Sailor Moon Fan Fiction / Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction ❯ Sailor Jupiter - Pilots in Nerima ❯ Sailor Jupiter - Pilots Insane ( Chapter 3 )

[ 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 18 - The Aegis of Stupidity, Fits One and All

      The Commodore had watched through the security monitors as the two men brought the boy in. The gaijin had his head bowed and his hands behind his back, although he'd retained his hat, as if afraid to remove it without permission. The Commodore thought, They must have given him a severe talking to, then he considered, No, this boy is an American. I rather doubt a talking too would change his attitude very much. Now all I have to do is convince the General. I doubt I'll be able to convince him of this wild story. But I have to try, It's the first big lead we've gotten. "Yes, sir," Commodore Takarada faced General Horai, the new chief of the JSDF's Unusual Happenings Division, "We picked up someone who fits the description, and was searching for magical items. I do wish you would speak with him, sir."

      The junior general officer let his senior consider the implications. The General sighed, put some of his paperwork aside. "I could use a break, and a chance to find out why you're so agitated about this." His faint smile told the Commodore this was the break he'd been waiting for.

      "Thank you, sir." He straightened up to open the door for the man. At least now he won't see that we're facing a real threat, the Commodore thought, And that this isn't the career-ending time-waster everyone seems to think it is. Including our Diet sponsors.

      "And there was no fight that devastated the entire block? Amazing. I have to admit, I am getting a little tired of chasing phantoms who can leave such swathes of destruction and no trace of themselves," the General said as they approached the room. The guards saluted and opened the door for them.

      "The artifacts?" the General asked.

      "Trinkets and junk, no rhyme or reason, some new, some old," the Commodore explained.

      They entered the interrogation room and stared across at their captive, their chairs facing the table opposite from where the boy was seated, his head on the table, hat still on his head. They sat down at the table. The Commodore wished the boy was a bit more respectful.

      "You are the expert on this. This man is General Horai, he's the one you'll have to convince." The Commodore paused, then added to remind the boy, "You will answer our questions and show proper respect," the Commodore warned politely, "Or things will go badly for you."

      "I'm afraid he won't believe me either." The boy raised his head, his hat falling to the table.

      The Commodore recoiled in his chair, the General hissed. I've seen corpses at auto accidents who weren't beaten up as thoroughly as he has, the Commodore thought as he stood and headed for the wall-mounted phone, I watched them bring him in here, there was no evidence of this. What happened?

      "I got that," the young gaijin told them, "It was made very clear, uh, sirs." The split lip made it harder to understand him. Both eyes blackened and one swollen shut, the other was close behind. He was bleeding from his ears, nose and mouth, with blood matting his brown hair in places. "I was told I shouldn't waste the Generals' valuable time," he told them.

      "Who did this to you?" the General demanded.

      The Commodore looked from the General to their captive while calling the infirmary.

      "It just happened," the boy replied dully, "I believe the Senshi are out of business, in well-deserved retirement," the boy told them, trying to keep swallowing blood to keep it off the table. While he spoke, it was plain to see some of his teeth were loose.

      "Get a medic in here. Who brought this man in?" the General demanded of the stunned Commodore.

      Lieutenants Tachi and Wakari," the Commodore told him, "I've called for security to bring the men in. The surgeon is on his way."

      "We have a doctor on the way," the General said.

      The Commodore knew the General had already been stung by jokes about 'the Gojira squad'. He has no desire that such brutality should be considered part of our SOP, he thought, Especially if we expect others to inform on the Senshi.

      Both men were torn between continuing their planned interrogation, and shipping this boy off to the base hospital, quietly of course.

      The doctor's arrival broke the deadlock, the interrogation could wait.

      "The Senshi are reincarnations of a Queen and her bodyguard from a Lunar-centered kingdom that collapsed approximately 1000 years ago," the boy said.

      "Rubbish," the General replied automatically.

      "They said you'd think that," the boy replied, "I know it sounds preposterous. Your two men suggested I not lie to you that way, but it is the truth."

      "Don't try to talk," the doctor urged, then looked at the two general officers, "Sir, I can't treat this patient if he's handcuffed to the chair."

      The General marched over and pulled the boy's suit coat up, and hissed again. He walked around the table and towards the Commodore. "What happened?" he quietly demanded.

      "We'll find out," the Commodore assured him. He called his aide to arrange for the armorer with the handcuff keys to get here at once. Then the Commodore walked around and saw the boy's mangled hands, every finger joint was broken and the fingers pointed off in crazy directions. Someone took time and considerable trouble to do this, the Commodore thought. He glanced at the General. The implication of this don't sit well with either of us, he thought, There'll be an investigation, delaying or even eliminating our real work. Of all the foolish mistakes that could have been made . . . !

      "Lieutenants Tachi and Wakari, reporting as -" The two young officers saluted, then froze as they spotted the boy they'd brought in, and the two furious General officers, "As ordered, sir."

      "Who did this?" the General demanded.

      "I'm fine, I don't need a medic," the boy insisted, as he tried to twist out of the reach of the doctor, "My cousin got treatment by the Japanese Army at Harbin, I'd don't intend to go through that."

      The General blanched at that. "You will not be treated like that."

      "Too bad, he died instantly," their captive replied as he tried to keep away from the doctor.

      "Keys, to the handcuffs!" the General demanded.

      Both lieutenants reached for their belts. Lt. Tachi's face fell as he realized his handcuffs were gone. He fearfully handed the keys to the Commodore, who took them and unlocked the captive from the chair. The boy immediately got up and moved away from the doctor.

      "I'm trying to treat you," the doctor protested.

      "Good, you tried. I refused treatment. I'll sign something to that effect and you can go with a clear conscience."

      He sat near the wall, away from any of the military officers, laid his hand on the wall and smashed his elbow down on it, popping the finger joints back into place. Twenty-eight joints, twenty-eight times, each time the men winced. "The Senshi's enemy is a sorceress called Beryl and her daemonic minions called Youma, who come in all sizes and shapes. They are stealing life-energy for a dark Kami called Metallia. Who plans to escape her prison and rule the world. Standard Ancient Evil in a Corroding Can." At the end, the boy laid his head back against the wall. "I was told to tell you about the Senshi," he said, "I've given you an overview. Are you going to ask questions?"

      "Which one of these men beat you?"

      The bloodied face turned towards the General. "I have no idea what you're talking about, sir," he replied without emotion.

      The General opened his mouth, then closed it. "Whoever beat you will be punished," he promised.

      "If you aren't going to interrogate me about the Senshi, can I leave, sir?"

      "No," the Commodore interjected, "We have other questions." He glanced at the General, who nodded. The doctor took the boy by the arm and led him away. The Commodore looked from the General to the two lieutenants and sighed. I am not looking forward to this interrogation.

      "Well, the prodigals return," Sakurada-sensei told the girls as they took their seats, "Off conquering China?"

      "Actually we're the Sailor Scouts, and we were off battling an ancient enemy named Beryl for the lives, loves and happiness of every human being on Earth," Makoto stood and announced, ignoring the stunned stare of Minako and Usagi.

      "I apologize, Sakurada-sensei," Ami said, stood and bowed, "We participated in a rescue operation on that destroyed building in Nerima, then traveled to Okayama where we escaped execution at the hands of an alien race who have been exiling their noble families to Earth for millennia."

      The silence dragged on and on as their classmates and teacher stared at Makoto and Ami, who had taken poses similar to the ones the Sailor Senshi were reputed to take before entering battle.

      Gurio's laughter broke the spell, "It's soldiers! Not scouts!" Then the others added their laughter. Even Ami and Makoto broke into laughter along with the others.

      "All right, all right, if you don't want to tell us the truth . . . " the teacher told them, "You'll still have to catch up on your homework.

      "Yes ma'am!" the pair chorused as they smiled. Minako and Usagi simply stared open-mouthed at Makoto and Ami, who sheepishly took their seats.

      "How -?" Minako quietly demanded before Usagi could.

      "You hate cheaters," Usagi quietly hissed.

      "I didn't lie. I just told the truth unconvincingly," Makoto replied quietly. The way she smiled, it was clear to her fellow Senshi from whom she'd learned the tactic.

      The Commodore watched the security footage of the two men bringing the boy in. The boy had his head bowed and covered by his hat, and his hands behind his back. It doesn't give any clue. It was as if he was attacked after we left him in the interrogation room, the Commodore thought, We interviewed everyone who saw the prisoner from when he was brought into the complex, to when his condition was discovered. None of them had even the slightest inkling of anything untoward happening. As badly torn up as he was, there should have been at least blood in the hall, or in their vehicle. The only rational explanation was that the attack took place in the interrogation room, and the tapes have been doctored. In the eight minutes no one was physically present with him.

      The base's chief surgeon walked into the room the investigation team was using, his usual stoicism gave the Commodore some hope. "Oh, doctor, good, when can we interview the patient?" Maybe them we can get some answers.

      "As soon as you get a priest to call up his spirit. I just completed the autopsy." The doctor's stoicism took on a very different meaning.

      The Commodore blanched at that, dreading what he would be told.

      "Yes, autopsy, the General ordered it," the doctor said with a sigh as he opened the folder he'd been carrying, "Do you want it plain, or technical, sir?"

      The Commodore sat back, bracing himself for the onslaught. "Give it to me plain. I'll want a full technical report for the investigation."

      The doctor nodded. "Simply put, he bled to death. As bad as the external damage looked, the internal was far worse. He had extensive stellate fractures of the spleen and liver, one kidney had burst, several broken ribs had nicked his lungs. What finally rendered him unconscious was the three subdural hematomas. It wasn't until he passed out that we could even start treating him. What is odd is there were no defensive wounds, although if he'd been handcuffed at the start, there wouldn't be, but there would be extensive bruising and tearing of the wrists. There wasn't any sign of that."

      "Are you saying he stoically sat there, and let himself be beaten half to death?"

      "That's what the evidence suggests Commodore," the doctor replied, "We checked for skin or other traceable residue on his skin and clothes."


      "Nothing conclusive yet, sir, but then they could have been wearing gloves."

      "There's no proof that either man did it?" And no proof to exonerate either man either? the Commodore wanted to ask.

      "But there is proof of two separate attackers, all the injuries are consistent with a beating, probably with a baton, tonfa or a length of pipe. The methodical savagery of it worries me."

      So it could have been both men, or one man using different styles and hands, the Commodore thought, Thank you doctor, thank you very much. "What worries me, Doctor, is the first lead we have on our elusive Senshi, was murdered while in our custody, evidently while under guard and active surveillance, in this compound."

      "Commodore?" the man's yeoman asked, "If this Beryl really is a magician, is it possible she attacked him to prevent us from learning what he knew? Murdered him here in our base to send us a message?" When no one took her suggestion seriously, she returned to her duties.

      "Even if the media doesn't have a field day with this one, our opponents in the Diet will. There's no chance of putting this away quietly," the doctor commented, "Especially considering the attitudes towards the excesses of the American troops."

      "The murder of a foreign national by our military, after the stink we raised about the actions of the American troops on our soil?" the Commodore replied, "He hadn't even been charged, just taken in for questioning."

      "One thing bothers me, sir. Something he said, having a cousin die at Harbin. That was during the Pacific War. While it's not impossible, it is unusual having an age difference that great."

      "Someone who harbors that great a grudge against Japan, what was he doing here then?" the Commodore asked.

      "Lying in a cold drawer awaiting notification of the next of kin. Since he wasn't carrying any identification, we sent a copy of his fingerprints to the American Embassy," the doctor said, "I've lost patients before. I've never had one that badly injured refuse treatment. Someone really put the fear of God into him. I just hate the idea it was one of us. But whoever it was, sir, I'd like a few minutes alone with them. Just me and my surgical gear, a little reminder that studying the human body for 36 years . . . I learned some unpleasant things along the way."

      "Get in line. If our men are guiltless, who did do it?"

      "That's what I'd like to know," the military attache from the American embassy entered without knocking. He tossed a file folder on the table and stood their with a petulant expression. "I've been told that I'll never understand the Japanese way of thinking, but this joke goes beyond bad taste by any measure."

      "What do you mean?" the Commodore asked, rising and giving the man a bow he didn't deserve, all the while keeping his temper in check.

      "That man died honorably at the Chosin Reservoir," the attache said angrily, his finger stabbing at the folder, "In 1950! The games you are trying to play will - "

      Fire alarms ended further discussion.

      The autopsy room looked exactly looked exactly like the evidence room. A neat burnt spot here the deceased had laid, in the evidence room his property laid there. And cut into the metal each had rested on, in what looked like brush strokes, a taunt from someone called 'Beryl'.

      "Interesting, she wiped out what he was carrying, then came in here to desecrate the body," the doctor commented, "But she left anything else that might have been of value."

      "I can live without understanding why a maniac did this, in this particular way. I want to know how she bypassed all security and got out."

      "Perhaps she was never here," the doctor offered with a shiver, "She may have acted at a distance, you can do things like that with magic."

      "Are you both insane?" the diplomat asked, "What do you call that? Back home, we call it 'a hole'." The man pointed at the irregular, woman-shaped opening in the wall between the autopsy room and the evidence locker. "If this Beryl was a woman," he continued, pointing out the long finger shapes, "She must give a hell of a back scratching."

      The others looked at the opening and realized some of the edges of the hole had been clawed away.

      "You act like you believe all those stories," the Commodore said, then looked around at the others, "I don't blame you, I'm beginning to as well."

      The doctor looked at the marks burnt into the metal of the examining table. "Don't you, sir?" the doctor asked the attache," Just a little?"

      "All taken care of?" Langley asked as Jeff walked into the restaurant.

      "Gave them all some things to think about," Jeff replied and smiled, "Plus a very good impression of what Beryl is capable of."

      "How far you go?" Xian Pu asked.

      "Oh, I let them perform an autopsy, then I `incinerated` my corpse," Jeff told her with a grin.

      Xian Pu gave him an odd look. "Why I no think you kidding?"

      "I'll be glad you are dealing with those two," Ukyo teased, "And giving me some peace of mind. I can just run a restaurant, rather than being used to change the entire world."

      "Is everyone packed?" Kho Lon asked, waited to receive nods from Xian Pu, Langley and Jeff, then continued with a smile, "The trip will be long and arduous, and I - " She blinked and looked around at the outskirts of the Amazon village. "Why didn't you tell me you could do this before? And don't say 'You didn't ask.'"

      "I did, and you told me the first time, 'the trip is as much training as transportation'. I don't need that kind of training. Besides, I am not going to haul half-a-ton of gear across ChiCom territory, paying bribes or threatening people all along the way." Or depending on you, he didn't say aloud, I am not going to arrive someplace I didn't want to go in the first place, deeply in your debt.

      "Considering what we have to carry -" Langley indicated the piles of items and Jeff's equipment for his project. "- I think we're still going to get quite a work out."

      "You'll be staying in my home," Kho Lon said, "And remember, this is an ancient and orderly society. They will not take to outlandish notions."

      Langley handed him her luggage. "Might as well get used to the part," she told him, "And smile you're supposed to be enjoying this." Then she added in German, "Be a good slave and you won't be punished."

      "Not slave, Dhimmi," Jeff replied in German, "That's what gave the Nazis their idea in the first place."

      The small houses and dirt roads seemed in keeping with the spartan existence they all lived in the Nekohanten, and had diverged from at Ukyo's insistence, in the Neko-chan.

      "Somebody's got money," Langley said and pointed to the small cluster of tall one-story and two-story buildings, "Looks like the local keep, without the curtain wall, ditch or palisade."

      "With the ability to jump 10 to 15 meters straight up," Jeff commented, "What good would a wall do?"

      "True," Langley said as she sniffed, "That's diesel exhaust, makes sense, it's not like they'd run electricity all the way out here." Asuka looked around, seeking something.

      And our hosts are getting very nervous about something, Jeff thought as he could smell the occasional coal fire, But most fires are wood or dung. If you have diesel and electricity, why use wood, except for the nostalgia or the cheapness of it?

      He saw the discomfort of Kho Lon and Xian Pu growing as he and Langley looked around. And people began to gather to look at them.

      The men look nervous, Jeff thought as he noted the averted faces when they thought he was looking at them, So not all is happy, in `Happyland`. Why do I feel like one of us should be riding a colt and the locals should be throwing palm fronds on the road? A tall radio aerial caught his eye. "Shortwave?"

      "Yes, and AM at night," Xian Pu said blithely, "We aren't - " She glanced around nervously, then continued softly, "- totally backward and isolated."

      He caught the glance from Langley that mirrored his own question: 'Who is we?'

      The house they arrived at was a stout two-story timber construction, with stone around the base. Kho Lon had said nothing during their entire walk, once inside, she relaxed. They took off their outside shoes and replaced them. "One custom the Japanese got right," Kho Lon said as she took a seat at a large western-height table. A woman scrambled in, placed a full tea cup before her and left. The hair color marked her as Kho Lon's direct lineage.

      "Let Raccoon put away the luggage," Xian Pu said as she pulled Langley away, "I'm going to beat you on a game I can really play."

      "You're on!" Langley exclaimed as she followed Xian Pu up the stairs.

      " 'We aren't totally backward and isolated.' That isn't for everybody in - The Village -" Jeff gestured, and the luggage itself into separate piles for each person. "- is it, Number Two?"

      "Correct, Number Six," Kho Lon said, sipping her tea, "You've also guessed I'm not Number One, although I was. Rover may come in many forms here, just as cloying and as lethal, watch your step and your tongue. You're not as clever as Patrick McGoohan."

      Jeff smiled at that. "I'd like to watch my feet. Where do I put this stuff?" Jeff asked, then started as a trio of men removing the piles, "Okay, I'd like to go take a look around . . . assuming I don't have to cook lunch -" He waited for her answer.

      "Tomorrow," Kho Lon told him.

      "I'll be seeing you."

      "How did you win again?" Xian Pu complained to Asuka, "You've never even played this game!"

      "Because I don't need to know the game, I just need to know you," Asuka told her, "You're like Godzilla, you always attack the heaviest resistance. I just give you the target I want you to attack, and try to stop you. When you break through, you impale yourself in the pikes."

      Xian Pu frowned at that as she put the game console away. "Maybe . . . maybe it's that - you do know the Council has decided - about me I mean. I failed to kill girl-Ranma, then I let boy-Ranma slip through my fingers."

      "Sounds like they're making it an excuse to kick your family off the Council," Asuka pointed out.

      Xian Pu nodded. "That doesn't mean I'll get to stay an Amazon," she said, "My family won't fight it."

      "It's not a hill they want to die on," Asuka said, "You're still welcome at the Neko-chan, and you will be in the future. Kho Lon is only part owner."

      "You and Raccoon always act like you know what I should do," Xian Pu said crossly, "It's extremely irritating."

      "Just telling you that I've lived through it." Asuka stood and looked at the small collection of folio-style books in Xian Pu's room. Some in Mandarin, and others in English, Asuka thought. "I lost my mother, then my home, and finally my whole country." She looked over her shoulder at Xian Pu. "You aren't alone. I survived, so will you."

      "Thank you," Xian Pu said shyly, then smirked, "She it is mother, home and country you truly want. What about Raccoon?"

      "I think he carries his country in his pocket, all ready to set up when he arrives. You're right, I've denied it, lied to everyone, including myself. At least he's honest about what he wants: a family. I don't know whether I want my father's acceptance, or if I want to rub his nose in what he threw away," Asuka complained, "Raccoon did it with the other pilots. You watched him do it with you and Ukyo, he's not likely to turn you out. I can guess that the family of an Elder has certain . . . perks, not available to the run-of-the-mill villagers."

      Xian Pu stared at the floor. Refusing to deny as well as refusing to confirm.

      "That's part of what they are afraid of losing," Asuka commented, "Not the finery, but the control over their lives. As if the Elders controlled anything beyond their immediate reach."

      The young Amazon looked around worriedly. "Is dangerous to say it," Xian Pu warned.

      "They can kill me, but they can't keep me dead," Asuka replied.

      Makoto heard the scream, and threw herself out of the unfamiliar bed and out into the odd hall. I hope my family's and the Kuno family's lawyers can let us stay together in this house, she thought as she let her ears guide her to Hotaru's room as the girl's wails of pain continued. Makoto saw Kiima, also wearing a determined expression, coming towards her, closing in on Hotaru's room and agony.

      "You comfort," the ex-Phoenixi General told her, "I'll attack."

      The pair burst into the room. I don't see anything, Makoto thought as she sat on the bed next to Hotaru, and gathered the sobbing girl into her arms. She glanced at Kiima, who seemed unable to find any attacker or threat.

      "My daddy's dead!" Hotaru wailed, "My mommy's dead. I'm all alone."

      Makoto felt her heart-breaking and her own tears coming. She didn't try to deny to untrue statement. It isn't words she needs, she thought as she hugged the girl tightly, rocking her gently, That's all I got when my mom and dad died. It's no wonder I don't trust them. She let Hotaru squall, and ignored the bemused looks from Kiima while she stood and rocked the smaller girl, treating her as she wished someone had treated newly-orphaned Kino Makoto all those years ago. She ignored Hotaru's tears soaking through her nightdress, and was overjoyed when Hotaru clung to her. Oh quit smirking! Makoto thought of her `friend` as Kiima acted like Usagi did when seeing a cute stuffed animal, You just wait until I can kick you properly! Makoto couldn't help blushing at the idea of Jeff or the others `catching` her like this.

      "You won't leave me too?" Hotaru asked as she raised her head to stare at Makoto, "You won't leave me too?"

      Makoto saw the loneliness in that beautiful face. "No," she told her truthfully, "If you'll let us, we'll stay here with you." If what I half-remember about what I read, Makoto thought as Hotaru rested her head on her shoulder and nestled tighter into Makoto's arms, Saturn was abandoned by almost all the other Senshi. I thought it was horrible when I read it, and I've seen what that kind of aloneness does to somebody. I won't let Hotaru be alone like that. Even if she isn't a Senshi I . . . I'm not a Senshi either, anymore.

      "Forever," Hotaru seemed to sigh as she returned to sleep.

      Makoto watched Kiima turn down the bedding, to let Makoto slip into it without disturbing Hotaru. How do I get loose? she wondered at the grip the sleeping girl still had on her, Okay, I don't. She slid into the bed, Hotaru practically affixed to her chest. She looked askance as Kiima slipped in and covered all three of them with her wing.

      "Truth be told," the ex-General sheepishly admitted, "I wasn't too happy sleeping by myself either."

      Makoto only smiled and nodded. I too wish we could stay like this, she thought happily, Being big-sister, instead of 'that tomboy'. Maybe I've been alone too long too. Maybe all three of us have.

      Oof! Makoto felt all her ribs creak as the breath was squeezed out of her.

      "Morning!" Hotaru announced to the now wide-awake Makoto as she kissed her on the cheek. Her sunny expression did nothing to help Makoto catch her breath.

      "Morning," Makoto replied, trying to suck some air back in her lungs. Hotaru hugged and kissed Kiima, who also got the same 'I can't breathe!' expression on her face.

      "I'll make breakfast," Hotaru announced as she slipped out of bed and dashed from the room.

      "Our little firefly has a grip," Kiima told Makoto as she too tried to get her breath.

      "I just realized something else," Makoto said as she dashed from the room and down the hall with Kiima in hot pursuit.

      Locked! Makoto realized as she rattled the bathroom door knob.

      "There's another bathroom in dad's lab!" Hotaru called through the door.

      The pair exchanged looks and both decided they'd wait to use the bathroom.

      Jeff watched the Amazon 'accidentally' kick a rock out from under the soup pot. The soup he'd spent most of the morning preparing. That she'd had to detour almost 8 meters out of her way to have her `accident` made her clumsy and mocking apology unnecessary. Except the pot didn't spill, Jeff thought as he stirred the soup again and tasted a bit, decided it was almost ready, I'd hardly let mere rocks hold up the Elders' lunch, where such `clumsiness` is getting to be par for the course. I'd almost be flattered that at least four Amazons had tried to pick a fight with me, except they're all like this one: Self-absorbed trivialities on legs.

      He continued to ignore her, as men of the village ignored such slights and insults. He'd already learned. As if Langley and I haven't already figured out that there is a huge gulf between allowed to participate in expected events, and being considered a person, especially a person of merit! Meaning an accomplished warrior female, rather than a mere warrior or a 'seen but not heard' man or foreigner. At least I can keep wearing my hat, as long as I never take it off. Makes tipping it to the ladies a new experience. I thought Har Du was going to try to eviscerate me the first time I did that, until she realized I wasn't yet an Amazon's bridegroom. Poor Kho Lon just ruined that woman's day by explaining it was a foreign custom of displaying great respect and deference, not a show of open defiance. He hid his smile at the memory of that exchange, and continued stirring.

      The Amazon still stood by the cook fire, staring at the simmering pot that seemed to hang over the fire unsupported. Jeff added to her confusion by turning a particular rock sharply, and extinguishing the fire. Like turning off a gas stove, he thought as he stood with the heavy pot in hand, She's preparing her stance for an insult or an attack, cretin! "If time and space are infinitely divisible, then the arrow will never catch the tortoise," he told her with the subdued cheerfulness the village's elder males used when imparting knowledge to the touchy women warriors.

      He left her there, puzzling over a non sequitur, and carried the soup inside. As ugly as she is on the outside, she's uglier on the inside. No wonder Mu Tsu fell for Xian Pu. She's practically an angel compared to most of them around here, he thought. Inside, at Kho Lon's meticulously polished table, he served the Elders while they made comments about him and Langley that would have started a fight in every bar and church in the civilized world. Some of those suggestions about 'what to do with me' would have a drunken sailor screaming 'Sexual Harassment!' Especially Miss Hino, but Minako would be close behind. Only the Elders think I'm too stupid to have puzzled out their patois, he thought while he kept his expression completely neutral, It's just disappointing that Kho Lon seems so at ease with the Elders and their insults, making as many comments as the others. I guess everybody needs to be part of the in-group . So much for open-mindedness.

      He nearly smacked himself for his stupidity. Ah, I forgot, this is a shame culture, not a guilt culture. They only feel bad when they get caught, he reminded himself, And even being caught by an 'obsequious, outsider male' isn't enough 'caught' to count.

      He ignored their further comments, and kept serving the soup, leaving quickly while he could still act as if he'd heard nothing. I don't know if I wanted to burst out laughing at their foolishness, or tell them all off, in their own language. No, better to say nothing, keep that we broke their `code` to ourselves, he reminded himself, once outside, he took a deep breath and nearly coughed at the smell of pit latrines, high-sulfur coal ash and penned animals, It's not the women who are the problem, it's the Elders. You get some old fart who can't even acknowledge the change of century, yet who can beat up any 20 young up-and-comers, and nothing will change. Best to let them die off.

      You want to hoard your skills and knowledge, then they aren't doing your fellow humans any good. In that case, I am not going to solve your base problem, he thought, making his decision and reinforcing the path he'd already resolved to take. Once he set foot on the path to the river, he was instantly surrounded by a half-dozen men, all old but still hale. They don't attack, and if I could get them to Broadway, I'd make a mint, he thought as they walked, I speed up, they exactly match me, one step left, they do the same. Right, same. "Would you be interested in developing a show to display the grace of your native dances in the United States?" he quietly asked in English. Ah, I made you smile, he thought, I win. He continued towards the river to draw water to wash the soup pot and the utensils.

      "I'll let you keep your secret," he told them, when there were no females in earshot, "After what I overheard them saying about me, I have no loyalty to them or their philosophy."

      The men dispersed instantly, gathering their own water or continuing to the fields. At the river, he saw a girl straight out of an ancient Japanese silk print. "Ethereally beautiful," he commented in Japanese, as she stared intently at the sheet of paper and pen in her lap.

      "Why thank you, kind sir," she answered in perfect `BBC-broadcaster` English, nodding to him, "It is a pleasant change from 'dreamy weakling'."

      "Considering the acknowledged power of dreams in my life, weak and dreamer are not words I would use together lightly."

      "You mustn't count all Amazons by those who've pushed themselves to the front of every encounter you've had. My grandmother went to America, and became a famous poet."

      "I would enjoy hearing some of her work."

      She smiled at him and prepared to recite.

      Asuka carefully perused the shelves of Amazon lore and law. I prefer the folios the kids have, she thought as she noted the sameness of the text of the law, So the written law is the same for all the village. The unwritten law remains something they hash out at their coffee klatches.

      "This is all the history you have? Just these scrolls, no folios?" Asuka asked as politely as she could of the near barren shelves. Between being politely lied to and the enforcement squad outside, she thought, I'm one step away from showing these people what a real soldier is like.

      The archivist glanced around Asuka to the trio `lounging` outside. "I'm sorry, when the Unnameable One stole many of our treasures, he stole much of our history as well."

      You shouldn't have written it on your underwear, Asuka thought sourly, So you have more, just none I'm allowed to see. Why do I think the Elders keep it all written on their knickers so no one can knick them? "You do understand that I'm trying to research the possible identity of the 'restless spirits' that plague you, don't you?"

      "I do apologize," the woman said as she bowed again, but her eyes never strayed too far from the group outside.

      First true thing I've heard you say, Asuka thought as she gave a polite bow, I guess with the thought police at the door, there's little you can do. She stepped out into the sunshine and tipped her hat to her self-appointed escorts. That's also fun, I label myself 'weak and manly' for wearing a hat, she thought as she ducked under a poorly thrown missile. "You Amazons are so quaint," Asuka said cheerfully as she continued, letting the Amazons slowly figure out if they'd been insulted. Where's a Godzilla when you really need some urban renewal? I grew up in a village five times this size, and I got out of there as fast as I could. I can see why Ranma never wanted to come back and live here.

      "Hello, Crazy Foreigner God-Queen," Xian Pu hailed Asuka in English, "Are you through discovering all the Amazons' deepest secrets?"

      "Yes, 'it's all Happosai's fault'," Asuka said, enjoying Xian Pu's cringe at using the `unspeakable` name, "He must really have been something in his youth, considering we can beat him at will now." And he beat the pants, literally, off of all your current Elders, Asuka knew enough not to say aloud.

      Asuka could almost feel the irritation radiating off some of the older warriors, but she kept up her smiling, dopey foreigner act. "With a little training, the Senshi could probably beat him. Although he'd probably enjoy it too much."

      "All those short skirts stomping on him? He most certainly would," Xian Pu commented, then glanced around and switched to Japanese, "Is not good, say of your victories. Someone challenge."

      "Oh , they already did," Asuka said happily, "I asked them to walk into that cave of yours, and back. In lockstep with me. They withdrew."

      "Is too -" Xian Pu frowned and switched back to English, "There is much danger in that cave, many warriors have fallen." Xian Pu looked sad. "Too many."

      "Not to Raccoon and me," Asuka reassured her, "We're well-trained and highly experienced in killing monsters. That's why we're here."

      "What if the Elders deny you the right of the kill?" Xian Pu asked as they walked.

      "We'll slip in there and do it anyway," Asuka replied quietly, "What are they going to do, make us resurrect it?"

      Xian Pu's sour expression said 'Yes' more clearly than a shout.

      Jeff walked out to dump the wash water along the path of least resistance, bowing and scraping with the best of men. And poor Kho Lon and Xian Pu cringe every time some Amazon gives me grief, he thought, hiding a smile and keeping his eyes downcast, Worse, it made Kho Lon and Xian Pu look like liars for having suggested Langley and I might be treated decently. Even the local men don't have to eat as much dust as we have had to. I guess the greatest crime is coming to save the 'Strong Warrior Women' from something they can't handle.

      I know those two were attempting to convince us to become tribal allies, and every time we have to duck our heads or swallow our pride, it makes that less and less likely, he remembered their earlier conversation, To the point that when Kho Lon breached the subject with another Elder at lunch, the other woman had laughed in her face, 'We don't need another obsequious male cluttering up the place.' Then she demanded seconds of my soup. As if I wasn't able to hear and understand everything said, just by their tone. They haven't even `decided` to `allow` me to deal with the problem that had prompted me to accompany them in the first place. Although they have decided Langley is not to help, idiots. He considered the demons or restless spirits that had infested part of the Amazon Territories.

      Langley can deal with them on her own of course, he thought, But the Amazons don't need to know that . . . yet. I can keep the bulk of their attention otherwise occupied, and let her work. I've got my project to consider, and the clumsy attempt to sabotage it. I am already getting a distinct impression that 'outsider man' is synonymous with 'scum-sucking foreign devil'. Until I beat an Amazon in combat. Then I'm wife-bait, Jeff thought as he stepped out of the way of Amazon, who immediately stepped over so Jeff would have to dodge again, I wouldn't chance a fight with any of them, on the outside chance they'd throw the fight.

      She stepped into his path again. Jeff stepped clear off the path, as required of a good Dhimmi, and waited with downcast eyes for her to pass. The Amazon seemed displeased by the seeming deference he showed her. She grumbled as she passed, not willing to offer challenge unless offended in some way.

      The last thing I need is a fight. And keeping my head down and offering no reason for offense is the best way to truly offend them. After all, outsider males are supposed to be arrogant and contemptuous of females, and telling them my grandma could put all of them over her knee and wallop some sense into them doesn't seem the best course of action, he thought as he ignored her insults in both Chinese and the smattering of barely intelligible English, I'm glad I didn't take Kho Lon's offer of becoming an 'honorary Amazon', I'm even more glad Langley didn't. From what I've seen, she'd already have a dozen bloodfeuds and half-a-hundred slights against her `honor`, which would lower her standing in the locals' eyes. Jeff continued walking, once the Amazon wasn't likely to reverse course on him. The primitiveness of the place offended him, worse than the split between Elder and non-Elder. Even the Dreamlands aren't this backward, and they have artificial limits on what technology works there, he thought as he smelled another outdoor latrine, Here they have all they need to make enough steel tools to bootstrap themselves to the 18th century, and none of the will. 'If the 8th Century was good enough for us Elders, it is good enough for you young people' and everyone simply agrees. No wonder Xian Pu wasn't too disturbed by being away from home for so long. Nothing changes and there's no one skilled enough or willing to simply assassinate these fools. There are distinct advantages to leaders who grow old and die, rather than live on for centuries. They can be moved out of the way by death, if by no other means.

      He found himself where he'd been wanting to go, the village blacksmith shop. Unlike most of the Amazons, this one actually managed the muscled look and still remain kind of cute. She and Ami would get along, he thought, She has the same sparkle of intelligence in her eyes. Something Xian Pu and Mu Tsu both lack. Kho Lon has it, most of the other Elders substitute doggedness and cunning for true intelligence.

      "Good morning," he said in Chinese to the woman, nodding to her and tipping his hat. The woman's father looked on with a proprietary air. Jeff had already learned that the woman's mother had been killed in a `friendly` duel, fairly recently. She seems shocked that the outsider has any manners or knowledge of her language, he thought while hiding his smile.

      "Good - good morning," the woman replied, bowed slightly.

      Ah, even here, the calculated insult, he thought of the bow to an inferior he'd gotten, I'll ignore yours as I've ignored others. "I have need of some metal rods, about one and one-third Pu or about 2.4 meters," he said, "Eight total. Their actual length is less important than that they must be as close as possible to each other's length."

      "Three gold pieces," the woman quoted a truly outrageous sum.

      "Oh! I wouldn't think of stealing food from your children, your motherless siblings and honored father," he said sympathetically, tipped his hat and put down four. Look at her fume, he thought as he smiled pleasantly, Nothing like beating them at their own contempt game, and being solicitous in the process. "I'll need them by tomorrow morning," he said, tipped his hat again and walked out. He noted the other Amazons just `hanging around`, all with sullen expressions. He tipped his hat to them as well, rankling all of them. Well, the blacksmith is in for a talking to, he thought, I do need those rods. I just hope that the talk is only about interfering with their conquest.

      "Well if it isn't Cologne's storm cloud?" the village `wizard` said as she stepped in front of him. Her two daughters, both horse-faced ugly on the surface, and worse on the inside, moved up to support momma.

      "Good morning to you, Honored Elder," Jeff replied, nodded to her, and her two daughters.

      "You don't expect us to believe that load of dung you heaped on the Council chamber's floor do you?" she accused, trying to poke him in the chest with her staff.

      Jeff nimbly stepped out of range. "I believe that if a man told you the sun rose in the morning, you would doubt it," he replied, "The source is too tainted to be believed. While it was all truthful - " He shrugged. As far as I went with it, he didn't add. "I never expected for any of you to believe me."

      "Then why'd you come?" one of the daughters asked, and earned momma's ire for her directness.

      You shouldn't keep breeding them for stupidity, if you don't want them stupid, Jeff didn't say. "Because I was politely asked," Jeff replied as respectfully as he could, "And I suspected there was a deeper problem that Elder Kho Lon could not discuss openly."

      "I'm taking care of it!" the old woman insisted, again trying to poke him with her staff, and again he stepped back out of range.

      "I have no doubt you'll have it taken care of before supper. Nevertheless, I intend to examine it and deal with the trouble tomorrow, if you haven't already." As if a frog-strangler, bug-scalder and wand-fondler like you could cure a hangnail, he kept to himself. "I'm just so glad they didn't damage any of the equipment I needed to deal with the creature," he said. You probably bent up those rods, he thought, But I hardly needed those to deal with a monster in your treasure cave.

      "Indeed, and what equipment would that be?" the old witch wheedled.

      "An orange and a couple of hard-boiled eggs. I'd include bitter herbs, matzo, lamb's blood and charoset, but it's so hard to find kosher products in immature places like this."

      "IMMATURE!" the old woman shrieked, waving her staff at him.

      "It's only been here 3,000 years," Jeff replied, "Joseph was in Egypt at least 3,600 years ago. Abraham was well before that."

      The stunned old woman seemed to be trying to find an appropriate curse to hurl at him as Jeff walked away from her. Trying to play kicks with a mule? he thought as he returned to Kho Lon's manor house. Langley was kneeling at the low servants' table outside the main room, looking like she wanted to rip something apart with her bare hands, and was just trying to decide what. Or who, Jeff thought.

      "I see your interview went as well as mine," Jeff said in a mixture of Spanish, German and a smattering of other languages they shared, `frequency hopping`, and braced himself as Langley stared at him. "I'll take that as a 'yes'."

      "If they weren't going to believe a word we said," Langley asked in the same `frequency hopping` mixture, in a barely controlled tone, "Why did they insist we come here in the first place?"

      "To embarrass and degrade Elder Kho Lon and lay the ground work to cast Xian Pu out of the tribe," Jeff replied, "Even I figured that out."

      "We're lucky Ukyo and Mu Tsu didn't accompany us," Langley said, "Then we might have an army large enough to deal with this pack of morons."

      "I take it that your researches have come to nothing?" Jeff asked.

      "You'd think that a proud, warrior race would at least have some record of its proud 3,000 year history and traditions!" Langley looked at him and frowned. "Okay, you wouldn't, but anyone less cynical would."

      "I've already seen enough to know the Elders are the holders of all information, history and tradition. They meet so frequently so they can keep their lies straight. They say whatever they think they need to, to keep things running the way they should. Ancient traditions subtly change, historical examples are whisked out to support opinions and orders," he told her, "Like the joke that you can find plenty of proverbs that contradict each other. Like Orwell said, you control what people can think and talk about, you control the people."

      "You'd think that they'd teach the children all about their history, and that they could go somewhere to reference it," Langley fulminated as she sat.

      "You've forgotten we are in China, the Middle Kingdom. Tiananmen Square is the exact center of the Universe, poised between Heaven and Hell, with the world revolving around it. A place that clings to a writing system specifically designed by the ancient scribes to be nearly impossible to learn and master by the common folk," Jeff reminded her, "The Martial Arts Balkans all fit neatly into the same mindset. This isn't a place where the individual has value and innovation is the goal. The society has to be orderly and one thing naturally follows another. No cutting ahead, no pointing out the Empress has no clothes, no stating that the chief requirement for an Elder's job is a close-minded worship of the status quo. They also know that if the Amazons, or any of their neighbors get too uppity, this place will become a nuclear test range. The Chinese government is not going to go soft on a threat to their national sovereignty, because a bunch of idiot Westerners protest outside their embassies. This little territory is like Nerima, power and mastery are cobwebs. No one wants to be the one with the broom."

      "True. The archivist had a few general scrolls on history and traditions, and stacks of scrolls and folios about the law," Langley lowered her voice and switched to Mandarin, so she could be heard, "Even just asking to look at the books on the law got a committee in to discuss things with the Archivist."

      "They have the right to govern themselves as they see fit," Jeff replied in Mandarin, then repeated himself when he heard the pencil of one of the eavesdroppers break, "They have the right to govern themselves as they see fit. We are not welcome here, that they haven't simply escorted us to the border at knife point is evidence of the Elders' restraint." Jeff ignored the sounds of the fumble-fingered eavesdropper getting the tar beaten out of her.

      "You mean I'm unwelcome, you so much as take a swing at an Amazon, and you'll have a bride for life," Asuka realized no one was left to record them, so she waited.

      Jeff didn't tell her, If I announced I was going to challenge an Amazon, I could probably walk down the line `winning` brides as I went. Ranma's probably lucky he came here as a her, and never got to showing off his power. If he had, he never would have left. Although I suspect that Kho Lon and Xian Pu, and even Mu Tsu have been stretching things.

      "So what's your plan?" Jeff asked when he heard the scratching of pens again.

      "We go over the stuff you brought," Langley said, "And we go over the procedures, again, until I'm sure you'll follow them and not take any shortcuts. Then I'm going to prepare for my interview tomorrow. I have a feeling that they aren't going to believe me. Just as they didn't believe you. I assume foreign facts don't stack up well against home-grown truths."

      Yes, mother, Jeff didn't commit suicide by saying.

      Asuka walked outside the 'Village of Women Heroes'. Disgusted is the best word I have for it, she thought as she remembered the 'interview' with the Elders, If you weren't going to believe a word I said, why bother asking me any questions? she wondered as she walked to the other reason she'd agreed to come. The source was a simple hole in a hillside. But it produces a small amount of gem-quality corundum, sapphires and rubies, and gives the 'Women Heroes' the cash to bribe the local commissar with either the stones themselves, or Indian consumer goods. So the secret of the 'Tribe of Invincible Women Warriors' is the same as everywhere else, money. I wonder what the others bribe the local officials with to keep their official noses out of their royal business. Considering that Confucianism is anti-female, the handful of gems or what they buy, must be enough to allow a 'womens' only' enclave out in the hinterlands. With the falling population of Chinese women, it may not be too long before the ChiCom mandarins in Beijing decide to have the PLA `resettle` a large number of 'Women Heroes' to more civilized places. As if Communists were more than gangsters anywhere.

      The cordon around the mine had been assembled to warn of something coming out, not to keep a determined girl from going in.

      "Hey! Foreign weakling!" one of the guards called in English, "You go in there, the dragon may eat you!" The laughter from the other guards nearly made Asuka's blood boil.

      You idiots wouldn't know how to handle a real dragon if one walked over and bit you, she wanted to shout at them, But I think when I solve this problem, that will be ample revenge. I just think we'd better be ready to leave very quickly after that. I don't think they'll appreciate getting shown up in their own backyard.

      The taloned hand reached out of the pool. Terrible claws dug deep into the earth, giving the creature the leverage to pull itself out of the pool. The massive head gazed down at the scraps of blue material that still adorned its wrist. The huge creature pulled itself loose from the impossibly small confines of the Jusenkyo pool and sighed sadly. "I knew getting a bath was a possibility when I started this morning, but I'd thought all the precautions would have eliminated this - eventuality," it murmured quietly, "Never laugh at live Hobbits, Smaug you old fool."

      It glanced back at the vast spreading wings sprouting from each shoulder. The color was sandy-brown, like the scales on the arms - no, forelegs. "I'll have to determine their dexterity before I can consider them arms." It pulled itself away from the other pools and with irritation, pulled the cloth `bracelet` off and hurled it away. The cloth landed some 800 yards away. It noted the distance idly, and lay down on the `shore`, the small sandy strip that surrounded the cursed springs and slowly worked out the kinks in the body.

      "At least one good thing came out of this," it murmured as it yawned, exposing three rows of serrated, razor-sharp, cutting and shearing teeth to the Musk warriors whose action had cause the current situation. "That was supposed to be the Spring of the Drowned Crane, yet here I am." It smiled, causing the Musk to scramble back into hiding. "I wonder how the others will greet proof that their curses are neither accidental nor random, but reveal their true nature. Ranma will flip, the others will be `insulted` . . . I wonder what Soun and Akane would turn into."

      It glanced around, verifying that the treasure it had sought was safe and intact. "At least it isn't at the bottom of one of the pools," it said, "It wouldn't be worth going after."

      Asuka walked boldly through the cavern, ignoring her memories of the warnings of 'restless spirits'. Which could mean ghosts, poltergeists, or demons, she thought as she advanced where Amazons had feared to tread for many months. Something in the cavern set all her hairs a prickle, more than the king's ransom in rare gems adoring the walls, more than the hot, stale air. Okay, there is something here, Asuka thought as she advanced, Not something my normal senses can pick up, but something my other senses detect. With luck, whatever it is I can fight, flee or negotiate with. Raccoon may be the expert, but I have listened and learned. She walked steadily ahead, trying to gauge if the feeling was increasing, decreasing, or just changing with each step. The apparition that stepped out of the wall should have been terrifying.

      Except it's too culturally specific, she thought of the curse-spouting skeletal figure, Too much designing to scare Amazons leaves it as just a scarecrow to me, she thought as she ignored the `attacks` and continued deeper into the cavern.

      The next 'flame demon' was more frightening, until she threw a rock through it. The stone glowed dull-red as it landed behind the creature. So, it probably caused spears and arrows to burst into flame, she thought as she stepped into it, paused to enjoy the warmth as it bent all its energies into incinerating her, then walked out the other side as the creature faded to nothing. "Okay, that's strike two. I'm no Amazon, if you want to state your needs and your terms, I'll be happy to listen," she called out and patiently awaited any answer, even repeating her terms in several languages. I'll be happy to talk to anybody who hates the Amazons this much, she thought, We'd certainly have something to talk about. She waited for an appropriate interval, then walked forward. As the cavern widened out, the crystals had grown, or been left to make the cavern seem like a geode nearly eight meters across.

      Two massive, muscled demons in the cavern gave her pause, until she saw they were both dead. Someone decapitated them with their own swords, Asuka thought as she approached, I should be scared, but somehow that doesn't feel right. More a feeling of . . . expectation and patience.

      She spotted the cloaked figure wrapped in shadows. "Lord Han, I presume, or, I beg your pardon, are you his father?" Asuka asked cordially, giving a polite bow and remembering how touchy both were about respect to their persons and status, and how easily they could kill her, permanently.

      "No," the darkness around the cloaked figure seemed to speak, "I am Han."

      "If you are the 'troublesome spirit', then I shall tell the Amazons their cause is hopeless."

      "No need. Come." The darkness moved through the geode.

      I'm getting a little tired of being pushed around, she thought angrily, Even if it is by a nominal ally, who could probably beat the crap out of me.

      The figure stopped and extended a cloaked arm,

      "What are you now? The Ghost of Christmas Future?" Asuka asked under her breath.

      "To my father, the Ghost of Christmas Present," Han replied with a dry chuckle.

      Asuka carefully stepped around the Great Old One and looked at where he pointed. "Dragon eggs," she breathed. She looked around hastily, to make sure the Amazons hadn't destroyed any others. There are only those eleven. A clutch is usually only five to six, so it's at least two. All hidden here and carefully shielded by the Amazons, she realized, So no war of vengeance . . . oh well, you can't have everything.

      She cleared the stone from around them. Could feel the flagging energies within them. "The 'restless spirits' fed off these," she said, "The Amazons and their gems were a side light. They must have raided the Musk, stolen those eggs and hid them in here."

      "Centuries ago. There were originally 12, one hatched," the darkness told her, "My powers are ill-suited to quicken the others."

      "The god of prophesy, you must have known I'd come here, to Nerima, to this place and to this cavern. You and your machinations are the reason all of this has happened," Asuka accused.

      "The need was sufficient, I think you'll agree. Dragons must be returned to this world, and with them, the sense of human wonder that originally created them," the darkness replied, "These will need keepers, that too has been provided for. This will also provide the means to defeat the traitors, when they stand at the very brink of victory. You're desire is to protect your friends and your world, you are doing that even now."

      "I'd accuse you of being cryptic, but you'd take it as a compliment. The only flaws in your scheme is that Raccoon is the expert, I don't know that much about healing. And that there are only 6 Senshi, and only 9 planets. Ten if you count Earth and Mamoru. I don't think Sasami will be an appropriate companion, she already has Ryo-Oh-Ki."

      "The quickening is easy. Your pure fire is required. A mix of human and other, a blending of fire and the fire of the mind. You are the correct choice, not your brother."

      "Butter me up why don't you?" Asuka asked as she knelt on the stone floor and looked at the eggs. I bet Yig is watching from some distance, or Han has already assured him of what I am to do. Much as I'd like to stick a fork in their smug certainty, I can't let these poor souls pass on, she thought, Not while I can do something. "There will be a price," she told him.

      "I have already anticipated that."

      Oh course you have, Asuka thought, You bastard. She extended her powers to touch the eggs, not individually, but all together. She felt the questing inquisitive minds waiting to grow and be born into the unformed bodies. Don't run, she told herself and them, That's the fire of the mind stuff. Let them a little ways in to get them going. A few secrets and fan the flames of curiosity. The eggs were warm to the touch now, they needed to be hot but not boiling.

      Asuka felt their spirits flowing around and through her as she heated their new homes. She caught their scent and curled her other powers around them and the eggs. Keep the taint away, let them have the pure fire. Keep the insanity of Cthugha, Tulzscha and the others away from them. She felt the spirits withdraw into the eggs, to link with their developing bodies.

      She fell back and was caught by a cloth of blackest silk. "My touch is not pleasant, even for one such as you," it told her as maneuvered her to rest against the walls of the geode, "You spoke of a price, I will entertain your request."

      Asuka smiled. Anything I want? she wondered hopefully, This is going to be a doozy.

      The Jusenkyo Guide ran through the village. "To arms! To arms! A disaster! To arms! To arms! A disaster!"

      Some of the Amazons bristled at a mere man trying to give them orders. Kho Lon had learned that people tended to act irrationally for many reasons. Sometimes those reasons were entirely legitimate. She tripped the Guide as he ran past her.

      "What is the disaster?" Kho Lon asked as Asuka and Xian Pu closed in, along with several dozen irate Amazon warriors. Kho Lon saw that Asuka had deposited the black, silk-wrapped package somewhere. At least this distracts those fools from making their decision official and worse, public. Xian Pu will remain an Amazon, and champion as long as `our` decision is not voted on, nor announced. Someone has exquisite timing.

      "Oh calamity and maledictions of all the gods upon our people, even upon the entire Middle Kingdom itself!" the guide wailed.

      A thump from Kho Lon's staff silenced that. Kho Lon noted with some distaste the other Elders were arriving. I'll never be able to turn this to my advantage, if everyone knows about it, she thought, Especially those incompetent busy-bodies. "What is the disaster?" Kho Lon asked again as the other Elders forced their way to the front of the growing crowd.

      "The blue man fell into the Spring of the Drowned Dragon!" the guide babbled, then collapsed in terror.

      Kho Lon could sympathize. A dragon, after so long, the entire Amazon nation might not be enough, she considered their options, We might have to ally ourselves with those damnable Musk. Perhaps even the forces of Beijing would be necessary.

      "This is a disaster!" Lo Shen told the others.

      "Such a thing has not happened in over a hundred years!" Har Du announced.

      "Two hundred fifty-seven," Kho Lon corrected, "And half the tribe was destroyed in defeating it. How large was it?" Kho Lon demanded of the guide.

      "Huge!" the terrified man said, "The wing, at least 50 mou!"

      "Nearly a square stadion," someone murmured.

      "From nose to tail, perhaps 200 pu!"

      The Amazons murmured at the immensity of the monster.

      The man is undoubtedly exaggerating, Kho Lon thought, But by how much?

      I wish the Amazons had switched to metric, like the rest of the world, or at least the rest of China. I have a hard enough time converting ancient Chinese measures to metric, until someone . . . she thought, It sounded almost like Mu Tsu, converted it to ancient Greek measures. But Mu Tsu is back in Nerima with Ukyo, probably too scared to take advantage of this opportunity. And someone arranged this to forestall the meeting where Xian Pu's final disposition would be discussed and implemented. So she's still an Amazon, and the village champion. I think I know who the dragon is. She smiled broadly as she considered.

      The monster has wings of 33+ thousand square meters, and was over 350 meters long. Even an EVA would be hard pressed to deal with such a monster, Asuka considered, A tactical nuclear warhead starts to sound like an answer. How do I get it to eat one? She caught a snippet of the patois the Elders used among themselves. You all think a mix of Ancient Greek, Mandarin and Cantonese would be too difficult for 'stupid foreign girl' to follow, Asuka thought dismissively, Maybe the hoi polloi can't keep up, but it isn't a patch on the codes Raccoon and I regularly use. These Amazons are children playing in a backwater, acting as if they were one step from first dominating China, then the world. As if fighting the local Chinese constabulary and the minor warlords around here were a real test. I have to wonder what would have happened if the Japanese or Allied Armies had penetrated this far inland. An ably led Mountain battalion with `modern` weapons of the 1940's would put paid to the entire village in a single night. In the Nineties, it wouldn't take more than a man with a laser designator and one heavy bomber. She smiled as she considered dispensing with the one man and using a nuclear, biological or chemical approach. A tailored virus to kill egotistical martial artists, she thought happily, I wonder . . . no, Raccoon would never agree to make one. China will get around to these nuts eventually, when the Amazons and the local crazies start making too much trouble. Or they decide they need the land. But I can still use their egos against them . . . like Ranma and Raccoon have used against me. Nobody ever said Asuka Soryu Langley couldn't learn from her defeats.

      She shook off such distracting ruminations and concentrated on the Elders' speechifying, So, the 'Blue Man' fell into a spring they filled with cement a dozen years ago. Sigh. Jeff had been so confident that he took every reasonable and unreasonable precaution, especially the shelter, periscope, remote manipulators and the blue hazmat suit. The two of us checked every millimeter of it for pinhole leaks, as well as the other gear to collect one, teeny, little, COMPLETELY USELESS bottle of 'Spring of the Drown Man' water. Even I thought there were no flaws in the plan. Other than the obvious one of doing it at all!

      She'd been separated from Xian Pu when the whole agglomeration had descended on the open area to debate and argue. Other Amazons rather pointedly kept shuffling her back from the Elders, towards the edge of the crowd. It's pretty clear the Elders are going to ignore any non-Elder who is present, but being close when the decision is made is for establishing the local dominance games, and your place in them. Nice chess maneuver, but this is a time for draughts, bold action to win everything in a stroke.

      Asuka had had enough of Amazon arrogance. Time to shock them out of their certainty, she thought, then called, "Hey Xian Pu! Do you think they'd listen to an expert on dragons?" I'm glad I can't see Xian Pu's expression. The poor kid is probably mortified.

      The Elders turned as one.

      Patience, Asuka told herself as she kept trying to pick Xian Pu out of the crowd.

      "You know about dealing with dragons?" Kho Lon asked before the other Elders could or would, indicating her impatience or loss of status, or both.

      Or maybe her relationship with 'stupid foreign girl', who might just save their collective asses, she thought as she gave them a sweet smile. "I've been dealing with dragons since the 1930's, I've killed a couple all by myself, but I've negotiated with hundreds."

      "Then maybe you would share your wisdom with the rest of us?" Har Du suggested pointedly, but still had an arrogant sneer which telegraphed her opinion of any information Asuka could give.

      Asuka smiled. "If you think that's wise," she said in a little girl voice. She smiled again as sweet as you please. Only Kho Lon acknowledged the crocodile behind all those white teeth, as she smiled back.

      "I hate this," Xian Pu said as she tugged at her tight dress and checked that it fit her properly. There were a half-dozen Amazon girls with her in the prep room.

      All are pretty, all good cooks, Asuka thought as she surveyed them, Which is actually a rarity, oddly enough. Girls don't cook. Well, Raccoon is the best at the restaurant. Asuka carefully smoothed the dress the Archivist wore, and gave the only other non-combatant a reassuring smile, then she tugged her own tight dress. Why should I be embarrassed, she thought, While I do feel a little boyish compared to the - opulent - curves of these Amazon girls.

      "So we go out without weapons?" one of the older, more combat-experienced girls asked.

      "Of course," Asuka told her, "This dragon cannot be beaten by force of arms."

      "I get it, we cook him a poisonous meal!" one of the others exclaimed with a grin. The other girls nodded and chattered about her cleverness.

      "You got the cook and the him right," Xian Pu explained as she smiled at Asuka, proud at being the first to figure out exactly what was going on.

      The other girls fell silent and blanched at the revelation. Xian Pu sighed, then patiently explained, "Pretty girls, good cooks, good strong warriors whose wide hips and full breasts are more important than their strong arms, or a hardened battle eye."

      The other girls recoiled slightly and chattered among themselves. They pointedly left Asuka and Xian Pu out of the discussion.

      "What's the matter?" Asuka asked innocently, "If an outsider male beats an Amazon, the Amazon has to marry him. It never said the outsider has to be human, just able to give strong children to the tribe. Even I know that much of Amazon Law."

      "But a dragon!" the wannabe poisoner protested.

      "That's why I wanted six," Asuka told them, smiling all the while, "You can trade off or double team, or have him all at once. Dragons, for all their celestial natures, are still intensely physical creatures."

      "Why do I think you aren't talking about fighting?" one of the Amazons exclaimed.

      No wonder the Amazons are dying out, Asuka thought, I wonder if being this dense is a characteristic of this universe, and all of its inhabitants, or just the martial artist-types? "Did any of you think we were going to go out and try to assassinate the creature? The first step is talk, negotiate, if necessary, seduce the creature with food and other things."

      "Seven," Xian Pu said, putting her arm around Asuka's shoulder and smiling, "There are seven of us. Or are Amazons afraid to go where outsider girl leads."

      Asuka didn't like the way Xian Pu was smiling, both at her, and at the Amazons. I'm beginning to suspect that 'Shampoo too too happy' isn't as dumb as she tries to appear, Asuka thought worriedly, Or maybe only when strategy is being plotted.

      "Asuka has to be as pretty as the Amazons," Xian Pu commanded sternly.

      Asuka gulped and backed up a step.

      Jeff heard the 'bold warrior' boldly sneaking up on the sleeping dragon. Jeff opened one eye and the man fired one arrow right into that eye. The warrior was shocked as the arrow shattered and the fragments flew off. Jeff kept from smirking. I thought about that when I `designed` my dragon form, back when I battled the monster in that cave and we became the Scholarly Dragon, he thought, That's why there's a transparent scale over the eye, strong and thick enough to turn a cannon ball. He frowned as he considered the current protection, This one is birefringent at certain frequencies, but I doubt I'll be attacked by a laser that is essentially that color. So I'll live with it.

      A bolt of black breath swept the Musk position, barely a burp, but enough to send the rest of their force fleeing. As amusing as this is, Jeff thought, I'm worried about so many Musk warriors so close to the Amazon village. I remember the attack on my and Gendo's families in the dream was preceded by an all-out attack on the Amazons. Well, I can put a stop to that right now. Since I am sitting right on the prime invasion route.

      He spread his wings and prepared to attempt a take off. If the Maginot Line had been able to take to the air, he thought, The Germans would have had a Hell of a time. Before he leapt into the air, and either soared or crashed on his nose, he extended his awareness to detect anyone close. The Musk have fled, not that I blame them, he thought, The only other thing is an Amazon scouting party . . . led by Langley? And Xian Pu? Intriguing, and a little worrying. He furled his wings and turned to face them before he sat back down. Langley's been taking as much, if not more, abuse as I have. The Amazons are no where near as welcoming and inclusive as Kho Lon promised, surprise surprise, it hardly takes much imagination to figure out you're either an outsider or an Amazon.

      I still haven't figured out what Langley is doing. She does look nice in that dress, it's tight enough it looks painted on, the others are all dressed the same. Speaking of paint, the make-up is well done, and that's a good hairstyle for her too. Although Xian Pu and the Amazon girls with her look like they're ready to piss their dresses, he thought, Whatever game Langley is playing, I guess I'll have to let this play out. With the Musk in the area, I know I don't dare revert to human form, it would invite an attack, by both sides.

      "Hello Mr. Dragon!" Langley announced in Latin, "We bring you things to eat instead of Amazon villagers!"

      Okay, you are only pretty sure of what happened, he thought as he forced himself not to grin, A chance to pay Langley and the Amazons back for everything. I think I can play that game. "Why do you approach?" he asked in Mandarin, his voice booming around the rocks, "I know the slaves' tongue as they murmur among themselves behind your back." One Amazon looked like she might attack at any moment. Then he fixed her with the stare. "Have you something to say, slave?" She suddenly looked ready to faint.

      Langley bowed. "We offer food and wives from the Amazon village."

      " 'I take what I wish, and none dare resist me,'" Jeff told her, hoping she recognized the quote. He noted one of the Amazon girls was looking at him very strangely. "The Musk have learned this, recently, and much to their sorrow. What do you offer that could match what I might take?"

      Xian Pu looked around, her hands clenching and unclenching, as if feeling the lack of a weapon in her hand right now. Or trying to see the Musk lurking around.

      "They have fled from my magnificence," he told them, "How far . . . not far enough should I choose to pursue."

      "Oh thank you for your protection, oh great and glorious one," Langley said.

      Jeff yawned and stretched, incidentally giving the Amazons a good look at his teeth, all of them, and his claws, in their true length and sharpness, front, back, and wing-mounted. The Amazons were all clustered behind Langley when he finished shaking himself out. "What of gems and jewelry? What of the fine items of craft to adorn my dwelling?"

      "They are bulky and difficult to transport, and as you said," Langley explained, "There are bandits about."

      "True." Jeff leaned close and sniffed each dish, and each girl. "They aren't poisoned, amazing." I wonder if I sniffed them the way a dog would, he considered mischievously, Would they faint or belt me? Or belt me then faint?

      "We want only your good will," Langley assured him.

      "So you offer me - them?" Jeff asked disdainfully, "Warriors, as if I would need them. Cooks and servers, as if I would need food beyond the nectar of the Gods."

      "They don't sell Dr. Pepper in China," Langley murmured in English under her breath.

      "Or clothes beyond the fine coat of mail I was born with. Where are the artisans, to build my magnificent palace? The poets to flatter me? The clever and witty who would challenge my mind and hone my stratagems?" He glanced at the girls, relief showed on every face but two: Xian Pu, and the one who'd stared at him so curiously. He concentrated on Langley. "Do you offer yourself, little one? Are you part of the prize?"

      Langley gulped as she rapidly started rethinking things.

      She must have assumed `Raccoon` fell into the pool, and `Raccoon` climbed out, he thought, Poor little Langley is going to have to rethink everything. That should take about five seconds.

      "No!" Xian Pu said, earning a look of fear from the others girls, including Langley, "You take one or all of us, she is no Amazon!" She stalked up to confront the dragon, armed only with a crock of Lo Mein noodles.

      "Nor are any of you. I remember when you were many and ferocious, a nation of warriors that even demons feared. You are not those who made the legend, merely villagers living as their descendants," he reminded her, "Do you really think you can prevent me from simply taking what I desire?" he asked dangerously. It speaks well that she'd stand up for Langley. Perhaps it is time to let her regain some of the face she lost to Ranma, he thought. "Ho! HO! HO!" he boomed, the other Amazons wet themselves at that point. I bet the Musk watching all this aren't far behind. "I accept your challenge, village champion." He scooped up Langley. "Your pitiful village at sundown! You may use any weapons, but you fight alone, village champion. HA! HA! HA!" He took to the skies, dodging the short barrage of crockery as Xian Pu demanded Langley's release.

      Once they were high enough, Jeff transferred Langley to his back, the usual place she rode. "Okay, what kind of game were you playing?"

      "Raccoon? Jeff?" Langley asked.

      "Of course, what did you expect? Gendo, Genma? Godzilla? Gamera?" Jeff felt her small fists pounding on his armor as she vented her frustrations in a very Nerimaniacal way. "Ah, yes, a little to the left, yes that's got it. Keep it up, harder if you please."

      When Langley stopped pounding on him, she asked, "Okay, so how are you going to arrange for Xian Pu to win?"

      "You are, but there are a couple of things I need you to do first. I'll explain on the way."

      "Yeah, there are some thing I need to tell you about too," Langley pointed out, "Like who arranged all of this."

      Xian Pu waited at the center of the Amazon village. Where my disgrace began, and where it will end, she thought, looking at the challenge log that for a brief moment, had represented her triumph and the first step to taking her great grandmother's place on the council. Now I am an Amazon in name only, I am nothing to the Elders and soon to my people, they will know of my disgrace soon enough. If I live. Yet I will still protect them, she vowed.

      Dozens of villagers with bows and spears waited in concealment. Xian Pu merely sighed, I remember the acrimonious meeting when my colleagues explained what had happened. I was not permitted to speak, even to correct their lies. The council had been divided evenly, between Xian Pu accepting the challenge honorably and alone, and the entire village ambushing the creature. Bringing the other girls back safely was a point in my favor, but since they pointed out I am not the village champion anymore, I can only serve as bait for the ambush. As much as them soiling what little honor I have left, they clearly think that while I cannot defeat this creature, they can. While I agree I have little chance, I'd hoped to fight and die bravely enough, that it would honor my sacrifice and take Asuka's terms, and leave. She looked at the arsenal she had assembled, all the weapons she'd trained with since she was old enough to lift them. All of them are a child's toy against that monster. Perhaps an anti-tank rocket might do it. There are none in the village, and the nearest PLA depot is too far to run there and back, and too heavy for Mu Tsu to fly it to me . . . if he were here with me, instead of with Spatula Girl. I don't want to die alone and unloved.

      She centered herself and her thoughts on the weapons she carried, This crossbow, the most powerful in the village, will have to do, or it won't. If the bolt doesn't penetrate, how is the venom 'the deadliest to dragons' going to do anything? I'll get only one shot, then the dragon will be too wary. She looked at the clear sky, the sun near the rim of the sky. If I am to die alone, I will make my death mean something. 'If you save the world, then today is a good day to die.' I wish Raccoon were here, he might have a plan . . . no, he would have dealt with the dragon already, if he could have.

      She forced herself to be still, and wished she could command the carping and complaining Elders to do that same. They are still arguing over the same themes they voiced during the meeting. How I brought this down on the village, how it is my fault and I shouldn't be allowed to handle the challenge, someone else should. The only reason I still am here is they couldn't decide who should replace me. She looked around, checked the crossbow again and looked at the dropping sun. Now they add their arguments of how Asuka's plan had been a foolish one and no one should have trusted her with such an undertaking, despite the fact they practically drafted her. Xian Pu blocked it all out. The noise these restless spirits were kicking up and her own restless spirit. I have a job, she steeled herself, I failed Asuka, I will not fail her again.

      The dragon swept over the village, high above, then dove suddenly to drop Asuka far outside the potential battlezone. It swept in and paused over the `concealed` positions of the villagers. The dragon shook its head before landing. "Other people aren't counted as weapons, unless you've been raised to general?" it asked with a smirk, "Are you prepared?"

      It was speaking Japanese! It knows! Xian Pu realized, This will be the worst part. Rather than launch the troops, a troop of Elders marched out. Great Grand . . . Elder Kho Lon is not with them. She is no longer my great-grandmother, even if only the Elders know I have no family any more.

      "The girl was not allowed to make terms. We will -"

      "I!!" the creature roared, making the Elders jump back, "Made the terms, my terms were quite clear. I wanted artisans, poets, the clever and witty. It seems I caught the only one around."

      The Elders started sweating. "If we cannot provide them?" the village's Mistress of Magic asked as her spells curled around the dragon. Xian Pu wasn't sure if the spells were having any effect.

      "Those two daemons are dead, those that your warriors and magics could not dispel. What need I fear your weapons or spells?"

      Now the Elders were beginning to glance around for escape routes.

      Asuka ran up to Xian Pu, handing her Raccoon's walking stick. "Use this," she whispered before trying to withdrawal.

      Xian Pu caught her hand. "Then what do you plan to do?" Asuka smiled at her and pulled her hand free.

      "Trust me."

      "What do you intend to do?" Har Du demanded.

      "Why should I tell you?" Asuka withdrew. This nonplused the Elders who withdrew to discuss.

      "Attack!" Har Du's voice commanded, although that Elder's head shot up and her expression showed stunned surprise as did the others.

      Not her!, Xian Pu thought as she raised her crossbow. Arrows rained down on the dragon from all sides. Spear warriors charged. Arrows splintered on the creature's hide and dragon slaying spears broke as they were thrust home. The dragon looked at the Elders with amusement.

      Xian Pu only felt anger, They humiliate me, she argued with herself, That is their right as Elders. But then the dragon humiliated them.

      "I challenge you!" she shouted, firing the crossbow and watching the quarrel disintegrate, as the other Amazons considered their useless spears and arrows.

      "Are there any other distractions?" the dragon asked, as it pointedly glanced around. There were no others who wanted to uselessly attack the monster, and the Elders were content to let Xian Pu leave the world with no one to stand with her.

      Xian Pu felt eyes on her, everyone's eyes. She raised the stick Asuka had given her. I don't know what it will do, but Asuka wouldn't steer me wrong, she thought as she thrust.

      "So you have a magic wea - " the dragon's arrogant tone changed as it dodged away, "Where did you get that?!"

      Xian Pu felt better, I still am not sure if I should use it as a club, a javelin, or what?

      "Ho! Ho! Ho! Why should I fear that? You'd have to be the blood relative of the mage, or the mother of his children! HO! HO! HO!"

      Eep, Xian Pu thought, Which is worse? That it does work, or it doesn't?

      The dragon flapped its wings, the wind drove her back as the dragon took to the air. The first blasts of dragon breath were telegraphed so much, Xian Pu could dodge them easily. But it forced her to dodge through people's laundry, animal pens, all to humiliate her and make her look ridiculous. Somehow, one of the Elders rallied the archers and a ragged volley flew skyward. A blast of black, dragon breath annihilated the arrows in midflight, and the dragon turned its attention to the ambushers.

      "No!" Xian Pu yelled. The stick was poorly balanced for a javelin, but Xian Pu was an expert in all the weapons of the Amazons. She threw as Elder Kho Lon and archers scattered like frightened chickens, their clothes and ceremonial robes flapping in the wind. The stick flew straight and true, Xian Pu let herself hope, until the dragon casually reached over and caught it just short of its flank. Xian Pu felt her heart freeze as the creature turned to face her.

      The burst of light was so intense that everything stood out, all shadows were etched in sharp lines, absolute light or absolute darkness, no gray. The silence was disturbing as well, complete and utter, as if the world was holding its breath, waiting to see if Xian Pu's sacrifice had any effect.

      Then the noise, basso profundo, so deep it was almost below hearing range, but so loud it could be felt. A powerful thrum that lasted about as long as the silence that had proceeded it.

      Xian Pu hadn't looked away or covered her ears in time, so she desperately tried to blink away the purple after images. If the dragon survived, I'm going to die, and so is the entire village, she thought, but unable to act as the light and sound had hammered her worse than anything she'd ever experienced before. Yet, no attack came. Then quiet followed the noise, broken here and there by people verifying that they had survived.

      "Chickens!" the voice roared over them.

      Xian Pu recognized it as Raccoon's. She saw him confronting the Amazon Elders, "You beat people down, then you run around like chicken when it is your life and skin on the line."

      Xian Pu saw the dragon was standing on the ground and shaking its head. The Elders seemed to be rallying their automatic arrogance against an 'outsider male'.

      "Have a care!" Har Du and the Mistress of Magic warned.

      Raccoon laughed at her and took a step backward towards the dragon, who tried to scramble away from him. "Be afraid of you? I've met real wizards. I am one. You couldn't take care of those things. Xian Pu and I defeated the dragon, not your ambush, not your spells, and not you."

      "I convinced the dragon to clear those demons," Asuka said as she walked towards the Elders, "Your spells couldn't bite on that dragon, only a real wizard's could." She stomped her foot and the dragon withdrew a half-step. "My ally can control Jusenkyo curses. That stick Xian Pu threw is his staff, that was what allowed him to blast just the dragon, instead of obliterating the entire valley to defeat it."

      Asuka snapped her fingers in the Elders' faces. "I've seen all I care to see. I did the job I came here to do. Now I'm leaving, next time you have a problem, fix it yourselves. If you can."

      "Where will you go, child?" Har Du asked patronizingly, "Walk all the way back to Japan, across China? Trust a wild dragon to fly you back?" She chuckled. "I think not.

      "You're right," Jeff added as he drew his knife and scribed something on a stone, "The contract you have with the Dragon was for 'artisans, poets, the clever and witty'. I can make certain it is enforced, all you have to do is do your bit. I'll make my own arrangements with it for transport."

      "I'm ready," Asuka said, as she stepped up to the dragon with her baggage, Xian Pu's and Jeff's.

      "I also," Xian Pu said. Although I do not know which I am, she thought, Not the witty or the clever.

      "And I," the Archivist walked towards them, she looked at the Elders defiantly, daring them to stop her.

      "I can fulfill the poet," came a soft, high voice.

      "NO!" Har Du protested loudly as her great-granddaughter walked towards the dragon. The serene and delicately beautiful girl carried a satchel filled with her writing tools. She stood beside her baggage and ignored her great-grandmother's protest.

      You were not so uneasy about denying Elder Kho Lon her great-granddaughter, she thought angrily, then smiled at the poet, who had never really fit in to Amazon society, Maybe she wants to escape, as her grandmother and namesake did. To go to America and become a famous poet.

      "Thank you, Xian Pu," the girl bowed as Xian Pu collected some of the girl's baggage to load aboard the dragon.

      "You're welcome, Burma Shave," she replied.

      The Elders seem willing to let us all go. They aren't happy with it, she thought, But they've noted that all the ones leaving are trouble-makers and potential trouble-makers. They think they are well-rid of us.

      Asuka saw to the loading and strapping down of the baggage and the passengers, taking especial care with a large satchel wrapped in black silk. She pointedly shook the dust from her feet before `boarding` the dragon. Then the dragon leapt into the air. Jeff remained with the Elders for a few moments before he tipped his hat and vanished.

      After nearly ten miles, Asuka swatted the dragon. "Raccoon! You couldn't stick with the plan we discussed," she complained, "You just had to improvise!"

      "Raccoon!" Xian Pu gave a strangled cry, "Raccoon is the dragon?!"

      "Oh course, what did you think happened to me? Why I was gone so long? The Musk blew me into the water and shredded my suit. And Langley, I decided to let Xian Pu play the hero. After all she went through, I thought she should leave on a high note."

      "So there was no danger," Xian Pu stammered.

      "Of course, those arrow and spear shards might have injured you," Raccoon-dragon replied, "That poison would have been useless against a dragon but lethal against a human."

      "What was on the rock you were carving?" the Archivist asked, her hair whipping in the wind.

      " 'Raccoon' in Japanese Kanji characters."

      "I am still disgraced, like the last four girls who bore the name and became champion. The Elders will simply announce it now that I am the wife of a dragon," Xian Pu said, then asked, "Or am I wife to a dragon?"

      "Xian Pu, you're wrong, while it is true that all those who bore your name and became the village champion died in disgrace," the Archivist said, "They all died saving our nation, by returning at the head of a foreign army. It is too bad we have never raised a monument to their sacrifice. Of their lives and their honor, but they loved their people . . . perhaps more than the Elders do."

      Xian Pu nodded.

      "I didn't marry anyone, but Langley and I did promise an escape, to all of you," Raccoon said, "And we'll deliver one."

      Asuka turned and nodded to the girls. Then she tapped the dragon. "Home James, and don't stop for toll booths."

      Stirogi crawled loose of the chains of `steel-fire` the Musk had thought would hold a cold-drake forever. The girl of fire had nicked them almost clear through, and smiled before leaving. Stirogi fled the Musk territory, not from fear of the Musk, but a new sensation. A psychic spoor that matched the tantalizing odor that clung to the girl like a second skin.

      The sky beckons! Stirogi thought as the sensation localized and grew stronger, Another dragon. Stirogi felt a level of excitement beyond all previous exhilaration. A male dragon, powerful! Stirogi searched to skies, and on spotting the other dragon, began to pursue.

      Stirogi's powerful wings made closing the distance easy. And he's not flying at full speed, the beautiful white and blue cold-drake realized, Servants, Amazons and others. The piercing gaze of a fiery redhead locked on Stirogi. The cold-drake felt despair. If he's already chosen that human female . . . Realization dawned. The female isn't a mate, she's a guardian and partner! Stirogi did a barrel-roll of sheer exuberance and joy around this magnificent and above all masculine sandy-brown dragon.

      The dragon glanced back, measuring what threat Stirogi might pose to his cargo. Stirogi flew dead straight and level, not approaching, nor receding. I'm not dangerous, not to you, not to your servants, Stirogi thought, doing nothing to contradict the thought. Inside, the cold-drake's heart was blazing like a burning sun of hope and desire. He didn't reject me, I may have a chance! The only thing his servants have in common is a powerful will and mind, some are merely stubborn, the most favored is brilliant and fierce. I have much I could offer!

      The dragon's heart instantly sank. Mating dances are always a female in estrus and two or more males fighting over her, Stirogi thought as the count of 'two' stood in the way, What am I going to do? Somehow I doubt his servants would fight for no reason. He doesn't seem to follow the usual customs, or he'd never have let me get so close. Attacking him directly would sent the wrong message, and would probably get me killed. What to do? What to do?! The dragon's despair grew and grew. On the back of the other dragon, the red hair and the dragon discussed. The redhead throwing Stirogi concerned, then shocked looks.

      She knows I'm interested! Now he knows I'm interested! Stirogi wanted to dance through the skies, No more rejections, no more loneliness! Even if we're just friends, I'll have a male in my life!

      The other dragon dropped back slightly, flying alongside a now petrified Stirogi. Please don't send me away. We can just be friends. Please don't send me away. I just don't want to be alone. Please don't send me away. I don't hate humans, even the Musk. Please don't send me away, Stirogi kept thinking, not daring to glance at this delicious dragon flying in formation.

      "Do you understand me?"

      All Stirogi could do was nod.

      "I'm not a real dragon," he said, "I fell into the Jusenkyo. I'm really a human. I admit, I prefer the companionship of humans."

      Stirogi looked over the servants riding on the dragon's back, especially the fiery-hair guardian, who he now recognized as the one who'd attacked and weakened the chains. He prefers human females, I can do that! Stirogi thought, with wonder and joy straining all bonds of discipline. "I understand." Stirogi thought of his marvelous shapechanging skills and gleefully fell into formation.

Sailor Jupiter 19 - Finale and Epilogue

      Burma Shave maneuvered into the windbreak provided by the baggage, opened her journal and wrote. 'The flight has been both exhilarating and insanely dull. The `attack` by PLAAF fighters seemed to panic all of us, except our two `foreign devil` benefactors. Even our new dragon friend feared. The missiles fired terrified us all, until Asuka explained that 'With poor radar reflection and very little heat signature, we have nothing for the seekers to lock on to.'

      'While she seemed quite satisfied, the rest of us, or at least I couldn't ignore that they might just shoot the missile straight, like a bullet. Also, they or an accident could make it explode near us, and shower us with fragments. I was very satisfied when the missile turned and headed away. Then Xian Pu noted that it was chasing the fighter that had fired it. I wanted to plead with Jeff-dragon to spare the life of the pilot, who was a slave as much as the lowest caste Amazons, when the missile merged with the plane, and the pilot, in his ejection seat, found himself sailing through the air surrounded by an immense cloud of pink pigeons.'

      'Clever warhead design, don't you think? Jeff-dragon rumbled. The other fighter left at high speed. Some time later, four other fighters took up positions around us. While they didn't use their weapons, it was clear they were trying to keep us from overflying various locations. We heard Jeff-dragon's half of the conversation with the pilots, indicating his desire for swift passage to Japan, and left our `guards` to plot the swiftest route. After several hours, the fighters left, to be replaced by another group of four fighters, these also took no hostile action.'

      "We're closing in on that chopper," Asuka called to the dragon, "I don't think he's being warned off."

      "He's a provincial mandarin, he's been extolling his people about the blessings of having a dragon, he should have said two, overflying their homes and farms, bestowing their blessings."

      "If we don't land soon," Xian Pu said, "The blessings I bestow won't be the kind you want."

      "Okay, he wants a blessing, let's hit him up for lunch and some clean restrooms." Jeff-dragon turned to Stirogi. "You need a rest?"

      "I could use one," Stirogi said, "But I don't need one."

      "Someone's got a crush," Asuka teased.

      Jeff-dragon just grumbled before he contacted the fighters to arrange for a landing space.

      'Delicacies don't translate,' Burma Shave wrote in her journal, 'Ordinary work-a-day food is usually palatable by anyone.'

      Odd, she thought, But considering that `ordinary` food is usually greens and a starch, vegetables and potatoes, salad and bread, rice and pickles. A bit of meat or cheese, I guess it does apply.

      'The spread, while `simple` was still lavish.' she wrote, 'But there is still a wide variety of `ordinary dishes`.' She looked up from her book to see Stirogi changing from a white and blue cold-drake, to a buxom, red-headed girl.

      I think I can see the interest now. With so few dragons, even a transforming human is too good to pass up. Then she saw Asuka advancing on the transformed dragon like a storm front. The dragon paled as Asuka's vector made it clear who her target was.

      Poor dragon, Burma Shave thought, as Asuka dragged the girl-dragon behind a building. "I suppose a rug would be out of the question?" she asked Jeff-dragon, "Perhaps a selection of handkerchiefs?"

      "A pile of postage stamps," he replied with a frown.

      But even he won't intervene here, Burma Shave noted, then wrote it down.

      Asuka sensed the transformed dragon's alarm was quickly shifting to anger. She stopped and released the girl, so she could confront her. "Look, I know you're trying to make a memorable first impression, and a busty, bouncy red head probably has most of the guys in there drooling. All you need are jade-green eyes to make it perfect," Asuka explained fiercely, "But he won't be impressed, especially when you are over 25 centimeters shorter than his human form. He'll think you're a kid, and treat you like one . . . unless that is what you want?"

      "No," the girl-dragon replied earnestly.

      "Good, then a little taller than me, athletic build." Asuka frowned. "Loose the Graf Zeppelin and her sister ship. Defying gravity is impressive, but act as if the laws of physics apply to you. Lose the red hair, it's exotic to orientals and a dime-a-dozen to Westerners, what's so wrong with your white and blue color scheme? It was quite striking. White with blue highlights or vice versa, makes it seem less like you're trying to disguise yourself. Long is good, but not braided, a loose pony tail, he likes long, soft hair. Besides, you can use the neural pathways that controlled your tail and wing claws to control your hair, to bash or whip, or pick things up," Asuka said as she moved the girl-dragon's attitude back to alarm. She patted the dragon's shoulder. "Unless you want to him to throw you on the floor, fill you with seed so you can lay a clutch of eggs . . . ?" Asuka waited for the dragon-girl to shake her head 'no'. "Good, you aren't. He's got a girlfriend, you want to play knock-around friend, the one who talks and does what he likes and, except for a joke of genetics, would be a guy. Do you understand?"

      The girl-dragon nodded grimly, frowning at Asuka while she commented.

      "Good, so you don't go out there looking like a blow-up doll come to life, or a trophy you set on a shelf and dust occasionally, because it's much too pretty to play with. I'm assuming you want companionship, not admirers."

      "Yes," the girl-dragon growled.

      "Then go out pretty enough to be noticed, but not so much that you keep every eye you draw, your build should say 'anyone with these curves has to be a girl', yet still be solid and strong enough to do a day's work or fight alongside him. Jeff's girlfriend is like that. To most idiots, she's too tall and tough, so she has to downplay it by being overly 'girly', girlier than her friends. But not with Jeff. She can be tough and still be considered feminine." Asuka shook her head. "The poor girl is very feminine, but acted and was treated as masculine, so out of the public eye, she acted very feminine to compensate . . . is this making any sense? It's human gender confusion and the like, or am I just irritating and confusing you?"

      "I think I have a very good idea," the girl-dragon said as she changed to the form Asuka had suggested, "So I should also be friendly to her, even if she will be confused if I'm a boy or a girl, and how she should act, tough or girly?"

      "Exactly, maybe you'll fit in after all. As for the form, very good eye. Still sexy, but in a 'I can kick your butt' way, like Red Sonja or Eowyn. Very good, you listen, that's also a point in your favor. Now, one more thing. He and I, both of us, have . . . we've been betrayed by supposed friends. A lot. Yig vouched for you, so I'm not as worried, but Raccoon . . ." She glanced at Raccoon the dragon. "He can't catch a break in that regard with both hands and a mitt. So go slow, also let the others gather you in. Don't break in and try to make a big impression, you'll just look pushy and clingy, both very negative marks. But if you just pitch in and help, that will get you a lot of points. I know, it's a lot to remember. But take my word for it, it is the best way, if you're after companionship, rather than romance. Because romance won't get you anywhere."

      "I'll settle for it," the girl-dragon answered.

      "Try to keep it all in mind," Asuka told her.

      Usagi was bored. I can't believe it, she thought as she stared out the window of the train, I actually miss going out and fighting youma. I miss getting dirty and beaten up. I miss the danger and the challenge. She sighed as she looked at the reflection of an ordinary school girl.

      She looked at the reflections of her fellow students, and felt vaguely separated from them. I did it, and they didn't, she wondered at that, My `advisor` couldn't believe I'm actually thinking like this. Stupid Mooncat! She put those thoughts aside as she and her entire class got off the train. A field trip to the Diet building, to 'see the government in action', she thought and frowned at it, I wish we could contact Jeff. He promised to have our replacement Henshin rods, or 'a reasonable facsimile' available this week, she shook her head as she considered, accidentally striking several passers-by with her hair, I didn't want this responsibility. I didn't want people depending on me. Yet, since it was taken away by someone else, I resent losing it.

      She noted some of the troops wore the crest that Jeff and Asuka had warned them about. Senshi Hunters! she realized in fear, then giggled, You can't catch me, I'm not a Senshi anymore. She walked right past a mustached officer in a severe uniform, who seemed to take in everything around him. Tsukino Usagi escaped his notice, as did Kino Makoto, Mizuno Ami, and Tomoe Hotaru. All of us normal, everyday, ordinary school girls, she thought, Maybe not being around for a couple of weeks wouldn't be such a bad thing. Although practicing being 'Sailor Scouts' on a table top is nowhere near as satisfying as helping people for real.

      Commodore Takarada was used to strange looks from his countrymen. The JSDF was an embarrassment to Liberals, it harkened back to the 'bad old days', and to Conservatives and Nationalists, it was too small and ineffective. Either way, it was a disappointment. Being snickered at by a group of school girls was nothing new to him. He had more important things to worry about. But the people I have are strong, capable and well-trained, he thought as he considered his deployments and analysts, The Youma always attack high concentrations of 'energy', twelve Junior High Schools all here for the special dedication should have high enough concentration that they can't ignore it. I just hope we're ready for them. I just wished I knew what was so special.

      Another blonde-haired school girl chuckled at him as she walked by.

      She and that other group seemed to find me and my insignia particularly amusing. I wonder why? He looked at the vans, in which resided the boffins 'secret weapon' that would give ordinary troops a chance against Senshi or Youmas. And if pigs could fly . . .

      "I don't see why you find this so interesting." Makoto tried not to yawn as Kiima stared in rapt amazement at the proceedings from the visitor's gallery. "Old men arguing over some minor point."

      "If you'd lived your entire life being told what to do, by a demigod or his advisors, certain that if people could just choose their own path things would be better, then you would understand," Kiima whispered in utter fascination, "People taking their own destiny in their hands. And doing as terrible a job of it as a petulant godling. Fascinating."

      Makoto frowned. I should hit her for doing that, Makoto considered, but instead glanced over at Hotaru, Still isolated because she's so young. At least she and Ami seem to have hit it off, she thought, then looked at Kiima and back to Hotaru, My family. My `knight` and the only remaining Senshi, although none of the others know that yet.

      She sighed. My responsibility. I could kill Jeff for saddling me with both of them . . . but I still like it. Big sister, and mommy. It frightens me, but I wouldn't give it up for the world. She noted Hotaru had gone even paler than usual, and was staring intently at the ceiling.

      She was out of her seat and closing on Hotaru in alarm. "What's wrong?" Makoto asked as she hurried towards Hotaru. Kiima had caught Hotaru's mood too, and was bringing up the rear.

      "We have to get out of here," Hotaru said in a dreamy voice.

      "You do?" Makoto asked, glancing at Kiima.

      Hotaru pulled her Henshin rod and stared at it. "She's preparing to strike."

      The Commodore was on the sidelines, and glad of it. Stupid scheming morons! he wanted to shout out loud as the clawed, wild-haired woman in the outre evening gown floated towards the podium where the delegation waited.

      They didn't listen to any part of the briefing, except what they wanted to hear! He glanced at Itto Kui Takarada of the JASDF, My daughter. I should have more strongly opposed your joining the JSDF, and then joining the 'Gojira Squad'. But you've gotten where you are on your merits and decisions. I should be proud of you, he thought, Instead, I'm terrified for you.

      The woman landed on the podium and smiled at all the politicians, and the crowds of school kids.

      A predator's smile, and so pleased these idiots have arranged the buffet for her. This is going to be a disaster, the Commodore thought as he checked the forces he had available, And I have to wait for it to start, before I can stop it.

      "I am glad you agreed to ally yourselves with me, against our ancient enemies: Serenity and her assassins," the woman said, seeming to savor every word.

      The Commodore felt dizzy and wanted to agree with Beryl's words. But that boy she murdered, he clung to that thought, rebuilding his perceptions of Beryl around her victim, At least their majesties aren't here. With all these innocent bystanders, we'll need a miracle to survive.

      "They kept such technology as they had, to oppress us. Because we would not bow to them. Now they have returned as strong as ever, and while my hunters have shown an excess of zeal, for which I sincerely apologize." Beryl gave a slight bow. The delighted politicians broke off congratulating each other to return her bow. "Many remember the atrocities and sabotage they hurled down on us. We only wanted to live our lives without their `help.` Is that so unreasonable?"

      The politicians fauningly assured her it was not.

      As she stared up at the podium, and those who stood on it, Rei felt a sense of revulsion and betrayal dig through her guts like a red-hot auger. She felt physically ill, That man never made time for me, never made time for my mother even as she lay dying. That bastard is up there exchanging small talk and pleasantries with Beryl! Of all people! she wanted to shriek at the universe as her stomach heaved and her vision narrowed to a tunnel focused on her father and her enemy standing side-by-side. If only I had my Henshin! I don't care she'd probably kill me, or that I'd spend the rest of my life in prison. Just one chance, just one! I could tear her heart from her chest and destroy the source of all these youma! He can't be doing this! He can't . . . betray me - us - like this.

      "Rei-chan. Rei-chan!" The voice and the shaking brought her out of her fugue.

      "Mina?" she asked, focusing on her fellow defrocked-Senshi.

      "Yes, Mina, Rei-chan, we have to be ready to get these people to safely . Beryl isn't going to wait. She's going to strike, and all these people will just be targets," Mina told her, "We aren't to wait for the politicians to do the right thing," Mina said sternly, "All we can do is get these people to safety."

      "Other than that, maybe Mamoru, Tate, Jeff and Asuka are watching the news," Rei realized. Otherwise, all we can do is prolong the dying, Rei didn't need to be told, All we can do is run away. She felt the rising fury at the betrayal and slaughter they could do nothing about. With my Henshin . . . and without it I'm only a victim. A victim of my father and his whims, again!

      "Usagi and Makoto have another group to move into the building," Mina told her as she made sure she could get at least some people into the bulk and warren of the Diet building, once the shooting began.

      "I hate the thought of - "

      "Depending on our friends to save us?" Mina asked angrily, "Killing monsters is what they do! If they catch Beryl like this, then it's all over, for her!"

      Rei nodded. Monsters killing monsters to protect humans, she thought, then wondered, I wonder if that applies to us Senshi as well, if we'll become monsters, or be seen as monsters?

      The massive energy beam that swept in front of them, shocked all the passengers.

      "That had to be thousands of miles across," Raccoon-dragon commented as he hung there in the sky.

      "Why is the planet still in one piece?" Asuka asked as they watched the South China Sea pour over the edge and onto the exposed planetary core.

      "Quit being impressed and do something!" Xian Pu proclaimed.

      "Just what are we going to do against something that can do that?!" Asuka replied as she gestured at the hole, "That looks like a bite out of an apple, except that planet - our planet - is the thing with a bite out of it."

      "You can shoot somebody!" Xian Pu urged as she waved her arms in the air.

      "I think we're a little outclassed in terms of power," Raccoon said, "Whoever - "

      The blast slammed into them from some unseen source.

      Asuka shook her head. I'm floating in total blackness, she thought as she looked around and equal darkness surrounded her, This isn't good. She summoned a ball of flame. "Raccoon?" she asked of the human figure floating near her. The others, and all their baggage were gone.

      "I don't know if I am more worried that something can do that," Asuka said, "Or that we survived without a singed hair or damaged clothing."

      Raccoon was looking around. "You're the physicist, but even if the stars themselves were destroyed, wouldn't we still see them?"

      "Unless that blast also destroyed the photons that were on their way here as well," Asuka answered. I don't like what all this is implying, she thought.

      A movement near them drew Asuka's attention.

      "I think there's someplace that I'd rather be," a gravelly voice told them as they perceived an area of acceleration away from them.

      "I think it's time we quit kidding ourselves about what we are, and start dealing with some of these problems," Raccoon told her. She could see he was resolute, but unhappy with the implications.

      Yeah, I've been dreading the same thing, she thought as she considered pursuing their ally across the interplanetary distances, I guess . . . it all is just a dream now. 'Look at me, I'm almost normal.', Asuka thought sadly.

      Tenchi screamed. What he was seeing and hearing, and even smelling, was so confusing it was physically painful. Just as he considered either going completely mad or pushing it all away from himself, it stopped. Everything had become an ever-changing collection of crystals. Their many faceted surfaces changing and twisting as they moved or sat still.

      This is still pretty weird, but it's better, he thought.

      "Sorry about the mind control, kid," a shard of black obsidian that shifted between a dinosaur, a bird, a coiled snake and an alligator, told him. Its shifts and the delicacy of its facets changed as it spoke.

      "Mind control?" Tenchi asked as he tried to gather and steady his thoughts.

      "Yes. You can handle a 5 or 6 dimensional reality, but not all 11-dimensions of this reality," the shard explained, "So I put a compulsion on you to experience only 5 dimensions at a time. They cycle through pretty quickly, so you can't be attacked by something in a dimension you weren't sensing at the time. It will fade within a short while."

      "Gee, thanks," Tenchi said nervously. That almost sounds like Washu-chan. "What's happening?"

      "Somebody is getting a reminder that near-absolute power doesn't make you God with a capital G."

      "Z was talking about Tsunami, Washu and Tokemi as old fools," Tenchi said, glancing around expecting retribution. When none came, he let out a sigh of relief.

      "True, they have little understanding of reality, beyond their rather limited perceptions."

      "Just because they can't create a being more powerful than themselves?"

      The obsidian shard took on a more sympathetic tone, "In every creature's life, if they are the least bit sentient, they will look upon something: a vista, a failure -"

      "Leave Bill Gates out of this," Tenchi warned, looking for lawyers.

      The obsidian shard continued, "- or something they cannot comprehend and ask 'Is this all there is?', 'Is this all I am?'"

      "They want something more than the universe?" Tenchi asked, then realized, "They want something beyond their experience in the universe!'

      "Exactly," the obsidian sounded pleased, its facets shifting faster, "Washu found the answer, but realized they'd failed to properly frame their question. As a priest in training, the answer should be obvious to you. Their logic could not accept any of the answers they found, and as you can guess, they stumbled over their answer many times, then picked themselves up and continued on. Is there more than our world?"

      "There's the Heavens and the Hells, the Christian Heavens and Hells, Buddhist Nirvana, the Australian DreamTime, a lot of others," Tenchi considered, "None of them can be proven or disproven using logic, you have to have faith. So they know about them, but they can't see them as answers."

      "Correct, yet each of them have tried to bypass their inherent inhumanity, by attempting a link with a human. Hoping to understand these possible answers to their question. Washu tried to operate without her full powers, but couldn't allow herself to be human. So she couldn't understand being human. Ryoko is her daughter, yet remains incomprehensible on many levels. Tokemi created her link with Z, as a servant. While Tsunami created a complete link with Sasami, and has learned the truth of their answer, as opposed to the facts of it. So, priest in training, what is the truth, rather than the fact?"

      "You do sound like Washu," Tenchi complained, then laughed nervously, "That seeking the answer is better for learning about yourself than finding the answer. That's the oldest cliche there is."

      "Cliches are merely truths that have lost their force, not their truthfulness. The problem with omniscience is that you do know everything, but you know you know everything. If you encounter something that you cannot understand within that context, you assume it is unknowable. A human can incorporate it, layering with myth and simile until they can slip it in their pocket and pull it out when they need it. Humans also realize that the same thing may mean a dozen different things to a hundred different people. Was 'Surrender Dorothy' a command for the people of Oz to surrender the girl, or a command to Dorothy to surrender herself?"

      "Or both," Tenchi replied. Now I remember why I hated Koans and Mondos, he thought. "So you don't think you know everything, you're sure of it," Tenchi realized, "What does that have to do with me?"

      "You are one of the anomalies they couldn't understand," the obsidian shard told him, "Washu has encountered others far more terrifying than you or Z. Unfortunately for your people, in her finding them, they found her as well. The stars are right, vengeance must be served and obligations rearranged. Since this is unclaimed territory, someone must stake a claim."

      "M-M-Me?" Tenchi stammered, "I'm not a god. I'm sure I'm not the God, I - why are you laughing?" Tenchi grew angry. "Don't laugh! I just want a way out of this mess!" he shouted.

      "I apologize," the obsidian shard said and bowed, "But you wondered why Z called them fools, and you've just answered the question. They have omnipotence and all the regard for their creations that you'd have for an infection. You can barely control, let alone understand the power you have, and you are seeking to fix, then solve the problem. You claim to want an escape, when what you are demanding is a solution."

      Tenchi didn't even attempt to argue. "You have one?" Tenchi asked, hope filling his voice.

      "A temporary one, the more permanent one requires a revelation to these three, a revelation neither I nor you can give them, or force them to accept once they have it. I cannot give you the revelations that will solve your problem, but I can give you the question to accrete it around. 'Do you have anything worth living for?'" The shard seemed to coil around itself, as if uncomfortable or restless. "Dying for a cause is easy, a flash of pain and glory, and it's all ended. Living for something means accepting it now, flawed though it is, nurturing it and possibly see it grow beyond you. Or having it die still full of promise. Or living with the knowledge you cannot control everything, especially something you love."

      "You sound like someone I met once," Tenchi said, "He talked in riddles just like that."

      The obsidian chuckled. "You avoid my question. You don't have to answer me, but you must answer it for yourself."

      "Why is that so important? 'Do you have something to live for?'" Tenchi said.

      " 'Do you have something worth living for?'," the obsidian corrected, then paused a long while, "Everyone has something to live for, but is it worth it?"

      "I guess, why is it so important?" Tenchi asked.

      "In about 95 seconds, it's going to be the most important question in these universes, and it's best you already have the answer, when the question will mean life or death for all."

      Tenchi considered all the people in his life, all the relationships with them. "Okay," he said, finding the answer.

      "Good luck." The obsidian object vanished.

      The immense trio of glowing figures waited, seeming to ignore all around them. The smaller black figure wrapped around them seemed inconsequential.

      "Mother, Maiden and Crone," Asuka commented on the trinity, "So do they actually understand what's going on in there?"

      "Are you kidding?" Raccoon replied, pointing out the Scholarly Dragon sailed out of the light, "If they had the barest inkling, we wouldn't be in this mess. They don't even understand each other."

      "We need to get out of here!" The dragon swept up both of them as he raced by.

      "What's going to happen?" Asuka asked as she swung herself into her customary stance, then realized Raccoon was having trouble. "What's your problem?"

      "I've never ridden a dragon before. I've always been the dragon," he replied peevishly.

      Asuka giggled as she got him situated so he wouldn't fall off.

      "What is going to happen," the Scholarly Dragon told them, "Is everything is going back to normal. So you two need to be in position to catch your passengers and those eggs when they cease to be nonexistent. Also, the Scouts are in trouble. Beryl herself is at the Diet building, we'll have to coordinate our attacks."

      "What are we going to do against Beryl?" Asuka asked, "We've got a dragon-load of eggs, and other breakables."

      "I'll take the baggage and passengers to Fuji-san. I know a place the eggs will be safe and warm, and it is on a major 'Dragon Line'. Then I'll take Stirogi in to clean up anything you two have left," Raccoon replied.

      "Ha! Ha!" Asuka replied.

      The Commodore watched the teams unlimber their weapons, as the glowing woman laughed and floated towards them. "Catch her in a crossfire!' he ordered, hating the seeming eternity the weapons require to come to firing condition.

      They fired, a few seconds of streaming hot plasma, and 'something else' that was supposed to be the ultimate weapon. The beams played over a shield sphere that hovered more than a meter from her body.

      Our best armor would melt like wax, and she stands unaffected, the Commodore realized, I wonder if a plea on television would get the Senshi here faster.

      "Keep moving! Keep moving!" Makoto shouted, pushing people into the building while the soldiers did their level best to slow down and distract Beryl. Great. If I live, I could get a job stuffing trains, Makoto thought as she used all her strength and intimidating appearance to keep people moving. And what then? The doors won't stop her. The best we can hope for is to scatter these people, so while she's slaughtering some, the others can escape.

      "Where are Pretty Sammi and the others?" Makoto muttered, "We could use a star-battleship right now."

      Where Beryl's black beams touched them, the vans with the heavy weapons brewed up, incidently spraying flaming shrapnel into the fleeing crowds. A small handful of stragglers, the too stubborn, or the too stupid, the Commodore thought as the black beams sought out the men trying to engage with pistols, rifle and even rockets.

      Whoever is doing crowd control to get them in the building deserves a medal, the Commodore thought as he daubed at the blood from his cheek where he'd been cut, Of all the times for the Senshi not to show up! Well, it's to be expected, they probably wouldn't know who'd be shooting at them. I wouldn't show up in their circumstances.

      A blast of a very different jet black, threw Beryl to the ground and sideways through the flaming debris. The Commodore looked up at a creature from every Hell he'd ever heard of. Immense, reptilian and black as coal, save for the yellow eyes filled with amused malevolence. It hung there, as if gravity feared to touch it. Its wings moved only to propel it forward. Then he saw atop the head of the dragon, the commanding figure in the royal blue and purple trimmed fuku. "Oh - my."

      "Lying to gullible politicians is unfortunate, but attacking innocent children who sought to learn about their government is unforgivable!" The platinum blonde figure tossed her head, sending her hair glittering in the sun, and pointed her polearm of blue-white flame at the fallen Beryl.

      "You! I destroyed you!" Beryl shouted at the figure, shaking with rage.

      The girl on the dragon laughed. "Do you believe I would send untrained girls against you, if I couldn't have moved in to back them up at any time?" The girl hugged herself and laughed uproariously.

      Beryl's beams of black energy slammed into and crawled around a shield surrounding the dragon, who smirked back at the woman on the ground.

      The Commodore noted that others were rousing themselves and getting the few remaining victims who could move or be moved into the Diet building. Good, good, he thought as he headed to assist, School girls, shouldn't they be running around screaming? Oh, that's not funny.

      The girl again raised her pole arm. "In the name of the Heavens! I shall punish you!"

      "Take cover!" the Commodore shouted as he took his own advice.

      The dragon and the Senshi fired together.

      "She's so cool!" Usagi gushed, little stars forming in her eyes as she stared at the Senshi blasting away at Beryl, then she burst into tears, "I thought up that speech and she stole it! Waah! And she does it better than me! Waah!"

      Mina turned to Rei. "We can kill her inside, and nobody will notice."

      Rei nodded and the pair dragged the sobbing Usagi into the building.

      "She's got a dragon! Why don't we have dragons?!" Usagi complained, "Are we just the training team?"

      "That's Usagi," Rei commented as they closed and barricaded the door behind them, "Always has her priorities straight."

      "Rei? Hino Rei?" she heard called to her. She turned and saw her father, and a collection of news cameras approaching.

      I do not need a touching 'father and daughter meeting' to boost his poll ratings, Rei thought, then smiled. "Usagi here's the man who invited Beryl here to eat us all." Rei practically threw Usagi at the man.

      "Waah!! Why do you hate children so much that you'd feed them to soul-sucking monsters! WAAH! I don't want my soul-sucked out and eaten by a Youma. I wanted to grow up and be a cute wife with a cute baby! Waah!"

      Rei watched with sadistic glee at the man dealing with Usagi. As bad as dealing with Usagi for the first time is for anyone, Rei thought as she grinned.

      "You are vicious," Mina whispered, clearly wanting to say more, but fearing the repercussions.

      Mako-chan isn't the only one who can learn new techniques, Rei thought as she slipped away into the crowd. Beryl, I will destroy you. I wish I could put your severed head on my father's desk, she thought, Just to remind him who and what he threw away to get where he is.

      "Whatever she's got backing her shields would give the Krell an inferiority complex," the Scholarly Dragon reported.

      "All we have to do is keep her occupied," Asuka replied as she concentrated her fire into a tighter beam. If I can't overwhelm your whole shield, let's see if I can punch a hole in it.

      "We also can go hand-to-hand," the Scholarly Dragon reminded her between breathing out his breath weapon, "Her attacks haven't exactly been shaking us up either, and we'd have the advantage."

      "Have all the targets cleared out?"

      "All that can," the Dragon reminded her.

      Asuka grimaced at that.

      "Okay, we've cleared the field as much as possible. Let's close in. Drop me off once we're on the ground, let's see who draws the most fire."

      "Too bad there's not a house I can drop on her," the Dragon said.

      A bolt of white and another bolt of black converged on Beryl, as two more dragons swept in from two directions. Beryl looked at the three converging forces with increasing desperation. She made a complicated gesture, and vanished.

      "What the Hell did you do?" Asuka shouted at the arriving sandy-brown dragon. "We could have finished her off!"

      "And that would have left dozens to hundreds of others," Jeff-dragon replied as he drew close, "I also did not want to fight the battle in the middle of this city. Now we know where they are, and where we'll have to go to attack them on their own home ground. Where all options are available."

      "Oh," Asuka said. She glanced around at the columns of smoke and the shattered pavement. Yeah, right, she thought, Better to blow up their backyard, rather than ours.

      "Right," Jeff-dragon said, "Change back, then let's get down there to help."

      "I'm going to keep an eye on those eggs, until I can set up the proper wards," the Scholarly Dragon said, "I'll leave the repairs to you."

      "Go." Asuka easily leapt from one dragon to another. "I guess training with Kho Lon paid off."

      The carnage was less than they'd expected. Commodore Takarada had one victim in particular that drew his attention. In the background, the special disaster teams were moving debris, and rescuing those who could be rescued, others were placed in bags and carried out with some reverence.

      But what do you do to one who still lives, but will never recover? he wondered, feeling very small and helpless in the face of things to big and powerful for him to have affected, She still lives, but . . . The ugly head wound drew his eye. I can put her in a chair and keep her fed, clean and warm, but there will be no return.

      A gaijin and a violet-haired school girl approached. He barely noticed them until they put their hands on her arm.

      "She's not dead," he protested in alarm, then he realized both had their eyes closed and a soft glow had enveloped all three of them.

      "Oh my head!" his daughter screamed as she sat up, clutching her head. She bowed her head and breathed heavily as he and the gaijin boy steadied her. Once she didn't need both, the school girl wandered off.

      "Commodore Takarada," the boy told him, "You just used your one and only 'Get Out of Jail Free' card, and you've gotten an idea how powerful the Senshi and their allies are, and on whose side they are. I'd suggest not looking for them. The battle here was to drive off Beryl, because the fight to the finish will be like an exchange of fire not seen since Leyte Gulf or the naval battles around Guadalcanal. There will be no place for gentleness or noncombatants, only the quick and the dead." He transferred the stunned girl to his arms and withdrew. "Be seeing you." He tipped his hat and turned away.

      The Commodore tried to protest, but by the time the boy had turned, he'd vanished completely. The father held on to his daughter, and left the work to those who knew it best. He was grateful for the miracle, and terrified at the underlying meaning.

      "We have to attack now!" Rei urged as she paced between the others. I know it isn't only Beryl that I'm angry with, she thought, But when we kill her, that will deal with the rest of it. She refused to give up her anger, enjoying the warmth of it. She looked at the faces, Usagi, Minako, Makoto, Kiima and Ami, and tried to gauge their reactions. "She's weakened and wounded. We know where she is, and if we hit her now, right now! We can finish this, finish her." She saw she was frightening the others, but didn't care. They'll see it, the necessity of it, she thought, They'll follow.

      "How do we get there?" Usagi asked in a near whine, "You haven't told us where she is."

      "In the arctic," Rei told them, her anger boiling up as she told them, "While we were fighting to preserve Japan, they were already negotiating with her. As if they could buy her off, gain her technology and - and - sell our souls for a pitiful advantage!" She'd clenched her fist and was now shaking with righteous rage.

      "Rei," Ami began, "Are you -"

      "Of course I'm sure!" She towered over the girl. "This will finally let us take the fight to them!"

      "I think she was asking if your father's involvement was clouding your judgement," Kiima commented, looking at Rei carefully.

      No, I will not pick a fight with you, Rei thought and reined in her anger, at least partially. "Even if my father wasn't involved," Rei replied to the girl, "It would still be the right thing to do!"

      "Without us?" Tatewaki asked as he and Mamoru approached. Mamoru accepted Usagi's squeal and flying tackle. Tatewaki sat down next to Ami, and exchanged a shy smile with her. "You would leave without us, your allies."

      "We were in a hurry," Rei tried to brush it aside. We have to hurry! Every moment we delay gives Beryl time to recover and gain strength! she fumed inwardly, Why can't even Ami see that?

      "You still have not answered how we will arrive there," Tate pointed out, "Or why you have not enlisted your other allies. The Shaman, Asuka, Pretty Sammi - " Tate faltered as Rei stared at him angrily.

      "The Jurains should have no part in this!" Rei growled, "They had plenty of opportunities to help Serenity against Beryl, instead they chose to let the Moon Kingdom fall! Why should we expect any better from them now!?" she screamed at him.

      Tate was about to answer when he felt Ami's hand on his. He acknowledged her and fell silent. His expression told Rei the argument would be finished later, and not to her advantage.

      "Besides, if we keep relying on them for everything, how will we learn to stand on our own," Ami said, "They hurt Beryl, drove her off, after flying all the way from China and fixing whatever that energy blast that Beryl summoned did. They'll come if we call them, but after doing all that, they're probably exhausted."

      "There is a way to teleport to Beryl's location," Luna admitted, "It's difficult, and we couldn't take much more than the Senshi and two or three others."

      "See?" Rei pointed out, "Look, I know it seems impulsive, but we have a chance, later or tomorrow will be too late. Beryl thinks we're gone. We've got our Henshin back and total surprise on our side. If things get too bad, we can always pull out and try again later. Agreed?"

      Rei saw the others nodding, with varying degrees of reluctance. She held up her newly returned Henshin rod and smiled. "Usagi?" She'll agree, she has to agree, Rei thought.

      Uncharacteristically, Usagi simply stared at her Henshin, as she turned it over and over in her hands. While Rei fumed at every lost second, Usagi looked from face to face, getting a nod, a scowl or both from all those around her. Her decision made, Usagi stood and looked at her friends. "Let's do this!" She smiled at Rei. "Right now!"

      "You're sure we can't get the upgraded rods for two days?" Jeff asked Sasami on the other end of the telephone line, "Okay, once we figure out where they're coming out of, we'll call you and you can bring the Senshi up for the grand finale." He hung up the phone and looked at the faces around him. "Evidently, when the universe got put back, Sasami and company were always back on Earth with Tenchi. And yes, that's exactly what I meant. They can't come help us immediately, but once we've got Beryl and company on the run, Pretty Sammi and Ryo-Oh-Ki will be more than willing to give her a warm welcome. As well as Lady Seto's Mikagami and Lady Ayeka's Ryu-Oh. I think they're holding back to see what kind of damage we can really do."

      Asuka walked from the restaurant's other phone. "Hotaru doesn't know where they are. Once you gave them their improved Henshin to help with the rescue, they sent her home and waited there. I called Mamoru, and left a message, Kodachi doesn't know where Tatewaki is, but he left when Beryl attacked the Diet."

      "The girls are not in Tokyo. Hotaru vanished as soon as you hung up the phone, and I couldn't track her," the Scholarly Dragon in human form told the others, "They have either gone to assault Beryl. Or they are off planet investigating the disturbances we lived through."

      "What disturbances," Stirogi asked.

      "The destruction of most of this galaxy," Jeff replied as they thought over the possibilities and their options.

      "Wouldn't we have noticed that?" the transformed dragon asked.

      "Not if you were destroyed and reconstituted too," Jeff said absently.

      "No over think as always," Xian Pu interjected, "They attacking Beryl, you plan to attack Beryl. You go attack Beryl and meet them there. Simple? Yes, go do." She waved her hands, as if shooing them away.

      "She's right," Langley said, "You, me, and our two heavy friends here go stomp on Beryl and company. If the girls call, put them in touch with Sasami and they can sail in in comfort, from the deck of a battlewagon, and yes, you can come to, aboard the battlewagon. If they're there, you know they're going to need us, all of us. So we move out now."

      "Okay. We'll teleport now, and devil take the hindmost," Jeff said as the four drew together. An instant later, they were elsewhere.

      "The place has been stripped!" the Scholarly Dragon's voice echoed through the corridors and tunneled-out halls of Beryl's palace, "There should have been thousands of people here to grate us." He ignored their winces. "There's evidence of only a few hundred."

      "You and your magic noses, it's grating. Then we know what they fed on during their captivity," Asuka commented, "Each other." She shuddered at the thought.

      "It isn't completely stripped," Stirogi, in dragon form, called from a side chamber of what had been the throne room.

      The others rushed to see what was there.

      "Why would they leave him behind?" the Scholarly Dragon asked of the huge crystal with the man trapped inside, "He's dressed as one of their generals. If there was a major battle, wouldn't they want to take him with? If he was a guard, shouldn't he have woken up and attacked us?"

      "There's nobody here," Raccoon said, "Now we need to figure out where they all went. Because I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts, the Senshi are attacking there, not here."

      "We should still rig this place to be destroyed," Asuka told them, "I'll take Stirogi to do that, you two scan this throne room. That's probably where they started the ritual."

      She left the two mages to discuss methods and scan for locations, while she considered the best way to destroy the hollowed out rock and cavern system.

      "With a big enough blast," Stirogi suggested, walking beside her in dragon form, "The whole place would collapse."

      Asuka rubbed her arms. "I think we need to do more than collapse the place. The whole locale is evil. Can't you feel it?"

      "Yes, but it isn't evil, it's just anti-life. Not death, but the sucking out and consuming of life, light, energy, even magic. Like the whole place was build to draw out every bit of energy."

      "Assuming it didn't store the energy, where did it go?" Asuka asked, "If this was Mordor, it would have gone to Sauron. But the boss isn't here, and I don't think she took her extension cord with her." She abandoned speculation for more concrete concerns. "So we'd have to generate a blast that would encompass the whole place. Heat the whole thing to the vaporizing point. Or drop it down a hypermass . . . or age it until it collapses." Asuka brightened. "That's what we do, or I do, accelerate time. Let normal aging take this place and everything in it down." Then she frowned. "If I do that, I won't be in any condition to help when we arrive at Beryl's new address."

      "I think preventing her from having a place to retreat to will more than make up for it," Stirogi assured her.

      "Right," Asuka said as she rubbed her hands eagerly, "Okay, where to get started?"

      Stirogi carried the near-comatose girl on his back. Strange, she must have ridden dragons so often, even in her current state, she knows exactly how to hold on. The boy-dragon and his terrifying alter-ego both stood in the center of the room. The mystic symbol they'd redrawn or reactivated glowed with a sickly, green light.

      "We'd better hurry. Time will accelerate rapidly soon. I wanted to be older, but not as old as I'll be if I stay here," he told them.

      "Well, good," the boy said "We're done and ready to go."

      "Gather her in," the black monster told him, "Is she all right?" While delivered in a conversational tone, Stirogi felt the menace behind the question.

      "She just exhausted herself. She'll be fine," he replied, trying not to let his knees knock, "I did try to talk her out of it, but I suspect no one has had much luck in that regard."

      The black monster considered then nodded. "True, all too true."

      "Ready?" the boy asked, "I'm worried that this will easily handle all the mass and power we're sending through it. So the original was even stronger. I hate to think about what they're fighting."

      "Then - go." The black monster looked around at the snow fields as the wind howled and the ice whirled around them. "I think this is the definition of a pyrrhic victory."

      The fields were covered with ash and powdery snow, except for the scars that scoured through to the ice below. Asuka seemed to be the only one to even feel the bitter cold.

      "Are you all right?" the Scholarly Dragon asked.

      "It isn't the cold that's bothering me. It should be, but it isn't," she admitted.

      The Dragon looked around the field, the residue of dead youma lay thick on the ground, almost indistinguishable from the snow it mingled with or the bodies they both covered. Sight, scent and sound of the carnal house it should have been, all muted by the ice and snow. Residues of great magics hung everywhere, twisting perceptions away from reality further. In a hundred years, this place will still be here, the Dragon thought, Under the snow, but filled with evil, death and madness. I wish I knew what they were thinking, coming here without us. Madness.

      "Quite a battle," Stirogi said, looking around at the scars and lumps as far as the eye could see,"No color here, not even the red of blood." The cold drake seemed impressed by a cold even deeper than his own.

      "We're looking for survivors," the Scholarly Dragon reminded him as his eyes fell on flash of yellow, a second of careful claw-work revealed Sailor Venus. With those wounds, it's impossible she could have survived, he thought, a gentle touch to her chest confirmed she was very dead. He scanned the ice fields. Not looking for color, he's right about that. No, just looking for craters, that's this field's chief `crop`. He extended his senses and was overwhelmed. Too much senseless death, he thought as he withdrew his senses, depending on his eyes and nose, Both sides hated each other, they were both possessed with a spirit of rage. I wonder if Usagi's Scouts, or Serenity's soldiers ever understood the depths or the reason for that hatred. For Usagi's case, I hope she didn't, I fear Serenity didn't either.

      "They put up a Hell of a fight," the boy said, "The enemy must have thrown everything away. They had an army, not just the one-at-a-time monsters." He gazed down into the clear ice beneath him, pointing down he told them,"There's Beryl down there, and she's dead too." He walked to a large snow covered lump, brushing aside the covering of ash and snow. "Usagi and Mamoru fought side by side to the end. As cold as it is, I don't know how long they've been here, but as badly torn up as they are, they're beyond my ability to bring back."

      "The army didn't do much good for Beryl, the Senshi punched straight through. They only fell when that force closed in on them from all sides, including above," Stirogi said, "They all died. For what?"

      "The right to eat the world, or to die beside their Queen reborn," Asuka replied, "Aren't any of you cold?"

      "We aren't fire-aspected," the boy said, obviously completely unaffected by the cold as he searched and analyzed, "Maybe they had help after all. There should have been a massive heat bloom from this battle. That should have attracted someone's attention."

      With two dragons, a clutch of eggs in this world and the boy finally able to become a dragon . . . I doubt Yig would care about anything, the Dragon considered the carnage and the uselessness of it, And the Jurains are waiting for our call. Why weren't we contacted? Why didn't they try to coordinate? Langley and the boy taught them better. Did they come out here intending to kill Beryl and die? To what end? Vengeance? A loyalty test? Grief at having failed by living longer than their queen and godhead? Selfish as Usagi can be, she would have been appalled that such a sacrifice would even be asked. She would have known they could still be normal humans, was the idea of having fulfilled their function so terrifying that with Beryl and their Princess dead, they let the others kill them?

      The boy draped his coat over Langley's shoulders and gestured. The winds died down and the snow ceased to swirl. The resulting silence was shocking, broken only the crunch of snow from careful footsteps and the sound of snow being brushed away from the huddled figures and remains.

      "I found Sailor Mars," the boy announced, and a moment later added, "She's dead too."

      "If Moon was back there, Venus was there," Asuka began, she looked across the snow fields and began marching. As she passed the Scholarly Dragon, she whispered to him, "Keep him back."

      The Dragon knew the reason. The one who fought hardest and would be first into the battle, he thought as the boy advanced. He dropped his wing to block his advance and the sight. "You've seen enough death in your life, you have no need to see this."

      The boy seemed to want to protest, then turned away.

      "This one's alive!" Stirogi called and gestured for them, as he gingerly lifted a large male from the snow.

      "That's Kuno," the Dragon said as he stripped the cloaks and other cloth from some of the bodies, to wrap their only witness in.

      The boy touched Nerima's most-infamous swordsman. The Dragon could practically see the power draining out of him into Kuno. Then the boy sat back. "He'll live, but I'm spent. I don't know how he hung on so long."

      Stirogi caught him before the boy could topple over in the snow. The Scholarly Dragon saw Langley's hopeful expression, then she frowned and looked back at where she'd been digging.

      So, she's gone too the Dragon thought. "We have to get him back home where he can be treated," he said, "Boy, you and I will take him there. Langley and Stirogi will verify Beryl's forces are dead, and return the Senshi for proper disposal. No arguments."

      "No arguments," the boy admitted wearily, "But I can't teleport."

      "I can fly," the Dragon said, "Very fast."

      They loaded the wrapped casualty onto his back and he set the boy next to Kuno, before launching himself into space and racing off towards Japan.

      As she and the transformed Stirogi entered the Neko-chan, Asuka was amazed that Tatewaki was actually able to sit up and talk. I guess a few hours let the Nerima stamina bring him back from the near death, she thought as she watched Xian Pu and Ukyo helping Kuno to one of the tables in the main area. He's got the haunted expression I've seen on too many survivors, Asuka realized, You did all you could, and you survived. Why is that your fault?

      "They came, so many," Kuno said quietly.

      It should be funny, she thought as she sat beside him and took his hands, A trivial action and you'd embroider it all to Hell and gone. A real struggle, and words fail you. He felt how cold her hands were and enclosed them in his.

      "I must apologize." Tate bowed his head. "I should have been more forceful in my insistence that we include you. They believed that if the battle went against us, we could break away."

      "Why didn't you?" Raccoon asked as he sat at an adjacent table, still looking wrung out for his earlier healing and all the other actions of the day.

      He looks like death warmed over, Asuka thought, Who went dancing with Death? Tate or you, Raccoon?

      "When Mamoru and Usagi fell on killing Beryl . . . " Kuno's laconicness disturbed Asuka, "The others seemed to have lost heart." He shook his head. "Trivial mistakes, they cared nothing for defense, or they refused to continue their attack. It varied. But none would leave. I fought to protect Ami-chan for as long as I could, until I stood alone on the plains." He looked up at the faces around him, his expression haunted, he clearly took the blame for what happened. "The chill winds felled me, as if all the wounds I had suffered were not enough."

      He bowed his head. "I begged, I pleaded, but with their Princess gone . . . neither logic nor love would sway them. Perhaps the pain of surviving was too great, perhaps they felt they had failed." He looked up, tears in his eyes. "They saved the world, Usagi told them to find love, why did they remain to die? Why did -?"

      Why didn't Ami, or Makoto, or even Kiima try to get away? Why did they abandon those they loved? Asuka asked the question Kuno couldn't, 'Didn't Ami love me enough to live after Usagi was gone?' Maybe not. I guess Makoto didn't either, their Princess was their one true love.

      "You did all you could. More than could be expected," Raccoon laid a hand on Kuno's shoulder, "You have betrayed no one by living through it. Not Ami, not me, and not yourself."

      "A samurai - "

      "- is to serve," Asuka interrupted, "Seeing the last of them fall, making sure their fate would be known. That is the best service you could render."

      Kuno seemed ready to protest, then bowed low. Xian Pu placed some hot broth before him and withdrew, for once sensing `happy Shampoo` was not appropriate here.

      Asuka drew back, then stepped aside as Stirogi motioned her over.

      "Are you going to tell him what happened with the bodies?" the girl-dragon asked.

      "No. It's going to be difficult enough telling their families," Asuka admitted, "Right now, it would just give them false hope. Besides, I recognize a transubstantiation when I see it. They went `elsewhere`, they didn't get resurrected, and they didn't reincarnate. Maybe they'll come back eventually, but tonight isn't the time to go looking. Let the wounds heal and the pain subside. Besides, as long as it us took to get back here, wouldn't they have called if they were back?"

      "They didn't call us when they left," Stirogi pointed out. Asuka couldn't argue with that.


      Jeff stood in the pouring rain and watched the students filing out of the school. Two very strange weeks had passed, even for Nerima. Until he'd finally made time to break away. Not a good omen, he thought sourly as he considered the unseasonable rain, But it will be good to see how they've recovered. He recognized some of the students, two in particular laughing and joking. Both tall and proud, in matching non-standard uniforms, one white-haired cut short, the other brown hair in a long pony-tail. The pair detached themselves from another group that included a short haired girl who looked straight at him, then dismissed the problem. Et Tu, Ami-chan? he wondered and focused on the pair marching straight towards him. Their matching blue and white flower-patterned umbrellas detracted from their fierce expressions substantially. Okay, you're mad, but at who, and why? he waited and wondered.

      "You got a problem Mister? Or do you usually stand in the rain watching kids?" Makoto asked, clearly ready for a fight, and Kiima equally ready to back her up.

      At least she's no longer so alone, he thought, 'Mister', how old does she think I am? Jeff smiled, despite that he saw no recognition in their eyes, or in Ami's. "I was led to believe a friend of mine was attending school here. It seems that someone played a joke on me." They stood there, the rain pouring down on them. None moving, none speaking. Jeff waited, willing for Makoto or Kiima to give some hint some clue. Makoto radiated indecision while Kiima checked him over without leaving her spot guarding Makoto's back.

      She sees no threat from a boy who is not driven screaming into the night by her `sempai` and her fearsome reputation, Jeff thought as both Usagi and Minako walked into the rain, and continued to stare at the scene unfolding, She doesn't see 'The Destroyer' of her nightmares, or `sempai's` friend. They see nothing to worry about, except Makoto beating someone up. Couple that with no magic signatures in the entire ward, and I'm getting the picture.

      Makoto broke the silence, "Oh."

      Disappointed you couldn't fight? he wondered as they stood there, What now? Ask me something? Or do you send me on my way, or do I leave? Do you remember anything? Is it erased or just deeply buried?

      "I think you can see she's not here," Makoto finally said as she took a Judo stance to prepare to attack or defend. Behind her back, Kiima gave an exasperated look.

      "Yes, I believe you are correct. Interesting you correctly guessed it was a she. I guess I'm predictable that way." And it was just a guess, or an assumption. He tipped his hat to both girls. "Have a peaceful life, young ladies." He felt their eyes on him as he walked away, and overheard bits of the whispered conversations. Kiima urging pursuit, Makoto demurring, he thought. He stopped and turned back. "A moment of your time?" he asked, "Do you believe people who have a connection in a previous life carry that connection over to their next lives?"

      "Yes," Kiima blurted out, elbowing her sempai.

      "No," Makoto said, her tone and gaze making it clear she wanted him gone.

      "I apologize for troubling you." He tipped his hat again and walked back into the rain.

      The tall gaijin walked away and began singing, or rather chanting a song. 'In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade, and he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down or cut him 'til he cried out, in his anger and his shame 'I am leaving, I am leaving' -'

      " 'But the fighter still remains,'" Makoto breathed as she lost sight of the weird gaijin, she frowned, trying to remember, "Where have I heard that?" She chuckled and turned smiling to Kiima. "Weird, singing in the rain, huh big sis? Gaijin are crazy, but that one must be from Nerima." Then she realized Kiima was glaring at her. "What? I didn't hit him. I promised dad no fights in this new school." When this didn't change Kiima's expression, she said, "He was just some weirdo."

      Kiima shook her head and sighed with aggravation. "Little sister, sometimes I wonder about you." She shook her head again, scattering rain off her umbrella. "Do you scare off interesting boys on purpose, or is it just some hidden knack?"

      "What are you talking about?! I'm not that hard up for a boyfriend," Makoto countered hotly, glancing at the two laughing, long-haired blondes leaving school, "Unlike some people."

      "I just think it's weird, the first guy you meet who not only isn't shorter than you, he isn't cowed by your the tough girl act, even finds it attractive and endearing, and what, no sparkly-eyed comparison to your sempai?" Kiima seemed to consider deeply. "Who, if I remember correctly . . . tore your heart out and stomped all over it, despite what you remember." She continued, ignoring her sister's blush and raised fist. "Not even asking him about his `friend`, even after you guessed it was a girl he was pining for, and even after he gives you a second chance? Yeah, he was kinda harsh looking, but he spoke good Japanese and he had good manners. Better than your's. For a gaijin, that's pretty rare."

      Makoto glared at her sister, but was blushing too much to make it work. "He was checking me out. He was weird, it made me uncomfortable. There was just something really strange about him."

      Kiima gave her a flat stare. "Yeah. That he smiled when a pretty girl came over to talk to him, instead seeing the giant, menacing delinquent like everybody else around here, except the school ditz? Yeah, you're right, that's pretty weird." Kiima smiled. "Maybe even sinister. Maybe we should follow him and make sure he doesn't check out any other pretty girls! We can leap in and beat him up to save them! Or are you afraid if you tried to beat him up, he'd win? And demand a lover's kiss as your ransom?"

      "I could beat you up!" Makoto countered as she towered over Kiima, then let her anger cool, "Come on, we have to pick up Hotaru, dad will worry with us out in this rain and it's her turn to cook."

      "I think Hotaru would have loved cooking for her big sister's new - excuse me FIRST, REAL boyfriend."

      "He was a . . . he kept looking at me," Makoto replied to Kiima's teasing.

      "And that's wrong!? Are you pretty, or so hideous you draw stares? I watched and he checked out all of you, from head to toe. I guess it is strange he wasn't staring at your chest with his tongue hanging out the whole time. Creeped you out did it?" she asked as sarcastically as she could, "Lil' sis, I'm beginning to think the only way you'll ever get a decent guy, is if someone chains one to you."

      "Maybe he was a front for the evil-stepmother and her two lesbian daughters, out to steal Hotaru away," Makoto replied, teasing her sister back, "You and your weird dreams."

      "At least I have dreams," Kiima grumbled.

      Nerima was beset by rain that searched out every nook and cranny. He's gone, Jeff wanted to tell it, And he won't be coming back, and I'm immune. I guess Langley's right, I've got to realize that. They aren't coming for us. If they win, or if they lose, we'll have to be ready to strike Nyarlathotep from here, with whatever forces we can assemble. Then why with all those potential allies in my hands, did I walk away? I have the archeo-Henshin Sasami and I reworked and improved, I could have played the Mooncat's role, why didn't I? he asked himself, Because they're free of it. Let them grow up into calm and ordinary lives.

      He found Tatewaki and Langley in the main room. He could hear the others packing for the planned trip to China. The hopeful expressions on their faces tore at him.

      "Yes, they survived," he told them, watching the pair relax and exchange joyous smiles. "But they have no memory of the events. No memories of us."

      Kuno stood with an expression and stance that heralded a drawn blade and a proclamation of his readiness to restore Ami's memories. He stood, silent and unmoving as if rethinking, then bowed his head, took his hand from his blade and retook his seat. "I believe my sister could use a change of scene," he said quietly, "As could I. My family has a lodge in Hokkaido. We will be there."

      Langley had glanced worriedly at Jeff, then at Kuno. "Could you use some company?" she asked, "I . . . I don't think I want to stay here anymore."

      "You would be most welcome," Kuno said warmly, smiled, "You are one of the few who appreciates my tales of glory." The smile slipped, and the hurt shown through for an instant. He stood to face Langley, not releasing her hand for a moment. "Your companionship would be welcome, for both I, and my sister." He turned to Jeff. "I do not blame you for what you did. You knew not that a mere punch would have freed her from the demon. You showed perhaps more mercy than she deserved. But I cannot thank you for it either. There are some things men were not meant to know . . . the truth of their own hearts, is one. The pain of such a revelation, is always too great to bear." Kuno gave a curt bow and left, striding into the rain, as if it meant nothing to him.

      "Hides the tears," Langley said wistfully, frowned and turned to Jeff, "You used the same trick."

      "Perhaps I did," he admitted, "Congratulations, the love of your life has returned from the dead. She so impressed someone that she now has friends and a family again. If you're willing to shred that illusion, and make her remember her fighting and death, you can have her back." He glanced at Langley and gave her a half-smile. "Thanks, I'll pass."

      "What do you do now?" She looked around the restaurant. "This isn't home anymore."

      "I think I'll tag along with the others," he admitted, "There's nothing to hold me here now either. Before then, I think I'm going to go to bed." He stretched and headed towards the stairs. "Maybe I'll dream of happier times."

      "She didn't mean to hurt you," Langley blurted out.

      He froze, one hand on the rail, one foot raised. Somehow, that makes it worse, he thought, I thought . . . I'd hoped, 'she's different, this isn't like home, maybe this time' . . . only there isn't a 'this time', there isn't a 'next time'. There's just the same time, over and over again. Dreams like that are for people, not instruments like me. I should know that already, I should have learned that by now. I guess I'm not as smart as I think I am. He turned back to glance at Langley, his first real friend, and the only one who'd managed to stay with him through all the hurt and chaos. "I know," he told her softly, he bowed his head and started back up the stairs, "That doesn't change how I feel."

They say there's a place, where dreams have all gone.
They never said where, but I think I know.
It's miles through the night, just over the dawn, on the road that will take me home.

Going Home by Mary Fahl

Sailor Jupiter Interregnum 1

      It was the same dream Hotaru had had before. The woman who looked like a long-haired, older version of her, and the blonde and aqua-haired women in Sailor Senshi uniforms would carve her heart out of her chest, and present it to a barely seen figure in gold armor. Then she would awake, screaming into her pillow so she wouldn't wake the whole household.

      This time, before they tore her heart out, Hotaru heard the clear command.

      "Awaken," the girl told her. The moonlight through the window illuminated her pink eyes and hair, and her very serious expression as she sat on the edge of Hotaru's bed. The hair style and costume seemed vaguely ridiculous, but her aura of confident power just made it a softening touch.

      Kawaii, Hotaru thought as she looked at the softly glowing, serious girl, who seemed her own age.

      "I am Pretty Sammi," the girl told her in all seriousness, "A defender of Love and Justice."

      "Like the Sailor Senshi?" Hotaru asked breathlessly.

      "Exactly," the girl said and smiled, seeming to brighten the whole room, "You are one too."

      "Me?!" Hotaru gasped, "But I'm too young, I'm not even in High School yet!"

      "Neither were the Senshi," Pretty Sammi giggled, then grew serious again "You are the inheritor of a great power. But I must give you the choice of whether you want that inheritance or not."

      "I can be a Senshi too?" Hotaru cried excitedly, then froze to listen for any signs she'd awakened her two sisters or her dad. She continued in a whisper, "Really?"

      "You would be the solider of Ruin, of Death and Rebirth. Some people would not want that responsibility, and I wouldn't blame you if you rejected it."

      "But the world needs me," Hotaru said, waited for Sammi's grim nod before continuing, "Then I'll do it. I heard the Senshi fought some powerful enemies, even fought their chief on the steps of the capital itself!"

      "There are plenty of enemies, and much to do." Pretty Sammi held out a small rod, that looked too gaudy to be a magic item. "Before I give you this, I must point out, that I am from Jurai, a Princess of Jurai. And our people, the Moon Kingdom and the Jurains, were never very friendly. I want to change that. The Moon Kingdom died because it isolated itself from its friends and foes. The Kingdom of Jurai has ceased to be what it promised itself and its people it would be. I need your help to save your people and mine."

      "I'll do it your Highness," Hotaru said gravely and bowed.

      "You'll be a Princess too," Sammi giggled, "So should we call each other 'Princess', 'Princess', 'Princess', 'Princess'? It sounds like a stamping machine. I prefer this I'm Pretty Sammi, but normally -" The girl transformed, into a fancy housewife-looking outfit, her hair now a shade of blue. "I'm just Sasami."

      She carefully handed over the rod. "And you, Tomoe Hotaru, will be Sailor Saturn."

      Hotaru reveled in the transformation. She stood beside a re-transformed Pretty Sammi, looking at her costume and Sammi's. "Who designed these, at least you have shorts."

      Sammi laughed. "Don't complain too much," Sammi told her, "The original design had an even shorter, lighter skirt, and didn't have a flap. So you had to be naked to use the toilet. Of course, a little gust of wind and you'd show everyone your panties anyway."

      Hotaru blushed and frowned at that.

      Sammi tugged on part of Sailor Saturn's skirt. "And they didn't have any pockets in the skirt. So you had to carry anything important in your hand."

      Hotaru swung the glaive easily. "I remember how to use this," she whispered in amazement, "I don't just know, I remember the girl who taught me. And the boy who taught me how to use my healing powers."

      "A goddess of Fire, Time and War, a god of Death, Corruption and Spirits," Sammi said, "They knew you were a Senshi. She is an expert with polearms. He is an expert in healing. They taught you."

      "What else do I have to know?" Hotaru asked, "Do I get a cute animal advisor?"

      "Not . . . yet," Sammi said, trying to hide a smile, "I'll explain."

      Hotaru - Sailor Saturn - walked along the cobblestone path and watched Pretty Sammi with confusion. Okay, she took off her boots so she could feel the cobblestones with her toes, she thought, But every once in a while, she stops and jumps up and down on them with all her might. Weird.

      Finally they reached the end of the path, and a very precipitous drop off. At the bottom, glowing softly, was a clutch of eggs. "One of those will be yours," Sammi told her, "Not an advisor, but ally and friend."

      "They aren't spiders are they?" Sailor Saturn asked nervously, "I wouldn't turn down a spider, but - I always thought advisors were cute and cuddly."

      "Like a big, black cat with cute yellow eyes?" Sammi asked enthusiastically, her hands clutched under her chin, "Like Mr. Poofens?"

      "You have an advisor, can I see him? Or is it a her?"

      Sammi looked confused. " 'See him'? What are you talking about?"

      "Oh, are advisors secret? Or private? I didn't know," Sailor Saturn admitted.

      "No, he's not secret, he's been here the whole time!" Pretty Sammi gestured around.

      Hotaru stood and looked all over the road to see Mr. Poofens. Then she felt vibration through her boots, like a small earthquake. She felt her hair standing on end. She stared at the road and was almost too frightened to ask, "Did that earthquake just say 'Mew'?"

      Hotaru looked from Kiima to Makoto and back. She tried smiling, but her big sisters were implacable. "That's how I became Sailor Saturn. I thought I was keeping it a secret."

      "You would have," Kiima said angrily, "From anyone but me."

      The monster made the mistake of trying to rise. Kiima's wing smashed it to the ground again, while her attention remained riveted on Hotaru.

      "I guess I should have said something," Hotaru admitted. But what was I going to tell you? 'It's okay because you did it too? That you were both lonely and alone? You still don't remember any of it, Hotaru thought. Then she smiled. "You two could be my sidekicks! You can be Titan," she told Makoto, "Because of your strength."

      "You can be Iapetus, because you have your secret side!" she told Kiima.

      Kiima frowned at her, then grinned at Makoto. "One problem. Iapetus is a boy."

      "Oh," Hotaru thought, trying to remember, "How about Rhea?"

      "How about you don't go out like this again," Makoto suggested, "Or we'll tell dad?"

      "No, you mustn't!" Hotaru pleaded with her older sister.

      "Isn't that my line?" Makoto asked.

      Hotaru frowned. "You always were stubborn," she muttered before she nodded. She remembered another example of Makoto's stubbornness.

      Sailor Saturn crouched on the rooftop and watched the confrontation. I always wondered how anybody could be invisible in their costume. I guess with all the rain pouring down, nobody wants to look up. She smiled as Kiima and Makoto approached their new foe side-by-side. Such a change from when you were alone, she thought wistfully, From when my daddy worked for our enemy. But that's all over now. It's the way it should be. Only one piece left and everything will be perfect. That's it Mako-chan! Go get him! Okay, he's not running, that's got your back up, hasn't it. Ki-chan's got the right idea. That's right Mako-chan, show him you're tough. Yes, he's pleased not frightened, she silently cheered the confrontation, Well don't just stand there! Do something, take a risk, get a little wet! At least try to take a swing at him! Find out how good he is! What happened to all the 'You don't really know someone until you fight them' business? Go fight him! she wanted to shout.

      "He's getting away!" she cried out, then crouched down so no one could see her. Please, please, turn around, give her another chance. Do something to jog her memory. Something that was special to just you two! Please! she thought desperately then peeked over the edge of the building, Yes, thank you very much! Come on sis! Remember! Ki-chan do something! Invite him to dinner! Steal his hat! SOMETHING! Hotaru sighed sadly. "Why is it you go to Junior High, you lose all common sense? Tomorrow, you'll be mooning over the next cute boy, who'll either ignore or insult you, and one who likes you, you let get away. And Ki-chan, you stood there and let it happen!"

      I should have jumped down there myself and started a fight with him! she thought, Well, I can't follow him, I've got to beat them back to my school. At least in this rain, Ki-chan won't risk flying. Why didn't I do something? Because I'm a coward, that's why. Stupid, silly . . .

      She continued grumbling as she dashed away into the rain.

      I wonder what he's doing right now, Hotaru thought, Next time I run away to be Sailor Saturn, I should drag Mako-chan right over to where he is . . . except he's in Nerima, not Juuban, and I can't afford train fare all the way there.

      "All right." If it isn't a case of saving the world, she silently began, then out loud, "I'll agree to not going out as Sailor Saturn alone," she then mentally amended, I hope Pretty Sammi can teleport all this way. There's still a youma or two we'll have to deal with.

      "What do you think?" Mako-chan asked Ki-chan, who was studying Hotaru very closely.

      "I think she's hiding something," Ki-chan said, "But that's the best we can hope to get out of her."

      "Would I lie to you?" Hotaru asked petulantly, causing both her big sisters to smile in a superior way. You two don't know the half of things, she thought peevishly, I might just not tell you! HA!

      "Let's go," Ki-chan said, her face screwed up with distaste, "Or do you . . . have to kill it?"

      "Turn your heads."

      Jeff sat atop the building, his prey was approaching fast, all he had to do was wait. Only one to go after this one, he thought as he adjusted the aim point of his virtual rifle, And I'll have to hunt that one down. But I've still got this one in my sights.

      Ryoga saw the pattern of gray and brown, he knew only one person in Nerima who wore clothes of that color. Righteous indignation filled his heart. I will avenge all the insults to Akane by that eta-loving, pervert-protecting gaijin! "Daibisu! Prepare to DIE!!" He charged.

      Jeff ducked down below the parapet when he heard Ryoga's warcry, and glanced around the top of the building he was crouched on. The lost boy was nowhere to be seen. I don't dare switch from dispersing my presence to detecting that annoyance, or my target will get away, he thought, I couldn't have imagined it, unless he's developed a way to become invisible. Okay, maybe he spotted me from the ground. In that case, I'm going to concentrate on what I can do before he arrives up here.

      I'm up here, and you don't see me, he thought as he glanced over the edge to line up on his target. No you IDIOT! Run away, don't fight it! At least attack it at range, or just hit it, he thought about shouting, or shouting a warning. Then he shook his head and decided against it, . . . oh well, it's been interesting. Maybe if you'd tried to be half-way reasonable . . . but Darwin has been denied too long. Goodbye moron. He grinned as he watched, a plan forming in his head. This will be just what Akane needs, he thought.

      Ryoga grabbed a shoulder of gray and brown. It isn't tweed patterned, he realized, But it would be just like Davis to try and trick me. He raised his umbrella and yanked the other boy around, intent on pummeling him. He stopped in horror on seeing leering back at him, not a face, but a hideous, half-melted gray and brown mass of intertwined scars. He stepped away in revulsion. He couldn't even stammer an apology or a battle cry. The creature raised its hands, and Ryoga felt a wave of warmth pass through him, his skin, his muscles, his bones all felt as if they'd been slightly heated.

      Ryoga stumbled back, then braced himself. If this scar-laden, half-dissolved creature wants a fight, Ryoga thought, I'll give it one. He stepped forward, intent on wiping that curious expression off the creature's face, as it raised its hands again.

      A lightning bolt struck the creature. It stumbled at Ryoga for a moment, then fell to dust and fragments. The flash left purple afterimages that obscured his vision. He raised his fist in triumph. Even the Heavens side with me, he tried to proclaim, instead he felt incredibly nauseous and bent over to throw up.

      The hospital is well-equipped, and I'm bringing in a Japanese national, Jeff had no worries, Ryoga will get treatment. Then he hid the smile that was forming. For all the good it will do him.

      "He's suffered severe radiation poisoning," Jeff told the nurse, who paled visibly. "It was gamma and x-ray, so there shouldn't be much residual." I know there isn't, he didn't say, Because I already neutralized what little there was. "But he needs immediate treatment."

      Within moments, a doctor and an orderly in special clothes took Ryoga off his shoulder and into a treatment room. Another orderly in the same special gown, this one with a scintillation counter, kept Jeff where he was, until the orderly convinced himself Jeff wasn't radioactive himself. The orderly took him to an office and ordered him to remain.

      "Waiting please for -"

      "I speak fluent Japanese, if that would be easier," Jeff told him, "I'm guessing the doctor and the police want a report of what happened."

      The orderly smiled, nodded.

      "He said something, Tendo Akane," Jeff said then gave the man the phone number. The orderly nodded again, and left. Okay smart guy, what are you going to tell the officer, probably police or public safety or public health, when he, or she, arrives? he asked himself, then considered what he'd done, I do feel a little guilty I didn't do more for Ryoga than eliminate the remaining radiation from his system. No, I didn't start this, but I am going to finish it. If the Lost Boy survives, it takes him out of the combat equation, ditto if he dies. But it would refocus Akane's attention, and possibly Genma and Nodoka's as well. In any event, that will occupy them, diverting them from further actions against the Neko-chan, as well as Langley and myself. Sorry, kiddo, next time you should at least try to be reasonable. The problem with claiming to be the fiercest wolf in the forest, is that dragons hate your boasting.

      He considered the effect of the symptoms that Ryoga would go through, and that radiation poisoning was hardly the most pleasant illness, or way to die. I hope the boy lives, but doesn't fully recover for quite a long time. That would be best for all of them, he thought, Make Akane get off her ass and work at actually being a fiancee, and throw this 'manly' nonsense out the window. Of course, Genma may ditch Ryoga and go looking for a more `worthy` pupil. Maybe Taro is available.

      The plastic sheeting covered everything in the office. Outside in the halls, sheeting of various kinds had covered all the surfaces. The colored radiation-sensitive tags and special, disposable clothes had been passed out. Jeff wore the radiation tag, but refused to surrender his clothes for a gown. I neutralized all the radiation on Ryoga and myself long before we arrived at the hospital, he thought as he regarded the two very worried officers.

      The `officers` were two women, a doctor and a police detective, lieutenant by her uniform under the disposable smocks. Both of them looked slightly terrified by the prospects.

      "There was a radiation accident," the police officer began in English, her miniature tape recorder rolling.

      "Why does everyone assume I'm fluent in English?" Jeff asked in fluent Japanese, flabbergasting both women. "The accident was in the Nerima district."

      "That explains a lot," the officer said in a quiet voice, too low for the tape machine, and in English.

      "The intersection of Fourth and Harmonious Flower Streets," Jeff continued as if ignoring the interruption.

      "One of the demons that have been plaguing the district," the officer told the doctor in English, then in Japanese said, "Please continue."

      "It was a . . . well it looked like a walking corpse," Jeff said, "It was either not human, or a really good costume."

      "Go on," the doctor spoke, "How did you know it was a radiation burst? And there was no residual?"

      "I practice Anything Goes Radiation Abatement and Remediation," Jeff said with a completely straight face, he was shocked the comment didn't elicit any further questions, no matter how patently ridiculous it was.

      "Your school is very accurate," the doctor said, "You assertion was exactly what my diagnosis indicates, no residual."

      "What caused this, a training accident?" the police officer asked.

      "He was attacked," Jeff told them, "I saw this, whatever it was, a moment later the boy attacked him, and was counterattacked and vanished in a flash of light. I determined it was gamma, because his teeth fluoresced briefly, emitted light for several moments."

      The two women whispered to each other in English, then the police officer left the room, presumable to talk on her radio.

      Probably sending the Hazardous Materials team for a clean up, Jeff thought.

      The doctor stared at him. "Are you related to the victim?"

      "No, Hibiki Ryoga, I assume that's his name, is residing at the Tendo Dojo, I have the number he said. I assume he wasn't just babbling in his delirium," Jeff said. He gave it to the doctor who made a note.

      Jeff left the hospital, avoiding Mister and Miss Tendo. I have no intention of being on the receiving end of an Akane Tendo temper tantrum, he thought as he slipped away, If she really cared about Ryoga, she should have looked after him better. Hell, I look after Ranma better, Jeff thought, And I don't even like him.

      He headed back to the Neko-chan's, staying a street away from where the demon died. He spotted the crowd that formed for any spectacle, even this late at night. They surrounded the public safety team and the police lines. He could care less. Two possibly less problems. One demon and one martial artist, he thought with satisfaction, I hope Langley will be well, or she'll find some of the peace she craves.

      Akane was in tears, she hated seeing Ryoga like this, all bandaged up, breathing with a machine. She wanted to know why this had happened, who had done this to him. My father is already blubbering that the schools will never be joined, she wondered, Where did Genma run off to . . . when the news came in? She idly wondered, Why did he do that when they discovered the truth about Ranma? Was a similar `truth` revealed, or did he also know Ryoga would die.

      I won't cry, she vowed silently as she waited for the doctor to give his pronouncement.

      "I have no need for your pity," Tatewaki told her. His injuries from the Arctic Battle were improving, after he `deigned` to be treated by the 'Devious Shaman'.

      "Good," Asuka teased, "Besides, I'm not offering any. I'm telling you that you should get out of Nerima, like you discussed. Take a vacation, see some sights. Find out who you really are."

      "I am a laughing stock," Tatewaki said, revealing for a moment, Tate, the frightened boy she remembered, "When you cannot see them, they assume you cannot hear them. They laughed, laughed at me, a ridiculous buffoon," he said despondently, the anger burnt out of him already.

      "Then you intend to charge right out and fight every one of them?" Asuka asked neutrally.

      The Blue Thunder stood up in righteous wrath, bokken in hand . . . and vanished, leaving only Tate holding a stick. She could see the hurt Mercury's demise had left.

      Like Jeff revealing the reality to Kodachi, Asuka thought sadly, He saw some of the truth, and had the rest thrust upon him. With her at his side, he could ignore it. When Mercury chose death or him, there was nothing left to hold on to. Even I want to know why, why was death preferable? I know Usagi's feelings, Tate told us she told her friends to go on living. Yet none of them did. Why!?

      "No, I suppose your idea has some merit. My father was not pleased I dropped out of Todai."

      "The Americans have a phrase for such a time and situation, would you like to hear it?" she asked and waited for him to nod, "To Hell with him and the horse he rode in on!"

      Tate smiled at that, nodded, "I will inform Sasuke . . . and I will assist him in packing. I assume you would want my 'dear' sister to accompany us?"

      "Kind of pointless to leave her behind. She's hurting too."

      "Why couldn't the Devious Shaman undo what he afflicted her with?"

      "Because there's no way to unlearn what she learned. All he did was let her see the world around clearly, without the blinders and assumptions we make to shield us."

      "To have them stripped away," he said with empathy, "It is . . . quite painful."

      "Yes," Asuka agreed, "Yes it is." She took his hand, held it. He gave her a wan smile that told her he wasn't going to drop off the face of the world while she was gone.

      Asuka left the room and headed to where she remembered 'Koda's' room was. She walked the corridors as if she actually knew the place, instead of just remembering it. It hadn't changed much from what she remembered.

      She spotted Sasuke walking along. "Tatewaki-san wanted to see you. He and Kodachi-san will be leaving for the Hokkaido lodge for a few weeks, and they'll need to pack."

      The little ninja was stunned. "How do you know about that? I don't think the elder Kuno even remembers the place."

      Oh crap, Asuka thought, I'd completely forgotten about that. `Daddy` doesn't remember even half the Kuno holdings. Tate is the Lord of the hearth.

      "And why are you trying to assist Master Tatewaki and Mistress Kodachi?" he asked suspiciously, "They are not the . . . most beloved people."

      I also forgot how much he cares for his charges. Asuka squatted so she was face-to-face with the little man. "In another world, I was the one needing rescuing. It is a debt I mean to repay."

      "And so, in this other life, you were his . . . friend?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.

      I forgot, intelligence gathering is his specialty. "Oh no, we fought often. No, it could seem we weren't friends," she replied wistfully, "But friends is what they need right now. Not something else."

      The little ninja nodded and headed off as Asuka stood and continued her trek through the `glories` of the House Kuno. She smirked at the pretension. These hadn't begun or ended with Tatewaki of the samurai pretensions, she remembered her dream of another world another Tatewaki and Kodachi Kuno, The Kunos had been a spectacularly successful merchant family. Deep water mariners, where most Japanese feared the open waters. Purchasing goods from the locals and returning made them wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, and given them the `ability` to avoid storms. As if they had signed a deal with someone, but that was just superstition. But title was always more important than money, and no noble house would marry these low-born money grubbers. So they reinvented themselves. With each new generation it became more extreme and bizarre. Tatewaki is only their latest and most extreme version, in a long and distinguished line of slightly bent Kunos.

      She opened the door to the boudoir of another. One who's bending had taken a recent and more damaging set. Asuka looked around and saw the Ranma posters were on the floor, all in very small pieces. The mirrors that had adorned the walls were shattered, the glass shards littered the floor. The place stank of harsh chemicals and powerful floral scents. Kodachi had obviously prevented Sasuke or the staff from entering here to clean up. I'll start at the edges until I provoke a response, then charge straight in, Asuka thought as she collected the larger pieces and the bits of posters, and deposited them in a wastebasket.

      "Leave," came the broken voice from the figure huddled in the corner.

      "I believe the correct phrase is 'or what', then we have the posturing and screaming battle cry. If you're going to beat me up, at least let me clear a path over to you so you don't cut your feet to ribbons and bleed to death before you can thrash me."

      Asuka knew she was being harsh, Well Wondergirl said I was happiest when I was angry, Asuka thought, God! Taking Wondergirl's advise in how to deal with people, the world must be coming to an end. She cleared the path she had promised. Kodachi merely drew in on herself in response. 'Koda' doesn't know what she's up against, Asuka thought as she stripped the bed and flipped the glass shards out of the bedding, adding a bit of her own power to ensure their removal before she remade the bed. She also collected Koda's favorite brush and comb. This was Anna's best trick, Asuka thought and smirked at all the tricks people developed to deal with the red-headed volcano, Asuka Soryu Langley, And that it took so long to learn to turn them on others.

      Kodachi was the last bit. Asuka figured her leotard wouldn't have glass all over it like her school uniform did. She she removed the blouse and skirt with Kodachi simply staring at her mutely. Asuka carefully combed any glass out of the girl's hair before carefully picking the leotard-clad gymnast up. She carried her to the bed to set her down there. Predictably, Kodachi had wrapped her arms around Asuka's neck and wasn't letting go, instead, she was slowly tightening her grip, trying to pull Asuka tightly against her.

      So, Kodachi isn't so different from Koda-chan after all. Asuka heard the sniffs, felt the small tremors from the girl and the dampness as the tears leaked through her shirt, where Kodachi had buried her face. Asuka said nothing, reluctantly following Wondergirl's lead. Anna would chatter away, Asuka knew, Silence was always more effective with Koda-chan. I just hope it works as well on Kodachi, she thought as she removed the bands that held Kodachi's ponytail, and began brushing her long hair. She grew careful when she worked out one of the few tangles she found. The long strokes came in a regular, hypnotic pattern. With the tangles all removed, Asuka put one arm around the girl's shoulders, while she continued the slow, steady progress of the brush through her hair. Maintaining the tranquilizingly regular patterns.

      Tate-chan, rather than the Blue Thunder, Scion of House Kuno, padded silently into the room, saw his sister seemingly asleep in Asuka's arms. He nodded when Asuka gave him a meaningful glare, he slipped out just as silently, and closed the door soundlessly behind him.

      Let him go about his business, Asuka thought, He may not like his sister, he may even hate her, but he still loves her. Where have I heard that before? Asuka tried to lay the gymnast down and slip away, but Kodachi wouldn't let go. When Asuka tried a more active disentangling, Kodachi merely tightened her grip and murmured in her sleep for 'Momma'. I know the real story of Koda-chan's relationship with her mother, Asuka thought, She made Colonel Katsuragi look like a model parent. I wish I could slap the woman silly for what she put Koda-chan and Tate-chan through. But Kodachi and Tatewaki loved their mother, and both had been devastated by her loss.

      So Asuka settled the girl as best she could without getting her own neck broken, and lay beside her, waiting for enough slack to get loose without waking her.

      "After what happened to them," Asuka said as she paced the Neko-chan's floor, she remembered having this conversation before, "I can't in good conscience just abandon them." Before we were alone out back of the restaurant, she thought, Practicing.

      'And the them are the Kuno kids,' she heard Raccoon think, although she couldn't see him. She stood alone in the empty Neko-chan main room, hearing voices and in the background, the normal sounds of the restaurant filled with customers. "And you always accuse me of picking up strays," his voice teased.

      "Look, Ra - Jeff, we've already figured out that the Nerima that you lived in and the one that I lived in were different. Maybe it was part of who we were, maybe it was more than that. But . . . I understand you putting together your little group, and I know that while Kodachi became your friend, and Tate was - was the one you foisted Shampoo on." She paced the seemingly empty restaurant, ignoring the sounds of activity around her. "Well all Ukyo was, was another girl after Kaji. Once he put a bun in her oven, she disappeared and I never saw her again, ditto Shampoo and the Amazons. The only people who gave a damn I was alive, after Kaji ran off, were Koda and Tate, and the feeling was mutual. And is mutual. Both of the `fiancees` look at me as if I'm weak because I'm no martial artist, and I'm not nuts. Because they think the only appropriate behavior involving Ranma is typified by an alleycat in heat."

      Asuka felt her anger building and had to let it out. "You and I both know that give me a loaded pistol, I could make short work of either or both of them, and Cologne, all without reloading. Frankly, I don't think jumping him to get fucked is the best way of dealing with any man worth having."

      "I don't think they've considered the act, except in regards of where do children come from," Raccoon said, "But I don't dispute the rest of what you've said. I do like the idea of keeping the powder keg under control, and untangling the fiancee/fiance knots."

      "You always enjoyed the politics and negotiations, I was always the Sword of Damocles," Asuka said, "Be reasonable, or I'll sic Langley on you," she chuckled, "But like I said. Tate and Koda need somebody. When I needed somebody, they were there for me."

      "Okay, you don't have to convince me. Just keep me informed about your movements," his disembodied voice told her, "It would be just our luck to finally get a rescue, and I can't find you."

      Asuka laughed. "Do you really think after all this time, our dear, glorious Colonel Katsuragi is still looking for us? Unless they ran out of beer back home, she'd never continue the effort."

      "Possible, but I was thinking in terms of Ranma, Nabiki, Rei, maybe even Kaworu," Raccoon said, "Or I might find the way back."

      "I'll keep in touch," Langley said, "But no offence, I don''t think you'll find a way in our lifetimes. My best advice is find somebody and settle down. We'll need a lot of firepower when the Outer Gods come knocking around here."

      'You have anybody in mind?' she heard Raccoon think sadly.

      Of course! She's yours and you're hers, she wanted to scream, You have the power to give her the choice . . . but you're a boy, and the one thing you fear more than death is rejection. Except I know she won't reject you . . . except in a way, she already has hasn't she. Makoto you idiot! It was perfect, you had everything you wanted handed to you on a silver platter and you decided to forage in the trash instead. Was one phone call too much to ask? And why didn't you put a better tracking spell on her Raccoon? Idiots. I swear the Universe just waits for me to get complacent.

      Then his voice said, "The only one I was even remotely interested in is out of reach. Forget the Amazons, I'm not ready to remake that entire culture. Ukyo? With her and Mousse getting together? One of the Tendos? Akane's a misandrist, if not a self-denying sado-lesbian."

      "Kasumi always was a ditz, at least the one I remember," Asuka agreed, "Hinako, I can just see that."

      "The bipolar vampire? Forget it. I'd rather marry that monkey from the Tea Ceremony School. We'd produce more intelligent children in any case. No, I'd want to go back to the U.S. and rev up technology there."

      "I can guarantee Kho Lon isn't going to like this," Asuka admitted as she stared at the place Kho Lon usually stood to observe and orchestrate everything. Asuka thought she could almost smell the old woman's pipe.

      "She doesn't have a choice. The original deal was work and study for a roof over our heads that she was paying for. Since I put in half for the building, the deal really doesn't apply any more."

      "I'll leave her to you."

      "I also think there's something brewing back home for the old girl, something she really should be attending to, because her offspring aren't up to the job."

      "What's the old warning about talent skipping a generation?" Asuka asked and chuckled.

      "I don't think they had the advantage of having a fully-engaged Elder in their household. So the training Xian Pu got and we've gotten, they haven't," Raccoon explained, "You leaving tomorrow?"

      "Yes. The Kunos have some property up on the north end of Hokkaido, that should do them some good. If only it get away from all the memories," Asuka told him as she headed for the door to walk to the Kuno's place.

      "Well, turn down the charm a bit, or you'll clobber the poor slob."

      Asuka laughed, then sobered. "I'm not running away. I . . . even if they don't know about the debt, I have to at least try to repay it."

      "I didn't say anything," Raccoon replied.

      She could almost see him holding up his hands in surrender.

      And you don't have to tell me that if you could have done it a different way, you would have, she thought as she left the restaurant and walked out on the streets of Nerima, It seemed the best way to me too. Other than killing her, which she didn't deserve. "That's what I should have told him," Asuka commented.

      When consciousness began to return, Asuka was aware a large number of things had changed. The pajamas she wore were too small, but not tight, but the pants were barely capri pants and the 'shirt' barely made it to her naval or her elbows. The next thing she noted were the motion and the noises.

      Unless Kodachi has the weirdest snore in the world, Asuka thought, I'm on a train. She opened her eyes and sat up. Koda-chan was seated in a chair in a small stateroom. The gymnast wore a clean leotard and look of apprehension. "I am glad you have recovered." She looked down at her hands. "I used some of my . . . bottles . . . to smash the mirrors. You must have been affected when you handled the pieces. I must apologize." She bowed her head.

      "I forgive you. I understand how you must have felt. Come here," Asuka said, when Kodachi didn't move, she repeated herself as a command, "Come - Here."

      The girl moved the short distance to Asuka's bedside, kneeling beside it.

      This ought to shock her, Asuka thought as she caught Koda-chan in a hug. Kodachi practically melted into that embrace. Not so different from `my` Koda-chan, Asuka thought, And how desperately lonely the girl had been.

      "I wasn't permanently harmed, and you looked after me when I needed you. I'm very grateful," she told the girl.

      The dampness on the pajama top told her that Koda-chan was crying again. Asuka idly wondered, Has anyone ever tried to befriend this girl, or does her perfectionism and laugh put everyone off? I've never seen or heard or experienced anything Kodachi has done that two or three of Kaji-Ranma's fiancees hadn't also tried on him. Although Akane never meant to poison or paralyze anyone, she just refuses to accept her cooking is poor and gets worse with every `improvement`. "I'm not hurt," Asuka assured the girl.

      Tatewaki opened the door, and for an instant Tate peeked out of the tower of bluster that was the Blue Thunder.

      I swear he's channeling Raccoon with that smile, Asuka thought as she mentally braced herself.

      "Every time I see you, you are embracing my sister," he said.

      "Well, come over here," Asuka told him, "I've got two arms." She extended one to him, to indicate her capacity. She smiled warmly.

      "Thank you," he said, "Your colleagues packed your belongings and had them ready for us to pick up on the way to the train. He charged both my dear sister and myself with, and I quote 'Don't go letting her go running off a cliff in all directions' endquote. I assured him we would mightily strive to prevent that occurrence."

      "If you don't come here and get the hug I'm offering, I will do precisely that," she threatened, "And he'll make you commit honorable suicide, by slitting your belly with a fish."

      Tatewaki surrendered to Tate-chan, and knelt, accepting the hug and carefully hugging both girls at once. "I would assume the threats, yours and his were facetious," he said quietly, "If any other had spoken them."

      "Okay," Asuka said, reluctantly letting Tate get away, "What's the itinerary."

      "We will arrive in Oromori within the hour."

      "How long have I been asleep?" Asuka asked in alarm.

      "Since only an hour before we boarded the train," Kodachi said as she released Asuka too and sat up. Her eyes were still red from crying. "Once at Aomoru, a ferry will take us to Sapporo."

      "Japan has the finest trains in the world." The Blue Thunder peeked out of Tatewaki, but he grinned to show the `lapse` was for show.

      Okay, now I shout 'You shall pay dearly for such an insult, I demand satisfaction! A very sharp duck for each of us!' "Too bad you can't get any decent beer here," Asuka said sweetly. Considering we're heading towards Sapporo, that ought to get him to explode, Asuka thought as she smiled back at the Blue Thunder.

      "Ho ho ho ho!" Kodachi laughed, "The Germans too take great pride in their trains, and such peasant beverages, their belief in what is 'good beer' and what is a drinkable beverage have little to do with each other. Ho ho ho!"

      Asuka flopped back in the bed. "Oh no, mortally wounded to the quick. The room is spinning and I feel faint!" Asuka lamented.

      Tatewaki ignored both outbursts. "After we arrive in Sapporo, we'll take a train to the village closest to the lodge. Then we'll have a car take us the rest of the way," Tatewaki said, "Sasuke arrived by jet. He should have everything set up by the time we arrive." He paused as if to consider. "Can I get you something?"

      How about Mercury and Jupiter back to normal? Asuka thought but refused to say, Just once I wish I had those kind of mind-melter talents. "No, thank you. But you should get your sister some water." She turned to Kodachi. "You keep crying like that, you'll get dehydrated."

      "Ask you wish." Tatewaki bowed and left.

      "You tease him too much," Kodachi accused.

      "But he's so - CUTE," she squealed the last, then continued, "- When he's flustered."

      Kodachi tried her best to look disgusted, but a smile kept peeking through.

      Commodore Takarada returned the salute of General Horai. Better you than me, Takarada thought, Someone had to take the blame that we were woefully unprepared for Beryl's attack. As if the politicians would have given us sufficient warning and funds to be prepared. "It's been an honor serving with you, sir."

      "I'll see to it that there are actually weapons that might give you the advantage, next time," General Horai confided, "I'm afraid there's not much else that can be done."

      Meaning the force is to be dissolved and we'll have to depend on whatever passes for maturity and patriotism in a bunch of teen-aged girls, Takarada thought, And other monsters. "I'm certain you will do your best. As will I." He saluted again as Horai turned to inspect the troops. The troops we have left, Takarada thought, Those that aren't in the hospital. Funny, we were a joke until the battle. After it, I could pick and choose the officers and soldiers to serve under my command, and the politicians decide to shut us down, so we'll be completely unprepared when we are attacked again. The cycle never ends.

      The General reached the end of the line and the band struck up the 'Japanese Army March' by Ifukube Akira. The Commodore glanced angrily at the staff doctor, who gave a single shake of his head. Then the Commodore returned his eyes to the General as he prepared to board his car. He caught the faint smile from the man. Okay, now you show you have a sense of humor, he thought, Maybe you'll take your consultant job and parley it into a seat on the Diet. Then maybe we'll have an ally there. But it will be too late by then.

      As the soldiers and officers of the depleted `Gojira Squad` turned on command to face him, he felt an odd pride at the quixotic troops who had never given him and their country anything except their best. Had fought beyond the bounds of duty and reason to protect their citizens.

      "Officers and soldiers," he began, ignoring the notes he'd prepared earlier, "You have done well. I am proud to have served with you all. Proud to have commanded you. Many of you are awaiting reassignment. Our grand experiment has come to an end. Ultimately, we serve the people of Japan. Their representatives have made it clear we are no longer necessary. Those of you who will remain to help us close the doors on our proud experiment, should not despair. We have done our duty. That's the best and the least a soldier can do. We can go with heads held high. For those of you taking other assignments. Remember well the sting of battle, your first true battle. You will never feel that way again, no matter what you do. An American General once warned, 'It is good that war is so terrible, else we grow too fond of it.' Truer words were never spoken. Dismissed.

      He stepped away, half hearing the commands to disperse the troops to their assignments, or transport to other commands. And what of me? he wondered, What use a general officer with no ship or crew? I will have to wait, and hope.

Sailor Jupiter Interregnum 2

      The walking had been pleasant. The hills and trails of Hokkaido had been a refreshing breeze that helped him heal what the Arctic battle had truly wounded. He glanced back as his two companions and smiled. I hadn't expected Asuka-chan to be able to keep up the pace, Tatewaki thought, My dear sister couldn't. Asuka-chan could, even carrying Kodachi. He breathed the clean air and marveled, No smoke or smog, no feuding martial artists, none of the three of us has had to say anything for over an hour, since Asuka-chan picked up my footsore sister, and glared at me for even suggesting I should take some part of her load. He smiled again and remembered their arrival at the lodge a few days earlier, We were all suspicious of each other, at least initially. My sister and I have not been `friends` for quite some time. However, Asuka seemed to be able to draw on some hidden font of knowledge about myself, and my dear sister, and used it quite ruthlessly, from cooking our favorite dinner some nights ago, to making a pot of Sasuke's favorite tea when our loyal servant had returned from his dutifully sweeping the grounds, so I and my dear sister might practice our arts without prying eyes. She has won his gratitude and loyalty with her thoughtfulness. He glanced back at the girl carrying her exhausted burden, and marveled at her calm acceptance of the role. A tenderness she exhibits towards myself and my sister, he thought, Even the Devious Shaman sees this side so rarely, yet I believe he favors her more combative self.

      He paused at the gap in the trees to survey the natural beauty around him. Asuka was at his side a moment later. Kodachi seemed to hang on like a sleepy child, content in her dreams and memories.

      Asuka-chan did admit the Devious Shaman packed the tea in her baggage, he thought, then smiled at their first night's discussion/argument, It seems my dear sister was more interested in the metallurgy of the perfect sword, than the balance and sweep of the blade as I expounded. Although we both participated in the verbal jousting as equals. Interesting how Asuka-chan was able to meld the ideas, as she was able to draw both of us out of our shells.

      Tatewaki sighed, and signaled that whether Asuka was tired or not, he was taking a breather. This is lovely country, and Asuka-chan's presence is a balm to my troubled soul . . . but I cannot fathom why my dear Ami chose as she did. And why I chose as I did. I suspect that had I sided with Asuka-chan, and compelled the Devious Shaman to restore them both, he would have been sore pressed to resist. Yet I did not, nor did Asuka-chan. She sought to begin the healing, once both of us had made our choice. Why did I choose as I did? Why didn't I want Ami-chan back at my side? It was not vengeance at having rejected the illustrious and beautiful Kuno Tatewaki. Then what was it? Duty, honoring her wishes, desire that she be free of what so scarred me? What? His mind whirled with doubts and questions flashing past too swiftly for even his magnificent mind to catch them all. And in all that, no answers, he lamented.

      He felt Asuka-chan's hand on his, saw the concerned look on her face. He smiled for her benefit and put his arm around her shoulders and hugged her for a moment. That seemed to satisfy her that I am not contemplating leaping from the trail to the unknown depths below, he thought, But is still leaves the unanswered question. Did what we had mean so little, or does her being free of it mean so much? Or is there another answer that plumbs undiscovered depths of my soul, both sources of light and sources of darkness? To wit, am I uncertain of my own worthiness, or am I punishing myself for past behaviors? Am I thus unwilling to accept love freely given, or am I yet unworthy to receive it? I find it on that I should miss the Devious Shaman's contorted counsel. The man could make one doubt gravity and existence itself, but he also knew the heart of things. Could he know the heart of Kuno Tatewaki? As I clearly do not. He glanced at Asuka-chan and sighed again, smiling at her. Her use of the more familiar forms like Tate-chan and Koda-chan put both of us off. We had no certain way to react.

      Asuka felt like she'd come home. She looked at Tate-chan and his wistful gazing over the forests, and in the distance, the sea. I understand the trouble Raccoon had with `Rit-chan` when he woke from his dream. I wasn't foolish enough to believe anything more serious than friendship would come out of it, or this. My Tate-chan is nearly eight years of painful growth in the future. Eight years I would spare you if I could. Besides, Ami-chan stole your heart, and no one else will ever get all of it again. I cannot imagine why she did what she did. Yet you can, you and Raccoon can imagine too many reasons for it, and all of them at the depths, your fault. 'I was too little -' fill in the blank, 'I was too much -', etc. When ordinary schoolgirl stupidity is the likely cause of the lack of a call, and the shock of a friend's death the reason they stayed to die. That's the non-sinister explanation. Anything else points to something Queen Serenity did to them. Aww, Asuka-chan, you're being too hard on our beloved Queeny. It's not like she'd hijack the lives of a bunch of schoolgirls to kill an enemy she didn't have the guts to slaughter when she had a kingdom and an army to back her up. What ever makes you think she'd program those same girls to all commit suicide once her beloved daughter bit the dust? After all, isn't that how all godlike beings act? When Buddha was tempted, didn't he throw the Ten Commandments at the Mara and refuses to go get another set? When the authorities killed Christ, didn't his dad flood the world? Oops, no they didn't, so I guess Queen Serenity could never have made those girls into ressurectable cannon-fodder to protect her darling little girl. And I could sell you some real estate on the west side of the dikes in Holland. Comes with lots of running water.

      She adjusted Kodachi into a more comfortable draping. I need to relax. While I've enjoyed reworking both Kunos from truly mad, to merely eccentric, I too need a little saving. Maybe if we save each other, we can save ourselves. She stopped and stared through the canopy of trees at the nearly cloudless sky above her head. I need - I won't say it or even think it, because I don't want it to happen. But if it is already out there, can you please point me in the right direction? she prayed silently.

      No grand sign came, not that she expected one. I guess there's no professional courtesy between deities. She shook her head at what should have been blasphemy. My connection to humanity has been slipping as my powers and knowledge grows. Too many things that no human could ever do, are now child's play to me. Each step forward adds so much to the range of things I could do to `fix` the world. Instead, I find myself increasingly unwilling to do anything. And the knowledge and powers lessen my understanding of the best way to use them to improve things. Too many things no sane man could know are not only at my fingertips, but I've correlated and compiled them to make leaps of logic and insight far beyond where the creatures from whom I stole the knowledge had gone with their understanding. I'm more of a Great Old One than any of them. If I discarded all pretense of Humanity, and embraced the chaos within me . . . what would result, nothing could stop. I want to believe I could remain a benevolent force, but I'm afraid I'd become like Washu, willing to sacrifice entire populations to scratch some intellectual itch. Nerima was not a good place for maintaining an empathy with the human condition, and rejecting the 'with enough power I can fix this' impulse. Because a nuke strike would be the only truly effective fix for most of them. Raccoon embraced the changes, and saw Nerima as a challenge to his skill, solving the problems with out, to solve the problems within. He could sit quietly, using his shamanic training to pose the right question to get the pawns to move themselves around the board in their intricate dance. But that's not my way. You can't trick a machine or a math problem into thinking it's fixed, or reorder its personal view of the universe to make it see its own way to a proper solution. She had to chuckle. Throwing Mu Tsu and Ukyo together, without Ranma in the picture, a solution to both their problems becomes approachable. But not me.

      " 'But not you', what?" Kodachi asked, shocking Asuka who wondered how much she'd slipped and said aloud.

      "Just thinking that Raccoon seemed to thrive in Nerima," Asuka explained nervously, glancing at Tate and Koda, who were both watching her intently.

      "But not you," Koda finished the thought, nuzzling Asuka's neck, "Some of us . . . can't be there . . . for a while."

      "Yes," Asuka said softly as she calmed down. She's not trying to seduce me, she's just happy I'm here with them, she thought, then something intruded on her thoughts, Something isn't right! What's . . . missing, or is there but shouldn't be? "Tate!" She waited for both Tate-chan and Koda-chan to recognize her serious tone, "Didn't you say there was a fishing village at the end of this trail?"

      "Some 60 families," Tate-chan replied, mystified at the question, "They ply the local seas for their catch. It is also where we must buy our supplies."

      "Okay. Then why don't I hear anything? No motors, no voices, no barking dogs, nothing."

      The Blue Thunder answered, "Perhaps because we are still some eight kilometers distant and -" First Tatewaki, then Tate-chan seemed to consider the problem as layers of pretension dropped away, like unnecessary armor plating. "You should be able to hear such things at a distance?" Tate asked carefully.

      "Maybe 'hear' is the wrong word, but I should sense them and sound is how I interpret the sensations," Asuka explained, "I know it's confusing."

      "I shall -" the Blue Thunder proclaimed.

      "Remain with your sister!" Asuka ordered. If Tate-chan or Tatewaki had decided to scout, she thought, as she set Kodachi on her feet, I would have let you, but the Blue Thunder is too careless of his own life and safety. "You aren't trained in reconnaissance, and it's as specialized a skill as your mastery of the sword. I am trained. You two stay here." She pointed at the ground to emphasize where 'here' was.

      "I do not take orders," the Blue Thunder told her.

      "Be reasonable! A scout goes and looks. If you go, who's going to charge in and rescue me if I get in trouble?" This is almost too easy! Asuka thought as she waited.

      The Blue Thunder stopped, closed his mouth and began to analyze, weighing the chance for glory. Tatewaki-san saw the wisdom of the statement. Tate-san saw he was being manipulated, but accepted Asuka's reasons. "Five hundred meters," Tate-chan said quietly, "We will approach within 500 meters. You will scout ahead, and we will shadow you."

      Fifteen hundred meters," Asuka replied, "I'm not getting within 500 meters of the village, until I know it's safe. You two can stay about 100 meters behind until the final approach, but stay concealed and silent. If there is trouble, I don't want them to know you two are there, until you land on them. You two attacking by surprise could probably disrupt an infantry brigade or a regiment of tanks. The real reason is if the danger is biological, chemical or radiological. I'm more immune than either of you."

      "Ha!" the Blue Thunder laughed, "The Kuno bloodline -"

      "Cannot compare with what I can do," Asuka said, her voice carrying a specific timbre and resonance. What Raccoon jokingly calls 'Dragon Speech', Asuka thought, It somehow rattles the brainstem directly, bypassing the ears and telling the reptile survival centers that fight was no longer an option.

      Tatewaki lowered the Blue Thunder's upraised blade, nodded once and sat beside his sister. "One hundred meters."

      Asuka headed off into the brush, vanishing almost immediately. She moved, using the powers she had taken. I hate using my powers that way, she thought, No, I had no choice, and no time for a conventional argument. She barely heard the Kunos in pursuit, and she was glad.

      Aino Minako had been led to this store. She missed having Artemis, the real Artemis, at her side and advising her. She glanced through the window at the distracted shopkeeper, and used her compact to reveal the monster's true appearance. I have to get those girls out of here! she thought as she considered the four girls, Oh no! I recognize two of them! They're my classmates! If I transform, they'll know I'm Sailor V! But - but - but - I can't let the monster harm them!

      "I know that you have red paint," the tall brunette said, "This is merely an exaggerated pink."

      "Red, deep red, red like blood," the white-haired girl reinforced the statement.

      Don't give it any ideas! Minako wanted to tell them.

      "BALL!" the little, violet-haired one shrieked, pointing at the fluorescent fixtures.

      "That's not a ball!" the pink-haired girl laughed, "It's a - " She stuck her finger in her mouth. "Hey Mister!"

      "I'm a miss!" the shopkeeper's voice grated, as her fingernails dug into the wood of the counter, "It's a TUBE!" she shrieked.

      "No, that's orange!" the brunette whined, "Red, red, red, is that so hard?! Don't touch that, you don't know where it's been."

      "Been on the FLOOR!" the violet-hair shrieked again, jumping up and down excitedly.

      "Enough!" the shopkeeper screamed, leaping over the counter to land at the door. She locked it with a simple motion, and abandoned her disguise of humanity.

      I have to move! Minako thought as she seized her Henshin pen and prepared to leap through the store's front window as Sailor V.

      The monster considered multiple homicide and told her victims, "No one would blame me for -!"

      "Feather Storm!" "Cutting Silence!" "Shining Pretty Implosion!"

      Minako watched the monster spout feathers thrown by the white-haired girl's wings, have its head sliced off by the violet-hair's glaive, and the pink-hair waved her baton and reduced the corpse and severed head to a pinpoint.

      Where did all of that stuff come from!? Minako boggled and wanted to know, They weren't there a moment ago. I never saw them at school! She moved back to the building's corner, to peek into the store to see what would unfold.

      With the monster destroyed, the brunette hugged the other three. "I told you we could do it," the brunette told the three girls she was squeezing, she set them down and released them, "That's why we didn't want you to go out alone."

      Minako slipped her Henshin back into her pocket and backed away from the store. So there are other Sailor Senshi, and a few people who could fight alongside them, she thought as she moved back down the street, Sailor V is needed. I guess she isn't as desperately needed as I thought. Do I ask - what's her name - Mokoto? Kira? - if she and her group need help? Or do we operate independently? Minako continued down the street and hurried back home.

      "You seem quite taken with her," Kodachi tried to keep her voice neutral as they slipped silently through the brush. She was making an observation, not an attack.

      "She is brave, and . . . compelling," he admitted, as if ashamed of it.

      And you have not once mentioned the pigtailed girl or the peasant Tendo Akane, she thought, Which is a most pleasant change of events. You are not betraying your 'Ami-chan' by wishing to have a companion. "She is . . . most pleasant to be around. Most cultured and yet - brusque - in a ablutionary way," Kodachi admitted.

      "True," her brother said thoughtfully, "What draws her to us?"

      "Not your infinitely manly charms?" Kodachi teased, she couldn't help it. She noted it didn't penetrate his thoughtful demeanor.

      "Unless she desires your charms as well."

      Kodachi blushed at that as she slipped through the brush that Asuka had moved through. I felt the girl's strength as she carried me, felt her gentleness when she sought me out to comfort me. I can admit to myself that . . . I am developing a crush on my - friend. I would not mind should my brother take Asuka as a wife. It would not seem as if someone was taking my brother from me, and tearing him down. Instead, it would be as if we were bringing a worthy addition in. I have not felt this close to anyone in quite a while.

      She froze at her brother's signal. She could not see Asuka anywhere, but trusted her brothers instincts and senses. I do wish my reality had not been so rudely shattered so completely and totally. I can understand in my head that Davis did what he believed the most merciful thing. The demon endangered not only myself, but all those around me. I do wish I had known the levels of interlocking self-deception and rationalizations I'd layered over myself. With his stripping away the entire concrete mass, I stood naked and alone before the world. All I wished was to find a hole to crawl in and die. Then Asuka came after me. My teammates hadn't, but dear brother tried but lacked the skills. Our dear father paid no attention. Nothing astounding about that. I could not and cannot understand why this girl of all the others would have come to my `rescue`. I am feared rather than liked or respected.

      "You object?" Tatewaki asked.

      Their small ninja slipped into view. "Master, Mistress, she . . . confided in me," Sasuke said as he bowed.

      "Have you been at her side the entire time?" Tatewaki asked.

      "I have accompanied you since you left the cabin, as per my standing orders," Sasuke said, "I accompanied her as she went to the village. You seemed to desire someone to protect her."

      Tatewaki seemed satisfied, as was Kodachi.

      "Speak," Tatewaki ordered.

      "I am sure she would tell you the same if you asked," Sasuke told them, "She believes that she has a debt to both of you from a former life, that you both rescued her there."

      "A debt of honor," Tatewaki said, savored the thought.

      Kodachi saw it was more that. Sasuke tends to report exactly what he sees, although his interpretations are often flawed, the raw data can be trusted. If Asuka had used the word 'rescue', she had been rescued by us, now she seeks to rescue us. For a Westerner, especially one born before the Pacific War, it would be unlikely she would hold karma and reincarnation as reasonable possibilities. Yet she had referred to a former life, Kodachi considered, She was not comfortable with the possibility. I know the path my thought would take on such a matter. The Shinto belief in cycles of life would lead back to the Hindu belief of the Heart Beat of Brahma, a billions of year long cycle of the world opening and closing, beginning, ending and being reborn. With the abilities that both Asuka and her colleague have shown, there is a slight that they had come from some time more ancient and remote. However, I suspect that Asuka does not speak of this comforting possibility. Instead, she thinks of a darker and more threatening train of thought and concept. I fear that, more than their dreams of being born pre-War. How much previous? Kodachi stifled her chuckle, Years that they claim, or perhaps from a time so fearful they dare not tell us the truth. Is that why she is so eager to help us? It cannot be the loneliness, Kodachi thought, Not like us, not like ours. Something more necessary. She considered what would go on as their presence continued, and if they needed Asuka as desperately as she obviously needed them.

      Asuka slipped through the brush. Well-trained indeed, she thought, More necessary now that ever. As she closed on the village, the natural sounds fell away. Small animals, insects, and all other sounds faded as I approached, she thought, I guess I didn't lie when I told the others I wasn't going to close any closer than 500 meters. At 700 meters I see and hear nothing, no movement, no arguments, none of the normal clues that something is alive. Time to go beyond. She detested using the senses she'd taken from those she and Unit 02 had killed and absorbed. I hate using them! What I 'see' and 'hear' and even 'smell', both during and after using them, the quiet murmurs of voices long dead, whispering of battles, glories and betrayals long ago. They terrify me. I'm always afraid if a listen too long, I'll never be able to pull myself out, she thought, I have always been able to regain control, of them and myself, but the effort to pull free has become dangerous. Because my control is so much less after I wrench myself loose. She shuddered at the memory of the alien impulses rising up and needing to be put down. Thank God those impulses have just left me shaken and exhausted. If I had the energy to carry them out . . . I'm not sure I'd want to stop them. Damn it! I'm just delaying the inevitable, I have to do this, or walk in and put the Kunos in danger.

      The village and the three lives behind her suddenly became clear. I'm glad I don't understand how this works, she thought as she saw the entire area as if she were looking down from above, as well as north-south and east-west, from every point of view possible in the village. As well as smelling every scent, feeling every textures of the buildings, furnishings, the ground and everything else. I should be sickened by what's in that village, she thought, glad of the terrible detachment that came with the use of these senses and powers, People in the streets, houses and yards. They are all dead. So are all the animals, the plants, even the insects and bacteria. She focused on the corpses that were strewn everywhere. They've all been mummified, as if they'd been dried to a leathery consistency. Why weren't they reduced to powder? She hated those kinds of nonchalant thoughts and analyses that came so easily in this state. People and animals slaughtered . . . I can feel the anguish of each suffering creature as they were murdered. But in this state, it's only an important fact. I should be horrified, I should scream in agony or go mad. Instead, I'm more alarmed that I'm not alarmed. She shook her head to come out of it.

      Asuka Soryu Langley opened her eyes again. The world was mostly what a human would see and hear and smell . . . with the aid of finest sensory enhancement devices: microphones, nightvision and thermal imagers, gas chromatagraph, etc. And the first thing I sense is the people in the similar clothes, she thought as her senses returned to normal and the horror of what she had sensed began to assault her composure, And they all smell like gunpowder, and diesel fuel, and lubricating oil. All right, why are tankers scouting like infantry? Good grief! They aren't even scouting properly! The Kunos would do a better job! They don't even know what they're looking for! Okay, the simplest thing is to get into their path of advance, and let them `discover` me. She signaled the Kunos to advance to her position as she selected the site of their discovery.

      Luna sat and stared despondently at Artemis. Both occasionally glanced at the two girls who chattered on about cake, and flowers, and the latest idol. Both cats wished they were alone, so they could talk.

      "Aren't they so cute together?" Usagi asked as she picked up Luna.

      "Imagine how cute their kittens would be!" Minako chirped, "They're in season, we should breed them and - have you ever seen a cat blush?" She turned Artemis around and stared at the Mooncat.

      Usagi stared at Luna's face, who was trying to look anywhere except at Usagi, or Artemis. "They're embarrassed!" Usagi exclaimed, Luna wanted to nod at Usagi's unexpected insightfulness, "They don't want us watching while they make kittens!"

      Luna dropped her head. Why did I ever agree to take this job? she wondered.

      "Let's leave them alone," Minako suggested, "With all the noise cats make, we'll know when they're done."

      The girls trooped out and turned off the lights.

      Luna stared at Artemis. "I've never been so mortified in my life," she assured him.

      "We did want kids," Artemis suggested, then saw her expression, "Sorry. They do think we're just ordinary housecats, so they'll treat us as ordinary housecats."

      "If I am 'ordered' to chase another catnip-filled mouse . . . " Luna growled, "I may just act like an ordinary housecat, and let her discover a present in her shoes."

      Artemis chuckled. "I guess I shouldn't complain too much. Minako still remembers she is Sailor V, but she thinks I'm named after her talking cat Artemis."

      "Why haven't you told her?" Luna asked.

      "I don't know," Artemis admitted sheepishly, "I guess . . . I guess I keep hoping she'll discover the other Senshi before I reveal myself, but I'm not sure she has."

      "We have the Henshin rods. Sasami gave us all the rods for the Inner Senshi. If we can trust she didn't tamper with them. I assume Asuka and Jeff have the rods from when the Senshi died in the Arctic, so we could ask for those back instead." Luna turned around several times and lay back down on the bed. She was glad when Artemis laid down next to her. "One thing has worried me: some strange people hanging around. It's happened three times, and it was a different person each time, but they were watching the house. I could sense their magic, but I didn't dare go and confront them."

      "We do have allies," Artemis suggested as he got up so he could lie down facing Luna, "Minako mentioned that Jeff came to their school, Makoto and Kiima drove him off, or convinced him to leave." He snorted his disgust. "She wanted to go after a 'yummy guy', since Makoto didn't want him. I think boys are all that girl thinks about."

      "At least yours doesn't just think about food. Can you imagine what would have happened is we'd encountered a youma made of candy?"

      "Attacking children while being so delicious is inexcusable!" Artemis intoned, "In the name of the Moon -"

      "I will eat you!" they chorused and broke out laughing, rolling around on the bed and losing themselves in the image.

      As their laughter faded to occasional giggles, Artemis drew close to Luna. "I've missed you."

      Luna approached Artemis, the other's whiskers tickling their own. "And I you."

      "I wish -"

      "You wish -?"

      "I told you if we left them alone they'd go at it!" Usagi announced as she and Minako marched into the room.

      Artemis stared down from the ceiling where he and Luna were clinging. He turned to his fellow Mooncat and mouthed the word 'shoes', and received a grim smile and an affirmative nod.

      Asuka walked through the town, pointing out the bodies, human and animal. Tatewaki felt sick. The villagers are all dead, he considered the carnage, The method of death . .. Asuka has explained it. Perhaps Kodachi understood the words and concepts, but I and the soldiers understand only that Asuka obviously knew exactly what happened here.

      "What could have done this?" he heard himself asking.

      "I don't know," Asuka replied equally quietly, "Whatever it was, this was done maliciously. Something wanted this suffering."

      "That's inhuman," Second Rikusa Tachibana said, a captain in the tank corp, and the leader of the patrol.

      Odd, Tatewaki thought, Though smaller in stature than I, he should be the leader, by aura and by training, yet he defers to Asuka. He too cannot ignore that she alone of us seems nearly unaffected, and comprehends it best. Even his deputy, Third Rikui Imai commented 'if she's a civilian, I'm a monkey'. Though diminutive like her superior, she is no monkey. I am glad Asuka leads, it well suits her warrior spirit.

      Asuka stopped suddenly and looked around. "Some . . . thing . . . is coming."

      "That way!" Asuka pointed and suddenly sprinted towards the concrete building that had once been a gas station. Once in place, she scanned the skies.

      Not looking at them in fear, but awaiting a target to present itself, Tatewaki thought as he drew the Shaman's gift-blade, The others too know enough to prepare their weapons. He spared a glance at his sister, who merely looked distraught. This, unfortunately, is not what she needed. Battle in the arena was her life, now she has tried to turn her back on it, and battle follows her into the world. Have courage my sister, I will - we will protect you, he thought, Until you have found your heart again.

      "The thing that did this might be returning," Asuka breathed, half fright/half-eagerness.

      Yet, I do not fear, he thought. He glanced at the others. The soldiers look to their leaders: Imai, Tachibana, and Asuka. Kodachi waits in fear, Asuka in expectation, and the other leaders share some measure of both. None consider what it will do to them, but whether what they do to it will matter.

      The sound hurt his ears. He covered them, and continued to look in the direction all three women were staring. What he saw, he could hardly believe. It looks like a flying saucer, out of B-film legend! he thought, almost feeling disappointment, Ah, add tentacles hanging from below, too numerous to count. I doubt they would function as they do in hentai anime, but as a jellyfish or Portuguese Man-O-War's do, with stinging cells. The creature floats, draw forward by the larger tentacles on the outer edge.

      "As numerous as they are," Kodachi commented, "They are too flimsy to support such a creature. Otherwise, it has no other distinguishing features. No eyes, no mouth, nothing."

      As glad as I am of the insight, and my sister efforting to make it, I do wish the insight had been of a more useful type, Tatewaki thought.

      "Don't let it touch you," Asuka warned them.

      Revelation struck like a bolt of thunder. All that has shaped me, he realized, Has lead to this moment. Glory and humbling, as the smith folds the blade. He watched it drag itself forward over the ruined town. Drawn to our lives, he thought with growing exultation, Even my dear sister's fascination with all things that sting and bite with venom has been for this. I was forged and shaped and trained until no man could defeat me. Yet defeat I suffered, from first Saotome, then Davis. Because they were not men! They were weapons, forged as I was, yet understanding their purpose, while I denied mine. They were forged to slay monsters and protect their people. Saotome was stolen away because he served little purpose here. Davis was placed, because now one was needed. "But I now embrace my destiny and my purpose!" he shouted as he charged. This is no warrior, he thought, It grazes, over the weak and helpless. Yet a blade spell-forged and hungry for evil after the blood of a devil-general . . . "Face your death MONSTER! Face the righteous wrath of all Japan!"

      The first wave of tentacles probed forward towards the noisy morsel, and were flicked away with flashing steel. The next wave fell as quickly.

      Asuka thought for a moment, and reached her decision. "Sometimes the smart play isn't the right play," she said quietly, summoning her saber-halberd of fire. With a mixture of alien warcries, she charged into the fray, leaving the others to stare.

      Ignore their shouts and distraction, even their gunfire, she thought as she carved into it with wild abandon, We know the fates of its victims. "No one protected them, but you will fall for their murders!" she shouted as she thrust, slashed and parried, abandoning herself to old reflexes long honed.

      The creature shrieked. Not a sound, but a concept of horror that it could be wounded so grievously. It withdrew along the path of its approach, drawing the wounded tentacles up and out of reach.

      She felt someone shake her, and found herself staring at Kodachi. "Sapporo is in that direction," Kodachi told her, "We have to get to their helicopter."

      Asuka glanced at the captain who has `roused` Tate-chan from his battle madness, and was leading him in the direction Kodachi had pointed. "Let's go. I'm going to kill this thing!"

      "Like the Senshi? Without help or back-up?" Kodachi said peevishly as she gripped Asuka's shoulder.

      Hiding that she doesn't wish to lose any friends, Asuka relented. "Jeff is probably in China. But I know one friend I can call," she said, feeling a manic grin forming, "He should be all that I need."

Sailor Jupiter Interregnum 3

      The Japanese-built S-61 raced through the air. Like the American Sea King, Asuka thought idly, then focused on the young woman who piloted the craft and the odd crest on her shoulder patch. "You were looking for this thing, weren't you?"

      "We were looking for what depopulated a freighter on its way to Vladivostok from Sapporo," the woman replied, "As you can guess, the Soviets were a little put out that the freighter had to be boarded and stopped. They have not been forthcoming about what they discovered aboard."

      Asuka didn't want to comment on her opinions of the Russians. Instead she looked around the helicopter. Packed in like cattle, she thought of the cargo area, We set off in pursuit of the monster, and no one wanted to remain behind. Why? If I had half the brains I tell people I do, I would have left as fast as I could, and run in the other direction. She glanced at Kodachi beside her as the pair sat in the aft-facing jumpseats behind the pilot and co-pilot. I think only the two of us are properly scared. Tate looks ready to leap onto the thing with a sword in his teeth, the others are either too scared to do any good, or don't seem to understand what we're facing.

      "When does your ride get here?" the pilot asked, "I think we can get you a wig too."

      "What?" Asuka asked, irritated about having her thoughts interrupted.

      "I saw enough of the battle at the Diet building to recognize your face, from under the wig and the fuku. You may have looked and talked like them, but you didn't fight like them. If you had, you would have killed Beryl, and leveled the heart of Tokyo. I appreciate that you didn't do much urban renewal."

      "My 'ride' will be here shortly," Asuka replied. He just needed to find a babysitter, she thought. "As for the psychological warfare aspect . . . what eats Jellyfish?"

      "Gourmets," Tate-chan replied from inside his own world.

      You think you've reached an epiphany, she thought, You've just fallen in a hole. The same one Raccoon seems to throw himself in. Well, Tate-chan, you aren't nearly as stubborn or stupid as he is. You, I will get reunited with your love. If I have to drag this entire stinking universe into the woodshed and make it howl!

      Hotaru checked the kotatsu and made sure all the eggs were covered and warm, but not too hot. 'Coddled, not poached', she remembered the huge creature's instructions and shivered, He's too scary to be a cat! That's not a Mooncat, that's a space station!

      She pulled out her homework and began to read aloud to the eggs. Make somebody else suffer through English class, she thought, At least we got rid of that crazy size-changing English teacher before I had to take her.

      Tate-chan lamented, To be denied another chance at this monster! My blade and I wounded it grievously, and it fled when wounded. If I could land but atop it. If Asuka and I could smite it from above! he thought and considered the battle, We would give it no place to retreat to! It would be like the battles told only in legend! Such a feat would stir the blood of this flabby nation and remind us of our glorious history!

      "Get in closer," Asuka shouted into the helmet's microphone. There were not enough helmets to go around, so he was not privy to the other end of the conversation.

      From `Taisho` Langley's expression, woe betides our foe. While the fates might show mercy, he thought, She assuredly shall not. She also seems the only one who can track our dire foe.

      "We can't do that!" Third Rikui Imai shouted, "We can't attack without -"

      Tatewaki's blade before the woman's eyes silenced her. He didn't point it or touch her with it, just turning it over and over. Merely to catch the light. "You cannot, we can," he explained over the engine noise before he withdrew the blade. "Do not distract the pilot," he added loudly, and clearly enough those farther away could make out the words. I cannot make this too blatant a threat, he knew.

      The woman gulped and nodded.

      He spotted his sister pointing backwards and shouting. He looked back through one of the door windows in time to see an F-15J go down in flames, as two of the `flying saucers` closed on the helicopter. In the distance, two spiraling smoke clouds marked the fate of two other fighters. They have engaged our foes, and lost, he realized as he glanced around, And we are more vulnerable than I suspected. On an open field, I might be a match for such a foe, or both of them. Or if I leapt atop one . . . but from within this vehicle, crowded as it is . . . he didn't let himself finish the thought. He glanced at his sister. She replied with a small shake of her head. She has brought none of her weapons or chemicals, he realized, as he glanced around the interior, Nothing aboard will serve as an adequate substitute on such short notice. He looked at Asuka and had his heart torn by the agony of her expression. The situation will not allow me to offer words of comfort, that we shall fight nobly.

      A look of grim determination replaced her expression.

      Never have I gazed upon such fire of spirit, not the pigtailed girl, nor Tendo Akane, nor even Ami-chan possessed such a soul-inferno, he admired the power of the girl, This is no fire to warm a lover's heart. This has all the kindness and mercy of a forest fire, no malice and yet no mercy.

      Asuka released herself from the seat's straps, and moved towards the door. One of the soldiers attempted to hold her back. She casually shoved him back into his seat, hard.

      What she has become, shall not be denied, he thought as he released himself and followed, positioning himself behind her as she threw the side door open. He grabbed one of the restraining straps in an iron grip and wrapped his other arm around her waist. Perhaps whatever she has become has dispensed with such petty, human issues, he thought as the wind and noise tore at him, her hair whipping his face until he was certain it would draw blood, It may be hubris, but perhaps I can pull back a human to us.

      He felt the heat coming off her body, yet it was not a physical heat. The heat battered not at his body, but his mind, his emotions. The heat of anger, a fury at stupidity, a rage that evil profits and virtue does not, a bitterness at the wasted potential of prejudice, and hysteria at the institutionalized stupidity of 'we've always done it that way' and 'not invented here'. All this and more, he felt it all battering away at him, yet he refused to let go, Anger, hatred at everyone and everything in the universe, the kind of anger only a frustrated parent or a disappointed lover could have. The madness of one who loves too much and too deeply, and now has been hurt too often by that love. Tatewaki unashamedly shed silent tears at its sadness and beauty. He felt this anger and hatred crescendo thrice, and in each, he felt within it, a desperate sliver of hope. Somehow that this time it would be different, this time what she did would matter, he realized, as if it was his own rather than Asuka's thoughts, That this time she could save those she protected, those she cared about. He had no need to see the outcome. Even the maddest of gods would have fled such an onslaught.

      He pulled her back from the door, kicking it closed as he carried her back to her seat. She was unresisting, as if exhausted beyond life or caring. She glanced at him out of the shell, her expression filled and twisted by her self-loathing.

      I beg forgiveness, he berated himself, I have no words. He sat himself in the jumpseat and gathered her in, closing his arms around her. Perhaps I did pull back a human, he thought, A terribly wounded one. For all my turmoils and troubles . . . I have had not the tribulations I felt from her. He responding to her laying her face on his shoulder and weeping by supporting her head. The terrified soldiers buckle us in, he thought as he glanced at 3d Rikui Imai, She looked into Hell, as the foul Hibiki always claimed, and she escaped. She too has been scarred by getting a very good look. I understand, I truly do. He looked back at the girl cuddling in his lap. She is nearly as tall as I am, yet now seemed tiny, even fragile, he noted as he glanced around, I would assure these frightened soldiers that she shall not hurt them, if I could escape the profound revelation that concentrates my every thought. A momentous clarity that even the gods would envy. I had called her my 'pigtailed-goddess' as a tribute to her beauty and spirit, and that they had assured me that the sorcerer Saotome and she 'were of the same soul.' I had foolishly taken it to mean that boorish fool was first wedded to, then the same person as that coquettish paragon of feminine charm.

      I now discard both those thoughts out of hand. It is clearly impossible. The time I had seen the change, and had it rationalized away: Head injuries, my dear sister's potions, stage magic, some trickery by Tendo Nabiki, who alone seemed to be able to make the sorcerer dance to her tune. He let Asuka settle in her arms as he held her, reminding her that what she feared, isolation, was merely fear not fact. I have realized that my flattering tribute was closer to the truth than any has yet considered. Saotome, both of them, were the soul of godhead. It explains the ease with which defeat after defeat struck me down at Saotome's hands, both of them. It likewise solves the riddle of the pig-tailed goddess's reticence in relation to love, and the sorcerer's rejection of the fire of Tendo Akane. Mighty among mortals I might be, but that is as nothing compared to a god. Davis too defeats me with contemptuous ease, if he does not spin the world around me like a top instead. He, as did Saotome, wielded powers beyond those of mortal man. Likewise Asuka Soryu Langley has just demonstrated powers that would have leveled a regiment. They are gods! And they do not wish to be.

      What they required was never an arrogant mortal to challenge their might and cunning. They needed the human touch, he thought, They had been stolen from their homes, yet rather than lay waste to the cities of Japan, then the islands themselves, their energy and fury were spent on the hunt of the demons those fools had released in their search for Saotome. He frowned at the episode and their fervent denials. Even gentle Tendo Kasumi was not immune to the mad scramble. Until they replaced him as their son and heir with Hibiki. Bah! Even unclean Saotome was a greater warrior than Hibiki.

      Now they hunt these new creatures, without regard for any worship, any songs sung in their honor, or prayers offered to them. `Just` simple restauranteur , `just` a schoolgirl. The facade wears thin. Perhaps the House Kuno lacks the wit to flee what must surely befall those in the path of a god. If that is the case, I now understand why I and my oft-demented sister have been chosen. Asuka Soryu Langley could cast down foes a hundred times the match of both Tatewaki and Kodachi Kuno, with an ease that surpassed description. What she needs is a guardian of her soul. That innermost place where hope still reigns above anger, frustration and despair. That I - that we shall do. Against the evil that threatened to return one of their number to those who clearly were undeserving, they refused to strike with all their force. Turning that rage to protect the homeland of their tormentors, because 'it was what was done!'

      Tatewaki smiled, he held the girl in his arms, How often I had wished for Tendo Akane, or the Pig-tailed Girl to so accommodate themselves. Yet for Asuka, it is and shall remain different. As lovely and inspiring as she is as a woman, the Scion of House Kuno has a sacred mission! One I shall neither fail nor betray. Perhaps my sister would understand the chance we are being offered. Perhaps she would understand the responsibility, and embrace it firmly as I have.

      "Tate," Asuka said, "You're squishing me."

      The helicopter landed quickly. The troops poured out. I guess they don't want to be around me, Asuka thought as she scanned the skies, I shouldn't expect anything else. The people here don't know what to make of me, friend or foe.

      Koda-chan put her hand on Asuka's shoulder and pointed towards where the temporary command post had been set up.

      Asuka tried to ignore the fear behind the girl's smile. She knows too, she thought as Tate-chan led the way. "Commodore?" Asuka asked as the man looked up from the maps and reports.

      "Who else would have been put in charge of a monster that eats people?" the man said with a half-smile, "No officer with hopes of career advancement wanted the job."

      "Do you have Cabinet approval to use all these troops?" Asuka asked as she approached the map table.

      The man chuckled. "Soon, they promised me. I have an unofficial report that something else is on the way."

      "Nobody will tell me what eats jellyfish," Asuka said with mock anger, "So I called up someone who will eat nearly anything."

      "Perhaps not as you think." The man stood and walked to a map of the South China Sea on the tent wall. "We have another problem. A whole cluster of winged people who apparently can fly," he ignored the sick look on Asuka's face and continuted, "They are vectoring towards Tokyo. Fighters will attempt an intercept."

      "Call them back," Asuka said with alarm, "There's no weapon on a modern fighter that can engage those creatures."

      "You're forgetting the Vulcan cannon. Twenty mil works on nearly anything."

      The helicopter pilot arrived and saluted "Lieutenant Takarada reporting." She held the salute until he returned it. "We have a report of an unknown air - airborne object - coming from the south. Large, white - "

      "White? Not black?" Asuka asked.

      "Yes, ma'am, white."

      Where did he get off? Going after them . . . Asuka wondered, Oh, I know, and I'll bet Jeff is there too. So much for the Chinese invasion, and may God have mercy on their souls.

      The sky at this altitude is a pleasant violet, the Scholarly Dragon thought, as he flew some hundred and ninety thousand feet above the Sea of Japan, And twenty miles below . . . He watched the sandy-brown object awaiting the cue to act. And twelve miles below him, he thought as he watched the `Chinese Invasion` approach the coast of Japan, They send their best, but it cannot be enough. Poor, brave fools. The flying humans, and the few `magical` sleds carrying still more warriors faced four F-15J's.

      And the results of the Chinese fighter attack are replayed with different weapons, different targets, and the same results, he thought as the smoke trails of a dozen radar-guided missiles crossed the thirty level miles between their launchers and their targets. There go the fireballs, and the missiles take the bait. Too small a signature from the people, and too big from the plasma cloud. Run away, your IR homers . . . no, you have to try, don't you? If it could draw off your Sparrows, what makes you thing your AAM-3's will do any better?

      He watched as this second wave of missiles raced after the decoys spewed by one figure amid the formation. Then the fighters closed to gun ranges. Against the Ki blasts and maneuverability of those targets . . . he thought as the fighters dodged and wove among the targets who fired from seemingly every angle. First, a fighter belched smoke and dove for the false security of the deck, then another simply went into a ballistic path. Crew killed, he thought as he watched the boy tip over and begin his dive, Couldn't wait, eh? Go rescue them, I can wait and adapt.

      The third fighter tried to drive the flying figures away from his wounded wingman, only to fall victim to the same attack. The fourth drove for the heart of the formation. Idiot, there is such a thing as an unwinnable . . . his thought trailed off as the fighter received so many hits it simply fell apart in the air, But you have thinned your screen to chase the cripples. Your pique will be your undoing. He tipped over and began his own descent.

      Far below, black breath slammed into the wall of flame, as the Phoenix-god struggled to maintain his fire-shield. And the others swarm in, the Scholarly Dragon thought and watched, knowing even as he accelerated, it would take time to reach the battle, Good, you tried and could not breach the defense, now you return to the plan. He thought of the rapidly twisting and turning dragon, as the Phoenix-god and the `dragon` prince called for more and more of their troops to drive it off. Troops who had been lobbing their parting shots at the crippled fighters limping home turned back to their true calling. Draw them off, draw them in, he thought as the sandy-brown creature seemed to squirm like an agonized earthworm, while in the proper scale, the maneuvers had purpose and fluidity.

      More and more warriors were drawn to drive the creature away, drive it down to the water, where it could be dispatched or captured. So, Prince of the Musk, you want it alive, and your comrade does not, he thought with a smile, But you have not caught it yet. And you have not considered that it might be a feint, wheels within wheels. You shall not have the girl against her will, I shall see to that!

      He opened his jaws and slavered at the change from triumph to terror he saw for a mere moment.

      Asuka ran up to Stirogi as the dragon landed. "Not that I'm not happy to see you," she greeted the creature, "But I am confused."

      "He sent me," the dragon said and shivered, then looked around nervously, "I didn't squish anyone did I? He was most specific on that!"

      "Nope, you even missed the cars, congratulations, a truly terrifying landing with no property damage." Asuka patted the dragon's leg. "And don't worry about him, he's just an old curmudgeon."

      Stirogi stared at her, then in a loud voice proclaimed, "We need a doctor over here, she's completely delusional!"

      "I'm a doctor!" a man in a white lab coat said as he walked up to the pair.

      "If you say 'What's up Doc?', I'll tell him you ate somebody!" Asuka threatened. Great, she's learning Raccoon's sense of humor too, Asuka lamented.

      "I was just going to ask if I'd ever play the violin."

      "Could you play it before?"


      "Then my prognosis isn't hopeful," the doctor said gravely, then turned to Asuka, "Just how many dragons do you have?"

      "Three," Stirogi said, "It's the clutch of eggs I worry about."

      "You're young, but I believe you'll be a good mother," the doctor said and turned away, presenting a nearly irresistible target.

      "She isn't the mother," Stirogi said.

      "Thank you," Asuka said between clenched teeth.

      "She tied me down and did - OW! OW! OW!" The dragon danced away from Asuka in full fury.

      "Wasn't there something else you wanted to kill?" Tate called from behind an armored car.

      Asuka damped down her anger and smoothed her blouse and slacks. "Yes, change to human form and follow me to the HQ tent." She turned and walked back to the map filled tent.

      My he's a controlled one, Asuka thought in disappointment as the Commodore simply bowed to the dragon-girl, instead of the more fear- or lust-based reaction of everyone else in the tent.

      "This is our target," the Commodore said as he set out a number of photos, "Langley-san wounded it -"

      "I can believe that," Stirogi said.

      "Raccoon's sense of humor is good in small doses," Asuka warned the dragon-girl in Chinese, "This is neither the time, nor the place."

      "But it has commenced moving again," the Commodore continued, "We'd like to intercept it outside the city proper, or to lure it out the sea, where you'll have more room to maneuver."

      "Has it shown any tendency to pursue anything?' Stirogi asked in a serious tone.

      "Nothing we've found," the Commodore replied.

      "Then I should fly out and engage it immediately. The other two should be here within the hour." Stirogi looked up to stare into the Commodore's eyes. "I can guarantee I can hold it that long."

      "Very good. Do you need anything?" the Commodore asked.

      "More information that you have to give," Stirogi said.

      "Tastes like chicken," the Scholarly Dragon said and belched hugely as they flew north.

      "Heartburn?" Jeff replied as he glanced over his shoulder to make sure the surviviors from both sides would make it to their respective mainlands.

      "I'll eat a coal car later."

      Stirogi looked at the rapidly dispersing fragments around him. "That was certainly anticlimatic!" he said as he checked himself over after the impact, "One headbutt and the monster goes away? I don't believe that for one instant."

      He turned as saw a pattern of disrupted space that he recognized as Jeffery's invisibility spell. That's big enough to cover both of them, he thought, I guess they wanted to sniff around. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought this was suspicious.

      He headed back for the parking lot, Asuka and a frizzy-haired man in the lab-coat were `discussing` events. He selected an empty space close enough to let him keep Asuka from killing the man.

      "Those stupid toys had nothing to do with that creature's defeat!" Asuka said, frightening everyone except her target.

      "What would a mere school girl know about planar-shifting high-energy physics?" the man said dismissively.

      Stirogi put the man on the other side of a car and turned his attention to Asuka. "I don't think it's dead," he said clearly, "Why would a monster throw a fight like that?"

      "It feared the power of our plasma weapons!" the man shouted at them as he foolishly hurried over to resume the argument.

      Stirogi carefully wrapped a light pole around him, hanging him too high for Asuka to reach him. "The others took a sniff around and left, I think they didn't find anything conclusive."

      "If the helicopters with the plasma guns, and your attack didn't disperse it -" The Commodore walked out from where he'd been `in conference`. "Why did it disperse itself?"

      "It feared our plasma weapons!" the man wrapped in the pole insisted.

      Asuka handed Stirogi a length of tape he put to good use.

      "If it was an animal, it might have decided the prey wasn't worth the effort to get at it," Stirogi said, "When I was little, I tried to eat a bear. It won. A few years later, I ate the same bear. That's what worries me. It may come back, it may go elsewhere."

      "What if it's not an animal, what if it's intelligent and following a strategy?" the Commodore asked.

      "Then I don't know what it may do," Stirogi said. Asuka's continued silence and look of extreme concentrate bothered him. "You aren't going to explode, are you?"

      "It . . . left the area. But it . . . hasn't completely gone . . . if that makes any sense," Asuka said and shook herself.

      The doctor approached the group, spared a glance at the struggling man some 10 meters off the ground, then concentrated on those on the ground. "First, we should organize a proper forensic examination of the entire village. Second, Commodore, you need to tell the Cabinet that phasing us out may not be the wisest idea right now. Third -" He handed Asuka a portfolio. "Consider yourself drafted."

      "I'm a German citizen," Asuka replied, and tried to hand the folder back, the doctor wouldn't take it.

      "You're a dead German citizen. You died in Stuttgart in 1944. You also should be in your sixties if you had lived," the doctor said, "You are not Anna Langley."

      "You can't do this," Asuka said, her temper building.

      "I figure you're some kind of spirit, fated to walk the Earth seeking battle against enemies that threaten all of Mankind, you sup on the perfection of humanity and feast on the glories of battle."

      Asuka shook her head. "You shouldn't listen to Tate-ch - to Tatewaki when he's like this," Asuka counseled, "He gets these flights of fantasy."

      "From someone who can throw anti-ship particle beams, call up dragons, and a few other things I've seen," the Commodore said, "It's as workable a hypothesis as anything else I've heard."

      "You'll join for one other reason," Stirogi said smugly.

      "Oh?" Asuka confronted him, fists on her hips. "You know me so well do you?"

      "I know you want to prove that idiot wrong," Stirogi replied with a smile.

      Asuka's fury searched the smiling faces, human and dragon, for a suitable target. Finding none, she relented. "What's the pay? And I expect some decent food, occasionally." She said as she opened the portfolio to look over the package.

      "What about you?" the doctor asked Stirogi.

      "You couldn't afford my food bills. You have to send men with boxes of sawdust to the mountains, and by the time they arrive back, half the ice is melted. It's not like you could make decent ice you know." The white dragon leapt into the air and headed home. He immediately felt two other dragons flying in formation with him, although he couldn't see or smell them. "She took the job."

      "Of course she did. I can almost see her extending her wings again. I'm glad that doctor reads fast," came the gravelly rumble, "I almost pity that thing. 'By the time I get to Phoenix she'll be rising, she'll find the note I left hangin' on her door'."

      "Don't ask, and don't encourage him," came the voice he treasured above all others.

Sailor Jupiter II 1 - The Eastern World, It Is Exploding

      The reforming monster stared at it's soon-to-be lunch and burbled, "Fool, you think a mere knife . . . " Realization stole over it, as the blade stole it's life.

      "Who are you working for?" the knife-wielding man asked in the monster's native tongue.

      "You're not human," the monster replied in horror, then tried to laugh, becoming a sickening parody of coughing, "You'll never know until too late. We are everywhere, and we are nowhere." The creature disintegrated into a fine, gray powder.

      "You could have just told me," the man said as he brushed the dust from his knife and tweed suit, "No need for secrets between old friends."

      The first of the man's pursuers stormed into the alley. Jeff looked up to see the tall girl who was breathing heavily. Her peasant shirt, lace-front leather vest and knee-length skirt were both fetching and a more practical fighting costume than she'd formerly worn.

      "Good day, Tomoe Makoto-san," he said, "I hope you are well."

      " 'I - hope- you - are - well'? You - think - I'm - stupid?" she gasped and charged.

      Jeff slipped her punch and twisted around to face her. Oh course, the hero charges into an alley with another hero, and they have a fight. I hate this trope, he thought as he dodged under her spinning kick, Bike shorts, good thinking, better than trying to weight the skirt.

      "I knew there was something wrong with you," she snarled at him, as she grabbed his coat and began a sacrifice throw.

      Jeff twisted to keep her from hitting the pavement first when they landed. "Why, because I think you're a pretty girl?" he asked.

      He instantly realized that he'd made an error as Makoto growled insanely and raised her fist. She's going to break her hand, when it goes through my skull and hits the pavement, he thought as he tossed her aside and used the first power he'd gained from the Great Old Ones, he ran. He was pursued by a garbage can, a piece of drainpipe, a telephone booth and finally screams of unrelenting rage.

      But it worked for Ranma! he mentally whined, as he dodged, Proof positive I'm not Ranma. He glanced over at Kiima as she flew alongside, carrying Hotaru in her Sailor Saturn uniform.

      "It was a good start," Hotaru said as she patted his head, "Keep running, make her work for it."

      "You - are - not - helping!" he complained.

      "That's what you think," Kiima said idly, "We know her better than you do. Hotaru told me most of it. We haven't told her, yet."

      "So I should run a bit, then let her beat me up?" he asked.

      "And let her break her hands on your coat?" Hotaru protested, "No way! Just let her run and wear herself out. She'll eventually notice you could have beaten her, and didn't fight her."

      Crap! he thought angrily. "With friends like you, who needs enemas?" he said and teleported away.

      The woman in the green and white fuku looked down on the people in the small ski chalet and grinned. Both her natural height and her ability to float several feet off the ground let her tower over almost all the people she'd corralled here. The fact several of the younger men kept trying to look up her short skirt amused her. As if they'd see anything besides my shorts, she thought.

      "Surrender?" one red-headed, gaijin girl replied to her demand, "Makoto, what the Hell are you playing at?"

      The fuku-clad, would-be kidnapper froze at her retort. It wasn't the idea of the challenge that stunned her, although she hadn't truly been challenged in almost a thousand years. She knows my name, the woman who seemed in her late teens to early twenties thought desperately, How can she know my name? I can barely remember it! Before she could gather her scattered thoughts, the woman leapt from the floor and grappled with her.

      "I don't know what you're doing Makoto," the girl, a mere teenager, told her with utter confidence, "But you will tell me."

      The warrior sneered at the girl hanging onto her uniform. "I have bested greater fighters than you!" she told her foe, "I will enjoy teaching you your place."

      Rather than gibbering in fear, as the two of them settled to the ground, and the other people scattered out of every exit, the red head smiled evilly.

      Jeff looked up at the sky, trying to locate Kiima and Hotaru, who'd been vectoring Makoto after him. If I can hide from them, I can get away, he thought, Of course I could just teleport home, instead of letting her chase me. Or head back to China to pick up Kho Lon. That would make more sense. Do I even know my own thoughts in this?

      "I'll get you!" Makoto charged out of a cross street at him.

      "Aren't you getting tired?" Jeff asked as he dodged, then outdistanced her.

      "I won't let you escape to hurt more people!" she shouted as she pursued.

      What the heck have they been telling her to egg her on? he wondered, Even Akane or Ryoga would have given up by now. He spotted a river or wide canal. With all I usually carry, I should sink like a stone, and then I can walk out of here, he thought as he dove in feet first, sinking rapidly, This water is freezing! That should hold her off.

      He was shocked when he heard a splash and saw Makoto race past him in a perfect diver's pose. He landed at the bottom, some 7 to 10 meters under the surface and found Makoto had already arrived. He walked away. The cold and need to breathe will get her soon enough, then I'll turn around and head the other way, he thought as he marched, then he used his other senses to track her progress, and realized she wasn't surfacing, despite the movement at her location, It can't be sharks or predatory fish. He grudgingly turned around and headed back.

      Okay, that outfit was practical on land, he realized as he saw the section of chain-link fence she was tangled with on the river bottom, But the loose sleeves and leather lacings make it a deathtrap underwater. Okay, it had a coil of razorwire atop it too, that's going to make getting loose in this visibility difficult. He mentally sighed as he approached. He saw the tiny stream of bubbles from her nose, and realized she was going to lose her air just from being head down in the water.

      Makoto went into a paroxysm of kicks and punches as she realized he was approaching. He backed off quickly. This is ridiculous, he thought as he pulled his pistol, I'm not going to stand by and let you drown. When he was close enough for her to see it and him clearly, he made a show of cocking it. Makoto's eyes went wide as she looked from the .45 to him and back. Then she held out her hands in a show of surrender.

      Congratulations, you just flunked the Nerima entrance exam, potential death does make you reasonable, he thought as he ripped lose a piece of wire and bound her wrists togther, and pushed her hands to her face so she could pinch her nose closed. That done, he reholstered his pistol and examined the mix of wires and clothes. You really tangled yourself up good, he thought, ignoring the smell of her blood in the water, I can't just cut off your clothes or disintegrate the fence, because part of what is caught is you. Marvelous, it also means I can't just haul it and you to the surface, and let you untangle yourself, without slicing you to ribbons in the process. This is going to take time you don't have. While he tried to get her flesh unhooked, so he could either cut her or the fence loose, she suddenly started shaking her head wildly. Tangling her hair in the coils as well.

      I was expecting that, he thought as he tried to grip her head. Quit struggling! he wanted to shout, I can help! He focused the Stare on her, and she went slack, her hands and hair drifting in the current as if she were already dead. He had to pinch her nose closed on his own as he leaned forwards and breathed a lungful of pure oxygen into her mouth.

      The shock of the `kiss` woke you up, he thought as she held her own nose closed and let him get back to work. He was aware of her staring intently at him, as he broke or cut the cloth or wire as necessary, to free her. She was again near the end of her air as he carried her back to the surface.

      As he carried her ashore, Makoto went limp. He set her on the ground and she began retching up the river water she'd swallowed. Hotaru and Kiima were at her side.

      "The scratches will get infected, that water's none too clean, nor was the fence," Jeff said as Kiima approached, "The shirt's had it I'm afraid."

      "Told you it would work out," Kiima explained in Chinese, as she smirked at him, "Chased you all the way to Yokohama, yet could trust you to share your air and not abandon her to her death. It worked out just like I dreamed."

      "If I wasn't so tired, I'd hit you," Jeff growled, "What would have happened if I had just left? You took an awful risk". You knew I wouldn't do that, and Hotaru's Silence Wall could have made a cassion down to her at any time. Why didn't I just 'port home. I did enjoy playing cat and mouse with her and the others. I guess part of it was I knew it was just play. If she'd caught me, I could just surrender, and Hotaru would make up some reason to let me go. `Heal` me first and trust me to play it up, he wondered at his actions, It was irrational, I shouldn't have wasted time, hers and mine like this. Kill the monster and slip away. I'm going home to think this through. "Can you carry both?"

      "It's a stretch, but yes," Kiima said, "Be patient with her. She was stupid, and hurt, and angry, they all were. It wasn't you she wanted to take it out on, and I suspect none of the `Scouts` wanted you and Asuka to see them `ruthlessly fighting savagely`, as if you both hadn't seen and done worse many times."

      Jeff nodded and returned to the Neko-chan.

      The young woman in the blue and white fuku advanced carefully. I know we were supposed to have landed unobserved, and we should have taken our objectives easily, she thought as she looked around the small building that had clearly been the site of a panic and mass exodus, Why hasn't Jupe reported in? Why did we find people from her target running and driving around the countryside? She knew we needed to remain covert until we had established a secure base here.

      The woman crept as quietly as she could, which even by her standards wasn't very quiet. As if sneaking around the snow in this outfit didn't advertise either I'm insane, or I'm up to no good, she considered, her weapon at the ready as she looked through the door to the building.

      She spotted Princess Jupiter, her one friend among her colleagues, lying crumpled in a heap near the center of the building. The lack of burn marks on the walls and the dearth of destroyed furniture was more telling of the swiftness of the battle than her comrade's seeming unconsciousness.

      She approached cautiously. They could have booby-trapped the body. Then she realized her friend still lived. Jupiter was not only not dead, but she didn't seem to be injured in the slightest. The blue-fukued woman shivered slightly as she touched the shuddering woman in green. It almost sounds like she's saying 'Makoto'! But that's impossible!

      "Hello, Ami," came from the shadows. Princess Mercury had her wand ready and her best attack online.

      "Who are you?!" she asked, fighting back the tremor in her voice and the hammering of her heart. No one recalls who I am, she thought, Most times I can't even remember that name. "That's a good trick, but I won't fall for it!" she tried to sound confident and not terrified.

      "Ami Mizuno," the red-head said as she stepped into the light.

      Princess Mercury felt as if she'd been kicked in the stomach, each time the other girl so casually spoke her name. "Sphere of Infinity!" Mercury instantly encased her target in a bubble of unbreakable force. Now I should be able to relax. No attack can escape that shield! She can't do anything, not really, except for the thought she couldn't cast aside which filled her with indecision and terror, She knows my name. If I barely know it, how could someone in this backwater know it?

      "Very good, Ami-chan," the red head said patronizingly, tapping the inside of the bubble with a finger, her words tapping on Ami's soul, "But not as good as your old teacher. Smarter than me, but still not as experienced. And nowhere near as clever."

      Princess Mercury felt her control over the situation slipping with each mention of her name. She tried to tell herself, Nothing can escape that sphere! But I'm facing an impossibility right in front of me, she thought, Should I call the others? Should I simply kill her? But she didn't kill Pri - Makoto, when she had the chance. I can't just kill her without knowing. She looked around in fear. I don't believe this! I'm actually thinking about running away!

      "Tell me something Ami-chan," the girl asked as she stopped tapping on the sphere, and fixed the Princess of Mercury with a stare, "Have you ever heard Xeno's paradox: What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?"

      "Of course." Ami looked at Makoto, and realized she wouldn't get help from her.

      "So, for a sub-atomic particle, a planet is a good approximation of an infinitely immovable object? Wouldn't you say?"

      Mer - Ami - thought of how any of this was possible. I should be demanding how she knows us, she thought, Not listening to riddles. I just can't keep my mind focused. I don't think I've been this rattled since we began!

      "I'll take that as a 'yes', Ami-chan, your manners have degraded, although your figure has improved, I wonder if one has something to do with the other? Poor bookish and almost allergic to love and affection, now you probably have to beat the boys off with a stick," the girl teased.

      I wish, no I - NO I serve her Majesty! As for this little piece of - She shook he head, trying to get her rampaging thoughts under control.

      "Scowling wrinkles the complexion, Ami-chan," she said, "Back to paradoxes, a neutrino passes through miles of the densest shielding without effect. So that would be a good example of an irresistible force, wouldn't it?"

      "Yes," Ami growled. No, I'm Princess Mercury, Princess Mercury, advisor to her Maj - her thoughts froze as the girl stepped through the Bubble of Infinity.

      "Non-interaction, Ami-chan," the girl said as she approached, "I didn't hurt Kino Makoto when I beat her, and I'll do the same to you."

      Ami - Mercury, tried to thrust her confusion aside as she kicked out at her opponent. Then stared in horror as the girl easily caught her outstretched leg.

      "There are more things in Heaven and Earth . . . " the girl told her with a grin.

      This is beneath me, the Royal Speaker thought as she approached the picayune ski lodge, This was supposed to be Jupiter's territory, and she failed. So did that stuck-up snob Mercury. So who has to clean up the mess and get things back on track? She shook out her green-highlighted black hair and looked at her `assistant`.

      "I know Satu," the short-haired blonde said tiredly, "We're better than this, we should be doing other things. But we always were the clean-up squad back on the Moon, then in Tokyo, and now here, it will never change while her Highness wants her friends, rather than real soldiers, around her." She glanced back at the aqua-haired woman who trailed them and guarded their backs.

      GrandMaster Saturn sighed and nodded at Princess Uranus's wisdom. "Don't think I don't appreciate your sound advice. I just wish it didn't always sound like 'I told you so'."

      "Something else to get used to," the Princess told her, "Me, I'd like to find something that - " She stopped so fast that the GrandMaster almost ran into her. "Be careful what you wish for," she murmured, "I always knew those two swung that way, but were too nervous to admit it."

      Lying on the table in the middle of the room amid the undamaged furniture, were Mercury and Jupiter, seemingly wrapped in ribbons the same shade as the colored highlights of their fukus. If one of them moved, the other let out a squeal that wasn't exactly surprise, and definitely wasn't pain, and it caused the other one to squirm, throwing the reaction back on the originator.

      The ribbon is a bit more than skin tight, and has them gagged so they can't cry out loudly, the GrandMaster considered with distaste, a frown creasing her regal brow, With little Mercury's face buried in that Jovian cow's cleavage.

      "Who are you and what . . . " the challenge trailed off, and the GrandMaster stared in stunned horror, unable to make her own.

      She - looks like me?! NeoSerenity's GrandMaster considered woman with the green-highlighted black hair, bearing a replica of the key of time, in the black-trimmed fuku, rather than her own purple-trimmed uniform. She forced her shock away and concentrated on her sacred mission. She brought her true key into position. This imposter will pay for her blasphemy! she silently vowed. Her skin crawled as her opponent took up a mirror-image stance and wore an eerily similar expression of resolution.

      Princess Uranus stepped forward to do battle, when she looked at a nearly identical tall, close-cropped blonde with a matching sword, expression and stance.

      "Setsuna," Uranus's doppleganger glanced sideways and exclaimed, "What's going on?"

      "NO!" the GrandMaster shouted, hearing what should not be remembered, "Death -!"

      "- Scream!" her duplicate answered with her own cry. The blasts interacted and amplified. The women all fell, including Princess Neptune and her copy, both of whom had been trailing their colleagues out of sight.

      A red-headed girl detached herself from the shadows and looked around in disgust. "Idiots!" she muttered in German, "Now I have to wait for somebody to wake up."

      Princess Jupiter had been in Her Majesty Queen NeoSerenity's presence many times. But never on my knees, before the entire court, my head bowed as a suppliant. Never before have I faced NeoSerenity's displeasure. I wish there was something I could do to truly make things better, she thought of her humiliation and turmoil, As if her Speaker or any of the Outers did better than me and . . . Ami. She forcibly stifled her elation, I can remember her name! I can actually keep it in my head! she wanted to dance and sing, then she remembered and sobered, Of course having to listen to her scream it, and my name, and having to scream both names myself, probably helps a lot. She looked out of the corner of her eye at their captive. The only one who resisted that we've managed to keep a hold of, she wondered, Do I want to kiss her, or kill her. Why did she surrender after she defeated all of us? It makes no sense if she's hostile. While she's . . . offensive, she isn't really hostile. She stifled a giggle at the memory of the imperious GrandMaster Saturn, her boots off, screaming 'Setsuna' while the girl mercilessly tickled her feet.

      "You admit your failure to serve our Kingdom, and the failure to properly serve our Queen?" GrandMaster Saturn asked.

      Not even my name - my title or any salutation, eh Satu? Makoto thought, keeping her name in the forefront of her mind and hanging on to it with all her strength. "I offer no excuses for our failure." Take that Setsuna! she thought. "I do offer the explanation that the girl knew our names . . . all of them! She might even know -!"

      "SILENCE!" the queen commanded, "That shall never be spoke again!"

      Makoto was only too willing to remain silent. She realized that the instant NeoSerenity had spoken, she had started losing the grip she had on her and Ami's names. Instead she focused on her earlier humiliation at the hands of this Asuka Soryu Langley. Making us scream each others names while she tickled us relentlessly. How did she know not only our names, but that every Senshi is ticklish? Even Ami and Setsuna didn't know that. If she escapes, she'll bring back a dozen commandos armed with feathers, and we'll all be rendered helpless. It's a wonder none of our enemies ever considered that. She considered that for a moment, No, they were too busy trying to hurt us to consider other, more effective ways to `neutralize` us. I guess I've `contemplated` NeoSerenity's command long enough. "I humbly ask forgiveness."

      "Granted," GrandMaster Saturn told her, "The captive has given up nothing we don't already know." Jupiter noted that woman shivered right down to her boots.

      Meaning she named all of us, all of us, and you got so frightened, that you want to foist her off on anyone else to dispose of or to retrain, Makoto considered, Everyone is afraid of what would happen if we tried to harm or kill her, probably with good reason.

      "Princess Jupiter and I owe this girl a - debt," Ami said it as nastily as she could, and there was some scattered laughter among the court. All fuku-clad girls, but pale imitations of the small handful of true Senshi, "A debt I believe we should repay, in full and in private."

      "Pay up," Princess Neptune whispered to Princess Uranus.

      Makoto didn't let their assumptions embarrass her. No! Ami's right, play to their assumptions. Let them think that we're . . . doing what they do together, while we're doing something else entirely, Makoto thought, turning her head slightly to let her see Ami standing, with her head bowed. She heard the whispered consultation between NeoSerenity and Saturn, while the court chattered mindlessly among themselves. She risked raising her head enough to watch the two argue their positions forcefully. Asuka didn't embarrass Her Highness the way she did Setsuna, Makoto realized, She's actually amused by the reports, maybe she'll ask Asuka to join us. I can see Asuka as the first new Senshi in so long. It would be a good move, bringing in both new blood and a representative from this world. Not to mention a buffer against Mars' and Saturn's control over NeoSerenity.

      "Agreed, you will be expected to keep her under observation and control," Saturn pronounced and tossed her head to make her greenish hair lash like a snake, "You may both leave. Our next subject is dealing with these imposters who dare to mock us."

      Makoto stood, keeping her head bowed so neither Saturn nor NeoSerenity saw her true expression. Such an opportunity lost, Makoto thought angrily, Maybe the best decision is not to bring in, but go out. She changed her expression to imply the severity of the punishment she had planned. She saw a matching expression on Ami's face as the two approached their bound and gagged captive and picked her up. Very carefully, Makoto thought, The last thing we want is to have her angry at us. Not when she can provide us with so much. She made the mistake of looking at NeoSerenity's beautiful, but scowling face. She felt her heart shatter within her. I have done this to her, she thought and wanted to throw herself on NeoSerenity's mercy, I have to do something to redeem myself!

      "They don't want us to hear how those others escaped," Ami said in low tones, "Or think that there may be Sailor Scouts on this planet to match our own Senshi."

      Makoto nodded and hurried from the room as the debate behind them increased in acrimony to mask the terror the court felt. If one girl defeated two of us, and three Scouts defeated the Outer Senshi, then we should withdraw, find somewhere else. But Satu would have to admit either she or NeoSerenity made a mistake, and that will never happen, Makoto thought as they carried their limp captive to Makoto's chambers.

      Asuka `woke` slowly. She'd learned how to hide within herself to rest, while still remaining aware of her surroundings. The interrogation was harsh, but more boring than hurtful. Idiots. They could have just believed me the first time they asked me a question. Now I'm lying on a bed with silk sheets, not the tile floor of the examining room or the marble floor of the throne room, how things change, she thought with a smile, then sensation of movement filtered in. Noises intruded as well. Asuka opened her eyes to return to the realm of human senses and sensation, and almost regretted it. She saw the two pseudo-Senshi she'd seen before. Both wore babydoll negligees the same color as their skin. It gave Asuka the initial impression that they were naked. They certainly are more `talented` than their 14 year-old counterparts, she thought. She watched as they tentatively took each others' hands and looking longingly into each others' eyes.

      "Ami. Ami-chan."

      "Makoto. Mako-dono," Ami said with a smile as she fell into the larger girl's arms, her head pillowed on Makoto's shoulder.

      When Ami raised her head and the two embraced again, Asuka realized, They are like Raccoon and me, old friends finally meeting each other. "Oh good, I was terrified that this intimate moment was a hentai yuri scene and the next stage of the torture. It would have been very effective."

      Ami leapt onto the bed. Asuka suddenly discovered the softness and depth of the mattress prevented her from escaping. Ami took Asuka's hands and looked at her so earnestly it frightened Asuka.

      "You know us, you know who we are," Ami seemed to plead with Asuka, as Asuka tried to get away.

      Makoto sat on the edge of the bed, sinking in a deeply as Asuka and Ami had. Effectively boxing Asuka in.

      "Please, tell us," Ami's plea drew Asuka's attention back to her, "We'll give you whatever we can."

      Asuka's skin crawled at the look of absolute need and surrender on Ami's face. I just wish I could contact Raccoon and Tate quickly, both as an assault team and to give these two something really mouth-watering to deal with, Asuka thought quickly, Although the way these two look and act, theirs won't be the only watering mouths.

      "Before I promise anything, what are you doing here? This planet already ha - had a team of Senshi, and you aren't them," Asuka told them, looking from desperate face to desperate face, "I did know them. They died in the Arctic fighting Beryl."

      "They died in the Arctic?" Makoto spouted, "Not just Mamoru? We all survived." She looked at Ami for confirmation, the other girl nodded.

      Okay, Usagi lost her boy, the others never had one, Asuka thought as she felt her skin crawl at the look of grievous need on the pair, These two scare me more than the things I usually fight. I guess the distortion of people so familiar is worse than something that starts more warped. What do they need? If I could find that out, I could break open this mystery. Asuka found she couldn't move away without the Senshi closing in. She couldn't get her hands out of Ami's grasp.

      "When Crystal Tokyo fell, we escaped here," Ami told her, "Only a few people."

      "If you tell me you're here to conquer the place, I'm calling in a nuke strike," she told them, "No, I am not kidding." She was concerned they weren't offended by the threat, but sought to soothe her concerns.

      "I'm sure Queen NeoSerenity wouldn't do that," Makoto assured her.

      "We just needed time to get established," Ami argued softly, "I'm sure they'll negotiate for the purchase of this land and give the government a reason to let us stay."

      Why do I suddenly feel I've fallen into a bad 70's Godzilla movie? Asuka thought as she told them, "I am not going to say you're lying, but does that sound reasonable to you? Governments work by pressure and force. They don't negotiate except to buy time to figure out how to - take advantage of - whoever they're negotiating with. If . . . NeoSerenity doesn't understand that, she isn't going to be able to set up her own little reservation in the highlands of Japan." Oh crap, they aren't denying it isn't going to be a separate country, Asuka realized as the pair mulled over what she said, So the Moon Kingdom lands on Earth and sets up shop. Somehow I don't enjoy being cast as Beryl Reborn so soon after the genuine article fell. Wait a second! I have a way to get some real reactions out of these two! And a way to call in some reinforcements!

      "Look, it's been a hard day for all of us," Asuka offered, "Let's get some sleep and start over again in the morning."

      The two older girls both smiled at her and each other. "You aren't getting away that easily," Makoto chided Asuka as she snuggled up against her.

      "We leave you alone and you slip away?" Ami teased as she closed in from the other side and joined hands with Makoto over Asuka.

      Asuka saw they'd caged her in, and forced herself to relax. I'll have the upper hand in a little while, she thought, Relax, Asuka. Besides, I've got more firepower - ha - than I need to get out of here. "Makoto, if you kick me in your sleep, like you always did Jeff, I'm going to hit you so hard, you'll roll up like a wood louse."

      Ami laughed at that, while Makoto seemed utterly shocked. "You wouldn't hit her there, would you?" Ami teased.

      "If those roving pincers at the ends of your wrists don't behave," Asuka threatened, "You'll find out what I can bite!"

      Makoto laughed and snuggled up against Asuka, pinning her against Ami.

      When Raccoon finds out about this, Asuka lamented as she closed her eyes, He's never going to let me hear the end of it. I like guys I just haven't found one who isn't disgusting . . . or an old friend, she added muzzily as she faded to sleep.

      Ami looked around at the party around her. Her hand reached up to touch the tiara on her head. I'm still Princess Mercury, she thought as the slightly unreal people swirled around her like semi-solid ghosts, They're more like cobwebs than real people. But where is this? There was no hall like this in Crystal Tokyo, but it seem familiar . . . somehow.

      "Good evening, Mizuno-san, I am glad to see you well," the tall and dashing man in a kimono walked towards her.

      She felt herself blushing uncontrollably. Her hands clenching on her dress uncontrollably. I'm a grown Princess, she thought furiously, In a hall of the Moon Kingdom, why do I suddenly feel like a schoolgirl who slipped in on a dare, and will be found out any second? This is my place . . . but he's welcome here any time! "Good evening," she replied and nearly fell when he took her hand and brushed his lips on her knuckles, like a European nobleman. She giggled nervously as he stood and stared at her.

      "Would you care to dance?" he asked as he offered his arm, "If a waltz is not to your liking, another piece can be arranged."

      Ami froze. "I - I can't dance," she stammered in fear.

      "There were no dances in Crystal Tokyo? No events to show the glittering beauty and grace of the grand ladies and the elegance of the gentlemen?" he asked in a perplexed tone, "Astounding."

      "No," Ami croaked, feeling very awkward and uncertain.

      "Then," he said as he carefully took her hands, "A box-step is where we shall begin, and a waltz is what will play. A brilliant young woman as yourself should have no trouble. If you are like my Ami, you just need to let go of thinking about it, and simply allow yourself to move. The body has a mind and memory all it's own."

      "You knew Mizuno Ami?" she stammered as he lead her through the simple dance step, "Not me but her?"

      "I stood with her against Beryl's legions, guarding her as best I could, until wounds sapped my strength and attention. I should have died that day. Instead - I survived."

      "How did we - how did you and she meet?" Ami asked desperately, wanting to know, wanting to be this other Ami. This has to be a dream! He's so dashing and handsome, and - her thoughts screeched to a halt, And desperately in love with someone I only look like.

      "The devious shaman - Jeffery Kevin Davis - had become entangled, figuratively and literally with Kino Makoto and Sailor Jupiter. He was so taken by her beauty and fire - which was inferior to my dear Ami-chan's - but he did meet Makoto-san first, that they fought against Beryl's minions together. When Asuka-chan and he returned to Nerima, Beryl's mightiest king, Kunzite, followed them their and summoned a horde of foes. While my allies dealt with them, I battled Kunzite blade to blade."

      "You fought a Dark King? But you're human!"

      "My devotion to the blade, and the spells of the devious shaman, allowed my blade and skill to overcome Kunzite's dark powers. But even then, I was sorely wounded. Asuka-chan set Ami to watch over me as I recovered. Her love for me soon grew to match my love for her."

      Ami felt a dreamy dissociation as she wondered how it would have been to be at this man's side, to care for him while he was wounded, and to feel his strong arms in a loving embrace, rather than just the polite touch as he guided her through the steps of the dance. The dance! she glanced around self-consciously and stumbled as she mis-stepped. He caught her easily. She thought of the strength, grace and speed with which he'd moved. And he was so frightened I might be hurt, she thought and blushed. "Sorry!"

      "You must learn to let go," he said as he held her, then he gave her an odd look, "Unless you stumbled intentionally, so I would catch and hold you?"

      He smiled and Ami felt her automatic denial melt away like a morning fog. He leaned close, close enough to steal a kiss. "You need only ask, milady."

      Kiss me! Please? she couldn't make herself shout, although she felt as if the words should be exploding out of her in all directions.

      His lips touched hers and when she tried to press in, he didn't pull away. Wrapping his arms around her, enclosing her in his strength and warmth, and making her feel cherished beyond anything she could understand.

      Ami felt the world spin and melt around her, and wished while her head spun, that she could melt too, into that strong embrace. Too soon, it ended. I'm too short to reach up, and too dignified to jump like an overexcited terrier, she thought as he led her to a set of chairs.

      As he sat her down, he sat next to her with a troubled expression. "This will seem churlish, and I apologize."

      I'll forgive anything, Ami's thoughts whirled as she held her head on her shoulders, For another kiss like that!

      "But when I thought Ami had died, I vowed I would defend this world as she would have wanted me to. Are you really no threat to our home, our people? And how can we be no threat to yours?"

      Ami was suddenly gasping for another reason. I had too many of the same questions, I can't answer what I don't know, she wrestled with the thoughts to keep from simply blurting them out, They won't tell me, and what they do . . . it's as if they don't believe them.

      "I don't know, but I know we don't want to," she said, hating the half-truth. With you at my side, I know we can keep your Ami-chan's honor and we can keep your vow to continue her mission. "We can try. You and I," she said hopefully. She gave her most encouraging smile and felt her heart melt as he smiled back the same way.

      Makoto raised her shield and gave the sword an experimental swing. "I am . . . " her challenge faded as she considered, Am I Kino Makoto, or Princess Jupiter? Am I me, or Crystal Tokyo's defender and champion?

      "Yes, you certainly are," a young man in a tweed suit approached. The fedora and walking stick would have put him out of time from any period she had been alive.

      Makoto noted the once over he gave her. He sees an enemy, not a woman, she thought as she braced herself to receive the attack.

      He seemed more interested in examining the fittings and furnishings of the building than in attacking. She had glanced at them, and dismissed them, once she knew they would not hinder her battling skills. Her certainty faded as she began recognizing them.

      "This is a dream," he told her, "You can be injured and you can die. Dying here means you die in the Waking World."

      "So who are you? Assassin!" she demanded, the objects in the place were beginning to register, and she was feeling more afraid as the recollections began assembling themselves into memories she hadn't even know she'd misplaced. "This is a shop of some kind."

      "I knew Makoto, we were good friends," then he added wistfully, "Perhaps we would have been more, had Sailor Jupiter not died against Beryl."

      His stance and talk are those of a fighter, but he doesn't act like this is a fight. What is going on? she thought as she watched him walk behind the glass display cases.

      He opened one and pulled out a large tray. As he set it atop the display case, she could see only dust and crumbs covered it.

      It can't be. I know what this place is! I have been here before, she thought as she tried to concentrate on the attack she knew was imminent, Why can't I remember when I was here before?! I can't be dreaming this - this - this nightmare!

      Then he walked to the cash register, rung up 'No Sale' and opened it. Setting the few hundred yen in decrepit bills and tarnished coins on the counter, he continued on to another kiosk in the opposite corner of the small shop.

      Makoto felt her heart breaking as she watched him pull a bundle of dead flowers from the kiosk and carry them over to the cash register. I do know this place . . . I never came here when I was awake, except that once when I drew it. Laying out the tables, the counters, where the ovens went, where the flower kiosk would go, even - even what kind of goods would be - that I would sell here, she thought, her breath coming in painful gasps as if she'd been knifed repeatedly.

      "If you want to run the risk of turning your back on me," he told her with a grim smile, "You might want to look at the placard over the door."

      Makoto raised her sword again. It's only words painted on glass, words I would have painted there myself! she thought as she tried to find the courage to turn or attack, But I'd rather face Galaxia by myself than see what it says! This is a trick, an illusion to sap my will! "This isn't real!" she shouted, "It's all a trick!"

      "Correct," the boy said, he gestured at the shop, "This is a dreamscape - yours. What you dream, what you wish, comes to reside here. If you dream it often enough, dream it long enough, dream it hard enough, it becomes real, here. This place had a permanence set long ago, but it was abandoned." He walked out from behind the counter and approached, advancing as if he intended to impale himself on her sword.

      Makoto could feel the tears coming. Tears of hopelessness and tears of rage. I dreamed this, I dreamed it long and hard and often, she thought as she held the blade steady and raised the shield on her arm, But I forgot it. I can't even remember when . . . or why. The young man stopped so the tip of the blade just dimpled his tie.

      "Why did you stop dreaming this?" he asked, seemingly not caring she could run him through with a twitch of her hand, "Was this too painful?" Then with sympathy, "Was it too frightening?" He stepped away from the blade and walked around Makoto.

      Her grip on the hilt of the blade was so tight her hand ached, but it was the only way she could keep from trembling. She forced herself to relax her grip, and keep her warrior senses sharp. She dreaded that he stopped directly under the sign. She couldn't have look at the faded green words and the colorful, happy design that they surrounded. Not even if it meant Queen NeoSerenity's life or death, she thought the treasonous thought and was ashamed.

      I don't have to see it and turn the kanji around to know what it says, she thought as helplessness warred with rage, I gave up this dream because -

      "You gave up this dream because Usagi needed you," the boy said with real sympathy, "Then you denied it to prove your loyalty, or because it was expected. There could be no dreams but hers, and you all had to strive to see her dream made into reality." He turned his back on her again.

      And I couldn't strike if all of Crystal Tokyo hung in the balance, she thought as the agony of loss tore at her.

      "I took Kino Makoto to a shop like this, in Nerima. The owner was looking to take on an apprentice, part-time. She wanted someone who loved it as much as she did, to take over the business." He pulled a handkerchief and dusted off a fancy, wrought-iron chair that seemed to be a stump with twining shoots making up the back, then sat facing her at one of the small marble-topped tables.

      I remember making those, she thought as her trembling returned, I remember my terrible drawings trying to catch this reality.

      Makoto barely felt her arms drop. The ring of her sword and shield on the hard floor almost didn't register. Tears streamed down her face, it seemed those were the only part still able to move as they wished. She felt as if she were being strangled and smothered by her own feelings and memories. I - I wanted this! I wanted it so much! she thought, trying to find answers in her own heart and mind, Why did I give up on my dreams?

      "I would have bought it for her, maybe as a wedding gift. With my help, the Senshi function would have been part-time. Go to the heart of darkness on its arrival, rather than fight an endless parade of footsoldiers. Deliver overwhelming firepower, then sort out those who wanted redemption from those who didn't. Perhaps integrate the Senshi into the existing defense systems to allow those better able to watch and investigate to do their part, and let the warriors fight. Then they could go home to their spouses and children. Wars eventually end, so does the demand for the warriors."

      Makoto made a choked cry, "Children." I wanted those too, she thought as she struggled to remain standing, Those little faces, showing them the world and . . . and as the centuries passed, I never could.

      "You wanted those as well? You're very much like Kino Makoto, or 'Lightning Lass' as Langley insisted on calling her. Makoto Kino, the sincerity of trees. Do you sincerely believe yours were the only dreams sacrificed for Crystal Tokyo?"

      Rage and energy returned. Makoto snatched up her sword and raised it in a double-handed grip to strike. "We serve the Queen willingly," she ignored the tremor in her own voice and soul and shouted, "We had to give up these silly dreams to protect her!"

      "If that were true, this place would have ceased to exist. So." He waved his hand, and they stood in the Great Hall of the Moon Kingdom, at the time of its glory.

      Makoto advanced on the boy to strike him dead, her mind filed with a burning rage. Before she could strike or demand, the little shop was back.

      "You'd shed blood . . . for a dream you've abandoned?" he asked mildly, his self-satisfied smile practically invited her to strike.

      "I don't like people messing with my head!" Makoto shouted back.

      "I submit that it's already been done. When given the choice between this little shop, and the Moon Kingdom's glory, between your living, breathing human dream, and another's sterile dreams of glory. You were willing to kill for 'A Quiet Loaf Among the Trees.'"

      Makoto shuddered as she heard the words actually spoken aloud.

      He smiled broadly at her. "Come now, the pun wasn't that bad," he chided gently. Then he grew serious. "Outside, there are half-faded ruins. Childhood dreams long abandoned, hopes of the soldier faded on grim realities of victory. But only two structures still stand. This one, and a wedding chapel. It's like something out of Dickens's Great Expectations. The decorations and the elaborate feast for after, all set out, dusty and forgotten. The wedding kimonos are brittle and yellowed like old newsprint, but still there, to remind all of a glory that never was." He approached her and guided her to his chair. He stood beside her dabbing her eyes with his handkerchief. "There were four for the bride's attendants, one for the bride and one for the priestess. Even elaborate pink and blue bows with a pillow. Usagi, Ami, Minako, Nami, Makoto and Rei. Did you intend Artemis and Luna to serve as ringbearers?"

      Makoto fell forward, only to be caught by the man, who held her against his chest.

      "Let it out, let it all out," he soothed as she bawled for her slain dreams.

      The huge black shape settled to the ground, furling its tremendous wings as its two small, brightly-colored passengers slid onto the ground.

      Pretty Sammi bent up the end of her baton so she and Sailor Saturn could look through the magnifying lens. Both girls giggled as the breath of the Scholarly Dragon tickled their legs. "I'll let you look in a minute," Sammi assured him.

      "I just want to hear whatever crazed scheme you intend to apply," the huge monster huffed.

      Hotaru frowned at him, then turned to Sammi. "I still think he's too big and scaly for a cat."

      Sammi and Hotaru giggled as the Dragon punched a hole in the ground with his thumb and then pushed Hotaru into it.

      GrandMaster Saturn did not like to be peremptorily summoned, even by the Queen. She spotted Princess Pluto in her black-trimmed fuku and shuddered at the memory of the woman who looked like her, carried a Key to Time as she did, but dressed like Pluto. Once we have a secure base, I'll hunt down that twisted doppleganger and deal with her, and the others, she thought, her hands gripping her Key of Time so tightly Pluto noticed it.

      "Is there something I should know?" the young - er - woman asked, her Silence Glaive tapping the floor as she walked, in time with some piece of music only the Solider of Ruin heard.

      She still has the air of a flighty teenager about her, Saturn thought enviously as they walked.

      "There is much you should know," Saturn said imperiously, "In this case, I do not know it either." Her attempt at gravitas failed to impress the girl who went on happily tapping out the tune. She can still see wonder and beauty in the world, Saturn thought of the violet-tressed girl, I must admit to a bit of jealousy at that. "I do admit I heard our Queen has a 'surprise' for us. Considering the lateness of the hour, and her Imperial Highness's sense of humor, I cannot think of anything I would enjoy coming out of this late night audience."

      Pluto smiled at her. "We must indulge our Queen, she's had a hard couple of days. If she thinks she's found something that would brighten our day . . . " Pluto shrugged. "Perhaps she has."

      For the Soldier of Death and Ruin, you have an irritatingly PollyAnna-ish attitude towards life, Saturn didn't say, feeling the need to maintain the gravity of her office and herself, Another thing to be jealous of. I have to hold my dignity at all times, never allowed to `play` as the rest of you do. Everyone considers you the eternal ray of hope and sunshine, until you choose not to be, then we can all remember what you're for. Yet no one ever thinks any less of you for it. Were I to skip down these halls twirling my Key like a majorette's baton, they would consider me mad, and they would be absolutely correct. She forced herself to once again forget the sight of the newly crowned Queen and Silence's Messiah, running and sliding along the marble halls on stocking feet, still dressed in their coronation raiment, squealing like 6-year-olds. And I don't know if I wanted to paddle them, or join them, she silently admitted, And I still don't. Their dignity had to be preserved, but just once I would have liked to gambol with them.

      The huge audience chamber was almost bereft of the usual hangers on of the court, and none of the Outers or Inners were there. I must summon the Queen's bodyguards, Saturn considered, Except NeoSerenity's expression foretells that the order would be instantly countermanded. She glanced to Princess Pluto, who leaned on her Silence Glaive and smiled back. But there is much of the Soldier of Ruin in that smile, she thought as she saw that Pluto was also ready to defend the Queen should the need arise, At least we're here.

      She also noted the three figures with their backs to them, who'd been chatting with NeoSerenity. Each wore a hooded jacket, further concealing their identities. Two girls and a man, all carry themselves as warriors, despite the youth of the girls, she thought, then saw the purple trim on one girl's skirt. If this is NeoSerenity's idea of a joke, Saturn thought darkly, I may just `forget` she is my liege and divinity, and give her a well-deserved and long-overdue paddling on her Imperial Fundament!

      "Ah, Saturn, Pluto, I'm so glad you could come!" NeoSerenity chirped, clearly enjoying what she was going to spring on her friends.

      Enjoying it far too much, Saturn thought sourly and braced herself for NeoSerenity's usual juvenile humor.

      "We serve at your pleasure," Pluto said as if she meant it, and bowed.

      "After so much disturbance over the last few days, I thought you might enjoy this," NeoSerenity said. As one, the trio turned around and lowered their hoods.

      "Hotaru-chan, why are you wearing the wrong uniform?" the girl with the pink hair and eyes asked, then turned to NeoSerenity, "Are they cosplayers?"

      GrandMaster Saturn was about to protest, when Princess Pluto collapsed to the floor in a dead faint. The younger version of Princess Pluto in the Sailor Saturn uniform rushed forward to her counterpart. She touched Princess Pluto and concentrated, as Pluto did when healing.

      "She just fainted," the young pseudo-Saturn Scout told Queen NeoSerenity, then she looked sternly at the other young girl in the outlandish costume, "I told you we should have given him all our breath mints, dragon breath!"

      The man growled affectionately while the little girls laughed. Their reaction seemed to have pleased NeoSerenity. For that I can forgive them, Saturn thought as she smiled. Then she resumed her stern and solemn role as the Royal Speaker, GrandMaster Saturn, "Who are you, and why were you interloping on our territory?"

      "This is Japanese soil, you have neither the right of possession, nor the right of property," the man said quietly, as if he, rather than they, held absolute power in this place. "If you claim it as your own, you are invaders. Did the lateness of the hour and the stream of shocks perhaps cause you to . . . misspeak - Meioh Setsuna?"

      Again she heard her name, and again she felt the eerie discontinuity in her soul. It's as if I've forgotten something, and it's just at my fingertips, she thought, trying and failing to find protection and solace in her role and title, It's not enough, not with the power of my name buzzing around in my head!

      She realized everyone was watching her, awaiting her answer as she reeled under the unexpected force of hearing her own name spoken by people she had never met. "I - I am certain - we will come to - an amiable arrangement. That this land will be ours." She gathered her wits and continued in an imperious tone, "You were not acting as wrongly displaced owners, but thieves in the night. Your claim lacks moral force."

      "As agents of the Japanese and other interested governments," the pink-eyed girl said with remarkable authority, "We were given the right, and the responsibility." The cute smile at the end didn't completely erase the steel that had been there a moment before.

      So, the duel begins, Saturn thought as she wished she could use the Key of Time to remind these upstarts who truly had the power here. "I'm sure we all want the best, for everyone," she said with a smile that was mirrored on every face in the room. She realized, Only NeoSerenity actually believes my words. Sad for them.

      Ami woke slowly, curled around something marvelously soft and warm. Reminds me of dancing close all knight, er night with Tatewaki, she thought as she hugged it closely.

      "Okay, I think I've been very reasonable," a voice she barely recognized told her.

      A very peeved voice, she realized as she opened her eyes and stared into the face with brilliant blue eyes framed with long red hair. "Asuka?"

      "There's one thing that really confuses me," Asuka continued in her peeved tone, "You're the Senshi of Water, and she's the Senshi of Lightning, right?"

      Ami froze as she realized just how intimately the three of them were entangled. Where the Senshi's hands were and that Asuka merely had her arms around their waists. "Uh . . . yes."

      "Then how is it you're the one trying to get sparks rubbing my leg, and she's the one dumping the entire ocean on me through her tear ducts?" Asuka frowned as the larger woman holding Asuka tightened her grip and whimpered in her sleep.

      Ami saw the concern she felt for her dear friend mirrored on Asuka's face. Asuka immediately turned to Ami with a scowl. "Unlike like some geniuses, I don't speak just to hear myself talk," Asuka said pointedly.

      Ami unwrapped herself slightly, but remained close to the girl. She watched Asuka reacting to Makoto's obvious distress.

      "Let it go," Asuka soothed Makoto as she stroked her hair, "Let it go. I know it hurts, but we can work through it. You aren't alone."

      "Really?" Makoto asked sleepily, raising her head from Asuka's shoulder. Her red-rimmed eyes still leaked tears. Asuka carefully pulled Makoto's head back down. The girl grimaced for an instant, then hid it as Makoto snuggled against her.

      You don't like to be the comforter, do you? Ami wanted to ask, Then why are you playing that role to soothe your `kidnappers`? Who were the Ami and Makoto of this world, who could engender such love in you and Tatewaki? Are we worthy to carry their names, let alone their mantle as Senshi?

      "If I know Raccoon," Asuka said in a soothing tone, but speaking in German, "He probably gave her a sharp catharsis, she'll just have to work through it. Like an emetic and a purgative, he wants the poison out of the system, then he'll start the recovery. It's harsh, but he's been fairly successful."

      Ami nodded to hide her shock. So what did Makoto dream? Who is this 'Raccoon', and how did Asuka know I spoke German fluently, and Makoto doesn't?

      "What did she dream? Was it Jeffrey?" she asked, remembering what Tatewaki-san told her.

      "Yes," Asuka said as she continued to stroke Makoto's hair and speak soothing words she was uncomfortable expressing.

      Ami had an almost irresistible desire to curl up against Asuka and hold her tight against herself. It's as if my soul is freezing, and she is the only source of warmth I know, Ami thought as she steeled herself, I know if I give in to the desire now, I will be lost forever.

      Finally Makoto quieted and wiped her eyes. "I bet you think I'm being silly," she said.

      "I always thought that of Makoto," Asuka said, causing Makoto to blanche at the seeming harshness of the statement, "She would always get herself wound up about something and just as it was falling into her grasp, she's get herself equally wound up she wasn't worthy or it wasn't the right time, or she had other commitments." Asuka shook her fist in Makoto's face. "It used to drive me crazy! Why could she never accept she might have earned it other ways, or that the universe isn't fair, bad things happen to good people and good thing happen when you don't deserve or expect them."

      "So I should just take what life gives me," Makoto asked in a dangerous tone.

      "That's what I'm - EEP!" Asuka exclaimed as Makoto flipped her on her stomach and pinned her arms, "What are you -? You wouldn't dare spank me!"

      "Why not?" Makoto leaned close to Asuka's ear and whispered, "We already know you aren't ticklish. Neptune spanks Uranus all the time."

      "I wouldn't let her touch me!" Asuka shouted, "I am offended you'd ever suggest such a thing!"

      Ami considered the absurdity of the statement before she broke down laughing. Makoto got it a second later and laughed. That gave Asuka the chance she needed to seize one of the huge pillows and hit Makoto in the face with it. She struck Ami the next moment.

      Makoto grabbed a pillow and sat on the bed, looking around, her pillow at the ready. "Where'd she go?"

      Ami stifled her giggles and looked around, seeing no Asuka, just the pillow she'd been wielding. "We have to find her!" Ami exclaimed with dread.

      Asuka looked around at the cloudy expanse, broken only by a single sunbeam, in which stood a familiar figure. "Well, Wotan old boy, I like the look," Asuka teased the figure who was clearly terrified, "The two ravens gave you away though. I almost thought you were Hino Rei."

      She didn't look up. "I - I - I am - Hino Rei," the terrified girl told Asuka.

      Okay, this one doesn't know who I am either, and how the heck did I get here? Asuka wondered, It felt almost like a compulsion and teleport, but that's ridiculous. She doesn't know who I am, and so . . . so she didn't summon Asuka Soryu Langley, she summoned one of the things I absorbed. Ach SCHEISSE! "What are you playing at Rei!" Asuka shouted, causing the normally-fearless girl to cringe, "You used some dark magic to summon me! What kind of an idiot are you?" Asuka suddenly realized she was frightening the girl too much. She doesn't know me, she summoned a god and she's got a furious one on her hands, Asuka realized, she turned her back on Rei and decided what she'd have to do, This is embarrassing!

      "Pitiful Miko, playing with forces you do not understand and cannot hope to control. On your knees to your god praising ceaselessly that you found my Infinite Wisdom in a charitable mood!" Asuka thundered at Rei, who dropped to her knees immediately. "Not to me you fool! To your own god! And after our business is concluded. For your folly, this I demand before I will even hear your supplication. You will swear your holiest oath that you shall never cast a spell from the book you used to summon me. Swear it now, or I leave you to your eventual damnation!"

      God forgive me, this act is just too easy, she thought as Rei offered her oath to a group a Shinto Kamis and several incarnations of the Buddha for good measure. "Good, now rise. Face me as one who seeks after knowledge, not a worm who grovels in the dirt. But beware, the light of truth and wisdom scars some beyond their power to survive." Great, now I'm channeling Tatewaki, she thought grimly, 'Collect call for Mr. Kuno-thulhu! Paging Mr. Kuno-thulhu!

      Rei stood, unable to look directly at Asuka and still trembling, but determined to make a good end of herself.

      Asuka rematerialized a few moments later. Best thing, let Raccoon deal with that. I'd like him and Tate to deal with Mako-chan and Ami-chan, that would cement them to our cause, but what Rei found was just too bloody important, she thought as she landed on the bed with a thump. "No wonder everybody hates those spells," Asuka commented, then realized neither Ami nor Makoto were pummeling her or each other with pillows. She sat up suddenly and turned to seek out the Senshi. Makoto and Ami were in their full uniforms, looking very worried. Then a girl in a black-trimmed fuku grabbed Asuka's legs.

      "When you escape, take me with you!" the girl pled, then raised her head, "I can't stay here any more!"

      Asuka stared at the tears streaming down Hotaru's face, then at Makoto and Ami who seem ready to make the same demand. "What's wrong with you people? I get called away to help a kid with a research project, and you let everything go to pot?!"

Sailor Jupiter II 2 - Violence Flaring, Bullets Loadin'

      The dragon scrambled through the ravine, the two girls clung desperately to the spines on his back. The sounds of the pseudo-Senshi in pursuit spurred him on. Keep coming children, the Dragon thought, Time to show you that the title 'Soldier' isn't the same as being one.

      "Why didn't we just teleport away?" Hotaru complained as she hung on for dear life.

      "We had to cover for Langley and her group's escape," the Scholarly Dragon replied as another bolt of energy caromed off his shields, "Best to lure them all into this chase. I'll cast the spell once the others are far enough away. Besides, I've got a secret weapon."

      "You didn't have time to set up a minefield," Pretty Sammi replied, then slammed into his back as he took a wrenching turn. Only Hotaru's sudden grab kept her from being thrown off. "I need more practice riding a dragon."

      "Actually I did, with chemical weapons." The Scholarly Dragon went around a blind curve and stopped, nearly throwing both of the girls off. He gauged the strength of the wind and waited for their pursuers to close in. "I duplicated Akane's modified recipe for broccoli garlic puffs."

      "Are they your minefield?" Hotaru asked and shuddered in horror, "No, you ate them . . . no, even you couldn't have lived through that!"

      "Feeding those to -" Pretty Sammi began as the dragons tail went straight up in the air.


      'I'm mmelltting!'

      The Dragon raced off, leaving his victims and their screams of anguish and pain far behind.

      "You are evil," Hotaru proclaimed.

      "She's not too quick on the uptake, is she?" the Dragon asked Sammi.

      "Alimentary my dear Drake, Alimentary," Sammi laughed and held on for dear life.

      Hino Rei was nervous, then terrified, then hopeless, then determined, then began the entire cycle again. Not just because she was entering Nerima, but how she had learned of her destination. I can do this, I have to do this. It's for their sake, if for no other reason, she reminded herself. Thus fortified, she continued stoically marching forward. She bowed to the priest who offered prayers for her soul.

      The restaurant was right where she'd been told it would be. Fires of wisdom indeed, she thought as she avoided a mallet-wielding girl who was chasing a cackling garden gnome, I just hope that the help I was promised is actually here.

      She had timed her arrival to the lull between the lunch and school let-out rushes. Inside, the staff seemed to be cleaning up and getting ready for their next burst of activity. A girl with the most striking purple hair walked up to her.

      "Welcome, Hino Rei-san, you here see Raccoon, yes? Get very good, tasty ramen or okonomiyaki while you talk," the girl told her with a smile. Her accent and facial features marked her as Chinese.

      Rei felt her blood freeze. Just like I was told! They know who I am! They know who I would be looking for! she thought desperately, then she remembered the command she'd been given, "Ve - vegetarian ramen," she managed to stammer, "Extra-large, we'll be talking a while."

      The girl seemed to take it all in stride as she called the order to the gaijin chef, who seemed to be discussing something with another garden gnome. Oh no! Rei thought and froze as the chef threw a bowl of steaming liquid at the purple-haired girl. Rei broke out of her astonishment and raced for the girl to knock her out of the way, only to have the girl catch the bowl, and her, with practiced ease.

      "Oh, you not told about Neko-chan!" The girl seemed more amused than angered by Rei's attempt at interference, as she twisted and caught the flying noodles with the same practiced ease. "You want egg on top?" the girl asked, as if all of this was normal.

      Rei shook her head 'no', and the girl resumed talking, "Show off martial arts skills here, is good training too. Throw with no spill, catch with no break. Much skill and practice needed."

      "I - I apologize," Rei said as the girl carried her to a table, "Can you put me down?"

      "No can spill soup, no can spill customer," the girl said cheerfully as she set Rei in a chair, the bowl in front of her, "Here is Raccoon, is much talk like usual, Shampoo fall asleep." The girl waved as she walked away. "Is nice, confused kids gone?" she asked the gaijin as she passed him.

      "Got them fuel and a filter change, then sent them on to Jurai to get their tree tuned up." The tall gaijin sat opposite her and smiled, as if knowing her questions and all the truth about her.

      There's - something wrong with him, she realized as her senses started screaming for her to attack or flee.

      "If you want to plant an ofuda on my forehead, feel free," the gaijin, this Raccoon, said with a grin, "So, Miss Hino, what can I do you for?"

      Rei looked around. "How does everybody here know me?" she asked desperately.

      The gaijin, Raccoon, looked at the waitress, Shampoo, then back at Rei. "We can read Kanji characters," he pointed out, staring at the school bag Rei carried.

      Rei looked down and realized her school bag had her name printed on it. "I'm sorry, I've - there has been so many strange things happening -" She hung her head in embarrassment. "I guess I use magic to explain anything strange, lately."

      "Well, eat up your ramen," Raccoon suggested, pushing the bowl towards her, "It's the best in Tokyo, that I can guarantee."

      Rei steadied herself and tasted it. It was wonderful. "At least it's not magically delicious," she joked and relaxed more when the gaijin chuckled. "I do need to relax a bit." She ate some of the ramen quickly, to settle herself and decide what she was going to do. I wonder if he already knows, she considered, And if he's testing me by seeing what I'll reveal. I need to tell somebody, I can't keep it all inside, or it will tear me apart.

      "It began late last week. My grandfather has a shrine, I'm training to be a priestess. We have fairly good relations with all the shrines and temples in the area. One of the monks from the large Buddhist temple in the area came to visit my grandfather. Normally he has me serve tea and listen, probably so I'll learn a bit about other religions and the other priests. But this time, he locked the doors and told me not to eavesdrop, under any circumstances."

      "And how unusual is that?" Raccoon asked, almost looking like a calculating Tanuki.

      "It's never happened before," Rei admitted, "When he left, both my grandfather and his visitor looked positively stricken. I knew enough not to ask. My grandfather retired to meditate and consider, I went to bed. The next morning - " Rei's voice broke. I'm not frightened, she tried to convince herself, I'm angry. There's no reason that should have happened! None at all. "The next morning, I read that my grandfather's friend, and 15 other monks from that temple - walked into the city park, doused themselves with gasoline and - and . . . and -" She broke down in tears, unable to continue.

      "I understand," he said, putting a sympathetic hand on her shoulder.

      "No you don't!" Rei sat up straight and admonished, "I know Westerners see suicide as a sin, but for we Japanese, it's seen as the ultimate form of atonement and protest. But they weren't protesting anything! And I knew the man! He was good and honest and decent! What would he have had to atone for!? The others were good too! They all died to atone for what?!" Rei steadied herself, she knew she was getting hysterical. She took a deep breath and concentrated on the facts, not how they disturbed and frightened her. "When I asked my grandfather about it. He told me never to bring it up, to lock the memory away and leave it buried." She shook her head. "That's not like him, not at all."

      "And you couldn't just do that? Could you?" he asked, his eyes seeming to look through her into her soul.

      Rei shook her head, staring into the ramen to avoid the displeased to disgusted look she knew she was getting from him. I'm not going to let this go, she thought desperately, Even if he tells me too. I know he'll tell me to go home and leave it to the `experts`! Experts like him. I can't do that. I won't.

      "Hino-san, please don't take this the wrong way," he said carefully.

      Here it comes, she thought as she sipped some of the broth to cool her anger at being swept aside.

      "You aren't a fuku-clad, magical girl fighting for love and justice."

      Rei choked so hard she barely noticed who was slapping her back to get her to breathe. She looked up into the wizened face of the garden gnome. She stared in shock at the tiny woman holding the tea cup in front of her face. Rei took it gratefully and sipped. "Thank you." She gave the wizened woman a slight bow, then she gave the gaijin a venomous look. "I am not one of those idiots who parade around in a miniskirt and spout stupid - what's so funny?!" she demanded of all the smiling and laughing faces around her.

      "Sailor Moon - you've heard of her? She and her Senshi were in this very restaurant, recovering after a battle," Raccoon told her, "Moon herself is a bit of a ditz, but her heart is in the right place. The others varied between enthusiasm and budding competence."

      "Now you're going to tell me that - that -" she stammered as her rage nearly overwhelmed her, "- that twit Sailor Mars was -!" Rei froze as she saw his expression darken and the others quickly withdraw.

      "Sailor Mars and the others were suddenly given terrible responsibilities, limited powers, and almost no information about themselves, their powers, or their enemies," he said coldly.

      Rei shivered at the cold anger being directed at her by those who'd been laughing a moment before.

      "I'll thank you to remember that before casting aspersions. Perhaps if they had lived, they could have grown into their roles. Are you telling me that if tomorrow, you suddenly had powers and abilities far beyond mortal men, and an enemy willing to slaughter your family to get to you, that you would have done anything different? No, they didn't do as well as I would have, but I have several decades of experience, and I grew up during the Pacific War. Could you do better? Yes, because they did it first, it's easy to throw stones after the fact Hino-san, but making the decision in the moment - that takes character. They also paid a very dear price for their inexperience and untempered enthusiasm, and so did everyone who knew and cared about them."

      "I apologize," Rei said as she stood and bowed formally, "I should not have spoken ill of your lost friends. I have been . . . unfavorably compared to Sailor Mars, it is a . . . bothersome point with me."

      "Apology accepted. As I said, if they had survived, they would have improved. You at least came looking for answers. I take it you not only failed to follow your grandfather's orders, but you went looking in the Buddhist temple for clues?"

      "Yes," Rei shamefully admitted, "There were men there. They too were investigating. One was a senior naval officer." She remembered him, He tolerated my interference with his investigation. He was displeased, but seemed to accept I had a duty to those men.

      "Tall, neatly trimmed mustache, acted like Admiral Togo reborn, three narrow and one wide stripe on the sleeve of his jacket, which he never took off. Looks like he just stepped off a recruiting poster?"

      Rei stared in stunned amazement. She tried to answer, finally she had to simply nod. "How did you know?" she finally stammered. I was told I'd get answers here, she thought as she drained the tea cup, But this is ridiculous!

      "There are many things you would sleep better not knowing," the man told her, "I take it your poking around turned up something more frightening than a stern but fatherly talking to by a member of the Maritime Defense Forces."

      Rei ignored the accuracy of his comment and placed her bag on the table. She tried to open it, but couldn't make her fingers open the lock. It can't possibly be a threat, she told herself, I am still sure it is. Why didn't the others feel it too? "They carried off boxes of books," Rei said as she opened her bag, "But they dropped one and I got a hold of it." She paused before touching the thing. I can do this, I will do this. "Can an object feel . . . evil . . . to the touch?" She pulled the book out and set it on the table. She got her hand away from it as quickly as she could, then felt ashamed of her overreaction. She still wanted to plunge her hand into a vat of soapy, boiling water. Or holy water, she thought.

      "Depends on the item,"he said as he picked the book up and thumbed through it, seemingly immune to the effects that so disturbed her.

      He's immune too, she thought, Or is what I feel about him related to the book somehow? "It's in ancient Chinese, I can - "

      He glanced over the top of his glasses at her, his alarmingly focused expression faded, and he smiled at her. "I can read Chinese. I don't recognize the background material though."

      "It appears to be a number of Buddhist Sutras, but I've never heard such disturbing . . . teachings . . . before. It's almost as if Buddha recanted all his teachings in the last moment of his life. The things he said -"

      "The things written in this book," he corrected sharply, "A forgery is still a forgery, no matter how masterful."

      She smiled and felt better about it. "The things in this book, are very disturbing."

      "I suspect you used the 'Wisdom of Spirits of Fire'," he said with a smirk, "Just to try it out."

      Rei was too frightened by what had happened to be embarrassed by the teasing. "Yes," Rei admitted, "I suspected I would encounter some dark parody of my own Kami."

      "And instead you got a pretty, red-headed, blue-eyed gaijin girl, who while she was happy to see you, was also quite impatient and imperious. And she probably made you promise never to use any spells out of the book, ever!"

      "She faint," the waitress, Shampoo said as Rei slid to the floor, "Why you not tell her all of it?"

      "What, that she was - "

      Unconsciousness took her before she heard the rest.

      "What is that smell?" Hotaru asked as they paused, "Did the whole planet just die or something?" She pinched her nose closed and tried not to vomit.

      "You would know better than us," Ami replied as covered her face and she looked around, her eyes watering uncontrollably, "It just feels . . . wrong . . . not wearing our uniforms."

      "Those clothes are fine," Asuka ignored the smell while commenting on the three girls' `street clothes`, as she and Makoto finished removing the camouflage cover from the jeep, "It also keeps you from being instantly noticed."

      "Are you old enough to drive?" Ami asked as the four girls climbed into the jeep.

      "I can," Asuka replied, "That's what matters." She cranked the starter, and heard nothing. "That's if the car works." She jumped out and ran to the hood of the car. She raised it to find, nothing wrong with the motor. She shook her head. I shouldn't just know that from looking at it, she thought with a queasiness completely disconnected with the smell in the air, I shouldn't be able to look at a motor and know why fire won't burn inside it. I'm not a monster, I'm not, I'm not! "Well, that explains one thing." Asuka shut the hood.

      "Explains what?" Makoto asked as she walked up to Asuka and laid a hand on her shoulder.

      That's something else that bugs me, she thought as she stifled the urge to push or shrug Makoto's hand away, Why do they keep touching me like that? Just make then break contact. It's as if they don't believe I'm here, or that they are.

      Makoto removed her hand from Asuka's shoulder and placed it on the hood. She smiled at Asuka and reminded her, "I can jump start it. I'm not the Senshi of Lightning for nothing."

      "If it was a diesel with carburetion I might risk it," Asuka said as she returned to the driver's seat and pulled a package of maps and passes from under it. "When we investigated the ruins of the Moon Kingdom, we found no electronics, advanced mechanisms or anything like that. This explains why, they simply don't work. As your `technology` grows more dependant on the Silver Crystal, ordinary technologies cease to work properly."

      "So how would a carbureted diesel make any difference?" Makoto asked as she accepted the package.

      "You can't ignore the laws of physics," Ami explained as Asuka passed a survival pack to the girl, "The diesel doesn't require electronics, or even electric power, once it's running. Electronically controlled fuel injection requires both."

      "So the magic keeps the car from running," Hotaru said as she got the last collection of canteen, maps and identification, "Why didn't you just say that?"

      "Because I wanted an explanation that also covered why the radios, flashlights and the compasses don't work either," Asuka told them as each device in the survival pack failed to work, "My mom taught me to navigate by the stars and sun, let's go." She marched off into the woods, aware of their vulnerability.

      "Why do I get the feeling we'll be walking in circles soon enough?" Makoto asked as she followed, searching the sky for pursuit.

      Rei woke in an odd room, she instantly realized, I'm lying on a cot with a blanket over me and an ice pack on my head. She sat up, and instantly regretted it. "My head," she complained. A girl of impeccable and delicate grace and beauty, a vision of near angelic splendor greeted her. "Did I die!?" Rei worriedly asked.

      The girl laughed, like the tinkling of bells. "No, you suffered from too many cosmic revelations at once," she told Rei. She leaned close, Rei leaned to hear her whisper, "The one you contacted, contacted us, and told us you were coming." The girl moved a modified lampstand to where Rei could see it. Her ravens, Phobos and Deimos sat atop the stand, looking all the world like a pair of transformed Tengu standing guard over her.

      "I was beginning to think I was going mad," Rei admitted.

      "You are here in Nerima, perhaps you have gone mad. Your grandfather clearly thought the safest course was to ignore it and leave it for more experienced people to deal with it," she told Rei, and smiled, " 'Fools rush in', and 'he who hesitates is lost.' So what is the correct course? Steady deliberate advance perhaps, but that merely avoids the obvious traps."

      Rei sat up, with considerable assistance from the girl. "So what else happened?"

      "Raccoon consulted with the Elder, the old woman who gave you the tea, and they've been going over the book," she told Rei, "I believe they are trying to decide the best course of action. That includes sending you home and taking over completely, so I thought it best you recover more quickly."

      Rei swung her legs out of bed and to the ground. "I've got to do something to - "

      "Avenge those men?" she asked sternly.

      So her beauty does have a flaw, Rei thought, as the room reeled around her, She cannot be ferocious, only beautiful, pretty and cute. And I can be - extremely petty. "They were my friends and colleagues. Besides, I would not leave this burden in the hands of outsiders. They will get less cooperation than they need. They are foreigners, and they are not priests."

      "You'd better go out and persuade them. Don't order!" she warned Rei sternly, "Elders tend to dig in their heels at anything that even smells like an order, especially from someone who doesn't have the right to give one."

      Only after Rei nodded, did the girl help her to her feet. "I apologize, I haven't asked your name." Is it possible to be seasick on dry land? Rei wondered as the room seemed to buck and sway under her feet.

      The girls sighed, a slight frown creasing her brow. "You have to understand, our tribe has a - strange custom - when we give out what we are to be called by outsiders. Do you understand?" she asked unhappily. She guided Rei slowly forward, one step at a time.

      'What we are to be called,' Rei filed away for later. "Yes." Rei didn't nod, for fear of her head falling off.

      "The waitress is Shampoo, her great-grandmother is Cologne, my great-grandmother was Har-Do, Shampoo's childhood friend is Mousse." The girl braced herself.

      She acts like I'm going to hit her, Rei thought. "Okay," Rei said to reassure her. Get a grip Rei, this is Nerima, weird is normal here, she reminded herself, and mentally stifled any reaction other than acknowledgment, for whatever happened next.

      "I'm called Burma Shave," the girl said and stared at Rei nervously.

      Rei blinked, not understanding any part of the girl's apprehension. "That one I'm going to have to look up," Rei admitted, "I've never heard of it."

      "The poems are world famous!" The girl seemed alarmed Rei wasn't rolling around on the floor laughing herself sick.

      "I don't read much Western poetry. I couldn't tell Shakespeare from Bacon."

      "Bacon comes from pigs. Which is a bit of a sore subject around here," Burma Shave told Rei as they entered the main room. The dinner rush had finished, the crew was mopping the floors and putting away the cooking utensils.

      They greeted her with knowing smiles. Raccoon and Cologne sat at one table covered with papers, as they politely argued and referenced the papers.

      It's as if they do know me, Rei wondered as she slowly advanced across the room, How is that possible . . . unless they're all Kamis, hiding here among humanity to dispense their - no, this is Nerima, any wisdom-dispensing entity would run from this place like the Great Tokyo Firestorm was chasing it.

      "We were going over that book you showed me," Raccoon told her as he got up and guided her to a chair, "I think we can guarantee it isn't standard Buddhist. But it seems to be. I think I know why."

      Rei sat at the table, letting Raccoon slide her in. Among the old papers were newer photocopies of the text from some ancient scrolls. The Chinese on those is so archaic I can't even recognize some of the characters! she realized.

      "Cologne's people have copies of the tenets of Buddhist from before the purge by the first sovereign Emperor. Over the millennia, the texts have drifted from the original, as language changed and it was retranslated," Raccoon explained as he retook his seat, "This fabrication completely lacks any of the missing references and has all the later additions, which means it was written less than 200 years ago."

      "How can you be sure?" Rei asked as she gripped the table to keep herself from falling out of the chair.

      "I read both, and did some comparisons," he said, then frowned and ordered, "Hold still." He rested his hand on her forehead.

      The motion sickness and disorientation vanished. I can finally think clearly. I am not going to ask how he did that. Because he'd probably tell me. You read both, in only a couple of hours? she thought, then considered the `urban legend` about a school girl with a 300 IQ, Okay, it's weird but not impossible. Healing powers and Martial Arts Speedreading?

      "These `new` Sutras read more like Buddhism a la H.P. Lovecraft than by any of the recognized Buddhas, let alone the very first," Raccoon told her, "We called your uncle -" He smiled at her, enjoying some joke. "Or rather, I had a friend call first to make an introduction. While you are in a lot of trouble, I suspect your grandfather is proud of you, and you are not to return to the temple."

      Rei gasped at the idea that she'd been cast out.

      "Temporarily," Raccoon amended, "There are some strange men hanging around, and your grandfather is worried about their intentions. As long as he's got some to most of the enemy occupied there, we'll link up with a couple of friends and continue the investigation."

      Rei quailed at the idea of her grandfather in danger, but she realized, He might be in just as much danger if I hadn't gone snooping. Grandfather is right, the best time to go looking for these bandits is when they are looking elsewhere, and he can take care of himself, if he doesn't have to protect me too. "So these are a recent invention," Rei said, "Why give them to my friend - the monks to work on?"

      "An assassination attempt, perhaps," Cologne said, "Or a disinformation campaign to discredit Buddhism. The Maoists and Marxist have long sought to become gods themselves. How better than to have a respected monastery discover a `revelation` like this?" She indicated the papers that covered the table.

      "That's probably why your friend came to see your father. Large translations are done in pieces, none of the men working on it realized just how disturbing - "

      "Blasphemous," Rei growled.

      "- and blasphemous the implications were, until your friend took samples to check everyone's progress and to unify the tone of the translation. That's what he and your grandfather talked about. Somewhere along the line, they decided the best way to prevent this from getting out was to burn it all, the translation, the originals . . . and the translators. The only problem was, they made the assumption that it hadn't already been translated. The men who gave them the `ancient` scrolls were already ready to flood the academic and religious communities with supposedly black-market copies of things too - blasphemous - for the media and police to allow."

      "So they died for nothing," Rei lamented as she gripped the table. She felt on the verge of tears at the convolutions that had killed her grandfather's friend and all those other men. "Their sacrifice and atonement came to nothing," she added grimly, "It will only help to make it seem authentic. They translated it and all committed suicide in remorse and to keep the secret, except someone smuggled one out before he died."

      "Not for nothing," Raccoon said gently, smiling and putting a hand on her shoulder, "There's a lesson in Christianity that isn't in Buddhism or Shinto, and most Christians miss it too: 'Sometimes you have to die to win.' Those men caused enough of a disturbance that powerful forces are now converging on our enemies, and make no mistake, these are enemies." There was a hardness to his tone and expression now as he continued, "The government doesn't like people causing riots in the streets, and there are other powers who don't like seeing their works corrupted."

      "I would have thought a Westerner like you wouldn't believe in such things, or would welcome the folly of pagans," Rei said and regretted the tone, but not her confusion.

      "Salvation comes from the Grace of God, he decides, not me. My religion and its doctrines are the best way to get there, but I don't speak for the intentions of God. He's too incomprehensible. Besides, I abhor waste of any kind, especially wasted lives. I'm old enough to know nothing will make us a race of DaVincis, Edisons, Teslas and Franklins. Humanity by and large, is a squabbling bunch of half-savages who want food, sex and entertainment, and will work just hard enough and be just civilized enough to get them in the quantities they can live with. That doesn't prevent me from vehemently despising something that prevents us from even trying to aspire to greater things, if even for an instant."

      "Even lowly worms, need the promise of the stars, else they are but worms," Burma Shave said, receiving a slight applause.

      Rei smiled fiercely. So we can avenge them! "Then what to we do?"

      "A little train ride." Raccoon returned her smile, tooth for tooth.

      I actually feel sorry for our enemies, Rei thought happily.

      Asuka glanced through the one-way mirror at the trio of Senshi. Hotaru, Ami and Makoto were glad to be back in their fukus, and were trying their level best to charm the quartet of armed guard who seemed immune to the effect of three beautiful and truly adorable young women trying to be ingratiating. "About the only sop to their egos is that the guards are all beautiful, young women too," Asuka said before turning back to the Commodore and his senior officers. She stood stock still, her hands flat on her sides to avoid pacing or clenching her fists, as she told them, "I had a theory, and now you ladies and gentlemen can see it in action. They seem to be almost programmed to want to be liked. I suspect it's a level of control imposed on them. Although the idea of screaming 'I won't love you anymore!' to bring a halt to a rampaging Godzilla, seems ludicrous. In their case, it seems to work." She couldn't restrain herself any longer. She turned back to look at the girls, so the older men and women couldn't see her expression. "I also suspect they require regular physical contact. You can note how they occasionally touch each other, and how they all tried to at least shake hands with the guards. Again, this seems a level of control, to limit their `range` or simplify punishing them. A closet and patience would be all that was necessary." She turned back to the officers. "Cut them off from the promise of a smile or touch from another human being and that . . . " Asuka found herself shuddering, her hands clenching and unclenching at the thought of the level of conditioning required to create such a state. Change brave, strong young girls into these . . . charming little dollies, no doilies! Perfect drapings and playthings. It makes me sick. Even Wondergirl wasn't so clingy and needy. Teufel! Spineless wasn't that much of a noodle.

      "Do you have any theories on why the so easily switched allegiances to you?" Commodore Takarada's `flag captain` asked.

      Asuka considered, The captain is pretty and charming enough to fit in with the guards, but a sharp enough intellect to see to the heart of things. She squirmed at the conclusion she'd formed, and spent the rest of the walk to HQ trying to refute/replace or deny it. Yes, I am shallow enough to have enjoyed the - their antics, Asuka admitted to herself, At least for a little while. "Somehow they offended whoever normally gave them approval. Like an addict, they sought an alternative supply." Great Asuka, she thought, Leave enough holes in the answer to guarantee them asking the most embarrassing questions.

      The half-hidden smiles, knowing looks and cleared throats among the entire staff were more embarrassing than the questioning would have been. At least they all know, she thought haplessly, I've got to quit under-estimating them. They aren't Misato, and they aren't the Nerimaniacs. The Commodore wants soldiers with brains.

      "Are there others who could provide the same - strong connection -?" Commodore Takarada asked, "As you can?"

      "There are three, sir," his flag captain replied before Asuka could, "Pretty Sammi plans returned to Oyakawa with Sailor Saturn, after debriefing, to develop a contingency plan. Kuno Tatewaki is on his way here. Unfortunately Davis Jeffrey is looking into the Black Sutra mess, and we have no other agent with his expertise, except Langley-san. That isn't a trade I recommend."

      The Commodore considered, leaving the floor open for suggestions.

      "Any chance the events are related, sir?" Nito Rikusa Tachibana asked. No one seemed to think so.

      "Very well, excellent work Miss Langley," the Commodore said in passable English, then switched back to Japanese, "Please tell them we'll need to debrief them, then tell the guards they can stand down and go with our guests to get something to eat, that should ease the Senshis' minds somewhat. Don't worry, I've ordered a `soft` interrogation, a lot of hand-holding, sympathetic smiles and probing questions," the Commodore said, "You can't sit in, but you can monitor."

      "Thank you. I think they'll want a peaceful resolution to this," Asuka assured him.

      "I wish their former - owners? - felt the same," the Commodore said as he stood. Everyone stood and bowed, including Asuka.

      She watched the officers file out, until she was alone with the flag captain. "Itto Kaisa Yamajima, how's your sister Yuki?" Asuka asked, smirking at the joke she'd never explained. Poor woman's older sister is every bit the officious, stuck-up bitch her other self was, Asuka thought with an odd feeling of nostalgia, At least she lacks the dark magic.

      The flag captain frowned and walked up beside Asuka as she stood at the mirror.

      I need to get this out, Asuka thought as she cleared her throat and began, "Captain, I don't want to hit this too hard, but you and the Commodore need to know. I've got a friend who has earned more loyalty than anyone else in my life. I watched him really mesh with a nice girl, and the two of them were happy. A first in his life, and I suspect a first in hers," Asuka said and turned to face the older woman, "When she was taken away, I saw through the mask to see what was beneath." She nodded at the Senshi in the other room. "Now the main stumbling block, her age, has been removed, and that girl needs someone to care for her, until she can be healed of what has been done to her." Asuka turned away, not wanting to accuse anyone. "Someone who won't take advantage of her . . . since the rest of us will be doing so ruthlessly. I know where my loyalties must lie, and I'll do my duty, but I will not approve of throwing that chance away trivially."

      "You have to trust - "

      "I've gotten used to being lied to, Captain," Asuka interrupted, then gave a bow as an apology, but continued, "You and the Commodore have your priorities, and I answer to you. The politicians have theirs, and you answer to them. I just wanted to remind you, that I too have mine."

      "Understood," the woman said, "I will make sure the Commodore understands your concerns. He will of course need to take all things into account. Just to inform you, the same issue was raised with Pretty Sammi's group. Although in that instance, the threats relayed through Sammi were implicitly spelled out." She considered for a moment. "Your friend. He's 'the boy' Pretty Sammi mentioned, right?"

      "The strokes need to be curved, don't try to give them the same radius or even the same length," Raccoon explained as they rode the train to the site.

      Raccoon fits, Rei thought as she looked at the modified ofuda he was teaching her to create. Weird, this isn't truly a private car, she thought as she glanced around the empty car, It's just that no one seems to want to stay here. "I don't see why I can't use a standard one."

      "They won't work," Keiko Takarada, a ground forces captain in `plain clothes`, explained, "Believe me, we've tried. Weird as it seems." She pointed to the new ofuda. "That works."

      Rei looked at the star with the flaming eye at the center. The shape just seems - wrong, she thought, I drew it, and I still think it's wrong.

      "Then you just charge it with spiritual energy, and it should function properly," Raccoon told her.

      "You make it sound like a radio or a portable computer," Rei said as she sat back, feeling a bone-aching weariness she'd never experienced before. The doctor stood, walked behind her and began working out the knots on her shoulders.

      "I'm used to this happening," he explained as the tension seemed to melt away and the weariness became relaxation, "Although it's usually Miss Langley who is giving the lectures when this happens."

      "Smart is she?" Rei enjoyed the feeling that cooked noodles had replaced every bone and tense joint in her body.

      "Brilliant, and very willing to share," the doctor told her and chuckled.

      Rei shook her head to clear the cobwebs. "I just want to know why these things are so different from any other malign spirit. I want to know why the government doesn't just send in a force to wipe them all out."

      "The government is sending in a force to wipe them out, Hino-san. You're part of it," Raccoon said, "If you're really asking 'can't someone besides me do it?' Then the answer is 'the supply of heroes is always short, and all the ones the government knows about have been pressed into service.' Welcome to the ranks of those who draw the line against the darkness."

      Rei paled and gulped at that. I guess I am really in for it now, she thought. "You wouldn't happen to have a spare magic fuku lying around would you?" she asked, smiling at her feeble joke.

      Raccoon set a handful of golden pens on the table in front of her. "You never asked how I was so sure they'd been killed in the Arctic," he said, selecting one and held it out to her, "Do you think you could do a better job as Sailor Mars than the brave soul who used this before?"

      Rei stared at the object. He's not joking, she thought, I can feel the magic of those things. I could do better, I could learn to do the job, I . . . I don't want to. I want to be me. A priestess's job is to intercede with the gods and fight monsters. I don't need a magic pen to do that, and I shouldn't need one. "No, thank you," she said, then turned the onus back on him, "You wouldn't happen to have a magic bow and arrows would you?"

      "Only a machinegun," Raccoon replied as he collected the pens, "But I'll keep an eye out for one, and a good teacher."

      "Deal." Rei nodded and relaxed. "I guess I should expect more calls, to draw a line against the darkness."

      "Just don't tell her you're the one who stands in the greater darkness, draws the line and tells evil to step back over it, or you'll drag them back," Keiko teased Raccoon.

      "You left out what happens if they don't take may advice," Raccoon teased back, "Hino-san, have you gotten to geometry: lines, rays, planes, in school?"

      "Yes," she said, glad the subject had changed.

      "Okay. The reality all of you walk around is an 11th dimensional base. Only 4 have any real effect on your day to day life: Height, width, breadth and duration. That doesn't mean the other 7 aren't there, but most people can only perceive 4 or at most 6 dimensions, and the majority can only perceive the passage of time."

      "So I can see the normal three dimensions and two to three others," Rei said as she considered the implications, "That's why I can touch realms unseen, because I'm touching other dimensions? Or . . . am I sensing the passage of these other dimension?"

      "Very good, probably some of both. It's a trained skill like anything else. Raw talent can be trained," Raccoon said and nodded, "Powerful spiritual forces disrupt the way we pass through and interact with all the dimensions. This can be harnessed, so certain words and thoughts become as real as walls and other barriers to the unseen world. Unfortunately for most priests, the creatures who probably had a hand in that book, exist in a thirteen and one-half dimensional existence. They cannot be touched by 11th dimensional forces unless they choose to be. It's access to those half-dimension that cause you to react to the `wrongness` of that ward, and to me. It's a combination of existential dread, and reaction to the dimensional blindness. 'If I can't see it, but I know it's there, am I the butterfly dreaming of being a man, or is it the man dreaming of being a butterfly?'."

      "What - is a 'half-dimension'?" Rei asked, she noted the doctor and the captain had tuned out the discussion. They must have heard this before, she thought as Raccoon drew a line and a pair of rays on a piece of paper.

      He pointed at the line. "A normal dimension allows travel in either direction, freely along it's length. Gravity, atmosphere, other obstacles don't change that fact that the dimension itself isn't restricting travel. Time operates a little differently. You can travel, you must - never mind, your eyes are already glazing over." He pointed at the pair of rays. "Half-dimensions are vectors, you go one direction from the origin towards the end. If they are paired, you can go to the one that goes the other direction to go `backwards` then switch back to the forward one to continue. The real confusion comes in that some dimensions are lines, and some are paired vectors, depending on the way you look at them. An electron microscope says line, a fire reading says rays, and both are correct. As you can imagine, if an attack of any kind is coming in along a vector, and the target switches to the coupled vector at a velocity of 0, the attack passes through them without touching them in the least. Non-interaction, you could pass through a physical object if you had ful access to all of those dimensions, and in this dimension, the interaction gets even more complicated."

      "I understand the science," Rei said warily, "But you're making the rest up."

      "No, I'm not," he explained to Rei, "I learned how to do it. I can literally walk through a dozen experienced fighters and they can't lay a hand on me. Unless they use magic, especially magic developed by the Great Old Ones. I'll show you." He laid her recently modified ofuda on one hand. "Drop another on my other hand, I'll show you."

      She did, and watched it pass through his hand onto the table. "That's impossible," she whispered.

      "Just keep in mind, that many of our foes can do the same 'impossible' thing," he explained.

      Rei could only nod.

      Why can't the Earth just open up and swallow me whole? she wondered as she endured the tittering of all three of the pseudo-Senshi, At least the guards are trying to keep a straight face. She looked around the corridor of the base for tell-tale fissures she might be able to leap into. All I asked about was the sleeping arrangements, I meant did they want one room or three. She looked at the trio, who seemed to take it as a sign to switch from giggling, to holding each other upright and laughing out loud. "That wasn't what I meant!" Asuka insisted. I have no idea what they . . . oh yes I do, all three of them in my bed. I always hated the idea of sleep overs, there's only one - well, two reasons to go to bed, and sleeping is the only one I want to do. The universe hates me, that's the only explanation, Asuka thought, If I wasn't so absolutely perfect and wonderful and infinitely humble in everything else, the universe wouldn't have to keep doing this to me. I can hear the sobbing violins playing for me in Nerima already.

      "Ami? Ami-chan?" came a deep voice filled with amazement.

      "Thank GOD! It Kuno Tatewaki!" Asuka exclaimed. He deserves to hear that said without irony at least once in his lifetime, she thought as the girls turned as one to the man who had arrived and stood a few meters away.

      Despite his expression of utter confusion, Tate-chan strode straight at Ami-chan, only to stop a bare fraction of a meter away, staring at her as if seeing a ghost.

      It could be, Asuka thought as she watched, Ami looked like she'd just -

      Tate had spread his arms and Ami threw herself into them, hugging him tightly. Tate returned it with equal enthusiasm, picking her up off the ground and burying his face in her shoulder. Ami happily kicked her feet in the air.

      Well, Asuka thought, Look at that! She considered the other two girls. They were literally glowing with a full body blush. She looked at them more deeply and was shocked by what she saw. She slipped past the small group and passed the guards. "Keep them together and under observation," she told the man, "I'll be back."

      This is perfect! she thought, We can send Makoto south to help Jeff, I can just see it. His team will get off the train at the stop, the trains are so timely we could actually have a team of `diplomats` at Usagi's court to watch the effects. Jeff sees Makoto, and is filled with a mix of confusion, anger and hope, maybe a little love too, but all of it felt so passionately. Makoto primed to approach him the same way Tatewaki did, fast then slow, taking him in her arms, showing him that she is the Makoto he lost.

      She stepped into the Commodore's office and waited for him to look up. Of course we'll have to get Rei primed. To stand behind Jeff to keep him from retreating. Knowing Makoto, she'll probably squeeze both of them in her arms, she thought as she said, "I think we have a real weapon to use against them. We need to send Kino Makoto to the Black Sutras group and prepare a team to observe the effect on our Senshi and on the Senshi of Usagi's court."

      Behold the real power of love, she thought with a grim smile, Never thought you'd be the target did you? Well, I'll use whatever comes to hand. It also eliminates the need for her and him to choose here or home, she has no real link with this world, so of course she'll come with him.

      "I'm sorry. No."

      It will be good to see the expression on Spineless and Horseface when they realize that it is possible to be a pilot and have a wife and family. Heck, if she can use the Henshin pens, maybe she has a decent sync ratio. That would - he said 'no' - Asuka stopped, and refocused on the Commodore. "I wasn't teasing you, sir, and I apologize for barging in," she said, "But I saw something that can be developed into a method to defeat the element of our enemy that would be bent on resistance, or at least aligned against good-faith negotiation."

      "Miss Langley, I've come to expect you to barge in and lay out a plan to save us all, despite what courtesies would normally demand," the Commodore said patiently, "In fact, I would like you to continue to do so, because even if we do not use your ideas, they always contain insights and element that strengthen our plans."

      "Thank you, sir," she replied, "But when Ami and Tatewaki connected, I saw a 5 degree temperature increase in Pluto and Jupiter, with a near complete shut down of their normal metabolism. I'm sorry, I'm babbling, but do you realize what that means?!"

      "They were subsisting exclusively on the emotional energy from Mizuno-san, Kuno-san or both. That they were in fact, slightly overloaded by it. That they were almost mentally and physically paralyzed by the energy flooding their systems. I have studied more than military history and engineering, Miss Langley. Please sit down. Explain your reasoning."

      "Yes, sir," Asuka said as she sat, "A meeting between Jeffrey Davis and Sailor Jupiter would have the same effect, and would allow us to test it over a range of emotions. It would also allow us to have observers in Serenity's court to determine if her people are affected, or if the effect is attenuated by distance." Asuka smiled eagerly. "Don't you see, it's perfect! Ah, sir."

      "It would be perfect. Except getting one of them out of the compound and loose in Japan might be exactly what Usagi and her court want," the Commodore said.

      Asuka realized she hadn't considered that, then she did, "With all due respect, sir. We aren't talking about Machievelli or Sun Tzu reborn here. These are not people who engage in the kind of high-stakes, intricate strategies that you and I do. Overwhelming firepower and charge through the front door is their way. Talk of hope and light and love, then blast the Hell out of a target, sometimes literally."

      "And you believe such a person could create a planet-wide kingdom? Rule a million people in such a way that they wouldn't all starve to death or fall over from disease in a month?" the Commodore asked, "Unless all three of them are independently telling the same lies to us. I find that even less credible. They have a strategist in their midst somewhere. Perhaps not your equal, but definitely someone to worry about."

      Asuka found she didn't have any answers. She sagged in the chair. "I'd hoped - "

      "Yes, I would hope too. But I can't afford to. I have to plan for the worst possible situations. By your own admission, you know nothing about their Sailor Saturn, other than she's wearing the wrong planet-garment, and truly nothing about Sailor Uranus and Neptune. Assuming that Usagi is both harmless and in full command is not an assumption I can make."

      Asuka bowed her head. "Yes, you're right. And considering her vulnerability to the emotions of others, it would be dangerous to send Kino-san into a position where possession may be a factor."

      "I'm certain with Davis-san and Hino-san, they could deal with that eventuality," the Commodore said, as he stepped past her and closed the door, "I think there's a far more serious problem that must be addressed."

      "What's that?" Asuka asked as the man returned to his desk.

      "Why you are so eager to avoid contact with them. If it is your chastity or sexual identity that is your concern, I'll put that worry to rest. I doubt any of them have the faintest interest in that form of intimacy or intercourse. Their mindset regarding interaction seems right out of a Disney film. They enjoy snuggling and holding hands, or gazing at someone longingly, but taking a relationship beyond that relatively restricted arena is beyond them," the Commodore explained, "On the other hand, if your fear is of anyone directing such an intense emotional need in your direction, then you have a bigger problem than these pseudo-Senshi. If I remember Beryl's attack on Tokyo correctly, you and your dragon drove her off handily, and I suspect he could do so again, as long as casualties on the other side were no issue."

      "What are you saying?" Asuka asked, feeling trapped by what she had inferred.

      "You should continue with Kino-san. She is quite concerned about you. Yes, she has talked with me. She repeatedly interrupted her interrogation to voice concerns about you. She is aware of your ambivalent feelings, and has assumed that the rest of us could sense your emotions as she can. She was actually wondering if she had offended you in some way."

      "Wha - what - what did you tell her?" Asuka covered her face.

      "That few people can sense emotions as well as she and these other Senshi can, and that your normal state is to be quite annoyed with the entire universe, for always 'acting stupid'. She specifically mentioned how afraid you are when she or any of the others get close to you in a friendly way, or even try to reassure you. After some questioning, she was able to confirm it isn't loss of your virginity that you're afraid of when they get close."

      Asuka felt like she was being boiled alive. Her skin felt too hot and her mind was racing in a thousand different directions. It isn't true, it isn't! I'm not afraid of - I'm not afraid of Makoto or anyone else! she thought, Just because my father would have turned me over to the Bolsheviks if it would have benefitted him, just because the stupid empty shell people kept calling my mother couldn't tell me from a doll - just because - She fought to hold back the tears, to direct her thoughts and raging emotions elsewhere.

      She almost didn't hear the office door open. But she felt the arms surrounding her. She scrambled away, staring at Makoto's concerned face, and shouting, "I don't need you! I don't need anyone! I can live on my own! I've had to since I was - since I - " Since I found my mother dead in her room, thinking she'd hung me too, Asuka thought as the Commodore left and closed the door behind him.

      "You can't lie to me, and you shouldn't lie to yourself," Makoto told her gently, some of the old Makoto sternness in her voice, "Too many people care about you to -"

      "Because they need me!' Asuka shot back, standing her ground and bracing herself, "You don't think that as soon as they get what they want, the rest of the group won't be done with me?" She steeled herself as Makoto approached step by step.

      "What about Raccoon?" Makoto asked, "Has he abandoned you? You left and began your crusade, and he hasn't abandoned you." Makoto seemed to take each step and each phrase as a test of Asuka's resolve.

      "He's different!"

      "You assume that the other have given up on you," Makoto said as she advanced, and now Asuka gave ground, "Maybe they just haven't found you yet. That isn't the same as not looking."

      "Why should I expect that? They're probably glad to get rid of the two troublemakers. They've probably enjoyed the quiet without us."

      "You don't really believe that, and you don't really hate us, or you wouldn't be reacting like this."

      "Oh, when did you become the genius and I become the imbecile? You who couldn't string ten words together without getting tongue-tied, you who went off with your precious Usagi to - " Asuka choked, she couldn't get the words out. She backed into a corner, looking for an escape, while Makoto carefully closed in.

      "Went off with our precious Usagi to die? She didn't do that to hurt you, I wouldn't have, so I'm sure she didn't. I don't know much, but I know you. People don't hate you. Some are intimidated, some are confused, but they admire you."

      "Why should I care? I hate them, I hate this country, I hate the people, I hate you can't take a step without tripping over somebody, I hate you and that stupid expression of 'I understand' while behind it, you're all laughing at me! Look at the silly, emotional child who thinks being smart makes her an adult! I am an adult, I've had to look after myself for years!"

      "Then why do you hate yourself?" Makoto asked.

      Asuka wanted to hit her, burn her to a crisp, make her a hundred years older, destroy her in any of the thousand ways she could. Except she couldn't. She couldn't move when Makoto slipped her arms under Asuka's upraised fists, she couldn't protest when the bigger girl cradled her in her arms.

      "We don't hate you," Makoto asked, "Why do you hate yourself so? You've made yourself such a good person, brilliant and brave, why aren't you satisfied with that?"

      The Commodore shooed Tatewaki and the two Senshi away from the door. He'd noted that the girls had been drawn like moths to the flame by Asuka's near meltdown. That proved Miss Langley's hypothesis, and I do wish I could see the shockwaves resonating in Usagi's court from this, he thought, But I don't so I have to let the warning stand.

      "Will she be all right?" Tatewaki asked. His concern was unfeigned.

      "It's been building for quite some time. Her frustration on the main project, her failure to give us a `perfect` solution to this situation, and her failures before this, all of them culminating in this," the Commodore said as he led them away from his office, "Our doctors have warned she was on the verge of a serious breakdown. I think the danger has passed somewhat."

      That's the real reason I didn't want to send Makoto south, the man kept to himself, She might have done some good for Davis as his could-be, hoped-for-returned, might-be lover. But Asuka definitely needed `mommy` much more, some older woman she could impress and be loved by unconditionally. If the High Command who controls the EVAs and their pilots didn't see that as the perfect means to keep her unswerving loyalty and dedication, they really didn't deserve the job.

Sailor Jupiter II 3 - You're Old Enough To Kill

      Akane looked at Ryoga. The tubes running into and out of him sickened her. I shouldn't like this, she thought, But after he betrayed me like he did, and after our parents 'changed the Saotome-Tendo agreement' to us, how should I feel? I supported the return of Ranma-san not just because he would put down the demons, but because he would distract Ryoga. Why can't my father see he cannot be trusted? That I don't want him? Just like I didn't want Ranma? She looked at the delicate web that kept Ryoga alive. It would be almost too easy to do something . . . no, I can't do that to him, even to him. My father may be able to force us to marry, but I will never be his wife, and I will never be his murderer.

      She heard Kasumi roll into the room. "Has there been any change?" she asked.

      As if you really cared, Akane wanted to say, You just don't want people to think you're like Nabiki and me. You just want people to look at you and see some untouchable saint. You'll never replace mother, no matter how hard you try, because she actually cared. You just want to be like her in all the easy ways, not in any of the hard ways. "Nothing ever changes around here," Akane replied, trying to shut out her sister's presence.

      "I'm sure he'll recover, and be just as energetic as ever," Kasumi said, while giving Akane her sunniest smile.

      You believe in miracles, Akane thought, I don't, and never have. You beat boys up, the sick perverts. You don't get close to them. Nobody's ever defeated me, they just kept me from winning. Ryoga's no different from that unclean pervert Ranma-san. Taking advantage of me, treating me like dirt under their feet.

      "There, there, Akane-chan," Kasumi consoled her, "There's no reason to cry."

      Akane ignored her while she wiped her eyes and decided to leave.

      Commodore Takarada looked at the sword in his hand, and at his opponent, the woman with the odd naginata and the crimson armor. "Asuka, is this really necessary?" he asked.

      "You wanted to know about how to defend yourself against mental attacks," the woman told him, "And I'm not Asuka, not exactly."

      "How does fencing when I'm asleep have any effect on my mental defenses?" he asked as he took a guard position from his long-unused kendo.

      "Because this is all a mental construct," the woman explained, "Force of will and speed of thought have more influence over combat here than you might want to admit. If you can think faster and harder, you hit faster and harder." She punctuated her explanation by blurring towards him and knocking the blade out of his hand and tapping him in the shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip, knee and ankle, on each side, and so fast each touch felt simultaneous. She then caught the blade and handed it back to him. "The key here is the strength not of your muscles, but of your mind."

      "Okay," he said as he again took the guard position, "Tell me why I couldn't be commanding my ship in combat, or better yet, how about the Yamato charging the American battleline?"

      "Maybe against the Bismarck and the Tirpitz? American battleships always used to be so slow," the woman replied as she charged for another attack.

      The train rolled on through the night. Rei couldn't sleep. She walked through the nearly deserted coach towards the one source of light she saw. Davis-san playing tricks again, she thought and shivered, There's something about him that just grates on me. He's a perfect gentleman, but it's as if he's really an oni or some malign kami masquerading as a man, a gentleman. She frowned at her uncharitable thoughts. The sad thing is, he's doing a better job of impersonating a gentleman than most of the guys walking around.

      He didn't seem to notice her, or didn't react to her as she approached.

      "Do you know why the military has commissioned and noncommissioned officers?" Jeff asked without moving, without the tiny ball of light hovering over his hand flickering or moving in the slightest.

      "If I had snuck in here to rob you, would you still hammer me with inane questions?"

      "Probably. I'd ask you how many bones are in a human body, then we'd count them together. Me as I broke each of them, and you as you screamed at each injury," he told her cheerfully.

      I believe that's exactly what he'd do, Rei considered. "I couldn't sleep."

      "So I selected a seemingly boring subject that will have you dozing, but will also implant a seed of thought for you to work on."

      "How clever of you," Rei said sourly, "Aren't we supposed to be covert?"

      "As you said, you're a priestess, there's no reason to not walk up to any temple and just knock."

      Rei shook her head, getting a headache to go with her insomnia. "All right, I don't know why there are . . . two kinds of officers."

      "Commissioned officers," Jeff explained, "Look at the big picture: strategy, logistics, and such. The noncommissioned officers, like sergeants, care for the tactics, deployment of weapons, minor discipline and such."

      "Your point is?" Rei asked and stifled a yawn.

      "There are big picture people, and small detail people," Jeff explained, "Some big picture people are terrible at details. They need others to do the grunt work. On the other hand, many detail people can't accomplish much without a grand vision to work within."

      "And I need to know this -" Rei's yawn interrupted her, "- why? Excuse me."

      "That's a lesson for another time," he said, "I think you'll have no trouble going right to sleep."

      Rei grumbled as she staggered back down the corridor, barely able to keep her feet, let alone her eyes open. Silly, trickster, she couldn't say aloud, I bet he used a sleep selp - spell! - on me.

      She barely had time to pull the covers over her before she was soundly asleep.

      Asuka walked through the mess tent, getting her breakfast and not making eye contact with anyone, let alone her `shadow`. They should punish me, she thought as she felt Makoto's gentle push, and let herself be directed to the Commodore's table. So this is how it ends, she thought despairingly, A pleasant `chat` over breakfast and I get thrown out on my ear. Or worse, sent to a lab to be studied. I guess I shouldn't have expected it to go any differently. I'd hoped, but they can't take the chance. I wish he would have yelled at me at least, instead of just saying, 'I hope you won't make a habit of using my office for that.' It would have been better if he was more angry, but that's not the Japanese way. No outward emotion while inside you're seething with rage or jumping for joy.

      "Anything I should know about?" he asked pleasantly. Each kind smile and soft word like a dagger in her heart. "We have word of two fishing boats losing their crews, and no radar or sonar sightings. So if that's our jellyfish monster, it's too small to be detected, or it's developed some kind of stealth field. I somehow doubt that, it seemed to want us to know it was coming. Also, there were no radio warnings."

      "Should I look into it?" Asuka asked, as if the question would set the entire powder keg alight.

      "Not just yet. If it is our monster, then we'll need your skills," the Commodore said as he glanced at the two of them, "Any problems I should be aware of?"

      Asuka shook her head timidly.

      "She slept soundly all night," Makoto said seriously.

      Asuka nearly died.

      "Not so soundly as you might think," the Commodore replied with a faint smile.

      Asuka cringed inwardly. It's embarrassing enough that I said such awful things to Makoto, and she didn't simply slap me silly for doing it. Now they're all ignoring it.

      Asuka shook her head and remembered Makoto's reaction to her screaming fit, I'm still not comfortable with adults bathing together, unless they are married. I didn't even bother to ask what she had in mind. I was just too wrung out to object, Asuka thought as she remembered being half-carried to the showers, I don't think she was following orders, just her instincts. I remember hoping she'd just drown me.

      Asuka became aware of the uncomfortable silence from not just the Commodore and Makoto, but seemingly everyone else in the mess tent. "I've just got a lot on my mind."

      "That seems to be your perpetual state," the Commodore commented.

      Asuka braced herself for a further rebuke, but none came. She glanced over guiltily at Makoto, who returned a concerned look. 'Let's get that hair of your's clean, then I'll trust you to get the rest.' I can see how she got past Raccoon's defenses. She wrapped me up in a warm towel, and wrapped me up in her own warmth. I didn't want to get away. Just let her fingers move through my hair, and she never once tried to crush my skull. 'They don't hate you, many of the people here admire you and want to be just like you.' She told me. She glanced around at the people eating and wondered, How much is true, and how much is just what Makoto wants to believe? I've had lots of people `admire` me. Usually to use me to advance their careers, and their societal standing.

      I remember telling her, 'I can do without their admiration.' And she was silent as she dried my hair. Then she asked the question that really hurt, 'How do I benefit?' I could have told her that she needed it simply to survive, but she's no vampire living off the lives of others. How do I answer her? Yes, she benefits, 'you need it, need it as much as you need air', but that isn't her reason for doing what she does.

      "I've been avoiding Kodachi and Tatewaki," Makoto said, deepening Asuka's gloom.

      I know. Tate seemed so happy with Ami-chan, I didn't want to interfere, she thought, Koda and I, have been divided over problems with the project.

      Asuka had no words, and mutely accepted Makoto's arms encircling her.

      They walked off the train. Rei started at the sound of the doors closing behind them. She watched the train pull away from the station and felt suddenly and terribly alone. It feels like the world has turned away from us, she thought as she watched the train dwindle away at a rate far greater than its speed should allow, We are out here, exposed, alone, and all that stands between destruction, and the civilized and ordered world. I don't want this job, but I can't run away from it either.

      They walked towards where their small pile of baggage waited.

      Are we each alone in our thoughts? she wondered, Or do we each fear to break the silence, and bring the malign force down on our heads?

      "Did they just throw the luggage off the train and run away?" the doctor asked quietly as he looked around longingly.

      The inarticulate cry of a girl and the outraged squawk of a bird, drew every eye and raised every hackle. All of them formed to repel the attackers, if the girl and bird decided to do something stupid. The girl who ran onto the train platform was shorter than any of them, although she seemed to have drawn in on herself to make herself even smaller.

      "Is that a parrot?" the captain asked, "Poor thing."

      That gray sweater and brown skirt would help her disappear into the background whatever it is, Rei thought as the girl spotted her target and first walked, then ran towards whichever one of them it was. She felt the aura coming off the girl. I get the feeling that girl could make passionate love boring, Rei thought as she tried to work out which of them she was charging at. She tried to see beyond the seeming and look at the girl as she actually was. Her heart-shaped face should have made her pretty, but her hairstyle just made her face look chubby. And that hair! It looks like a bad dye job! She didn't get the roots properly . . . wait a second! The roots are a coppery red, who'd want to dye it a muddy black? This girl is a mess in more than the looks department! She'd probably be pretty, except she doesn't like how she looks, so she'll do anything to change it, Rei realized, Idiots. Her and me! Someone that messed up, there's only one person here she could be wanting to meet.

      "Please Mister Evil, but mighty Sorcerer," the girl exclaimed as she threw herself at Davis's feet, "Slay me, take what you wish of me, I throw myself at your mercy to destroy, but spare my brother and save him from his accursed fate!"

      Davis looked around at the others. Rei couldn't help herself, his put upon expression, attempted to free his feet from the girl's grip and finally, his frown at the sky was hilarious. "Girls normally get all tangled up with you?"

      Jeff looked ill. "You have no idea." Jeff said as he got one foot loose only to have the girl latch onto it once he set it down. "First of all, I'm no sorcerer, although I am a mage. Why does everyone assume I'm a sorcerer? Second, I've never seen nor heard of you before. So why would I destroy you without any reason? And third." He jumped back out of the girl's reach. "Quit sniveling on my boots!"

      "Do you need a reason to kill me? I could hit you," she offered helpfully, then glanced at Rei, "Or your girlfriend?"

      "Can I hit her?" Rei asked as she raised her fist, Jeff seemed to be seriously considering it and the girl stood and bravely prepared for the death blow. That isn't what he wants to ask, Rei thought between giggles, What is she looking for a wizard for?

      "I think we need information," the doctor suggested.

      "The Grand Goddess came to me, didn't give me any choice, told me about this evil sorcerer who was responsible for all the demons, nobody understands what happened," she said breathlessly, crying as she tried to get it all out, "I tried to tell her I couldn't do it, that I had to look after my little brother, and she laughed and told me that she could take care of it." She held the rather motley and moth-eaten looking parrot over her head. "She changed him into this!" Then the girl began bawling uncontrollably. The parrot squawked and jumped out of her hands to land on her shoulder.

      I have never wanted to kick another person as badly as I want to kick this girl, Rei thought with a frown, I wonder if that's part of her `transformation`. I wonder if the Sailor Scouts had similar problems thrust upon them.

      "Then she changed me! Everyone thinks it's so wonderful, but I never wanted to do any of those things! I just want my brother back!" She sat up and stared at the faces around her as her `brother` settled back on her shoulder. She was clearly not seeing what she wanted to see in their expressions. She sighed. "You can have me too if you like."

      That's a disincentive if I've ever - oh - my! she thought as the girl stood, and changed. "She's . . . tall," Rei stammered about the beauty they were now facing. She's taller than Davis by half a head, and - and - and - I wonder how bad her back hurts, or how strong she is to just stand upright? The girl's costume was painful to look at. The bright, flashy colors I could handle, Rei thought as she shaded her eyes, And that transformation sequence belongs in soapland, but who in their right mind gives their `hero` just the front of a one piece suit, and only a brief skirt for her modesty. Rei looked for straps across the back, or a collar of some kind. What's holding it up?! Static electricity? Then the girl turned to her and smiled. Rei practically heard the 'ting' as the light caught the woman's teeth, then she felt a tickle on her own lip. Blood? she thought as she touched her face, and her embarrassment exploded, NO!! I like - no I don't like guys, but I'd prefer guys, if I they weren't all idiots, but girls are worse idiots, and I don't want anything but my role as a priestess! She wondered how badly she was lying, as she felt the transformed woman's gaze caressing her, and felt a distinct anger as her gaze turned and elicited the same reaction from Captain Takarada and the doctor.

      What's he made of? Stone? she thought as Davis stood there placidly and waited. She offered tissue to the embarrassed captain, who also suffered a nosebleed, and scowled at the doctor, who shrugged back.

      "It's terrible," the transformed girl wailed in a voice as rich and smooth as warm chocolate, "You don't know how I've suffered."

      "Blunted Affect," Davis said offhandedly to his comrades, then turned his attention to the girl kneeling before him with the tears running down her face. "I'm certain it has been," he said sympathetically.

      Rei squelched her pique that the girl had taken Davis's hands and rubbed them against her perfect skin. For all her good looks, she's a pathetic whiner with no spine and all her talents are based on two big, warm, creamy-color, soft, heaping - Rei shook her head violently, to get her thoughts back on track. Two lumps of fat and a steel brea - chestplate! she thought, then realized how catty she sounded, even to herself, I wonder if that's a side-effect of her transformation too, maybe the Sailor Scouts really did have some weird problems. Making small-minded people jealous of them,, because we always knew we could do better, better than we actually could if we had the job. Rei sighed and shoved her dislike of the girl aside. "I'm sure there's something that can be done," she said as encouragingly as she could, "And we won't take your life or your purity." Whether you've still got it or not, Rei couldn't resist silently adding. She felt her blush deepen as the woman abandoned her kneeling pose in front of Davis. Go away! Shoo! Don't come near me! Don't smile like that! I'm not that kind of girl! Really! she tried to shout as the girl stalked towards her and Rei began considering whether to stand or retreat.

      Rei was actually glad of the bird's frantic squawking. She looked at the once-parrot, now a magnificent eagle, but with the same flashy, eye-watering color scheme as its mistress. I hope that part isn't true! she thought as she looked at the three toughs who stood arrogantly facing them. What is this?! A `tough youth` movie? Even without Breasty the Wondergirl, we'd mop the floor with them! she thought as she looked around for other attackers, Maybe they're just a diversion.

      "Having some fun with the enemy?" the leader of the toughs asked.

      The way he said 'fun' makes my skin crawl, Rei thought as she completed her sweep and realized the others had more covertly done the same, Okay, I'm a little slow, but I'm new to this.

      "Please, no, I wouldn't -" the girl whined as the boy raised his wrist and posed with his other hand over the ornate bracelet he wore, "I, I'll be good. Not that."

      I'm not sure if ecstasy or agony would be worse, Rei thought as she looked at the others who waited with smirks on their faces.

      "Do you take your spider everywhere?" Davis asked, much to Rei's confusion.

      The boy looked closely at the bracelet and screamed, whipping his arm around frantically and trying to remove the offending ornament without touching it. "Shoot it! Kill it! Get it OFF me!" he screamed to his equally mystified companions.

      What is he talking about? There is no spider! Rei thought as Davis handed her his walking stick.

      "Have you ever wanted to hit a home run?" he asked with a smile, a smile that went 'ting' and put all the pieces in place for Rei.

      Tricky, an illusion, she thought. "I prefer mine," she said as she brandished her harai gushi. She marched up to the boy and wound up for grandslam. "Exorcize! And!" A blow right where her grandfather had taught her. "Purify!" She paused to look at the crumpled boy and his two suddenly very focused companions. "Anybody else want to know what they're really afraid of?" she asked sweetly.

      Despite their drawn knives, they both decided to be elsewhere.

      "And don't come back!" Rei shouted after them and shook her harai gushi to `sweep` away their presence. She turned around and was nearly suffocated.

      "My hero! I shall serve you faithfully for now and forever!" the girl squealed and swung Rei around.

      Set me down and let me breathe! Rei tried to demand, That's all the service I require, now or ever. Oh, dizzy!

      The girl set the staggering miko down and tried to steady her as Rei gasped lungfuls of air and tried to keep the world from spinning.

      "Oh, I must have hit your nose," the girl blotted at Rei's nosebleed with her hair, "I should be more careful, it keeps happening."

      Rei caught the exasperated look and the sad head-shaking of the eagle. Okay, that explains everything. Becoming a magical girl costs you about 60 I.Q. points and all your common sense. That explains the Sailor Scouts perfectly. "I'll be fine," Rei said as she noticed the bloodstain vanished instantly from the girl's hair. That's a trick I'll love to learn.

      "Don't touch that!" the girl shrieked as Davis examined the bracelet he'd taken from the boy.

      "I wasn't going to activate it," Davis replied calmly as he walked towards Rei, "It seems this is a separate control mechanism." He whispered to Rei when he was sure no one would overhear. "Don't be jealous of my `self-control`. The girl's aura is powerful, but even that can't change that it's her inner self projected that makes up the bulk of it and its power. Her inner spirit if you will. Something she's obviously trying to deny, that she's a lovable girl." He stared at Rei with a worried expression.

      "I'm all right, she just made me uncomfortable," Rei stammered, trying to deny her feelings when the girl had looked at and worse held her.

      "Like I said, don't assume I have an advantage. There are times it's a curse. Like when a certain pretty, redheaded martial artist and her brunette paramour decide they just have to play snuggling bookends, and I get cast in the role of the books."

      Rei blushed as she imagined it.

      "I always thought it was pleasant, even comforting. I also know there are people in Nerima who would kill to have been in my place, or kill anyone who had. Do you understand how frustrating that is?"

      Rei shook her head.

      "Nice is what the second piece of delicious, warm cornbread is. Not even glorious or delicious like the first piece could be, just nice like the second. Nice is not offending anyone, where good is inspiring them to new heights. She looked at me, offered herself, and I didn't feel anything, not lust, not embarrassment, not anything stronger then the knowledge 'here is a problem I must solve.' Don't envy me for it," he warned her, "You'll tear yourself up over wanting what really isn't worth the asking price."

      Rei didn't answer, instead she glanced at the girl.

      "You can help me?" the girl approached cautiously.

      Rei was embarrassed by her own reaction to the girl's proximity. He's right, he isn't blushing, or breathing funny, or anything! she realized, So has he ever been in love? Or is it all an intellectual exercise for him? She shook her head. I can't imagine life and love being just a series of rational choices.

      The girl reacted to Jeff's assurances by wailing at the top of her lungs, "I DON'T WANT TO BE A MAGICAL GIRL!"

      Rei couldn't help herself, she began laughing so hard she thought her head would fall off.

      "They just suddenly showed up around here," the girl, back in her mousy persona said while Rei walked behind with her hands on the smaller girl's shoulders as they walked from their hotel to the car rental place. "I never wanted to fight, now some crazy goddess shows up and gives me the power to fight them, whether I wanted it or not. As soon as I had the power, they all claimed that they were showing up to fight me." She sniffled and Rei looked like she was hurting herself resisting the impulse to hit her as hard as she could.

      Jeff had the control device and the girl's 'Magnitude' wand, and was examining them both minutely.

      That doesn't look like any technology I've ever seen, the officer thought, and glanced at the doctor, who shrugged back, I should be worried that you are so comfortable messing around with it. "So who told you that he was a mighty sorcerer and was spreading demons across the land like seeds?" Captain Takarada asked, and smiled at Davis's wince. So you do have a few weak points, she thought, Important intelligence.

      The girl sniffed again. "The Grandgoddess Mapulo," the girl said.

      Davis stopped so fast the captain almost ran into him. "A little warning next time?"

      Davis wasn't listening. "Did you say Mapulo?" Somehow the way he said it gave everyone the shivers.

      "Yes." The girl seemed to retreat into Rei's arms.

      "I think we've got even bigger troubles than I originally thought," Davis said, he paused to consider before adding, "And bigger enemies." He turned to the group. "Maybe all of you should go back to the hotel and wait. If I haven't contacted you by tomorrow -"

      "We aren't going to let you march off to be killed!" Rei insisted, "I hated that part of the Senshi story, that just proves Sailor Mars is an idiot trying to do that!"

      The captain fought not to smile at that comment. I swear, he's setting the poor girl up on purpose, she thought as she stood and listened.

      "But Sailor Mars is so wonderful!" the girl replied tearfully.

      "She was an idiot, with a half-dozen gods and dragons to call on, and three armies, only a complete idiot would march off to her death that way!" Rei insisted and looked at the stone faces surrounding her, she relented, slightly. "I know she was your friend, but how does you doing the same stupid thing make it less stupid?"

      She really doesn't know, she really doesn't remember! Amazing, the captain thought, She doesn't know who she was, or that she's objecting to things she actually did.

      "First, I know what I'm really getting into, but they were just hurt and angry kids. Second, this isn't a grand battle against my traditional enemies. This is a turf fight and an extermination job. Lastly, unlike Sailor Mars and the other Senshi, I will walk out of that mess no matter what happens. Nuke the site, and I'll still walk out of it. That's what I'm for."

      "I liked it better when you said 'Mapulo'," Rei admitted, trying to rub some warmth back in her arms. "So who is this 'Moonlight Knight' you've mentioned?"

      The captain nearly laughed at the sudden expression change as the girl perked up. I was never that age, she thought, Good or bad?

      "Oh he's the most dashing, handsome, debonair, romantic man I've ever met!" She took a cute pose, little hearts dancing in her eyes. "Oh, if only I knew who he was in real life, we could be so happy together."

      Rei slapped her own face. "Do you know someone who constantly insults and belittles you?" she said as if each word was painful.

      "Yes, that stupid exchange student Darien!" the girl growled and stomped her feet, "So what if his Japanese is better than even the teacher's, so what if -"

      They left her to her rant about all his crimes and iniquities. From Rei and Davis's expressions, they already know the 'Moonlight Knight's' identity, Captain Takarada thought as she watched, These people don't need to be watched. They need to be looked after.

      "So you are in love with him," Davis said idly, causing the girl to nearly strangle, herself or Davis.

      "Have you heard what I said about him?! One word?" she shouted at him, then paled and retreated as he pointed the bracelet at her and pushed the button.

      Nothing happened.

      "Good, that's two problems dealt with. I think I can cross connect the circuitry and spells to give you and your brother full control of your forms and powers. It's actually pretty good workmanship. Far better than what the Sailor Senshi were saddled with."

      "Why did you scare me like that?!" the girl demanded.

      "You've gotten some of your spirit back, that's good. I scared you to prove there was nothing to fear from the bracelet, and to point out you are obsessing about this Darien person to such an extent, than you must have feelings for him."

      "I hate him!" she insisted. Then looked around at the stone faces around her. "I do!"

      "So what did you want to be when you grow up?" the doctor asked.

      "I wanted to be a lawyer, like my dad," the girl said.

      "Going to become a politician?" Rei growled.

      She shook her head. "No, they're all crooks," the girl said, "I'd like to put them in jail with all the other rapists, murderers and thieves."

      "I think we have something new to talk about," Rei said with a smile.

      The captain stepped up to Jeff. "So can you turn the boy back into a human being?"

      "Easily, but this device could turn him right back. I'd rather adjust the device to let him change forms at will. A curse stops being a curse if you can control it. Imagine being able to turn from a cute guy into a cute girl whenever you wanted. Would that be a curse?"

      "Not really," Captain Takarada said, "There are times I wish I was a guy."

      "But if it happens whenever you got hit with water?" he asked, "Cold changes you to your non-birth gender, and hot changes you back. And the curse attracts water of the most inconvenient temperature?"

      "That would be a problem," she admitted.

      "Hence the work. If I can put the transformation wholly in their hands, they'll have a much different attitude towards it."

      "I guess that's so." The captain dropped back to be alone with her own thoughts.

      The Commodore walked through the base and considered the responsibilities that he had undertaken. Sometimes I do wish I was just a grunt, he thought , Leaving it others to do such things for the good of the nation and her people.

      "Kino-san?" he said as he spotted the first of his three targets, "Do you know where Tomoe-san and Mizuno-san are?"

      The Senshi looked around and gestured, blushing cutely as she did. "They'll be done in a little bit," she said.

      "I'd like to thank you for your help with Langley-san," he said, not trying to disguise his positive feelings. And she blushes and slows her breathing, sustained by the positive emotions of others, he thought, cursing himself for his clinical detachment and manipulation of an innocent.

      "It was, I thought she needed it." Kino-san looked intently at him. "She wants to be liked, yet doesn't trust anyone who does."

      "There's an American joke, 'How do porcupines make love, very carefully.' I think you've been doing an excellent job." Just like I knew you would, he thought, She doesn't like hurting people who are hurt, and she has to fix things, even if she knows there isn't a way to. It's the one weak point that lets you get in close, to do work a thousand psychiatrists never could.

      "She's asleep," Kino-san told him, "Did she ever sleep before I came?"

      "Have you ever heard of Post Traumatic Stress, a person experiences a trauma, and it affects them. Sleep disorders are common."

      The young woman had grown more uncomfortable as he spoke. "Is there anything that can be done?"

      "Yes, there are therapies, but a constant reminder they are safe is an important one."

      The woman blushed at that. "I don't think I could hurt her."

      "Is that what you wanted to talk to us about?" Kino-san asked, "When Asuka-chan wasn't around?"

      "No, another problem that cropped up. Something else I didn't want Asuka to have to go through, and truth be told, her input wouldn't be helpful or useful."

      "I can imagine trying to sell that to her," Kino-san replied with a smirk, "I think she thinks she knows everything about everything, or can quickly find out. "

      "Agreed." He spotted Tomoe-san and Mizuno-san coming out of the bathroom. "Ah, good. I think you three need to see and understand some things. Then we can work out how we're going to deal with it."

      "Shouldn't Asuka-chan be here?" Tomoe-san asked.

      "No, she needs to sleep," Kino-san explained as they fell in behind the Commodore.

      He arrived at the makeshift conference room, and the people he'd called here. "Ladies, gentlemen, I'd like to introduce Kino Makoto, Tomoe Hotaru, Mizuno Ami," he said as the three young women entered and froze, "Doctor and Ami Mizuno, Doctor, Makoto, Kiima, and Hotaru Tomoe. I think we all have a lot to talk about."

      He looked from stunned expression to stunned expression. It seems the Tomoe Hotarus already knew, he realized. "Since some of you have already met, I'll go over the history of all of you. At least according to our best calculations and analysis."

      The quartet got out of the rented car and headed up the forest path to the shrine.

      "Over there," Rei commented without looking at her target, "They are going to cause trouble."

      "I think if we ignore them, they'll leave us alone," the captain said as she glanced at Jeff who was staring intently at them.

      The eight toughs suddenly turned around and ran off. Jeff blinked and shook himself. "I guess they heard their mommies calling them," he said.

      "Hold it!" Jeff said quietly.

      Rei found herself instantly obeying. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the other two had frozen. They're searching the area like I am, she thought, Without moving. But it isn't a physical enemy here, now I can feel it too.

      "There's something not right here," Rei said.

      "Not right like I'm not right, or something else?" Jeff asked.

      Rei frowned. "Like you, sorry."

      "Just quantifying your experiences," Jeff said in an amused tone.

      "So what do we doo?" Rei asked nervously. I wish I could be as stoic as the captain and the doctor, they just watch and listen, I doubt they're even worried, like I am. Worried nothing, I'm terrified. This is my calling and my mission and I'm still not sure I'm up to it, worthy of my heritage and my grandfather's training. Whatever is waiting for us is bigger than anything I've ever heard of outside of legends. Now that it's me, I'm not better than all those stories about the Sailor Scouts. All talk and no stick, that's me.

      "Get into your uniform," he said, "This is the place, and it's definitely not friendly."

      Rei gulped and slipped her satchel off her arm. Yes, I feel that too, she admitted, Belatedly, or does it ramp up so quickly that only a few meters makes a huge difference. I'm just glad we left Wondergirl and WonderParrot in the hotel. This is going to require subtlety. And somebody far braver than I am.

      She glanced over to where Jeff had shrugged out of his tweed jacket and unpacked a leather jacket covered in fringe. There's something tied in every strand! Rei realized as the captain helped her get into her uniform, Metal nuts, and bones and - "That's weird," she admitted to the captain.

      "Not compared with some of the things I've seen," Takarada-san told her as she helped Rei pull the raiment on, "Is it all right for me to be helping like this? I mean I'm not exactly religious."

      "I think the kamis will take your dedication to Japan into account," Rei said. I'm at least starting to talk like a priest, she thought, I wonder, how much of what has me and Davis spooked, has gotten to her? "Any previous experience with a shrine maiden's costume? You're very helpful," Rei remarked on the girls seeming expertise.

      "Sort of. My little sister considered becoming one. In the end, she decided against it. She wasn't truly religious. She was just interested in weird stuff and seeking the truth. And you can call me 'Keiko', if you wish."

      "So what is she, uh Keiko?" Rei asked, "A housewife with a pack of kids?"

      "A news reporter for a tabloid station," Takarada-san said darkly, "Out chasing monsters, ghosts and demons." She snorted her disgust. "If she were here, she'd run screaming into the forest."

      That makes two of us, Rei thought, as the two made the final adjustments to her complete raiment, Jeff appeared to have completed his transition from odd gentleman to master shaman.

      "So what do we do?" Rei asked.

      "We send these two back to the hotel to get their uniforms," Jeff said, "While the two of us attract the attention of whatever is out there."

      "I ain't afraid of no ghost," the doctor said defiantly, fingering a medallion on a chain around his neck.

      "Precisely. We want them coming in before they are afraid, while they're still curious, rather than angry."

      "Should we bring back weepy and her magic parrot?" Keiko-san asked.

      "No, their changeover should be complete. They'll probably be asleep for the rest of the day," Jeff said.

      The two officers moved back down the trail that led to the road and their rented car.

      Rei watched them leave, seeming to telescope the distance as the train had, leaving her feeling very much alone and frightened. "Okay, the civilians are out of the way," Rei said, trying to sound professional instead of scared, "What are we actually going to do?"

      "Be ready to be brave in the face of terror."

      "With anyone else, I'd think they were just being cryptic," Rei complained as she drew her harai gushi and prepared herself.

      "There's nothing wrong with being afraid, even being so terrified you can't hold your water. What you do after you're scared is what people remember. History doesn't record if Leonidas pissed himself on seeing the full might of the Persian army, only that he fought to the end."

      "Somehow I think someone would have mentioned it," Rei said, "Or noticed afterwards."

      "No neutral reporters on the battlefield in those days. Everybody was a soldier first."

      Makoto and Ami walked alongside each other. Both girls were burdened by much more than the groceries for their families' evening meal together. Kiima walked a short distance behind, lost in her own thoughts.

      "So, you, the genius girl of our school, were part of the Sailor Senshi," Makoto said.

      Ami jerked out of her own thoughts. "Yes. And you were too," Ami said, "The scary fighter of our school." Ami laughed, trying to defuse the girl's reputed bad temper. She glanced over at the girl, who looked more pensive and worried than angry.

      "That was . . . strange," Makoto admitted.

      She's struggling to find the words, Ami realized, I'm having the same problem. I'm no hero. If it came down to it, if it came to it, I'd probably run away. "Weird is the word," Ami teased, looking at Makoto and again seeing a faint smile or confusion, rather than the anger everyone had told her to expect. "You, I can imagine as a Sailor Senshi, but me in a fight?" She smiled at Makoto's angry growl. But the growl is all she has, Ami thought as she laughed, changing Makoto's frown into a worried smile, She's as afraid of me as I am of her. That's the really weird part. "My mom would . . . well, I'd be grounded until I finished my residency."

      Makoto got nose to nose with her. But I know the snarls are just a front, Ami wanted to say as she kept giggling at the much larger girl.

      "Oh! Am I'm a perfectly logical soldier?" she demanded, her lip quirking as she tried to stay looking and sounding angry, instead of laughing along with Ami.

      Ami cringed, but couldn't stop giggling. "You are the scary one who fights! If someone demanded my lunch money, there's nothing I could do."

      Makoto finally couldn't keep from smiling. She looked peeved, but in a sisterly way. "You could practice with Kiima and me."

      "In return for teaching someone how to study," Kiima tossed in, giving Ami another example of how peeved sisters looked at each other.

      "Hey! Your grades aren't any better than mine!" Makoto angrily countered.

      "But you work so hard to do that bad. I just come by it naturally." Kiima ignored Makoto's clenched fist and combative air.

      Ami broke the tension by giggling at them again.

      "Besides," Kiima tossed a verbal barb at Ami, "Someone around here needs to discover people outside of books."

      Ami blushed as the pair now laughed at her.

      "Maybe if you weren't so scared," Kiima said as she sidled up to Ami, "You could get a boyfriend."

      Why can't the world just swallow me up? she prayed.

      "This one still needs to just bash them over the head and drag them home by the hair," Kiima said, transferring title of most embarrassed to Makoto as she whispered to Ami, "She got a truly soulful kiss, and didn't even chase after the guy who gave it to her."

      "A Truly Soulful kiss?" Ami blushed deeply at the mere implications of it.

      Makoto seemed to be caught between homicide and suicide as she turned a bright red and glared at Kiima.

      "Chased him all over Tokyo on foot, then when she got caught at the bottom of the drainage canal. The water all around her."

      "The water all around her?" Ami almost demanded, blushing worse than Makoto was.

      "He swam down to her, seized her lips with his, and breathed his life into her."

      "You make it sound like we were doing something dirty!" Makoto finally shouted at her sister.

      Kiima smiled at Ami, making her terribly nervous. "Who knows what you could do underwater? Straining to hold that one breath while . . . "

      "While?!" Ami demanded, but Kiima just smiled.

      "What takes your breath away?" Kiima asked.

      Ami had dozens of thoughts about what could have happened. I don't think I could be more embarrassed if I found myself naked in front of the entire Diet!

      "Kiima might be a Senshi instead, or maybe a general," Ami said, "She knows how to motivate her troops." When neither girl laughed, Ami was afraid. I did offend them. "Sorry," she added quickly.

      "No. Look!" Kiima pointed.

      Professor Tomoe and her mother were standing behind Hotaru. The three faced a tall guy and two beautiful women with very odd hair colors. The taller woman had her hand extended towards Hotaru.

      "It's them!" Kiima breathed.

      Even Ami felt the fury radiating off the girl.

      "The ones from your dream?" Makoto asked as she set down her bags of groceries and cracked her knuckles.

      "Yes, the ones who steal Hotaru away," Kiima said as she started forward.

      Ami looked at her mother. She trembling, and holding onto Hotaru so hard I can see her white knuckles from here! Ami thought, That woman isn't going to take 'no' for an answer, not from my mother, not from anybody. Ami looked down at the bag of canned goods she was carrying. That's my mother, not someone else, Ami thought, then decided. She looked at Makoto and Kiima charging in, and she followed them. Two of them, three stealing Hotaru, now three of us. I guess I could have been a Senshi. She charged after them, picking the smallest of the three attackers.

      As Kiima approached the trio, Ami watched in amazement as two magnificent, white wings unfolded from her back. They suddenly lashed forward towards their targets. Dozens of white feathers embedded themselves in the attackers, breaking the spell that held Hotaru and the parents. While the attackers reeled under the attack, Makoto piled into the green-haired woman, fists and feet blurring.

      Kiima hit the tall man, laying him down, stomping and kicking him hard where her wings weren't beating him. Ami wasn't even thinking as she brought the heavy cloth bag up and around with both hands, impacting her target's side with a sickening crunch.

      That's a broken arm, if not broken ribs, Ami thought as she felt sick, then swept the bag in low, cutting the wounded girl's legs out from under her, And I did it. Ami immediately doubled over and threw up on the road. At least my mom and the Tomoes are safe, she thought as she heard Hotaru protesting being dragged into the house.

      As Ami raised her head, she saw that Makoto was astride her target and was still pounding with both bloody fists, a real snarl on her face. "Kidnapper! You won't steal my sister! You won't hurt my family!" Makoto was shouting at her victim as Kiima dragged her off the battered and bleeding woman.

      "Get out of here!" Kiima shouted as she struggled with the snarling, spitting wildcat she barely had a hold of. "Get out of here or I'll let her lose on all three of you!"

      The man and woman carried the battered, unconscious woman away as quickly as they could. They had a car and piled into it to speed their retreat.

      Ami could barely keep from retching again at the sight of Makoto, blood spattered on her arms, shirt and face, struggling against Kiima's grip. She looks like she'd chase after the car to get another crack at them, Ami thought, then remembered her part of the battle, I actually hurt someone, hurt them badly enough they'll need a doctor. Except, if I hadn't, they would have hurt my mom, to get Hotaru. If what those officers told us is true, could they be our enemies? People out to destroy us before we can become the Sailor Senshi again? "What do we do?" Ami asked, feeling very lost and worried.

      "We call Commodore Takarada and report this," Ami heard her mom answer.

      She's in her 'I'm a doctor, therefore I'm right' mode, Ami thought, Nobody can change her mind, and this time I think she's exactly right.

      "Then you pack a bag," her mom added, "Your house isn't safe. Ours is."

      "We wouldn't want to put you to any trouble," Professor Tomoe offered.

      Ami watched, utterly stunned as her mother glared in the direction the trio had fled. I almost think she wishes she could have been part of our fight, Ami thought.

      "No trouble," she said grimly, "No trouble at all."

      Ami shivered at her mother's combative tone.

      "Dad." The bloodied Makoto approached her father fearfully. "I know I promised no more fighting, but, but it was you, and Hotaru and, and I just couldn't stand there." She bowed her head. "I will accept my punishment."

      "I think you understand the reason for my order," the Professor said and he hugged Makoto, ignoring the blood staining his shirt, "You could have killed them. Protecting your home and family is different from a schoolyard brawl. I'm very proud of you."

      Ami smiled at Makoto weeping in her father's arms. She's not so mean and scary, Ami thought, Unless you attack her family, then she's worse than the rumors.

      "The Professor is not the only one proud of their daughter," her mother told Ami, stunning her. "Very efficiently done. One blow and that woman couldn't fight anymore. Then another to make sure. To be a surgeon, you'll have to get more comfortable with injured people, but that will come."

      "You don't - mind?" Ami asked.

      "If you decide to become Sailor Mercury again, you'll be grounded until you're ready to retire, but in this case no. I'm very proud of you. Just don't do it again, unless you absolutely have to."

      Ami relaxed when her mother stormed over to see to Makoto's injured hands. "You probably cut them on her teeth after you broke them. Not all the blood is hers."

      That's my mom, Ami thought as she went to check on Kiima and Hotaru.