache; a feeling that something, vast and incomprehensible, was watching him; and that somewhere ahead of him in the blackness, a light that came and went, pulsing slowly, like the beating of a gigantic heart.
“Lately I’ve even been dreaming about those damn fish,” he finished smoothly.
She did laugh out loud at that. “The horror,” she said. “Coffee?”
She went out into the kitchen. As he listened to her bustle around, he reached behind him and pulled out the bit of paper that had been rustling behind his cushion, and glanced at it absently. Then his gaze sharpened.
It was a single sheet that had slipped out of a bundle of notes; this page was numbered “85 of 178”. Most of the language was too technical for him to follow, filled with phrases like complex variate oscillation cycles and hysteresis effects and worse. But there was a single diagram at the bottom, one that he recognised instantly.
It was an Interdiction Controller.
He slid the sheet back behind his cushion as Mitsukai returned, and he even made cheerful conversation for the next twenty minutes before he made his excuses and left.
As he walked away from her apartment, two things were very clear to him. First, she had somehow been drafted into a team that was working with—or on—the Controller. And second: though she couldn’t talk about it, there was no way in hell that that bit of paper, with its diagram that she knew he’d recognise, had been left on his chair by accident.
Mitsukai was still looking out for her captain.
Iku continued to settle into the Sharma household. All things considered, her sudden addition caused remarkably few waves. Partly this was because, after the first week, Dhiti’s father—a man who brought new depths to the word ‘imperturbable’—simply accepted her as if she had always been there. Partly it was because Dhiti was so passionately determined that she should fit in. And partly it was because Iku herself was still so silent and self-effacing that she would have caused little impact in any case.
Not that there were no incidents at all.
It was hardly surprising, after all, that Iku—a girl of predominantly Japanese ancestry—should face some awkward or puzzling moments when trying to fit into a Hindu-descended claver family. The food was the least of it. However, she seemed to be making a genuine effort, and any small moments of friction soon began to disappear.
Just how much of an effort Iku was making, though, did not become apparent until the afternoon when the girl came into the kitchen, with a very determined look on her face, and asked Dhiti’s mother to teach her to make chapatis.
Sharma Salila had seen a few things, as the saying goes. Raising a girl like Dhiti, she had often been faced with moments that made her want to laugh hysterically, or sometimes cry. All the same, looking down at the earnest expression of the girl before her, she found that it was one of the hardest things she had ever done, to keep a straight face.
But she did so. And then she taught Iku to make chapatis.
There was the issue of schooling, too. Iku said that she wanted to transfer to Dhiti’s school. Dhiti’s parents discussed the idea, but ultimately Praket opposed the idea. It was important, he said, for Iku to maintain at least some continuity with her old life.
Iku hardly seemed to react to the news. But Dhiti, watching, saw two tiny patches of white appear on Iku’s cheeks, and the way her lips thinned a fraction, as she bowed her head. She did not miss the significance. It was the first time that she had ever seen Iku get angry.
For her own part, Dhiti tried not to get into the discussion. She mentally pictured the result if Iku did change school—namely, putting herself, Kin and Iku together—and privately thought that her father might have a point.
She suspected, however, that neither she nor her parents had heard the last of the issue.
As for Iku herself—
Perhaps her true “breakthrough” moment, when she started to actually feel at home with the Sharmas, came when she solved the mysterious game that Dhiti’s father played with his daughter.
It was an odd, subtle thing: simply that, if Praket happened to be sitting in his favourite chair, and Dhiti came down or went up the stairs, he would speak to her just as her foot touched the bottom step. But he did it without looking—that was what drove Dhiti so wild.
In fact, Iku found herself thinking one morning, it actually wasn’t possible for him to see. There was a couch in the way. So either he had some mysterious way to see around corners, or—
Well, she though, that needn’t be mysterious at all, actually. She checked that neither of them was around, and then went and gingerly sat in Praket’s chair. And…
And it was a comfortable chair. But she certainly couldn’t see Dhiti’s step from where she was.
She thought for a minute longer.
Praket was a good deal taller than she was.
She found three cushions, arranged them in the chair, and sat down again. When she craned her neck around, she could see more of the staircase, but not the bottom step. And anyway, Praket certainly didn’t go twisting his head around to see.
She started to look away again—and there it was.
A polished brass vase, standing on a shelf. She’d seen it dozens of times without thinking anything of it. But from her new vantage point, she could see a reflection—distorted, but clear enough—of the bottom of the staircase.
She sat for a minute longer, studying the vase. The answer was clear now…but she still didn’t understand why.
When she looked away again, she saw with a shock that Praket had entered silently, and was watching her.
She started to get up, flustered, her heart suddenly pounding with fear, but he motioned her to relax. He was, she saw with astonishment, smiling at her.
“Well done,” he said, and inclined his head for a moment.
Iku began to laugh. Then she startled both of them even more by getting up and hugging him. He hesitated only an instant before his arms closed around her in return.
“But I don’t understand,” she said to him a few minutes later, when she had cleared the cushions away and he was sitting in his rightful place. “Why do you do it?”
He nodded reflectively. “Perhaps you have noticed,” he said, “that Dhiti is quite intelligent.”
“Things come rather easily to her,” he said, nodding in return. “Some years ago, I thought it desirable that there be some kind of mystery in her life. Something…a little out of her reach.” He paused a moment and added, “Something to remind her that her father is, as you might say, no ignoramus himself.”
“But—but this was so easy,” Iku protested. “She could have worked it out a long time ago!”
“Indeed,” he replied. “However, to the best of my knowledge, she has never tried.”
“But why not?”
Sharma Praket gave her a smile that was somehow both melancholy and proud. “Perhaps,” he said, “she is not quite ready yet to take her father off his pedestal.”
“This is unexpected,” said the woman.
She was small and wiry, with a flat-top haircut, bleached blonde. Hiiro had met her three times before, during the course of various operations, but not in a friendly capacity. Even now, he was not sure what her real name was, though he knew at least six aliases that she used.
He knew what she was, though. She was part of Trio, and that was enough.
“Sometimes, it helps to explore a question from…unexpected directions,” he said carefully.
“You’ll understand that I can hardly accept that,” she replied, her lips quirking for an instant. “It’s a little…backwards for ‘S’ Division to start hiring their enemies, don’t you think?”
He shrugged. “I never saw you as an enemy.”
“More like an agent, working for the real enemies.”
“Hmm.” She thought about that, but her face revealed no reaction. “You might be surprised to learn how many clients we have who are not on, shall we say, the shady side of the law.”
Hiiro grinned. “You might be surprised to learn how much we know about them already.”
She threw back her head and laughed. “Touché, Captain Hiiro Yoichi. But what do you want from me—or, I should say, from us? You can hardly expect to pay us for information on our own people.”
“No,” he said. “Actually, I want to pay you for information on my people.”
Her eyes flickered, and he knew that, finally, she was interested.
“Tell me more,” she said, and the real negotiation began.
He did not tell her everything, of course—he was not a fool—but he said enough to get him thrown in prison for the rest of his life, if anyone else in ‘S’ Division ever found out about this. She heard him out in silence, her eyes half-closed.
When he was finished, she nodded and asked a number of questions. A few of them, he refused to answer, but she did not seem offended. At length, she fell silent, thinking.
Then she got up. “Wait here,” she said. “I need to consult.”
While she was gone, he looked around the room professionally. It was a short-term rental office in a cheap hotel, the kind that you paid for by the hour. It was clean and well-maintained, but that was the best that could be said about it. The furniture was drab; the office equipment, far from new. Above all, it was empty of any sign of recent use. Certainly, there was nothing incriminating here to tie back to Trio; nothing, really, that spoke of anything human at all.
He had expected that. But it never hurt to check.
The door opened and Trio returned. She sat down and said, without preamble, “We’ve discussed your request, and we prefer not to take your case.”
Hiiro drew a breath to reply, but before he could speak, she went on, “However, we believe we can place you in contact with…someone who may be in a position to help you.”
His mouth twisted in a scowl; but then he shrugged. “Okay, shoot. After all, I’ve got nothing to lose, have I?”
“I wouldn’t say that, exactly.” She eyed him for a moment. “The introduction fee will be two hundred and fifty thousand yen.”
His jaw dropped. Then he realised that she was joking, and started to laugh.
She did not laugh in return. After a minute, he realised with a mixed sense of hilarity and dismay that she wasn’t joking at all.
He thought about it…and then pulled out his wallet.
“I don’t suppose I can get a receipt for this?” he asked.
Three days later, Hiiro found himself in another office, waiting to meet his mysterious new source. Trio had flatly refused to tell him who he was meeting, instead giving him no more than a location and a time, and hinting that he would recognise his contact.
He hated this kind of operation; it could so easily be a trap. But he was running out of any other options.
This office, at least, was a much better class than the last one. The furniture was expensive; the carpet thick and new. All the same, there was no name on the door, and though he and Kuroi had put a lot of effort into it in the last three days, they could find no record of whose office it was. That meant…someone with a lot of clout. Probably someone dangerous.
Hiiro smiled to himself. After all this time trying to shed some light on what was going on, he’d almost welcome some merely physical danger.
A soft footfall came from outside. The door opened, and a middle-aged woman came in. She looked at Hiiro for a moment, and then snapped, “Well? Who are you, then, and why is it so important that I speak to you?”
He stared at her, lost for words. He recognised her, all right.
“Speak up,” the woman ordered. “I don’t have a lot of time to spare.”
He stood, and saluted. “Captain Hiiro, ma’am, ‘S’ Division,” he said. “And…” He hesitated, then threw caution to the wind. “Trio sent me.”
Her gaze sharpened, and he saw a glitter of interest in her eyes. “Is that so?” she said. “Well then, Captain, maybe we do have something to talk about. Why don’t you tell me about it?”
He took a deep breath, and began to tell Toyotomi Sese everything.
Days became weeks.
Without anyone appearing to organise it, the six girls somehow started getting together on a semi-regular basis. They weren’t always all present, but increasingly, if anyone wanted to go out, they were likely to contact the others and ask who wanted to come.
Seki and Artemis watched it all, and were content.
Beth tried another date with Mark. It was about as successful as the first: that is, not very. So, as they were saying good night, she decided to push things a little as an experiment. She stepped in, put her arms around him, and kissed him.
It took him far too long to decide to kiss her back, she decided later. Bendis had been right after all. She found this mildly annoying…but only mildly.
The really surprising thing, to her, was that when she finally decided to talked to a friend about it, she somehow ended up picking Suzue instead of Nanako. Suzue listed to her carefully—and then told her own story about a boy called Minoru. And Beth found herself getting angry on Suzue’s behalf. It was strange, how things worked out.
Six weeks into the holidays, she let Bendis talk her into starting more cat training. Both of them were aware, by now, that it was really more play than “training,” but neither of them cared. A couple of times, she even persuaded some of the other girls to come.
She returned her latest stack of textbooks to the library, got out another—selecting subjects almost at random—and tried to feel content.
Ochiyo continued to run the Olympus gymnasium from behind the scenes. She felt quite satisfied with herself and, in fact, not a little smug about the whole state of affairs. It was undeniably pleasant to listen to the other staff speculate about how Pappadopoulos-san was handling things from a distance, and to know who was really responsible. But after a week or two the speculation died away and things settled into a routine again.
In fact, her self-satisfaction was really only spoiled when she suddenly noticed that she hadn’t had to do anything in secret, to keep things going, for more than a month.
That was when she realised that she wasn’t running the Olympus at all. Marisa was.
She felt grumpy for the rest of the day, but she got over it.
Dhiti took up knitting, after watching Iku, but got bored with it after three days. As the holidays proceeded, she also took up coin collecting, dominoes, bird watching, macrame, soap-making, cat grooming (this lasted less than half an hour before Artemis lost his temper), and batik. At last, in a rare show of exasperation, her father suggested that she take up gardening, and do something about the weeds. She took the message, and made an effort to slow down a little.
Talking to Bendis at a group outing one day, she heard a really delicious rumour about Beth’s poetic endeavours, which led to her trying her hand at writing poetry herself. The results, viewed objectively, were sufficiently appalling that she hastily hid them in a shoebox under her bed—unwittingly duplicating Beth’s own hiding-place.
They were found and reviewed with interest by Iku the next day, while Dhiti was out at a Layan Kingdom throat-singing concert. Iku, unlike Bendis, said nothing at all about her discovery. She did, however, treasure up the memory, and laughed about it to herself for a long time afterward.
Makoto gradually got the garden behind her new house under control, and began to feel a little better about her new situation. Artemis came by occasionally—possibly to get away from Dhiti—and having him around to talk to helped, especially since Seki was out a lot of the time.
Seki was oddly reluctant to discuss what she was doing, but her new friend, Gensai Eri, visited a number of times and Makoto suspected that they were working together on something. Exactly what that might be, however, totally escaped her. One morning she got up and found a number of large boxes stacked in the living room. She was about to open one when Seki bustled in and asked her not to touch them. It was all rather aggravating. They were all gone the next day, without a word or a trace, which was worse.
In fact, she tried to persuade Artemis to poke around and find out what was going on, but the cat refused, giving her an incredulous look and saying, “If you want to get Seki mad, you do it yourself.” Makoto supposed he had a point.
She wondered sometimes why the cat stayed with Dhiti, and asked him about it. He told her, rather primly, that it was none of her business; that he was an adult and could live where he liked; and that he was tired of moving around and wanted to settle down for a while. Makoto suspected that he wasn’t telling the whole story, but she didn’t have the heart to pester him until he gave in. She was no Minako.
Meanwhile, her life progressed in other areas. Miliko came to visit at least once a week, and Fujimaro usually came with her. Once, they showed up while Artemis was there, and—rather to Makoto’s horror—Miliko recognised him at once, addressing him by name. Fujimaro was just starting to laugh at her, when Artemis sighed and answered back. It took a while after that for the awestruck boy to stop bowing and apologising. Later, after the two had left, it seemed rather funny; but Makoto and Artemis both agreed that it would be better not to mention it to Seki.
She enrolled in a martial arts class, and was pleased to find that it went better than she had expected. A few weeks ago she had tried to begin training on her own, and it had been a disaster. Now, under a well-practised instructor, she went back to her first love from her teenage years in the 20th Century: judo. The moves came back to her like old friends.
Kin accepted with equanimity the fact that Dhiti and Makoto seemed to have less time for her lately. She actually badgered Dhiti into letting her come to one of the group outings, and she was not made unwelcome—in fact she ended up talking to Suzue and Ochiyo for a long time, and enjoyed herself a lot—but all the same, she did not try to come again.
Instead, and with a certain deviousness of mind that both Dhiti and Seki would have admired, had they known of it, she started spending a lot of time with Liam.
It was not that they were dating, she was quick to tell him. She quite understood his situation, and that she could hardly hope to replace the love he had lost. Far from it. But it was clear that he needed a friend to whom he could talk about what was going on, and she suggested that it might help to be able to talk to someone who was not a Senshi.
Liam, who—as the former Endymion—was no naïve innocent, and who in the centuries of his previous life had seen and deftly avoided any number of efforts at romance or seduction from all manner of women, completely failed to notice this one. Instead he found himself grateful for, and oddly touched by, the offer.
So Kin started visiting quite often, and spending a lot of her free time at Liam’s apartment, just hanging about and talking, and being a…friend.
During this time, inevitably, she ran into Mark, and discovered the truth: that Mark and Liam were room-mates, and had been all long. When Mark confessed that he knew what was going on—and that, in fact, he had been there in the next room, the day they had all come to reawaken Liam’s memories—she thought about it and then laughed until she was almost sick. And, of course, promised to say nothing.
As the weeks passed, Liam found himself more and more grateful for her presence. She was quick-witted and had a natural sardonic humour that was completely unlike Usagi; and the fact that she was not throwing herself at him was an incredible relief. More and more, he found that he could simply relax in her presence, in a way that he had been able to do with few other women.
Sometimes, it was true, when they were sitting reading quietly together, and she would unconsciously shift a little so that she was leaning slightly against him, he found himself having a little difficulty in concentrating on his book. But it was a perfectly innocent action on her part, he knew…and anyway, he hardly noticed it at all. He told himself.
Kin decided that she would give it another few weeks before she helped him decide to kiss her again.
The Senshi Watch…watched.
They had members all over Third Tokyo now, boys and girls, in almost every school in the city. Every single one of them was thirteen years old or younger, and all of them knew that it wasn’t a game.
They knew the names of all the Senshi now, except Sailor Moon herself. (In this, if they had only known it, they were doing far better than ‘S’ Division, who still only knew Sailor Jupiter’s former name.)
Hideo, now unquestioned sole leader of the Watch, mentioned none of this to Nanako.
A week before the holidays ended, the Senshi had another training day. Seki produced her alcohol-engined van again, and drove them all out to the place in the countryside where they had trained once before.
The clearing was new to Ochiyo and Liam, but they were both pleased when they saw it. Ochiyo, like most of the others, had seldom been outside the city before, and was delighted by the wild natural bush around her. Liam, for his part, looked around with deep satisfaction and said, “Nice place. How did you find it, Seki-san?”
“Just something a friend of a friend mentioned,” Seki replied.
Liam glanced at her, one eyebrow raised at the too-casual way she spoke. Before he could speak, Makoto chipped in, “I heard her call it a ‘fairground’ once. But she won’t say why.”
Liam looked startled. “A fairground? Surely not. That would—” He broke off, glancing at Seki and then away again. Then, in a tone that was as overly-casual as Seki’s had been, he said, “Well, never mind. It looks like a good spot.”
Seki glared at him. “Thank you, your majesty. Shall we start unloading?” She turned to the van and started pulling gear out of the back, with perhaps more vigour than necessary. He shrugged and went to help her.
“What’s a fairground?” asked Beth curiously. The six girls were strolling casually away from the van, before anyone asked them to help.
Ochiyo shrugged. “Beats me.”
Dhiti said, “It’s like an amusement park. There used to be travelling amusement shows called ‘fairs’. They’d go from city to city, setting up for a while and then moving on. Some of them were called ‘circuses’…because they arranged the amusements in a circle, I think.”
Walking a little behind her, Makoto opened her mouth—and then paused, closed it again, and walked on, smiling faintly.
“But you couldn’t have an amusement park out here,” protested Suzue. “Nobody could get to it.”
“No, no, this was all back before the Great Ice.”
“Ah.” Suzue looked around the clearing again. “So this must have been a popular spot, back in the twentieth century.”
Ochiyo looked down at the ground with interest. “It makes you think. What sort of archeological relics might there be, under this grass?”
Beth cocked her head to one side. “You mean, like, prehistoric rides and food stalls?”
They all looked down. Several of them spoke together. “Hmmmmm.”
Liam waited until the girls had moved off before he murmured to Seki, “The black market fairs? Really?”
His Eirish accent, Seki noticed, had faded once again. It was not Liam she was talking to, but the King.
She simply glared at him. “And what would you know about the black market fairs?”
He raised one eyebrow and gave her a sardonic smile. “Some of us, as it turns out, read the newspapers.”
“Oh, fine.” She snorted. “Well, as it turns out, some of us are living under assumed identities…but we still have to make a living.”
“H’m. I’d assumed you had centuries worth of investments tucked away, so you were wealthy and living off them.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Up until the last few decades, there wasn’t much to invest in. It was hard enough just to stay alive.” She shook her head and said, “I’ve made investments since then, sure…but recently, most of my capital has been tied up in the Olympus building. Not just the gymnasium, but the shops and the food court.” A snort. “I’d paid off the mortgage for the latest refit, and it was just starting to show some decent profits when…well. You know.”
He did know, of course. “And now?”
“Now…I have some resources set aside for emergencies, but they won’t last forever. In the meantime, I do what I have to.” Seki scowled up at him and added, “And I don’t need any moralising, your majesty. You haven’t been where I am.”
There were any number of answers on Liam’s lips, but he held them back. It was, after all, quite obvious that whatever she was doing in the black market, she had been doing it long before she left the Olympus. For one thing, she’d brought the girls here for the first time before then.
But…it was good to see her image punctured a little. He smiled at her and said, “My lips are sealed.”
The two cats had wandered a little way off, pausing in a secluded spot to talk quietly. Bendis seemed skittish, Artemis thought: half-way between excited and nervous. Well, she’s a city cat, of course, he reflected, amused. This was only the second time she’d been out in the country.
Maybe that was a failing on his part. Too late to do anything about it now, alas.
“You’ve sensed nothing?” he asked.
“Not a thing,” Bendis replied. Her eyes darted away for a moment to watch as a butterfly bobbed aimlessly past, and she could not quite help lifting a paw to bat at it.
“Surely it can’t be all over,” he muttered. “We all agreed. Why is the enemy waiting?”
Bendis lay down, wrapping her tail around herself, and began to wash her front paws. “Maybe he’s gone back to hiding,” she suggested.
“Well, sure. Queen Serenity beat him, and he ran away and hid for seven hundred years. He thought he was ready to try it again, but we beat him again. So maybe he’s going to hide for another seven hundred years.”
The idea was sufficiently appalling that Artemis had to wash his own whiskers to calm down before he could see the flaw. “No,” he said at length. “No, there’s more to come. Lady Blue said so; she said she was sorry about the ‘new plan.’” He grimaced. “Whatever that means.”
Bendis eyed him for a moment, before moving on to her flank. “I expect it means trouble,” she said. “But there’s nothing we can do about it, is there? So why not relax?”
Artemis glared at her. “There’s plenty we can do about it. We can work on getting the girls ready, for a start!”
“Well, that’s why we’re out here, right? Only I don’t see anyone training just yet. So why not relax—?” Her head snapped around suddenly and she stiffened, staring into the bushes nearby. “Artemis, I saw a mouse.”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. We’ve got more important things to worry about than—”
She gathered herself, and leaped toward the bushes. He heard a thrashing sound, a curse, and then a rapid pattering of footfalls as she sprinted off. On the track of her prey, presumably.
He could not quite help rolling his eyes. Kids these days!
Disgruntled, and still a little uneasy at her suggestion, he made his way back to rejoin the others. When he arrived, he could not believe what he was seeing.
“So whose idea was this?” inquired Seki.
“Oh…you know,” said Ochiyo vaguely. “It just kind of happened.”
The hole was quite impressive, actually. Between them, the girls had moved an amazing amount of soil, in a remarkably short time. She wondered, for a moment, how they had done it. They must have combined their powers in some way, but she could not quite picture—
She shook her head, irritated. It didn’t matter now.
“But why?” asked Liam.
Suzue cleared her throat. “Intellectual curiosity?” she suggested.
“Oh, yes,” said Artemis. “I’m sure.”
“But we found something!” protested Beth. “We did! A genuine historical artefact!”
“Probably some kind of primitive ritual offering vessel,” added Ochiyo eagerly. “Like from a temple or shrine.”
“Really?” said Liam.
“This I must see,” muttered Artemis.
Iku held the artefact up. It was still half-covered with dirt, but quite intact. Liam took it and held it up so that the sunlight glinted off the smeared glass.
“Oh, good grief,” said Seki.
“Well, well,” said Artemis. “I haven’t seen one of those in—“
Liam said, “I have to admit it. You really found something here.”
Seki looked over at Makoto, but the girl could only meet her eyes for a moment before looking away, her lips twitching.
“Then it’s genuine?” asked Beth eagerly.
“Oh, yes,” said Liam, straight-faced, using his thumb to scrape a lump of dirt off the old, familiar, wasp-waisted bottle. “It’s the real thing.”
It took another half hour for the girls to get settled down, and their hole more or less filled in. As punishment, they had to change out of Senshi form to do it all. All the same, the work proceeded briskly, even though it was interrupted every few minutes by teenage hilarity.
Seki, Liam and Artemis settled back in canvas-backed chairs, watching and chatting. The girls couldn’t help noticing that the three of them seemed to have cold drinks, too. There was probably a message there somewhere.
Still, it was quite pleasant out in the sun. Even Suzue was loosening up a bit, though the last time they’d been here she had been deeply suspicious of the outdoors. Beth was actually singing under her breath as she worked.
“What is that song?” asked Dhiti after a few minutes.
“Oh, er, me?” said Beth self-consciously. “Um. It’s Hisakawa Teruo. Only Her Eyes. Er, sorry?”
“Oh, boy. You like that stuff, do you?”
“Don’t listen to her, Beth-chan,” put in Ochiyo. “I like it.”
“Who do you like, then, Dhiti-chan?” inquired Makoto with a grin. “This week, I mean.”
“Hmph. How fickle do you think I am, Hiyama? Same as last week. That Alaskayan group, Polynya. Tell Me How.”
“Oh, I like that one too,” said Suzue.
There was a slight pause, as the two of them eyed each other.
“Come on, it had to happen someday,” said Ochiyo. “You two can’t disagree on everything, you know.”
“Sure we can,” retorted Dhiti grumpily.
“I’m pretty sure we can, you know,” said Suzue at the same moment.
They eyed each other again.
“If this keeps on, we’ll end up having to get married or something,” grumbled Dhiti.
“Um. Thank you, but…no,” said Suzue.
“There, that’s more like it.”
“I like Only Her Eyes too,” said Iku quietly.
Beth couldn’t help it; she started to laugh. “Good for you, Iku-chan. Hey, how’s it going, living at Dhiti’s place, anyway?”
Iku flinched, just perceptibly, and glanced at Dhiti, who merely looked back at her with bland expectation. She licked her lips and began, “Well, I—”
But before she could go further, Suzue said sharply, “Who’s that?”
They all looked around. Another car was bumping down the track through the trees toward them. As they watched, it pulled up to a halt beside Seki’s van. The door opened, and a woman got out.
“Nope, don’t know her,” said Dhiti. “I wonder what she’s doing out here?”
“She’s—” Makoto stood up straight, her eyes widening. “Oh, my gosh. Setsuna!”
And, with a squeal that was wholly unlike Makoto, she sprinted toward the newcomer and threw herself in her arms.
“‘Setsuna’?” repeated Beth. “Who’s that?”
“I think,” said Ochiyo, looking over at the pair, “that her real name might be Sakurada Haruna.”
Then she started to laugh, but none of them understood why—except Suzue, who did not think it was funny.
“So,” said Seki, “what brings you here?”
Sadako smiled at her. “Well, you do, really. Didn’t you tell me, after the last battle, that I was ‘one of the troops’ again? So I thought I ought to come.”
“You—” Seki glared at her. “Don’t give me that. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have some hidden reason.”
“Oh, as to that—”
But whatever Sadako was about to say was lost as she suddenly had to turn and open her arms to catch a hurtling Makoto.
“Hello, Mako-chan,” she managed to say, a minute or two later. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Oh, don’t give me that.” Makoto released her and stepped back, regarding her fondly. “You could have said hello anytime, but you were too busy working behind the scenes…as usual. Right?”
Sadako smiled gently. “More or less. But…as I was saying to Rei-chan just now, that’s over with for now. I’m here to be a Senshi again.”
“Oh, hooray!” Makoto gave her another quick hug, and then turned as the other girls approached. “Everyone, this is Sailor Pluto. Or—” She hesitated. “What should we call you?”
Seki gave a snort. “At least someone remembers we have new names.”
Sadako cocked an eye at her, smiling faintly, but turned to face the girls. “My name—in this time—is Fumihiko Sadako. And…hello to you all.”
The other Senshi introduced themselves in turn. Seki did notice that Suzue hung back at first, looking nervous, until Ochiyo prodded her. She thought of several sarcastic comments she could have made, but in the end she decided not to get involved.
Introductions made, inevitably they all ended up lounging back in the grass, talking. And, inevitably, Sadako was the target of a barrage of questions. She handled them all with calm aplomb.
“Have you come to help us?” asked Suzue.
“I’ve already been helping for some time…as Seki-san may have mentioned. But yes, I expect to be working with you now.”
“Are you really a million years old?” asked Beth excitedly.
Sadako blinked. “No.”
“Um…can you really see through time?” That was Iku, slipping into the brief silence that fell after such a flat reply.
“Not any longer,” said Sadako. “I once guarded the Time Gate, that’s true, but since the Fall it has been sealed.”
Seki found herself tensing, waiting for the inevitable questions about the Fall and the role Pluto had played. But instead—
“Who’s the most handsome man who ever lived?”
That question made Seki look around, startled and for some reason suspicious. But there was nothing in Ochiyo’s wide eyes but open curiosity.
Sadako, for her part, did not seem thrown at all. “Hmm,” she said thoughtfully. “That’s a matter of taste, of course. But I would say that Sergéy Vasilevich Boykov was the most beautiful man that I have ever seen.” She paused, looking meditative. “He died of diphtheria, aged nineteen, in the year 1744. But I still remember his face.”
“Serg—ser—” Beth pouted. “I can’t even say that!”
“How did you know him, Sadako-san?” asked Suzue.
As Sadako began to speak, Seki felt a tap on her shoulder. She looked around. “It’s almost noon,” said Liam, “and I don’t think we’re going to budge them for a while. Shall we get the lunch things out of the van?”
Absurdly, Seki felt torn between relief at the interruption, and annoyance because she wanted to hear more about Sergéy Vasilevich herself. Shaking her head, she got up and followed Liam. “You don’t want to ask her anything yourself?” she asked.
“Oh, you know Pluto. She’s not going to answer anything she doesn’t want to. She’s a master at distracting people from awkward questions.”
Seki chuckled. “True.”
With a glance at her, Liam said, “And what about you? Any burning questions?”
They reached the van, and Seki opened the rear doors and and began to unload baskets as she thought about how to answer. In the end she said, “She and I have…talked.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Like that, is it? All right, I won’t pry. I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
“So do I,” Seki answered sourly.
From over where the girls were sitting, there came a shout of laughter, and someone said, “No way! You created it?”
Liam looked around, his eyebrows raised.
Seki groaned. “I expect she’s just told them what she does for a living nowadays.” And, with a sigh, she told him about the damned viddy program.
He paused, taking it in. Then he smiled. “You see what I mean? She’s a master at it.”
“At least,” Seki said, “none of the girls noticed.”
After lunch, Seki and Artemis managed to get the girls working at a training exercise. Like the previous time they had come out here, they began with a game based on hide-and-seek in the woods, where anyone hit with a minimum-powered attack was ‘out’. Rather to everyone’s surprise, Tuxedo Kamen and Sailor Pluto took part as well. Even more surprisingly, Sailor Mars managed to eliminate Pluto, rather early on, though she was tagged out herself a few seconds later. Jupiter emerged as the eventual winner.
Afterward, they broke into groups to talk about tactical options in the battlefield. Seki had expected to use two groups, led by herself and Liam; but instead, with Sadako there, they broke into three. Sadako led Iku and Makoto away; Liam took Dhiti and Suzue; and Seki was left with Beth and Ochiyo.
Things went well enough, she thought; but after a while she noticed that Sailor Venus seemed to be unusually reticent. She did not say anything, but made a note to ask the girl about it in private later.
Mid-afternoon they paused for a break, and her discussion with Liam came back to haunt her when Ochiyo pulled her aside and asked quietly, “Do you trust Fumihiko-san?”
Seki raised her eyebrows, surprised. “Certainly. Why?”
“There’s a lot she wouldn’t talk about, earlier.” Ochiyo hesitated. “Or, well, no. She…managed us, I think, so that we never asked anything awkward.”
Seki suppressed a chuckle. “Noticed that, did you?” Ochiyo, she reminded herself again, was more subtle than she sometimes appeared.
“If she can see through time, I suppose she might have to be careful talking about what she knows.” Ochiyo frowned. “No, wait. She said the, um, the Time Gate is sealed. So she wouldn’t need to be careful any longer, would she? I don’t think I understand.”
“Pluto isn’t a million years old,” said Seki helpfully, “but she has lived a very long time. Maybe it’s just habit.”
“Oh. So you’re saying—” Ochiyo paused. “Now you’re trying to avoid saying anything awkward.”
Seki could not help it; she laughed aloud. “Noticed that, did you?”
Deep inside, she was thinking: Ochiyo can be pretty perceptive. But I wonder what Setsuna will say when she hears that one of them noticed?
Liam had a similar interview with Dhiti, only a few minutes later. “Pretty good at misdirection, isn’t she?” the girl asked.
“Er—” His mind went momentarily blank. “Who?”
“Pluto, of course. She steered us pretty well, so we never asked anything she didn’t want to answer. Hey, is that some kind of Senshi mind trick?”
“I think it’s more of a Pluto mind trick,” he answered honestly.
“You admit it, then.” Dhiti grinned at him. “So, Endy-chan, how much do you know?”
“Oh, hardly anything.” He gave her a crooked grin. “But I know that I trust Pluto. And, um, don’t call me that, okay?”
“Hmph! How does it feel to be one of the outsiders, strung along by someone who won’t tell you anything?”
She was trying to goad him, but Liam just kept grinning. “Seriously? It’s just like old times.”
Deep inside, he was thinking: Well, Dhiti’s the smart one. If any of them was going to notice, it would be her.
At almost the same moment, Makoto managed to find a minute to pull Sadako aside. “I couldn’t help noticing that you weren’t actually saying anything important, back there,” she said without preamble.
Sadako only laughed at her. “Oh, Mako-chan,” she said, “when have I ever?”
“Artemis-san,” said Suzue hesitantly, “did you notice that Sadako-san didn’t really seem to say anything important?”
“No,” said Artemis.
“It was as if she were manoeuvring us somehow.”
“No,” said Artemis.
“But,” whispered Iku to Dhiti, “why wouldn’t Sadako-sama talk about what’s going on?”
Dhiti couldn’t help herself. “She was probably speaking in code.”
“Oh.” Iku hesitated. “Really?”
“No, you dummy. She’s just playing the cryptic wise-old-ancient game.”
“Oh,” said Iku again. Another pause. “That’s…sort of annoying.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Beth-chan,” said Seki, “are you all right? You’ve been pretty quiet today.” She did not say that Sailor Venus had been just as quiet, which concerned her more. During the training exercise, Venus had been almost as withdrawn as…well, Mars.
Beth shifted uneasily under her gaze. “Um,” she said. “I’m fine. Just…been thinking about something.”
Seki opened her mouth to ask if she needed help, but then caught herself. She did not really remember what it had felt like to be Beth’s age herself, not after two thousand years, but she had dealt with teenagers fairly often.
“All right,” she said, “I won’t pry.” An odd thought came to her, and she asked, “Have you talked to Bendis-chan about it?”
Beth blinked at her. Twice.
“Hmm. I thought you two talk about everything.”
Beth remained silent for a minute longer. At last she said, almost too quietly to be heard, “I don’t think she'd understand.”
Seki tried a few more leading questions, but she got nowhere. Whatever was bothering the girl, she was clinging to it like a limpet. At last she gave up…and made a mental note to ask Bendis about it later.
The afternoon wound to a close at last. Liam accepted the offer of a ride from Sadako, and the rest of them piled into Seki’s van. With the extra room, the girls spread out and either dozed or chatted quietly in pairs.
Artemis claimed the shotgun seat, and nobody felt like arguing with the cat. As they started the long drive back toward Third Tokyo, he looked over at Seki, who had a slight frown on her face.
“What’s the matter?” he asked after a minute or two.
“Nothing,” she snapped. Then she sighed. “Oh, it’s silly. I was wondering how Sadako managed to get here. That car of hers doesn’t have an alcohol engine…it shouldn’t have the battery range to get out here to the fairground, and then home again.”
“You could have asked her.”
“I was going to, but she distracted me. Me!”
Artemis laughed. “She is good at that.”
“Mm.” Seki glanced over her shoulder, to make sure nobody was listening. The girls were scattered around the van, most of them chattering idly, though Beth was wedged into one corner, her knees up, working on something in her lap. Seki could not make out what.
“Artemis…how do you think they’re doing?” she asked in a low voice, turning her attention back to her driving. “I thought today went well.”
He considered for a minute. Then he chuckled. “Remember how they were when they started? They’ve become a team, Seki. I don’t think we’ve got anything to worry about.”
“Oh, don’t say that!” she protested. “You’ll jinx us all.”
But then she chuckled, too. “A team,” she repeated. “That’s good. There’ve been times when I was worried. This thing between Makoto and Suzue…”
“At this point, maybe the best thing you can do is to let them work it out on their own,” he said.
“Hmm. Maybe.” Seki glanced backward again. Beth was—yes, writing something. More of her poetry, perhaps; there was a rumour among the girls that it was legendarily bad. “Have you noticed Beth today?” she asked.
He had to pause to think. “Not really. She was…quiet.” After a moment he added, “That is odd.”
“She didn’t transform for a long time, either—not until she absolutely had to. I tried talking to her, and there’s something bothering her all right—but she wouldn’t tell me what…and she wouldn’t talk to Bendis about it, either.”
“Hmph. You want me to ask her about it? I’m not likely to do any better.”
“No. I want you to talk to Bendis about it.”
He looked up at her. After a moment he said, “Has anyone told you that you’re getting kind of devious yourself?”
Seki grinned. “Once or twice.”
They were interrupted by a shout of laughter from the back of the van that almost made Seki swerve off the road. She started to make an acidic comment to the girls, but then, catching Artemis’s eye, she shook her head and drove on.
It was getting late when they reached Third Tokyo, and dropping the girls off took another half hour. By the time she finally parked in the little garage where she kept the alcohol-engine van, it was full dark and the street lights were glowing electric blue.
She and Makoto opened the rear doors and cleared out the van wordlessly, both of them yawning as they transferred the empty food baskets to the trunk of her little electric car. Seki was about to close the doors and lock up when something white caught her eye: a piece of paper, wedged down the side of a corner seat.
She pulled it out and glanced at it. After a moment she realised that it must be the poem Beth had been working out, and held it up to the light to read. It was a haiku, in fairly shaky handwriting and with a lot of crossing-out.
Summer training day:
Mysterious lady who
Knows more than she says.
She blinked at it for a few seconds, and then started to laugh quietly: at Beth, at Sadako and Liam, but mostly at herself.
“What is it?” asked Makoto; but Seki stuck the paper in her pocket and refused to tell her.
Finally, the end of the holidays were upon them.
On the last Friday, Suzue went flying again. It was a perfect day, and her lesson went without a hitch. Her paperwork and logbook were up to date. She looped around the course her instructor set; her climbs and descents were almost textbook; she side-slipped and forward-slipped smoothly; and her instructor praised her landing. As they climbed out of the plane, he told her that in his opinion, she was ready to solo.
She was still buoyant at the news as she came out of the flight-club rooms into the aerodrome waiting area, satchel heavy on her shoulder, and saw Keiko waiting for her. She was feeling so good that even Keiko’s slight hesitation at seeing the church pin on her blouse did not bother her.
They caught the train back to Suzue’s house, so that she could drop off her flying gear and get changed, and then bussed downtown together.
Aozora Park was filling up when they arrived. An up-and-coming boy band named Karotousen were giving a free outdoor concert, and nearly a thousand young people—mostly girls—were milling in front of the stage. Suzue was not a fan of their music, really, but Keiko was mad about them, and a couple of the band members were undeniably hot, and, well, Suzue was not about to turn down the invitation.
Keiko led her through the crowd, chatting amiably, toward the thickest area near the stage. Suzue followed amiably enough. Privately she was thinking that it was a pity none of the other Senshi were coming; but that was just how it was…and for heaven’s sake, it was perfectly fine for her to go somewhere with only Keiko. What was wrong with her, that she wanted to ditch her best friend to be with the Senshi?!
And then the situation got a little more complicated, as Minoru stepped out of the crowd to meet them.
He had been longing for this moment, and dreading it, for at least a week. A dozen times or more, he had plotted it out in his head: how to meet her casually, as if by accident; what he would say; what she would reply and how he would smoothly disarm her. Some of his plans ended up with Suzue in his arms; some of them merely brought them comfortably back together again.
All of them disappeared from Minoru’s mind the moment he saw her, because he honestly had not expected to see her here today. She didn’t even like Karotousen.
As they came face to face, he saw her freeze, and a flash of something crossed her face, too quickly to recognise. Their eyes met, and he took a deep breath. “Suzue-chan,” he began.
He got no further, because at that moment Keiko stepped between them, scowling. “What do you want?” she demanded.
Minoru winced, just a little. Keiko had not been in any of his daydreams. “I…want to talk to Suzue-chan,” he said. He had to raise his voice to be heard over the crowd around them, and a few people turned to look. This could get embarrassing, he told himself. No, on second thought it already was embarrassing.
“Well, you can just go home again. She doesn’t want to talk to—”
Suzue touched Keiko’s shoulder. “Let’s go somewhere private and talk,” she said calmly.
Keiko whirled on her, looking startled and a little betrayed. “What?!”
“It’s time, I think.”
Minoru let out a silent breath. He was so far out of his depth now that he felt as if he were drowning. Or perhaps flying.
Keiko made a face at Suzue, “You must be out of your mind,” she muttered savagely But she stepped aside.
They worked their way back out of the crowd, toward a copse of birches at the edge of the park, which screened one of the restroom areas. They stopped there, well away from the long line of girls (and much shorter line of boys) waiting to use the facilities.
And Minoru realised that, for all his plans, he had no idea what to say next. Keiko, angry but silent for now, had almost vanished from his attention. Suzue was here, truly here, living and breathing, and never had she looked so wonderful because she was real, not just his imagination, and without any further thought, “Oh, Suzue-chan,” he said, “I’m so glad to see you again.”
She paused, and in a tiny corner of his mind, it occurred to him that she was nervous too. But then her lips twitched, in what might almost have been a smile, and she said, “Was that really what you wanted to say?”
That, finally, brought it all back into focus. His eyes found the pin on her blouse, and then simply disregarded it.
“Suzue-chan,” he said, “I’m sorry.”
He stopped there. He could not find the words. He was not old enough, or romantic enough, or foolish enough to tell her that she was everything he had always wanted, but never known it until he had lost her. Though he was starting to think that it might be true.
Then, before he could find another way to say how sorry he was, Keiko snorted. “Sorry? That’s all?” she demanded.
Suzue touched her arm, and she subsided again, grumbling under her breath. “What changed your mind?” Suzue asked.
Only the truth would do; and somehow, without realising it, he had hunched his arms around himself, as if to protect himself. He could not meet her eye. “I failed you,” he said. “I knew it, but I couldn’t—”
“Ssh.” Suzue touched his arm, exactly the way she had touched Keiko’s. “I know that. I want to know what changed your mind.”
“Because—” Minoru raised his eyes to meet hers at last. “Because I was wrong. And because I couldn’t bear it.”
“And now?” she asked. “You know what I am, Minoru-kun.”
He tossed his head. “That doesn’t matter.” Then he paused. Only the truth. “No, it does matter, because it’s part of you, so it’s important. But it’s not—it’s just—it’s just something to deal with. It’s not an obstacle.” He glanced away for a moment, thinking about that. “Not unless I let it be one.”
He met her eyes again. “And I’m not going to. Not again. Because the…the Church isn’t the important thing. You are.”
Suzue nodded slowly. “So,” she asked once more, “what changed your mind, Minoru-kun?”
He swallowed heavily. “I realised what’s been staring me in the face all along,” he said; then took a deep breath, and went on:
“That I’ve been in love with you for nearly a year now.”
Suzue’s face was expressionless for one more moment. Then her lips did that tiny movement again.
“That,” she said, “is the right answer.”
And then she was in his arms.
He was never completely certain, afterward, how that happened. Perhaps he reached out for her. Perhaps it was merely that she stepped forward, and he automatically brought his arms up. But somehow her head was on his shoulder and he was holding her, smelling the fresh clean scent of her hair, feeling the warmth of her body, her gentle curves pressed against him…and it came to him suddenly that she liked him, too.
Or maybe more than liked.
Somewhere far off in the distance, Keiko cleared her throat. “I’ll, uh, leave you two alone, shall I?”
“Don’t be silly,” said Suzue, without lifting her head. “You’re my best friend.” Then she paused. “Maybe my second-best friend.”
“Only, well, the concert is going to start in a minute.”
Minoru laughed. “Well, we can’t miss that.” He tightened his embrace for a moment, then released her—though he held on to her hand. “Let’s go, hmm?”
She looked at him, head cocked slightly to one side, and smiled. She did not care about the concert at all, and neither did he. But they would be going together. “Yes…let’s.”
In a corner of her mind, she was thinking: Bendis, you can visit me any time…and I’ll give you all the tuna you want.
“Only,” said Minoru, as they made their way back through the trees and back toward the milling crowd of fans, “I hope you don’t have any more big secrets? Because I’d hate to go through this again—”
Ahead of them, in the middle of the crowd, somebody screamed.
—It was strange. She had only been a Senshi for three months. She had fought in perhaps half a dozen battles. But at that sound, it was as if another Suzue took over: a cool, razor-sharp self that set aside distractions, focused on the danger and began to assess alternatives—
There were a lot of screams now. The crowd began to thresh as people tried to get away.
In the centre of the disturbance, Suzue saw a glitter of crystal.
She looked at Minoru and Keiko, hesitated for just one moment, and then made her decision. A quick glance around; nobody was nearby, and everyone was looking toward the disturbance anyway. She flexed her hand and felt a sudden familiar weight there.
She smiled at her friends. “Maybe just one more secret,” she said.
Then she raised her henshin wand and said, “Uranus Planet Power, Make-Up!”
On the top floor of the Olympus building, Itsuko’s suite stood dark and empty.
The corner room of the suite, the office, was a disaster area. It had been wrecked in a pitched battle, the day Itsuko fled; later, ‘S’ Division had searched it thoroughly, making the mess even worse. Papers and broken furniture were strewn everywhere. Ochiyo had thought about tidying it up, briefly, but she retreated when she saw how much work it would be. Nobody had set foot in the office for weeks now.
Hanging on the wall, undisturbed, was an object that most people assumed was a piece of art. It was a simple disc, made of a translucent material, its surface slightly convex. There were a few collectors in Third Tokyo who might recognise it, and have an idea of its age and value; but none of them had any idea that it existed.
The object was a simple wall lamp, nothing more, but it has been made in Crystal Tokyo in the year 3317; and like all Crystal Tokyo technology, it stopped working when the Queen died and the city fell. Itsuko brought it out of the ruins, back when she was still Hino Rei, and she had held onto it ever since as a reminder—a memorial to a golden age. It had been dead for centuries, much like her dreams.
Except that today, it was no longer dead. Golden light filled the office.
Nanako saw it happen.
She had been waiting for this concert for months. The crowd around them was almost impossibly tight, but that was part of the fun. It seemed as though half the young people in Third Tokyo must be there.
She and Eitoku were near the front, waiting excitedly for Karotousen to come on stage. Or, well, Nanako was trying to pretend she was not excited, and Eitoku was talking about…something. She could never recall exactly what, later.
Then—she remembered this with total clarity, afterward—she saw a teenage boy just in front of her clutch at his arm. She heard him moan, even over the hubbub of the crowd. He had a light bandage wrapped around his forearm, and he pawed at it, his face screwed up in pain. There seemed to be some kind of lump under the bandage, and she saw the lump move.
Beside her, she heard Eitoku gasp and hold his own arm, as if in sympathy. But she paid no attention; her eyes were fixed on the boy with the bandaged arm, because she understood, unconsciously, that something dreadful was about to happen.
The boy shrieked in pain as his whole arm rippled, and burst open. Something hard and shiny came out. He stared at it, face distorted in pain and horror. Then he threw back his head and screamed again, only this time his head rippled too—Nanako heard a series of cracking and crunching sounds that afterward she realised must have been his bones—and then his whole body ripped open and more of the shiny stuff came out. In just a few seconds the boy was gone, and the shiny stuff had become…something huge and monstrous.
There were a lot of other people screaming now. Everyone was fighting to get away. Nanako could only stand there, transfixed. Too shocked even to realise that she was about to die.
Except that right then, a Senshi landed in front of her. Sailor…Uranus? The Senshi looked at her—at the two of them, for Eitoku was still with her, his face pale and sweaty, looking as if he were about to pass out. She said, “Run, you idiots!”
Deep inside, Nanako thought vaguely, Venus will come. Venus will save the day.
She grabbed Eitoku’s arm and ran.
Not far away, someone else was watching; but she was not trying to run away.
The girl in the ruched cream blouse and black leggings crouched down behind a chunk of wreckage that was previously scaffolding for the stage, and studied the monster with fierce attention. She had been knocked down in the initial panic and her cheek was bloody from a scrape where someone had kicked her, but she was not paying any attention to the blood, or the pain. She could not see any sign of the friends she had come here with, so she supposed that they must have gotten away; but she was not really paying attention to that, either.
The monster. The monster was everything. She could not take her eyes off it. She felt as if it were calling her…as if there were something she needed to be doing.
She watched the Senshi fire some kind of attack at it; saw the monster shrug it off, apparently unhurt; and something dark inside her responded with a kind of savage pleasure at the battle.
Mitsuya Hiroko was not quite sure yet why she felt so compelled by the violence. But she was sure that she would work it out soon; and then she would know what to do.
Uranus decided that she was in trouble. This new vitrimorph was practically ignoring her attacks. It was too big, too powerful…too something. She might be able to damage it if it held still, but none of them never did. Meanwhile, all its attention was focused on her, and it was fast and strong. She could not let her guard down for a moment.
At least she was keeping it in one place, until help could arrive. She had called the others as she moved into combat; she only needed to hold it here for a little while longer.
Afterwards, she would have to deal with what Keiko and Minoru had seen, but she could not afford to think about that now. She ducked frantically as a gigantic crystal fist missed her head by a hairbreadth and leaped away. She fired her Music of the Spheres at it again, just to make it duck and give her a moment to catch her breath. She needed the break; she was starting to get tired, fighting alone like this.
Not for the first time, she cursed her attack. An ultrasonic beam seemed like such a good idea, in theory; but in practice, it was almost impossible for her to fight these things on her own. She was really only effective in combination with the others. She liked to think that she fought with elegance, but sometimes she wished she had something less sophisticated; something more direct, more…primitive. Something like—
A sword, whispered a voice deep inside her. A space sword.
But before she could think about that, the vitrimorph was hurtling toward her again, and she had to cartwheel out of the way. This one was massive, almost bear-like, with a grotesque caricature of a face in the centre of its chest; and if any of its four arms managed to hit her, she was quite certain she was going to be in a world of hurt.
She needed a plan.
Then she realised that she was fighting in front of the stage. Well, that would do.
She let the monster get close to her, then jumped out of the way once more. This time, though, she jumped upward, onto the stage itself. A quick glance as she landed showed that there was a fair bit of equipment scattered around: instruments, stacks of enormous speakers, endless cables everywhere. That might be useful; maybe she could electrocute it somehow…
But the vitrimorph was already leaping up after her. Biting her lip and hoping she was right, she flipped herself up on top of a huge speaker and turned to watch. And—yes! She had been right; the monster was far too massive for the plywood floor. It punched straight through, all the way to the ground nearly two metres below, landing with an awkward thump. And Uranus was ready.
“Music of the Spheres!”
The beam caught it squarely with a thin, almost inaudible chiming, and it froze. Uranus could have sworn that she saw a network of thin cracks begin to spread across its crystalline body. It seemed to tremble.
Then it moved again. She had expected it to jump back out of the hole, and she was ready to follow it with her attack—but instead, it simply lurched forward, ploughing straight through the supports and walls of the stage, and out into the open again. It was free.
That caricature of a face in its chest seemed to grin at her for a moment.
She took a deep breath, swallowing her anger and fear, and leaped down off the speaker. Just a little longer; I can do this—
Then help arrived. Of a sort.
Beth was almost relieved to get the call for help. She was well aware that she had been moping for too long; her parents were starting to be pretty obvious about how cautiously they treated her, and Bendis had been asking a lot of nosey questions that Beth just didn’t want to face. Sometimes she thought it would be easiest to just quit: to not be a Senshi any longer, to not have to face her own inability to—
(To do what? She could still transform; she could still use her powers. It was just that she couldn’t be Venus, not when she knew that she wasn’t.)
But she hated the idea of giving up, too. There was evil going on that needed fighting, that was undeniable, and she couldn’t just walk away from that. Besides, she was coming to like the other girls—even Suzue, Loonie or not. Quitting would feel like she was letting them all down.
…Except that she was letting them down anyway, because she couldn’t fight like this.
And yet Mercury had thought she’d done all right at the Tenshin Institute…
It didn’t make sense. None of it made sense.
So, yes, the call came as a relief. No matter how confused she was, doing something would be better than this endless self-doubt.
She slipped out of the house and transformed, trying not to think about it. The transformation felt…normal. And when she jumped up to the roof of a house and started to leap from building to building, taking the most direct path to Aozora Park, that felt normal too. Being Venus felt normal.
So why did she have to feel like such a fraud?
In mid-leap, Uranus was caught by the shock of an explosion.
The blast tossed her backward, tumbling over and over, to land painfully in the grass, shoulder-first, some distance away. But she was smiling. The others are here, she thought; now we’ll take care of it together.
But unexpectedly, the explosion was followed by…gunfire? And men shouting; and then a curious chuff sound followed by another explosion.
She rolled to her feet, rubbing her shoulder, and looked around wildly. Most of the crowd had scattered, long before, but some distance away at the edge of the park, she saw a group of men and women. They were taking cover behind some of the concession stands, in an expert, well-practised manner, and they were firing weapons at the vitrimorph.
Several of them were looking in her direction. One of them waved a hand at her urgently. She stared back, bewildered. Then, suddenly understanding, she leaped away, barely in time to avoid the vitrimorph as it lashed out at her with three fists.
Another burst of gunfire, from a different direction. She spun around, and saw another group moving into position.
Who are these people?! No uniforms…they can’t be police or ‘W’ Division…
In the centre of the park, the vitrimorph was frozen in place, under fire from two directions, as if it could not decide what to do. Uranus approved. She fired her own attack at it again, to add to the distraction, and as before, it hesitated before jumping clear. Was it weakening? Or was it simply confused by the newcomers?
I’m kind of confused myself…
The strangers’ gunfire was heaving a definite effect. Tiny chips of crystal flew away from it as the bullets struck, and in a couple of places, fist-sized chunks had been gouged out of its body by the explosives they were firing at it. (Was that a grenade launcher? She had no idea what they looked like.) But for some reason, it never retaliated; its focus seemed to be locked on Uranus herself. She kept having to retreat when it came near, and it was frighteningly fast.
The answer, she realised, was simple. It took a little time, and some perilously close calls, but she managed to work her way around so that she was between the two groups of mystery helpers, and on the same side of the vitrimorph. When it moved toward her, it moved toward them, too, and their gunfire became more accurate—and more effective.
Uranus started to think that they were going to win this battle, together, before any of the other Senshi arrived.
Then one of them did arrive.
As Venus reached the park, she saw Sailor Uranus in the middle of a pitched battle. There was something odd about it—she was fighting a big vitrimorph with four arms, but also some kind of—soldiers? What was going on?
Then she realised the obvious truth. I knew it! The Serries have sent the army against us!
With that—with the suddenly certainty that, finally, she knew exactly what to do—she attacked.
“Venus Chain Thing!”
The chain lashed out and looped around the nearer group of soldiers. It was just like when she caught the jewel thieves, back when she started, and just as quick. The loop was wide enough to include one of the flagpoles at the edge of the grass; she took a quick step back, pulling it tight, and as easily as that, she had them.
Sparks flew where it touched the troops, and she heard gasps and curses. Most of them had dropped their weapons when she struck, and the rest could not move to fire on anyone.
She took a moment to look at them in satisfaction. They were caught like flies in a spiderweb—
One of them looked back at her and shouted, “Look out!”
Eh? Was he warning her about something—
Then the vitrimorph hit her from behind, unbelievably hard, and she was sailing through the air and knew no more.
Sailor Uranus saw it all go wrong, incredibly fast, but for a few seconds she could hardly take in what she was seeing.
Venus attacked out of nowhere, tying half of Uranus’ mysterious new helpers to a flagpole before she could react. A moment later, while Uranus was still frozen on the spot, mouth open, the vitrimorph hit Venus from behind and she went tumbling like a rag doll.
The vitrimorph threw up its arms, as if in a horrible victory salute, and the face in the centre of its chest opened its mouth in silent exultation.
Uranus hit it, squarely in the middle of that face, with a Music of the Spheres.
Half a dozen armour-piercing rounds from the second group of strangers struck its face a moment later.
And then a bolt of lightning struck it too, and a spear of razor-sharp ice blasted one of its four hands off completely.
The other Senshi had finally arrived.
Uranus looked around quickly. Sailor Moon was kneeling by the unmoving form of Venus. Uranus left the battle to the rest of them and ran over to the group that Venus had bound with her chain.
Even with Venus unconscious, her chain had not vanished, but it seemed to be losing energy fast. She took hold of it, feeling only a mild tingle through her gloves, and pulled it away from the captives. It resisted, then suddenly collapsed, winking out of existence. Most of the captives spilled to the ground.
One of them, the man who had seemed to be in charge, kept his footing, and Uranus stood facing him, uncertain. What should she say…?
“Who are you people?”
He saluted, unsmiling. “Allies against a common enemy, ma’am.”
He gestured behind her. “Ma’am, maybe you have other priorities right now?” As if in answer, she heard a shout from Sailor Mercury, and the crack of another attack.
She gave the stranger a quick nod and returned to the battle.
In half a minute more, it was over.
Hiroko watched as Sailor Moon finished off the monster with her tiara. She felt oddly dissatisfied. Watching the battle, she had felt so…alive. But at the same time, something had been missing, and she had no idea what.
Mind whirling, she crept away from the battlefield. It would not do for any of the costumed girls to notice her.
Sailor Venus regained consciousness after a few minutes. She had a dislocated shoulder, but that was the worst of her injuries. Mercury used her computer to scan Venus’ shoulder and announced that nothing was broken. Bendis and Artemis hovered anxiously at her side.
Jupiter took charge briskly. She guided the others to hold Venus in place, and managed to relocate the shoulder in only three tries. Venus did not make a sound during the procedure, though a single tear leaked from her eye.
“You’re good at that,” murmured Moon as Jupiter finished.
“I did it a few times before.” Jupiter grimaced. “Um, in my last life.”
“Will she be all right?” asked Mars hesitantly.
“At the rate we heal? Oh, sure.” Jupiter looked down at her patient. “I ought to say you should see a doctor, Venus, but… You’ll be sore for a while. Try not to use that arm, if you can help it.”
Venus nodded, her face pale.
“Who were those people with all the weapons?” asked Mercury.
Uranus looked over her shoulder. Their mysterious allies had vanished while the Senshi were hovering over Venus. “I don’t know,” she said slowly. “They said they were—what was it?—‘allies against a common enemy.’ I’m not sure what that means.”
“Eh?” said Moon. “We have allies? That’s…wow.”
“Wait, you mean—” Venus caught her breath in pain as her arm moved. “You mean they were on our side?”
“That’s what they said.”
“But I thought— I thought they—” Venus turned her head away. “No. Of course they were. Obviously. I shouldn’t have thought I—” She broke off, biting her lip.
“Sailor Moon, we’re going to have company in a minute,” broke in Artemis.
Moon glanced around. “Right,” she said. “We need to get out of here.” She looked down and said, apologetically, “Venus, I’m sorry, but can you move?”
“I… Yes.” Venus rolled onto her side, catching her breath again, and used her good arm to help her stand. She wavered a little.
“I’ll help her get home,” said Uranus.
“Good,” replied Moon. “Everyone—we’ll talk later, all right?”
There were nods all round.
“But you know…” Uranus said thoughtfully, before they could leave, “there was something odd about that vitrimorph. It seemed…different, somehow.”
Jupiter gave her a hooded look. “That’s because it wasn’t a vitrimorph.”
Jupiter and Artemis exchanged glances. After a moment, the cat nodded. “Jupiter’s right,” he said, his voice grim. “That was no vitrimorph. That was a crystite.”
And just like that, the summer holidays were over.
S A I L O R M O O N 4 2 0 0
End Of Chapter Fifteen
Next: The Serenity Council mobilises,
and Seki comes face-to-face with the Enemy.
First draft: 24 August, 2021.