Sailor Moon Fan Fiction / Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction ❯ Sailor Jupiter - Pilots in Nerima ❯ Sailor Jupiter - Pilots in Juuban ( Chapter 2 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]


I do not own any of the characters from Ranma 1 / 2, BSSM, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ah My Goddess, Tenchi Muyo or the Lovecraft Cycle involved in these stories. They belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Naoko Takeuchi, AIC Productions, Gainex, Kosuke Fujishima and Arkham House respectively.

C&C , MSTs are welcome


Sailor Jupiter - Sasami 3

      "Waah! I don't want to be bald anymore!" Mihoshi announced her enthusiasm about her current coiffure, or lack thereof, "It's not fair! You aren't bald, Kiyone!"

      Kiyone tossed a tiny palm tree into the air and caught it. "No, I'm not bald," she said, and smiled, "He seemed like such a nice gentleman."

      "Waah!" Mihoshi tuned up for the Soun Tendo/Usagi Tsukino stakes.

      Ryoko left the two detectives to their byplay, glanced angrily at Ayeka who was mooning over the two bald strips on 'Lord Tenchi'. I like it, Ryoko thought, Makes him look tough, like the . . . 'Mr. T' character. Besides, I've got someone else to work on. "So, Washu-chan," Ryoko said, as the 'Greatest Scientific Genius in the Universe™' pulled bracken from her hair, scraped algae off her hands and draped a throw-rug over herself, "Are you going to fix the mistake you made, so we can just drop in on them unexpected?"

      "No." Washu said, adding an afghan to the covering.

      "Are you coming up with another brilliant plan to let us sneak up on them unawares?" Ryoko asked with all the false and syrupy enthusiasm she could muster.

      "No." Washu added a tapestry and several beach towels to her do-it-yourself burka.

      "Are you going into your lab to develop some new super-secret, super-Washu-chan method to get us to Nerima and into our enemies' lair?"

      "NO!" Washu screamed at her from the door to her lab, then added almost inaudibly, "I'm going to develop a hair dye. Why did that stupid thing always go after me first?" The door to Washu's lab slammed closed and vanished.

      That's one, she thought as she heard Ayeka laugh, and Tenchi went racing by, too fast for anyone to catch, That's going to be interesting and useful in the future. She closed on her real target and saw Mihoshi was drenching her thoroughly disgusted partner. "Is it time for 'Space Policeman', then why is he at the front door?" Ryoko asked.

      "'Space Policeman'!?" Mihoshi asked, "He can't see me like this!" Mihoshi dashed away, leaving a Mihoshi-shaped cloud of dust.

      Ryoko grabbed Kiyone around the waist and stepped through the wall with her, a moment later they were on the roof. "Now we can talk privately," Ryoko said.

      "You could have warned me," Kiyone complained, shaken by her passage through the structure of the house.

      "Look, we went there twice," Ryoko said, "We paid dearly for it, twice. Washu's wishing she had Mihoshi's hairstyle, you and me both feel like we need to be boiled and scrubbed raw . . . " She paused to suppress her own shudders and left Kiyone alone with hers. "Funny though, Ryo-Oh-Ki is the only one who held a rational conversation with that guy, and I don't see her around. You're the detective, why don't you speculate."

      Kiyone sighed. "Because Sasami is in no danger, Ryo-Oh-Ki must have told you that. Then why have you been encouraging this - insanity?" Kiyone asked dispiritedly.

      "I have my reasons," Ryoko told her, "Now it's time for them to stop. I've got what I can, so it's time for a change. Are you up to going into Tokyo, and just having a look around?"

      "Discreet!" Kiyone admonished, "I think somebody has been playing with us. Once is an accident, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action. I don't know how Washu's teleporter messed up, and I don't want to fight anyone who could mess it up."

      Ryoko nodded. "I think that's the best attitude, just looking. We don't talk to them, we don't make ourselves known. Ryo-Oh-Ki doesn't think Sasami's in any danger, and Ryo-Oh-Ki's been with me long enough to recognize all kinds of danger."

      "Agreed," Kiyone said, exhaled, "Since we got off light this time, do you want to try to go tonight?"

      "If we go now, we won't be missed," Ryoko said, "We'll take your ship, it could be a kidnaping of a Juraian Princess, in any case it's a missing person."

      "Nothing has been reported to the Galaxy Police!" Kiyone protested.

      Ryoko leaned close. "Diplomatic, very sensitive, no official requests," Ryoko said, smiled.

      "Then I'm going too," Katsuhito said, walking from behind the chimney, shocking both women, "Sasami is my relative."

      "Welcome aboard." Kiyone regained her equilibrium. "You might even get closer," Kiyone suggested, "They haven't seen you too much."

      Katsuhito smiled, nodded. Ryoko had a feeling the `old man` had plans of his own.

     "How would you stop them? Without hurting them?" Sasami asked as they ate.

      "A little humiliation, embarrass them," Jeff said, "After getting all slimy, dirty, being made a laughing stock, they will quit."

      Sasami considered, then nodded. "Yep, getting them all filthy dirty will stop them."

      "How will you get them dirty?" Kasumi asked.

      "They won't simply walk in, they'll try something fancy. That something fancy means teleporting directly here, or to the immediate vicinity. That means a visit to Mr. Green Turtle, and his swampy pond."

      "The 'Greatest Scientific Genius in the Universe™' is no match for a competent engineer," Asuka added, "You see, good engineers will acknowledge that their opponents are capable of thought. They aren't as intelligent, but that doesn't preclude a flash of inspiration or insight that we can't foresee. There's a big difference between thinking you're the most intelligent one on the field, and thinking you're the only intelligence on the field."

      "It helps that they'll never redefine the problem, just the method," Jeff added, "You can't teleport to a location? Try a hyperspace jump, or a transdimensional gate." Jeff stood a triumphant fist in the air. "AN INFERENTIAL DISGRONIFICATION WARP ADAPTER!" What followed was a laugh that would have given Kodachi chills, then he sat down, completely calm, the only one at the table who didn't look ready to leap towards the door. "How about teleporting a car a mile or two away, and driving to the location? Maybe take a ladder with you?"

      Sasami giggled again. "They won't do that, too obvious," she said.

      They returned to the meal. Sasami leaned down and offered Ryo-Oh-Ki a carrot. The cabbit waddled forward unsteadily, then emitted a 'nyraow' and waddled away without touching it. "What's wrong with Ryo-Oh-Ki?" Sasami asked worriedly.

      "Too much of a good thing," Asuka replied calmly, slid a half-empty crate of carrots out from under the table. "One carrot is good. Two is better, but not twice as good as one. After the second crate, the next is almost not worth having."

      Sasami craned her neck under the table, she saw the empty crates. "Poor Ryo-Oh-Ki," Sasami said.

      "Be careful what you wish for," Jeff warned, "You may get it."

     Dinner, later that night, was Asuka and Jeff answering Sasami and Kasumi's `challenge`.

      "This is very strange," Sasami said of the buffet, as she sat at the counter, "All this is foreign food?" She shoveled a plate full, offering it to Kasumi, who took it gratefully.

      "How did you manage?" Kasumi stared at the variety.

      "You forget, we had practice substituting for the original ingredients," Asuka supplied as she sat at the counter and dug in.

      "You didn't teleport back to Germany to get stuff, did you?" Sasami accused as she filled her own plate.

      "Did we ask you how you got all the ingredients you used?" Jeff countered as he sampled a little bit of all the delicacies.

      "You bought all those ingredients!" Sasami said, her anger boiling up, then vanished, she turned to Asuka, in frustration, "Does he tease everybody?" She dug into her meal, enjoying all the new flavors.

      "No, there's one kind of person he never teases," Asuka supplied with a sigh, as she refilled her plate with relish, and other food.

      "Then I want to be that kind of person!" Sasami announced, crossing her arms over her chest and pouting.

      "The ones he's currently killing," Asuka replied and caught Sasami as she fell out of her chair, "You sure you want a change of status?"

      "I'm sure that I don't." Sasami sat in her chair, staring in stunned shock at Jeff, who was peacefully eating. Then Sasami glanced at Kasumi and smiled. "Can I come over tomorrow, Kasumi-chan, I had lots of fun today."

      Kasumi was nonplused by the request. "If you wish," Kasumi said, she was shocked by the young girl's eager hug. Her mien softened from her mask of contentment to real joy and a touch of sadness. "You will be welcome."

      Sasami swivelled in the stool to face Jeff and Asuka. "Can I?"

      "I thought you wanted to get away from housework," Jeff teased.

      "Asuka-san!" Sasami turned and protested.

      "I'll keep him chained up in the storeroom until you can slip away," Asuka promised.

      "Aren't ropes more popular?" Kasumi asked, catching everyone for an instant.

      "Kasumi-chan!" Sasami turned back and protested.

      "Yes? Sasami-chan?" Kasumi asked with a seeming of total innocence.

      By unspoken consensus, they ate in silence, until dessert. Somehow, Jeff and Asuka had managed to keep it secret.

      Asuka set Ryo-Oh-Ki on the counter as she cleared away the entree dishes, while Sasami set out five dessert plates.

      "Viola," Jeff said as he whisked away for cover on the cake, for the first time they could smell it. It was covered with orange-colored frosting, and Asuka stood by to intercept the cabbit as she lunged.

      "MYRRROOOW!" Ryo-Oh-Ki protested Asuka arresting her bellyflop into the middle of the carrot cake. The smiling redhead held the struggling cabbit off to the side.

      "Behave! Or all you'll get is the memory of us eating it," Jeff said harshly. No gorgon ever petrified a target so swiftly. Jeff cut a very small slice and set it on the plate before the cabbit. "That's yours, go ahead."

      The cake vanished, the plate didn't stop rattling for several moments. The cabbit was a hairs-breadth from the rest of the cake as Jeff cut much larger slices for the others. The cabbit's intent gaze followed each slice as it left the serving platter, to the individual plates, to the recipient.

      "Myraw?" Ryo-Oh-Ki asked Jeff as politely as she could.

      "No more today."

      "MYRRROOOW!" Ryo-Oh-Ki wailed mournfully, holding Jeff's wrist and crying great tears on his sleeve, "Myr- myr-myr-MYRNYROOWWMRAH!"

      "I didn't say you couldn't have more for breakfast," Jeff told the sobbing cabbit gently, scratching her behind the ears, "Remember the crates of carrots. Do you want to spoil this too?"

      "Myrow?" Ryo-Oh-Ki asked.

      "Enjoy the anticipation, sometimes wanting something is more fun than actually having it. I'll also teach you and Sasami to make it yourself. Wouldn't you like to learn how to make it yourself."

      "MYRW!" The cabbit nodded enthusiastically, then licked Jeff's hand. Sasami laughed at their antics.

      Once the dessert dishes where cleared away, Asuka glanced outside. "It's gotten dark already." She looked back at the others. "How do you feel about being bait?"

      Kasumi blanched at that, remembering the stories from others, about the creatures that ruled the Nerima nights.

      "Well, if it's that late, we should walk you home before it gets too late," Jeff said.

      Kasumi blanched again and stared at her hands. I should ask to stay, she thought, It isn't `proper`, but . . .

      "KASUMI-chan," Sasami asked in alarm, "What's wrong?!"

      "What we wanted your friends' help with, it stalks abroad at night," Jeff said, all hints of the joker had fled.

      "They are a threat to even the expert martial artists," Kasumi added, tried to control her shaking.

      "You could stay the night," Asuka offered, "We can escort you home in the morning. The others won't be home for a day or two."

      "Ryo-Oh-Ki!" Sasami said sharply. Once she spotted the creature slinking away from the cake tin, she turned back to Kasumi. "Whichever you choose, we'll protect you," she assured Kasumi, a look of grim purpose on her face. Kasumi nodded.

     "Shoot it!" Ryoko shouted as she floated above the light pole the other two were balancing on, dragging a ghostly tentacle from beneath her dress. "How'd it get so dark this early, and so fast?"

      "I've tried!" Kiyone shouted back, glad she was wearing slacks tucked into her boots, she fired another shot, to no real effect. The fog vanished where the bolt passed, but the fog closed in instantly.

      "It isn't trying to ravage you," Katsuhito slashed at the ghostly form with his sword, "It's trying to eat you!"

      "WHAT!" both women shouted in terror.

      "Myrrow?" Ryo-Oh-Ki bounded into the area illuminated by the streetlight.

      "Run away!" Ryoko shouted in fear for her friend and comrade.

      "Wait! Look!" Kiyone shouted, then in a calmer voice, "Look, the area around her is empty."

      Ryo-Oh-Ki turned around, displaying a small black crystal strapped to her back. "RYO-OH-KI!" the cabbit shouted, the crystal sending out a flare of blackness, enveloping everything.

      As the normal starlight and street lamps slowly burned through the darkness, they saw Ryo-Oh-Ki, and the fog-thing were both completely gone.

      "I think someone knows we're here," Katsuhito said.

      "Not necessarily," Kiyone countered, "Maybe somebody just sensed our attacker."

      "And sent Ryo-Oh-Ki?" Ryoko replied, staring at Kiyone, "I don't buy that for a second."

      "Home," Kiyone said, "We can come back in the morning, I want a long hot soak."

      "If her Highness hasn't permanently locked herself in and turned into a prune by staying in there all day," Ryoko said.

     The small convoy proceeded through the Nerima night, they spotted the flash of tweed that marked their advanced guard. Asuka pushed Kasumi's wheelchair. Sasami walked alongside the wheelchair, Ryo-Oh-Ki on her head, looking behind them.

      Kasumi glanced around nervously. I am none too happy going out in broad daylight, she thought, Even the `Nerimaniacs` fear the night these days. She glanced at Sasami, the little girl's grim expression disturbed Kasumi. She's a warrior, like the other two who protect me. The darkness of the night and the hidden threats within it oppressed her and made her shiver. Sasami smiled, patted her hand. There were no speeches, no bold, meaningless oaths, no proclamations of this or that virtue, she thought, They simple walk along, watching everything, saying and giving away nothing. Until it is too late for their foe. She remembered Ryo-Oh-Ki dashing forward to Jeff's position, then coming back some minutes later to happily perch on Sasami's head.

      Even such an adorable creature is a warrior, a soldier, used to fighting and killing, Kasumi thought as she glanced around, Perhaps that is what has frightened the martial artists so, that death has become real again and stalks abroad, but to Asuka, Jeff, Sasami, even Ryo-Oh-Ki, death has always been real to them, so there is nothing new for them to fear in this darkness. Only a contest of skills and powers.

      The doors to the Tendo Compound loomed out of the darkness, the doors were already open and she could hear something moving within. Jeff poked his head through the doors and waved the group forward.

      "There's nothing inside and nothing was within the walls," Jeff assured her.

      Coward, she cursed herself, If I had any courage, I would have accepted their offer to spend the night.

      Once she was safely within, they took their leave. She bid them goodbye and watched them fearlessly, but warily, march into the darkness that kept even the martial artists inside at night.

      I enjoyed their company, she thought sadly, as she rolled towards the bath, I enjoyed Sasami's laughter, and her eagerness to please and learn. I even learned a few tricks from her. She looked over the spotless house. As clean as I once was able to keep it, she thought as she looked around, With food stored in every available space. Something else I have not seen for a long while. We cooked all the perishable food that we couldn't freeze, refrigerate or preserve . . . with Sasami-chan's help. She felt an intense jealousy over the girl's effortless way of putting people at ease. Yet, they never forget she is there, Kasumi thought, What am I, a household fixture, even moreso with this chair. To laugh as she does would ill-fit a lady of the house, and I am the lady of the house, I doubt Akane will even want that job. She listened for a long while to the creaks and groans of the house. It sounds so hollow now, she thought, Maybe Nabiki-chan was right, better to leave and chase after Ranma. They could have used another cook and housekeeper. But like my fear of the darkness tonight, I don't dare go out now as I am.

     'Speak' came the disembodied order.

      "We have located not only rich new supplies of human energy," Kunzite reported to his Queen, "But Sailor Saturn as well. She does not even know. Even untransformed, she is a match for any Youma."

      'Except the Legion,' the words echoed across the worlds, 'You ask much.'

      "I offer much, Majesty," he replied, "You may have my life if I fail."

      'It was always mine to take.'

      "Of course." He bowed. "With her, and this `Jupiter's Knight` destroyed, there are none who could prevent us from taking this place. The locals fear the night - "

      'We shall make it an Eternal Night', the laughter was irritating.

      There are those who truly know how to laugh here, he thought, all the rebellion he permitted himself.

      'Let it be done.' The presence faded.

      Kunzite felt a faint stirring of pity for his victims. "Too bad, she would be a formidable ally at my side. Jupiter's Knight is more in the camp of Chaos and death than even he realizes. Such a waste." He laughed at the foolishness of his enemies.

     "Is this because we fed her all those carrots?" Jeff asked from the deck of Ryo-Oh-Ki.

      Sasami laughed at his silliness. "No, Ryo-Oh-Ki is a starship. She's always been able to do this!"

      "Impressive," Asuka admitted, "She might be a match for the EVAs, they're the great machines you saw us pilot."

      "Let's concentrate on the task at hand," Jeff blocked Sasami's argument with Asuka. Probably an assertion that Ryo-Oh-Ki would beat a dozen EVAs, he thought and steered the conversation back to safer lines, "There's one demon in particular who keeps giving us the slip, that darkness was one manifestation of its power, it also has lots of temporary servants. It draws thoughts out of people's nightmares and sends that after them."

      "Ryo-Oh-Ki!" Sasami commanded. Ryo-Oh-Ki 'mrayaw'ed in response. "The screens show the energy patterns for the entire area." Sasami touched a few crystals that had the cabbit's face reflected or projected on them. The patterns simplified. "That was the humans."

      Jeff had noted the change that had come over the little girl. She has a hardness that I've not seen here, he thought, Except in Asuka and myself.

      "Isolate these signals," Asuka pointed to the Kuno mansion and a small camp outside of town, "They can probably be removed, and any like them."

      Only a half-dozen signals remained. One suddenly zoomed off the screen at what could only be supersonic speed. One was prowling around the restaurant. Another was tracing the route between the Tendo Dojo and the Nekohanten. The one on the highest building in Nerima was a concern. "What are the energy readings on that one?" Jeff asked.

      Sasami manipulated the controls, before she could localize it, the trace vanished. Jeff glanced at Asuka, who nodded. We both know none of the martial artists and only a few of the demons could pull off that trick, he read in her expression, We both know somebody who can. Time to call in the troops and clear the battlefield.

      "Sorry," Sasami said, "It's gone."

      "Not a problem," Jeff said. Not a problem you have to worry about, he thought, I wonder if we can find a gate into dreams and get the dragon in here. Overkill with no collateral damage, is that really overkill?

      "That must be Ryoko," Sasami said, "She's looking after Kasumi-chan." The little girl peeking through the facade for a moment.

      "What about these over here?" Asuka asked, pointing to the two isolated signals.

      Sasami tried to resolve the first. "Powerful, but more like the martial artists," she said.

      "That's the children's hospital," Jeff said, "So that's where the old ba - man - has been spending his nights. Logical, that old man's one saving grace, he's fiercely protective of kids. We can safely ignore him, Sasami, you're young enough to be in the 'protect' category, and he's afraid of us."

      "Who isn't?" she murmured, then Sasami said, "That leaves one."

      "That last one is deep under Nerima," Asuka said, "Check the resonances you were using to remove the martial artists - check how many similar resonances this signal has. With all the surprises around here, I don't want to turn the main guns on some poor martial artist or ki-master in retirement."

      Sasami got an intent expression, manipulating controls, giving commands in an alien language. Asuka and Jeff exchanged looks and smiles, they recognized the tone of command and Ryo-Oh-Ki's eager responses.

      We love watching a professional work, Jeff thought, obviously Asuka thought the same, The little girl is a lot more than she looks.

      "There's only forty-seven elements of similarity," Sasami told them, "Out of over ten million possible. We can't use the main guns, too many sewer lines and water lines go through that area. It's hiding in one. The guns would make things blow up."

      "Isn't that usually a reason to fire off heavy, explosive weapons," Asuka commented.

      Sasami considered, returning to being a little girl. "Oh yeah!" she chirped, then grew serious again, "I'll go with you."

      "It won't be nice," Asuka told her, "It definitely won't be safe. You really shouldn't."

      Sasami smiled, as if she were used to that. Asuka and Jeff glanced at each other and shrugged. Maybe she is, Jeff thought.

     They walked through the storm sewers, in light environmental battle armor. Sasami was in Asuka's arms, looking over her shoulder. Ryo-Oh-Ki was outside, still a starship, monitoring their progress.

      Neither Jeff nor I wanted her to risk a slip and fall, Asuka thought within the bubble of her helmet, She can also watch our backs. They walked through the noisome mess, silently, saying nothing. The quiet is oppressive, Asuka thought, The darkness threatening to close in on us. Yep, we're on the right track. It's trying to scare us off without alerting us that it's out there.

      "They're behind us!" Sasami's voice blared through the radio and through the helmet contact.

      "They're ahead of us!" Jeff acknowledged, "They've got us right where we want them!"

     Ryoko and Katsuhito watched the progress of the battle from aboard Ryo-Oh-Ki. "Energy fire and hand-to-hand," Katsuhito commented.

      "I keep forgetting you were once Yosho," Ryoko said as she looked at the situation, "Damn, they're being flanked on both sides." Ryoko tapped the screen. "Ryo-Oh-Ki, narrow beam, high-power." She heard the beam fire. The contact spread, but reconstituted. "SHIT!" she shouted, "We have - "

      Katsuhito caught her hand. "They are aware of the movement now. Watch."

      Ryoko turned back to the screen, and watched in amazement as the two flanking forces were caught on both flanks, enfiladed and destroyed.

      "Were you rushing to join the battle?" Katsuhito asked, "Or were you trying to save them?"

      Ryoko pulled her hand free as she frowned at him, but considered the answer. "I don't like sitting on the sidelines," she complained.

      "Then consider what you need to teach Sasami, and what perhaps she can teach you."

      Ryoko stared at the old man, she frowned but held her tongue. What can a little girl teach me? she wondered.

      She watched the enemy fading in numbers and in power. She listened. Sasami is . . . giving orders? she thought in stunned amazement, watching the battle, And those two are following her orders . . . and it's working!? When the Hell did this happen?! Yeah, she's making sense, she is seeing what Ryo-Oh-Ki `sees`, but . . .

      She continued to watch as the pair destroyed the last energy source. She stared at the aftermath of the battle and the tactics they'd used. Okay, what do I have to learn from her, Ryoko thought as she peered at the screen that replayed the battle. She missed Katsuhito's grin.

     Asuka lay half-asleep in Ryo-Oh-Ki's sickbay. We wanted to draw out the enemy, she thought muzzily, Boy, did we ever. The last demons only pass through Nerima occasionally, we'd have to hunt those down all over Japan, or wait for them to drift into our sights. She sighed. I want to sleep, but I can't. We both threw caution and our humanity to the wind. He unleashed his full powers as a mage and a Great Old One, I never knew he could do those things. I . . . I barely held my own. I just couldn't give in the way he did, I couldn't be sure I'd come back as me. Then they threatened Sasami . . . and I used all I had, all that I was. All that I truly was: a monster, something inhuman . . . I don't even know why I'm bothering to try to sleep. I don't need to, or eat, or even breathe. She curled into a ball, the feeling of uncleanliness and abomination still permeating her. Crawling under her skin, through her veins, alien, yet more her than the human face she'd clung to for so long. How does Sasami even tolerate our presence?! Let alone bring us back aboard her friend/starship to treat our injuries. She should have left us to die, run away and had Ryo-Ok-Ki bombard us until we'd never reconstitute. Have Rei and her grandfather do a full Bell, Book and Candle. She turned her mind back to the demons still to be hunted. "We'll hunt them down eventually," Asuka murmured in a half-asleep voice, "No choice now."

      "I'm sure you will," came another voice, gentle, female, close to Asuka. Asuka sat up, tottering while she did, and tried to focus on the figure, all she could resolve was the remarkable resemblance to Sasami, although the woman was older, perhaps 30-40 years old. Asuka struggled to focus on the woman, she couldn't get her eyes to focus long enough to get any details or impressions.

      As she reeled, the woman caught her. "You fought well and bravely. You helped Sasami to see and understand her value. She can command, and uplift others. When you pass to the next level, we will welcome you."

      "Nobody would wanna welcome wha we'll be by then," Asuka slurred, her eyelids growing heavier by the moment. This is just a dream, she thought, Or I'm hallucinating.

      "I think I will," the woman said, smiled, "Sleep now, and dream of better days."

      Asuka could barely keep her eyes open. She slipped into the warm darkness, thinking of the nighttime astronomy lessons wrapped in her mothers arms. I thought the stars weren't important, she thought, I forgot, you can just look at them.

     Sasami's good mood had evaporated. They depended on me and Ryo-Oh-Ki, the thought warmed her still. "I can't do it!" she complained about the candle that refused to light from the force of her mind and will.

      "You just need stronger motivation," the gravelly voice told her from the darkness that surrounded her. A darkness that promised rest and protection, not vague threats and danger.

      I believe the Dragon and `Raccoon` are the same, Sasami thought frowning, They both like teasing me. "How?"

      "I can put you in my mouth, roll you around until you're thoroughly covered with dragon slobber," he said in cheerful tones as Sasami cringed, "Then you can try to create a towel."

      Sasami tried to uncurl from her cringe and change her expression from one of true horror. Direct, easily understood threats and danger . . . she thought. "That certainly is motivating," Sasami admitted, "I'll give the candle another try."

      "As you wish," the Dragon said off-handedly.

      Sasami concentrated on the candle. I can feel him smiling, she thought, frowning.

     Sasami looked at the two sleeping figures, glanced over her shoulder at Ryoko and Grandfather Katsuhito who'd watched over the three of them all night. "They're better," she said, she sighed, "I was afraid they wouldn't make it, they were both hurt so badly." She felt the tears coming. "They told me to stay behind, but I wouldn't listen."

      "What have you learned?" Grandfather Katsuhito asked.

      Sasami dried her eyes, and looked at him. She shook her head. I don't know, she thought, I helped them, telling them what Ryo-Oh-Ki saw, but they both got hurt protecting me. "I don't know."

      Grandfather Katsuhito nodded. "It is something for you to think about."

Sailor Jupiter 10 - The Battle

AUTHOR'S NOTE: After returning from Juuban and seeing Mousse on his way. Asuka and Jeff begin a search for potential allies to assist the Senshi, and to assist their own hunt for the demons in and around Nerima. Jeff's trip to Tomobiki and Tomoeda yielded nothing of use. Tomobiki was filled with stories of how wild it had been. None of the old instigators could be tracked down. In Tomoeda, the subjects were clearly unsuitable for killing their opponents, depriving them of innocence wasn't worth the extra-effort it would require of himself and Asuka.

      In Kurashiki, Okayama, Asuka had rather mixed luck. After several hours walk, she encountered a band of wild-haired crazies no less unstable than the Nerima Wrecking Crew. After rescuing a teal-haired woman from doing a meteorite impersonation in the midst of a crossfire/accident, Asuka played lost German tourist 'Can't speak Japanese or English', and retreated with all speed. However, Asuka did not know her appearance was exactly the same as a major character in Sasami's ongoing nightmares about a force that would invade and consume the world, with this lost German tourist and several others playing the part of the Earth's defenders.

      A day after Asuka's return, Sasami from the Masaki Shrine showed up literally on the Nekohanten's doorstep. In need of tendering an apology for Asuka's reception and in desperate need of a break from the chaos that has filled her life. With Jeff diverting the `rescue` party, Asuka spent several enjoyable days shopping, going to tourist sites, generally playing big sister with this lonely young lady. Sasami eventually admitted she was desperate to enlist their aid in the battle she dreamed of nightly, expecting rejection, instead she got a strategy meeting and combat training. The arrival of the girl's carrot-munching mascot/pet/guardian gave the `rescue` squad a positive lock on where the girl was staying and who had been sending them on wild goose chases (and into several battles with members of the Nerima Wrecking Crew, as a result of these, Washu has retired from the field intending to dye her hair any color but_red, likewise 'Lord' Tenchi now breaks out in a cold sweat whenever Ayeka laughs and he has returned to Okayama).

      Likewise, the Dark Kingdom has detected a locus of negative energy so strong they could revive Metallia with just that, now they've learned that this power is growing and there may be opponents who will utilize it first.

      The chapters are omitted because they only peripherally touch on the Ranma 1/2 characters and include the BSSM characters not at all.Besides, I can't give away all the surprises, yet.

      Makoto rolled over, punched the pillow and tried to get to sleep again. I used to hate this bed, because of how cramped it felt, she thought as she ran her hand over the sheets, through the unoccupied space next to her, Now it feels like I'm sleeping in a football field. Sleeping alone on a football field. She sat up, looked at the streetlight and the promise of dawn in the sky. "Might as well get up and start the day," she murmured. She stopped and considered. After the battle at the ice skating rink, I need a break, or at least a lift of my spirits, she thought, The battle was easier than any we'd been in, and not just be cause we were better than we've ever been. I guess some of his paranoia rubbed off on me, if this battle was easy, their best fighters are elsewhere.

      "I'm just making excuses to go see him," she told herself, "Well, today is Saturday, I don't need an excuse, I'll just go after school." She chuckled. "I wonder if I could convince any of the others to go into Nerima with me." She laughed as she imagined their horrified expressions at walking into Japan's open-air insane asylum.

      The eyes watched the place, Kunzite smiled as he realized he could accomplish two important goals at once. The fine, rich stew of negative energies of this place and the power of its inhabitants would serve better than the thin broth of Juuban. But I will need many soldiers to take this place, he considered, Or even to just transmit all this energy. He laughed as he turned away and entered a gateway back `home`.

      Ami and Makoto walked along the quiet streets. "This doesn't seem like the insane asylum of Japan," Ami said, "It seems like a quaint, older village, not a sprawling part of Tokyo. I can imagine why people would want to live here."

      "I also don't see martial artists flying through the air, explosions going off in all quarters," Makoto agreed as she looked around, "It doesn't seem like the stories you hear on the news or what you read in the papers."

      Katsuhito felt more like Yosho, the young noble fighting blade to blade with a power of darkness, than an old man checking up on his little sister's new friends, as he considered the young man in front of him. I am beginning to see what Tsunami sees in Sasami, and I think I can guess what Sasami saw in this place and these people, he thought, I guess I have to see for myself. "The girl," he said quietly.

      "There are several, depending on how widely you spread the net," the boy replied, his tone light and bantering.

      But he's ready for a fight and expecting a serious threat from any direction, `Yosho` realized, Good, I can ramp this up slowly. "The little girl, blue hair, pink eyes. This high, with a mark on her forehead."

      "There have been a lot of requests about her lately, few of them polite," he said as they moved easily among the tables, "Most are looking into the return of a runaway slave. What is your interest?"

      "She's my sister," Katsuhito told him. The truth sounds so impossible, he thought, How will you react to it?

      "I'm afraid I don't know a girl who's been here who would be your sister."

      "She's mine," Katsuhito added testily, "You cannot keep her from us forever." Good, eyes narrow, Katsuhito thought, You don't like that one bit, do you?

      "I didn't catch you name."

      "I didn't offer it," Katsuhito replied, "Not to a whelp like you." He drew his blade when the boy didn't react to the insult. Just stand, he thought, taking an attack stance, Do you answer steel for steel, or blast me? He jumped back. Steel it is.

      "I think you've made yourself unwelcome." The boy stood with his cane in a seemingly awkward posture, held high, point towards the floor.

      More and more interesting, Katsuhito thought, old instincts returning as he cautiously probed the defense, You aren't classically trained but it seems an adequate defense. He circled, occasionally his blade would flick out, only to be batted away by the boy's cane. A very spare style, as if he expects to fight all day. Leave his enemies to do the flashy moves, he'll wear them down.

      "What? No veiled riposte, no insults to my skill or character? Can't think of any?" Katsuhito had missed the man palming the pepper pot, he didn't miss the man hurling the contents to cover his attack.


      Katsuhito flinched, despite his glasses protecting his eyes. His desperate parry prevented his decapitation. He retreated towards the entrance. Their blades rang off each other, Katsuhito attacked high, attacked low, and retreated with every step when the attacks provoked a powerful counter. He cheats, he thought as he dodged a chair kicked at him, I'd love to get him to teach Tenchi. Parrying a series of combinations and bleeding from an unexpected punch in the mouth, Katsuhito knew the battle was serious now. He daubed the blood and thought, Time to really push. "Ah, I hear her coming now." He ran for the entrance. "I'll just - " A ball of something hit the door before he reached it. He hit the door, shoulder first, landed on the floor after crashing back through several tables. He rolled out of the way of the blade that splintered the floor boards. He jumped to his feet and realized, The shield on the door, I'd have to call on Funaho and use the LightHawk wings to get through, and it would take out the whole wall in the process! Then he saw the blade facing him, That's a Highland Claymore, not a cane! I think I pushed too hard.

      They circled, the man bouncing the empty pepper pot in his hand, blade held high. Katsuhito worried from which the attack would come. He refused to close until he knew. He thrust at the bouncing pot, its explosion threw him back.

      "You seem to have lost your weapon," the man said sympathetically as Katsuhito clambered to his feet, "Pity I haven't. Perhaps you should take a moment to consider."

      Katsuhito grabbed a salt cellar off a table and threw it at the man as he dove for fallen blade.

      "Too bad I'm not one for incrementalism."

      Katsuhito grabbed the blade and confronted a bespectacled boy munching rice crackers, "Who are you?"

      "Hey Raccoon," the boy called, "He thinks I'm going to save him from you." The boy laughed.

      Katsuhito whirled and managed to get his blade up. The blades rang on each other. He desperately beat on the man's blade, then leapt up on the table to change the battle. He jumped off as the man kicked the table over. No sense of swashbuckling, Katsuhito thought, smiling inwardly, This is going to be very interesting. Especially since there has to be another way out of here, besides feet first.

      "Ukyo! Xian Pu!" Asuka hailed the two restauranteurs, as she and Sasami walked back from their quarterstave practice. "What news from the home front? We expected you both back two weeks ago."

      "A challenge to my father, my art and our school," Ukyo told them, brandishing her baker's peel. "I won, but the idiot refused to take 'no' for an answer."

      "A nut who dresses up as a mailbox, a tree, and - " Asuka saw Ukyo's horrified look. "I'll take that as a 'yes'."

      "How'd you know?" Ukyo asked in a frightened tone.

      "New mailbox showed up," Asuka said, "It spit the mail back at some poor old lady. So Raccoon dropped a hornets' nest into it and taped the openings closed."

      Xian Pu chuckled. "Much Council business," she added sadly, "Talk of . . . " She hung her head. "Talk of force you to bring Ranma."

      "If we could leave and get him, or summon him, don't you think we would have?" Asuka asked, frowning. She glanced down at Sasami who was staring at the pair. "Were they part of your dream too?" Asuka asked her.

      Sasami looked up at her and nodded slowly.

      "She had a nightmare that involved all of us," Asuka explained, "A great battle, beating people up always cheers you two up."

      Xian Pu nodded. "What you say, Elder Cologne said, Council not believe. Westerners ins - incru - "

      "Inscrutable?" Sasami offered in Mandarin, then in Japanese, "Inscrutable."

      "Yes, that word, impenetrable face," Xian Pu said.

      "So," Ukyo asked with an obvious mixture of anger and worry, proving some orientals weren't inscrutable, "Is she another of Ranma's fiancees?"

      Asuka decided to tease back. "She's another of a half-dozen girls pledged to . . . " Asuka said, and had both Xian Pu and Ukyo's undivided and nervous attention, "Masaki Tenchi."

      The complete relief on the pair's faces was sidesplittingly funny. "She'd give both of you a run for your money over Ranma though." Asuka couldn't leave it at that. "Good cook, a good fighter, and she listens."

      Both of the combatants frowned at the reminder of their greatest weakness.

      "Speak of King of 'No Listen'," Xian Pu gestured at Tatewaki Kuno advancing.

      With a full head of steam, Asuka thought, Literally and figuratively.

      "He looks noble," Sasami offered kindly. Drawing stares from Ukyo and Xian Pu.

      "Where did she come from?" Ukyo asked.

      "I won her in a dwarf-tossing contest," Asuka told them, "Better range throwing overhand."

      "Is going much trouble," Xian Pu said, then watched as Kuno tried to open the door. "Maybe not."

      Katsuhito leapt from one table to the next, dodging the chair his opponent had tossed into his path. With Funaho's power, he summoned a LightHawk wing as a defensive barrier, then watched his opponent advance right through it. He didn't disrupt it! He walked through, Katsuhito thought, It's like it wasn't there. Or he wasn't!

      "You overdid the threats to the girl," the boy behind the counter shouted to him as Katsuhito dodged, twisted and spun to get away from the thrusts, punches and kicks that came from all sides. "Insult him, apathy; but he protects kids, he's like Happosai that way."

      'Happosai', that got him for a moment. Katsuhito took advantage to get away, putting as many tables and chairs between them as possible. "Is surrender out of the question?!" he shouted and threw a salt cellar and a handful of ohashi at his foe as he passed the tables.

      "I'm winning," he said, parrying the missiles, "Why would I give up?"

      Oh boy! Katsuhito thought, I can take that two ways. He vaulted over the counter into the kitchen. He dodged the pot of boiling soup that jumped off the stove at him. He glanced back and realized not a drop of the 50 liters of scalding liquid touched the other boy, or the swordsman who vaulted the counter and charged. Katsuhito spied the rear door and sprinted towards it. He summoned a LightHawk Wing to destroy the door, before it could be sealed. He crashed through the cloud of sawdust and out onto the street.

      Makoto glanced at the map. "This alley should be - " The old man piling into Ami brought her up short. Jeff, in full combat mode, bursting out of the same building changed things instantly. The gray-haired man dragged Ami to her feet.

      "You see, things have changed," the gray-haired man maneuvered Ami between himself and Jeff. Oddly, he did not threaten her with the sword he carried, just crouched behind to use her as a barrier.

      More then you know, Makoto considered all Asuka had taught them, some of it when Jeff wasn't there. She watched with satisfaction as Ami hit where she could reach, as hard as she could.

      The old man sagged slightly and Makoto dragged Ami clear. The old man looked up, his face etched with pain, straight into Jeff's pistol.

      "What happened to swords?" the old man offered.

      "This goes through shields. Drop it."

      The old man let the sword clatter on the ground and slowly put his hands on his head.

      Laughter came from above them. A woman with cyan hair and amber eyes, in a wild costume, glanced down at them. She continued to laugh. Makoto noted that Jeff's eye hadn't left the man.

      "Somebody finally got the better of that old trickster," the cyan-haired woman said and continued laughing.

      The old man smiled, Jeff's expression, attention and aim didn't waver.

      "Would you care to explain, or will this require a seance?" Jeff asked.

      The old man smiled again, dropped it instantly. "You see. Sasami has been depressed, she wouldn't talk about it. I wanted to make sure you weren't taking advantage of her," he offered.

      "How slowly can you kill this liar?" Ami asked sweetly, smiling adorably the entire time.

      "I think she's figured out how not to be nice," Jeff said, smiled at the old man, not anywhere near as cutely as Ami's, "Converts always show the most enthusiasm. Do you suppose she's ready for some advanced training?"

      "Ryoko?" the man asked plaintively, moving only his eyes to the woman sitting above them.

      "I'm waiting for the whole cast to assemble for the show to really start," Ryoko replied, looking bored but expectant.

      "Foul sorcerer!" a man with a bokken shouted from the end of the alley as he began his charge.

      Makoto braced herself as she recognized Tatewaki Kuno, she considered the best way to help Jeff. She was stunned when Kuno lowered his blade and slowed his advance to a mere walk. He stopped a few steps from Makoto and Ami, staring at them in stunned amazement.

      "Sailor Jupiter? Sailor Mercury?" he said in the grip of utter disbelief.

      Makoto was equally shocked. How did he recognize us? she wondered, That's not supposed to be possible, even the Generals can't see through our disguises!

      Kuno looked at Jeff, who'd knocked the old man over and had a foot across the man's throat. Jeff had stowed his pistol and had his cane out.

      From four meters away, Kuno pointed his bokken at Jeff. "Of course, Jupiter's Knight!" Kuno laughed, "Such a joke!" He sobered an instant later, slipping his bokken in his waistband and extracting a pad of paper and a calligraphy brush from his shitagi. "If you would be so kind. I am among your most ardent admirers."

      I've heard more terrifying threats, Makoto thought as she took the pad, Just sign it and run, let Jeff and the crazy man deal with this crazy man. "Ah, do you have a pen, I'm not good with a brush." She glanced at Jeff, who still had the old man pinned. Do you know how appalled I am that Kuno is a fan? Makoto wanted to ask him, and was even more horrified when Kuno began patting himself down.

      "I have one, it's a fountain pen," Jeff said as he handed it over without taking his eyes off the old man.

      "I say - " the gray-haired man began and fell silent as the tip of Jeff's cane touched his nose.

      "I wouldn't, if I were you," Jeff told him coldly.

      "While it is appreciated," Kuno replied, "It in no way absolves you of guilt, foul sorcerer."

      Might as well be as ludicrous as everyone else, Makoto thought as she snapped the pad shut. "He - is - NOT a sorcerer!" Makoto shouted at Kuno, advancing on him step by step. She was shocked when he began to retreat. Go for broke, she thought. "He's a shaman!" she shouted, backing him against the wall and slapping him in the chest with his own autograph book, "He cares for the spirits in his charge." She ignored Kuno's horrified expression and Ami's gasp, and tried to stay mad. "A sorcerer is a torturer, a destroyer. He is a shaman, a maker of deals, caring and nurturing!" I've got Kuno Tatewaki afraid of me! she thought, her intoxication with the power didn't prevent her from realizing, It can't last, better give him an out. But it was FUN! She leaned close and growled at him.

      "Deceptive shaman?" Kuno offered to appease the angry goddess.

      Makoto leaned back, seeming to consider. "Yes, I think that is acceptable," she said, flipping the book open, "Even accurate. Who do I make this out to?" She heard a thump behind her. She turned to see the cyan-haired woman, Ryoko, fall face-first to the street. Poor dear, Makoto thought, Jeff and Asuka explained that in Nerima, 'You are either the Coyote, who assumes things should work logically, or the Roadrunner, who doesn't let reality interfere'.

      "Kuno Tatewaki," Kuno said carefully, as if testing the ice he knew was too thin.

      "Kuno Tatewaki, not the Blue Thunder? Kuno Tatewaki, a steadfast samurai, Sailor Jupiter." She finished, handed the book and pen to Kuno. "Follow me, and behave!" she ordered, then lowered her voice, "Sailor Mercury is a proper lady, not a fighter like I am. You will be on your best behavior, or - "

      " - or - ?" Kuno asked.

      Come on, you made the threat, what's a good one, a strong one, she thought desperately, then it occurred to her, "Shamans speak to speak to spirits, to ancestors. I'll have my Knight tell your kin how you disgraced them all before a lady of high-standing and refined temperament, a defender of all Japan." She almost laughed outloud when all the color drained out of his face. Is that all it takes to win around here? A glib tongue and a great big pile of . . . attitude?

      Kuno nodded and fell in behind her. Ami looks ready to jump out of her skin, Makoto thought as she passed the book and pen from Kuno to Ami, Come on, smile. No, don't look sick, smile. Makoto thought as she smiled at Ami.

      "To Kuno Tatewaki?" Ami managed without throwing up.

      Kuno took her hand. "Anything would set my heart to singing, I would - AIEE!"

      Jeff dragged Kuno off by his collar. Ryoko was helping the old man to his feet.

      "Mommy!" came the cry from the other end of the alley. A small girl with pale blue hair and pink eyes ran from Asuka's side towards the cluster in the alley, stretching out her hands as she ran. Three other girls accompanied Asuka. Only one of the three had normal hair, the other two had two very different shades of purple.

      Ami knelt down to catch the dashing little girl.

      To everyone's shock, Makoto's not the least, the girl leapt up and into Makoto's arms, hugging Jupiter's Senshi tightly. "Mommy, it's good to see you!" she told Makoto with a happy laugh that had Makoto smiling. The little girl rubbed her cheek on Makoto's and laughed some more. "You have to look after daddy," she said, then whispered loudly, "He needs a lot of looking after."

      Makoto laughed at that, shifting the girl to a more comfortable position for both of them. "Yes, yes he does." She's adorable, she thought, hugging the girl tightly and getting one back, But why 'Mommy'? And why big, ole scary me, and not cute and cuddly Ami? She could practically feel the joy radiating off the girl as they held each other. Not that I'm complaining, she thought as she rested her head on the girl's shoulder and rocked her side to side. Jeff said I couldn't be a mommy if I was a Senshi, she thought sadly, I want to be a mommy, I want to be a wife, I . . . don't want the world destroyed just to be one.

      "Why are you crying?" the girl asked, her face filled with the strange wisdom of children.

      "Just worried about silly things." She rubbed her nose on the little girl's, setting off a stream of giggles.

      "Daddy'll have poor Kuno-san all spinny," the girl assured her, "And you want to be all pretty for the picnic Auntie Asuka wants to go on, with Ukyo-san and Xian Pu-san."

      "You shouldn't call a girl like her `Auntie`," Makoto warned, "It makes her sound old."

      "She wants to be old." She got a spooky, fearsome look. "And compelling." The girl frowned and shook her head, not understanding how someone wouldn't want to be kawaii.

      If anyone could pull it off, Makoto thought, It would be Asuka. She glanced at Jeff and Tatewaki, the latter with his bokken firmly against the former's throat, yet Jeff's attitude was that he had the upper hand.

      "You would deceive me!" Tatewaki said in a threatening tone.

      "I merely pointed out how you were scaring them. Isn't it a principle that a samurai doesn't need to prove his strength? I never read anywhere that it was confined to combat."

      Kuno seemed to consider, then raised his bokken slightly, forcing Jeff to stand on his tip-toes. "You are trying to deceive me," Kuno said with utter certainty.

      "Of course I am. All you have to decide is whether I told you the exact course to follow for perfect success, knowing you would never believe me; or if I added a hidden trap for you to avoid; or if I left out a critical bit. Your choice."

      Makoto felt sympathy for Tatewaki as his eyes glazed over, then crossed.

      "When daddy talks to me, I feel the same way," the little girl said, "Spinny."

      "Yes," Makoto said, bounced her on her hip, making the little girl laugh delightfully and hold on tighter. I know this 'Mommy' is Jeff trying to prove something to somebody, she thought, Is it me, or somebody else? This girl's too old to be 'Little Miss Marker'. Or is it a game for all of us to play?

      "Sasami!" one of the violet-haired girls approached in a snit, oozing more offended dignity at the world than even Asuka could manage. "How dare you ignore your place and duties!"

      "Mommy!" Sasami, the little girl, wailed and `hid` in Makoto's hair, "Make the scary old lady go away!"

      The other purple-hair thought it was hilarious, the violet-hair was dumbfounded. Ryoko, the cyan-haired street-pizza was laughing so hard, she'd practically curled into a ball.

      Kuno and Jeff returned. Tatewaki kept glaring out of the corner of his eye at a smiling Jeff. Kuno stood before Ami, bowed formally.

      I'm not sure which of the two is more nervous, Makoto thought as Kuno carefully took Ami's hand, turned it and kissed her knuckles. Very European, Makoto thought as she and Sasami watched. Then Kuno gave Ami a rolled-up piece of paper and took two steps back, to glare at Jeff again. Before Tatewaki could do or say anything, Asuka grabbed him by the ear and dragged him off.

      "Unhand me!" Kuno demanded, waving his bokken.

      "You can't hit me!" Asuka replied haughtily, "I'm a noncombatant, and I'll hurt you." She dragged him a short difference away and began delivering a blistering lecture, if he tried to touch her, he yanked his hands back and blew on them as if Asuka were burning hot.

      Makoto felt a tugging and the little girl, Sasami tightened her grip.

      "Sasami you have responsibilities," the violet-haired one told Sasami while tugging on her arm.

      Makoto twisted the older girl's arm to break her grip on Sasami. Once she'd freed Sasami, Makoto stepped out of the other girl's reach and gave the arrogant her best 'Glare of Death'. Jeff stepped into the girls path, standing at his full height. He's going to let her have it, Makoto recognized the stance and aura, the lack of humanity, But this is Humanity's defender, even if it isn't human.

      "What? As your personal maid, to cook and clean? Because you're too delicate, refined and helpless to be trusted with your own upkeep?" Jeff asked with real anger. The frightened girl gave ground. Makoto noted Ryoko looking on passively. "I know who you are," Jeff said coldly.

      The `beast`, Makoto thought, That ball of alienness and hatred he keeps `chained`, that's what we're seeing now, and that fool hasn't realized it.

      "First Princess of the Jurai, if they haven't simply labeled you lost and erased you, and moved everyone else up a step. What you are is fairy dust around an empty soul."

      The Princess's features contorted in rage, dozens of small wooden objects formed around her. Jeff simply stared at her. The Princess's face went slack, her breath came in short gasps, he hands came up slowly as she backed away from Jeff. He continued to stare at her.

      "No. No. It's not true," the Princess fell to her knees and began weeping.

      "That isn't what I put there, Princess," Jeff said coldly, "It all comes from you. I merely fixed it so you can no longer deny it."

      "No," the Princess whispered, looked at the old man, "Yosho, it isn't true, is it?"

      The old man seemed at a complete loss. Jeff quit staring, returning `the beast` to its cage and walked away.

      "It's not true, it's not true," the Princess hugged herself and repeated it over and over as she buried her face in her hands.

      Sasami struggled in Makoto's arms, Jeff laid a hand on the younger girl's shoulder. "Let the lesson take. Wanting isn't the same as getting, and even Princesses aren't entitled to some things, they have to be earned. Getting them without that means theft, whatever wrapper you put on them."

      Sasami nodded, for an instant looking not like a little girl, but the face of wisdom itself. "You could have found a gentler way," Sasami scolded, as if one god to another. Makoto began feeling very worried at being front and center at a conflict of Titans.

      Jeff shook his head. "Pain is part of growth," Jeff said, another god looking down from the mountaintop, "Better it is something she can discount once the deterrent is understood."

      Sasami laughed, breaking the spell, making the two seem more like kids who got away with filching cookies than the near-divinities they'd been a moment before.

      But I saw it, Makoto reassured herself, I saw it on both of them! Before she could ask, Ami squealed. That sounds more like Usagi or Minako.

      "Look at this!" Ami shouted happily, holding the paper in front of Makoto's and Sasami's faces, "Isn't it wonderful?! Isn't it romantic?!" And it was gone, Ami dashed over to Kuno, threw her arms around him for a brief hug, then dashed away. When Kuno moved to pursue, he glanced at Asuka who was staring at him with a raised eyebrow and tapping her foot. Kuno remained silently standing where he was, his head bowed.

      "Why do I picture her with a whip and a chair, and a whole pride of lions cowering in the corner of their cage?" Makoto asked.

      "Because you're a keen judge of character," Jeff replied, "I think she'd try it in the middle of the Serengi."

      "She scares me," Ryoko said.

      "Kino Makoto, this is Hakubi Ryoko, the space pirate," Jeff made the introductions, "She's not very bright."

      "What's that!?" Ryoko snarled at Jeff, fists clenched, fangs bared.

      "If you were paying attention," Jeff continued as if he were not one word from being torn limb from limb, "You would have realized that - " He leaned close and whispered something to Ryoko, whose anger dropped away completely. The space pirate looked blankly at Sasami, who smiled, then at the First Princess, who was recovering from her ordeal. Ryoko pointed at Sasami, Jeff nodded, then at the First Princess, Jeff nodded. She repeated her action, and Jeff repeated his, until Makoto felt her blood pressure beginning to rise.

      "Will you - " she growled.

      "Sa -Sasami," Ryoko stammered, "You and Ayeka - your father - same man - had two different wives?"

      "Uh huh!" Sasami said happily, nodding and grinning.

      "At the same time?"

      "Uh huh," Sasami nodded again, but sounded a little confused.

      "Of course you'd have to find someone willing to share," Jeff said as he reached down to a rather rabbity-looking creature who'd been standing out of sight behind Makoto and Sasami. He carefully balanced the animal on Sasami's head, making the creature purr and Sasami giggle, "But to share something so close to the soul, where would you possibly find such a person?" He smirked at Ryoko and Sasami, the former blushed, the latter's giggles became nervous.

      Makoto had had enough. "When he gets that grin on his face, feel free to slap him," she told everyone, but Ryoko and Sasami were in their own little worlds of happiness. The most likely taker, the First Princess, was still hors de combat from her last clash. Kuno was utterly focused on Ami dashing around showing everyone the scroll, and looking like a lion denied a ton of fresh meat, because of the terrifying thing standing right next to him.

      "Don't bother," Asuka said from her position next to Kuno, "I've tried, it only makes it worse the next time he's right."

      She glanced at Yosho, the only one who seemed to be paying close attention. He looks like Jeff and Asuka do when they're studying something, Makoto thought as she traced his eyeline to its targets. The other two girls stood a distance away, as if waiting for a battle to break out. Both nodded when Ami displayed the scroll Kuno had given her.

      "It looked like . . . math," Sasami whispered as they watched, "In calligraphy."

      Makoto nodded. I couldn't even recognize it as math, she admitted to herself. "I know I'm going to regret asking you," she said to Jeff, "What was on that?"

      "A love letter."

      "It was math," Makoto countered.

      "Yes," Jeff said and smiled, "Think about it, this is Nerima."

      "If I lean over, can you hit him for mommy?" she asked Sasami, who suddenly stiffened as she stared off in space.

      "No," the girl breathed, "No. No. No."

      "Come on!" Jeff dashed towards the end of the alley, Makoto on his heels. The two girls immediately readied their odd weapons, a baker's peel and a pair of balls on sticks, painted to look like two giant candies. As they ran from the alley, Jeff glanced at Sasami and took her gaze as the compass point. They continued to run until they reached an open area. Ryoko, Asuka, Kuno and Yosho joined them a moment later. Ami arrived with a bespectacled boy, the two of them practically dragging the 'First Princess' with them..

      "No," Makoto heard herself mirror Sasami's soft cries of despair as the little girl buried her face in Makoto's shoulder. General Kunzite, Makoto thought desperately as she scanned the scene, And over thirty youma! This is where they were! We've had trouble with just a few. The other Senshi aren't here. Moon isn't here! I can't let all these people be killed - Then she looked around at the grim faces, the hands gripping weapons. It's as if they can sense that the youma and the general are enemies, she thought, Enemies of all of us.

      Kuno laid a gentle hand on Sasami's shoulder. "Be at ease little one. My blade and your `father's` dark so . . . trickster magics - can defeat any opponent."

      It's pretentious and arrogant, Makoto thought, But somehow he believes, that is comforting.

      "Thank you," Sasami said, drying her eyes, but still clinging to Makoto.

      Kuno began marching for the assembled youma. Jeff grabbed his collar to haul him back. Kuno's blade effectively materialized under Jeff's chin. "You take - "

      "No bokken or blade, no matter how noble or determined the samurai wielding it, can pierce their flesh, let alone pierce the armor of their general," Jeff recited emotionlessly, "He's the only one on the whole field who matters."

      "It would require a blade of the deepest enchantment?" Kuno said disparagingly, then added like a man sucking lemons, "And you of course have one? Of course you do."

      "I might be able to beat him, his blade and his spells, with my support, I know you can."

      Before Kuno could reply, Asuka spoke up, "Jeff and I will cut you a hole, you go straight in, we'll keep your flanks clear. Just between your blades."

      Kuno visibly puffed up at that suggestion.

      "We'll," Yosho said as he and Ryoko approached, "Keep things one-on-one."

      "Very well," Asuka said, "Old man, you're with Ryoko."

      "Do you have sufficient experience with each other's fighting style?" Jeff asked.

      Both Ryoko and Yosho chuckled. "Yes," Yosho assured them.

      "What about us?" Makoto asked. She shifted nervously, not knowing what to expect, and afraid of any answer.

      "You're the killing zone, keep them from swarming Ukyo and Xian Pu and they can't possibly match you."

      "We'll transform," Ami said fiercely.

      "So, two Soldiers and their fools. Are you all ready to die?" Kunzite called out.

      "Of course. Are you?" Kuno asked, accepting the long war sword and took a few practice strokes. "The balance changes," he said quietly.

      "Think of it as a weight shifting inside it," Jeff explained, "Like lead shot or mercury."

      "Mercury," Kuno said warmly, smiled at Ami, who blushed and posed, becoming the very epitome of cute.

      Makoto looked over `her` force. Me, Ami, Sasami, Ukyo and Shampoo, is that her name? The boy with the glasses, and the First Princess who can summon sticks, she wondered how long the force could hold.

      "A brave show," the general said, "It will not avail you." He gestured and the youma surged forward, straight into Ryoko and Asuka's fire. Over a third fell in the first sweep, then Yosho and Jeff charged the line, blades flashing, and the slaughter truly began.

      Makoto smiled as she saw fear on the face of Kunzite who'd so frightened the Senshi time and time again. Not so fun when the shoe's on the other foot, eh?

      Kuno Tatewaki quietly despised the . . . man who'd given him the blade. I have not lost to him, but I have not been victorious, he thought as the two inferior swordsmen and their partners destroyed the enemy soldiers, he looked up, There is a foe more worthy. Let these dregs battle, I shall prove my worth against their master. He watched the pairs , Asuka and the devious shaman, then Yosho and Ryoko. I doubt any of them could best me in an honorable clash of arms, but only a fool would take them lightly. He watched the enemy break against them like waves of an angry sea against the rocks. He looked at the leader, who looked as if his plan had begun to unwind.

      I shall unravel it all , just - "Now!" Kuno surged through the gap they had cleared. "Stand for my steel!" he shouted as he prepared to attack or dodge.

      The `general` barely got his own blade up to parry Kuno's strike. The general thrust up, and tried to turn away. Kuno feinted and struck at the man's overcompensation, laying open his sleeve.

      The man glanced at the welling blood, face contorted in rage. He shouted in rage, but leapt away.

      Kuno smiled with the realization, So that is why he tried to entice me into this battle. This general cannot flee from the Blue Thunder. Kuno leapt, arriving first and savored the general's realization. I hold the ground, he thought as he struck, the man's parry deflected the main force, but his armor kept the blow from penetrating his flesh. The man rolled out of range of Kuno's next blow. He gestured, Kuno braced himself as the spell curled around him. It fades, he realized, So the shaman deals with your sorcery - "While you face my steel! Face heaven's wrath in the person of the Blue Thunder!" he shouted as he charged, striking like a whirlwind of divine retribution. He saw the four intercept a platoon and cut into them. "Call forth your legions! Let us slay them all and have an end to this!"

      "My legions," the general sneered, even as Kuno's relentless assault drove him back, "So be it, on your head!" He attacked furiously, striking high, low, feinting to confuse.

      Kuno parried easily, but wept inwardly that such a master swordsman should put himself against the gods. He has increased his skill, Kuno realized, Finally, an opponent to truly match my blade. "So, now I am a threat?" he insulted.

      "You will soon find out." The general attacked with might and precision, forcing Kuno onto the defense. Steel rang on steel, Kuno steeled himself to ignore the sparks thrown by their clashing blades. "You will soon understand how great a threat." The entire area burst into flame, screams of the victims rang from the buildings around them. Kuno made a frantic parry as the general attacked while his warrior-poet's heart lamented the lost. The flames and screams vanished as suddenly.

      Kuno drove his blade through the general's offside arm. "Trickster!" Kuno threatened as he twisted it, "You should have paid your magic bill." Calm, he ordered himself as he pulled the blade free for a lethal strike, Do not play the fool. The world depends on my victory.

      The general's riposte bound Kuno's blade with his own. Kuno's elbow smashed the man in the face. I will not lower myself to cheap tricks, he thought, as he struck the man's wounded arm with his other shoulder, But in a clash of arms, all blows are fair. Damn his armor for turning my mightiest blows to mere scratches!

      "So I must scratch you to death sorcerer!" Kuno shouted,. "I strike! Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike!" The force of the air pummeled the man back, battering him against and through a heavy stone wall.

      Kuno heard the sounds of battle closing on him, the clattering of the general's retainers rushing to his defense. The sound of gunfire, and the tramp of boots ceased. Kuno smiled as his blows cut the man's armor. They do not penetrate, Kuno thought as the general launched his counterattack, and found Kuno's blade in the way of every stroke. Kuno yawned. "I may come down with a cold from the breeze."

      "I will kill you for your insolence!"

      "By pneumonia no doubt." Kuno yawned again, but didn't lower his guard. "Your blade makes near as much wind as your mouth." I have heard such insults to my skill, he thought, They sting do they not?

      The general's wounded arm shot forward, a beam of light lashed out, stopping short of Kuno.

      Another tactic, Kuno thought and drew a rose from his shitagi and held it above his head, Your defense is not as skilled now, is it? You expect the attack, as from Tuxedo Mask. Kuno feinted with the rose while driving his strokes home. Again his cursed armor protects him, Kuno raged then sought the calm duty gave, I am unwounded. I shall outlast him. Perhaps I will give Asuka the privilege of the killing stroke.

      Kuno drew back for a moment, to glance around and to entice the man into another doomed frontal assault. The monsters had fallen by the dozens. Some few had broken past. But the cooks are equal to the task, Kuno thought, The Senshi break up the formation and they are on the anvil.

      He parried the man's `sneak` attack and he felt his punch break several of the man's ribs. "Your army seems to lack it's desired effect," Kuno told the man as he advanced, his blade ready.

      The man sagged and spat blood on the ground. "Perhaps you should look again." Then he leapt away.

      Damn, I overestimated his weakness, he glanced back to where an entire enemy phalanx was advancing. "Mercury!" he shouted and pointed as the four warriors closed on him. They turned to see the peril, except the shaman who pointed at Kuno. Kuno whirled to see the general appear out of an illusion. Kuno raced to get his blade up to block, a race he lost by a hair's-breadth as the general's blade entered his gut. Now the general twisted his weapon free and staggered away in earnest as Kuno stared in shock at the spreading stain. Kuno felt the welling blood, smelt the latrine odor and knew he had failed. The world might curse me in it's final days, he thought as his knees began to bend, To be fooled, when all depends on me, I deserve no less.

      Before he could collapse to the ground, a powerful grip, painful to bear, closed on his shoulder. He would not cry out, but their was no pain, from his shoulder or his wound. He pulled his shitagi aside to stare that the wound, It crawls together, he thought as his strength and purpose returned full-force, the feeling of the wound vanished. He stood up, this time dragging the shaman with him.

      Kuno glanced at the hunched figure and especially the spreading stain where Kuno had been wounded. "Trust the others to do their jobs," the shaman gasped as he straightened up, "You do yours."

      Kuno stood dumbfounded. He took the wound, why? He is my foe, unworthy - A blade of pure flame thrust between them and into the face of an enemy forming out of the mist. The creature was too surprised to even cry out as it died.

      "You two need a keeper!" Asuka snarled at the pair of them, "I sent Ryoko back to help them. NOBODY TOLD YOU YOU COULD TAKE A BREAK! WHAT DO YOU THINK THIS IS? THE EMPEROR'S BIRTHDAY PARTY?"

      "Yes, ma'am," Kuno stammered, pulling the shaman fully erect. He quietly asked the shaman, "Does she love you or hate you?"

      "At the moment?" the shaman asked in reply as Kuno leapt after the fleeing general.

      "You're an idiot," Asuka told Jeff, "Fortunately so is our opponent. He keeps throwing more troops at the Senshi, he should be tossing them at us. And why did you pick him, any of the four of use could have done as well."

      "True, but him doing it means we do something else." Jeff told her. She glanced at where the Senshi, Sasami and part of the Nerimaniacs were holding off another mass wave attack.

      Sailor Jupiter watched another wave of youma throw themselves uselessly at the barrier the 'First Princess', Ayeka, and her floating sticks had called up and continued to hold. Jupiter didn't know what about the youma had reduced Ayeka to a gibbering wretch. She's holding the barrier that only lets them come at us through that narrow opening, Jupiter thought, Sasami's got a touch of it was well, so I can't fault her. She's doing her best and it's good enough. Jupiter sighed, patted Sasami's shoulder. I'm so tired it hurts, she thought as she unleashed another blast of Supreme Thunder at a group of youma that had torn a gap in Mercury's bubble barrier.

      New trick, Jupiter thought proudly, Instead of being disconnected, these bubbles hold together more. The youma have to force their way between in ones and twos, or tear the bubbles apart. She watched one such youma slip through. Mousse's chain wrapped around it's legs, tripping it, then Ukyo and Shampoo dispatched it with ruthless efficiency.

      "Shabon Spray!" Mercury practically whispered as she knelt, having long ago lost the strength to stand, more bubbles streamed out to reinforce the barrier. While main youmas made gestures and faces as they tried to breech the barriers. Mercury hung her head. "Mako-chan," Ami said, tears running down her face, "It hurts, so tired it hurts so much."

      "Hold on Ami-chan, hold on, it will be over soon," Makoto assured her friend, signaling Sasami to sit with Ami. One way or another, Makoto kept to herself, Those three are still fresh and ready to fight, but without Ayeka's and Ami's barriers we would have been overwhelmed by the first wave. Even with them, I've never fought so hard, so many of them. I can't do much more. I can only pray the others finish soon.

      She watched with joy as Ryoko tore into the enemy, raining death down on them. "Ami-chan, they sent help," she told her friend, "We'll make it." We'll live through this, she thought, elation dampened by utter exhaustion.

      "You!" the general exclaimed, "You're dead, I killed you."

      "My ally can trick even death it seems," Kuno said levelly, "Your tricks, he shreds with contempt. You cannot return home, he drew you here to slaughter your forces before the final assault." I will kill you for what you have done to me! Kuno thought with surprising serenity, The debt I owe that shaman for the privilege of defending all Earth and killing such a threat, Kuno thought as steel rang on steel. The general's speed had slowed, Kuno's icy fury gave him strength and skill he'd never known before

      That alone would require near a lifetime to repay. He bound the general's blade and delivered a trickster inspired blow with his knee, only the general's armor protected him. Then he saved me from death, so I could accomplish this, Kuno thought as he felt Hachiman himself cooling his rage and guiding his arm, Nothing, not my life nor my death will balance that, worse still, he will not even acknowledge the debt is owed. I will kill you not for pleasure, or rage, or even to acquit my debt, but because it is expected.

      His blows cut into the armor, knocking away the general's blade with scorn, concentrating on his goal. The nicks expanded to cuts, the cuts grew together and the armor fell like drops of rain. Drops of blood mixed with it, none of it Kuno's.

      Still, Kuno drove the general back, stroke by deliberate stroke. "What do you want?" the general stammered, "Money, power, a position of authority?"

      "A hush, while I chop you to pieces," Kuno replied, "Would be most welcome. No screaming please." Tatewaki knew he had the upperhand. He has not resorted to his foul trickery again, he thought as he circled, his foe making no attacks, A trap surely.

      His blade flicked in, the general barely managed the parry. "You tricks have not prevailed, your sword will not save you," Tatewaki considered the final stroke, "You seek the subjugation of this orb's life, I cannot allow that."

      His foe grimaced. "I could offer you a place, give you that girl and any other you desired."

      Kuno's eyes narrowed. They are already mine, he thought, I need no help from this betrayer to win what is mine. "Fools like you stand between us," Kuno said cooly, he braced himself for one last trick before the deathstroke.

      His foe cast his blade away, spread his arms wide. "Then slay me."

      It is a trap, and an opportunity! Though the cost me life, I will strike! Kuno raised his blade, ready for any trap he could envision. If I fall in such a noble cause, it is as the gods demand!

      "She'll never forgive you, killing an unarmed man who'd surrendered. They'll all hate you."

      Tatewaki did not pause, though he cursed the truth of his foe's words. I shall survive, he thought, then held his stroke, Let him think his words have done this. He stepped away and lowered his blade to a guard position.

      Hands, oddly hairless, reached out of the shadows towards his enemy's throat. As Kuno watched, the hands twisted unnaturally on their wrists.

      Kuno's disgust knew no bounds. No human anatomy would permit that, nor would rational geometry, he thought as he brought his blade up to strike, to divert the general's attention. The hands clamped around the general's throat and snapped his neck. Then the hands released the general, allowing him to slump to the ground. The wrists went through the reverse of their disquieting motions, to return to a more human orientation at the ends of the arms.

      Such movements would only be possible if Euclid were wrong, or worse a lying madman, he thought as his stomach lurched with the memory of what he'd just seen. The figure that stepped out of the shadows did nothing to settle his mind or stomach.

      Regal bearing, Kuno thought and saluted with his blade before reassuming the guard position, No eyebrows, nor eyelashes, no facial hair at all. A ploy to disturb the observant? Or a bizarre alteration like the wrists. Kuno found he had no answers.

      "He wass right," the sibilant voice said smoothly, "Sshe, the only one who might love you, sshe wouldn't have undersstood. Perhapss you owe me."

      "You have spoken too long with that mercenary," Tatewaki replied, unconsciously giving ground, but intently keeping his blade between them.

      "All I assk iss that you give the boy a messssage, and lissten to the wissdom of an old man." He glanced around, shook his head with disappointment. "All meassured, plotted and made `neat`!" he said with massive contempt, then turned like a striking snake to stare at the scion of the Kuno House with unblinking eyes. "There are no dragonss here."

      "What was that message?" Kuno asked, his skin crawling from this . . . creature's mere presence. He hazarded a glance over his shoulder. Where are the others? he wondered.

      "We are quite alone," the man told him, "There'ss elssewhere and there'ss here."

      I neither know, nor seek to know, Kuno thought, I shan't lower my guard.

      The man reached up and tapped the tip of Kuno's sword away, Kuno instantly returned it to a picture-perfect guard position.

      Then the blade tumbled from his numbed fingers. Kuno's other hand was not better, even his legs were weakening. "Poison!" he accused the man.

      "A ssubtle one. You won't die, but I sshall have time to explain, and you to negocciate," the man told him.

      Kuno sagged to the ground, the man caught him, lowering him to lie across the general's corpse. Then he arranged Kuno's paralyzed hands around the general's throat.

      My hands match perfectly the markings, Kuno realized, As if he'd been strangled from the front not from behind. But why?

      "You'll be helplessss for a while. There iss a ccertain clarity and freedom in true helplessssnesss, which iss different from weaknesss. Ssecond, there are timess when battless musst be losst, for warss to be won. You'll have an exccellent opportunity to invesstigate the asspects of both. And third, thisss isss important."

      Kuno stared into those unblinking eyes, falling into their depths, feeling the ancientness of them.

      "The dealingss of the godss are the provincce of the godss. Mortalss sshould not ssimply tread with care, mortalss ssshould not tread at all. The message, tell the boy 'You should have called me sooner' he will know."

      Kuno watched helplessly as the odd man tossed his blade a long way away, then reached out his hand. The general's sword flew into the odd man's hand as if on a string. The odd man knelt down, placing the general's blade in the dead general's hand, closing the dead man's fist around the hilt and holding it that way.

      "I offer you the ssame deal," the odd man said, "I give you the girl, but your mussst defend her, that iss my pricce."

      Before Kuno could agree or protest, the odd man struck Kuno with the pommel of the general's sword and Kuno slumped into unconsciousness.

Sailor Jupiter 11 - The Kidnapings

      Katsuhito looked at the restaurant and the activity or lack of it. The two women chefs were mixing up large batches of their specialties: ramen and okonomiyaki. Ayeka was sitting motionless in the corner. Feeling very sorry for herself, he thought, Disappointing. Sasami has shaken off what gripped her, by being with others. Poor Ayeka, a touch of weakness, a touch of needing or helping others, and you could be so much stronger. Show your frailty and let them nurture and protect for you. He shook his head.

      Ryoko was across the room at the counter where she awaited the food. Also not expected, Ryoko as servant, she's also telling them all the lies soldiers do after a battle, he thought, then let himself smile, It was fun. His body sent twinges throughout. Just not something to do everyday, he reminded himself. Mercury holding a bowl of broth to young Kuno, carefully spooning the soup to the paralyzed boy, Katsuhito thought then glanced to the other side, The other boy said the effects would fade with rest. He stared at the far corner where Sasami and Makoto had helped carry Jeff, who expended all of his strength preventing the general from deploying his powers, or escaping. Then he healed all our serious hurts, Katsuhito thought examined the cut one youma had given him, Not even a scar, the boy does good work.

      He continued to pace, trying to burn off the nervous energy he felt without infecting the others with it. Once he'd laid down, Sasami had burst into tears, offering apologies and hugging him tightly. Then Makoto `mommy` had laid down so Sasami was enclosed, cocooned by them, he smiled at the thought, Makoto stroking Sasami's hair, singing the girl a lullaby until she fell asleep. The boy only remained awake a little while longer, as the song worked it's magic on him too. He stood still and watched the girl her arms wrapped around her two charges. If I walked over there, he thought, I'd be challenged, and possibly attacked. He smiled at that, at the feelings around him. Glanced over at Ayeka, every inch the Juraian noblewoman, and shook his head sadly.

      He sat down at the counter as Ryoko returned from giving Asuka and Mousse something to eat as the pair `patrolled` outside. Those two are still spoiling for a fight, he thought, then looked at Ryoko. "You seem pleased."

      "Just something I never realized," the Space Pirate was gone, leaving behind a woman deeply in love and at peace with herself, she carried the okonomiyaki to Makoto, who smiled but waved her off. Ryoko set it down next to Ayeka and withdrew without a word or gesture. Katsuhito waited until Ryoko returned to the counter before he continued.

      "What?" I'd like to know about anything that would make you so tolerant of Ayeka, so suddenly and completely, he thought.

      Ryoko scooped up Ryo-Oh-Ki and set her in her lap, the two facing each other, before she answered, "For a long time it was just the two of us, then Kagoto made . . . then all those years alone in the cave. All that time, all I wanted was to be free," she said, stared sadly off in space, "Then, I found somebody I wanted to give up some of my freedom to be with. To really be with him, I was sure I'd have to give up all my freedom, to be - what I always fought against." She looked down at Ryo-Oh-Ki, who'd curled up and gone to sleep in her lap. "I could have what I wanted, at the cost of never again being who I really am. Then there were others, who were after what should have been mine, if I could . . . "

      "Give up who you were," Katsuhito said, he nodded, "I think you're making marriage harder than it really is. Both husband and wife give up things, Tenchi would have to give up things as well."

      "Not who he is," Ryoko replied softly, "Then I found out, it wasn't all my freedom that I'd have to give up, just my unwillingness to share . . . and perhaps, I'd already done it. After all, a king needs a courtly lady to be on his arm. A king also needs someone to tell him the truth that lies beyond the palace walls." Ryoko smiled happily at him. "I'm as common as dirt, I'm no fancy lady for dresses and dances and . . . all that court stuff. I don't mind going out, doing what needs to be done." She returned her attention to the sleeping cabbit. "I . . . I kinda like the idea that I'd have somebody worried about me and waiting for me when I came - home."

      "All that from such a short conversation?" Katsuhito asked. That also means it's now you and Sasami, together, against Ayeka, Mihoshi, Washu, and whoever else comes calling, he thought, I wouldn't bet against you two.

      "Yeah, scary, a couple of sentences and I put the rest together for myself. It was in front of me the whole time, I just never saw it."

      Katsuhito hid his smile with a `wise` nod, and offered a silent prayer to Tsunami for guiding Sasami's steps here. It seems that the issues of the Gods belong to the Gods. I do wish I could convince the two of them to train Tenchi in true fighting, he never has learned to be sneaky enough.

      Tatewaki watched Ami/Sailor Mercury from within his near total paralysis, as she held the bowl to his lips, allowing him to drink without choking. He deeply considered the situation. 'There is a certain clarity and freedom in true helplessness, which is different from weakness,' he said, Kuno thought, My rivals did not leave me where I had fallen, they saw to it I was safe and protected. Makoto and Asuka made sure I was secure before they allowed Ami to tend me. I do not understand why. The deceiver reminded me that I was beloved, but to intentionally acknowledge that and take advantage was my . . . misinterpretation, Kuno wanted to laugh, but his body would not respond. Absolute power, providing I do not use it, what an irony. That I can do nothing to reciprocate, allows Ami to display her true feelings. It is enough to make the Heavens weep at the madness of men.

      He considered, This is a useful insight, an insiteful insight.

      Ami was chuckling nervously as se dabbed at his chin. "Sorry," she said, "You were just looking so . . . concentrated."

      Kuno wished he could do aught but stare straight ahead. I didn't know I could express myself in any way, he thought, Yet, she reminds me so of the Fiercesome Tigress, but she feels no fear in expressing herself and her love for me. Where my Tigress is so worried about the opinions of others. 'You're embarrassing me.' How often I heard her lament of the foul Saotome's misdeeds. Yet, I too received such complaints. Oh, Akane, my first love, I pray that you forgive me, but a man cannot exist without the love of another, a love you fear to give to anyone. I must forsake thee for one who can nurture the poet, and challenge the warrior within me.

      "Are you all right?" Ami asked in alarmed tones, "Did I burn you? Is they why you're crying?"

      Tatewaki felt only terrible frustration that his joy was hurting this girl. He soon found an unlikely rescuer.

      "Because a beautiful girl is caring for him, instead of just about him," Asuka said as she set down a bowl of fresh broth and some okonomiyaki for Ami.

      "Why do you have to say such embarrassing things?!" a blushing Ami demanded.

      "Because without a competent warrior at your side - " Asuka stared directly into Ami's eyes, chilling the Senshi's blush to pallor. "Without someone able to stand with you in battle, you will die. He's smart enough to realize that you don't have to look after him. You could assume that a warrior's lot is a warrior's lot."

      "But he helped us!" Ami protested.

      "And you helped him," Asuka said as she stood, "Imagine what it would be like, when such treatment is a pleasant novelty."

      Ami blushed at that, then looked at Tatewaki and her face grew hard. "Why would any one -?" she clamped her mouth shut and her expression softened, she bowed before continuing, "I apologize, it is cruel to ask, when you can't answer."

      "He says. 'Thank you,'" Asuka told her, "He also needs a bath and sleep."

      "He'll drown!" Ami protested.

      Asuka smiled. "You're mom's a doc, you know that isn't true."

      Ami covered her mouth and blushed furiously.

      "Tate, we need to borrow her for a bit to take the other brave idiot and his entourage upstairs," Asuka said, "The others will behave . . . or else. You'll be safe."

      The decision to move hadn't awakened Makoto. She really hadn't been asleep. She'd fallen into a pleasant doze while she listened, and felt, and looked. Sasami had been beset with bad dreams or night terrors, by silent agreement she and Jeff had kept the little girl between them.

      When we came up here, Sasami decided to lie on the rolled up futon that served as our pillow, she thought, carefully glancing at the little girl, now sound asleep, Have to move carefully, she's folding my ponytail to her chest like a cherished toy. She's curved over my head like a hat or a halo.

      She listened intently for a time, Sasami's frightened cries had been replaced by happy little noises, punctuated by tugs on Makoto's long chestnut hair. Makoto heard the door open, she tensed. Ryo-Oh-Ki looked at the scene. She seemed satisfied and left, closing the door silently behind her. I guess she approves, Makoto thought.

      Makoto heard Jeff's disquiet. Refighting some battle, she thought, and gathered him to her chest, holding him tightly, until he fell into a quiet and contented sleep. She'd laid there in the dark, listening to her two companions breathing, finding rest and meditation through that. Then it occurred to her, and a terrible, cold, dark feeling came stealing over her, tearing at her heart.

      He told me, she thought as she began to despair, He told me in words, but I never really understood them. She glanced around her, Jeff's room, bare floor, bare walls, but . . . Do I need more? she asked herself as she looked at the peaceful face she clutched to her breast, finding a moment of comfort as she did, No smirk, no grand plans, just peaceful rest. Placid relief in my arms. She shifted slightly, felt the tug as Sasami held firm.

      The girl who came to me for solace, protection. I didn't understand the words, she thought as she felt tears begin, felt an anguish no words could comprehend. Somehow, both sensed her sudden agitation.

      "Mommy? You okay?" Sasami asked sleepily.

      Makoto felt her heart breaking in her chest, she tightened her grip on Jeff to keep him from `retreating` to a more `respectful` posture. I want to feel a man, the man I want as my husband, lying against me. A man who is my opposite and equal, we complete each other, a little girl who needs a `mommy`, who needs permission to be the child she is, instead of the adult so many demand her to be. I don't care if it's an fantasy, I don't, she thought as she lowered her head, resting her chin on his head as he held her tightly. Makoto felt Sasami swing around so she was behind Makoto, then the little girl threw her arms around Makoto's neck and hugged her, nuzzling her neck.

      "Please don't cry mommy. Please don't cry," Sasami told her with all her earnestness, "It will be all right."

      No it won't. This is what I want, she thought, I understand now. I want to scream, I want to . . . I don't want this to go away. She felt a pain to great to express, despiter her tears and whimpers, she felt her life and hope being torn apart.

      Damn you Serenity, damn you to whatever Hell Beryl sent you to! Yes, I'll kill Beryl for you, and send her to keep you company. I'll protect your daughter, but damn you for denying me what you took for granted, damn you for cursing me to stand guard eternally, to watch your daughter, her lovers and children, to eternally be denied either of lover or children for myself.

      She sobbed now, her body shaking with loss and rage, and still they held and soothed her. The racking sobs shook her as the enormity of what she could never have in this life, or her next incarnation, or the next, came crashing in on her. She held onto Jeff, the only anchor able to keep her soul from being torn away and scattered to the wind. Damn you Serenity, damn you!

      The cries and rage subsided. She lay there on her back, wrung out and exhausted. "I'm sorry," she managed. I feel cold, and dead, she thought sadly, then Jeff and Sasami put their heads on her shoulders and joined their hands over her stomach, surrounding her. I wish they'd say something, she thought as exhaustion crept over her, Chide me for my outburst, some prattle that it will all be okay. She waited, hearing only their breathing, feeling their warmth and weight reminding her of their presence here and now. She slipped her arms loose and looped them around their shoulders, hugging them close as her tears began flowing again.

      It's all an illusion, the bittersweet thought filled her mind, But it doesn't have to end too soon, she added as the pair snuggled against her.

      Sleep finally came. Her dreams were filled with picnics and mortgage payments, adventures and arguments, pregnancy, Sasami `double-dating`, graduations, grandchildren. Her child ascending to an alien throne, adding court politics and an ambassadorship.

      Kuno Tatewaki sat. I have little enough choice, he thought, I can breathe, I can swallow, but my eyes are forced to gaze only straight ahead. Even blinking remains beyond my conscious control. It seems I am to have an fine opportunity to explore helplessness, although I cannot yet see how losing a battle will allow one to win a war. He watched as Ami knelt before him. The pot of warm water and the empty bucket Asuka placed next to him, before thrusting the sponge into Ami's hand and telling her, "It's your responsibility, he's afraid of me."

      And rightly so I believe, Kuno thought, glad he could give nothing away.

      "Raccoon's barely able to walk without Sasami and Makoto's help, and they have to keep him from doing something stupid. Katsuhito? He's got to look after Ayeka. Ryoko and Ryo-Oh-Ki are getting their chance to clean up, like you had. Mu Tsu, Ukyo or Xian Pu? He doesn't trust them, and they don't like each other. There's too much chance for mischief. That leaves you! You want to be a doc, get used to natural bodily functions. So help me take his shirt off."

      Elegantly reasoned, as it appeals to Ami-chan, and the appeal to force at the end seals the deal, these thoughts passed through Kuno's mind as Ami-chan submitted to Asuka's `request`. The pair untucked his shirt, with the once-sticky blood stain dried and hardened. They take especial care to remove it, without harming me, he thought thankfully, feeling the extremely gentle tugging by Asuka, while Ami wielded a speculum and scissors to cut the matted cloth and scrape the blood clots away from the myriad small wounds. Then Asuka gave Ami an expectant look before she left.

      Ami wetted the sponge, and rubbed it across his forehead, she kept glancing at him, as if expecting a reaction.

      She must know I cannot make one, he thought of her obvious concern and nervousness, Odd, the mercenary often dropped me at the nurse's station when I was the victim of some treachery. She would usually demand compensation either in money, or so that I would listen to some proposition, also and always to separate me from my money. Yet Davis, who has admitted his deceptive ways, and Katsuhito, who I have never meant before today, saw me safely here, before surrendering my care to Asuka and Makoto. The shaman saw to my minor wounds, before he retired to his lover's arms. The old swordsman guards and watches. Neither the tidy Tendo Akane, nor my red-haired, pig-tailed goddess were ever so solicitous. Very odd.

      Ami-chan continued to brush the sponge over his face and neck.

      Please continue, he wanted to say, to communicate by any means, I will not hurt you. His mind returned to the dilemma plaguing him. Asuka and that sor - shaman - made no attempt to hide that they hold me in little esteem. Having watched them fight, I know for certain that in an honorable battle, neither would prove the slightest challenge, together, they would be a formidable foe. Not that either of them would fight an honorable battle. I would be hard pressed to match either's treacherous style, together . . . only if the gods smiled on my swordsmanship that day. Yet, and yet, they gave me the place of honor, even insured that my momentary lapse did not end in my dishonorable death. Then, sore and weary from their own battles, they brought me here, safe, warm, well cared for, and with the 'Pax Asuka' in full effect, none would dare raise a hand against me. He wished he could smirk at that. Even the insults do not pass as they normally would. It is all unexpected.

      Ami continued, reaching his shoulders, remaining outwardly stoic as she cleansed the dirt, blood and sweat away. She would blush furiously when she turned to rinse the sponge out.

      It's as if I can feel the warmth of her body when she draws close, he thought as she knelt to run the sponge over his shoulders, I castigate the truth, that I can neither touch, nor smile, nor speak to reassure her and thank her for her gentle and soothing ministrations. The detritus of battle . . . set ill upon me. I would want it removed, err I dated or even conversed with such an elegant and refined lady, it seems Asuka's words ring true, he remembered Asuka's angry whispers before the battle, 'If you're so certain all women love you,' they do, such is my fate. 'Then why do you act as if they have to prove it every instant, and worse, prove it by only the methods you want it proved. Some women don't want to be pawed in public, even by their beloved. Some find other words and deeds that express their feelings more explicitly. But no! The woman must prove her affections only your way!' I remember her waving her fingers in my face, it radiated heat like a red-hot iron.

      Oh the Heavens must laugh at me for a fool! he thought, wishing he could weep at the tragedy, Ill-omened Asuka, her love is so great, she paves my way to a love even greater yet. Such selflessness and sacrifice must demand the Heavens weep. She knows two of such refinement are ideally paired, and she does her best to urge things along. Oh, how unfair that both . . . He suddenly wanted to slap himself. Ah! That is why the Heavens do not weep, they wait for the true tragedy. But I, Kuno Tatewaki, scion of the Kuno house, now defender of all Japan, shall not countenance that Asuka's sacrifice for our love to go unrecognized. It shall fail to transit from new-sprung to moribund as the Heavens would demand. The scales have fallen from my eyes! He wanted to stand and shout defiance at the Heavens that they would wound so noble a soul so cruelly, but he still could not move.

      While the shaman stood with Sailor Jupiter, Asuka stood with Sailor Mercury, drawn no doubt by her pure and refined demeanor, how could she not be drawn, and when she saw this paragon of femininity loved as she did, she allowed her heart to break, and stepped aside, intent on guiding my clumsy steps. Oh Asuka, ferocious, tender soul, I shall NOT allow your sacrifice to be in vain. You have given me your advice out of such love for both of us. Such bravery and fortitude, what a spirit, so like a true samurai. He could not control himself, but the beauty of such selfless bravery and unrequited and unbridled love moved him again to tears.

      Suddenly, Ami moved to stare directly into his gaze, "I didn't hurt you?!" she demanded worriedly, "Please, I didn't . . . " Ami-chan fell silent and continued her work, her radiant smile giving the world a pleasant glow.

      She realized I have not been wounded, save by the true beauty of love, he wanted to confirm her conclusion as she glanced around the room. Then she raised herself and leaned close. He could feel the heat of her blush radiating from her as she pursed her lips and gently began kissing his tears away.

      Carefully, she put her arms around his neck, leaning close and whispered, "You're safe. You don't have to be afraid. I will protect you."

      His automatic denial died before he could even fail to utter it, due to he paralysis. She is correct, I would be hard-pressed to avoid being nibbled to death by mice, he realized, I need to be defended. He wanted to nod, to acknowledge her love and protection somehow. I remain paralyzed, a pose-able statue, not a man, he thought.

      She finished, Asuka returned with a pair of futons and unrolled them. Mercury mentally measured the distance between them and blushed. Ami-chan grabbed the edge to pull it away, but glanced up at Asuka first.

      Asuka's seemingly neutral expression presages violence with a clarity that even an ICBM in flight cannot, Kuno thought as Mercury wisely left the futon right where it was. They arranged Tatewaki on one futon, covered him with a sheet and several blankets.

      Kuno felt Asuka stretching out his arm, and a pair of warm, soft hands closing on his inner wrist and fingers. "You'll have to check if he's too hot or too cold, whether his pulse is good, and you'll have to wake him every couple of hours," Asuka explained.

      "I know," Ami-chan replied, "Despite Jeffrey saying he dealt with the head wound, there's always the danger of concussion."

      "There's also a psychological factor," Asuka commented, "He's in a strange place, surrounded by odd people, and he can literally do nothing for himself." There was a long pause, Kuno could hear nothing, then he caught Asuka's whisper, "Do you think an 18-year-old boy wouldn't react to a pretty girl giving him a sponge bath?"

      Ami shot to her feet to tower over Asuka. Kuno found out he could blush, Ami's just made her more fetching.

      Asuka continued, "So he's helpless, he needs to know someone he can trust is there."

      Eminently logical, Kuno thought, Utter hogwash of course, but Ami will see the logic first. Ami disappeared from his field of view, but he heard her arranging the sheets and she took his hand again.

      He lay there with his hand in hers, continuing to consider the amazing difference as she idly traced the callouses his duty to the sword had placed there. Her hands are soft and unmarked, he thought, It is an ill-circumstance that I cannot turn and gaze upon her face. He stared at the rafters while his weariness and Ami-chan's gentle touch drew him into the grip of sleep and dreams.

      Asuka walked out, she'd finished her `rounds`, urging Ayeka to lie down on the futon provided, rather than huddle in the corner with a single blanket. "Whatever you saw reflected in Jeff's eyes, whatever failures you think you've had, you held the line," she told the lost little girl who seemed so much younger that Sasami seemed in her cheerfulness. Stripped of her hauteur and superiority, Asuka thought, You've got nothing left.

      "I don't know what terrors the youma dredged up," Asuka told her, "Never-the-less, you faced them and did all that you could. Could another have done more? Certainly, you can always find someone better, but you did all that was needed. Many people can't even approach that standard." She guided the girl to lie down, covered her and Asuka walked outside.

      Katsuhito waited, his sword at the ready, staring at the stars.

      "Must be strange, the air in Okayama must be better," she said. Except for navigation, the constellations rarely concerned me, except for the memories of my mother. I quit remembering that when I learned `the Stars are Right`, and the stars became the enemy.

      "The whole day has been odd," Katsuhito said wistfully, "This is a much quieter odd."

      An even quieter sound caught Asuka's hearing. "Elder Kho Lon," Asuka said, and when the woman looked up with an exhausted expression, Asuka introduced, "Masaki Katsuhito."

      The man bowed, the tired elder returned it.

      "You've turned us into a travelers' inn?" Kho Lon joked, her raised eyebrow seemed half-hearted.

      "Out of necessity," Asuka admitted, "Wounded in body and soul." You look like you'd fit right in, Asuka didn't say.

      Kho Lon nodded. "If there is a pot of your tea, still warm, I can forgive anything," Kho Lon said as she headed for the door.

      Asuka opened it for her. "Then I have no worries, the white pot on the stove."

      The elder bowed and went inside soundlessly, Asuka closed the door after her.

      "She has much on her mind," Katsuhito said.

      "She has decided who to betray," Asuka said, "The one she loves, the ones she fears, or the ones she despises. She made her decision, now she has to live with it, I don't envy her."

      The two stood in companionable silence waiting for the world to either attack or definitely leave them alone. When it clearly appeared to be the latter, Asuka went inside.

      Asuka sat at the counter, folded her arms on it and laid her head down. "Well, that's the last of them," she complained quietly.

      "What about you, sugar?" Ukyo asked, "You were pretty intense in the fight."

      "I wasn't spellcasting." She lifted her head and looked where the Makoto/Raccoon/Sasami cluster were upstairs, Kuno sleeping on a futon on the floor, Ami on a separate futon, but holding Tate's hand, Ryoko sound asleep on a rafter, Ayeka huddled in a bed roll against the wall, trying to keep the world outside from getting to her. Katsuhito seemed to be meditating next to the door, until you looked closely at the grip on the sword.

      Standing guard over all the kids, she thought vaguely. "What happened with you two?" Asuka asked Shampoo and Ukyo. Both girls looked ashamed, rather than answer immediately.

      Xian Pu broke first under Asuka's gaze, "Great Grandmother's story," she immediately returned to putting things away.

      "It's family," Ukyo said quietly, "I can't . . . I shouldn't talk about it."

      "If you want to tell me a story about oppressed princesses and exploding frogs," Asuka supplied, "I'll listen, maybe help you with the plot, characterization, that kind of thing."

      Ukyo chuckled, nodded, and continued cleaning the grill of the Nekohanten. Asuka lowered her head, felt someone lay a blanket across her shoulders as sleep took her.

      "'Big brother Tenchi, he's defenestrating me'? That sounds pretty awful," Sasami said as she stared at Jeff and Makoto."

      "Yes it does," Jeff agreed, holding a small sphere in front of her, "It just means throwing somebody out a window, but it sounds a lot worse."

      "Are you sure if I shout, I won't wake everybody else up?" Sasami asked nervously, glancing at Makoto who seemed as mystified as she was.

      "No, the walls, floor and ceiling are shielded. Who do you think I am," Jeff said in a thoroughly offended tone, "Washu?"

      Sasami giggled at that. Then shouted into the sphere. "I didn't hear anything?!" she said, delighted by the silence and the trick.

      "Of course not, I'll be back before you two have breakfast ready," he told them, walked over and sat down next to Makoto, "Are you going to be okay?"

      "Yeah, I guess . . . I . . . all you said came crashing down on me all at once," Makoto said as she bowed her head, "I want . . . I want something other than my destiny." She raised her head and looked at him. "You really are evil," she said, smiling, "And I love you for that. Do you know that?"

      "No, I'm not nice," he said in a lecturing tone, "That's not the same. The other half is the same."

      Makoto laughed and leaned over to kiss him, very gently, on the lips. "You are evil," she said, "Corrupting a poor innocent girl this way."

      Sasami considered a moment, then added, "That's right, mommy was pure as fresh snow before you came along."

      Makoto turned purple at that. Sasami and Jeff laughed. "I'll leave off the comments about 'yellow snow' and head out." Jeff stood and vanished.

      "So, what do we make for breakfast?" Sasami asked.

      "They're experts in ramen and okonomiyaki," Makoto said as she considered, "So I'd say something completely different."

      "Yep," Sasami took her hands and they pair headed downstairs. She thought of the night they'd spent together, I liked it too. It's been so long since . . . I could do something that really mattered, that really helped, she thought as she glanced at `mommy`, `Raccoon` was right, it was a fun game, and it was helpful. Although I thought when he said it, I was going to be doing all the helping. She squeezed Makoto's hand and rubbed it against her cheek. I got helped too. Seeing Kasumi-chan and Mako-chan, and all they have to go through, I guess I don't have it so bad. It's also nice to know I could ask for help, if I need to. Sasami let out a delighted cry as Makoto picked her up and hugged her, then she saw Mako-chan was crying again.

      "Are you all right?" Sasami asked, alarmed by the suddenness of the girl's mood changes.

      "I'm fine." She smiled, the tears slowed but didn't stop. "I'm very happy. I just know this isn't going to last. It's something I know I can't have in my life."

      "Why not?" Sasami asked. I've seen the way Jeff and you look at each other, she wondered, What could keep you two apart. Big brother Tenchi hasn't decided, you both have.

      "I have a job to do," Makoto said, "To protect someone."

      "I could lend you some guardians," Sasami said happily, "We have many of them, they never sleep and can help a lot." Problem solved, Sasami thought as they walked downstairs.

      An old, tiny woman stood on the counter and Ryoko was carefully preparing breakfast under her watchful instructions. Sasami caught Makoto's hand, to keep her from intruding on the scene. She glanced around and couldn't see Ayeka either, although Ami and Tate-chan were visible, sleeping hand in hand. She craned her neck to watch Ryoko.

      Ryoko nervously poured the mixture and began scraping it towards the center of the grill, adding more of the mixture as it solidified. The old woman waved them towards the stools at the counter. Makoto put Sasami in one stool as she took the one next to it.

      "Welcome to the Nekohanten, I am Cologne, your host. Our cook would appreciate your opinions and critiques," Cologne told them.

      "You shouldn't worry," Sasami said as she remembered what the Dragon and the scary bald man had talked about, while they thought she was asleep last night, "Asuka-chan and Raccoon are used to being betrayed, they expect it."

      The woman tumbled off the counter in shock. Ryoko glanced away from her cooking for a moment at the figure on the floor. Sasami smiled at Makoto, who was looking at her strangely. "If you tell them," Sasami supplied, "They might be able to help you."

      "Why do I get the feeling, I'm the only one who doesn't know what's going on?" Makoto lamented.

      "You're not the only one," Cologne and Ryoko replied. Ryoko continued, "Raccoon . . . it fits, came down, talked to her Highness, asked if she wanted to go home. She told him she wanted to go back to Jurai. He just smiled, then they vanished."

      "Jurai's another planet, right?" Makoto asked.

      "Uh huh." Sasami nodded, staring intently at Ryoko's creation. That looks like regular scrambled eggs, she thought.

      Cologne hopped back up on the counter to continue supervising.

      "Could he teleport clear to another planet?" Makoto asked.

      "What?!" Sasami and Ryoko shouted, causing Makoto to retreat in her stool.

      "Why?" Sasami asked, beginning to tear up, "Why would she leave me all alone -?"

      "With Tenchi?" Ryoko asked, smirking as she scraped some of the mix off the grill and into a pair of bowls, setting them before Makoto and Sasami.

      An omission that earned her a bop on the head. "A cook always checks their own work," Cologne warned.

      Would she give up on Big brother Tenchi? Give him up to Ryoko . . . and me? Sasami couldn't imagine her sister doing that, Raccoon tricked her, she said it, without ever thinking he could do it! Now it makes sense. Part of a plan.

      Ryoko filled another bowl for herself. "Once she realizes Tenchi's still here, she'll be back here like a shot," Ryoko said while she nervously tasted the eggs Makoto and Sasami were digging into, "Unless you think she's given up. Bland, but not bad."

      "That's where the phrase 'season to taste' comes in." Cologne pointed her stick at the condiments, including some fiery spices. Ryoko was quite liberal in their use.

      "No, she doesn't give up . . . " Sasami began, "But she could get another ship, so we can travel around."

      Ryoko considered, then stared at Makoto. "Your friend owns a shrine? We could get him to perform the ceremony. We got plenty of girls as bridesmaids, a couple of cute guys as groomsmen, we let Ryo-Oh-Ki be the ring bearer."

      "Shampoo and I will gladly cater it," Cologne offered.

      "Count me in," Ukyo said as she walked downstairs, "Smells good. Catering or being in the wedding party. I'm open-minded." Ryoko prepared a bowl for the chef.

      Sasami looked at Makoto who had suddenly frozen. "Are you all right?" I think now isn't the time for 'mommy', Sasami thought of the stricken girl.

      Makoto nodded, swallowed. She seemed to be collecting the strength to speak. Sasami figured everybody staring at her wasn't helping. "After you went back to sleep, I - I asked for something from Jeffrey. He said yes, but today, we would be at the Hino or Masaki Shrine. You as ringbearer, Asuka as his best man 'just to piss her off'."

      Sasami giggled at that, patted Makoto's hand to urge her to continue.

      "He said Ayeka would have plenty of pretty dresses to choose from. The Western ceremony would be 'saying the bands' a public marker, we could have a proper Shinto ceremony after the paperwork was complete and I graduated," Makoto looked around at all the expectant faces, she bowed her head in shame, "I decided - against it."

      The sound of jaws dropping and someone tumbling down the stairs echoed through the restaurant.

      "You had him - "

      "Why would you -?"

      "Unwise, child -"

      "I would have been willing to be the best man, to watch that wedding occur," Asuka said as she picked herself off the floor.

      "I couldn't." Makoto looked around at the disappointed expressions.

      "Then what are we going to do today?" Ryoko demanded.

      Jeff materialized carrying a cocoon over his shoulder. He was immediately the center of attention.

      "How could you let this happen -?"

      "Why didn't you just say yes -?"

      "We could have the ceremony any way!"

      "The Masaki shrine stands ready."

      "The Heavens would weep for a such match to be forestalled."

      "If Ayeka's on Jurai, I can lend you her Guardians to help."

      "Hey, Tate old boy," Jeff said, walking over to the prone Kuno, to get out of the threatening encirclement, "You can talk."

      "Were I able to do more," the youth said slowly, dredging up each word by main force, "I would drag you to the shrine and keep my blade upon you, til it was all accomplished. I believe I would have much help." The rumbles from Sasami and the other girls made it clear `General` Kuno's first campaign would not lack for enthusiasm or determination in his troops.

      "I'm just curious what Ami's going to do," Jeff said, diverting the incipient `shotgun` wedding.

      Sasami looked closely and realized Makoto's friend had Kuno's forearm snuggled against her chest like a stuffed animal. Like I sis with Makoto's hair. Watching her wake up should be fun, Sasami thought as the girl woke, saw all the faces and paled, realized what she was holding and where, then blushed, then primly and carefully set Kuno's arm aside.

      "I was his nurse," Ami said in straitlaced tones as she sat up, her expression daring any to contradict her.

      "So what are we gonna do?" Ryoko asked in bored tones as she walked away.

      Jeff set the cocoon down and turned around with a gleeful expression.

      A knock on the door disturbed his dramatic announcement. Sasami giggled at his disgusted look.

      "This never happened to Errol Flynn," Jeff muttered while Ami let Kasumi into the restaurant.

      "I wanted to tell you," Kasumi said as Katsuhito and Makoto lifted her wheelchair into the restaurant proper, "They all returned this morning, and they are certain that you tricked them." Kasumi pointed at Jeff.

      "Of course he did," Kuno said as Ami helped him into a sitting position and sat beside him to support him. "If he can trick death itself, and command dark gods, who could escape his net. I have a message for you, the bald one said, 'tell the boy 'You should have called me sooner' he will know.' Whatever the message means, I have delivered it."

      "What it means is, I get to do what I've always wanted to do." He produced several large, thin black disks. He handed them to Makoto, Ami, Sasami, and a much smaller one to Ryo-Oh-Ki. "First, a demonstration. How'd you all like to go out on a date?"

      Before anyone could answer, the Nekohanten's door slammed open, a dinosaur like head clearly visible. The blast of blue-white breath weapon vanished a mere meter from those closest the door. Suddenly the creature vanished and there were the sounds like someone stomping a badly tuned bass viola. Asuka looked outside, nodded to Jeff and closed the door.

      "So much for demonstrations," Jeff said, a black disk, like the ones the girls had, in his hands, "However, a kidnaping . . . " He let the silence drag on a bit, before tapping the disk. With a pop, it became a black top hat. "Always goes unhindered."

      The girls popped open their hats and removed the black moustaches they found in the hats, staring at them. "A kidnaping?" Ami asked, "Who are we going to kidnap?"

      "Oh you foul villain, I shall never sell you the saw mill, all you'll ever use it for is threatening other innocent girls by tying them to logs. Everyone know you haven't been successful tying them to the tops of streetcars!" Kuno announced in a falsetto, then added in a normal voice, "Why must I always be beset by the mad delusions of others?"

      Even Sasami knew not to say anything about that.

      Ryoko perched on the table next to the cocoon. Ryo-Oh-Ki, her top hat and moustache in place, thanks to Asuka, hopped up on the table next to her. "Sounds like fun," Ryoko yawned, "I've been a real pirate, I'm not interested in playing games."

      "But you don't understand, Ryoko," Jeff said as he stepped next to her, "You don't have to play a kidnapper."

      "Good," Ryoko said with a smile, a metallic click behind her changed her expression to one of rage, "Hey!" she shouted as she realized she was chained to the cocoon. Ryo-Oh-Ki dropped the keys in Jeff's hands and hopped onto Ryoko's lap.

      "Let me go, you little traitor!" Ryoko shouted as she strugged with the bonds.

      "Mryow! Mwa! Mwa! Mwa!" Ryo-Oh-Ki replied, absently stroking her moustache.

      Ryoko stared at her partner and starship in confusion.

      "To prove your villainy, we are going to a train station," he paused for dramatic effect, "And tie Akane Tendo to the tracks in front of a powerful locomotive!"

      There were gasps of shock and dismay.

      "The Flower Street Station?" Kasumi asked. Jeff nodded, Kasumi nodded back. "That's sounds fun." Kasumi ignored the shocked looks everyone gave her.

      "Hey!" Ryoko said, "I'm not murdering anyone just so you can get revenge!"

      "You will, or I'll unlock you and send you home," Jeff threatened as he leaned towards Ryoko.

      How can that be a threat? Sasami asked, I don't see it, nor does Ryoko.

      "I'm sooo scared," Ryoko said as she leaned back at him.

      "You will be," Jeff told her in dark tones, eliciting a chill in everyone, "You - will - be." He adjusted something on the cocoon and removed a piece of cloth, revealing a very angry face.

      "Why are you doing this?! Let me go, I haven't done anything," Tenchi demanded as he struggled to get loose of the cocoon of ropes, "There's no need for a kidnaping!"

Sailor Jupiter 12 - Throw Akane Under the Train

      Kasumi adjusted her monocle and was pleased. She idly stroked the cabbit in her lap as she looked over the progress. "Sasami-chan?"

      "All tied up and - and the ends of the cable are secure, Kasumi-chan," Sasami replied breathlessly with a laugh and a wave.

      "Ryo-Oh-Ki!" Ryoko whined, "After all we've been through." She let her tears flow. "How could you forsake me this way?!" She buried her face in Tenchi's chest and sobbed uncontrollably.

      "We know how to make carrot cake," Sasami said with a giggle, "And you don't."

      Kasumi nodded, the cable wrapped around Tenchi and Ryoko was well anchored at one end and securely affixed to the locomotive's tender at the other. When pulled taut, it will slice them to bits, she thought, And the locomotive looks to be building up an impressive head of steam. "Soon, Engineer-san?" she called.

      "Soon Kasumi-sa . . . n," the nice man in the uniform told her, stammering as she smiled at him.

      She looked down the tracks at what lay before the locomotive. Akane! Such language! Kasumi disapprovingly thought of her screaming sister, At least she's been learning something in Hinako-san's English classes. Akane, don't be ungrateful, after all, Makoto-san made certain your legs were tied up so no one could look up your skirt, and she refused to take any of Asuka's fascinating 'rope trick' suggestions. I shall have to have a stern talk with you . . . before the locomotive runs over you. She smiled happily. "Tatewaki-san?"

      Tatewaki nobly held his head high. "I shall never surrender," Kuno announced defiantly, "You may kill me, but I shall not desert my love."

      She was about to compliment him on his bravery and devotion, when Ami shouted, "I was one of the villains! Why am I tied to the tracks?!" She rattled the heavy chains around her ankles.

      "You allowed your love of our victims to grow large enough, that your heart was with them and not us," Kasumi replied evenly, adjusted her monocle, stroking the cabbit, who yawned happily, "If you care more for your love, you will suffer his fate. You will have a moment alone to contemplate, after your love is gone."

      "Do not fear my love," Kuno told her, "We shall die bravely, and the tale of our selfless love shall spread across Japan."

      "I'm going to be sick!" Akane shouted. Ami and Tate were too busy gazing into each others' eyes to pay attention.

      "Once that locomotive gets going," Kasumi told them cheerfully, "That's not the only thing that will be spread all over Japan." Kasumi laughed at their stricken expressions, then Ami and Tate looked into each others tear-filled eyes, Ami clasping Tate's hands. Then Ami tenderly laid her head on the still-paralyzed boy's shoulder.

      Kasumi glanced at where Sasuke was eagerly filming. Nodoka was equally diligent with her camera, due to Katsuhito holding the naked Saotome honor blade near her throat. Too bad he's too good a swordsman to `slip`, Kasumi thought, It would be worth watching. I still haven't fixed all the nicks in my floors from her last `demonstration`. At least Sasami was able to patch the ceiling for me. I wonder if destroying other people's home is a Saotome characteristic. I wonder if Ranma has continued in that other place?

      She glanced in the distance where a panda, standing on a winged minotaur, tried to balance a terrified black piglet on his nose. When the panda appeared to give up on the struggling mass, a whip cracked and sizzled near his ear. He held up a sign reading 'I didn't know Balrogs were women' before a flaming whip sliced through the sign just above his paw.

      "If you've got energy and concentration for signs," Asuka said, to the applause of many onlookers, "You have the energy to work, get moving. And you - " The flaming whip flicked a now-charcoal fly off the minotaur's nose, "Hold still and quit wriggling." The minotaur glared and the whip cracked again. "You give me that attitude again, I'll change you from a bull to an ox." The whip cracked, and while it didn't hit anything, the heat of its passage made itself known.

      Kasumi smiled at Asuka finally getting a decent day's work out of that trio. She sighed as the last bit of unpleasantness approached in the form of her father, Raccoon-san, and the station manager. Ryo-Oh-Ki hissed and her father cowered from the tiny creature. Typical, domineering until confronted, she thought sadly.

      "Kasumi-san," the station manager said and bowed, "It does my heart good to see such interest."

      "I'm always glad to help the community. Cologne-san and Ukyo-san seem to be selling all they can make. It's good to have something that the entire family can enjoy."

      "Kasumi - !" Soun wailed.

      "You're interrupting us father," Kasumi chided, "Please be still until we've finished." She nodded to Raccoon, giving him permission to do something truly unpleasant. A faint shimmer appeared around the pair, and Raccoon began to sing. No sound was heard by those outside, although her father was clearly in agony. "I am very sorry, about that, Manager-san. Do you have enough tickets?"

      "Yes ma'am. The staff are all looking forward to a very busy day," he told her bowed again, "We thank you, it has been so long."

      "I'm only too happy to receive such excellent service. The locomotive will be ready to run when the gates open?"

      "Most assuredly." He smiled as if enjoying a private joke.

      "Oh please, don't tease me." She smiled, then adjusted her monocle. "I wouldn't like that."

      "A railroad joke," he explained, "The configuration of that type of articulated steam locomotive, 2-8-8-2, the Americans call it a 'Mallet'."

      She laughed along with him at the appropriateness of that, then she turned to her whimpering father. She cocked an eyebrow at Raccoon-san.

      "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring, you know 'joyful, joyful, we adore thee'," Raccoon-san explained, then shook Soun, "I made no attempt to 'rape your mind'. My singing is bad, but there's no call for that."

      "Kasumi-chan!" Soun pleaded, "You can't do this to your father."

      "You must die honorably, a true martial artist." She patted him on the head. "A shining example to Akane-chan and Ryoga." Kasumi rolled her wheelchair to the edge of the station platform, so she could address the crowd waiting beyond the fence and gate. "Who wants to see Tendo Soun defenestrated?" she cried out and smiled.

      The cheer of acclimation clearly showed which of the two was more popular.

      "Kasumi-chan! You can't do this to your poor, aging father!" The waterworks were in full production mode.

      "I hate to agree with him," Raccoon-san said guiltily "But the floors of the station house are lacquered wood, some of it pre-War."

      "Oh my!" Kasumi said, covering her mouth and looking particularly vexed, "I suppose tarps would be out of the question?"

      "It's a historical landmark," Raccoon-san said sadly, "I'd really rather not."

      "Why must you be so troublesome?" Kasumi asked her father, adjusted her monocle as a faint moue of discontent graced her features. Soun quit crying as he fainted.

      "Please, Kasumi-san, do not fret," the Station Manager begged, "The first floor of our new office building is linoleum over poured concrete."

      "Oh," she clapped her hands and exclaimed, "How wonderful! You really wouldn't mind?"

      "Of course not." He bowed formally. Kasumi moved the cabbit to her shoulder and both she and the cabbit returned a bow of equal depth and respect.

      "I'll get right on it!" Raccoon said, nodded to them and dragged the mewling figure behind him.

      "He's a lovely man, but he just won't bow correctly." Kasumi sighed sadly.

      "We have cables and other locomotives, Kasumi-san," the Station Manager offered.

      "Something from his time, yet 'cutting edge'," Kasumi said dreamily as she pondered, "But not today. Engineer-san, are we ready?"

      "Almost," the man replied over the noise of the boiler and the hiss of steam.

      Kasumi glanced at her watch and made a decision. "Station Master-san, I believe we can start letting people in. I think the defenestration will keep everyone occupied for a bit. Then we'll get everyone here when the wheels are turning, even if we don't have a full head of steam."

      "Of course," the man replied and bowed, "I would like to thank you and your friends for inspiring us and inspiring such interest in our humble railroad museum. Too few people are interested in the past."

      "I am glad I could be of service, and thank you for indulging our little game and film." She listened to the cheers of the crowd as her blubbering father came sailing out the first-floor window. Then Raccoon dragged him back inside and threw him out again. Except some of the crowd is losing interest, she thought sadly.

      "We've got enough to move!" the Engineer called.

      "Sound your whistle, wait for the crowd, then inch her forward!" Kasumi commanded, petting Ryo-Oh-Ki idly. Moments after the whistle sounded, the wheels turned. Do they always slip like that? she wondered as the wheels spun without getting traction, Oh, yes, they have to put sand on the rails to get good traction.

      "Oh! Oh!" Ryoko cried out, "I can feel the tightening, all around us! Please Kasumi-sama, have mercy on us. Kill me, but let my beloved Tenchi go." She rubbed her cheek on the boy's.

      "You're the one squeezing me!" Tenchi protested as Kasumi considered.

      "Ryoko," she told the woman, "I have only one reply to your request." She paused to let the cameras catch, and the crowds enjoy, the moment of hope and expectation.


      "Engineer-san, full steam ahead!" A blast of the railroad whistle drowned out Ryoko's scream of lament and Tenchi's protest. Kasumi was already rolling towards the front of the train to watch the rest of the melodrama unfold.

      "Kasumi!" Akane shouted over the sound of the locomotives pistons and wheels moving, "You can't do this!"

      "Yes I can!" she shouted back, waved to Kuno and Ami, "Die well!"

      She watched the wheels turn in their cradles, simulating full movement. Cheers erupted through the crowd. I wonder if they're cheering for Akane, or Tatewaki? Although Ami-chan and Tate-chan are padding their parts and mugging for the crowd and cameras. So I guess while Akane-chan is very popular, she isn't as universally loved as she thought, Kasumi thought as the wheels turned faster and Sasuke moved around to get the best responses from all the participants. Kasumi glanced and noted Nodoka was less enthusiastic, but her diligence hadn't diminished. Katsuhito saw to that, he smiled and waved to Kasumi, she nodded back gravely, staying in character.

      "Oh!" Ryoko shouted, "It crushing me! Doesn't true love count for anything in this cruel world?"

      "You get to die with him," Sasami replied, back in her top hat and moustache, she twirled it for the crowd and camera.

      "Mercy! Please mercy! If not for me, then for my beloved Tenchi!" Ryoko cried out.

      Probably squashing the poor boy more than that locomotive ever could, Kasumi thought, then burst out laughing as Sasami tipped her hat and pushed on the tender with all her might.

      "If he is willing to die for you!" Sasami shouted as she strained, "You can die happily together."

      Kasumi took off her monocle and polished it, looking over the groups, the laughing station personnel, the cheering crowds. They're happy, for once the martial artists got their comeuppance, she thought, then her eyes settled on Katsuhito-san, I wonder if he would be willing to tour Nerima with me. He's such a loyal minion. She returned the monocle to her eye and resumed petting the cabbit.

      The woman materialized. She wore a helmet that resembled a saucepan lid and a breastplate, both of gold, over her `sailor suit`. The rabbles' reaction to her appearance and magnificence among them was nearly instantaneous.

      "No cutting in line!"

      "We were here first!"

      She prepared her righteous retribution, then she looked at the scene surrounding her. The dancing animals, the people tied to nonmoving trains, the evil mastermind in the wheelchair, the crowd cheering a weeping man repeatedly thrown out of a first-story window.

      She came to a decision. I know Chaos, but this is Insanity! Before she could flee, she felt two small hands and a draft.

      "What a haul - ERK!"

      "I am going to need proof," she said to the small figure she held by the scruff of the neck, then she vanished.

      Kiima looked at the immature form of her god and king. "Sire, this is a bad idea," she offered as respectfully as she could.

      "She will be my perfect bride!" Saffron informed her, "I will have her!"

      "She's naught but a landling, sire," Kiima said, invoking the Phoenixis' greatest prejudice, "No matter her other fine qualities, my Lord."

      "That means we'll control her."

      Kiima silently cursed the moment her Lord and god had ever seen the picture of that smiling face. "The Japanese government and her allies will no doubt come after her. I've had dreams . . . "

      "No one could ever defeat me. The only ones of such skill are women or subservient to their women."

      Why does that make them weaker? Kiima wondered silently.

      "We will locate her and take her back with us," Saffron told her, "My magnificence shall have an equally magnificent bride."

      Kiima sighed and considered how they'd use one of the magic eggs on Saffron's bride without him noticing. I remember my dreams of destruction, she silently lamented. She glared at the picture again, as it lay in a jewel-encrusted frame. I'm beginning to hate that smiling face. Yes, smiling she is cute, but she has a terrible temper, and those around her refuse to let her cook, she is willful and stubborn. I do not see how she would ever come willingly. Kiima sighed and wished Saffron would grow up and out of his impulsive nature.

      Happosai materialized, burnt, sore, several odd growths in random places, but happy, with the huge sack over his shoulder. He staggered to the edge of the fence where his main rival in Nerima stood. If you can rub a rival's nose in it, he thought, What good is having a rival? Besides, they're the only ones who understand. "I saved the universe! And the innocence of all those girls, you would have killed them!" he told the boy proudly.

      "Congratulations," `Raccoon` said as he watched the people taking pictures of the locomotive and it's `victims`. "You of course did it for the girls. Their underwear had nothing to do with it."

      "I'm hurt, you'd assume I was only after their silky darlings," Happosai said, near tears, "I don't want the universe destroyed."

      "Of course, I merely meant that you would demand . . . compensation . . . after such herculean efforts."

      "Oh, of course. Like you'd said, if they don't pay, they don't pay attention!"

      "So you didn't really steal them."

      Happosai wasn't sure how to take that, then he brightened, "Of course." He left, thinking about the other good he could do today.

      Ami listened to Kasumi chuckle as Katsuhito-san pushed her chair, while Ami pushed Tatewaki-san's chair. "It was fun, watching them all discover the train couldn't move," Kasumi chortled, "I want to thank you both for playing your parts so well."

      Ami blushed at the compliment. She smiled at Kasumi-san and Tatewaki-chan. "I admit Jeff and Asuka scared me when they chained me to the railroad ties. They had me believing it."

      She smiled at the memories as Kasumi-san and Tate-chan discussed where they were to visit. It was nice having an `excuse` to be close to him, she thought, blushing as she did, And when I thought I was going to die . . . She smiled at that, then remembered. "You got it all on tape!"

      "Yes," Kasumi-san said.

      "Your acting was superb," Katsuhito-san said, "Very believable."

      Ami stared, trying to figure out if he was teasing her or not. She relaxed and decided, Yes, I'll show the others, the movie I helped make. I hope Tate-chan understands. She patted his shoulder, he turned and smiled back.

      "I hadn't known that Nerima had a railroad museum," Katsuhito admitted.

      "The finest one west of Lomita," Kasumi supplied, "There are many museums and small art galleries in Nerima, highlighting various arts."

      "Any swordmakers?" Katsuhito-san asked, chuckling.

      "Besides Davis-san?" Kasumi asked, chuckled into her hand.

      Ami considered the discussion. Tatewaki suggests a place, and Kasumi explains it really isn't 'wheelchair accessible', Ami thought. They moved through the streets. I know that Tate-chan will recover but - she thought. Then she said, "Can't Davis-san restore your legs?" Ami nearly froze at Kasumi-san's near-violent reaction. It she ill? It's like all the light drained out of her! Ami thought in shock. "Are you all right? Are you ill?"

      "He could," Kasumi-san whispered, her head bowed in shame, "Except, my family kidnaped him and Asuka-san, and have refused to return them home. Whether we actually could or not . . . I don't know. My father has set - conditions - on any attempt. Conditions both Davis-san and Asuka-san steadfastly refuse to agree to."

      "Why would they do that?" Katsuhito-san asked in a calm, soothing voice, before Ami could in a more emotional one.

      "Because Ranma's absence threatens the union of the Saotome and Tendo lines, the fact that . . . well . . . except for Nabiki, we allowed him to commit seppuku has been conveniently forgotten. Since he is alive, elsewhere, he must return and fulfill the pledge."

      "Who'd arrange such a stupid thing?" Ami blurted out. She caught the momentary panicked look on Katsuhito-san's face. "Doesn't Akane have a fiancee, the Saotome heir? Ryoga, the one who turns into a pig?"

      "His outward form becomes human when spattered with hot water," Tate-chan growled angrily, "He slept with another man's fiancee, and held an honor promise to force the would-be cuckold to silence. He remains ever a pig."

      "Kuno Tatewaki!" Kasumi chided him in a teasing tone, "You mustn't insult pigs that way."

      "Of course, you are quite correct." Tate-chan nodded.

      Kasumi-san's good humor had evaporated. "Ranma is their son, their property. That he has a loving mother, friends or family, depending on how you look at it, and no memories of being the chaos and water magnet of Nerima . . . they still demand possession." Kasumi bowed further, as if under a great weight, and slipped deeper into her depression, the others remained silent.

      I think she's been wanting to say all this for a long time, Ami thought as they walked along, A very long time, a revelation/confession she has been desperate to share.

      "While many of his fiancees would fight for him . . . in the hopes of proving their love or gaining favor in his eyes. I doubt any would endure this grinding campaign without hope of victory or reward. Add that two people whose dislike of Ranma rivals many of his foes, stand in his defense more stalwartly than any who claim to love him."

      It's not like I haven't seen Usagi's hair-brained plots turn into disasters, she thought, I also thought people grow out of it. I guess it didn't happen here.

      "Why not just give them the way home?" Katsuhito asked.

      "I don't believe they ever had it. The terms are always to surrender Ranma first." Kasumi chuckled mirthlessly. "I don't think either Davis-san or Asuka-san are foolish enough to believe such an offer."

      "'They', who haven't they struck?" Tate-chan asked, "They are not samurai, but they are no cowards."

      Kasumi reached over and patted Tate-chan's hand, her smile weary and worn. "This is that attack." She sighed before continuing. "Do you really believe my sister's denials that she doesn't want your attentions?"

      Tate-chan glanced back at Ami, as if to apologize. "No, I do not."

      "So they introduce you to a girl as clever as you are, who needs rather than resents your skill with a sword," Kasumi said.

      I wonder if they can see how I'm blushing, Ami thought, I do think I need to hear this, but it's all I can do not to shout out how they are embarrassing me.

      "Someone who also sees you need her?" Kasumi continued to speak, as if her batteries were running dry.

      "This is very embarrassing," Ami said quietly.

      Tate-chan glanced back, smiled, making Ami feel better before he turned to Kasumi-san and spoke, "I can see. She will not enjoy not being able to deride my presence, presents, and affection."

      "Kasumi-san. You are saying . . . " Ami couldn't continue, she felt her heart breaking. I thought they were helping me, but they were only hurting someone else. She stopped walking and began to weep. She felt a soft hand grasping hers, and a rougher one on her shoulder.

      "That young Kuno might have never looked beyond Nerima and hovered around Akane like a moth," Katsuhito said, "Young Jeffrey and Asuka's revenge was very subtle and extraordinarily nasty."

      "I don't understand," Ami sniffled, unable to stop her tears. I don't want to be an instrument of revenge, and I can't understand why they'd use me to hurt someone else! she silently lamented, feeling despair, anger, betrayal and confusion all in one tangled mess that seemed to be closing in on her.

      "The revenge Ami-chan," Tate-chan said quietly, smiling broadly, "Is that we could be happy, elsewhere. What she cast away, would be the delight of another. Rather than continuing to survive on what few scraps of hope she allows, I can have a full and heaping measure from someone else. Asuka and the shaman's revenge is that I and another would be happy together, beyond her reach. That we would find joy, while she denies it to herself and all around her."

      Ami laid her hands on his shoulders. Her tears no longer felt bitter. She knelt so she could rest her chin in his soft hair. She gave a single chuckle. "Yes, that sounds like them," she admitted, "A taste of agony, then the cure, if you're wise enough to see it." I can see why that would gall someone, Ami thought, I'm just glad they decided to let us be happy together. I've heard stories, but I thought like everything else in Nerima, they were exaggerations.

      "I can't believe you did that to me!" Akane yelled at Asuka as they walked the streets of Nerima.

      Asuka's long stride forced Akane to trot to keep up. Drawing off the main bait, Asuka thought, That should buy the others a relatively quiet time. What do I get out of it? She looked back at the fuming, panting little girl and the still-nervous, sword-bearing older `girl`. I get to torture that pair for a while longer, she realized, Adequate trade off. She smiled broadly before answering, "You're just convenient, and so loud. A straw dummy and a bull horn would have done as well. However, we couldn't find anything to duplicate that . . . odor of yours." She waved her hand in front of her face.

      Akane glanced back at Nodoka, who was still rubbing her neck to make sure it was still in one piece. Akane turned back to Asuka. "I do not smell bad!" P-chan 'bwee'd in support.

      "I didn't say you smelled bad, I just said people could tell it was you at the bottom of a coal mine with their ears plugged. Maybe some guys like it, I don't know, who can tell?" Asuka could feel the heat off the littlest Tendo. P-chan squirmed in protest as he slowly became barbeque on the hoof. Nodoka eased away, but kept her disapproval focused on Asuka.

      Time to really tighten the screws, Asuka thought fighting to keep her grin from breaking loose. "I know you bathe - probably regularly, and you eat what the others eat, but maybe you haven't been as - hygienic - as you should be."

      "What's that supposed to mean?!"

      "I had a female doctor explain it to me," Asuka stopped and said, frowning slightly as she turned to face the girl, "She was so clinical that it wasn't as embarrassing as it could have been." Asuka stared at Nodoka so intently the woman squirmed, when Akane joined her in targeting the Saotome matriarch, the woman looked ready to run away. "I bet Kasumi did her best, but it's really something that a girl needs to learn from her mother, or her mother-in-law. That there are certain places a girl really needs to keep clean." Asuka glanced at the now totally stricken Tendo girl, the icicles growing off her did not help P-chan who was totally mystified by the sudden change.

      "Places a boy doesn't have to worry about." Asuka felt it was all worth it, as Nodoka realized she was going to have to give Akane The Talk, not The Talk that boys got a variant of, but The Talk that only girls needed. "If it makes you uncomfortable, I'm sure Raccoon could explain it. He worked on a ranch, and females in season are females in season. Horses, cows, dogs, humans, the principle is the same." Now Asuka had three competing horror-stricken expressions to compare. Their eyes were the size of saucers, with pupils merest pinpoints.

      My job is done here, Asuka thought. "Well," Asuka yawned, "I have more important things to do." She waved and turned away. They ought to thaw out in a few moments and be after me like a shot. I ought to put a 'kick me' sign on that kid, both of them. For the sake of the human race, I'd have both of them `fixed`, except their personalities have already done that beyond what surgery or chemicals could ever achieve.

      "Ah! I have found you!" the idiot kid surrounded by flames landed in the street behind Asuka.

      Another moron, Asuka thought, Flames? Saffron, that's it. The winged woman must be Kiima. I hope they don't run into Raccoon and Lightning Lass. Raccoon hates him from the last movie.

      "I said, 'I have found you!'" the kid announced.

      Guess the princess of Nerima hasn't woken up yet, she thought, All that work to get her in touch with reality and some worshiper shows up and undoes all my work. P-chan's with her, he'll `protect` her. Not that she'll need it. Everybody loves Akane, the True Knights worship her and sing the praises to their flawless, plaster saint. I know if not for her, I'd be home right now. So a pox on your house. My conscience is clear. The sound of running feet didn't bother Asuka one little bit.

      "Isn't this fun?" Sasami tugged at Tenchi's hand, leading him up into the cab of the engine. One of the static displays.

      Tenchi laughed nervously as he climbed. Ryoko followed, keeping quiet, letting Sasami lead.

      Just stay quiet, Ryoko urged herself, Ayeka's finally gone. I'm not competing with anyone for him. Still bugs me to let anyone else get close, but . . . Ryoko glanced at Ryo-Oh-Ki, who remained perched on Sasami's head. She smiled. I guess I can learn to be patient.

      She listened to the old man give his long-winded explanation. Bored. Boring, she wanted to shout, Look at Sasami. She's got his heart more than any of the rest of us. Problem is, I'm not that innocent. I can't do what she's doing and have him react the same way. She considered the problem in front of her, she'd loved Tenchi the moment she'd seen him. As a young child he was adorable, she thought, He grew up into such a man. I always thought - then she came all soft and weak and regal. Now she's gone, I could take what I wanted, like anything else I ever wanted. Sasami's doing it, and because she laughs, it makes it seem more like a game? Is it because she only touches his hands? AHHHH! She shook her head violently. I'm driving myself crazy trying to figure all this out! she thought in a fury.

      "Ryoko come on!" Sasami chirped, "We're going to see the passenger cars!"

      That's it! Ryoko realized the solution as she followed without questioning, She's enthusiastically interested in everything! As soon as I figure out how to fake that, I'm in! She flew after them eagerly.

      "And that one with the three bright stars in a line, that's Orion's belt," Jeff explained, pointing at the cloudy sky.

      "Some of us can't see the stars in daylight," Makoto said with a touch of fond exasperation.

      "You said you wanted to go stargazing or cherry blossom watching," he said innocently. Then cringed as she threatened him with a fist.

      "How is it in the rest of Japan, it's the beginning of August, and here it's November?" Makoto asked.

      "It's Nerima," Jeff told her, "Things don't happen logically. A few weeks ago, Asuka and I turned down an invitation to the Tendo family Christmas party."

      "That was cruel."

      "I helped clean up after. The carpentry alone would have taken Kasumi weeks. When they party, they tend to destroy things, a lot. I refuse to be one of the things destroyed."

      "It can't have been that bad," Makoto chided.

      "Somebody blamed someone for 'driving Ranma to leave me'. Who made the accusation is immaterial, I've heard half-a-dozen different versions, alike only in that they all leave the teller blameless. The war quickly became general, and before you ask, I couldn't have stopped it if I had been there. Short of machine-gunning half the partygoers. While Asuka tended to Mu Tsu's, Xian Pu's, Khu Lon's and Ukyo's injuries, I did some clean up and rebuilding, discreetly of course."

      "That explains a lot. When Ami and I arrived, we got off the train and immediately had to fill out forms that we wouldn't hold the city of Tokyo, the Emperor or the train company liable for dropping us off in Nerima and that we'd read all the warning materials. I thought Ami was going to faint. You aren't laughing."

      "I have one of the repeat entry passes, typically you have to go through a week-long battery of psychological tests," Jeff explained, "For me, it only took a ten-minute interview."

      "And you just told them the truth no doubt," Makoto said, and laughed, "You were so earnest. It's a wonder they didn't just lock you up on the spot!"

      "So you don't have to go to that armored kiosk every time?" Makoto asked, "That thing looks like it would hold off a charging youma."

      "Only tourists have to fill out all that paper work," Jeff replied.

      "Tourists? Here?" Makoto was aghast. She gestured around. "There were people selling octopus-balls and ice cream during the fight against the youmas!" She stopped, considered what she had seen and said. "Why didn't the youmas go after them?"

      "Ukyo and Xian Pu are the toughest, most skilled restauranteurs, but not by that much. Wait a second."

      "Ma'am!" Jeff hailed a woman who was washing the path in front of her home, "My friend is new." He smiled.

      Charming the nice old lady, Makoto thought, Can he do that to anybody?

      "May I?" he asked and pointed at the cinder block wall surrounding her house.

      "Oh course, young sir." They bowed to each other, then the old lady slapped him on the butt. "Hope she can cook, you're still too boney."

      "Yes, ma'am." Jeff bowed again.

      "What was that all about?" Makoto whispered.

      "I convinced Elder Khu Lon to open the restaurant earlier, we only serve tea and snacks, but the Elder catches up on all the gossip from the most experienced residents. I think she missed dealing with people her own age. Also, Xian Pu and Asuka get to laugh at Mu Tsu and me dodging the grabby hands that normally they have to worry about. Some of those sweet, ole' grannies can pinch."

      Makoto laughed at the idea of Jeff dodging a pack of randy, old grannies, while serving. What he was pointing to stunned her. "That wall is 45 centimeters thick!" she gasped.

      "High-density, fiber-reinforced ceramic, ten centimeters of face and body hardened steel alloy armor plate, a layer of high-density polyethylene to catch fragments, and a final layer of high-density, fiber-reinforced ceramic. The Japanese don't have Chobham armor, and the weight of a wall isn't as a serious problem as it is for a tank. A Soviet tank division moving in here, could be held off by fifty people armed with soup. Trap a tank in the narrow alleys, pour it full of soup and boil the crew alive. Their main guns and tube-launched missiles won't penetrate these walls. Yet, the locals demolish them all the time."

      "Oh," Makoto said worriedly.

      "Nerima is very popular spot for suicides, either those who want to die, or people looking for proof their lives really aren't so bad," Jeff said smilingly, waved a hand in front of Makoto's face.

      "Would she like some tea?" the lady asked.

      "Thank you, no, she's just trying to get some things straight in her mind," Jeff said politely.

      People here blow up armored walls, people come here because their lives aren't worth living, Makoto thought, That's why that guard kept saying how things only seem so bad when you're young, but they'll get better. He thought Ami and I were trying to commit suicide!

      She started walking again, feeling befuddled by the day's experiences. "I guess I just have to learn to live with it," she said, laughed nervously, "Or deal with it the way you do."

      "You did fine against Kuno Tatewaki," Jeff told her, "That was something you couldn't have done a month ago."

      She wasn't mollified. "Ah, Jeffrey," she began nervously, "I enjoyed the dream last night. I can't remember even half of it, even bits and pieces."

      "You're welcome. It was a way of getting you and Sasami to work through your feelings and worries," he told her, "Now you know why I'm such a know-it-all, sleep is rest and repair for the physical form, including the brain. The mind can go and play and examine, while the body is doing what it needs. I go over and over things in my head until I have plans for them."

      Makoto nodded. "Practice." Now I have to drop the other shoe, she thought regretfully, The dream last night should have proven it, finding him in my arms should have proven it. He's always giving me words, but words are flimsy, fleeting things. So here I am asking for more words, not believing what he `said` by his actions. "The . . . the other dream . . . " I can't even say it, she thought, We were romantic in last nights dream. I even gave birth, but we weren't . . . I can't say it or even think it!

      "I'm . . . you were embarrassed by . . . what I did. I meant to embarrass what I . . . what turned out to be you. Is that why you . . . ah . . . "

      His response wasn't the expected torrent of words. He pulled her into an alley between two houses. He pressed her against the `cinderblock` wall with his body, then wrapped his arms tightly around her and kissed her hungrily.

      She wrapped her arms around him, not just because her knees were shaking so hard she could barely stand. No handfuls of meaningless words, he shows we what he feels, she thought as she held on for dear life. After a blissful eternity, he broke off the kiss. She was too dizzy to protest, and her knees wouldn't let her pursue him.

      "Does that answer your question?" he asked, holding her at arms'-length, supporting her.

      Her head was still spinning, but she managed to nod without it falling off.

      "Yes." She finally managed to get her legs under her and stepped into his arms, falling into them and feeling her fears and worries drift away. "I got - confused - and I did what I thought would - teach me what I needed to do."

      "You also get so little chance to play, so you had a wonderful chance to play. You took it and played," he told her.

      Just keep talking, as long as you understand and aren't angry with me, she thought happily, I don't have to really understand.

      "You didn't hurt me," he explained, "You did scare me. Mostly, I was worried for you."

      She stood up, beamed right in his face. Then her eyes moved up. Dozens of wrinkled faces lined the walls, looking down on them, obviously approving or just interested.

      "Ah . . . " Makoto looked around. "Ah . . . "

      "Keep a firm hand on that one girly," the woman who'd offered tea told her, "He's a real stallion. No fence or bridle will ever hold him, but get aboard and let him run to the horizon."

      Makoto wanted to yell at them to be quiet, quit embarrassing her, or something. But there's no one here but us, and them, she thought, she glanced at Jeff.

      "She didn't mean get aboard that way," he said innocently.

      "The HELL she didn't!" some other granny cackled, the entire collection began laughing. Makoto's imagination filled in myriad details and she wondered if it were possible to die of embarrassment.

      "I meant like Akane does! With a real board!" Jeff shouted in mock outrage, setting off more laughter among the onlookers.

      "Have to agree," one granny said, "He'd hit her back."

      "I'd feed her her own cooking!" he replied. He offered his arm to Makoto.

      Makoto grabbed onto it like a drowning woman seeing a rescue. The pair walked out.

      "Never run," Jeff warned, "It attracts attention and it invites pursuit."

Sailor Jupiter 13 - A Fiery Destiny

      Asuka walked quickly, trying to leave 'Princess Obnoxious' behind, and Akane too. The pair were chasing after her, since they met the fiery twit who wanted to whisk 'his beloved' off to some `paradise`.

      Let him, she could hardly do worse than the twit her parents saddled her with. I hate this country, I hate this place, the people in it. Why don't I just give in to what I'm becoming and nuke the place myself? she thought as her anger grew, What would it take to make these people grow up? "Quit following me!" Asuka told the pair as she ran.

      "You have to help me!" Akane protested.

      "You're a martial artist, you help yourself," Asuka retorted as she took a sudden turn and headed into an alley. Maybe her thighs will get wedged, Asuka thought, she saw Akane and Nodoka were still on her tail. Akane caught her arm as Asuka broke into the open. Asuka dragged Akane into the open.

      "Get you hands OFF!" Asuka told her as Akane held on, "NOW!"

      "No! I -"

      Asuka slamming the heel of her hand into Akane's nose with all her strength, shocked the baby Tendo into silence. "You keep your filthy hands to yourself," Asuka told her as she pulled her arm free of Akane's grip, "You want to be a martial artist, then you deal with your own problems. We aren't friends. You kidnaped and imprisoned me here. Whatever happens here is your problem." I think I broke my hand, she thought as she shook out her injured hand, I thought hard-headed was a euphemism. "Hey Flame-Face! Your Tiresome - !"

      Akane covered Asuka's mouth. "Don't call him!" she hissed, then screamed as Asuka bit down on Akane's finger.

      This time, Asuka tasted blood as she kneed Akane in the stomach as hard as she could. She released the gasping girl as Akane dropped to the pavement. "Keep your filthy hands off me, you pervert!" Asuka kicked the fallen girl in the stomach. "I'm not one of your fans. I want nothing to do with you or your vicious, Sapphic, empowerment fantasies. Since you didn't listen I'll make it clear. I - don't - want you, I will never submit to you. Never put your depraved hands on me, EVER." That ought to keep her occupied. You never expected a call of pervert to be thrown at you did you? Asuka thought as she turned from one target to the next, Never play fair when you opponents never have. Kick them where it hurts, and it certainly isn't in the stomach, I think I broke some toes too.

      Nodoka blanched. "You aren't being very lady-like," Nodoka told her.

      "What would you know about being a lady, a mother or even a woman?" Asuka asked as she advanced on Nodoka, "Ranma may have not known you well enough, but I do. Must have been frustrating: your husband talking a good game about being manly, yet only one kid, while weepy Soun managed to father three. Must be the reason you wanted a manly son. You wanted him to play Oedipus to your Jocasta. After all, a dutiful son would want to keep serenity in his mother's home."

      Asuka was revolted when Nodoka blushed and tried to look cute. I was trying to hit her with an over-the-top insult, the best I could come up with! Asuka thought in her horror, Instead, she looks like Ami did when I taught her advanced math.

      "I'm still young enough to be a new mother," Nodoka said demurely, taking a `cute` pose, including a maidenly blush.

      Asuka shoved the dream-lost woman over the railing and into the Nerima canal. "Hey Flame-for-Brains! Akane's right here! Fresh meant! Come and get it!" Asuka hobbled off at her best speed, disgusted with the pair of Nerima `women`.

      The little shop bell rang as Makoto entered, and froze. It's like something out of a dream, she thought as she desperately glanced around, My dream.

      The shop was primarily a bakery, but a partition enclosed a small but tasteful florist kiosk. Signs reminded salarymen to pick up something pretty for their wives along with the fresh bread and cakes.

      "I . . . I . .. " Makoto stammered in shock, looking from the shop to Jeff, and back.

      "Ah, Mister Davis," the owner, a bald, older woman greeted Makoto's tour-guide in passable English. "She's the one who talks about having her own shop like mine?" she switched to Japanese as she came around the counter.

      "Yes," Jeff told her as he squeezed by and moved up to escort Makoto to one of the small tables.

      Makoto stared a moment at the woman's bald head, not even stubble grew there. She looked away hastily, blushed in embarrassment. "I - I - apologize."

      "Flour explosion," the older woman explained, "Davis-san grew my eyebrows back. I like the look, and it keeps the riff-raff at bay. My husband thinks I look 'striking'."

      "Flour explosion?" Makoto asked, trying to get her bearings while she looked around the shop.

      "The occasional martial arts battle. Ukyo tossed one of her flour bombs, my flour exploded too."

      Makoto stared at the old woman, feeling shaken, then stared at Jeff.

      "It's been a lot quieter with the demons about," the old woman said, "But they're also terrorizing people in the dark, so there's a trade off."

      "I think I can get some of them calmed down," Jeff said, "Things just need to fall into place."

      The woman leaned towards Makoto, who leaned in to hear. "He's a gentleman, but don't get on his bad side. He'll do things that would send an oni screaming."

      Makoto glanced at Jeff with a smirk of her own. "She's heard you sing I take it."

      Jeff's blush ruined his glare at her.

      Ryoko looked upon a miracle and felt dazed. She, Sasami and Tenchi were all walking together, each girl holding his hand, nothing disturbing the scene, and he seemed comfortable with it. She wanted to dance and sing through the air with exuberant joy. But she watched Sasami's restrained enthusiasm, and tried to follow suit.

      That's how she manages it, Ryoko realized, An eye of the storm. What I need is to let her be a little of the storm, and see how that works.

      "Hey! A Pachinko parlor!" she said to her partners, "Let's see how good you are at that!"

      "What about Tenchi?" Sasami asked.

      "We'll let him carry the prizes!" she collected Sasami and was about to head inside when she heard one of Tenchi's little sighs, the ones Sasami seemed to pay so much attention to. She knew Tenchi would follow, and that she had to burn off some energy doing something, but she knew she'd left out something important. She already had Sasami under one arm, she grabbed Tenchi around the waist to carry him along. "Okay, you can play too," she assured him as she dashed into the parlor. She heard the laugh from Tenchi and Sasami, and realized she'd chosen right.

      Inside the parlor she looked around for a set of machines the could play together.

      "Who's that?" Sasami asked, pointing at one of their 'victims', in the corner, at one of the machines, crying his eyes out as he alternated pulls of the lever, with pulls from the sake bottle.

      Crybaby lush! she thought, wanting to ignore him, "We should let him drink in peace, Sasami-chan."

      She saw Sasami's frown and the faint displeasure on Tenchi's face. Okay, new technique, she thought to herself, Let Sasami take the lead, it's worked so far, once she sets the policy, I'll jump in. Unless we have to save him, then I'll save him from getting drunk, by heroically throwing myself and Tenchi on that sake bottle. She set them down and walked after them.

      "Mister Tendo?" Sasami asked as she and Tenchi approached.

      Ryoko kept her eyes open for any of the local weirdos to come leaping out of shadows. The pachinko machine the crybaby had been playing, began sidling away, as Tendo focused on Sasami and her concerned look. Ryoko realized how it must have been stealing from the drunken man. She zapped the machine. "Give him back his balls," she threatened, then looked at the horrified expressions on the others. "What?"

      The jewelry store was across from the IMA Department Store in Hikarigaoka, and very high-end and exclusive. They of course recognized the illustrious Kuno Tatewaki instantly, and tastefully ignored his rather lowborn entourage. But while not noble by birth, Tate thought as he delighted in Ami-chan's enchanted sighs at the finery, They are more noble of spirit than many who would be allowed in here. He noted with a trace of fear, that Ami was instantly drawn to the wedding rings. She nearly pressed her nose to the glass, when a polite cough reminded her of her uncultured action.

      "So pretty," she breathed, "Like glittering stars."

      "Ami-chan," Katsuhito commented idly, "You're scaring your charge. Perhaps the tennis bracelets? Or the earrings?" The old man smiled benignly at the girl's embarrassment, and Tate's own relief at not having to issue such a directive himself.

      Tendo-san had already rolled to the display Katsuhito had suggested. Ami-chan joined her there. Tate nodded his thanks to the older man, who grinned back, understanding what it was like to be young and uncertain.

      "There aren't any prices," Ami-chan commented.

      "If you have to ask the price," Tendo-san explained carefully, "You can't afford it. I've never even been in here. I knew I couldn't afford anything here."

      Katsuhito had wheeled Tate to another case, one with paired bracelets, each with half of an icon, the two making the whole. Friendship bracelets, he thought.

      "Don't you think Miss Tendo and little Sasami would like something like that?" Katsuhito asked innocently.

      Inside, Tate froze. One such pair would nearly match what the Mercenary took from me in four years of high school, he thought desperately. Only the painfully firm grip on his shoulder kept him from blurting out his concern. "I - " he couldn't think of an appropriate response.

      "Of course, Ami-chan, come help Tate-kun pick out a pair," Katsuhito said with that maddeningly calm smile.

      The foul sor- devious shaman, he corrected himself, - and this one are well matched, Tate thought as Ami-chan nervously approached the case, not seeing Tendo-san's stricken look, as wheelchair-bound girl tried to find away to release Tate from this trap, and could find none.

      Tate decided to charge boldly, as befitted a warrior born. That is the most honorable course, he thought. "They both love their households," he offered, feigning a confidence in the path that he did not feel, but releasing them from the obligation to refuse.

      "The white gold, uses nickel, or platinum?" Katsuhito asked the salesman, who now looked more stricken than any of the customers had. He stammered an apology and disappeared into the back. A few moments later, he returned with an old man who had the aura of a laborer about him.

      Not a laborer. An artisan, a craftsman, Tate realized, With no more patience for the airs of the salesman than I would have with lesser swordsmen.

      "Nickel or platinum?" the old jeweler said, examining each of the customers, "Platinum, of course, around here, you want it good and tough. The 14 karat is as hard as good steel. You've got a skilled eye." There was a hint of challenge there, one Katsuhito deflected.

      "My wife knew jewelry, and how to make little pieces," he said calmly, "She taught me what was important. I do miss her, and her hobby."

      The two old men nodded, lost for a moment in their own memories.

      "Kasumi-chan," Ami-chan said tremulously, "Is this appropriate?" The one she had chosen had a charm like an opened scroll, halved, and clearly meant for engraving with the sentiment.

      Tate held his tongue, knowing what the engraving of even a few letters would cost. Knowing that sometimes in painful defeat, a true victory could be achieved.

      "Wa," Tendo-san suggested, "The harmony of a house that makes it a home."

      "Yes," Tate said, to forestall her obvious follow up, a face and money saving suggestion, "Excellent in fact." The sudden hug from Ami-chan and his ability to return it, more than made up for the hole that had been scorched in his wallet. While she gazed into his eyes, he said, "Now something for you."

      "It's all right," she said, looking distressed at the extravagance.

      "It is all right. What is it the westerners say? 'A pearl beyond price'?" he asked, and realized her tears were those of joy, not pain.

      Asuka dodged through the throngs in the department store. I know I agreed to keep them busy, she thought as she glanced at the signs, searching for her new target, But this is ridiculous! She'd thought she'd evaded the pair, and made her escape, only to have either Akane or Nodoka spot her and take up the 'please save me' pursuit.

      Stupid wondering how they did it. How many long-haired red-heads are there in Japan? Asuka wondered as she sought a wig and a hat of some kind, Now if my hair were purple or something weird, they would have lost me in a second. And that flying girl, Kiima, all she has to do was spot me, and she'll know that her quarry is in my wake. Once I break contact with the Princess, I'll be home free. She'd briefly considered crossing paths with one of the other groups, to `scrape` Akane off on them. But that's neither honorable, nor particularly nice, she thought as she headed for the elevator. "Hold the door," she called, and slipped in, right before Akane could reach it. She smiled as she thought of all the floors she had to chose from, Up and down.

      "Pardon me," she said sweetly to the elevator operator, "Do you know where wigs are found in this store?" Too much Asuka, just brilliant, she realized as the young man started stammering incomprehensibly, Just a touch, don't beat them over the head with it.

      She exited when the doors opened, and swiftly left the elevator's proximity. Okay, where would be the last place ole' twisted panties would look? Asuka thought as she glanced around, Mens' or Womens' underwear? Asuka mentally flipped a coin and headed into the Mens' section,At least I can really put some force behind the 'pervert' claim if she comes looking for me in here.

      Tomoe Hotaru had no idea how she'd arrived in Nerima. Her blackouts rarely involved buying train tickets and traveling to other wards. Am I getting worse, or better? she wondered idly as she looked around the place. Normally when I have my `fits`, someone around me gets hurt, she thought sadly, If I have one here, nobody will notice. She tried to smile at the poor joke, but couldn't hold it for more than an instant. She wondered, What possessed me to come to Hikarigaoka? And I got through the warning kiosks before I even knew I was here. I don't have enough money to get back. What am I going to do?

      She walked on despondently. The people seemed to sense her mood and avoided her. It didn't bother her, she was used to it.

      "If you like them that young," Makoto kidded, "I could bind myself up."

      "Huh?" Jeff said, looking at Makoto, "Sorry, it just that - "

      Jeff's loss of eloquence made Makoto more nervous than the wild adventure. "What's wrong?"

      "That girl, we should go talk to her," he said quietly, "She's lost."

      "Oh." Makoto brightened. "Someone else for you to save," she teased, then she focused on the girl, getting a feeling of intense familiarity, "I've seen her before."

      "She's too young to be one of you. Although the outer planets have yet to be accounted for," Jeff said as they moved through the crowds, the people unconsciously keeping a path open between them and the odd girl, as if they sensed and avoided the connection between them, "But that's not what caught my eye. She's . . . like me. A made thing, not a human. Don't ask how I know, I couldn't tell you."

      "Now you are scaring me," Makoto admitted. Suddenly the crowds closed in and they lost sight of her. When they arrived where she should have been, there was no trace of her.

      "It's like she was broadcasting this signal of -" He refused to say what. "- and suddenly she went silent," Jeff said as he looked around, "That's just too weird."

      "The fact you're worried has me worried," Makoto admitted, hugging his arm tightly to her, "Are we in - is she dangerous?"

      "Everyone is dangerous, if they choose to be," he admitted offhandedly, then stared into the sky.

      Makoto took out one of the rolls they'd purchased. She smelled the delicious aroma, tried to offer him one, but he still stared intently at the sky. "What do you suppose she puts in these to make them smell so wonderful?" she asked, enjoying the scent as much as the taste.

      "Saffron," Jeff said quietly.

      Makoto was about to correct him, when looked at him and felt real fear. She'd never seen him wear such a hate-filled expression before. Enemies are to be destroyed, friends teased, she thought desperately, But this looks like he'd gleefully torture someone to death, then resurrect them to do it again.

      He looked down and saw her expression. With visible effort, he controlled himself and his expression. "Sorry, prophetic dreams, he killed my wife and unborn child. Just to prove he was nastier than I was. He was wrong. I just bet someone used the d-word to describe our outings."

      "Could you calm down before you look at me that way?" she stammered, cringing slightly from his expression.

      "Sorry." The transformation was astounding, instead of the monster who'd briefly appeared, the one she'd briefly felt when she'd touched his AT field, the man she cared about was back. "If he's here, then there's trouble," he told her.

      "Okay, let's go. But remember, it was a dream. He hasn't really done anything to you yet."

      "True, so I'll kill him on sight, not torture him slowly over days and weeks," he said with a smile that was more malevolent than any of the Dark Generals had yet managed.

      "Why do I get the feeling that's the best I can hope for from you?" Makoto asked as the pair headed for the store.

      Tatewaki was having trouble breathing, but he was enjoying it.

      "Thankyouythankyouthankyou," Ami told him breathlessly. The trinket around her neck pressing into the back of his. A single emerald in a simple setting, and Ami-chan loved it.

      "There are more things - " Katsuhito said as he pushed both wheelchairs.

      Than were ever dreampt of in my philosophy, he thought quietly. "I am glad you like it." Then mentally wrestled down any urge to say more, A desperate battle to keep victory out of the jaws of defeat. It seems I can learn. He looked at Tendo-san, who stared in shock into the box carrying the twin pendants. Her expression a perplexing mix of utter joy, and tremendous sorrow. As if she could take wing, and would immediately descend into abyss of Hell with the self-same flight.

      "Are you well?" he asked, unintentionally extinguishing Ami-chan's exuberance.

      Tendo-san looked up, showing the tears that lay unshed on her face. "Oh, yes," she whispered, "They are very beautiful. I - I don't know what to say."

      "Thank you is considered appropriate," Katsuhito said, and smiled at the youngsters all blushing together.

      "Thank you," Tendo-san said as she bowed her head.

      "Thank you, perhaps I have been remiss," again Tatewaki struggled to keep his message poetic, but as compact as possible, "You and your family have shown me a kindness I have not received from my own." He couldn't help himself. "What you have given freely and generously in your illusionary impoverishment, I have returned only penuriously of my plenitude. Yet, I am still very much in your debt."

      It seemed to satisfy Tendo-san, and rekindled Ami-chan's good mood. A few precious moments of joy, then they were awash with screaming, panicky citizens. "They do not flee even a clash of Titans, such as myself and the departed Saotome, what would set them to flight so?"

      "Tate-chan, the Gods defeated the Titans," Ami-chan reminded him.

      Tate managed to get to his feet and remain there, bracing himself on Ami and his bokken. "The others will converge of their own accord. There is no shame in summoning allies, in light of this unprecedented event."

      "I'm afraid all my heavy forces are in the field," Katsuhito admitted unashamedly.

      "I have some calls to make," Ami-chan announced, her determination shining out, amplifying her beauty by showing the steel within.

      Asuka watched in horror as Raccoon and Lightning Lass slipped into the elevator with her, and tossed out the attendant before the doors closed.

      "I was trying to keep the insanity away from you two," she said, accepted the roll Lightning Lass handed her. She eyed the bread and the smiling girl closely. "I see you're adapting to Nerima."

      "He's talking, you're angry, you're both plotting, what do I have to be afraid of?" Lightning Lass answered with a smile and shrug, "Besides, you do need something to eat, and it's very good."

      "You've been into Kasumi's pills again," Asuka said what she thought, sampled the bread, and realized it was very good. "Saffron is here."

      "We noticed," Raccoon told her, the swiftly hidden rage frightening Lightning Lass, and Asuka.

      "We've got to get him out of here, before they get all the special effects for the next Gojira movie free of charge," Asuka confided in Lightning Lass, not specifying which 'him' because either would do, "I saw the Phoenix-god show up, professing undying love for -"

      The elevator doors opened and Akane jumped in. Saffron was clearly visible in the distance. Jeff hit the emergency close, and pulled the doors closed when they didn't close fast enough for him.

      "Speak of the devil," Asuka looked down on Akane, figuratively and literally.

      "You're in more trouble than you know," Akane gasped.

      When Lightning Lass bent to help Akane, Asuka's glare straightened her up. "Why Akane-chan, how could anything bad happen to us when your blessed self is with us?" Asuka asked so sweetly, she thought her teeth would rot, "Unless you are planning some violence, mayhaps?"

      "He's not after me," Akane told them, looking at the unsympathetic audience.

      The entire elevator shifted strangely, then stabilized. "We're clear of the building, and all the inflammable objects inside it," Raccoon told them.

      "Inflammable?" Lightning Lass asked, then proved her brain was functioning, "Just the people, or the merchandise?" She smirked at Raccoon, who smiled warmly back.

      "Oh come now, Akane-chan," Asuka cooed to their unwanted guest, "Who could possibly compete with your beauty and charm?"

      "He's after you!" Akane screamed at her.

      "Well, he does have some taste after all," Raccoon said, then waved his hand in front of Asuka's face, "I think you actually surprised her."

      "What would that freak want with me, when Akane the Perfect is still unattached?" Asuka asked sourly, "I think she's lying, or she's just guessed wrong, again."

      "You'll be able to find out in a moment," Lightning Lass commented on the glowing spot on the metal door.

      "It's not Krell metal, but I think the id - iot beyond the door could make it through that," Raccoon commented as the doors when from one spot of dull red, to the entire door glowing orange. Lightning Lass shoved Akane into a far corner and took up a position in front of her. Raccoon waved his hands at the door and the heat in the elevator abated, but the glow increased. "With her highness aboard, I can't lift us clear into orbit, but I'm gonna throw the book at him." His hands were already forming new patterns, which indicated his readiness.

      The doors sagged and twisted aside. The wind roared past as the upper airs raced around them. Kiima stayed back a distance, looking miserable from more than the cold. The Phoenix `god` stood before the doors, himself arrogant and cold.

      An entire set of encyclopedias slammed into him, driving him back from the elevator and dropping him away. Raccoon lowered his hands and glared at Kiima, who fearfully kept her distance. "I've got the whole U.S. Tax Code as a back up, international, commercial and personal," Raccoon warned, "Go - away!"

      Kiima raised a shaking hand, pointing at Raccoon. "I know you," she shouted back over the winds, "I do not support this action, but I must serve my lord."

      "Why?" Lightning Lass stepped up, uncomfortable with the cold wind, the cooling doors, and the distance to the ground, but desperate to avoid a fight, "She won't say 'yes', isn't your loyalty to your lord's best interests, or just his ego?"

      Kiima squirmed at the suggestion. "Please, he'll tire of you shortly. He is just impulsive."

      "How does 'no' strike you?" Asuka asked, "Why does a woman have to bend and warp who she is to avoid offending a man?"

      Kiima tried to find a flaw in Asuka's argument.

      "Asuka, please," Makoto countered, she'd seen Jeff's fury, she knew he would humiliate his enemy, before utterly destroying him, "He depends on you, for your maturity and protection, even from himself. It isn't your job to be liked and loved, you must love your lord." She saw the passion and rightness of her argument was undermining the Phoenixi's certainty.

      "I cannot," Kiima shook her head and said with shame.

      "Fools!" Saffron shouted as he raced towards the elevator opening. Both boys fired at once. Saffron's flame-bolt struggled against Jeff's stream of the bureaucratic blather, volumes against fury. But it was only a feint. Jeff wrenched the steel elevator door free, and unaffected by the firepower, caught the Phoenix-god squarely with it. There was clang and screech of rage, as the door wrapped around Saffron and pulled him down to Earth, as the Phoenix-god's powers struggled to overwhelm whatever spell Jeff had strengthened the door with.

      Makoto resumed her offensive, shouting over the winds, "You must realize they're just playing with him. Once they get mad enough, they'll just kill him. They can do it so he won't return! How do you serve him and your people by allowing that?"

      Kiima looked truly miserable, but Makoto knew she was getting to the woman. She wished she had either Jeff's or Tuxedo Mask's skill with words and persuasion. All I have is me, she thought as she tried to find her way through, I watched them kill, and they are nearly ready to do that here. "You are his guard, your job it is stand with him," she implored, "But your job is to see what he doesn't, to guard him from himself, if necessary. You can't ignore what is happening. If you love him, if you care about him, if you love your people, find some way, some excuse to end this. He might hate you, he might punish or banish you, but you'll know you saved him. Isn't that enough?" She knew she was winning. She knew that together they could end this peacefully.

      Then she was staring into the face of madness personified. The young man had the anger of a child throwing a tantrum, but the mind and powers of a god to back it up. As Makoto backed away, the fire-wreathed fist came up to bat her away. Makoto heard the others moving to her defense, knew the killing would begin.

      Instead, Kiima caught her lord's arm. "There is a better way," she counseled, "Patience, my lord."


      Makoto screamed as fire enveloped the winged woman, reducing her hair, feathers and clothes to ash and beginning to scorch her flesh. Makoto watched Kiima's helpless descent, catching a glimpse of a knife appearing in the middle of Saffron's face, driven by Jeff's hand. The image didn't touch her, nothing around her drew her attention from one thing. One thing absorbed her entire being and compressed it into one fact, how far down, 'down' had become. In the abyss of space, you could fall forever, she thought as her eyes latched on to Kiima dropping away, But here the stop will come, the end will come. The thought twisted her guts, made her want to wet herself, scream, or retreat deep within herself.

      Another thought intruded. She's there because I put her there, Makoto thought, remembering how her parents had died, As if something reached up, and stopped whatever kept the plane flying. I've been afraid of heights since then, she thought as she felt her knees flexing, not in fear, but in preparation. They'll let her die, because she has hurt them, because she will hurt them, but she hasn't hurt me, she thought as she sprang into space, her body acting without thinking. She'd been a skilled diver once, those skills returned. Does my body know the right thing, or - no, she realized as her hand sought her henshin rod, The moment I looked for her, I had made my decision. I don't think and worry, I act. My thoughts might betray me. In my actions, I am true to who I am. She ignored the feeling of the transformation, and shouts and screams behind her, not caring who made them or why. She'd put another in mortal jeopardy, now she had to rescue them. Sailor Jupiter or Kino Makoto would make no difference, she thought, the idea not frightening in the least, as if she'd gone beyond fear, I'll go splat either way, but Asuka and Jeff won't allow that. I know him, I know her, it is not their nature. Better to bet on the sun not rising, than they'd let an innocent die for no cause. She found her mind clear, her body acting without conscious thought. It was a clarity and purity of purpose she'd never felt before. No emotions, no explanations or justifications, no barrier between need and action. She unhooked the large bow at the small of her back. Jeff's and Asuka's instruction books said if could be removed and expanded, to serve as a blanket or a restraint. I will need both, she thought as she adjusted from head down to a spread-eagle position, slowing her rate of approach. She also knew it had a weak healing magic, so it could serve as bandages as well. I'll need that, she thought as her hand quested for Kiima's. A new fear entered her mind, that one of the others would save her too soon. That she would she safe and whole, while Kiima plunged helplessly to her death. Sailor Jupiter took that fear and gained strength of purpose from it. She seize Kiima's fluttering hand and drew the woman to her, wrapping her in the bow's expanding fabric as she did. She oriented herself feet down, and patiently waited.

      Anytime, she thought and felt the flap and flutter of her fuku, the wind whipping her hair, and saw the immense vista opening up below her. I should be terrified, she thought as she held Kiima and looked across the vast expanse of Tokyo and the mountains around it, But even if I die, I died being who I truly am. I can die in peace. The only clue or warning she had, was that Kiima was growing heavier by the moment, then came the pressure against her boots and warmth across her exposed flesh. With the warmth came the joy, anger, and the terrible, terrible loneliness. Beyond her fear of the yawning depths that had taken her parents from her, was this acceptance that betrayal and abandonment was his lot. Not from me, she plead with the universe, Not from me too. Tears came, of joy and sorrow as she felt she was riding in the hand of the kamis themselves. She took a moment to look around her. The elevator, twisted and crushed almost beyond recognition, streaked by her. Yellow-white hot and spinning like a top, with Saffron's rage contained within.

      I think I hear screaming, she thought as she glanced up, Oh, you are cruel!

      Akane hung by the waist from an immense parachute that looked like a pair of underwear, complete with little catheads embroidered on it. Was it your idea or Asuka's to put that yellow patch where the stain would go? she thought and laughed at the embarrassment of `Miss` Tendo, seemingly showing her soiled bloomers to all of northern Tokyo. Had to be Asuka, Jeff would have made her an advertising balloon, Makoto thought as the roof of the department store drifted into view. Already, Asuka and Jeff waited for her, Ami's and Sasami's groups were running across the roof to join up, and Ryoko was drifting around her in a lazy circle.

      "Looks like you had fun," Ryoko told Makoto, "Nice outfit, sailor suit, shows your panties. You realized you sailor mooned all of Tokyo."

      Makoto winced at that, and decided to lock Ryoko in a room and let Jeff sing to her. "Jealous you didn't think of it first?" Makoto asked innocently as she touched down.

      Ryoko snarled at her, "Hey I had fun on my date!"

      In the distance, a building exploded. Ryoko looked around at the faces glaring at her, even Ryo-Oh-Oki and little Sasami. "I didn't do anything!"

      Rather than get angry, everyone sighed. 'You used/Don't say - the d-word.' They all told her.

      "Katsuhito, get over there and see what's going on, take anyone you need except me and her," Jeff ordered and gestured to the same small, dark-haired, dark-eyed girl who they'd spotted before.

      "Ryoko, Asuka, with me," Katsuhito ordered, "Ami, Sasami, Tatewaki, you remain aboard Ryo-Oh-Oki to observe and coordinate."

      "You mean date?" Ryoko asked. Everyone threw themselves flat as an immense fireball streaked over their heads and exploded against a building on the other side.

      "That was from Hightonview Terrace!" Tate announced, then glanced around, "My family's mansion used to be there."

      "That explains everything," Asuka said, "Leave off the Sentai speeches, let's GO!" She leapt into the air and raced off. Ryoko scooped up Katsuhito and followed. Ryo-Oh-Oki went through a transformation that beggared the senshis', becoming a huge spaceship. Sasami, Tatewaki and Ami all vanished within as it headed off.

      "Don't I go with them?" Makoto asked.

      "You picked up the stray, you have to care for her," Jeff said sternly, "And just what were you thinking, jumping out into the air like that? You can't fly you know, and unlike Asuka, I haven't given you a device to let you."

      "I knew you wouldn't let me fall," Makoto told him with a smile.

      He raised an eyebrow. "Oh really?"

      "Yes, I know you were looking forward too much to lecturing me on my foolish actions," she told him smugly.

      He let it go, as she knew he would. "Tomoe Hotaru, Sailor Jupiter," he introduced the girl.

      Makoto was worried how pale and frail she looked. Her frail body couldn't hide her exuberant spirit, but she had the same aura of sadness and aloneness that Jeff had. "I'm pleased to meet you." Makoto bowed, and got the same from Hotaru.

      "Are you really one of the Senshi?" Hotaru bubbled. Makoto couldn't keep from smiling.

      "Yes," she replied, "Although today was supposed to be a da - y off." Makoto ignored the horrified look from Jeff.

      "I said I'd give you a few tips on controlling your healing powers," Jeff told Hotaru, "She's pretty badly hurt, and I suspect there's going to be a lot of hurt people. So we start the lessons now."

      Hotaru nodded and laid her hand on the woman in the silk wrappings. She immediately felt another energy guiding her healing powers. "Remember," Davis-san murmured, "Take the most critical wounds first, don't try to do everything at once."

      She nodded. He seemed to be in a trance, but he was still acting half-awake.

      "Leave the skin, the blanket will take care of that. The wings are important, it's part of who she is."

      Wings?! Hotaru thought, then put the thought aside, Enough people think I'm strange, and this is Nerima after all. She listened to his discussion of repairing not all but part of something, giving the body a `guide` to finishing the repairs.

      When her tiredness began to catch up with her, she felt Sailor Jupiter put her arms around her. The warmth of her spirit, Hotaru thought muzzily as she regained some of her strength, I can do this, I can help save her friend.

      Finally, she sat back. It seemed a patchwork job, so much left to do.

      "She'll heal quickly enough on her own," Davis-san assured her, "We have other people to help. Are you up to it?"

      Hotaru felt exhausted, but nodded. "I can help," she told her new friends and felt their smiles and approval on her. I helped the Sailor Senshi, she thought happily, No one will ever believe this at school.

      "Poor kid, she's exhausted," Makoto said as she placed Hotaru in Kasumi's lap, and wheeled the pair onto the platform Jeff was generating. "How is it you aren't as tired?"

      "I'm built differently, I've also got more experience," he said as he helped Tenchi carry the stretcher bearing Kiima onto the platform. Once they were all aboard, they lifted gently and drifted like a leaf to board Ryo-Oh-Oki. Once they touched down, Makoto pushed Kasumi and Hotaru to the infirmary, while Jeff and Tenchi carried Kiima. Katsuhito and Tatewaki were waiting for them.

      "What did you find?" Jeff asked.

      "Wreckage," Tatewaki answered, he still leaned on his bokken for support, "What caused it left little trace, beyond footprints, and those badly distorted."

      "Lot of hurt people," Katsuhito admitted sadly, "More than we can treat here. Kiyone is here, she sent Mihoshi to find Washu, and left when neither showed up."

      "Too many cooks make light work," Jeff said, "I'd better get to the triage post, that's where they'll need my skills."

      "I thought this was far enough away from insanity central that these people would be safe," Makoto complained, "What can Sailor Jupiter do? I can't heal."

      "Rescue work," Tatewaki said, "If my strength had fully returned, I would slash through the debris with precision. As it is, I can barely stand. So I assist with the sensors and hope it avails someone. A samurai's duty is to serve. To remain in one's tent, lamenting that such service is not worthy enough, is the ultimate betrayal." It should have sounded foolish and pompous, but delivered in the bone-weary tone of one who'd 'seen the elephant', it gave Makoto determination.

      "I still have my strength and powers. Unlike the rest of you, I'm at full-strength, and ready." She bowed to him. "I would be honored, if you would guide my strength."

      Kuno bowed back and headed to the bridge. Makoto sighed and left Ryo-Oh-Oki to assist the rescue workers.

      Fires still burned on some of the upper floors of adjacent buildings. Far below them, Ryoko slashed at the concrete sections that Sasami and Tatewaki `suggested`, then pulled the entire mass away and tossed it into Ryo-Oh-Oki's tractor beam. People swarmed in to pull the frightened and injured to safety. "You'd think chopping up a building couldn't be boring," Ryoko complained as she moved to the next site. Her sword and strength made this easy, boring work. The fact she could do it without setting foot on the fallen concrete, made her ideally suited for the effort. The things I do to impress Tenchi, she thought and smiled at how earnest he'd seemed as he asked her to help, I just wish I could fight what did this, instead of just rescue work.

      "Everyone take a break!" the crew chief ordered. The crews straggled away from where they'd been digging. The workers, men and women drank water or tea, and checked the lists and blueprints again. Ryoko couldn't hide her disappointment that it was just water or tea.

      "We've still got 85 unaccounted for, and 35 deaths," the crew chief told her, "When we find them, and keep the death toll under fifty, I'll buy you a bottle of some of the best sake in Japan." Then he held his hand to the radio's earphone.

      "Really!?" Ryoko asked happily.

      "Young Kuno says a barrel, but you'll have to share," he said with a smile.

      "It better be really good sake, then," Ryoko said.

      "Where does Davis find you people? Two Sailor Senshi, three people with lightsabers, two people who can work like flying cranes, a starship, that healer girl, I know Nerima is crazy, but that's pushing things."

      "Oh, we came down to visit a friend," Ryoko said, hoping he wouldn't notice how she was sweating.

      "Not that Lum Invader girl?" he asked, "We had all kinds of problems in the 80's with her, until she settled down."

      "Nope, never heard of her," Ryoko said and laughed nervously. If they were here, why didn't they track me down? It's not like I only hit the Jurains. She laughed again, but the chief either didn't notice or didn't care.

      "Okay, back to work," the chief ordered, "We'll have lights brought in, it's getting dark."

      Ryoko went back to work and decided Sasami would keep her informed if any of her old `friends` decided to show up.

      Kasumi listened to the radio traffic through her headphones. I thought I couldn't help, the kitchen was too small for a wheelchair, and the pavement too rough, she wrote down the names of those rescued and passed the paper to a woman at the computer, Who would have thought a good ear and clear penmanship would have a use here? She couldn't help but wonder if the position had been created to give her a purpose, then she discarded the thought, This isn't a game, it's real. They wouldn't waste time on such subterfuge.

      She looked over the list the woman handed back, a list of the people still unaccounted for. I pray they survived, she thought, Each one dead, such a thing shouldn't happen. She continued, listening closely for any of the names on the list.

      Hotaru looked around the triage tent and felt . . . lost. I know where I am, I know what I can do, she thought, But where do I start? She looked for Davis-san. She remembered how she'd been spotted by the tall gaijin in the tweed suit. He pointed directly at me. 'You there, come with me.' As though I wouldn't even think of running away. And I couldn't, there was just something that said I mustn't run away, I wonder if anyone else thinks like that. How did he know I was a healer? 'Can you heal large injuries or small, and are you formally trained?' It's like he just wanted confirmation of the answers. Even when I asked how he knew, 'Don't you know that I can?' Then I looked, really looked at myself and him. I could feel it in myself, and I could feel it in him too.

      She looked around at the hurt people laid out in rows. I should be exhausted and asleep, she thought of the `infusions` of energy he'd let her take, placing his hands in hers, I'm not ready to do cartwheels, or grow fangs and a cape, I'd rather curl up in a corner, but I can keep working.

      "'We'll start at the deep end,' and now I know what I can really do and what I can't." She looked down at a woman, sleeping peacefully. When she came in here, her arm was twisted into a sickening shape, now she looks like the splint and bandages are just for show, she thought, then spotted Davis-san entering the tent, mercifully, he wasn't bent over another person on a stretcher.

      "Wash up and get something to eat. After that, we come back and do the job you wanted to do on the worst cases. They've accounted for everybody, and we've only got these wounded to deal with."

      Hotaru sighed in relief and walked towards him. She just couldn't muster the energy to run.

      "What do you think happened?" the chief engineer asked Asuka.

      Ami's `useless` bubble attacks were as effective extinguishing these fires as my mastery over flames, she thought, Funny, all these hurt people and the `noble` warriors of Nerima are no where to be found. Oh I forgot, once the monster's dead, their job is done. They just cause collateral damage, they don't fix it.

      "The closest approximation is dragon fire, it's the only thing that burns that hot, that fiercely and for so long," Asuka said, she and Ami had snuffed the flames in a dozen locations, but the stuff had been devilishly hard to extinguish, as if it weren't really fire at all. Now she was wearied beyond her usual caution. But they don't care how I know, just what I know, she thought as she looked over at Kiyone and Ami comparing what their advanced technology was picking up. Ami's probably got the IQ advantage, but she doesn't have the education or the experience, Asuka thought, Give her a few months and she'll catch up. "I have to wonder how someone was able to get that fire all the way up here," Asuka completed her thought, "Artillery might do it, but more likely an air raid. Did the JSDF radar or radio intercepts pick up anything?"

      "Nothing that could be deciphered. A few minutes before 'the event' all the electronics went nuts," the chief engineer said, "It wasn't a pack of martial arts hackers, was it?"

      "I doubt it. Sailor Mercury has an analysis of the entire process. Kiyone and I can step her through it, and I'll get you a report."

      The man nodded, bowed to Ami and Kiyone and headed away. Asuka knew the weird stuff they did creeped the man out. "So, you two have been intensely whispering. What did you find that you don't want to tell me?"

      Both women looked guiltily at Asuka and at each other.

      "You're going to think this is weird," Ami said.

      Asuka reined in her temper and said instead, "Mercury-chan, repeat after me, 'This is Nerima, a little weird is a little unusual, really weird, is really normal.'"

      "This is weird even for Nerima," Kiyone said, "What hit this point wasn't fire, it was a virtual representation of fire. A very good simulation of all of fire's properties and characteristics, but not the real thing."

      "Okay, you two have been discussing it, I can tell. So leave it to the stupid one to ask the question: Why would you simulate such a simple chemical process when nearly anything can generate it?"

      "We don't know," Ami admitted.

      Asuka resisted the impulse to toss both of them over the railing to their deaths, and concentrated on the matter at hand. "How is it your computer systems were able to come up with that, when none of the others have?"

      "My computer isn't just digital, it also has high-end analog circuitry," Ami explained.

      "My systems don't use binary," Kiyone told her, "And instead of electrons or photons, it uses a particle your people haven't even discovered yet."

      "So the errors would slip in under the radar with our equipment. Our natural error checking functions would mask the imperfections in the copy," Asuka said, waited for the other two to nod, "Next question, is this a prelude to invasion? Only physical tests and non-Terran computers can detect the differences, that means even impossible things can be simulated, and they'd be impossible to detect as unreal. That means you can create anything, no matter how ludicrous or impossible, and there'd be no way of treating it as if it didn't or couldn't exist."

      "Invasion, yes," Kiyone said and hurried on, "But reports are that two of them fought each other. I don't think they have the political will or unity to launch a full-scale invasion. Not at this time, anyway."

      "A test of the equipment," Asuka summarized, "Bad guys send a monster through, good guys send one through to fight it. I think I've seen that movie. I can remember when 'computer' meant a building-sized object that was just slightly faster than a skilled mathematician, it just was supposed to be more error-free. Until a moth got caught in a relay somewhere."

      "Computer bug," Ami chuckled at that. "I just wish we could recruit the good guys to our side. A giant monster you could store in a computer until you needed it - we could use the help."

      "And the other side would quickly develop them and you'd be right back to where you started," Asuka said, "Then you'd have some idiot trying to turn them into toys, and some other idiot trying to ban them for just your side. Maybe you should just create a game about them, your mom can give you pointers on life-cycle, growth and that sort of thing. Have them battle each other like the Samurai school or Roman gladiator movies to get stronger. Think of the toys, the computer games, the TV shows, the money to be had."

      "Nobody would ever buy something silly like that!" Ami giggled.

      Says the `serious` girl with the drawer full of 'Hello Kitty' underwear, Asuka thought, You really could have cashed in. I've already seen it . . . I wonder if 'Hello Cthulhu' would work in the same way?

      "One other thing," Ami seemed ashamed to admit, "When we saw the people panicking about Saffron . . . "

      "Yes," Asuka could almost hear the headache approaching.

      "I called the others, Usagi, Rei, Minako," Ami said, smiled, "They'll probably arrive after everything is over."

      Asuka leaned close to the girl, her expression forced Ami to scramble back. "Don't say things like that in Nerima," Asuka intoned, "The gods will punish you."

      "Yes, ma'am," Ami squeaked.

Sailor Jupiter 14 - Day After Revelations

      Hotaru woke suddenly. She felt the blanket wrapped around her, but when she tried to move, she felt the straps binding her to the bed. She wistfully wondered if she'd been captured by a hentai. Better that than what I know happened, she thought sadly.

      'Oh, you're awake.'

      Please, I can't have hurt someone, I must have hurt someone, she thought frantically, Please. I can't help it. Don't be afraid of me!

      A girl with pink hair and red eyes stepped into her field of vison and smiled.

      "I had a fit . . . didn't I?" Hotaru asked fearfully, "I hurt someone, didn't I?"

      The girl's smile vanished as she considered the question. "Yes, you could call it a fit." She smiled sympathetically. "The only one you nearly hurt was yourself," she explained as she released the straps, "Jeff-onichan took care of it. He said you shouldn't have a recurrence."

      "He healed me?" Hotaru couldn't believe her good fortune.

      "Yes, problem's all gone!" The girl smiled and laughed. Then a rabbit jumped on her head. "Ryo-Oh-Oki!" the girl mock-scolded the creature, "Let her finish waking up."

      Hotaru sat up, feeling better and more rested than she could ever remember. No more fits? Can I believe it? I feel good, not like I usually do, she thought as she noted her clothes had been changed and she was clean, Did I get a bath and change clothes? Or did someone bathe and dress me?

      "I'm Sasami, this is Ryo-Oh-Oki," the girl told her as she held the creature close to Hotaru.

      "That's a strange bunny," Hotaru said as she tickled it under the chin.

      Sasami closed her eyes and giggled. "Because she's a cabbit."

      Hotaru stared in surprise.

      "Our guest has awakened." A woman in a wheelchair rolled into the alcove where Hotaru's bed was. "I am Tendo Kasumi, I'm pleased to meet you."

      "Tomoe Hotaru." She bowed. "I didn't hurt you . . . did I?"

      "No." The woman's smile faded slightly. "I was hurt several months ago."

      Jeff stood and turned from the crystal ball he was watching the scene in, and nearly ran into Tsunami who had been leaning over him. "Beg pardon, but could you at least ring a bell when you materialize, it's no wonder most of the others are 20% bows and bangles by weight. It's to keep from scaring the mortals," he said, glanced back at Asuka, who was holding her snicker.

      "I am not certain you chose the best course of action in this case," Tsunami chided.

      "That wasn't what you said when the three of us confronted that thing," Jeff countered, "You both stood idle while I sent it home, and no complaints were voiced."

      "I had believed you would follow up with an annihilating strike," Tsunami explained, "To let such a dangerous enemy live is . . . not like you."

      "I'm full of contradictions. Don't forget, once she started babbling, it was easy to see that her master wasn't ready to take on you, two Great Old Ones, Washu, and half a dozen magical do-gooders. Taking word that Earth is off the dining card is good enough. This 'The Grail' can wait, but it also gave us some very interesting insights into the real enemy. Do you fancy a trip to the Galactic Cauldron?"

      "An exchange there, of sufficient force to destroy her master's master," Tsunami said pensively, "It would destroy everything."

      "Hence my thinking. We let them maneuver and we do something that will draw Chaos out where it can be destroyed."

      "Chaos is necessary for the balance," Tsunami protested.

      "Each individual human contains all the chaos they need. That's part of what makes them greater than the angels. They don't need outside influences, they've already exceeded all the wildest dreams of those outside influences. Ask Yig about that. Besides, Eris is Chaos without destruction. She'll keep the pot stirred well enough, without annihilating whole planetary populations. She just wants hot dogs on Fridays, and the occasional jigsaw puzzle shipped with an important piece missing."

      "You're making that last part up," Tsunami said.

      "Since you know her so well, you should trust her to do the job."

      Tsunami covered her face and shook her head. "I have to learn to quit debating you."

      "True, but Eris said I could make things up as her spirit moved me. So . . . " Jeff glanced over at Asuka who was still watching Sasami, Hotaru and Kasumi interacting.

      "I think we have a winner," Asuka said, "Are you going to tell her the rest?"

      "No, that's an ace I intend to keep in my pocket. She's the only one who needs to be in Senshi form to activate her original Henshin rod. I'm going to make some modification before I give it to her."

      "Splice in a bit of 'can't stay dead' from the Great Old Ones?" Tsunami asked worriedly.

      "Of course, and a few power settings between 'open this tin of beans', and 'vaporize the universe'. The more I examine those things, the more I'm convinced they were designed by a screenwriter, not a competent engineer."

      Asuka snickered at that.

      'Landling, landling! Wings but can't fly!' the chant, the taunt, repeated over and over as Kiima was dragged to the peak of Phoenix Mountain, and like any fledgling, thrown off. Her crippled, defeathered wings flapped uselessly, catching none of the air. She crashed against the mountain, shattering her legs on the way down. Finally, the ground raced up to strike her.

      Mercy, she thought, I will die.

      While the injuries were horrible, they left her live enough to hear the taunt of 'Landling, landling! Wings but can't fly!' as they picked her up to begin their trek up the mountain again. Her scream of rage and terror echoed through the room.

      Strong arms kept her from leaping out the window. She struggled with whoever held her, but her weakness and unfamiliarity with her featherless form cost her any advantage she might have had.

      "Careful, the sedatives haven't worn off, and the painkillers have stunned your wings."

      Kiima twisted to see the source of the voice. "You, that girl from our pursuit." She eased her struggles, merely trying to get her feet on the ground. The girl continued to hold her aloft without effort, a mockery of the true freedom of the air she'd once enjoyed.

      "You can't fly now, maybe when you've healed and exercised."

      "If I was falling . . . you should have let me die." Kiima saw a flicker of anger.

      "You want to die?" the woman asked coldly, slowly. She marched Kiima to the window and flung it open. Outside, the concrete canyons of this odd city yawned.

      "I can throw you out there, or I can have Jeff come in and put a bullet through your brain. What is it about death everybody finds so attractive?!" she shouted the last. Then she set Kiima on the floor.

      The ex-General had seen the tantrums Saffron had thrown, but she'd never expected anyone to display greater anger than the Phoenix ever had.

      "You want to jump, fine, jump," she intoned, her fists opening and closing, as if she was ready to hurl Kiima out the window herself, "Prove to me I'm stupid for thinking you might want to live. Forgive me for thinking life is precious and to be enjoyed." The girl was beginning to cry, yet her fury remained unchecked. "Forgive me for being so childish that maybe we could do something without death or killing!"

      Kiima was speechless, afraid to speak, as she stared at the landling girl who had leapt out of a perch thousands of feet above the ground, to come to Kiima's rescue. "You could not fly, as I cannot now, why would you do this?"

      "Because I'm a stupid, sappy, little girl who didn't know any better," she shouted back as she strode out, and slammed the door behind her.

      Kiima stared at the drop, and carefully closed the window. No, I don't want to die, but what do I have to live for either? Kiima wondered.

      Usagi had cried all the tears she had, which even she realized was saying something. She and Minako lifted another stretcher to load another wounded human being into the ambulance. Pairs of coveralls hid their fukus and nets restrained their long hair. Rei had refused to help, so she and Venus had helped load first the dead, which had both of them crying, then the wounded, which in many ways was worse.

      "Asuka is just tormenting us," Minako said, once its doors were closed and the ambulance pulled away.

      Moon nodded, but she saw a glimmer of wisdom in the cruelty, They kept harping on how Serenity never understood the cost of her actions, she thought, This was just an accident. So many hurt, these poor people killed. What have I learned? That even in `safe` areas, danger and injury can't be avoided, and that 'collateral damage' has an all too human face. This is what they meant about being a soldier. They fight, are victorious and they can't go celebrate at the arcade. They have to stay and clean up. She shook her head. I just wish they could have found a less brutal way of showing me. She sighed and headed with Minako in tow, to one of the last occupied stretchers to be moved.

      Makoto stalked through the huts and tents of the diminishing temporary camp. The crews packing things up stayed out of her way. She wanted a youma to fight, one of whatever had caused all this suffering, even Akane or Saffron to beat up. All I want to do is hit someone or something that will react, she thought. Her tears blurring her vision and trailing down her cheeks, just made her more angry. Silly, weak, weepy little girl! she cursed herself and her stupidity, Why would anything I do matter? Just silly dreams and stupid hopes! She spotted Jeff, while she wasn't angry with him specifically, she wanted someone to hit.

      "Let's fight," she said without fanfare.

      His only reaction was a raised eyebrow and a gesture to an open area among the heavy equipment. He set aside his clipboard and preceded her into the arena.

      Makoto changed into her fuku as they passed temporarily out of sight.

      As they stopped at the center, Jeff turned back to her. "Okay, don't hold back."

      For a moment, her resolve wavered. "But I - "

      "Screens, shields, armor and limited invulnerability," he replied carefully, "I'll be quite safe."

      For not the first time, she wanted to prove he wasn't in control, wasn't in charge. She bowed and took a stance. He tipped his hat and took an odd guard stance. When he didn't move, she charged. At the last moment, he threw his hat in her face and twisted out of her reach. She deflected the hat and turned to be ready for any other tricks.

      None came, and she tried to concentrate on the fight, but her emotions were in more of a whirl than her body as she attacked. He blocked and parried, taking no offensive action.

      She was angry at herself, angry at the world, angry at everyone who'd forced her into this situation: her parents, Beryl, Serenity, Usagi, Jeff, Kiima, all of them using her as a pawn in their games. All of them playing with her thoughts and emotions. And who is there when I need them? Who cares if I fall? Not as a piece to be replaced, but as a person?

      Her blows landed on his arms or shoulders. Kicks were blocked by arms and legs. Occasionally, one would get through, only to stop on the shields, centimeters from landing on the flesh beneath. That is how I should be, untouchable, unreachable, able to ignore the outside world and all the ways it can hurt me! she thought angrily as she fought.

      Now and then, he'd block, and shove her back with his shoulder. That seemed the limit of his counterattacks.

      Her vision blurred and she wiped her eyes, cursing her weakness, her inability to land a decisive blow. I might as well be beating on a wall! she thought angrily, He shows no more effort than he has to to match me. He could knock me down, knock me out, any time he wanted to. Even full of anger, I'm helpless and impotent. All the decisions about my life and how I'm supposed to live, have been made for me, by the selfish needs of others. I must sacrifice so they can accomplish their desires! Even if they are long dead.

      She wiped her eyes to clear them. Her blows had no science to them anymore, she simply rained them down as hard and fast as she could. If they were blocked or dodged, or simply missed, she'd ceased to care. The realization that blows were as useless as all her other struggles, broke her. She lost the strength to lift her arms, or even stand. He caught her before she slid to the ground. The tears flowed freely. She wanted to scream, but she hadn't the strength left anymore. She whimpered as she leaned against him. The tears flowing, unable to control them or the pain and anger that raged within her.

      "Why can't our enemies simply take one look at us, and give up?" Ami complained to Asuka as they walked the corridors. Each dreading what they would soon have to do.

      "Because when your enemies wake up, they say 'The Senshi are young and weak, I can defeat them this time.' Insert laugh track," Asuka explained as they walked.

      Ami snickered at that, "Can we get a duet of Jeff and this 'Kodachi' girl? That would work."

      "We've been thinking that since Moon can cry so loud, we should teach her that laugh," Asuka said offhandedly, "It would certainly give your opponents pause. Like when this one saw what it was facing, and said 'Hi!'" Asuka smiled like a beauty contestant, saying the rest through her smile, " 'I don't want to be lunch! If I run away right now, will you kill me?'"

      Ami broke into giggles about that.

      Asuka continued, "It couldn't leave fast enough." Of course, having two Great Old Ones, and Tsunami, as well as six Senshi in range helped. Amazing what she told us before we let her go. I think Jeff's 'I'm vicious, psychotic, and almost all-powerful' act helped a lot. If even half of it is true . . . I don't envy you naive souls finding out the truth, especially Usagi, Asuka thought.

      Asuka looked at the intersection, knowing they would part here. "Now we face our trials," Asuka said, "I have to apologize to someone who doesn't deserve one, and you have to explain your new boyfriend."

      "Do you want to trade?" Ami offered, "I think we'd each be better suited for the other's role."

      "Sometimes you must rise above who you are now, and grow into who you must become," Asuka said quietly.

      "You should say that with your fist in the air, and in a more confident tone," Ami teased, "Then you'd sound just like Tate-chan."

      Asuka turned to Ami with a serious expression. "Ami - he isn't perfect. He has some serious problems, his sister and father are the biggest on that list. But the one you must watch out for is - he actually believes he is a samurai of the old school. That's as real and important to him as walls and gravity are to the rest of us. He won't force you to be a traditional woman, in fact he'd probably be repulsed by the weepy, submissive type. On the other hand, you can't force him to be a completely 20th century man, he really believes all that stuff he says. While he lives a twisted version of it, he honestly wants to be a hero and matter. You'll have to let him, within reason, and restrain him when it is not appropriate."

      "Thank you," Ami said, frightened by Asuka's sudden intensity, "You love him, don't you? Was he . . . do you -?"

      "It was a different world," Asuka told her as she put her hands on Ami's shoulders, "I needed someone to save me, of all my supposed friends and relatives, he was the only one who stepped up to take the job. In this world he's all yours." Asuka tightened her grip until Ami winced. "Hurt him, and I'll show you why that thing turned and ran. You might even be sane at the end of it." She released Ami and stepped back.

      Ami massaged her shoulders. "Do you think they'll be jealous?" Ami asked with an air of curiosity, trying to lighten the mood.

      Asuka thought she knew the answer, and knew that Ami knew the likely answer as well.

      Kiima had watched the battle, and had been terrified. When her rescuer had fallen, she saw the tenderness in the one who had slaughtered her entire people with a single stroke, in her nightmares. The idea that the destroyer could be anything but, confused her.

      When they disappeared from her view, she began to fret. Perhaps I should have said something before she left, Kiima thought, Because I didn't know what to say.

      Kiima was shocked as the destroyer backed into her room, cradling her rescuer.

      "Too much packed into too short a time," he told Kiima as he headed towards the second bed in the room. Kiima pulled back the covers and let him lay the disheveled girl in it. The destroyer's face was mild and concerned, but she still didn't know what to expect.

      "The repair will take time. I apologize for the painkillers numbing your wings, but otherwise they'd itch like fury."

      She ran her hand over the feathers returning to her head. "I can imagine." She waited for some word or clue. "She saved me, but for what I do not know."

      "If your question is 'Will I ever fly again?' The answer is up to you. The damage will be healed within a week at most. Then you'll have to go through extensive retraining in how to use them."

      "I'll be a fledgling again," Kiima said, "I can live with that."

      "If you are wondering about her character, she believes all people are basically good, if you give them a chance."

      Kiima raised an eyebrow at that statement.

      "I agree, she's young and naive, but you stand here because of that. I'd prefer to let her keep her illusions. I'd choose to live in her world where those ideals hold sway, rather than the world I know to be true."

      Kiima nodded, then ventured a question, "You don't approve of me?"

      "I don't care about you, one way or the other. You are not my problem, unless you choose to make yourself my problem. I find solutions for my problems. Boiling Aqua Regia and Hydrofluoric Acid has proven remarkably efficient in the past."

      Kiima doubted he was joking. "Would you have let me die?"

      "If Makoto -" He gestured to Kiima's rescuer, " - I wouldn't have tried to sway your loyalty away from Saffron. Either I would have failed, and wasted time, or I would have succeeded, unlikely, and we would be right where we are."

      "Makoto rescued you," he reminded her, "Don't take that credit away from her for how, or that she required our assistance to rescue her."

      "Where do we go from here? We three?" Kiima asked, glancing at the girl, barely a fledgling herself.

      "You are Makoto's responsibility, if she wants it. I will continue as I have done. Both of us dreamt the same dark dream, perhaps we can put it behind us."

      "And you go on mistrusting me," she said without rancor.

      "You misinterpret my behavior. I don't trust anyone," he replied smoothly, "But there is much you need to know. Walk with me. I would not trouble her rest with the talk between old soldiers."

      Ami wondered why they had gone from clamoring for details about Mercury's Knight and the emerald pendant she wore, to expressions ranging from horror to disgust to abject fear.

      "F - f - f - f - f - f - f - f - oul Y- y - y- " Moon stammered, retreating from Ami's approach.

      "Youma," Ami supplied, not knowing how to explain to Usagi that a dust mop was not a fearsome weapon, unless your enemies were dust bunnies.

      "W -w - what h - have you done w - w -ith A- A- Ami M -"

      "Sailor Mercury," Ami said, "If you're going to be silly, at least go all the way."

      "Have you!?" Minako cried, "Gone all away?"

      Ami decided to ignore that question.

      Rei was the one who seemed repulsed. Ami could just imagine her with her full miko costume and equipment, and trying to exorcize Ami of 'the evil influences'. She looked back to Minako, who looked near to tears. "Oh, all my friends," she lamented, taking pose, and trying not to think where the microphone and spotlight had come from, "Sad souls have been driven mad by jealousy." She put her wrist to her forehead, like in those awful magical girl programs Usagi watched religiously. "I'll have to carry the fight to Beryl with just Jupiter, and our yummy knights!"

      She paused to consider, the spotlight and microphone vanishing, Okay, maybe I have been in Nerima too long. She picked up the emerald and gazed at it. "Pretty," she breathed, and was glad she saw jealousy glowing in the eyes of her friends. "And such a good kisser." She sighed as her friends began picking themselves off the floor. She noted the venomous looks she was getting, and reveled in them. "And so romantic and dashing."

      Minako was the first to break free of the 'Senshi-want-boyfriend' group-think. "It's Kuno Tatewaki we're getting jealous over!" the Senshi of Venus reminded everyone loudly, and again the three girls were revolted.

      "But he's such a good kisser, and with such gentle hands." Ami sighed wistfully, intentionally starting the cycle all over again. This is fun, Ami thought, Why should Makoto have all the fun?

      "For all that, I apologize," Asuka said formally and bowed, not gritting her teeth, not handing out backhanded compliments, just offering the apology. She straightened up and prepared to leave.

      Akane stared at her in amazement. "And what about everything else?" Akane asked, also struggling with her temper.

      You deserved it, and a thousand times more, Asuka didn't say. She gave a curt bow, turned on her heel and left Akane with the problem of getting her sleeping father home.

      Asuka stepped out into the corridor, carefully closed the door behind her, and took a deep, cleansing breath. I wonder if I should go back in there and tell 'Ms. Tendo' what I really think of her, Asuka wondered, No, bad form, just leave it.

      "Have you given any thought to -?" Katsuhito's question was interrupted by two squealing girls, chasing each other and a cabbit down the hallway.

      It took a moment for Asuka to recognize them as Sasami and Hotaru. "Those two seem to have hit it off."

      "Both will have to go home soon," Katsuhito explained.

      "That I know," Asuka replied a touch more curtly than the old man deserved. She watched the girls playing. And aren't you jealous? she asked herself, That you had to be a great and austere symbol at that age, instead of running around and shrieking like a little kid. And not being able to `play` even at the age the Senshi are?

      "It isn't that weighty a question," Katsuhito said in alarm.

      "Yes it is. If you understand it." She remembered that Hotaru was an extremely powerful Senshi, one who could be a powerful asset to her friends. Once he gets her Henshin fixed, she thought, Who designs a weapon with only two settings: 'I'll slash you with my polearm', and 'I'll blow up the planet you're on'? Nobody who has ever been in combat. Sasami needs someone who's in her power range and near her age, and Hotaru needs anybody to be friends with. Even I had friends. Asuka looked around. "Where are Tenchi and Ryoko? I would have expected them to be around," Asuka asked.

      "I sent them with Kiyone and Tatewaki to talk with Hotaru's father, about his business dealings."

      "That may not have been the swiftest idea," Asuka commented.

      "Think of it, as training," Katsuhito said with a smirk.

      "What is that thing?!" Tenchi shouted as he retreated, his blade at the guard position.

      "I don't know!" Kiyone yelled as she backed away, firing as she went.

      Ryoko drew her blade and smiled. The thing looked like a moving-van-sided centipede, made entirely out of oversized bananas. It breathed something at her. Ryoko found herself nearly covered in yellow custard. "Banana," she announced after tasting some of it. Then she stared and pointed at something unseen. "Oh, colors." She drifted upwards to the ceiling.

      'DIE!' was answered by the ring of steel on stone. "DIE! DIE! DIE!"

      Tenchi watched in amazement as Tatewaki-san chopped the creature into smaller and smaller wriggling pieces. A look of manic joy on his face.

      "Should we help him?" Tenchi asked.

      "Are you nuts?" Kiyone asked as she watched the spectacle wide-eyed, "Kuno-san! Look out!"

      Hulking creatures, each shaped like a pineapple, advanced towards the panting swordsman. Kuno looked up at them, his weariness vanished. Kuno threw back his head and made a sound surely torn from the bowels of Hell.

      "That sounds a little like laughing," Tenchi ventured, as he moved away from the other boy.

      "I hear Sendai is nice this time of year. Let's go find out," Kiyone replied, not taking her eyes off the swordsman and his targets.

      "Insanity," Kiima commented at they walked the building's corridors.

      "I never said it wasn't, but you do see the problem," the destroyer said with unexpected mirth.

      "To a nation, an army is necessary. If only to threaten others into peace. To so limit the solutions . . . folly. Saffron does not reign, or rule. He serves."

      "Serenity both reigned and ruled, not wisely and not well, at least in the realm of real politics. There is some evident of a higher civilization before 9500 B.C., but that's before the Moon Kingdom's rise, let alone its fall."

      "Could they have allowed the cataclysm that destroyed the previous civilization?" Kiima asked.

      "With near infinite power at their disposal? I'd hate to think they did it out of malice, but if it already happened before they arrived . . . unless there's more truth to the legends of an earlier group of gods giving birth to more `human` gods who then overthrew them. The Titans and the Olympians, the Norse legends, the Babylonians with Tiamat and Marduk. I'd hate to think that what Serenity, her Senshi and the entire Moon Kingdom population actually descended from, was a set of inhuman monsters, and the Moonies made their screw-ups because they weren't fully human either. That would almost make Beryl and her people the Titans, and Serenity and her Senshi the Olympians. It fits a bit too well, so I won't discount it out of hand. Many societies rewrite their histories to make a certain point, 'The Universe began with my reign' is one very popular in Oriental kingdoms, which the Moon Kingdom appears to have been. The real history tends to get lost along the way. Serenity's Kingdom probably was a paradise, to the people willing to give up everything to be 'part of something greater than myself'. To people who realize the individual is greater than the state, it would have been a torment never-ending."

      "You fear a repetition?"

      "When was the last time your nation-state changed its political or societal paradigm? Or better, when did your people decide further growth was unnecessary?"

      Kiima squirmed at that. "We have all we need."

      "Except freedom. Dissenters have their wings broken and depending on the depth of their heresy, are tossed out the mountain's base, or its peak. In any case, the other tribes soon kill them, because none of them want to upset the apple cart either."

      Kiima realized she'd been discussing tactics and political theory for nearly two hours. And `giving` as good as I got, she thought happily, And enjoying every minute of it. Most of my former people would either not be interested, or it would be too dangerous to discuss it openly.

      "It would have been very dangerous, to utterly useless, to have such a talk with anyone from your once - home," the destroyer said, destroying more of her nostalgia and homesickness. "I won't tell you this place is `better`, despite the fact that it is, but it is very different, and you are needed."

      "As we have discussed," Kiima replied, "You could talk away a daemon's shadow. Don't doubt that, but I still don't see what one general can do to train these others. My generalship did not involve training as much as leading, going first and ordering others to follow my example."

      "You are literate. SunTzu remains the best work and it's available in Chinese, Japanese, many languages. I've never thought The Five Rings compared well with The Art of War for strategic thought, like von Clauswitz, he failed to comprehend all that Sun Tzu had. Guderian and Forrest had the right tactical deployments of thinking rather than slave soldiers, but for grand strategy, Sun Tzu. You can ask for assistance - competent - assistance."

      Kiima snickered at that. "Yes, that would be a novelty," she said and realized they were back at her room. "While I stand here, there are infinite possibilities. Once I step through there, the future telescopes down to a mere handful of choices."

      "And what of those lost chances draws you?" the destroyer asked as he opened the door.

      Inside, my rescuer and a new future await. I can live in fear of what I know, alone. Or with friends and allies, face a new world full of terrors undreamt of, Kiima thought. The destroyer waited, his preference clear. And you? 'You can be friendly, you can be neutral . . . or you can be dead.' What are your reasons? What do you hope to accomplish? What do you lose and what do you gain? she knew the long drop was always available.

      Ami left the room with a spring in her step and lightness in her heart. And nearly ran into Mamoru and the two mooncats perched on his shoulders. None of the trio looked pleased at all. "Good morning," she chirped, feeling immorally good about how the other Senshi had reacted to her report of the battle, and the aftermath.

      "Where is he?" Mamoru asked coldly.

      Only the image of him with a monocle and stroking one of the moon-cats kept his expression from being frightful. "Which 'he'?" Ami asked as innocently as she could.

      "You know which Ami-san! You aren't that unaware of the outside world."

      Ami felt her smile flicker, this part she did regret. Asuka-chan would be proud of me, Ami thought as she said, "Why is Usagi the only one allowed a comforter and protector? Makoto has a warrior-healer to help her, why can't I have a guardian as well?"

      The shift in topic took Mamoru by surprise, before he could rally, Ami attacked again, "I think you'll find he is not what his reputation suggests. After all, I doubt Tuxedo Mask is a whiny poofter who only knows how to pose, throw roses and give speeches that would only inspire the easily impressed."

      Mamoru rocked back on his heels so hard both cats clumsily fell to the ground. Ami waited for him to recenter himself and counterattack along this avenue.

      "That isn't all I do, or all I am."

      "Then you may assume the same of him," Ami replied sweetly. The sweetness faded. "He nearly died trying to defeat our enemy, not because of destiny, or Serenity or the Moon Kingdom, but because it was right, and noble, and good. Please keep that in mind when you meet him." Ami bowed and walked away. She heard Mamoru enter the door behind which the others waited. Their eyes squeezed shut, their ears plugged and humming as loud as they could, Ami thought with a laugh.

      Ami heard a cry from Hotaru of, "I'm going to get you!" as Sasami and her cabbit dashed past. Ami laughed and ran after them. "I'm going to get all of you!" The two little girls squealed as Ami closed in.

      Katsuhito caught up with his fellow trickster at the last of the 'Special Rescue' trailers. Most of the rest of the temporary camp had been packed away and removed. Trapped behind a desk, filling out paperwork, Katsuhito thought with a shudder, And people wondered why I didn't want to be heir-apparent.

      "I know, 'transport home'. I'm arranging it," he said without looking up from the reports and requisitions, "They are all having an extremely beneficial effect on each other." He looked up, straight into Katsuhito's eyes. "Even duplicitous old fossils like you and me."

      "What about their lost time in the vaunted educational system?" he asked with all seeming seriousness.

      "If I can't catch them all up to Ami's present level, in a year, I'll hand in my diploma."

      "True, how much of this is for your good, and not theirs?"

      "I don't believe any of them will be harmed by the delay," Jeff told Katsuhito, "As for my benefit, I will admit that, and arrange earlier transport for any of them who desire it. Frankly, it's a good thing to occasionally be reminded of what you are truly fighting for. High ideals are fine things, but laughing children and young lovers gazing into each others' eyes are somethings that relate to most people."

      "And their parents?" Katsuhito asked.

      "You mean the ones who fail to question why their nubile darlings come in - in the middle of the night, disheveled, exhausted and often bruised? Either they are terribly gullible, neglectful, or under some kind of mind-control. A workable theory in any case."

      "Banabanabananas!"Ryoko insisted as she was carried past the open door on a stretcher.

      "Professor Tomoe has repented his evil ways," Tatewaki gravely reported, "I require a shower, or a bath, in boiling disinfectant."

      "Ami's around, I'll send her by," Katsuhito suggested, making the boy blush and retreat, muttering about 'devious shamans and their soul-kin!'

      "Case in point, it's not easy to play the noble samurai as a clown, when the noble samurai is the role truly required. You find out what you truly are, and what you can be, when the world hangs in the balance."

      Katsuhito nodded. "Even if it's only your tiny little piece of it. Did you have to send Ayeka all the way back to Jurai?"

      The lad sighed, rubbed his eyes, "That may not have been one of my wisest actions," he admitted, "I have a feeling the Jurain nation and Serenity's Moon Kingdom did not enjoy cordial relations."

      "That's putting it mildly. Ryoko thought she could escape all Jurain pursuit, just by entering this star system, and I expected to be challenged every instant I approached the Moon."

      "You didn't know Serenity and the colonies had fallen 200 years earlier?"

      "We didn't check," Katsuhito admitted, "The place was quarantined to all but 1st generation ships. There were many reasons to regard Serenity and her guardians as usurpers of Earth and its environs."

      "I suspected they weren't from Earth originally. I just didn't consider it that important. I take it Earth is somehow special to the Jurain nation, or at least, the royal family."

      "Yes, indeed."

      He sat up straighter, paperwork temporarily forgotten. "You will tell me, or I'll make you fill out your portion of this bureaucratic mess."

      Katsuhito smirked inwardly, but outwardly shuddered at the prospect.

      The ride back to the Kuno compound elicited shudders from many in the two vans. Asuka and Jeff were there in the second van, to calm those gibbering with fear and loathing. Makoto sat in the forward van, filled with those who appreciated the beauty and wonder.

      "I'm embarrassed," Makoto admitted to Kiima.

      "I don't see why," the older woman commented, "Why didn't you mention you were frightened of heights. That was a rare bravery you performed then, or a rare foolishness if your bond was not as strong as you believed. We are here, so you assumption was correct."

      The vans stopped, and all the people filed out.

      "Makoto, Ami, Sasami, you're with me," Jeffrey called, "Kuno-san, I'd think your sister would have the gear to help Tendo-san and Kiima-san."

      "You wish to leave them in the care of my sister?" Kuno seemed aghast.

      "She understands duty," Jeffrey replied, "The rest of you, I leave in Kuno-san's capable hands." Before the echo had died, Jeff had practically all the Senshi hiding in a line behind him.

      Kuno smirked. "I would be delighted to entertain such lovely ladies. But Ami-chan would object," he sighed sadly before beginning again, "I would deputize Lady Langley to see to their comforts and entertainment. From what you have said, you know the grounds and facilities."

      "I can handle it."

      Tatewaki led Kiima away, pushing Kasumi's wheel chair. "Will they be all right?" Makoto asked Jeff.

      "Kodachi is a World-class gymnast, and a World-class loon, but I think the gymnastics comes first. Besides, Kiima can handle herself," Jeff reassured her, then whirled around as Asuka shouted.

      "Usagi get out of there!" Asuka stood at the edge of a pool and shouted at the reclining girl.

      "Why? I'm not lying on anything I can hurt. It's just a log . . . a leather-covered log?" Usagi's voice faltered as realization dawned.

      "I can't watch," Jeff said.

      "Is blonde hair a warning that somebody is stupid?" Kiyone asked as everyone watched Usagi tap dancing atop Mr. Green Turtle's snout, while he tried to catch the evasive morsel.

      "I resemble that remark!" Minako protested.

      "I think that one was on purpose," Ami whispered.

      "No comment," Makoto, Sasami and Jeff replied.

      They stood in an open field, Sasami watched Jeffrey, big sister Makoto and Ami-chan, who were examining several odd devices. I'm glad we didn't leave so soon, she thought as she watched, she spotted Hotaru-chan hiding in the bushes, watching all of them intently, Ryo-Oh-Oki keeping her quiet and company.

      "So what - are these what I think they are?" Ami-chan asked of the oddly decorated rods.

      "They are the Henshin rods of the originals," Jeffrey explained, "The dead originals."

      Ami-chan seems shocked by this, Sasami thought as the two girls examined the rods and the two similar rods they pulled from somewhere.

      "They're very different," big sister Makoto said as she carefully examined the two, one from Jeff, the other her own.

      Sasami got closer. The old one looks like a junk-jewelry copy of the one big sister Makoto had, she thought. "Magic," she said. I can see the magic as if it was painted on, she thought as she looked closely. "You changed them!" she told him. All three of them stared at her as Sasami pointed to the two very different patterns in the older Henshin rod, "I can see the differences."

      "She's right," Jeffrey smiled, "There's a - let's call it an interlock - that I couldn't bypass, so . . . "

      "You eliminated it completely," big sister Makoto said with a heart-warming smile.

      She likes him, she thought, I hope they get married, I'd like to see them together.

      "Right. These wands only work when you aren't transformed. As soon as you transform yourselves," Jeffrey said with a smile, "They won't work."

      "That's weird," Ami-chan said, trying to see what Sasami saw on her Henshin rods.

      "Not necessarily. First, you are Sailor Mercury and Sailor Jupiter reborn, not your Senshi forms. The current Sailor Mercury and Sailor Jupiter are modifications of you, so there are more differences between the paleo-Senshi and the current Senshi than the paleo-Senshi and your normal forms," Jeffrey said. Ami-chan looked thoughtful and nodded, big sister Makoto looked like she'd hit a wall with her face. "There are a couple of powers I can't imagine being used 'in costume'."

      "Like what?" Ami-chan asked.

      "One is a short-range teleport, say 10 meters."

      "What's weird about that?" big sister Makoto asked.

      "You can't take much weight," Jeffrey explained, "So if you were tied, or handcuffed, or encased in concrete, you'd leave the binding behind."

      "And your clothes," Sasami teased, then stopped, stunned, when Jeffrey didn't laugh.

      "Uh . . . I think you'd keep some light clothes, probably your fuku or underwear, but not much else."

      "Hentai!" Ami-chan accused.

      "Hey! I didn't design it! Queen Serenity did, or ordered the design," Jeffrey shouted back, "You want to leave them with me for another month, and let me work?"

      Ami-chan reluctantly slipped hers into her pocket book.

      "What else?" big sister Makoto asked, trying to keep the peace among her friends, "You never tell the whole story in one shot."

      "Okay, you'll like this. Fingers together, arm out straight. 'Fighting Jupiter Hand Make-Up.'" He glanced at big sister Makoto. "It's what was there," he said defensively, "Don't look at me like that. You want to see a properly designed system, I've got that scheduled for later."

      Big sister Makoto smirked at that, while Ami-chan tittered. Both extended their arms, fingers closed.

      "Say it under your breath," Jeffrey counseled, "This is supposed to be covert."

      Sasami couldn't hear either say the words, but she saw the electric-blue blade forming, covering big sister Makoto's forearm and running straight down her arm and hand, extending out a meter and a half.

      Jeffrey picked up a section of concrete pipe. "Slice through it," he suggested as he tossed it in the air. Big sister Makoto hit it.

      As fast as big brother Tenchi and the Light Hawk Wings, Sasami realized, then smiled at big sister Makoto's surprised/pleased reaction.

      "Ami, yours has a similar setting, it's solid air, perhaps a molecule thick. It will also cut anything not specially reinforced," Jeffrey told them, "There's something called 'Following Blast Bubble', it's a guided bubble that envelops its target."

      Ami-chan smiled at that, until she saw Jeffrey wasn't smiling.

      "Since it absolutely destroys everything for 200 - 400 meters, think 30 to 50-megaton range H-bombs, I didn't reactivate it. But it does explain how you engaged and drove off Jurain and other empires' warships."

      Ami-chan and big sister Makoto were both staring in shock at him.

      "You see now why I can't figure out why they lost?" Jeffrey asked the pair.

      "They were so special and so pretty," Sasami said, her eyes aglow, "I wish I could be a Sailor Scout too!"

      "I thought of that, too." From his pocket, he removed a very plain-looking rod, topped with a silver crystal shaped like a heart. Then he handed her the rod and a pair of books, one heavy and gray, the other thin and yellow.

      "How come she gets an instruction manual," Ami-chan protested, then looked over Sasami's shoulder, "With pictures, diagrams and an index!"

      "How come she gets Cliff Notes on her instruction manual," big sister Makoto complained.

      "Because her armorer is competent!" he shouted back at Ami-chan, then whispered to Sasami, "Better not let them know about the built-in interactive help function. It was that, or make Ryo-Oh-Oki talk, and there's something truly disturbing about that."

      Sasami heard the yelp from the cabbit hiding in the bushes.

      "That's what those measurements were for!" Sasami said delightedly, "You were measuring me for my uniform!"

      "Yes, but Asuka and Shampoo did the styling. It's a little baroque for my tastes, but it seems to be the styling required."

      Sasami frowned. "I'm not going to have to be naked during my transformation? Am I?"

      Jeffrey looked offended. "Of course not, you'd have to be a real depraved pervert to have to see your soldiers' naked bodies, just before you sent them into battle." He turned to look at Ami-chan and big sister Makoto. "Maybe you two have been out in the sun too long. You're getting awfully red." He took the rod from Sasami and set it on one of the sliced pieces of concrete. "The first and most important element, something I try to include in all my high-powered weapons. Quietly say, 'Jurain Moon Princess Activate.'"

      Sasami looked askance, but said it. The rod vanished and reappeared in her hands. "Wow!"

      "Wow is right!" big sister Makoto said, "Ours can't do that!" She stared at Jeffrey. "At least the original ones couldn't, can they?"

      "Not that I was able to find," he replied with a shrug.

      "Fighting Mercury Hand Make-Up," Ami-chan said in a proper pose, "It still doesn't work."

      "My mistake, fingers and thumb together," Jeffrey apologized, "Now try it."

      Ami-chan repeated the phrase. "Still nothing."

      "That's because you're looking at the edge of a mathematical plane. Turn it slightly and try it on that pipe. Then watch for the phase distortion at the point of contact."

      Ami-chan turned it, making a slight distortion appear and disappear from Sasami's point of view. Ami-chan carefully sliced through several chunks of concrete. Then the blade vanished.

      " 'Wow' is right," Ami-chan said, "Only in our civilian clothes, that's too bad."

      "I could only do so much in the time I had. There's dozens of other powers, from the mundane to the extraordinary."

      "Nothing else perverted, like the 'leave your clothes behind' teleport?" Ami-chan asked while she frowned at him.

      Jeffrey frowned and scuffed the ground with his toe. "It was designed to allow a Senshi to escape any binding, no matter how tight. If you worry about it, wear a leotard or a swimsuit under your clothes and you'll be fine." He smirked at Ami-chan. "There are another few settings, but Sasami's too young and full of love to hear about the suite of 'Lonely Scout' options. Really Lonely Scout."

      "Like a karaoke machine?" Sasami asked, all wide-eyed innocence, "I love to sing."

      "Something to help you sing, yes," Jeffrey told her, then smiled malevolently at Ami-chan, "Good for hitting those high notes."

      Ami-chan was as pale as a ghost. Big sister Makoto was smiling nervously, but the longer she kept glancing from the rod to Jeffrey, the more friendly and the less nervous her smile got, and the more nervous his got.

      "There's nothing like that in there!" Ami-chan insisted, at the top of her lungs.

      "Ami-chan, the Queen was just getting a husband after a thousand years. Her advisors never had husbands or children."

      "It must have been very lonely for them," Sasami sympathized, "Ami-chan, are you okay?"

      "She just hasn't considered all the . . . changes, which being a Senshi requires," big sister Makoto said, as sympathetically as Sasami had.

      "If you're really lonely, Ami-chan, you've got your Senshi friends," Sasami offered, "Why are you staring at me like that? Why is big sister Makoto staring at you like that?"

      Ami-chan whirled and stared at big sister Makoto, who was licking her lips and staring at her the way Ryoko often stared at big brother Tenchi.

      "Say little Senshi-grrl," big sister Makoto purred as she leaned over Ami-chan, "You wanna to go back to my place, teleport out of something more comfortable, and . . . be frrriends?" Big sister Makoto gave away the game by laughing so hard she had to sit down.

      Ami-chan still looked like she was chewing live electric eels. "It really doesn't have settings like that does it?" Ami-chan quietly demanded.

      "Should I tell her the truth?" Jeffrey asked innocently.

      Big sister Makoto shook her head frantically. "You - smarties - can think - yourselves - into - such - knots," she continued laughing at Ami-chan's stricken expression.

      "You're all just being silly," Sasami scolded them, but inside she was glad they could `play` together like this, "How does this work?"

      "I should make you read the manual, or at least the Cliff Notes," he grumped.

      "Jeff - rey!" Sasami complained.

      "All right! Enough! There's two major modes, quiet that's like what I showed you on theirs, the other is louder and showier. You two might want to transform so you can give the girl some pointers about fighting for love and peace."

      Ami-chan and big sister Makoto blushed and looked nervously at each other. "What if someone sees?" Ami-chan asked nervously.

      "This is Nerima. Nobody will care. They didn't even notice when the U.S.A.A.F. nuked the place."

      "They only dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki," Ami-chan replied.

      "See what I mean?"

      Big sister Makoto sighed at Ami-chan. "You just had to encourage him."

Sailor Jupiter 15 - The Time After Innocence

      "This is my practice room," Kodachi said imperiously of the large room filled with gymnastic equipment, "It is here you will practice." She laughed, a chilling sound along with a storm of rose petals that heralded her transformation into her gymnast's leotard.

      "In order to prove I am worthy to be your instructor." Kodachi walked to a long cable hanging slack between two shoulder-high poles. Rather than hop up on the poles, she vaunted onto the loose rope itself and held herself upside-down, back straight, head down, without the rope swaying or pitching her off.

      She split her legs far apart, perpendicular to the rope. She brought them back together, then split them again, parallel to the slack line she held. Then she rolled into a cartwheel across the line to a standing posture on the far pole, then she effortlessly dropped to the ground. It was a breathtaking display, but the clear disdain she had for her `audience` spoiled her `performance` and showed clearly why, despite her superb technical skill, she never did well at tournaments.

      "Your garments are appropriate," Kodachi told Kiima, as she strode up to the bird-woman, "You should begin on the balance beam, unless you believe the slack line is not - beyond you." It was clearly meant as a challenge, and Kiima accepted it, leaping onto the pole. She spread her wings for balance, and tried to walk down the rope. Her wings were sluggish and clumsy, making the process difficult. She stumbled, fluttering desperately to keep her balance. She turned to glare at the gymnast who stood below, smirking at her. The ex-Phoenixi straightened up and continued, she would not give up, not to a landling.

      She turned to face Kasumi, "That long skirt is hardly appropriate for this circumstance," she told Kasumi.

      "It is necessary," Kasumi replied mildly.

      "I think not. A - "

      The wheelchair-bound girl had raised the skirt high enough to let the gymnast see her legs. Emaciated and spindly. Kodachi drew back with a hiss. Kasumi let the hem fall, concealing the sight.

      Kodachi tried to rally to reassert her authority and will, but could not. "My brother suggested we train your arms, so you might move in other than this chair." She nodded to a set of parallel bars. "We shall begin."

      Sasami looked at the fancy costume as she spun around. The long sleeves, ribbons and bows made it seem very impractical. It's very pretty, she thought happily, And a lot more demure than theirs! She laughed at the thought of all the ornaments. I bet I can assemble a weapon out of the various bits and pieces, the buttons, bows and buckles. Then she frowned as she considered big brother Jeff and his sense of humor, Or a toaster oven . . . or both - at the same time. Warms, broils, vaporizes, slices and dices, and it makes julienne fries, out of your opponents. She laughed at the thought, then tried to get more serious. She smiled at big brother Jeff and wondered about all that was in the manual. The `Cliff Notes` described dozens of powers.

      "Considering it's nearly-indestructible, you can also use it as a club," big brother Jeff explained of Sasami's large baton, "You can make it hundreds of times more massive at the moment of impact by saying 'Hurts Me More Than You Attack'. Frankly, I don't see why you can't just think the words, instead of saying them. After all, it will only respond to you anyway."

      'Pretty Sammi' frowned at him and his very weird mix of insane humor and absolute rationality. "Maybe it was a - " She leaned close to him, as if whispering in his ear. Then stared at the two Senshi as she covered her mouth and giggled. Both Senshi instantly went beet-red from head to toe. Now to turn it on `Raccoon`, she thought and asked, "If I attach a bag, can I play it like a bagpipe?"

      "Of course, it even comes with a tam o'shanter and a skean dhu," he said with all seriousness.

      Sasami only rolled her eyes. "Do you have to have the last word?"

      While the silence dragged on, big brother Jeff and Ami both struggled desperately not to fill it.

      Yosho, safely hidden deep within Katsuhito, watched the pair circle: the boy with a sword and the girl with the polearm of fire. Despite their ferocious expressions, they were having a marvelous time.

      "Don't drop your elbow," he told them. The pair circled, probing for weaknesses. He smiled as he idly wished he could convince Tenchi that the art was more than just swinging the blade. It's using the environment, including your opponents, he thought, It is also joy, action without conscious thought. A meditation in action.

      He thought as he listened to the lecture the fiery, redhead was giving young Tatewaki, Good advice, but the distractions and shocks are the only thing letting her keep matching him, he thought.

      "If your attractiveness is obvious, why force every woman to acknowledge it?" Asuka rushed in and knocked Kuno's sword out of the way, getting the 'touch'.

      Tatewaki frowned, steeled himself and took the guard position. In their brief exchange, Asuka fought exclusively on the defense, yet denied him the point.

      "And why do you insist every woman display their love the same, with physical contact?" Asuka offered and struck.

      Not enough to sweep away his guard, Yosho thought, Yet.

      "If a girl cooks you a meal. Or feeds you when you're paralyzed -" Asuka drove the touch home, and continued, "Why isn't that good enough? And why do you have to smother the poor girl?" Asuka slapped Tatewaki, not hard but he noticed it.

      Good, don't injure him, Yosho thought, But enough to wake him up.

      "I read that letter you gave her -"

      "You could read it?"

      "I'm a college graduate, in Math and Physics," Asuka told him, "Yes, I could read it. Why don't you stick with that approach?"

      Tatewaki lowered the sword and stared off into space, as if stunned by the enormity of the idea.

      "If you want to know the truth, the Senshi are going to need more warriors. They are going to need someone to stand toe-to-toe with the enemy, while they make their ranged attacks. Admittedly, they can be trained to fight hand-to-hand on their own, however, that will take time they don't have to spare."

      Kuno is lost in the images of herself as the valiant warrior who shall stand and defend Earth's defenders, or die, Katsuhito thought, as Yosho considered the Jurain legends about the Moon Kingdom versus the reality of the girls watching the drama unfold, I cannot see any similarity. Well-played Miss Langley, a well-planned and executed trap. Are you really prepared for what you might catch?

      "Why are you assisting my quest?" Tatewaki's reason had returned with a truckload of suspicions. Asuka whitened at his question and the directness of it.

      And Asuka has to answer that difficult question, Katsuhito thought, Now the game begins. No wonder she and her friend were able to lead Tenchi and his `harem` on such a dance. Yes, pout a bit and a little tear, it shows sincerity. No! Don't try to hug her, well, that's taken care of.

      Asuka stood, the point of her sabre-halberd dimpling the skin of Tatewaki's thigh, his intended glomp neatly forestalled.

      "A long time ago, I was deeply in love, I thought he loved me." She withdrew the blade and held Kuno fixed with her gaze. The young man saw what was behind the stare, and lowered his arms. "He rejected and abandoned me, like I was useless trash. You, of course, don't know how that feels to happen to you, everybody loves you."

      Kuno wisely made no reply.

      "Someone came to my aid, someone who had no reason to care, rescued me. It is a debt I have tried to repay. That poem, it would take a great deal of brains to decipher it. You, me, and Ami are probably the only ones in 10 kilometers who could do it in our heads. So, the poem extols her physical beauty and the form engages her brain. Do you know how rare it is to find a man who can appreciate both?" She lowered her blade slightly when Kuno nodded. "Good. The point is, I don't want to see Ami hurt by both of you misunderstanding, so I'd clear up the obvious stumbling blocks and let you two worry about the details."

      "Thank you," Tatewaki said and bowed.

      Asuka grounded the haft of the weapon and willed it away. "I believe the match was six touches. I got them."

      "You cheated," Kuno said firmly, frowning at the loss.

      "And you profited from my cheating," Asuka replied smoothly, "I think you got the better of the bargain."

      Kodachi watched the Tendo girl struggle across the parallel bars, sweat pouring down her face. It was not the ladylike or dignified persona she normally showed the world. The one she hides behind, Kodachi approved. It is not as easy nor as clean and simple as so many wish it to be, Kodachi thought, One hand in front of the other. And to how many others have you shown this dogged, aggressive side of you? Or are you so afraid of it and fear that others will fear you if they see it in you?

      "Enough," Kodachi ordered, she walked up and grabbed the older girl's arm, "I said 'enough.' There is tomorrow, and if you are willing to continue working this hard, you are welcome to return."

      "Thank you." The woman allowed Kodachi and Kiima to return her to her chair.

      "I also have a whirlpool bath, and some professional helpers," she told Kasumi, "Perhaps you would enjoy taking advantage of them."

      "Oh Kuno-san, I'm too tired for that," Kasumi suggested with total innocence.

      Kodachi looked at the rumpled girl with her sweat plastered hair, and realized the joke. Kodachi laughed, full and heartily.

      "This baton has an additional standard setting," Jeff told Sasami, she nodded as Jeff set the baton on her shoulder and bent the heart-shaped end up, making the entire silly-looking device look like a shoulder-fired rocket launcher.

      "It is a telescope?" Sasami asked as she saw the enlarged view in the screen surrounded by the heart.

      "Not specifically," Jeff joked, "Now, see the palm tree weather cock?"

      Sasami nodded.

      "Oh! A super accurate weapon for long-range!" Ami said enthusiastically.

      "Sort of," Jeff replied, smilingly rolling his eyes at Sasami, who giggled back.

      Sasami acquired the target. "Got it," she told Jeff and waited for his order to pull the trigger.

      "Listen carefully and do as I tell you. Concentrate on the smallest object you can, a virus or so, and concentrate on the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, and the shades between. Concentrate on them."

      "Okay . . . rainbows and a virus, not rainbow viruses?" she asked quizzically.

      "I don't think so," he replied, tousling her hair.

      She giggled, concentrated as ordered and fired, striking the weather cock squarely.

      The flash reached them first, striking the shield Jeff had raised and beating it nearly to the breaking point. The fierce wind did the job. Sasami was shaking like a leaf at the potential destruction she'd just unleashed. What the kind trickster had carefully placed in her hands.

      As the wind subsided, Ami protested, "Y-you can't give her that!"

      Sasami and Jeff exchanged glances while Ami and Makoto offered their protests, both impassioned and reasoned, both Senshi using both tactics, an eye opener for Sasami.

      Sasami gave Jeff a look, telling him she understood. 'Standard setting', she thought quietly, the part of her that was Tsunami added her own knowledge, Total matter-to-energy conversion, at a distance, with size and frequency distribution under the wielder's command. Every object in this universe as a bomb of whichever kind desired. From sterilizing by tiny flash of UV, to annihilating an entire star system by destroying the system's primary by making it a storm of radio waves.

      Sasami gave Jeff a grim nod. I'll keep the secret, against exactly the potential tyranny Ami is warning him about, she thought.

      "They could threaten Earth with annihilation! They wouldn't even have to send in their armada. They could dominate us from orbit!" Ami said in one breath, stunning even Makoto.

      "Sasami is sufficiently powerful that the power increase is nominal. The Jurains already have the power to do everything you've warned of. The defenses of Earth are as powerful now as they ever have been," Jeff said sharply, "There is nothing new to fear."

      Only something a thousand years lost, Sasami thought, Or they could have just dropped asteroids on the planet below. The Moon Kingdom held the ultimate high ground, and they wondered why they were resented?

      Asuka had known that the Kuno family armory had several modern, functional replicas of ancient Japanese polearms. She bypassed these and selected a pair of blunted weapons from the training racks. After that wind, Asuka thought, I decided to move the `party` indoors.

      I wanted a Bohemian Ear-spooner, I guess a naginata is the best I can do, she thought sadly, wishing for a proper saber-halberd. "A polearm isn't a spear, and it isn't a sword," she told Hotaru as she handed the girl one of the long weapons, "It also isn't a club or quarterstaff, but it can approximate the function of all of those." Asuka took the classic pikeman's stance. "Fencing with these was considering as great an art in Japan as swordsmanship, in fact, the soldier spearman was better paid than the soldier swordsman. They probably also lived longer if they kept their wits."

      Asuka watched the girl adjust her grip, to accommodate the unfamiliar balance. "Too many people think the only purpose of a spear is to make sure the action takes place far enough out of reach that your foe can't hit you back," Asuka said as she adjusted the girl's grip and stance, "You also have to be able to handle someone getting in too close, as well as that most enemies have projectile weapons, so unless you're a hundred kilometers away, they can hit you."

      Hotaru laughed. "But I'll never use a spear."

      "Probably true, but you should see this bunch use their weapons," Asuka teased, "If any of them had a sword, you'd have to keep sewing their feet and toes back on."

      Hotaru laughed at that as the others grumbled.

      Asuka led the girl through the basic stances and started teaching her to transition smoothly between them.

      Katsuhito had beckoned Tenchi away from Asuka teaching Hotaru how to use a polearm, and Tenchi had followed him outside.

      Once they were a short distance away from the others, hopefully out of earshot, Tenchi began, "There's . . . I'm ashamed," he said softly, "Hotaru's father . . . I didn't have a choice - I -" Tenchi stopped babbling, hung his head and focused. "Kagato was different, but Professor Tomoe was human, with a child . . . he wouldn't have a chance - against any of us. But I'm the one who killed him."

      Katsuhito sighed, remembering how Tenchi had reacted later to Kagato's death. You hid it from the girls, tried to hide it from me, but I know how it bothered you. "Would he have given you any choice? I know you, Tenchi." He wanted to reach out and comfort the boy, But the man needs to solve this on his own, only then can I help him solve his grief. "You are no callow youth. You wouldn't have taken a life unless another was in the balance. Looking back, I'm certain you can tell me a dozen ways you could have done things differently. In all honesty, at that time, in the moment you had to consider and act, would you really have saved both the Doctor and his victim as surely as you imagine?"

      Tenchi was about to protest he would, when he stared at his grandfather's stern expression. His certainty collapsed, he hung his head. "I - should have found a better way."

      "Yes, taken a dozen friends with you, expected danger beforehand and been prepared for it. That's next time, I was asking about this time. Whom were you prepared to sacrifice to save Professor Tomoe? Yourself? Understandable, but Ryoko? Kiyone? Young Tatewaki? All three -?"

      "NO! I -!" Tenchi shouted, his face filled with emotion, which subsided as if it drained through a hole, "I do not want any of them to be lost."

      "That wasn't an option given you at the time. When I fought Ryoko, I didn't spare her life out of a sense of love and honor. I did it because it was the only option open to me. If I had killed her, think about how much you would have lost. If she had killed me, think about how much more you would have lost."

      "Yes, grandfather."

      He laid his hand on the lad's shoulders. "It is appropriate to mourn, but do not let imaginings get in the way of facts. The professor could have surrendered at any time, and spared you all this ordeal."

      Tenchi nodded.

      You are not a bad person. You are a warrior, and death is part of that - our - calling, he wished he could make him believe. Instead, he watched Tenchi go, and considered which of the young warriors would be best to take him aside for a long talk.

      And cooking lunch nearly devolved into open warfare. Makoto made the mistake of claiming to be the best cook. Kodachi objected, and even Sasami seemed miffed, Jeff thought as he stood guard over Langley making the lunch. Oddly, preventing Usagi from `helping` hadn't been a problem. I half-expect to see ninjas with bandoleers of seasonings dropping out of the sky. He shot at the hand approaching the soup with 'just a pinch of salt'. From that yelp, it had to be Makoto. "Sasami, I wouldn't give you an invisibility power that I couldn't defeat," he said sternly, "And take your cabbit with you. Ryo-Oh-Ki! You keep her under control, or I'll feed you so many carrots, the mere sight of one will make you violently ill." The cloud of dust and the speedlines were a nice touch.

      "Are you going to run out of bullets before we're done?" Hotaru asked as she helped Langley.

      "How many clips have you got?"

      "Two left," Jeff admitted. Only the Kuno's would have a kitchen with hidden passages and so many places of concealment. Holding this position is nearly impossible.

      "I'd switch over to throwing forks at them then," Langley told him as she supervised Hotaru rolling the sushi, "I finally got him out of the kitchen, and I can work the kinks out of my cooking `muscles`, and this becomes something out of the First World War."

      "So when are you going to be Verdun over there? Somme time today?" Jeff said and watched Langley's shudder, "I just wish I understood why Makoto is taking this so personally."

      "Nobody wants to be last," Langley said cheerfully, "And that's what they're competing for." Langley drove a chef's knife down at a target Jeff couldn't see.

      "I may just run out of cutlery as well."

      "I told you to set a decoy and let them `adapt and improve` it, then make them eat their own handiwork."

      "I just can't do that to someone. I look so awful in mourning clothes and a mass funeral is just too depressing."

      Jeff nodded, shooting a bottle of wasabi out of the air.

      "They are persistent," Hotaru commented as she cut the roll into bite-sized pieces.

      "I think that was Sasami," Jeff said, "Carrot-stuffed cabbit when I catch you!" he bellowed and in quieter tones, "Perhaps you'd better speed things up a bit."

      "Genius cannot be rushed," Langley countered, then hurriedly threw two mixing bowels, and followed up with a snapshot with a salt shaker, "But it can be encouraged."

      Tatewaki Kuno was having the time of his life. He had found a `foe` if not worthy of his attention and skills, then a severe challenge to them. He was not limited on what stroke he was using, only his target was limited.

      'Raccoon' has explained about 'counting coup', merely touching with the blade, he thought, Likewise Asuka-kun brought up the European Code Duello, where only certain points could be struck. He wore a pair of targets, on his front and back, like a pectoral. Each of his foes wore but one.

      He danced out of the reach of each of the twin blades. He yanked his foot out of reach of Raccoon's down stroke while he ducked Asuka's high slash. "Honorless cheater!" he proclaimed with little heat. Of course they cheat, he thought as he beat back Asuka's flank attack, all three of them grinning.

      I am too well trained to leave a target, he thought, They know and can use it against me as they feint to disrupt a stance or attack.

      He barely turned Raccoon's attack. It's like facing a single foe, they act as one. I must cover the entire arc, and they can act with unspoken coordination, giving me no clues.

      He parried Raccoon's strike to his back target, and rolled, straight into Asuka-kun's strike . . . leaving red chalk on his chest target, another added to the several markings already there. More than on Asuka-kun's or Raccoon's, less than their combined total, but not significantly so, he thought with only minor irritation.

      He couldn't keep from grinning as they `played`. Ami-chan and Makoto shout encouragements to each side, more a pleasant distraction than a help. But they can learn that this can be made play, he thought, Oh ho! Kuno smiled. That is the game within a game, a minor humiliation to achieve a greater victory. Ha! Ha! Wheels within wheels. You shall not find Kuno Tatewaki lacking!

      They said their goodbyes to Kodachi and Kasumi as they headed for the train. "Okayama isn't that far," Sasami told Kasumi.

      "But I've never been there. It is supposed to be very beautiful country," Kasumi replied, accepting the hug from both Hotaru and Sasami.

      "That woman selling chopsticks?" Minako asked, "Why are they special?"

      "Our octopus here is justifiably world-famous," Tatewaki explained as he bought a pair for each of `his` guests, "But the normal Tomobiki octopus is trouble, so the maidens of the Ru shrine developed those special chopsticks based on the skewers they use in their hair."

      Each of the girls were examining the intricately carved wood, far too pretty and decorative to be used for eating.

      "So with the sharp points, you can pick things up or skewer them," Kuno finished.

      "Ah ha!" Minako said, "So these are the famous Ru Miko Tako Hashi!"

      As her friends carried a bound and gagged Minako onto the train, Jeff corralled Tenchi. "Someone is going to have to tell her," Jeff said, glancing back to the girl braiding Minako's hair, "Now I'll do it, if you want. But I think you should and offer your explanations and apologies."

      Tenchi shifted nervously as the doors closed behind him and the train started. It seemed an ill-omen for him. "I don't want to seem like I am avoiding my responsibilities, but . . . " he glanced around at everyone else who had remained in a festive mood.

      "Then I'll take care of it. The longer we draw this out, the harder it will be to explain."

      "But I'll . . . I thank you," Tenchi said, bowed.

      "Understand the difference between what you must do and what you can do. I lured my old friend atop many tons of explosives, and set it off. The alternative was a continuing murder spree that would have killed far more than the dozens who'd been slain. I didn't want to do it, but I had to do it. As important as my friend's life and happiness was to me, it wasn't worth all that blood. She could have surrendered to authorities and probably gotten probation or a suspended sentence. She would not have been executed or imprisoned, but she refused, so I killed her. I still have to deal with that, and pay for it every time I remember the good times we had together. You aren't a killer, like I am, or you would have found another way. One that would spare your friends, yet horrify the person you are even more."

      "If one was available," Tenchi said morosely.

      "A killer, a murderer like me would have ascertained what he was, what he was doing, and blown his brains out from half a mile away with a target rifle. I'd like to think I'd have shown enough class to wait until his daughter wouldn't see it all, but if the need was grave . . . " Jeff shrugged. "Good, you're appalled, that's the proper, decent - human - reaction. So you've just proven you aren't some mad-dog killer. You killed, it's a terrible thing, and in your line of work, it will happen again. Far worse to stand by and do nothing, while a friend or an innocent dies. When you could have intervened."

      "I understand," Tenchi said nervously, edging away from Jeff.

      "Always willing to help you humans see things in a clearer darkness."

      Kiima shooed Ami and Asuka out of the compartment. I want to see what kind of sparks come from this, she thought as she pushed Mamoru into the compartment with Tatewaki. The Neriman nodded politely to `Tuxedo unmasked` and returned to staring out the window at the darkening sky and the scenery.

      Kiima sat Mamoru down opposite Kuno. Kiima sat beside Kuno and stretched out her legs across the aisle, blocking the pair in. Mamoru likewise stared out the window, ignoring everyone around him.

      Suddenly, the door burst open, a gray-bearded tenor warbled "You've got to know when to hold'em, know - URK!" He fell to the floor with two roses and a half-dozen feathers piercing his chest.

      "Well thrown," Tatewaki said as he folded his arms back into his shirt, cradling his sword. Mamoru frowned in response and returned to staring out the window.

      "The silence will last until we get no more Nerima interruptions," Kiima told them, "Then you two are going to talk." From the expression on their reflections in the glass, neither men looked happy at the prospect.

      Asuka snorted in amusement at the silliness of the current youth. "Why the rush? You've got a few more years to be kids. Why charge into the silliest times of your life?"

      Rei frowned at Asuka as she finished her rounds, the other girls reluctantly adding what little they had squirreled away, hidden from all others, to Rei's bag.

      "You aren't doing it to get boyfriends, you're just competing with each other," Asuka said in disgust, "You already scared off Tenchi and Katsuhito. Ryoko left in disgust, Sasami and Raccoon are staying to be polite."

      The clatter and rattle of cosmetics on the table in front of Jeff was Rei's only answer to Asuka. "You said you know make-up," the miko challenged.

      "I said I was a make-up artist for the Harvard theater group for several years," Raccoon replied coldly, "I do not merely 'know make-up', I am an expert, superbly and exquisitely trained by experts. Far more than any of you."

      "Prove it," Rei contended.

      Raccoon smiled to Asuka. "What would be more embarrassing, making her seem the clown, or just making her look like one?"

      "Seeming," Asuka said, "With that pile of useless, mismatched junk, you've got your work cut out for you." She pushed Rei into the seat where Jeff could work on her.

      "True, but Genius can be encouraged."

      While the other girls closed in to watch, Rei looked particularly nervous.

      "She loves you," Tate said as the train crossed the border of Nerima proper, "Never doubt that." He paused to allow response, but Mamoru continued to stare out the window, seeing nothing in his reflection or the scenery. "She is young and inexperienced. Had she had more art, she might have chosen a different course. Instead, her attempt was to try the strongest argument she knew, that of destiny."

      "The destiny is a crock," Mamoru said, "Just because she has been told we are trapped together . . . I don't have to accept it."

      "Then perhaps you should ignore the excuse of destiny, and look to your own heart. Perhaps then it would not appear you are trapped, but see it as a welcome opportunity. Accept what is, and ignore what others claim 'must be'!" Kuno grinned briefly. "I have become an expert in that."

      "Do you know how insane that sounds?"

      "You ask me about insanity and its manifestations?" Tate asked with mirth.

      Mamoru opened his mouth, stared at Kuno who leaned forward and eagerly awaited an answer. Mamoru's mouth shut with a snap.

      "You sought to ask 'How would you know?' In a non-confrontational mode. I take no offense." Tate leaned back and stared at the ceiling. "She is young, and fully of passion and foolish - or perhaps - outdated notions of love. You are cold and calculating, submerging your passions in logic and the vagaries of this century. How do I know this?" Kuno stared at Mamoru intently as he asked then answered his question, "Because my dear Ami is like you. Terrified of the fires that burn within her, attempting to drown all those uncontrolled passions in logic and rationality, finding them lessened but not extinguished. So she fears and hides them and herself, behind books and math and scholastics. As if they would keep her, or perhaps another, from being consumed by what for all her studies and intelligence, remains beyond her ken."

      Tate stared at Mamoru. "I stand with my heart. Seeing great things others do not, feeling great winds and waves that others do not, believing things - that others do not. And not logic, not culture and not threats or fears make these things only I experience any less real. Telling me I am insane, because I say the world is one thing, when you insist it is another, does not eliminate my world. It merely makes you comfortable having safely dismissed that you see bits of it as well."

      "So you chase around like a nut?" Mamoru accused, "And a laughing stock."

      Tate's expression darkened and Kiima prepared to intervene. Tate's expression suddenly softened and he smiled, as if remembering a pleasant memory. "One strikes most unfairly, when one strikes a vein of unwanted truth within oneself. When a man has been starving with a gnawing, ravenous hunger impossible to understand or abate, it is not uncommon for him to run like a rabid bear, from one promise of surcease to another, from one moment of comfort or pleasure to another, not noticing, and honestly, not caring who or what is trampled in the course. To seek something, anything to attenuate his pain and emptiness. Or to make it seem to have gone away. After a time, the madness of the pain, and the insanity of the pursuit become blurred, and in my case, nearly interchangeable. Worse, I had not the tools to examine the source and fount of it. Had I done so, I might have been less . . . random in my quest for an ending to it. Logic is a poor analgesic, coldness worsens being alone in the night when all doubts and fears mass in the darkness."

      Kuno drew his sword. Mamoru drew back, but Kuno merely turned it to catch the light as he stared at it, the edge, then the flat. He lowered the blade, not pointing at or threatening anyone with it. "To hold the safety, not merely of yourself or your family, but of all of humanity . . . our past, our future . . . " he resheathed the blade as his voice trailed off. The gaze he fixed on Mamoru was sharper than any blade. "It is a terrifying prospect, is it not?"

      Mamoru grimaced at that, trying to break free of Kuno's gaze. He managed when Kuno smiled.

      "Yet I failed, all of my devotion to the blade, all my vaunted skill, and at the most critical moment in all my life, it was not enough." His gaze locked onto an increasingly uncomfortable Mamoru. "Then one I was certain was my nemesis, saw me through, not merely to survival, but to victory. With such a battle -" Kuno blushed. "And what came after . . . I have not lost my passion. I have gained a place. I now know who I am and what I must do. Such self-knowledge brings a peace I have never known. With it, came a situation that demanded no less than my all. A high price for the cessation of my madness, but I am now its master, rather than its victim. I may not find complete peace and rest this side of the grave, but the madness now lies outside me, rather than inside. And the glimpses of peace and joy I do see, are a balm rather than a goad. If one seeks after the Enlightenment of the Buddha, one cannot to make the journey and expect the - Serenity - of the Buddha, at any point except at the end of the journey." Kuno stood. "There are others who see things, if not more clearly, then with a greatly differing confusion. Their insights on life and love may be of some use."

      "There is also the girl," Kuno continued, "Put aside all talk of 'Destiny, and 'What Must Be' and speak of what your souls thirst for. If it is DESTINY," he thundered. "Then it will act in your despite, it needs no help from you. If it is not, than build something more solid. Or step away, and accept the consequences." Kuno bowed. "I take my leave."

      Kuno stepped over Kiima's legs and out of the compartment.

      Mamoru stared at Kiima, then at his reflection in the window. "I don't know what is more frightening. That I sat here, and got a lecture on life and love from Kuno Tatewaki . . . or that I understood it."

      "Or that it was good advice?" Kiima teased, and laughed at the man's blush.

      Kuno walked into the main compartment. The girls had congregated together, as he had expected. Their spirited giggling he hadn't expected, nor the devious shaman wearing such a look of intense concentration. Like a college professor delivering a lecture on a favorite subject, Kuno thought.

      He was utterly stunned, when Ami-chan stood up and turned around, to the admiration of the other girls. Kuno himself was thunderstruck. I had thought her pretty before . . . now she is radiantly beautiful, he thought as he withdrew, leaving the girls to their moment of joy and remembering Asuka-kun's dire warning about smothering the girl. She is still shy, and frightened of her feelings, he silently reminded himself.

      "Me next, me next!" Several of the girls demanded.

      Kuno realized that several of the girls had been made up as skillfully as his dear Ami-chan. The shaman did this? Kuno wondered, as he returned to the compartment, Perhaps he is as much an attention seeker as Saotome. Yet he only desires the attention to be ephemeral. There and gone. He considered the pensive looks and heartfelt talk taking place in the compartment between Kiima and Mamoru. He needs that far more than I need the seat, Kuno thought as he continued into the space between the cars so he could analyze and consider where he had been, and metaphysically, where he was going.

      They set Hotaru in front of Raccoon, and he took a look at the assembled cosmetics and selected a few. "You don't put it on with a trowel, unless you're being paid to play a clown," he paused to let Hotaru giggle at that, "In that case, you are going for a different effect." He worked carefully. "Normally, I wouldn't condone a girl so young wearing make-up, so I'm going to a theatrical look. How'd you like to be dark and mysterious?"

      "Sure," Hotaru said with a smile.

      Raccoon worked his magic with the powders and creams, and stepped away. The other girls gasped at the change. Hotaru peered into the mirror as if into a window on another world, rather than a simple reflection.

      Hotaru touched the mirror, then fearfully sat back. She glanced at Raccoon. "Take it off, please."

      "Of course." Raccoon carefully removed all traces of his work. "All back to normal," he said with a smile as he held up the mirror.

      She laughed nervously, and took Sasami's hand as the other girl stood next to her. "I didn't want to be scary."

      "Of course. All I'm showing you all, is what you can be if you wish."

      Asuka smiled at the two little girls happily hugging Raccoon. Where are Tenchi and his group? she wondered, then got up to find them.

      "Should we come with?" Hotaru asked, Sasami in tow.

      Asuka considered, No, better you get to know the people who may have to take care of you. "I just need to look at the stars," she told Hotaru truthfully, "I'm just a little bit homesick." Not a lie, but not the whole truth either, Asuka thought as she watched the girls return to the others, And what would you do if you knew the truth, about her and yourself?

      Asuka headed along the car. She spotted Ryoko looking on worriedly as Tenchi wept silently. So that explains a lot, Asuka realized as all the clues come clear, I thought the cop did it. Now how do we deal with that reality, 'I'm sorry, one of our friends killed your father because he was a danger to the universe.' I can imagine how that would play out, Asuka returned to a midway point between the two groups, and stared down the length of the car to Kuno standing between the cars, Okay, so what do we do? she wanted to ask him.

      The walk to the Masaki compound hadn't resolved the question of Hotaru. Not for Tenchi, and not for the others. How long can this keep going? he wondered sadly.

      "Ayeka?!" Tenchi called as he spotted the woman standing between her two guardians. He and Sasami raced forward. The others continued at their pace, while Katsuhito and Ryoko held back. Why would they -? he wondered.

      "Good morning, Lord Tenchi," Ayeka said brittlely, bowing first to him, then to Sasami, "Sasami, our mother is waiting for you."

      Sasami rolled her eyes but headed into the compound.

      "I'm glad to see you, were you able to get your ship repaired?" Tenchi asked.

      Ayeka winced slightly. "Yes, they will be repairing Ryu-Oh as soon as we return to Jurai."

      "That's great! I know how much you missed it," Tenchi said, "I bet you enjoyed seeing your mother again after all this time." He smiled. "When I lost my mother . . . I still miss her."

      "Lady Achika was an extraordinary woman," Ayeka said guardedly. She hadn't raised her eyes, except briefly.

      "Ayeka, what's wrong?"

      "When I said 'we', I meant myself, Sasami, and Yosho."

      "You're going for a visit home, that's great."

      "No," Ayeka said, tearing up, "I mean we are returning to Jurai . . . forever. The quarantine will be reinstated." Ayeka turned away, so he couldn't see her cry. "Oh, Lord Tenchi! Something terrible has befallen your world, but there's nothing father will allow us to do to intercede!" Ayeka fell to her knees. "Please forgive us. Please forgive us."

      "What happened!? What are you talking about?" Tenchi looked back at the rest of the group. Asuka, Jeffrey, Tatewaki and Kiima were starting forward, each one ready for a fight. He felt a bit relieved about that. Whatever it is, I know we can defeat it! Tenchi thought.

      "Problems?" Asuka asked seriously.

      "She says that something terrible has happened, and she can't help."

      Tatewaki laid a hand on his sword. "If a foe must be faced -"

      "Or slain," Jeffery added, his hard expression mirroring Tatewaki's.

      "- we shall do so. With such brave souls at our sides, there is naught that could overcome us." Tatewaki glanced at Jeffrey. "Even death is not beyond our righteous retaliation."

      Tenchi took Ayeka's hand and helped her up. "See?" he assured her, "We can handle it. Now what is this terrible thing?"

      "It is already here." A tall, older man with a gray streaked beard approached. His clothing looked like a more ornate version of Tenchi's own battle costume. His expression was hard and unforgiving. "As if after two thousand years any of us would forget."

      Tenchi tensed, saw the others were searching for this new threat, and like him, not seeing it. Where is it? he thought desperately, scanning the surroundings, If we can come to grips with it, Tatewaki's right, we can destroy it!

      "So Yosho, you and Ryoko bring them to me. I accept your apology. Guards!" More of the Guardians and dozens of uniformed troops formed out of nothing around the girls and other humans.

      "The Jurain king, I presume," Raccoon said and tipped his hat, "I take it Serenity and her bodyguard are the 'terrible thing' that's happened to our planet."

      Gently, Asuka silently warned, You and kings are not a good combination.

      "Yes," the king replied imperiously. His eyes widened suddenly as he saw -

      Hotaru! Asuka thought as she traced the King's terrified gaze back to its target. Verdammt! Raccoon's already moving! she thought as Raccoon ran towards Hotaru.

      Above them, not one, but four huge starships appeared.

      "SCATTER!" Asuka shouted, already the guards and wooden machines were withdrawing. Hotaru looked around in terror as Raccoon raced towards her, once he reached her he wrapped himself around her an instant before the broadside hit.

      Senshi, guards and others scattering in all directions threw themselves to the ground at the sound and glare. Asuka remained on her feet, watching the flare brighten beyond even her ability to look at it.

      Jurain firepower against Raccoon's AT field, she thought as she moved to help him, In an EVA -! The fire stopped. Asuka still couldn't look at the glowing spot of ground, the light had dazzled her, but her peripheral vision caught movement. "Makoto! Stop!" she commanded, calling on the part of her she so despised, to give an added force to her words and presence. The crawlingly alien and inhuman thoughts and feelings filled her heart and mind. She felt the filth running through her, and for an instant wanted to tear her own skin off to let it out. Almost immediately it blanked out the feelings of loss and sorrow that had threatened to overwhelm her. Only the sensation of taint remained. Coward, she chided herself, Tell everyone of the others to face their feelings, yet hide from yours and drown them like newborn kittens when they become troublesome. She knew she was the only one to have kept her feet, now she used that fact ruthlessly. "You'd be committing suicide to no good end. There comes a time when surrender is the only viable option." She could barely see the Senshi relaxing, although her vision had not fully returned, other senses she'd always avoided, filled in the picture.

      "Arrest them!" the king ordered as he climbed to his feet.

      "We haven't done anything!" Rei protested, but allowed the guards to segregate them from the Jurains, Ryoko, Kiyone and Tenchi. Asuka, Tatewaki and Kiima willingly joined the Senshi. Asuka stared the Senshi into submission.

      Shock will soon take the place of confusion and rage, Asuka thought, There's an outside chance we might survive this. Or they will destroy all the `tainted` humans.

      "For this action," the king said, raising his hand in a regal gesture, "You, Yosho receive my full forgiveness. You, Ryoko, receive full pardon from the Jurain people for your crimes."

      Both couldn't tear their eyes away from the still-glowing hole where Jurain `justice` had been so swiftly meted out.

      Asuka looked at the terrified Senshi, gestured for them to remain calm as she and they were divested of their Henshin rods or anything else that would have been used as a weapon. Tate-chan reluctantly handed over his blade, after glancing at Asuka for confirmation that it was the right course.

      Asuka scanned the skies, looking for where the four ships had vanished to so completely. By stealth or distance, I do not know, Asuka thought as she went with the Senshi. Ami was practically glued to Tatewaki. Kiima had embraced Makoto with her wings, nearly carrying the stunned girl. Mamoru hand his hand on Usagi's shoulder and the girl was either bearing up or too shocked to break down and cry or bury her face in his chest.

      And what do I feel? Asuka asked herself and found only emptiness within herself, I cannot `blame` that I have others to keep alive. I feel nothing. As if he were only a lost handful of change. Not my friend through so many painful battles, not the one whom I could trust and who would trust me. Have I fallen so far, that even such a wound no longer draws blood? You feared the Senshi, little king? Perhaps you should have looked more closely. I know one who will not be restrained by worry for others. Perhaps that is it, I know any rage or revenge I could hope for would pale before what I know will be delivered.

      She again looked around at the worried, terrified and shattered expression surrounding her, all looking to her for hope and salvation. And what do we do? she asked herself, The great and brilliant Asuka Soryu Langley, who walked into this trap with eyes wide open. If he couldn't hold off that blast, what chance do any of us have? What answers can I give?

      She spotted Tenchi trying to follow them, and that he was intercepted by the guards. When he tried to force his way to Ayeka or his grandfather, he was likewise repulsed.

      Sorry kiddo, no place for you to go, Asuka thought, wondering at the utter emotional emptiness that allowed her such logic and clarity. "You aren't one of `us`, you aren't one of `them`," she told him, "Welcome to the aftermath of apocalypse. You survived."

      "Yosho, you will return to Jurai with us," his father told him as they walked past the house that had been his home, towards the starship and the role that would soon become his prison, "This is not a request."

      "What about Tenchi?" Ryoko asked, disturbed by the scene she'd just witnessed.

      "He is Terran, he will remain. You are free to go where you wish," the king told her, clearly dismissing her and anyone not of the immediate royal family from his thoughts.

      "I want to stay," Sasami said firmly as she paused at the ship's entrance.

      "This is not open for discussion. No Jurain noble will be hostage to . . . them." He gestured and the guards stiffened. Unwilling to simply shove her inside, but knowing those were their orders.

      Sasami fell quiet as she walked aboard, looking guiltily at Ryoko, then at Ayeka who looked like she'd rather be eating ground glass than what she had done and was doing.

      She probably didn't realize what was happening until it was far too late, Sasami realized as they walked the corridors, Now she has to live with what she has done. Innocent blood, the blood her friends on her hands, and she'll only receive praise for it. After all, they were only Terrans. Now she'll realize why Yosho left. I realized it early. I'd hoped she'd never find out.

      Sasami looked at her mother, who was preparing her usual greeting. Sasami's hand closed on the Henshin in her pocket. She steeled herself and glared at the blubbering woman, then turned on her heel and marched away. None of them have the faintest idea what they've just done, she thought, And none of them care.

      "Not so wisely played, little lady," Lady Seto said as she stepped from an adjoining corridor.

      "Milady," Sasami said as she bowed to her grandmother, it struck her that she might be facing the one person in the whole court who would understand, "If we are going to act as if we did nothing wrong here, we must get off this planet, and back to Jurai," Sasami fearfully told her, "There is a power here -"

      "They are currently confined, their powers neutralized," Seto soothed.

      "No, Milady, a greater power. One even Tsunami would be hard pressed to deal with, and even all our ships and guards could not prevent it from striking at us. At our selves, or our worlds. I do not know how it will react to what father did," Sasami saw that her words and tone had unnerved the 'Devil Princess of Jurai.' "I have a plan that may buy mercy for our people, but many of us are doomed."

      "I don't remember," Artemis replied to Asuka's questioning, the mooncat's voice oddly distorted by the barriers separating them. Luna nodded in agreement.

      Asuka hung her head and counted to twenty to avoid trying to simply walk through the 'detention screens', and carrying out what she feared would soon happen anyway. "You're whole 'I have imperfect memories' bit is very cute and dramatic, but right now, the only weapons I have are persuasion and intelligence. If you deny me the latter, you are also denying me the former, and assuring yourself a trip to the gallows. Don't assume that there will be a hearing and formal charges - " Asuka felt her voice catch. She let the feeling of helplessness and fury wash over her, Odd to feel glad that I can finally feel something over my friend's murder. Not that it helps me or him . . . or Hotaru. "These people hate you and they gunned down Hotaru on sight and she wasn't even a Senshi." Yet, Asuka didn't add. "Unless you've been doing some recruiting in your spare time. No? Then don't expect any more mercy than she received."

      Asuka looked around, waited for any response. The two mooncats just looked at each other miserably. The Senshi had succumbed to the shock Asuka had been expecting. They looked from Asuka to the nearest mooncat, to Asuka, all without hope or ideas of their own. Okay, you don't remember anything directly, she thought, Time to probe deeper. "You have to have something. If not an official history of the cause of this antipathy between your two peoples, then some doggerel verse, some nursery rhyme. 'Ring Around the Rosie' commemorates the events of the Black Death of 1347, that's only a generation or two for your people, where as it is dozens for humans. So don't tell me you don't remember. There isn't going to be a last minute rescue. Our only rescuers are on their side, and probably under guard - or they are dead, and thus even less likely and able to effect a rescue. They are going to keep us in these cages until they are ready to dispose of us."

      "How right you are," a voice told them. A short, balding man carrying what looked like a pooper scooper, walked into the detention area, accompanied by the two guards who'd been placed in charge of them.

      "Since you're gonna . . . you know. Could you come back in like half an hour?" one of the guards leered at Rei, "It would be a shame to let them got to waste, and it's not like there'd be any evidence."

      The balding man smirked and handed the guard a pad computer. "There would be witnesses, and paragraph three specifically prohibits that," the man said, much to the guard's disappointment. He positioned the device in front of the floor-level `slot` in the field in the field, where the food trays had been slid through.

      Makoto raised her head from where she'd practically collapsed and remained since she'd been put in the cell alone, separated even from Kiima. The Senshi's red eyes showed she'd been crying, and her empty expression showed she'd offer little resistance to whatever happened to her next.

      The man shoved the device into the slot. "Considering who those orders come from, I'm not eager to disobey." He stepped on the device, triggering it. First, Makoto's clothes, skin and hair vanished, within instants her muscles, organs, and finally her bones followed into oblivion. She never screamed, and her expression had been one of astonishment. The others gasped at the callous and casual execution, finally pulling themselves out of the despair that had gripped them.

      "I hear you. They're cute, but not that cute," the guard said as his partner rolled his eyes and the man pulled the device free.

      "You rotten bastard! We never did anything to you!" Rei shouted at the man as he fitted the device to her cell. She backed as far away from the device as possible and called down curses on the man's head. Her disappearance was as sudden as Makoto's had been.

      "Asuka! Do something!" Ami shouted.

      "I don't want to die! We haven't done anything!?" Minako pleaded as the men walked up to her cell.

      "You know nothing," the bald man said as he fitted the device to her cell.

      "What am I supposed to do?" Asuka shouted back, "I can't get out! If I could, don't you think I would have?!"

      Minako covered the device with her hands, yet she and her cat vanished as the others had. Skin, flesh, then bone. As quick as the process was, Minako's final expression made it clear it hadn't been painless.

      "No last request?" Asuka asked as she leaned close to the walls which had nearly shocked her unconscious several times already.

      The man glanced at the tablet computer he carried. "You don't deserve one," the executioner walked past Asuka's cell to Ami's, "She doesn't get one."

      "Villain! Cur! You would not be so brave if we met on the field of honor!" Tatewaki shouted as he ignored the shocks as he pressed against the `walls` of his cell. Even the blistering of his skin would not make him relent. "I will kill you!" The field still held him back.

      "When your people get into space."

      "Tate-chan! Don't throw your life away for me!" Ami plead with him, "If I really mean something to you, live for me, for us! Beryl still threatens Earth."

      Tatewaki stepped back from the field and lowered his hands and head. "I shall, Ami-chan," Tatewaki vowed, accepting the inevitable.

      "As will I!" Kiima vowed, "For Makoto, if for no other reason."

      The Senshi stood bravely, accepting her fate. A moment later, Ami was gone, erased by the machine. Asuka watched as Usagi dropped her cat and stood up straight, looking almost like the queen she had been and might be again. "Just tell me why," she said, no tears streaming down her face. She simply wanted to know why they were being killed.

      "It's just the right thing to do," came the answer as Usagi and her advisor vanished.

      The man collected the device. Presumably shutting it off, before walking back down the cell block.

      "Am I not worthy of death?!" Mamoru demanded, "Assassin, are you not to kill me too?"

      "Got no orders," the man walked away with his disintegrator. The guards followed him, little bits of gossip wafting after them until they were at the barrier separating the cells from the rest of the ship.

      Asuka slumped to the floor, her legs simply refusing to support her. She couldn't cry or scream, she felt as pitiful and empty as she had on discovering her mother's corpse and that damned doll her mother thought was her. All my powers, and the terrible price I paid for them . . . and what could I do? I can't manipulate anything outside this cell, no matter how hard I try, she thought as her forehead touched the floor, The Senshi gone, then, what? Beryl's invasion, then the Jurain's, then what? So much for Sasami's promise. If that's her people's way, I want nothing to do with them. I don't want to die. I don't want to die here, alone. I want to go home! I want to -! But I can't, not one bit of it! I'm here, and when the next set of orders comes through . . . I'm dead too, Asuka let herself weep for the first time in a long time.

Sailor Jupiter 16 - Dreams and Dragons

      The first reports were from the major fleet base, Sentry Alpha. A dozen layers of minefields, fortresses and other orbital defenses before reaching the anchorage. Over 20% of the entire Jurain fleet at anchor, guarded by squadrons of dozens of active warships. The King was awakened from a sound sleep, and rushed to the Imperial CIC. Within minutes of his arrival, he received the horrifying news that the fighter patrols, mines, orbital weapons platforms had not stopped the attacker. The active warships engaged immediately. Neither they nor he could not see the attacking ship itself, it was small, fast and apparently stealthed almost to the point of invisibility. He watched in silence as three complete fighter wings detonated like a string of firecrackers, then their fortress bases were simply swept out of existence.

      After that, it was among the docked warships. If anything, they fared worse than the fighters had. The only limitation seemed to be that the attacker apparently took a perverse pleasure in destroying entire mothballed squadrons, to take an active ship with them in the explosion.

      The King ordered the Royal squadron into space to intercept this attacker. The only clue to the attacker's identity were sporadic images of the destruction of the pride of the Jurai nation lying in space like toys broken by a child's tantrum.

      It would require a god's tantrum to so destroy our forces, he thought.

      "Tsunami," Sasami breathed in shock as she looked at the destruction.

      "You should not see this," he told her.

      "There will be more," she told him as she sat down and wept.

      Reports followed reports in an ever-tightening nightmare. A dozen 3d Generation ships, not caught at anchor, but ready and alert, their annihilation was total and immediate. Only one thing linked the attacks, a straight line to Jurai itself.

      Systems were alerted, defenses were raised. The King ordered the powerful flotilla in Earth space to ignore the intruder's path and return to Jurai at maximum speed. This is the most powerful battlegroup in the Kingdom, nothing can stand against it and its combined power! he thought desperately as reports of fleets, planets, entire star systems being casually wiped out marked the advance of this intruder. The CIC displayed the progress, a list of the most powerfully defended and more valuable systems ceasing to answer, or show any signs of life or generated power. It is taking the path of maximum resistance, the king recognized, As if to prove our helplessness against it.

      A groups of 3d Generation vessels, led by a 2d Generation ship met their predictable fate. The 2d Generation ship deployed it's Light Hawk Wings, only to have the intruder's attack pass through and obliterate the ship. One shot changed the mighty warship to a cloud of flaming debris. The accompanying 3d Generation ships fell to more conventional attacks, but fared no better. Now a sector capital, filled with warships, commercial and military orbital fortification, shoals of fighters and gunboats. All crewed by loyal soldiers who'd had some time to understand what would be their fate when facing this attacker.

      Somehow it raced through the defenses, far too fast for even a snapshot by any of the defenders. The king looked on in horror as it passed by the system's primary star, and raced away at even greater speed. The star shrank to a dark pinpoint before violently expanding. The king had no need to watch, to know the system was doomed. Transmission was lost before the end, confirming the king's suspicions. Even Jurain technology cannot restrain a supernova, he wondered just what this intruder was. A fighter had gotten close enough to see the dark black shape and the soulless yellow eyes. It's as if they forged something out of our darkest fears and set it on us, he thought as he watched helplessly as it passed near three heavily-populated and industrialized systems. The indicators of normal communications traffic from the systems winked out. Neutrino and Gavelion's lepton emissions ceased as well, indicating failure of all the advanced technologies from the planets and any sizable ships or bases.

      He'd long since lost the capacity to feel horror at this, although he heard Sasami and his two wives weeping openly at the massacre. And they blame me, he thought, The Destroyer returned so I destroyed it, could Serenity's Court have been far behind? What attracted all the maddest threats in the universe to that benighted Kingdom? Or did Serenity intentionally draw them to her to fuel her legend? Now we face the worst of all I've heard of.

      Refugees in crippled ships or on dying worlds called out for help, as if there was a force who could reach out of the stars and make it all right again.

      He looked up into Lady Seto's face. The `Devil Princess` of Jurai had a grim expression. "None of our ships can match its speed," she said quietly, "I have ordered Noike to take the Mikagami, and perform The Triple Z. Failing that, she is prepared to ram the vessel with mine." She looked up into her son's eyes. "That will stop it."

      Before he could express his doubts, she turned and walked away.

      The entire royal family stood and watched the Mikagami race out to intercept the intruder outside the Jurai system proper. It managed to fire The Triple Z, only to have the intruder prove immune. Noike sent the final message 'I love you mother' before crashing directly into the intruder. From the last frantic transmission, everyone got the impression they were facing a creature, not a ship. Its movements were too fluid and automatic to be a mecha or starship. Its fury was a thing of living, rather than electronic madness. Only silence from the entire system answered their calls and probes as they raced home.

      Finally, the group entered the Jurai home system, and could see the devastation for themselves. Their mightiest works, the power that intimidated other star-nations lay broken and scattered to the solar winds. Where other systems had been annihilated more or less whole, here the cruelty was allowed full reign. The Jurai star was simply gone, and with it, any hope of rebuilding. Without the Jurai star, the trees cannot be what they once were, the king realized the intention behind the act.

      Ships in the system were ripped and crippled, the crews aboard crying out for mercy or vengeance. They would perish slowly for lack of heat or air. The Royal Flotilla couldn't rescue even a handful of them. On the outer planets, not even bacteria were left alive, but the people were. As environmental systems struggled to compensate for the damage, or the survivors understood their suffering would end, when the impact of a carefully aimed derelict would end their and the derelict's crew's anguish in mutual annihilation.

      The Jurai Royal flotilla had to slow down for the sheer mass of debris scattered throughout the normal spaceways. That's where the star went, as an asteroid-strewn nebula, the king considered, In a billion years, it may become a star again, but for now, the planets drift away and all life will end. Our history, culture, all gone in a few hours. What we nearly suffered before, what she threatened us with in the past, has happened in truth this time.

      The planet itself looked like it had been used as a dart board for every major warship and orbital colony in the system. The broken wrecks and their craters littered the countryside, and smothered the cities under miles of technological debris. A glance at the sensors showed no life of any kind remained on the planet. Not the Great Tree, not the populace, not the animals and plants.

      Yosho caught it first. "Your Highness, at the center, where the star was."

      All eyes and sensors turned to that spot. On a bit of debris, the creature, a winged beast sat. It stared at them as they looked at it. Reptilian, blacker than the space around it, and the pupilless, yellow eyes. No order was necessary for the fleet to attack. No one would hold back against this thing that had slaughtered so many, and destroyed the heart of their nation. The futility of it became apparent in an instant. Whatever this thing was, it shrugged off their heaviest blows as if they were nothing. The king watched in amazement as it passed through Tsunami-fune's Light Hawk Wings, and crashed through the hull onto the command deck. A blast of something jet black reduced guards and guardians to nothingness. While the other royals hurled their special powers, the monster fixed the king with a soulless stare, and laughed.

      The king woke with a shout and looked around his bedroom. "Only a dream, a nightmare," he consoled himself, putting it all behind him. Until his pillow exploded.

      Feathers, some still aflame, pierced his flesh. He rolled off the bed and bellowed for the guards. A vase on a table near his head exploded with a thunderous noise. A paperweight atop his desk detonated, sending bit of correspondence everywhere. The king cringed under the sudden and real-seeming assault. Outside, guards pounded on the door and shouted, and the king left himself feel hope.

      The doors aren't locked, he realized with despair, as more nonexplosive trinkets around him loudly exploded, making the room seem like it was target of an artillery barrage.

      It stopped! he thought as he raised his head, the silence somehow louder than the explosions had been. Only the pounding of his heart, and the pounding on the door broke the silence. He looked around, the pain of the feathers still stuck in him warned him to take care. He stood, and looked at the smoldering mess that had been his bedchamber. A hot breath touched his neck. He whirled to face it.

      And froze as he stared into the soulless, unblinking yellow eyes. The same eyes that had stared into his in the ruins of the Jurain home systems, had stared at him over the corpse of his people, his family and his dreams. He instantly knew why his retainers were shut out and that he was utterly alone.

      "Do not confuse your little, pet god Tsunami, with what I am," came the gravelly voice in fluent Jurain, "Run, flee, hide in your empire, knowing that you are always in my reach. So little king, know that I can slay your family, your entire empire, a thousand times a night, for as long as I chose to. And not pleas nor powers will restrain me." The smile was malevolent. "But I will not kill you."

      "Not because I love you," the creature spoke, looking at the petrified king from different angles, "But because I hate you. You see, the sure and certain knowledge that another has arranged your downfall, prince of turds, stays my hand. Your struggles to keep your `celestial` power, forged and formed from brigandage, amuses me, and I never destroy a laughingstock, while it amuses me. You are weak and a coward. Soon I will laugh myself sick watching all you will kill, all you will sacrifice, all you will betray, to remain a few more moments on the throne, and all of it you will justify as 'it would be worse with someone else'. Since I know you will not listen, I'll even give you the solution, to damn you absolutely: Let it BE worse, let the people's righteous anger boil more swiftly and let them strike in their fury with you at their head, let the thousand brave souls perish today, to save the millions who will eventually be consumed by a patient approach. Let the vows of 'Never again' be branded deep on their hearts, so even a millennia of Milquetoast fools cannot scrape them away." The laughter was as cold and heartless as anything he'd ever heard. "I will weep for joy as you shovel your family, their love of you as man and king, and your people's respect of life and freedom on to a pyre, all so you can remain king. And every night, you will hear echoes of my laughter with each corrupt compromise, with each lie to yourself and others, with the resurrection of each doubt you pushed aside as you dug the grave and built the pyre for your people and your legacy. How tragic, that the ones who might have saved you, you executed without hearing or guilt. Not just those slain by your order, but the loyalty within your own court. As they see you with the scales dropped from their eyes - "

      "Who have I ordered executed?!" the king rallied to the one flaw in the beast's discourse.

      "Oh, little prince of turds, do not bandy words with me. 'Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest'. The king's word is law to the law-abiding, while the king's wish is law to the lawless. The Senshi died by your hand as surely as if you had swung the axe yourself." The booming laughter filled the room, drowning out the warning cries of the guards as they struggled to get in the seemingly adamantine doors. "To remember me, and remind you that all nightmares stalk the darkness of the night, and some stride the darkness between the stars, but those of deepest black walk under the open-skies and bright lights, because of those who refuse to see." A clawed hand, immense and terrible scratched through the door, leaving huge gashes that the guards could see and struggle through.

      The king looked at the stunned men and women who looked about the smoke-filled and dragonless room. They do not know what has happened, he thought, They do not know how it has happened. I know, I know that I am alive, because it thinks I will be a greater scourge to my people than it could ever be.

      Asuka was asleep when the noise roused her. Two women, one tall and proud, the other shorter and weepy, entered the cell block.

      "Where are the others?" the tall one demanded, glaring at the guards, who cringed under her gaze.

      Asuka saw the others were waking from their sleep or stupor, to probably the last wakefulness they would ever know. With an important exception, Asuka thought, then forced the thought from her mind, in case of telepathy on the part of their murderers. The weepy one approached Asuka's cell, and seemed dismayed that it was a Class 6, instead of the Class 2's that restrained the others. Asuka gave a polite bow, and steeled herself knowing that death could come many ways.

      "You saved my daughter," the weepy one said.

      "I apologize, I don't know what you're talking about," Asuka replied in a random mix of German, Cantonese and Greek. Let's see if you're using natural language skills, or some kind of translator. The weepy woman's momentary confusion seemed to imply a translator.

      "Where are the others?" the proud one demanded of Asuka, the silence and stammering confusion of the guard obviously dissatisfying her.

      "The guards and logs led them away," Asuka replied. You aren't going to trick me into admitting I saw the assassination and that you are all so shocked about what happened. Nothing happens in a monarchy without the king's request or approval. Becket proves that.

      "The other captives," the proud one clarified.

      "No one has left their cells," Tatewaki answered in not too painful to hear German, "Logged we in were, and not left here yet have we. Leaving by death has been offered." Tatewaki held up his burned hands to the pair, who recoiled. "Offer not ours to accept or reject."

      "There were others with you, where are they." The proud woman was slowly losing her temper.

      "Jeffery Davis and Hotaru Tomoe were gunned down by your ships. All of us surrendered at that point, and none of us escaped," Asuka told them.

      "The other seven prisoners, the five human females and the pair of Maus," the proud one told Asuka, trying and failing to make Asuka feel like dirt under her fingernails.

      "You have security monitors, I don't see why you need to ask us anything," Asuka replied, "None of us saw, heard, smelled or tasted anything since we were locked in here." Asuka hoped the warning was understood by the other occupants of the half-vacant cell block. Kiima understands court politics, Mamoru is still too lost about Usagi, and Tatewaki just wants to hurt someone as badly as he's been hurt. It won't ease the pain, Tate-chan, it just points it up more clearly.

      The women strode off.

      "Beckett?" Mamoru stirred slightly from his lethargy.

      "Exactly. Now it's CYA time, and we're the toilet paper," Asuka replied watching the man slip back into his stupor, For someone who didn't like the girl, you're taking this awfully hard. I wish I could tell you something that would ease your pain, but that's not something I can think about.

      "How, we didn't see anything?" Kiima asked, "As for not tasting anything, I thought I was the only one who got a dinner like that."

      Everything hurt. He could barely ignore the protests of his muscles at their mistreatment.

      She could see his pain and injuries laid out like a map on a table. Injuries she was in part responsible for. I remember this, Sasami thought, I was Tsunami, I am Tsunami. So this is a dream. Why am I dreaming it?

      'You should rest,' Sasami heard as the woman who'd entered the Ryo-Oh-Ki's sickbay told Jeffrey.

      "Who are you?" Jeff asked, suspiciously palming his pistol.

      Sasami smiled at that. You couldn't have fought Ryo-Oh-Ki over a carrot in your condition, she thought, Who did you believe you were protecting?

      "I am Sasami's guardian, and since you are a shaman, maybe spirit guide would be a better description. I have never met anyone who carries the mantle of chaos and corruption with the gentility that you do. I want to thank you for helping Sasami. She has a difficult road to walk. One remarkably similar to yours and Asuka's. I want you to know you will have friends waiting for you at the end of your journey."

      "I don't think you know the end of my journey. There won't be any friends where I'm going to wind up."

      "You think so little of yourself," Tsunami had tried to soothe him, and knew it had little effect.

      You would have expected the worst, Sasami thought as she half-remembered the exchange between them, I never thought that a goddess would want friends, could be lonely.

      "I think I've done things that should have me ashamed of myself, yet I'd do them again. If I had to do it all over again. That's not something I'm proud of, but I did what was necessary," Jeff told Tsunami, "The alternatives were too terrible to consider."

      "And you doubt that you could receive forgiveness for such a thing?" Tsunami asked, "Most of the other alternatives would have been far worse, the others would have only changed which the evil their defeats permitted to flourish."

      "To receive forgiveness, you first have to be sorry. I'm not. I don't deserve forgiveness. I deserve condemnation and punishment. Forgiveness comes after an error, and does not preclude paying for that mistake."

      "Perhaps you have already paid," she smiled warmly, reminiscent of Sasami's grin, "You should sleep and rest, and heal. Allow Sasami to look after you as you have looked after her."

      Sasami remembered how big brother Jeff could barely keep his eyes open and Tsunami practically had to pick him up and set him on the bed as he fell asleep.

      Sasami woke in her own bed back 'home'. She opened her eyes, Ryo-Oh-Ki was asleep on the pillow next to her head. She listened to the quiet of the household, it was never quiet. Big sister Ayeka and big sister Ryoko would be arguing about something. Miss Mihoshi would be apologizing or demanding to know something obvious, in a tone that made it seem like the end of the world. But instead, it was quiet.

      "Myrawa?" Ryo-Oh-Ki asked as she awoke.

      "Yes, we're home. How'd we get here? I don't remember."

      "Mrawaaaw." Ryo-Oh-Ki seemed equally perplexed, Sasami noted the bags set along the wall of her bedroom. The shopping bags filled with what I bought with Asuka-chan, Sasami realized.

      She dressed quickly and exclusively from her purchases. The quiet of the house is eerie, she thought It's beginning to worry me. Downstairs, lounging in the living room, big brother Tenchi, big sisters Ayeka and Ryoko, Misses Washu, Kiyone and Mihoshi all sat. The only sounds were from the kitchen as Rea and Nobuyuki worked within. Big sisters Ayeka and Ryoko sat at opposite corners of the room and ignored each other.

      "Hello," she called to them as she started down the stairs. Then she saw the writing, nearly a meter-wide furrow scorched in the sand outside, so hot it had fused the sand to glass. 'The little lady needed a break. SO BEHAVE or I'm coming back to distribute breaks to everyone.' It was signed 'A friend of Tsunami' and it had been written in perfect Jurain royal script.

      "Good afternoon, Sasami-chan," Tenchi said nervously. "Did you have a good time on your vacation with that big, black dragon?" He laughed nervously.

      Sasami blinked. What is he talking about? What are they all so nervous about? she wondered as she glanced up at Ryo-Oh-Ki who rode atop her head. The cabbit had no more idea about this than she did.

      "We drew up a schedule of which person helps with what chore, and when," Kiyone volunteered, "If we're supposed to help, we should be organized."

      "I wonder who was that dragon?" her grandmother, Lady Seto, said as she walked out of the kitchen carrying a casserole dish, then smiled, "It also seems I am required to `help` you to actually be here. Yes, Sasami-chan, I am me." She smiled and sighed. "I actually do enjoy being allowed to do things for myself, and you, without a dozen functionaries trying to impress or escape me."

      Sasami giggled about that.

      The help will be nice. Oh, this is a dream, so the dragon can be here. Darn, I was hoping they'd actually grown up a little. "Thank you for your help grandmother," Sasami said respectfully.

      "Please tell me about these people," Lady Seto said politely, no less an order despite the gentle way she said it, "I find it quite interesting that someone I never met and has never been to Jurai, understands a danger to the empire that I cannot make anyone else see."

      "Grandmother, I wouldn't lie to you," Sasami said nervously as she sat at the table beside Lady Seto, "So please understand that what I tell you is the truth . . . no matter how strange it sounds."

      Asuka carefully watched the women return to the cell block. What lies are you going to feed us so you'll have an excuse? Asuka thought, You can all be `horrified` that it happened, but that guy had orders and the right equipment, so he had help. Washu would have blustered and confused her way in, the royals would have wheedled in, but that guy just marched in, all according to protocols.

      "I assure you, no harm shall befall you."

      Before your execution, Asuka amended to the weepy woman's words as the pair returned without the guards.

      "What happened?"

      "Two of our friends were gunned down without hearing, some were separated out, the rest brought here. The rest you know better than we," Asuka said, "None of us saw anything until you two arrived."

      "Their execution was not authorized."

      "Four battleships just happened to fire together? Just how blind to the obvious do you believe I am?" Tate asked, "Or perhaps, it was quite the coincidence. It will ease his spirit to know it was just an accident."

      "His? The five girls and their companions?" the weepy one sought an explanation.

      The prisoners exchanged glances, but kept silent. The pair finally got the hint and left.

      "What now?" Mamoru asked, not taking his eyes off the cell where Usagi had been executed.

      "We prepare ourselves for death," Tatewaki said, "We shall show them how we die. Others have shown the way, and set a high standard. The shaman met his end giving comfort to their true target. In the end, he was loyal to his religion, we must be loyal to what we hold dear."

      Asuka realized he was playing to the cameras and kept her smile to herself. "Yes," she said gravely, "We must await release, by death or other means."

      "You have no hope of rescue?" Kiima asked, taking up the thread.

      "Not one that leaves us intact and alive," Asuka answered truthfully.

      Tenchi paced the edge of the lake. A cordon of soldiers kept him from both his home and the shrine. He'd tried to make himself go work in the fields, but worry for his grandfather and the others kept him away.

      "Tenchi," Kiyone hailed him.

      "Oh, Tenchi!" Mihoshi ran towards him. "It's so good they didn't disintegrate you too!" she exclaimed, causing Kiyone to get an exasperated look.

      "Disintegrated?" he asked as he sidestepped Mihoshi's charge.

      "Ouchie!' Mihoshi told him from her face plant on a tree.

      "It seems someone killed the girls, other than Asuka. We'll be leaving today, with the Princesses leaving with the rest of the Jurains, there's no point in us staying here, and with Ryoko's full pardon . . . she left the system yesterday."

      "Everybody?" Tenchi asked incredulously, feeling suddenly very alone, "Even my grandfather?"

      "I don't think they're going to give him a choice," Kiyone explained, "They're simply pulling out."

      Tenchi hung his head, allowing Mihoshi to grab him. "I'll miss you almost as much as Space Policeman!"

      "Thanks," Tenchi said nervously to Mihoshi, then glanced at Kiyone, "What about Washu?"

      Kiyone shrugged. "I haven't heard from her since she confirmed it was a Jurain execution-class disintegrator they used," Kiyone admitted, "After that . . . I don't know. No one is talking."

      "It's SO sad!" Mihoshi told Tenchi as tears drenched him.

      "Is there anything you need before you go?" he asked.

      "Come with us!" Mihoshi wailed.

      Tenchi found himself suddenly free of Mihoshi's grip.

      "I'm afraid he can't," Kiyone said as she grimily dragged off her partner, "This is a quarantined world again."

      As Kiyone ignored Mihoshi's protests, Tenchi wondered what would happen to his family's shrine. We aren't watching over Ryoko any more, he thought, So I guess there's no `need` for it. But it's part of our heritage.

      Asuka stared at the women outside her cell. She was irritated that neither of them even bothered to introduce themselves, and kept bothering her on the same subject. I guess we're not important enough to even be told who they are, she thought, Or they expect that we should know automatically.

      "All right, we've established you refuse to even acknowledge what happened that night," the proud woman told them.

      Asuka stared at a spot over the woman's left ear, saying nothing, unless asked a direct question.

      "What do you know about a huge, winged reptilian with pupilless, yellow eyes?" the king asked as he marched in with an entire entourage.

      "It is a he," Asuka explained, "He is called the Scholarly Dragon. You have a god called Tsunami -"

      "The god is Tsunami," the weepy one corrected with surprising fervor.

      "The Scholarly Dragon could eat her with sauce, and he'd prepare the sauce himself." You don't like that blasphemy, Asuka thought of the woman's struggle with her composure.

      "What is the Scholarly Dragon?" the proud woman asked.

      "A power of darkness far beyond what you could comprehend. Its first conscious actions, was to set out to assault and consume an alien god. It has grown immeasurably in power since then," Asuka told them.

      "Is it a threat to the Jurain Kingdom?" the king demanded.

      "Could it travel in space?" the weepy woman asked in fear.

      Asuka took a moment to consider, and to analyze the people around her. The king is terrified, the others aren't exactly pleased, Asuka realized, while she was outwardly thoughtful. "Only if you provoke him. And it could travel through an exploding star, if it wanted to." The group turned to talk among themselves. "If your empire is still there, I'd say you haven't provoked him enough," Asuka called to them in a helpful tone.

      "Why would they be asking about that?" Mamoru asked, "And what is this creature?"

      "An ally, one of Jeff's best friends," Asuka explained, "Although it often acts as a gadfly or adversary."

      "Somehow," Tate said drily, "That does not surprise me."

      "And they fear it will leap from Earth and slay them," Mamoru concluded.

      Asuka shrugged. "It could eat the World Serpent for breakfast and the sun for dessert," Asuka told them, noting that the trio and the entourage were half-listening to the prisoner's byplay.

      "Such a dragon . . . " Tatewaki said in a dreamy voice.

      "Put it out of your mind, Kuno Tatewaki," Asuka explained, "First, if you were serious about trying, I'd kill you first. Second, all the legends about a weak point in a dragon don't apply. And third, this thing makes Godzilla look like a mild-mannered kid." Then she added for the eavesdropper's benefit, "It will keep someone alive and in fear, rather than kill them, just to watch them squirm." So, you have all met, Asuka thought of the royals' reactions. "Or it will kill with no threat or warning, like a bolt of lightning."

      "I accept you judgement," Tatewaki said, "Its treasure - "

      "It neither has nor needs a hoard, as other dragons do," she said. Sneaky, keep feeding me the questions you want them to hear the answers to, she silently congratulated the man. "It collects dead enemies, like other dragons collect valuables. Enemies it or its agents and allies have killed. Not the bodies, just the deaths."

      "I can't imagine you siding with such a monster," Mamoru said primly.

      "I'd be careful about using that word, it applies to the Moon Kingdom and its loyal followers as well. For the slaughter of the innocent that resulted from her actions in this star system, Serenity deserves the name more than the Scholarly Dragon. I'd hate to even imagine what she did to create such a reaction in the Jurains. You don't slaughter an innocent on the off chance that she might grow up into a threat," Asuka lectured, then decided to turn the screws, "But what can you expect from a monarchy? No value of the individual."

      "Do not defame Serenity!" Mamoru threatened.

      "She is the one who precipitated our circumstances," Tatewaki said cooly, "It was not 1000, but 2000 years ago that the Jurain King mentioned, some action, or atrocity from the Jurain perspective, that culminated in the events today."

      "Serenity wouldn't do that!"

      "Neither would Stalin, according to the New York Times, until we found out he did," Asuka replied, "History is written by the survivors. Serenity's folk survived on one side, the Jurains on the other. It's no wonder they have different histories."

      She heard the conversation behind them stop. "Cheese it, the cops," she told her fellow prisoners as she turned back to the royals.

      "So you are threatening us? We have your safety as hostage for his good behavior," the proud woman stated.

      Now Asuka really laughed. The royals drew back in shock at this reaction. She grew grim and stepped directly against the shield. Asuka knew the heat generated would have a greatly reduced effect on her, for a while. Long enough, she thought of their shock. "He'll do what he wants whether you kill me first or not," Asuka said coldly enough to give them shivers, then Asuka smiled. And now you want to run away, she thought. "Do you dream?" She stepped away from the shield, feeling as if she'd stepped into a freezer after standing outside in the desert sun.

      "Dream?" the king made a strangled sound.

      "Pictures in your head when you sleep?" Asuka asked sweetly, "Simply the reorganization of the day's events."

      The women seemed eager to put a wall of rationality up to protect their image of the universe. The king looked like he was going to be sick.

      "Then if it's merely the 'reorganization of the day's events', you have nothing to worry about. It's not like a reorganization could kill you in your sleep, take strength from your fears, snuff out stars, obliterate entire planets, set vast populations to slaughtering each other, make everyone quit paying taxes and going to work." Asuka kept her smile friendly. As my interrogators consider the very dark possibilities, she thought happily, Welcome to facing a Great Old One, no standard defenses need apply. She smirked as the royals and hangers-on marched off to regain their equilibrium and plan strategy.

      "Can she do it?"

      "I have faith in her. Asuka Soryu Langley is too proud to permit failure."

      "Very well."

      Asuka was not feeling talkative when the furious king returned with a different and more baroquely-dressed entourage. She remained asleep, or faking it, while the king shouted questions at her. He seemed loathe to lower the field and lay hands on her. Ayeka-sama, Sasami-sama and a young man they hadn't seen before, marched over to Tatewaki, eager to be away from the `adults`.

      "Father is angry," the young man told him.

      "I understand you claim to have seen nothing of the disappearance of the Senshi from this place," the king thundered at Tatewaki.

      Since he'd heard it was impolite and dangerous to interrupt a raving madman, Tatewaki kept silent.

      "Yet you all clearly reacted to their disappearance," the king continued, then waited, obviously expecting an answer.

      Tatewaki considered the unease in Sasami-sama and Ayeka-sama, then considered his own answer very carefully. "Since we have not been properly introduced, I shall discount your churlish rudeness towards the scion of the House Kuno, as ignorance. Equally, if you are asking such a question, after reviewing your own security recordings, I would deduce that even you believe your security recordings are inaccurate."

      "I am not here to play games!" the king shouted, cutting off Sasami's attempt to introduce the women and young man, "I want answers!"

      "We have witnessed the swiftness of your justice," Tatewaki commented idly, "We are therefore prepared to meet our fate."

      "I did not order the deaths of the Senshi," the king insisted, glancing at the others, none of whom would meet his gaze.

      So, there was a divide and the deaths tipped the balance of power, Tatewaki thought, 'A House divided against itself cannot stand.' I almost pity you.

      "We have no guide nor clue whether the truth, or a lie, will condemn us. So we say nothing," Tatewaki explained as sympathetically as he could, "It also seems you cannot keep the promises you have made, regarding life and death. We would, of course, be triple-cursed fools to shed any light on the situation. One answer might invite death from you, another by your rival or an over-eager sycophant. Why risk life and limb, to speculate on what you have already gleaned from other sources?"

      "We are trying to find the truth," Ayeka-sama told him quietly.

      "The truth is, from my earlier battles with you, my life is already forfeit. I cared for the one you know as Sailor Mercury. My life is burdensome to me without her." He nodded to Kiima and the others. "Release them, take me and yourselves from this star system, with a vow to never return, and I will tell you the facts as well as speculate on the truth you seek so fervently."

      "Tate-chan! Don't do it!" Asuka shouted at him.

      Tatewaki waved her concerns away. He will refuse the deal, if one will lose everything anyway, it is immaterial what portion of what is already lost one puts on the throw, Tatewaki thought, willing Asuka to be silent and let his play advance. "Try finding and examining the facts, Ayeka-sama, the truth is too often a point-of-view dependant phenomenon. The answer to 'Did he love me?' Requires a truth. 'Did he marry me and stay with me to raise our children?' Merely requires a fact."

      "You believe the Senshi were killed by Royal command?" Sasami-sama asked sadly.

      Tatewaki knelt so he was face-to-face with Sasami-sama. "Little one, however we answer that question, we will be killed," Tatewaki explained, "Nothing personal, a king's first duty is to his people."

      "A politician's first duty is to keep his seat," Mamoru said, standing to face the assembled royalty. He ignored the king's wince and continued, "The statesman's first task is to lead his people to greatness, whether they are pleased with that prospect or not."

      "ENOUGH!" the king bellowed, "You will assist us."

      "Or what? Beg pardon - or what, your Highness?" Tatewaki asked, "Any answer will guarantee us a date with the gallows or the assassin's art, by one faction or another. If I am to be exterminated, it shall be for what I have done. You have my price, you have my word of honor. I am willing to die to save my friends."

      An older woman walked into the cellblock and to the rear of the group. They quickly gave ground to let her pass until she stood next to Sasami. Tatewaki stood to face her. She would be a match for the devious Shaman, Tatewaki thought of her expression, Had he lived.

      The older woman nodded to the king. Kuno bowed to one who was obviously a Great Lady, and stoically awaited whatever fate the king would decree. Mamoru, Kiima and Asuka followed his example. He glanced at them and smiled. "It is good to die, with such noble souls, at your side," he tried to make it a haiku in German. From Asuka's strangled sound, I made it inadvertently amusing, or I mangled the German somehow, he thought accepting that his death haiku was not all he had hoped it would be.

      The king was suddenly the center of many stares. The knowing smirk on the older woman told Kuno neither he nor the king knew all of what was transpiring. She broke the impasse. "A fascinating friend once asked me a troubling riddle, 'If death is lighter than a feather and duty heavier than a mountain, and if with strange eons even death may die. Then where does - duty - rest it's head?'"

      "On the heart of the brave, and in the soul of the just," Tatewaki said automatically, feeling an Elysian-state he had never experienced, not the Nirvana of the East, but like the Paradise of the West. Yes, we will serve, he thought quietly, The House Kuno will not be found lacking. He nodded to her.

      "So certain." She covered her laughter with her fan.

      The Jurain king frowned at the odd distraction. Then the woman stared at him. He wilted under that gaze. "We have decided to let you go," the king said, trying to sound magnanimous, rather than pathetic and beaten. He failed, and all four of the prisoners stared at him.

      We wait for the other shoe to drop. For the restrictions, conditions and requirements to be revealed, Tatewaki thought.

      The king obviously expected something other than dead silence and the glares from the other royals. "Have you nothing to say?"

      Tate glanced at the lady and caught her smirk as he turned to his fellow prisoners, not incidently turning his back on the king. He raise a hand, and in a proud voice exhorted, "All of you. Die well, you will see your loved ones again in Paradise."

      "I said you were being released! Not executed!" the king repeated.

      "I think they heard you," the older woman said, "They just don't believe you. Or they expect you to blow up the planet, or the entire star system when we leave." She seemed to find the idea vastly amusing. "They have no idea why Earth was and is so important to us, and why Serenity's arrival and establishment of her dominion provoked the reaction from us that it did." She laughed behind her fan at the king's distress. "You thought they did, and assumed their obstinance was allegiance to her?" She laughed again.

      The king looked at the prisoners with a truly stunned expression, then decided he had no need to explain anything to them. He turned and swept out of the room. The woman smiled again, and also headed for the exit.

      "Is Sasami going to be all right?" Asuka asked the older woman as she passed her cell.

      The woman considered, then gestured at a panel in Asuka's cell. The fields vanished and Sasami came running straight to Asuka. Sasami hugged her fiercely and Asuka returned it.

      "She is and will be. She was most irritated at your treatment," the older woman said kindly, then added sharply, "Sasami. You may send your greeting later, once you are safely back at the capital." The little girl released Asuka instantly.

      "Yes, grandmother," Sasami said to the older woman, bowing low.

      "Your friend's visit has greatly disturbed his Highness," Sasami's grandmother lectured Asuka, "One does not usually threaten a king and expect no reprisals."

      Asuka smiled at that. "You can get away with it," Asuka said looking straight at Sasami, "If you're a god."

      "True," Sasami's grandmother said as she moved to the entrance.

      Sasami gave Asuka a wink as she trailed the older woman.

      "Oh, Sasami-chan, you're such a good girl," the weepy woman said as she pursued.

      She sound like she is well-pleased with a pet dog, Tatewaki thought in disgust, Not with a warrior daughter. Then Ayeka-sama stepped up to the barrier still around his cell. "Milady."

      "Please tell Tenchi-sama, that I will remember him fondly, and that - " Ayeka teared up and ran from the room.

      As the last of the royal party filtered out, the older woman, Sasami's grandmother spoke, "It has been . . . interesting meeting all of you. I wish it had been under more congenial circumstances." She left, shooing the last of the group with them. Once they were gone, the remaining barriers faded. Mamoru instantly ran to Usagi's cell, trying to see any remnant the disintegrator might have missed.

      Tatewaki wished him luck, I have my answers, a new mission, and a task set for me. "You'll notice they never introduced themselves, or any of the others," Tatewaki pointed out. "Most uncultured of them," he added in his most disdainful tones. There are tricks I little understand, he thought, But I do not need to understand them, he thought.

      Asuka nodded, hiding her own thought as Tatewaki hid his, And Asuka must keep some of those truths beneath the morass of her own experiences. Perilous diving into that, it would drive a telepath into trying to dig their own brains out of their head with a spoon.

      "Maybe that's why Ayeka starts off with her name, rank and pedigree," Asuka explained as she headed for the exit.

Sailor Jupiter 17 - The Long Walk Home

      "Washu-chan?" Tenchi asked as he walked through the disarrayed lab. What happened? he wondered as he surveyed the fallen experiments and the cannibalized equipment, I recognized the door and walked through it. Now I can't find her anywhere, but she had to have `sent` the door out into the forest for me. What was she building?

      The computer was off, the experiments which normally consumed her interest laid neglected and forgotten, unless Washu-chan or someone else had scavenged them for parts. The machine in the center of the lab still operated. This doesn't look like her normal stuff, it almost looks like Mihoshi built it after drinking all of Ryoko's sake, he thought as he examined it. Something about it just bothered him, as if it was and was not wholly in this universe, both at the same time. It also seemed to move, not unusual for Washu's equipment, but it only moved when he wasn't watching it. It's like it waits for me to look away, he thought, So when I look back, it's subtly different. He left the disturbing machine and continued his search.

      He even found the small bunk room he hadn't ever seen before, which was notable for only one thing. Where are the blankets? Tenchi wondered at the bare bed and the ransacked hamper. He found a flashlight and carefully aimed both ends away from himself before turning it on. When only a beam of light sprang from one end, he began investigating in earnest.

      The scientist was in her adult form, wrapped in blankets and weeping, while cowering under a collection of tables and benches arranged like a fortress.

      Even terrified, she still designs an intricate defense, he thought as he carefully slipped through the interlocked structure, worried it might shift at any moment, and crush or impale him, I bet it's designed to do precisely that! "Washu-chan, Washu-chan?" he called softly as she approached the scientist, "Are you all right? I'm here, do you want Ryoko to come here?"

      The scientist looked at him, tears streaming down her face, and shivering as if near freezing. "No," she whispered, "Tenchi . . . I've made a terrible mistake. I can't think of any way of fixing it!"

      "You Washu-chan?! You're the Greatest Scientific Genius in the Universe," he said in disbelief, "You'll figure out something."

      "No, I won't. We slammed the lid back down and prayed that nothing would come out." She laughed nervously. "Imagine me praying, but Tenchi," Washu told him flatly, "It isn't something we can deal with." She stared at him intently. "Even you can't change that. No matter what you do, they'll have a counter . . . and they're already here!"

      "Who?" Tenchi asked in alarm, laying a hand on Washu's shoulder, "Who is already here."

      Washu had pulled the blankets over her head, and was muttering things Tenchi couldn't understand, even the unintelligible words had a troubling air to them. I wish the others hadn't left, he thought, They might be able to help. She can't mean the Jurain King.

      The procession was an odd one. Asuka led, Kiima brought up the rear, and the boys between. Outnumbered and definitely outgunned, Asuka thought as she glanced around, keeping her eyes downcast, yet seeing everything, Yet the Jurains are the ones who worry. Our conquerors are the ones who fear. Asuka had learned that virtually every Jurains' dreams had been filled with the Dragon's manipulations. The evening banquet to celebrate the defeat of the Senshi and return of the lost ones had ended abruptly, when every morsel of food on every plate, in every mouth and in every stomach, had suddenly seethed with maggots, which disappeared just as abruptly. Then ghosts and apparitions plagued enough of the Jurains that everyone personally knew someone who had been frightened by them.

      So a little magic show and a nightmare, and they can't send us on our way fast enough, she thought as she carefully scanned for any familiar faces, No luck. They've got `important` jobs. We don't matter, or they're too embarrassed to show their faces.

      The small group trudged through the darkness to the train station. Asuka had steadfastly refused Jurain help or escorts. 'Too much chance of mischief' I told them. I just left out from which side, she thought, I guess Washu is too busy, the cops as well. But I would have expected Tenchi.

      The late evening train wouldn't be very full, but she hadn't expected the car to be quite so empty. The train ride was silent. Despite the emptiness of the rest of the car, the four of them occupied one set of seats, and the aura of gloom pervading the area kept anyone from approaching. None spoke, alone in their own thoughts.

      Asuka had her doubts, but kept them well hidden, for fear of monitoring by hostile forces. The repetition and growing strength of her nonacceptance of events began to threaten her ability to put the obvious possibilities out of her mind. Instead, she filled her upper level brain with thoughts of mundane trivia, while below them flashed and spiraled a sea of her memories of all the travails, wounds and hardships, of herself, the Meliorist and her friends. Beneath that was an implacable wall of the truths that her contact with the EVA and their enemies had revealed to her. All to keep her growing suspicions deeply hidden. Any telepath who delved that deeply deserves the screaming insanity that would result, she thought, I can't believe we only got on this train two days ago to head up here. When we arrive back, it will only be the third day. Amazing how fast things change.

      She guided the others through the first hints of dawn on streets of Nerima. The demons who had plagued the region seemed to know better than to assail her, or even reveal themselves. Kiima continued to act as sheepdog, keeping the two soul-sick boys from straying too far.

      I have a theory, was all Asuka allowed herself to think as she led them forward. As they entered more familiar surroundings, she was glad none of the usual lunatics were out and about, and especially not attacking them. If Ryoga attacked, Kiima and I would be hard-pressed to put him down, Asuka thought, And neither Mamoru nor Kuno are in any condition to fight, even to defend their own life.

      The silence and the 'Closed for Private Party' sign on the Neko-Chan's front door lifted her heart. The `dancing-cat` symbol seemed to mark it as more a home than almost any place she had been. Why is it this workhouse amid all this insanity feels safe and comfortable? It makes no sense. But I don't want to get my hopes up, she thought as she walked, her senses detecting no life in the building, no trace of any of the things she knew had to be within the building. That very blindness gave her hope.

      The door opened easily, she held the door for the others, who paused uncertainly at the darkened interior.

      Their own senses must be picking something up. They don't know what, but it has penetrated their haze, she thought as she and Kiima pushed them inside. She followed Kiima through, and closed and latched the door behind her by feel. Inside, it was more than dark, it was dead. She could not see, hear, smell or sense anything within the main room. And my sense of what lies outside fades with every millimeter, she thought as she moved forward carefully, By 30 centimeters, I can feel nothing of what was just at the door step.

      A match flared, revealing Kho Lon, lighting a candle. "It is good you are well," the old Amazon said, "And you are safe."

      Other candles flared to life, revealing Usagi, Minako, Makoto, Rei, Ami and little Hotaru. Ami was standing beside Tatewaki. Usagi beside Mamoru. Makoto beside Kiima.

      "Tickets please?" came the voice in front of Asuka, now illuminated by a tiny ball of flame Asuka herself summoned.

      "The tickets are bought before you're let on the platform you double-dealing anachronism," Asuka accused fiercely as she stepped forward and wrapped Raccoon in a hug that probably made Makoto jealous, but Asuka was beyond carrying, "I knew you weren't dead! I knew you weren't, I knew you weren't!"

      "Usagi!" Mamoru cried out, and which of the pair flung themselves in the other's arms didn't seem to matter. Tate and Ami's reunion was far less demonstrative, but no less heartfelt. Tate carefully draping his arm over Ami, until she enclosed him in her arms. He hugged her tightly, crying openly and holding her off the ground. Asuka chose to ignore the ferocious whispering, while she concentrated on Kiima and Makoto greeting each other like long lost friends. Hotaru tried to wrap her arms around the pair of them. Kiima scooped the little one up with a wing to hold her at eye-level with the pair.

      For once, none of them could find words adequate for the occasion, the closeness, tears, and shy smiles seemed to hold all the meaning needed.

      Tate picked that moment to have a moment of clarity. "Trickster, can they detect us?" his alarm growing with each word.

      Mamoru caught his fear as well.

      "The restaurant is shielded, nobody else will come in, and they can't detect us," Raccoon assured them.

      Mamoru's expression turned ugly. "Why didn't you - " Kuno's blade resting on his shoulder silenced Mamoru.

      "Because we had to believe, for the lie to work. Because we are not strong enough to fight a battle directly. So subterfuge was required," Kuno told the other man, while still holding Ami tightly against him with one arm.

      When Mamoru nodded, Kuno withdrew his sword. "You are alive, and you have much to revel in. Painful as rebirth was, we all have it behind us." He gazed into Ami's eyes and smiled. "To ensure our next encounter will likewise not end in true tragedy, we have many puzzles to solve - together."

      "You say the sweetest things," Ami told him tenderly, nuzzling his neck.

      "You're safe," Usagi told Mamoru to draw his attention back to her and them, "You're safe." Mamoru gave the correct response to such an ironic statement. He hugged Usagi close and began laughing as if he couldn't stop.

      Makoto moved suddenly as Jeff cried out as Asuka collapsed, and Jeff was hardly recovered enough to hold her up. She and Kiima rushed forward to keep them from toppling to the floor. With the pair stabilized, Cologne hopped over, balanced on the end of her stick. She leaned close, pulled back Asuka's eyelid and stared into it.

      "She's just exhausted," the old gnome pronounced, "I'd assume she was maintaining some form of defense over the four of you, to prevent them from reading your thoughts."

      "She also tried to defeat the despair that had taken all of us," Tate said.

      "She need rest and reassurance," Shampoo told them, "Is like Raccoon, take things so too serious."

      "Then let's head up to my room," Ukyo said, "It'll be a little crowded, but I think we all need to unwind. And I want to hear how those two got tangled up with the Senshi."

      Makoto blushed at that, causing Kiima to start laughing quietly. She remembered the last time someone had needed 'rest and reassurance', someone who she'd been ordered to 'get tangled up with'.

      Makoto lay on the futon, desperately wishing she was either wearing her sailor fuku or nothing, rather than the too-short shirt and too-small shorts she wore. She pulled the cold figure against herself and ignored the signals her body was sending out, signals that would mark her as a 'loose woman', should the others find out.

      Concentrate on something else, you were ordered to wear this and be here, she told herself, remembering her appearance here, and the warm greeting.

      'Oh, I'm so glad you're safe here,' Hotaru had told her, while hugging the stunned and devastated girl, 'He said he'd rescue you all, like he rescued me. I just couldn't believe it.'

      Makoto's automatic question about this 'him' had been interrupted as one after another, the Senshi and mooncats appeared, each one shocked and terrified, itchy but whole.

      'What happened?' Ami had demanded, while looking around fearfully, 'Where are the others?' she'd asked.

      No one, not Hotaru, and not the other Senshi had an answer.

      'We . . . we're alive,' Rei had gasped, kneeling and offering fervent prayers for their deliverance from the Jurain executioner.

      I wonder if she would have prayed so hard if she'd realized who had saved her, and the rest of us. And who played the executioner, Makoto wondered, Then Jeff walked in, and Rei `attacked` first, demanding to know where the others were.

      'Why did you leave Tate-chan to those murderers! Makoto remembered Ami's impassioned cry, Then Jeff looked from one angry girl to another, not saying anything, until his eyes rolled up and he collapsed. Makoto held her `patient` more tightly. I can't believe I'm doing this, Makoto considered, Cologne's orders. She was right, I do know the danger of shock, and exhaustion. 'He must have used all his magic power and a good deal of his lifeforce to rescue you', Cologne told us. It's our responsibility to repay that debt.

      She felt terrible embarrassment at her feelings at the intimacy of her contact, despite the cold and nearly lifeless character of her partner. I hate trying to stay awake, but my dreams are so embarrassing, she thought of her dreams that he would awaken as the heartless monster who would leave some of his friends to the `mercy` of the Jurains, Once he'd awaken, he'd tease and tantalize me until . . . he brought me into a new life of pleasure and obedience. She felt herself blushing furiously at the thought of being used over and over, and responding so eagerly. I almost wish . . . that he really would do something like that. I know he never would, but even thinking he might would make that dream so much less perverted . . . only I'm the pervert, thinking like that, she thought, cuddling him to her, wishing he was awake, that he would know she was there to protect and comfort him. I have to wonder where his spirit is wandering. I want to hear him. Not that I really understand half of what he says, but when he's talking, somehow I know everything is all right, or he has a plan to make it right.

      When will you come back? I couldn't stand losing you, not after I was so sure I had. Are you comforting Asuka and the others? Are you slaying our enemies? Beryl or the Jurains? Or have you retreated inside yourself, certain I'll never forgive what you've done? Never forgive making me think you'd been killed? I wish you knew me as we'll as I know you. I do forgive you, you did it to save me, to save my friends. Please come back to me, please come back. She felt sleep pulling her back. She hoped her dreams would be a little more respectable.

      Hotaru sat with the other girls, as well as Mamoru-san, Tatewaki-san and Mousse-san. She couldn't keep her smile from her face as she glanced at Makoto-san, who seemed to be remembering something terribly embarrassing.

      Ukyo-san carefully poured tea for each of them. While Shampoo-san seemed lost in a pleasant fantasy of her own.

      Hotaru looked at Makoto again and considered, She isn't comfortable leaving him in the arms of another girl, Hotaru thought, But if she's half as dead as he was when with you -

      Then the remembrance of her father's death crashed down on her.

      "My daddy, they're going to kill him too! We have to save him!" she had shouted in shock. Then she had seen the hesitation on his face. "They already did! Didn't they?!"

      "Hotaru I'm -"

      "Bring him back! We can bring him back! We can work together, it's not too late!"

      "Hotaru, I can't. And neither can you," he had said, "And if you leave the building you'll die too. They'll find you again."

      "I know he's done some bad things, but he's still good!" Hotaru had told him, "If I can't go, you can save him."

      "Hotaru, NO. The Jurains didn't kill him. He attacked someone with his monsters, and they fought back. I can't bring him back. That is beyond my power, and yours."

      "I want my daddy back!" she had shouted at him, ran for the door. She had been stopped by a purple-haired woman.

      "It is your death too, to go outside." She had picked Hotaru up. "Would your daddy want that? Or be proud of Hotaru?"

      It didn't matter. "I want my daddy back!" Hotaru had struggled to get loose, but the girl had held on. "I want him back! I want him back!" She had screamed and squirmed and kicked, trying to get loose, trying to get away to see for herself.

      "He'd want you safe, child," an old woman had stood atop a stick beside her and told her.

      Hotaru had felt herself going mad, flailing and screaming as she had tried to break free and return to her father's side, but the girl who held her was too skilled and experienced to let her get away, dodging the blows and adjusting her hold as required to restrain Hotaru.

      Eventually, the rage simply hadn't been enough to sustain her. "I want to be with my daddy," she had protested weakly, "I want to die too."

      "He'd want you to live," the old woman had told her.

      "I want my daddy," Hotaru had said.

      "It hurts, but no throw your life away," the woman holding her had told her as she had shifted from a grapple to a hug. "Is you want to honor your daddy's memory, then you grow good and strong. Make him smile down on you."

      Hotaru had begun weeping inconsolably, laying in the woman's arms.

      "She needs rest," the old woman had said, "Shampoo, take her to bathe, and both of you get some sleep. I've a feeling there is much we don't know."

      "Yes, great grandmother," the woman had said dutifully.

      "You could have handled that better," Hotaru had heard the old woman telling Jeff," There had to be a better way."

      Then they were too far away to hear the soft conversation, and Hotaru faded into a fitful sleep.

      'He underestimated how quickly you'd figure it all out,' Pretty Sammi told me, Hotaru considered as she looked at the people around her in Ukyo-san's room, Each one remembering their own troubles. But Pretty Sammi had warned me 'They're used to taking refuge in logic and the mundane world, so the Senshi have to be shown something five times and their minds still rebel. Hotaru can't do that.' She snickered at that, considering what she'd seen and heard, what she knew of what actually happened, and what the other - What my fellow Senshi think happened, she corrected herself.

      "What's so funny?" Makoto asked quietly.

      "You keep blushing, but he's a gentleman," Hotaru said, "So what could you two have done that would make you blush?"

      Makoto blushed even more in response. The other Senshi stared at her with a mixture of jealousy and aggravation.

      Something else occurred to her. She faced the mooncats. "How big do you grow anyway?"

      "We're full sized now," the black cat told her, "Why do you ask?"

      "I just wondered if you could turn into tigers or lions, or something," Hotaru said smiling. If they can't . . . what was that thing? All I saw were the eyes. If it was a cat, it would have had to have been 50 meters long, maybe 75 or more, depending on the tail, she considered, The way it said 'mew' I was sure it was just a kitten.

      Makoto squirmed at the expressions of the others as they all reacted to Hotaru's seemingly innocent questions. If Cologne-san hadn't told me . . . threatened me, I never would have done it, she thought desperately, It's not like anything happened. Although I think Cologne-san wanted something to happen. That doesn't make any sense. If she wanted him for her tribe, why would she want he and - why would she want us together, especially that way?

      Makoto risked a glance up at her fellow Senshi, who all were glowering at her, except Ami, who was holding Tate's hand and simply beaming at the whole world.

      "Why don't you and Mamoru retire to separate quarters," Ukyo-san suggested with a giggle, "You sure won't wake any of us up."

      Shampoo-san shared her laughter as Usagi went from angry to embarrassed in an instant and Mamoru looked like he wanted to vanish.

      Makoto was glad of the distraction, but she had her own embarrassing memories to deal with.

      Makoto lay atop her `patient` and found that despite his recovery, her patience was wearing thin. She'd discarded the constricting shirt and was considering discarding the ill-fitting shorts as well. Does he not like me, or is he totally clueless? she wondered, painfully aware that he was not reacting as a teenaged boy should to a pretty, scantily-clad teenaged girl. I could just tell him, Makoto thought, then realized the level of subtlety she'd have to employ.

      He was awake, tickling her bare back with the tip of her own pony tail.

      But only doing that lazily, she thought, I almost would have preferred the alternatives. She shuddered for a moment as she remembered some of the dreams she'd been having. The only thing keeping me from being embarrassed, rather than terrified, she thought, Is I know none of those guys really was Jeff. It was all me, which is very disturbing.

      "Jeffrey, do you think I'm pretty?" she asked. Oh, that's great, that's hardly the right word, and does nothing to get you to the answer, she thought.

      "I'm sorry. The efforts of the last few days left me completely exhausted. Don't take it personally." The effort of just speaking seemed to drain him, the provocative movement of her hair stopped for a bit.

      Makoto remembered Cologne's comments about 'Making a man feel safe and warm.' What she'd suggested next was so embarrassing I couldn't imagine actually doing it, even with my husband . . . except that's all I've been dreaming about, she thought, One way or another.

      "Is that what you've been dreaming about?" Jeff asked quietly.

      Makoto froze, staring at him in shock and wondering just how much he knew. Instead of continuing immediately, he seemed to be marshaling his energies to speak. "Oh it was just dreams," she interjected before he could get into embarrassing details.

      "You play out what you are dreaming," he reminded her, then fell silent again.

      Makoto could easily imagine what it would seem like she was doing, Considering what I was dreaming, she thought, It wouldn't take a genius to figure it out.

      "So is it you want to have to submit?"

      The question hung like a dagger over her heart. I know I - it's that other boys - her thought shattered and couldn't reform. "No I - " she lied, the only answer she could give, "You wouldn't anyway."

      "Or you want to force the submission?"

      That comes uncomfortably close to the truth, she thought as her heart turned to ice, I want something to happen, to know . . . if he really likes me, or if . . . I just don't know what he's thinking half the time. "With your powers, you could . . . if you wanted to. Couldn't you?"

      "I could force you to stand still, while I tore your heart out of your chest," he told her, then fell silent.

      As the silence dragged on, Makoto began to wonder if it was only his tiredness that kept him from doing any more than he had. "But you could," she insisted, "You could use it for something else, something more subtle?" Something more in character? she didn't add, Something that wouldn't make it so much like . . . assault?

      "You want me to bend your mind, so you'll restrain me and ravish me," he asked incredulously, "So you'll have done the deed, yet have no blame in doing it?"

      "No!" she insisted and sat up, "Why do you have to put it that way?" She looked around, wondering who else had heard her shouting.

      "Because that's what you kept dreaming," Jeff said, "This too is a dream."

      She stared at him in horror. "You saw? You knew? Were you - ?"

      "I watched from outside," Jeff said, nearly whispering, "Over and over, different variation, but the same theme."

      Makoto hugged herself, feeling both ashamed and violated. "You didn't have to look," she whispered.

      "Look was all I could do," Jeff replied, he hadn't moved, "You were torturing yourself, and all I could do was try to understand why."

      She hung her head and wished she could just die, and also wished he'd just take her in his arms, so she could fight or give up.

      "I barely have the strength to just talk to you here," he told her.

      Is that why you won't hold me? Is that why you haven't -? she looked at him and wondered.

      "Why is the act so damned important?" he asked earnestly, "Are you ready to drop out of school, become a mother? That's a likely outcome."

      "No," she admitted. I just want to know, she said, Words - don't mean anything. What a person does - I want to know the way I understand it! she couldn't manage to say.

      "That won't prove anything except that I'm healthy," Jeff softly replied, "It's bought and sold everyday all over this city."

      She dropped suddenly at his side. "Do you love me? Am I pretty?" she blurted out, then turned away, "Would I be a good wife?"

      "Yes, yes, and only if you want to be," Jeff told her, "Now, you want me to boss you around. Lie back down, I'm cold."

      "Yes," she replied as she snuggled up against him.

      "I don't want a doormat," he told her, "But I don't want to be pushed around any more than you do."

      "Yes," she replied.

      "There'll be time, you don't have to beat your friends to the altar or to motherhood."

      She buried her face in his chest, to hide her tears.

      "Let Makoto Kino enjoy being a kid for a while."

      "So, should I start a pillow fight?" she asked.

      "It would be very one-sided," he said.

      "Can't you take - accept some of my energy? To heal faster?" she asked, remembering the manacle that had started this did exactly that.

      "No, I couldn't take just a little, and Makoto doesn't have as much as Sailor Jupiter," he said sleepily.

      "Then rest," she assured him, "I'll look after you."

      "I know," he said as he drifted off.

      Funny, going to sleep in a dream, she thought as his breathing and heartbeat slowed but didn't stop, Do you dream while dreaming? She drifted off herself and dreamt of a wedding, and a night after, and children, and growing old together.

      Hotaru glanced around the room at her friends. Yes, they are my friends, she thought, They know what I can do, and they aren't bothered by it. She considered the pairs, and felt a little guilty she had spied on `Raccoon` and Makoto, like she had. Her hand closed on the Henshin pen in her pocket as she remembered how she and Davis had returned from Oyakawa after the spaceships fired. I had to know about my father, she thought sadly, He couldn't tell me. He didn't want to blame my father, but I can feel that's what happened. That my father and his `assistants` were planning something the Senshi would have to fight. That I would have to fight. She looked at the other Senshi and realized one other thing. I'm the only one who has a Henshin! Even `Raccoon` doesn't know I have it, then she frowned as she remembered how she'd used its powers to spy on Makoto and Jeff when he finally woke up. At least I wasn't alone, she thought of the others who'd clustered outside the room, waiting for something to happen.

      "Hi," came the confused voice.

      Makoto felt her heart race, but she also remembered what Cologne had warned her of. 'Don't let him escape into gentlemanliness, he's a man and all they care about is doing their duty to those they love. Make it clear that his duty is to remain still and heal.'

      I just wish she hadn't added all those suggestions of what I could do to keep him distracted, Makoto thought, her embarrassment at those suggestions had set the old woman cackling, I am glad of the more wholesome advice. I just wish I hadn't had so many weird dreams, although the last couple weren't so bad.

      'All men are in one way little boys at heart. Make them know they are safe and accepted in your arms, and they'll never stray.'

      I'm not sure about most of the old woman's advice, but I intend to test that part of it, Makoto thought as he raised his head from where it had been resting, where she'd placed it.

      His embarrassment about that was obvious. She carefully but firmly returned it to where it had been resting, and Jeff simply wasn't strong enough to resist. restraining him there was also worryingly easy. He's weaker than I thought, she worried. "Rest. You won't help anyone by exhausting yourself."

      "But I -"

      "Rest," she repeated softly. "EEP!" she squealed, as something poked her in the leg.

      "No comment on your attractiveness or availability in that," he told her, "But I really need to go to the bathroom."

      "Oh," she said, relief and disappointment warred within her as she helped him sit up, standing remained beyond him. Am I more disappointed he didn't try to take advantage, or . . . because he probably won't and can't, even if he wanted - but then WHAT poked me?! "You poked me with your finger, didn't you? Please say you poked me with your finger?"

      "Does finger include thumb?" he asked, "I poked you with my finger."

      "Oh," she said and relaxed, "Wait, did you say you poked me with your finger because you did, or because I asked you to?"


      "Yes, you poked my with your finger, or yes because I asked?"

      "No. Remember I asked about my thumb? And you never answered."

      Makoto sighed, then growled, "You still haven't answered my question!"

      "What do you want me to have poked you with?" he asked with a smile.

      Makoto wondered how long she could pound his head on the floor before someone stopped her.

      "I've got a better question," Jeff asked quietly, "Don't you think all of them are sitting outside . . . listening? Waiting to hear what goes on in here?"

      Makoto was shocked and considered what to do. What are we going to do -? She frowned. Of course he's got a plan! she told herself, I just have to look sufficiently perplexed, then he'll reveal it to me. She looked as perplexed as she could, and waited.

      "Do you remember the argument we had about that huge couch?" he asked innocently.

      She considered, then grinned. I remember that couch - discussion - very well, she thought, smiling evilly. "It's so huge! I'll never get to fit!"

      Outside the door, there was a loud crash and the sound of someone rolling down the stairs.

      "I told you spying on them would limit them!" Cologne shouted.

      Makoto stifled her giggles while Jeff delivered the next line, when he'd refused to help her carry the couch to her apartment. "I don't care how much you twist and wriggle it," he announced, "You aren't going to make it fit. You'll just hurt yourself."

      The crash was loud enough to hide Makoto's guffaw as she imagined the expressions on her fellow Senshis' faces.

      "If it's so hard, you'll just have to help me," she repeated her plea, "I don't care if it hurts a little. I want it inside where I can enjoy it!"

      The crash was louder and Makoto thought she heard at least three people falling down the stairs. This time she burst out laughing at her friends and what they had to be thinking.

      When Makoto could quit laughing, she raised her head.

      "Can I ask you a favor?" he asked quietly, she nodded, "I have trouble sleeping on my back, as much as I enjoy the company, I need the rest."

      "Oh gods yes!" Makoto shouted, "You get on top this time!"

      The crash outside was quieter this time, but no less satisfying.

      "Evil," her companion told her.

      "Learned from the best," she told his as she leaned over and kissed him. She was overjoyed when he wrapped his arms around her to hold her there against him.

      "If you two are well enough to torture your friends," Cologne called through the door, "You're well enough to use the bath. A hot soak will do you both some good."

      "You wanted to go to the bathroom," Makoto teased.

      "Knowing her, she put those ideas in your head," Jeff complained, "Then she interrupts when she might accomplish her goal. Is it any wonder nothing gets done around here?"

      Makoto decided to kiss him again to shut him up. Then she remembered why he'd wanted to leave. "So did you poke me with your thumb? Or something else?"

      "I think I'll go without the shirt, give them something to look at," Jeff said as she helped him to his feet. She shook her head and simply picked him up to carry him.

      "What were they talking about?" Hotaru asked as she remembered her and the others scrambling away as Makoto and Jeff left their sleeping room.

      I wish I could tell them they were trying to embarrass all of us, she thought, For spying on them.

      She remembered how she'd hissed as she'd caught sight of the scars on his back, Which had causing the others to turn and look, she thought and yawned, All the girls reacted as I did, with horror, and fascinations. He must have fought a lot to get those scars.

      She saw yawns mirroring her own, and she yawned again.

      "I think the party's over," Rei said, barely stifling her own yawn, "We'd all better get some sleep."

      "Senshi and boyfriends get one room, us get other?" Shampoo asked innocently.

      "No," Tatewaki said firmly, "The boys can sleep in the corridor, you girls can split the sleeping rooms among yourselves." Tate looked at Ami who was pouting at him. "While I dearly missed you," he said gallantly, "I am unwilling to sully your honor."

      Ami mimed throwing a punch at Tate, but collected Makoto and Hotaru to follow. "Let's at least get them some decent bedding."

      Asuka knew she was doomed. The click and 'Ay Ya! Is so cute Xian Pu can no stand!' whispered to someone told Asuka that returning to consciousness might be highly overrated. She opened one eye and looked into Raccoon's face. He too was just waking up. Asuka determined that they were in adjoining futons on the floor of the Neko-chan's main room, almost an arm's-length separating them, so determined because they were holding hands outside their futons.

      She was wearing some pajamas she didn't recognize and her weariness from the constant mental battle had disappeared.

      "Oh no, wait for him to kiss you before you wake up, sugar."

      Asuka glanced at Ukyo. "Don't be so smug. He was working on - "

      " 'Working on'," Raccoon interrupted in a sleepy high dudgeon, "Perfected."

      "- some new okonimiyaki recipes. And you, oh Honorable Shutterbug, two words: Ramen recipes."

      "That's Langley," Raccoon said as he sat up, "I always wanted to die in bed, I always thought I meant old age."

      Kho Lon laughed like a happy bullfrog, then hopped on her wacking stick out of the room.

      Mu Tsu chuckled once, before taking Ukyo's hand and leading her away. "Oh Xian Pu, your hands are almost as soft as Ukyo-chan's."

      Xian Pu's brows knitted and she marched off to correct Mu Tsu on a few things.

      "You can let go of my hand now," they told each other, neither seemed willing to follow the other's `order`.

      "I still think your hands are the best," Raccoon commented, "A few callous and rough places. Some from holding a pen, some from holding a sword." He brushed his finger over those, before he let go, or Asuka could crush his hand.

      "What happened? What day is it?" she asked.

      "In Nerima, I don't think one day necessarily follows another, so who knows?"

      Asuka nodded her agreement.

      Shampoo ladled out the ramen while Asuka caught the okonimiyaki Ukyo threw from the grill. Jeff sent another bowl flying, which Shampoo caught with a dance-like whirl and a heart-breaking smile. The Senshi and their partners and allies sat in the Neko-chan and enjoyed the feeling of safety and celebration.

      "What did the Dragon do?" Makoto asked, clearly longing to be cuddling with Jeff, but Cologne had chased her out of the kitchen proper.

      "He sent nightmares to each and every one of them, very detailed and based on their own problems and fears. Also a whole pack of illusions. Snakes in their sock drawers, your ghosts coming through the walls, walls vanishing and reappearing, that kind of thing. The kicker was the `welcoming banquet` for Sasami, Ayeka and Yosho's return to Jurai, as everyone was eating the food . . . I won't discuss what they all experienced, before we start eating."

      "No spell like that around here!" Cologne said as she waved her stick in the air.

      "I think it would be appropriate, if you could get those kind of free ingredients in the kitchen," Kiima said, "Properly cooked, it would be delicious."

      "These were raw," Jeff pointed out.

      "So we'd eat them for lunch and not breakfast," Usagi suggested, and everyone else cringed.

      "You Japanese and your slavery to weird food," Kiima added with a frown.

      "No comment!" Shampoo replied.

      "The customer is always right, even when we fling them out into the street. And Ami, if you pinch my butt one more time," Asuka said and glowered at the girl, "I'm going to break your fingers."

      Ami giggled at the shocked looks from the others. "Don't tell me you haven't thought about it," she accused her fellow Senshi, who all looked embarrassed.

      "I considered it, only to remember 'Life Is Sweet, with All You Parts in, Their Original Positions,'" Kuno spake.

      "A haiku?" Mamoru asked, "We'll have to get you a top hat and mask."

      "I prefer John Steed's bowler," Kuno replied haughtily.


      Jeff landed the hat in front of Tatewaki.

      "I do not believe it was solid steel," he said as he moved it away from his breakfast.

      "I needed space for the equipment."

      "I had not realized the Death Star could be so miniaturized," Kuno replied.

      "That's fine for you," Rei said, "But without any Henshin rods, we're out of business." She looked expectantly at Jeff as he came out of the kitchen to join them for breakfast.

      "I was going to retrieve them, unfortunately, I found the disintegrator and its method of operation instead. In a few days, I might be able to cobble something together from some parts I picked up . But they'd be low-power at best. I'd suggest you start thinking about martial arts and team work. What I'll put together won't boost you to the invincible firepower class. Unless you want to wait months, and know where the Moon Kingdom kept an armory?"

      The cats squirmed under the sudden scrutiny, and were stunned when Asuka saved them, "They were manufactured on Jupiter from Soul Crystals rescued from the Galactic Cauldron." She looked around. "I think a trip to Jupiter's forges on the satellite Ganymede is in order, if Beryl left any scraps behind. I doubt it, but that will be a good place to start."

      "There are terrestrial sources to get the makeshifts up and running. I just don't like depending on jury-rigging slipshod work for anything you're going to have to rely on," Jeff replied.

      "If that's all we have, then that's what we rely on," Makoto told him firmly, then looked at Cologne who'd drifted over to the table.

      The matriarch seemed a bit out of sorts at the attention. "Amazon treasures are not for the likes of you," she said firmly, and pogoed away.

      Jeff smiled, an expression of true malevolence, "True, because they're too weak, and there are other sources. More powerful sources."

      "I draw the line at the theft of Grasscutter and the other treasures," Kuno said firmly.

      "How many cases of boxers are you going to leave behind?" Asuka asked.

      "None, I don't want the old fool to know it was me," Jeff replied.

      Makoto sat, carefully washing Jeff's back, glad they could do something together, something that didn't exacerbate his weakness. But there remained something bothering her that she couldn't get out of her mind. "If you have those powers, and you know how to use them so well . . . couldn't you - I mean if you really wanted, and could anyone stop you? Just for pretend, I mean, not that you'd actually do something like that, I wasn't saying that - you understand?"

      "I understand you tried to ask a question about my powers, and then jumped away from it like it was a live rattlesnake," Jeff replied, "We talked about this before. Don't you remember that dream?"

      "Oh. I had so many dreams, they all sort of ran together." Do you really want me to say it outloud? Again? she wondered, To really ask you whether you'd - "And them you'd - I mean with other girls too. That would - " Oh good grief! I actually said that outloud, she thought in horror.

      "I'm going to assume you're talking about the powers I used on the guard to trick them into seeing the correct forms and approvals for your execution. Correct?"

      "Yes," she said in a small voice.

      " 'The Stare' was originally used by Chaugnar Faugh to mesmerize his prey into accepting him approaching, and forcing the prey to stand still while he tore their heart out of their chests, and they would still remain conscious and unmoving while they watched him eat their still-beating heart. With that level of power, I could make you do or think anything I wanted to, like hypnosis as it appears in the movies, anything I could put into words. I could make you stop smoking, or completely lose your fear of heights, or make math and physics trivially easy. Does that answer your unasked questions?" he asked.

      "Yeah," Makoto admitted, "Why don't you?"

      "Because it is too easy. Also, I don't assume I can `fix` people with my power. As for taking what I want - I don't know. I guess it was always more satisfying to earn it, and there are other rewards when you earn it."

      "So the only things you really want," she said quietly, "You want people to give you."

      "Yes, after I've done for them, or beaten them and earned the prize, yes."

      "Okay, I think I understand. You do realize that you have a power most school boys would dream of. You could do anything and never really get in trouble for what you did."

      "Until they realized how hollow and empty such pranks are. Or until some sniper blew their brains out. Half the fun of doing those stupid things is getting away with it, or watching the adults go crazy when they catch you. If you can automatically get away with anything, why bother?"

      "Ah," she said.

      "you do realize in my current state, you've got a better chance of holding me down, and while I'm squealing for mercy, ravishing me against my will?"

      "What?" Makoto squeaked.

      "Rescuing you and the others didn't just weaken me, it damaged my lifeforce and strength, weakening my ability to use my powers. Like straining a muscle or dislocating a joint. Even untransformed you could probably put me on the ground and have your way with me despite my pleas or protests."

      "I didn't - I want - I - I didn't mean THAT!"

      "No, you asked if I could, wondering if I would, and why I haven't. The answer is I am not taking advantage of you, because that's not my nature. And if you're so ambivalent about taking those steps yourself, of your own free will, I am not going to make the decision for you by force."

      "Oh, okay," Makoto said.

      "Why so disappointed?" he asked, "Do you want to be taken so roughly? It is illegal, even in Japan."

      "I know, it's just . . . it would make things easier."

      "No, it wouldn't," he said tiredly, "If I was interested in a piece of - " he suddenly paled and slipped sideways, Makoto gasped and caught him before he hit the tile floor.

      "See? That's what I can't hypnotize someone into," he told her as he snuggled in her arms, "Much better."

      She snickered. Okay, now I understand, she thought, All the words just get in the way.

      "Now if you want to be mercilessly victimized and dominated," he said with a smirk.

      I've got the answer for you, she thought with a smirk of her own. "You're too weak to do anything, even Kino Makoto is a match for you right now!"

      His smirk never faltered. "Tickle," he breathed, letting it caress her skin, making her squirm. "Tickle," he breathed, his breath stroking her again.

      She giggled despite herself. "I'll drop you," she threatened.

      "Tickle," he said to her shoulder, making her squirm worse.

      She covered his mouth with both hands, but the damage was done. The feather-soft touch on her side set her squealing.

      "NO! Not there! Mercy! Please! Stop!" they all heard Makoto shrieking from the bathroom.

      "We have to go help her!" Usagi told Cologne, who blocked the way to the bathroom.

      "You are," the old woman balanced on her stick and calmly smoked her pipe. Another round of unintelligible shrieks came from Makoto. "Do you really believe a normal person could survive making those noises if they weren't enjoying themselves?"

      "PLEASE! NO MORE!" Makoto screamed, "I give up!"

      "Ah," Cologne said as she exhaled a cloud of smoke, "Young love." She turned to Asuka. "When do we get so old we can't play like that any more?"

      "That sound more like torture to me!" Usagi said firmly, looking to the other Senshi for support.

      "Then you haven't heard anyone really being tortured," Asuka told them as she watched Ukyo and Shampoo getting ready for lunch, and cringe with every noise. "I think when our dignity gets more important than the person we're with, or the feelings we have for each other."

      "OH!" Ami exclaimed as she smiled at Asuka, "I know what they're doing! You taught me!"

      Usagi paled as she stared at Asuka, then looked at Minako and Rei. "They couldn't really be doing that . . . could they?"

      "Teaching isn't the same as doing," Asuka said blandly, "But she is a good student. And so . . . enthusiastic."

      Rei looked ill, and Minako looked vaguely jealous. Then Makoto let out another screech. Minako and Rei both looked ill.

      "Is supposed to hurt first time," Shampoo offered, then turned around so they couldn't catch her expression.

      Ami turned and smiled at Tate, who suddenly looked ready to bolt. "We could show them what they are doing."

      "NO!" Usagi's shriek drown out Makoto's. Tate stood up and walked away from Ami, who kept grinning and following him, her fingers twitching like a pair of epileptic spiders. Even his drawn bokken didn't deter her pursuit.

      "Oh God!' Asuka warned, "A Lecture!" She suddenly realized that Raccoon had everyone clustered around the table and his charts, she ran to the kitchen with a whoop of triumph. And seemed to be prepared to hold it against any challenger.

      "You're in there, you fix lunch!" Raccoon challenged, although noone seemed willing to forego the lecture for kitchen work.

      Asuka stuck her tongue out at him and proceeded with her own plan. Seems whatever Raccoon and Lightning Lass were doing, she enjoyed it. The way she came waltzing down, welded at the hip and practically glowing with pleasure, Asuka thought, I would have expected the others to commit murder to get the secret. Ami standing there smirking knowingly at Tate didn't help. I think even Ukyo and Mu Tsu were a bit jealous.

      "The Jurai source of power is their link with the Great Trees. Since the strength of the link determines the strength of the nation, people with a hereditary advantage in making the link have the advantage."

      "So the nobility and monarchy are the people with the highest skills in such endeavors," Tatewaki completed Raccoon's thought.

      "Initially, yes. Then they began breeding specifically for the strongest possible links. This explains the rather warped individuals of the Royal family. Where one characteristic dominates, and half-brother/half-sister marriages and breeding are encouraged -"

      "Madness follows," Mamoru said, nodding as he, Kho Lon, Kuno and Ami seemed to be the only ones truly following, "What does that have to do with their war with the Senshi."

      "War with Serenity," Raccoon corrected, "One step at a time. Since this blood-borne ability was so critical, the Royals and Nobles were loathe to exterminate even a rebel Noble house. They needed a prison, one that lacked critical minerals and elements to support their technology, yet able to support the people and the trees."

      "Earth!" Makoto shouted, "They stuck all their exiles on Earth!"

      "Very good, the other important aspect was that the populace of Earth could interbreed with the Jurain nobles and produce viable offspring, that is, children able to have children themselves."

      "So the Jurain were human?" Ami asked in confusion, "That's impossible."

      "Not when you consider that humans are the dominant lifeform in this galaxy," Raccoon explained, "I don't know whether a Terran civilization rose, spread throughout the stars and collapsed, or whether some other civilization seeded humans all over. All I do know is, but it must have happened in the last 50,000 years, because a human from 100 million light-years from here could land, and breed successfully with a Terran, and their children would be little different from either parent. Genetic drift hasn't occurred to any great extent."

      "So they dumped their rebels here," Rei said, "Where they could never compete with the Royal family again. Wouldn't that mean we have a lot of noble blood in us?"

      Raccoon nodded. "The average Terran, has more noble blood than the average Jurain, because we don't have the stratification of society. That's also why Tenchi Masaki is many times more powerful than the average Jurain noble, from his father's side, he has the Royal blood, and from both sides, he's got the blood of dozens of noble families flowing through his veins. His mother, Achika, didn't know about her blood ties with the Jurains, when she drew on as much Royal power as the King could wield, more perhaps. The effort eventually killed her, but she did it without training. Imagine an untrained schoolgirl with the power to wipe out an entire planet and dying in the process, pretty inconceivable, isn't it."

      Asuka saw all the sweat drops, on all the Senshi. And on Hotaru, interesting.

      "How did Serenity get them mad at her?" Usagi asked.

      Eager to get on with the `important` part? Asuka wondered, About why they're trying to kill you?

      "When Serenity and her court arrived, initially there was no friction. The Jurains monitored their brethren on the planet below. Lady Seto was evidently an occasional guest at Serenity's court. Then 2000 years ago, Serenity decided that the entire star-system was hers exclusively, and she told the Jurains to butt out. It seems Serenity was as diplomatic as Rei here."

      "You take that back!" Rei countered.

      "Okay, Serenity was less diplomatic than Rei here," Raccoon said with a smirk.

      "Didn't she have the right?" Makoto asked, "She was from Earth, right?"

      "The Moon Kingdom records don't talk about an origin point, they all report that the Moon Kingdom evolved on the Moon, but without massive magical reinforcement, there's no way life can survive there. The Jurains know that Serenity and company arrived from outside this star system, evidently from outside the Jurain sphere of influence. They could have been extra-galactic and merely took the form of the dominant species for all the Jurains know. The records I could find in the Moon Kingdom and the colony archives all act as though the Moon could always support life, and that the Moon Kingdom simply evolved there. If it is true, it's a metaphor for something else, or they evolved into being humans after they changed the Moon. If the Moonies were always human, then it isn't possible."

      While Kho Lon chuckled at the epithet, most of the Senshi frowned.

      "So they were cut off from their exiled brethren, and Serenity was willing to up hold that ban with a Senshi who looks like Hotaru," Mamoru concluded, "The war must not have gone the Jurains' way."

      "Serenity threatened to 'wipe the Jurain people from the Universe', which reads blow up Jurai and the Jurai sun, which is the only star that allows the trees to achieve their full power. Something well within the abilities of Serenity and her Senshi, and problematic for the Jurains to stop," Raccoon explained, "That and every superpowered nutjob in this section of the Universe sailed in to blast Serenity, and wound up in a can somewhere."

      "Furious, insane and in search of a can opener," Kuno concluded, "Once free they would vent on the nearest victims, no matter their guilt or innocence. Not the best good-neighbor policy."

      "The Jurains and the Galaxy Police quarantined the entire system, nobody in or out," Raccoon continued, "Which, while it was fine with Serenity and company, it had the Jurains doing a slow burn."

      "All that tech and magic, and the Earth below with all their relatives on it eating mud and living in squalor," Makoto said, "No wonder they hated her."

      "And nothing they dared do about it," Minako added, "Unless Beryl was one of theirs, a Jurain noble?"

      "Nope, Beryl was home-grown, promises of rulership, immortality, power and respect. If she got the silver crystal. Ironic that she didn't enlist the exiled Jurains, she might have raised a fleet to match the Royal Navy," Raccoon answered, "But the Jurains knew about Beryl long before Serenity did. If offering prayers for Beryl's success is intervention, they intervened on Beryl's side."

      "I'd say it worked," Rei said crossly, "What did it gain them? They didn't exactly rush in and recover their exiles."

      "It had also become someone else's problem. They had Kagato, his servants, and others to deal with. The quarantine remained and they figured with both Serenity and Beryl gone, they had time. It also enhanced the disguise that this was an ordinary planet, under Jurain protection because it was primitive. They'd also lost enough population in the upper ranks that outright rebellions were no longer likely. So the change in status was not widely disseminated. Even the Crown Prince wasn't informed of the fall of the Moon Kingdom. When he came sailing in, pursuing a pirate, he expected to get blasted."

      "I bet he surprised," Xian Pu added, "No magic girls at all."

      "He was, and he also hadn't been briefed that this was practically a lost colony. Lost because it was impossible to make spare or repair parts."

      "Xian Pu confused. Why not tell Serenity, 'All our relatives are here, you must let us visit'?" Xian Pu asked.

      "Would you tell the Musk or Phoenixi, or the Puppet Masters that?" Raccoon asked.

      Xian Pu frowned and shook her head, then smirked evilly, "I guess `advanced` peoples, not so advanced after all."

      "That's why the Jurains cleared out days ago. They weren't going to leave members of the Royal family to be Serenity-reborn's hostages."

      "I wouldn't hurt them!" Usagi protested.

      "You claim to be the reincarnation of Serenity," Raccoon replied, "Who was so erratic, she was either subtle and treacherous beyond the best Jurai could offer against her, or she was a complete ditz and moron who would - oh SHINY!"

      "Why is everyone looking at me that way?" Usagi asked of her friends.

      "I knew she couldn't be that way on purpose," Makoto said as she stared angrily at Usagi.

      "She had us fooled all this time," Ami covered her face and wailed.

      "To think, right in front of us and I never saw it," Rei added, crossing her arms and glaring, "It explains everything."

      "Minako!" Usagi looked desperately from Senshi to Senshi, "You don't believe I'm an evil mastermind!"

      "No, it doesn't work." Minako shook her head. "The subtle villain has a white cat," Minako said, then realized everyone was now staring at her, "Wahh! I'm not a villain! I don't have a Monaco, I've never even been there! Why couldn't you have been another color!?"

      Artemis stared at the Senshi in complete confusion. Raccoon cleared the table of his notes and papers.

      "There's one further twist," Asuka said as she carried the lunch to the table, "You guys just beat the tar out of enemies that destroyed the Moon Kingdom at it's height. You did it without really understanding all the powers you had, and without using the heaviest attacks your Henshin are capable of. Am I right?"

      The girls looked at each other and nodded nervously.

      "We have Jurain Royal blood?" Usagi asked nervously, "Or at least Noble blood?"

      "Some of both," Raccoon replied, "Not as much as Tenchi, but you are all legitimate heirs to the throne. That was one reason I got you out of there before you could be tested. If they'd done a proper scan on you, they would have found out. Then all of you, even Hotaru, would have been married off to some noble or princling before you could say 'what's going on?'"

      "Just to erase those sparkles in your eyes," Asuka reminded them as she set the soup down, "First, you would have been baby factories." Lost the sparkle, Asuka thought. "Second, Ayeka is considered one of the stronger, open-minded and more stable nobles of Jurai, of her generation 800 years ago. They've declined since then."

      All the Senshi looked like they'd been hit repeatedly with a board.

      "Last, you would never have seen the outside of your palace/prisons, let alone Earth again, in your families' lifetimes," Raccoon added, "And Asuka's not exaggerating, why do you think two of the best-claimants to the throne are hanging around Earth with a high-school student. Because he's a far better catch than most of the guys they usually meet. Most nobles are inbred, mental-defectives, with narcissist personalities. And the idea of marrying a commoner ranks right up there with necrophilia."

      "What's necrophilia?" Ami asked. She smiled at her friends' stunned expressions.

      "Is this the end of the story?" Luna asked in desperation, "Or can we get back to the part that there aren't any Sailor Senshi any more? Without the Henshin pens and our other equipment, they can't transform and we can't get replacement gear."

      "Unfortunately, the place they put the Henshin and all your gear, is the same place I got the disintegrator."

      Asuka noted that little admission stopped everything as the girls stared at him with lost expressions.

      "You mean we're just normal school girls again?" Usagi said, on the verge of tears.

      "I thought you wanted a normal life?" Luna replied crossly, "You never stop whining about it."

      "Now you'll have a choice," Raccoon replied, "Like I told you. I should be able to cobble something together in a week or two. In the meantime, I think we have spare forces well able to deal with Beryl and her minions."

      "Her Generals are all dead, her forces in a shambles," Tate said, "How long will it take to rebuild." He leaned down and turned his full charm on Luna. "Surely a clever girl like you can figure that out."

      While little pink hearts danced in the mooncat's eyes, and a thundercloud formed over Artemis, Ami looked around for a table to hit Tatewaki over the head with. Then she caught Asuka's head shake. She looked and saw the pink and purple cat teasing Artemis with her gaze and tail, rubbing against him and purring up a storm. Ami had to cover her mouth to avoid the giggles at the mooncat's nosebleed, because it would have given the entire game away.

      "Oh," Luna breathed, "I'm sure we have a few weeks before she's fully ready."

      "But she could send one out at any time," Artemis stammered in enraptured counterpoint.

      "So we need an intelligence web, and a strike team," Raccoon said.

      Before he could continue, Asuka jumped in, "You take care of the first, I'll take care of the second. You also need to tell them about those government men."

      "Yes," Raccoon continued in haste, "A `vacation` for the Senshi might not be a bad idea. The Japanese government formed a special task force to determine how big a threat the Senshi represent."

      "What about all the Youma we defeat?" Usagi protested.

      "You defeat them," Kho Lon counseled, "That means you are the stronger, than means you are what they have to worry about."

      "Do not discount the infiltration of the Dark Kingdom into the hallowed halls of our beloved government," Mamoru said.

      "You did that without moving your lips," Ukyo told Tatewaki. The reply was a sword parried by a baker's peel.

      "I'm afraid there's a limit. I need to take these youngsters to testify to the Amazon council," Kho Lon said, ignoring even the possibility of protest.

      "So we need to derail the task force for a while, and in a hurry," Raccoon said, then smiled evilly, "I can do that."

      "Why do I feel the need to say prayers for your victims every time you smile?" Rei complained.

      "Because you're clever and observant," Raccoon countered, "I won't kill them. But you'd be amazed what you can live through."