Sailor Moon Fan Fiction / Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction ❯ Sailor Jupiter - Pilots in Nerima ❯ Sailor Jupiter - Pilots in Reflection ( Chapter 5 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
Sic Semper Morituri
Sailor Jupiter
(Pilots in Nerima)


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 II 11 - If the Button Is Pushed, There's No Runnin' Away

      Why am I doing this? Rei asked herself while bearding the last lion in its den, These people aren't terribly likable, with one exception. They are all obsessive, and insane by that measure. So why am I doing this? Because I can't leave well enough alone, that's why.

      She entered Ryoga's sickroom, and stared at the parchment-like skin and sunken eyes of the once-formidable marital artist. And I guess I like torturing people as much as Jeff does, she mentally added.

      "I have a deal to make with you," Rei told him, "One that will heal you and restore you to full strength, but there is a price."

      "I'll be able to pound that gaijin faker and repay him for what he's done to me!" the boy pronounced, then twisted and threw up in a conveniently placed bucket.

      Cancer is no fun, neither are the treatments for it, Rei thought, sickened at the sights and smells of sickness that pervaded the room, I can end this, and it would be the perfect justice.

      "I did mention the price," Rei said more calmly than she felt, "You'll have to give up all this 'It's all Fill In The Blank's fault', 'I'm just a helpless slave to fate and my own drives'. You can't blame me for being vengeful and stupid. It's all got to go."

      The boy's frown curled into a grimace. "Because of him, I've - "

      "If you'd really seen Hell, you wouldn't be boasting about it, insisting every one know about it. You'd take the memories and bury them in some cold, dark place and pray no one and nothing makes you ever look at them again. You wouldn't build your entire life around it."

      "What would you know," Ryoga muttered.

      "You're right," Rei said tightly, feeling her blood boiling inside her, "I'm not a self-involved narcissist who cries like a little baby that the world hasn't been nice to me. Well guess what, you lived through all but the last, now you're dying. I offered you a chance to redeem your worthless existence and do something for the real world, something of real worth! Instead, you're gonna sit here, puking in a bucket until you die, soiling yourself because you're too weak to run, no crawl for the toilet. Wondering when your hair or teeth are going to fall out." She advanced as she shouted at him and he retreated, "And you know what Akane's going to do when she's finally rid of you? She may cry a little for a friend she lost a long time ago, but she's only going to feel relieved, because she won't be forced to deal with a pig anymore." She'd backed him into the corner and was shaking with rage as she hissed at him, "A pig who thought he was a man. But you aren't a man, even before Jusenkyo, you were a pig. Rooting around in garbage, never able to raise your head to see the sun. Never able to tell the difference between a fine meal and carrion." Rei leaned close to the shivering Ryoga. "Why don't you hit me? Watching you shatter you hand on my chin would be hilarious. Your old friend Ranma may have only been a half-man, and Jeff isn't human at all, but they are both more man than you could ever hope to be in your wildest dreams!" Rei turned and left, leaving Ryoga gasping with impotent rage.

      "Commodore," Tatewaki Kuno watched the man leave as he reported on the phone in the Neko-chan, "I've heard you are headed south, and you have another task set for me. A little problem you need my help with. What a coincidence, so do I. I'll explain when you arrive." He hung up the phone and bowed low to Cologne. "I thank you for your hospitality. I find that there is much I should have done in my previous life, and must continually make amends for it."

      "If what I've heard is right," the old woman said, "You may have paid your debts and then some."

      Tatewaki bowed again. "I will not serve as kitchen staff or a waitress, no matter what my debt is."

      Kasumi had been practically dancing through the house on her restored legs, shocking Mirei by duplicating the dance Jeff had done with a then-crippled Kasumi, substituting her grandmother for her part in the dance. The old woman had squawked, then accepted as Kasumi had. How long ago was it? she wondered, My `friends` abandoned me, and my enemies saved me. It shouldn't be like that.

      She still felt a darkness in the house and rushed to trace it down. She spotted a very dour Rei going into the furo, and on impulse, slipped in behind her. The girl had been wearing her miko robes, now she pulled them off as if she hated, yet still respected them. She sat on the bath stool and wetted one of the roughest cloths, the ones Kasumi used to scrub down the furo and the tile, and Rei began scrubbing herself with it.

      She's going to take off her skin, if she keeps that up, Kasumi realized as she crept into the furo from the changing room. Rei had put the cloth aside to drench herself with a bucket of ice-cold water. Her skin's already red where she's been scrubbing, and she's already drawn blood, Kasumi thought as she approached with a handful of the softest washcloths they had, I guess I get to share my one indulgence.

      When Rei put the cloth in the bucket to rinse it, Kasumi put her arms around Rei, pinning her elbows to her sides, and gently kissed the abraded skin. Rei nearly jumped when she felt the touch, but Kasumi was much stronger and held her firmly.

      "You cannot wash that away from the outside," Kasumi explained as she pulled one arm loose to slide Rei's hair aside, and began washing her back. Gentle even strokes seemed to calm the girl. "I know, I've tried."

      "You?" Rei asked as the abandoned her struggles.

      "Yes, me, the truth this time, not an imp's test of you," Kasumi said and smiled at the miko, "I did this until I realized that Akane just wouldn't listen, and Nabiki didn't care. I thought I'd failed, but I eventually realized that I couldn't `save` them. I couldn't save myself, I couldn't save anyone. The insanity would run its course, and I couldn't change that. Once I realized that, once I realized that against their beliefs and egos, reason had no chance, life became endurable. I quit punishing myself for others continuing to fail the exact same way, time after time, after time."

      "But I can help people. I have!" Rei protested weakly, unable to struggle against Kasumi's gentle, yet iron grip, and unable to resist the soothing tone of Kasumi's voice, or the almost ritual cleansing.

      "But not everyone, and not everything. I've read the news. Some of Beryl's victims died."


      "Soon after we . . . kidnaped them, Jeff arrived, politely requesting that we return them. He hadn't yet learned we literally couldn't. He was as calm and rational as a practiced zaibatsu lawyer. Father was adamant, but refused to tell the truth why he was adamant. Although Davis-san argued well and capably, neither father would let go of the idea that it was now Jeff-san's and Asuka-chan's responsibility that Ranma be returned to them. They angered Davis-san, and me, by throwing in that he could keep Nabiki. I think that broke the dam, because Davis-san apologized, explaining that he'd tried to be civil, but since that didn't work, he'd use force. Both fathers immediately prepared for a physical fight. Instead, Davis-san laid a curse on our and the Saotome family, that there would be no fruitful union of any kind between our houses, while Genma and father were the head of their respective families; and that he'd be taking the matter up with the clan heads in Fukuoka and Kamagawa, to rectify the situation, or throw both entire families out of the clans."

      Rei gasped at that.

      "Ryoga-san, did not take that well, but Jeff paralyzed him with a look. Then Jeff left, and both fathers took Ryoga and Akane on a training trip, leaving me to defend their actions to Saotome Eijo, and several others of the families. Father was the eldest surviving male Tendo, so he couldn't be displaced, he just didn't want to have to defend his position, or the actions he'd taken." Kasumi hung her head, and loosened her grip enough for Rei to turn around and embrace her. "I couldn't believe all the trouble Genma had stirred up with his family, and Nodoka's, before they were even married. It was not good or pleasant, and father taking himself and his heir away at such a time, looked absolutely terrible to the clan heads' representatives. Eijo told me to my face that he expected Genma and Nodoka to act like that, but they had heard better things about the Tendos."

      "You didn't do anything wrong," Rei told her, but Kasumi wasn't listening.

      "Unfortunately, that news only drove the fathers closer together. I still haven't told them about the clan's opinion of the art we all practice, or practiced, and why, despite Ranma's and Akane's prowess and admirers, we don't have students pounding down the door demanding to be taught. It seems that despite technically being the union of our families' schools, Jeff and Asuka-chan are the only `honorable` practitioners of our families' arts, and are thus outcasts from a band of outcasts." Kasumi chuckled slightly at that, then focused on the girl she had in her arms, who had her arms around her.

      "Jeff is a martial artist?" Rei asked, "Is there anything he can't do?" she added disgustingly.

      "You saw in the Dojo one thing he can't do," Kasumi told her and chuckled as Rei blushed all over. "Yes, Ranma and Nabiki trained him. He's not in the class of the martial artists of Nerima, neither is Asuka, but that still puts both of them orders of magnitude beyond most other people." Kasumi kissed Rei's forehead, and hugged her tightly, "But why were you in here, trying to flay yourself alive?"

      Rei put her head on Kasumi's shoulder and hugged her tightly.

      "I can comfort a friend. That I can do," Kasumi whispered in Rei's ear.

      "I hurt you, and when I went to try to make some recompense, I attacked Ryoga. I already know I hurt Jeff-san, and whoever among the Senshi was his sweetheart. I try to be good, but I only wind up being abrasive."

      "So you abrade yourself. You aren't a full priestess, and you aren't an adult, despite your powers and responsibilities. You are a junior high student, and no one, not me, not Jeff, not the kami themselves expect you to be right all the time, every time. Watch Jeff, he avoids things he knows he'll fail at, or that make him uncomfortable, like the plague. Asuka-chan sweeps into the room demanding to be the center of attention, so woe is you if you ignore her, but don't get close, or she'll drive you away any way she can. I don't even want to think what would happen to someone who continued to ignore her, what she'd do to get her, or his attention. While they are geniuses and seem to turn everything they touch to gold, like Midas, they are not happy people." Rei nodded and Kasumi continued, "Genma and father blame others, Akane denies all responsibility, but the one who tries, and fails at new things, is Hino Rei, and you have to love her for that." Kasumi hugged her, and felt her tense up. "Not that way you hentai," Kasumi whispered, then smirked at Rei's growl.

      "You are lonely," Rei told her, now Kasumi tensed, "When did you last hug your sister, or tell her you loved her, for fear of her reaction?"

      Kasumi smiled sadly. "Too long. I . . . "

      Should I tell her? Kasumi wondered, If we are going to be teammates, I should.

      "I don't think I love her. I don't think I even like her anymore. I care for her, and I don't want anything bad to happen to her . . . but I don't care about her. She's almost a stranger to me, and I fear I am to her. When she learns that I am a Senshi and she isn't, I believe . . . " Kasumi paused as she minutely examined Rei's expressionless face. "I believe you planned that! And you call me an imp!!"

      "She lacks the qualifications," Rei said primly, "And you have them." She wilted a bit under Kasumi's placid gaze. "Okay, after I saw how Akane treated you, I had to do something about it. I thought Jeff was lying or telling tales about it all."

      "And you wanted a big sister?" Kasumi asked, letting Rei relax a bit, "Someone to braid your hair and give you hugs and tell you that the world isn't as terrible as you're afraid it is?"

      "Yes," Rei admitted.

      "Okay, deal." Kasumi kissed Rei's forehead. "But I expect you to at least listen to me."

      "Yes, onee-chan," Rei teased.

      But Kasumi didn't smile, she looked wistful. "It didn't hurt as much as the wounding hurt. Especially because you, and Mirei, and Jeff stayed with me. Having the demon rip me open that way, didn't hurt as much as watching my father, my dear, brave sister, and the other valiant martial artists running without so much as a backward glance, despite my screaming for their help." She picked Rei up easily, and sat on the edge of the furo, putting Rei in her lap. "To be able to walk and move as I once could, to know a larger world calls me, is that not worth a few moments of pain that even now I barely remember. Don't trouble yourself for inflicting pain on others, when they need to be ripped open and the infection revealed. I was not, nor will I ever be my mother. She was married by my age, and my father was the one with ambition and vision. Unfortunately, now his visions are all he has, and they no longer include me. I want more, I have always wanted more, but I could never have it. My revenge was to not force Akane to accept the training to be the housewife she'll need to be. Passive-aggressive, I let her win those arguments, and thus made her incapable of achieving the goals she truly needed. That wasn't right either. I also failed to discipline Akane and Nabiki as mother would have. Making them even less attractive, and ultimately dooming both of them to lives alone and unloved. Nabiki would have been a trophy, while her looks lasted, but she never had the discipline to carry through any grand schemes to make her wealthy, and Akane became convinced that tired karate tricks made her a good martial artist. That was my evil, and all the time I basked in the praise of being gentle and loving, while I sabotaged and hated those who praised me."

      "Now I know you're fooling me. Nobody would fall for those tricks, not forever," Rei replied, "I've heard of Nabiki a little, she's a good skilled warrior."

      "Now," Kasumi corrected, "Before, she was the heartless mercenary, making everyone dance on a string, never seeing she was dancing to my tune."

      "So, if this is not your place anymore?" Rei asked cautiously, "Is the new place I've provided, any better? We died out there, and I have no idea why we returned. I . . . I led us to our deaths, and I have no idea why the men I hurt that way didn't simply beat me half to death and throw me naked and bleeding out in the street."

      "Because of their character. Men, who would catch and hold a Senshi's heart, would never do such a thing, even to a true enemy," Kasumi counseled, "I know the two involved. They might kill instantly and without remorse, but torture . . . not without a very good and entirely non-personal reason. The fate of the nation perhaps. I know a good deal more about the Senshi's operations than you, but I'll keep those to myself, for a little while. You need to accept that everyone makes mistakes. Not everyone learns from them."

      "Thank you."

      "You have such pretty skin." Kasumi ran her finger down Rei's side, eliciting giggles. "And so sensitive."

      "Stop that! I'm ticklish," Rei demanded as she jumped out of Kasumi's lap.

      "And you tried to ruin it," Kasumi said darkly as she stood and drew her henshin pen.

      Rei dove for her robes and pulled out her pen, Kasumi let Rei see her `angry` expression slip for a moment. "Destroying such a thing of beauty is an offense against men and the gods! For home and hearth, in the name of Vesta! Vesta Asteroid Power Make-up! You will be punished!"

      Rei had also transformed, but couldn't dodge the questing fingers of the newest Senshi. "Wait a second! You're a Senshi too!" Rei shouted with a gleam in her eye, "Which means- !" Rei launched her own counterattack.

      The bag was yanked off the man's head. There is a cheapness to the man that goes beyond the slightly out of date suit and tie, but a cheapness of the soul.

      "I told Tsukino-san what would happen if he called in the cops."

      Tatewaki stepped into the light so the blackmailer could see him: his blade resting on his shoulder and the glare of righteous indignation on his face. The combination made the cheap man squirm, despite the ropes binding him to the chair.

      "He believed you," Kuno said, placing the wooden blade under the man's chin and lifting it, "Which is why he called me."

      "Some cosplayer? Or are you a private detective? The Tokyo cops eat gumshoes like you for breakfast," he sneered, and pulled his head off the bokken, "Go ahead, beat me up. I've got the stuff stashed with a couple of shysters. Two-bit crooks with fancy educations, but they stay bought. Anything happens to me, poor Tsukino's baby gets hauled off by the military for the bounty. I didn't think 5000 yen an week was asking too much."

      "Except it wouldn't be enough, eventually," Kuno said haughtily, "With fools such as you, it never is. The Westerners talk of 'Killing the Goose That Lays The Golden Eggs', such is the way of greedy fools," Kuno lectured, then stared closely at the man, "The military you say. What would the defenders of our nation and its honor have to do with a mere salaryman? 'Bounty on Tsukino's baby'? Perhaps he thought you mad, and afeared for his family."

      "Don't play stupid. She's Sailor Moon. General Horai was offering big cash for info. I figure he might be willing to pay more for the real thing. All I wanted was a little."

      "Then you should procure a more trustworthy countenance. Even Tsukino knew you could not be trusted, even if you have convinced yourself you could."

      The man frowned. "What gives a dog-licker like you the right to stick your nose in my business? She's nothing to you, now you've got her in real trouble. General Horai will pay big money for a live Sailor Senshi, BIG money." The man smiled at Kuno, who kept a stoic expression.

      "General Horai retired," Kuno told the man, and smiled, "Rear Admiral Lower Half Takarada commands the unit now."

      "So I'll sell her to Takarada."

      "What makes you think he doesn't already know?" another voice asked. Before the crook could answer, he was whirled to face a very angry man in a Japanese Naval Self-Defense uniform. The man's eyes went wide as he read 'Takarada' on the nameplate. "Why would I pay to have you mess up my assets?" Takarada asked, his eyes practically burning holes in the terrified blackmailer. "Get how he found out, and who he told. I don't care how. I don't care if he lives through it, now get that information." Takarada never took his eyes off the man, even to glance at the stain spreading across the man's slacks.

      "The shaman might find him more cooperative and tractable," Tatewaki said, "After he has died. We might start there."

      "No, start while he's alive. If he gives you any trouble, he can have a 'dreadful accident' later."

      "Bury him where no one will ever find him?" Kuno asked for clarification.

      "We have exorcists, do whatever it takes." Takarada stood and straightened his uniform, before marching out of the room.

      Kodachi Kuno's laugh chilled him, even knowing he wasn't the focus or intended recipient.

      "In deference to the Admiral's silly wishes," Kodachi offered, then laughed again, "I'll let you tell us everything, and then I can have my fun verifying it. Ho ho ho!" The sound of a dental drill nearly drown out her laughter, and nearly brought the Admiral to flight.

      Vesta and Mars stepped over the unconscious Soun and Akane Tendo, who lay at the door to the bathroom. Soun's nosebleed from seeing the two Senshi locked in `combat`, had been mostly blotted up. In opposite corners of the main room, sat Nodoka and Genma Saotome. Nodoka was shivering because she was wearing a panda skin rug, Genma was shivering because he was not, sitting as a human and wearing his gi as if he feared nakedness somehow. Sitting in the middle of the room, sipping tea, were Jeff and Mirei. Jeff seemed to be showing Mirei how to properly sharpen a series of knives.

      "He heals from minor injuries when he transforms. Ranma did that all the time," Vesta told Mars, who put two and two together and shuddered at the conclusion.

      "Just a way that he can pay back for all the costs he's brought to the household," Jeff suggested.

      Kasumi and Rei detransformed, Kasumi nodded, then she sniffed at Rei's traveling clothes. "You should have those cleaned, before you go on the train with them."

      "I think we'd better hurry," Rei suggested, "I don't know how long they'll stay quiet."

      "Then you can leave those here for me to wash, and borrow some of mine."

      Rei leaned over Akane. "I'd better borrow some of Akane's," she said loud enough to penetrate Akane's stupor, "After all, I'm only built like a junior high school student."

      "Wait a minute!" Akane protested and sat up, to discover that Rei actually wore Sailor Moon panties.

      "Hentai!" Rei screamed and pulled her skirt off Akane's head, "Pervert!" She slapped Akane across the face. "Lecher!" Slap. "Peeping Thomasina!" Slap. "Pupil and follower of Happosai!" Rei slapped her once more, and shook out her bruised and battered hand. "Now you're going to steal a poor miko's only underwear and make me walk the streets of Tokyo without! You're heartless, and cruel, and perverted," Rei wailed as Akane slowly fractured and crumbled to dust.

      "I thought William Shatner was Canadian," Jeff commented as Kasumi led a tearful Rei up to Akane's room to pick out an outfit.

      Takarada looked at his fellow officers, the cabinet ministers and other VIPs, who all now offered respectful bows. One in particular ended his bow a bit more swiftly, because he had another honor to bestow.

      "Businessman Horai, I see you have adjusted well to civilian life," Takarada said, and bowed to his old superior.

      "If you would so honor me." The former General humbly offered a small box, as a junior would offer his business card to a superior, in the open box were a pair of twin five-pointed stars. "I never lost a man in training, or in combat. If they have any luck in them, I'm afraid you may need it."

      "I would be honored," Takarada said reverently, taking the box and bowing.

      Horai and Rear Admiral Takarada's flag captain removed the single stars from his collar, and replaced them with the twin stars. A moment later, he let another well-wisher remove his coat, and replace it with one with the correct shoulder boards and sleeve stripes.

      "I almost think you're girding me for single-combat," he joked with his old superior.

      "Let your old-friend provide you with a good warhorse," Horai assured him, "We'd heard about your new designs, and I think I have just the vehicle for the test bed. At least the first that can be ready quickly, say within a week."

      "A week," Takarada whispered, "Asuka hasn't completed the full power tests."

      "From all I've heard, the Babylon Gun barrel sections the U.S. captured can be modified and I have a team of eager young engineers who have already done the work. It won't be properly military, but we may not have time for that." Horai left him to take a seat closer to the MITI minister, while Takarada took the seat offered by an undersecretary in the Self-Defense group.

      What news do they have, and why do I think I'm going to be right in the middle of it? he wondered.

      With a goodbye bento in hand, Jeff and Rei dissolved the wards which had surrounded the house, and moved out.

      "I still think it's a bad idea," Jeff commented when he was sure Kasumi couldn't hear him.

      "Then why didn't you stop me?" Rei asked, then was tackled to the ground.

      "Sorry," Sailor Vesta shouted back as she flew just barely overhead, carrying Mirei and her chair to the market.

      "Great, there goes our secret identities," Rei complained as she stood up.

      "That wasn't why I was objecting," Jeff pointed out, "This is Nerima. No one will notice. They didn't notice when the Americans nuked the place back in '45."

      "The Americans - wait, I've heard that joke before. From you!"

      "Ah, your old memories are returning."

      An old woman on stilts jumped out of the alley behind them. "I've got you now!"

      The pair ducked into a different alley before she could turn around.

      "Who or what are we running from?" Rei asked as they sprinted away, "If you couldn't take her, I certainly could have."

      "Not running from, running to. We need a few things before we meet her again."

      "Like what?" Rei asked as she realized they were headed toward the Nerima Canal.

      "Was it eye of newt and tongue of frog, or toe of frong?" Jeff asked, "Never mind, we'll use the whole frong."

      "Frog." Rei just rolled her eyes as she ran alongside him.

      Asuka fussed and busied herself with the last minute checks. "Now I wish Koda-chan were here," she mumbled as she made sure everything was perfect.

      The assembly of pipes and fittings didn't look much like a weapon of war, except the overall cannon-like shape. Asuka glanced at the deep freeze unit and sighed. "One test, and it's with this lash-up. Raccoon would laugh himself sick."

      The officers from the headquarters in Tokyo and the local technical officers were not mixing. Nor were the curious combat or support officers. Asuka grimaced as 'Plasma Boy' whispered to his supporters from the capital. Asuka marked each one of those faces into her mind. We'll see how they deal with something that actually works, she thought, And at less cost that the half-effective plasma weapons. Especially considering Tomoe-sensei's tank shells let them use their existing weapons as support. But we need something much heavier.

      "Gentlemen, and ladies, safety glasses," she told them in her best charming tone. She gestured at the target, a massive, 1.75 meter thick slab of the very best armor plate that Japan could produce. "While the main test is the penetration of metaphysical protections. The Admiral decided a practical test against a more typical defense would be more appropriate," she told them, "That thickness of armor would stop penetration by the American TOW, the new 120 mm Rheinmetall gun using DM-33 sabot rounds, the 9M119 Svir or 9M119M Refleks, called AT-11 Sniper by NATO, or any known weapon in the ex-Soviet arsenal."

      She put her gloves on and carefully extracted the exomer firing cavity from the deep freeze, and hastily fitted it into the gun tube. Sealing the breach, she put the flashtube `igniter` in place. "Visors, don't look at the flash!" she told them, lowering her flash visor, waiting three seconds, before firing the weapon.

      The frame absorbed the remarkably light recoil, and the beam crashed into the target. Asuka removed her goggles and looked at her handiwork. Even Plasma Boy is stunned, Asuka thought as the visitors stared at the 100mm hole burned clear through the massive block of composite armor.

      "As you can see, the effect is quite impressive," she said as she gestured then stepped away from the sagging `gun tube`, "And why we wanted specially designed systems to fire it. Professor Tomoe's shells would allow a regular tank to fire five or six such rounds, but beyond that, a gun tube would have to be replaced or the droop would make the weapon unusable, and even dangerous for the crew and surrounding troops, or civilians."

      "But what effect would that have on mystically protected items?" Plasma Boy demanded.

      "The same effect it had on UFO6389, as the creature I encountered and defeated near Sapporo, and the same creature that appeared just north of here, is called. A test firing of a larger-scale, but less refined weapon utterly destroyed not only the target, but it immolated two others that were in close support. That has been recorded by Combat Cameramen of the Self-Defense Forces. As was read in the briefing, this was meant as a test against conventional targets. While hardly suitable as a one-shot weapon, due to the need to keep the firing cavities at -56 C, or 217K until used. It does show the reliability of the basic concept, and shouldn't require an graduate-degreed engineer to keep the weapon functioning in the field."

      Take that Plasma Boy! Asuka let her dazzling smile say for her.

      "Properly trained, any tech sergeant or specialist could deploy and maintain the weapon, and any common soldier could fire it," Asuka said, smiling all the while.

      Okay, maybe the Russians did teach me something, she admitted to herself.

      She watched as the functionaries swarmed over both the ruined weapon and the destroyed target. She kept up the charm offensive and answered the inane questions with the utmost politeness.

      Poor, poor Plasma Boy, if even a doofus elected-official can understand the basic principles, then they know anyone can, she thought and smiled as she demonstrated the load and fire procedure for the fourth time, But there's still enough mystery they respect it.

      "The exomer binds free radicals and pseudo-virtual particles in an excited state. Keeping the exomer frozen denies it the initiation energy to de-excite, and release the tremendous stored energy."

      "Like a . . . spring?" the Dietman asked.

      "More like a brick frozen to the side of Tokyo Tower in the middle of winter. It won't come loose on its own, but turn on a heat lamp, the ice melts and down comes the brick. Smash." She clapped her hands and made the men jump.

      Keep smiling, every second you keep smiling and treating their stupidity as common ignorance, you win more chances that this thing will get built as you want it, she reminded herself as she prepared the standard explanation of the effect of a laser, or a searchlight of the same wattage.

      "But how is a laser, or Maser in this case, more powerful than a searchlight or microwave oven?" one of the aides asked.

      He's as dumb as his boss and more telegenic, must be destined for greatness, she thought as she forced herself to keep smiling.

      "If you can tell us how to get them to walk into a microwave oven, I'd be glad to adopt that weapon system," she said sweetly, and laughed with the others, "But until that happy event occurs, we'll have to be able to hit them at a time and place of our convenience."

      "Hello girls," Professor Tomoe hailed his daughters as he entered the house, "I hope you are all packed, because it looks like they're going to offer me the position full-time."

      He watched Kiima and Hotaru come down the stairs, but couldn't see or hear Makoto.

      "Is your sister fixing a lunch for the rest of us? Maybe they'll give her a job in the canteen," he said and smiled, then watched his daughter's grins freeze on their faces. "What happened?"

      "Oh, Makoto's fine," Kiima said quickly. Too quickly. "She's just - "

      "Out," Hotaru cut in.

      He raised an eyebrow and stared at them, a clear signal he knew they weren't telling him the whole truth.

      The girls looked guiltier by the second as he let the silence do all his work for him.

      Rei stared at the wrinkled old woman who'd leapt out behind them. That's the third time, she thought, We're behind you, you daft old bat! Why don't I just scream at her? Because a proper miko doesn't do that sort of thing.

      "Why village elder, what are you doing in Tokyo?" she asked of the woman instead.

      Jeff said something in Chinese. Rei only got something about strangling frogs. She unzipped her satchel and waited to play her part.

      "AH! Thought you could sneak up on a defenseless old woman? Did you?" the prune on stilts accused once she'd whirled around.

      "I told you she didn't have any real powers, that she was defenseless," Jeff whispered to Rei, although the old woman heard, in a louder tone, "If you're so defenseless, maybe the council should let you retire."

      "Don't get smart, sonny."

      "Too late," Rei murmured, but kept her terrified expression firmly plastered on her face.

      "She isn't going to hurt us? Is she?" Rei squeaked and nearly gagged.

      "Ha!" The old woman brandished a bedraggled pink and purple cat at them. The displeased feline gave Jeff and Rei a desperate look, before bowing its head. "I have Shampoo and have her trapped in her cursed form. You will get Elder Cologne to meet at the place specified in my challenge, or her great granddaughter's life is forfeit!" the woman cackled, before falling into a coughing fit. The cat tried to make a break for it, but the old woman latched on with both hands. "Ha! Still got some fight, but you're too young to fool the likes of me!"

      But Jeff and I are even younger, Rei ached to shout at her. She and Jeff exchanged frowns, then resumed their roles.

      "Oh noes!" Rei exclaimed, "What ever shall we do?!" She put her hands on her cheeks to accent her helpless feeling.

      Jeff approached the old woman, while Rei kept him between her and the Elder. Rei gave an occasional shiver. If I keep looking at her, I'll laugh and give the game away, she thought.

      "That's a very good likeness," Jeff said as he peered at the cat, "But it clearly isn't Shampoo."

      That woke the cat up. I can almost believe it's trying to plead with us, to beg us for help, Rei thought of the cat's frantic, almost human-like movements, But whoever heard of a talking cat?

      "This -" Jeff pulled an almost identical cat from Rei's satchel. "- is Shampoo."

      The cat in the Elder's hand went limp and stared in stunned shock as the cat sitting on Jeff's hands bowed to the old woman. The old woman looked nearly as shocked as Shampoo-neko. "It's the tufts of fur that give it away. The tufts in Shampoo's ears are white at the center and pink around the edges, the tufts between the pads are a darker purple than the rest, but it is a hard thing to check for."

      Even the cat is checking itself out, Rei thought as she watched the Elder's captive look at its own feet and tried to look in it's ears. The Elder merely stared dumbfounded.

      "Besides, Shampoo was thrown out of the tribe. If Elder Cologne admits she's there to save a non-existent great-granddaughter, she loses face, if she lets the girl be killed, she gains face, but loses her favorite once-descendant. I think Shampoo wouldn't like that." Jeff tossed the cat, which instantly went from a preening bookend, to several kilos of fangs and fury. The other cat immediately freed itself and savaged the old woman, enveloping all three of them in a cloud of dust.

      Rei barely noticed Jeff zipping her satchel shut. Jeff pulled on two heavy leather gauntlets that had been in the satchel, and reached into the cloud. He extracted one cat, and the old woman. He tossed the old woman back into the cloud from which feline fury still rang.

      He waited, tapping his foot, while Rei tried to stifle her laughter and her thoughts. He reached in again, got the old woman, and tossed her back in. "It's the details that get you every time," he told Rei, he reached in again, got the furious cat which still wanted a piece of the battered Elder."

      "As I can see it." He gingerly handed the quiescent cat back to the Elder. "I can deliver Shampoo, and the message, and let Elder Cologne do as she sees fit. Or leave you to discuss it with Shampoo, your choice."

      The Elder wiped the blood from her face, and smiled at Jeff. "What makes you think you have Shampoo?" the old woman asked then cackled, "Young whipper-sniper."

      "That's whipper-snapper to you, you broken-down, old fraud!"

      "Whipper-sniper is correct," Rei offered.

      The old woman wasn't listening. "Old fraud!?" she snarled, "Then why do I have your precious Shampoo?" She held up her cat. "Thought you could out fox me? I realized what you were doing, and switched cats on you! Ha hahahaha!"

      "And that's why I switched cats on you!" Jeff crowed.

      "That's why I switched cats again!"

      "I don't believe you."

      "Jeffery please!"

      I want to get out of here sometime before the last train, she thought, So I'm jumping ahead to the next scene.

      Rei bowed at his feet. "She'll kill that poor man. He was just a bum, but he doesn't deserve that fate. Please. I'll beg Elder Cologne to save my friend."

      I can practically hear the old woman sneering, Rei thought as she looked up at Jeff, tears streaming down her face, Maidenly tears melt all but the hardest hearts.

      "Very, well," Jeff said in a defeated tone, "Let's -"

      "No!" the old woman insisted, "I keep both cats!"

      "No!" Rei shouted.

      "Thought you could trick me girly? Soft heads like his may fall for that, but I've used that trick a time or two myself."

      Rei tried to picture that, then tried to keep from vomiting on the street.

      "Both cats." Jeff gingerly handed over the cat he held, glowering at the old woman the whole time. "There will be a reckoning for this!" he thundered, and even the Heavens grew still at his pronouncement.

      How does he do that?! Rei wondered as the woman cackled and walked away.

      Rei and Jeff marched swiftly out of the area. They were silent for several blocks. Rei waited.

      "That trick with the sky?" Rei asked.

      "Kuno taught me. He usually gets a thunder clap, I get a profound silence, and it only works for me in Nerima. I 'have much to learn about the deeper secrets.'"

      "So there is something you can't do right," Rei teased as she unzipped her satchel to let Shampoo-neko out so she could breathe. The cat immediately launched into a scolding of both her rescuers.

      Better we don't know, Rei thought as the cat growled, yowled, and shook its paws at them.

      Jeff took the cat out of the bag, ignoring the grumbling and complaining, and draped Rei's miko robes over her. Shampoo began to fill and in the shirt's case, overfill the costume.

      Shampoo's attempt to go from indecency to mere decolletage should be embarrassing, only I'm a little jealous too, Rei thought as some tape solved the problem.

      "Now crazy Hairdo try something else," Shampoo complained, "Why not you and Fire Skirt blow her up or something?!"

      FIRE SKIRT! Rei nearly screamed aloud.

      "Because what I had in mind was much more fun," Jeff said eagerly.

      "Give her an allergy to cats?" Rei asked.

      "Ha!" Shampoo replied, "She only afraid of one thing. Raccoon knows, she afraid of - "

      "Frogs," Rei said, while staring at Jeff as if contemplating setting him on fire, for the good of all Japan.

      Shampoo stared at Rei in amazement, "Racoon tell you?"

      "No," Rei said as she approached a conclusion, "Circumstances informed me. Now I understand why we spent an hour collecting - "

      "Three, two - " the horrified scream in the distance cut off Jeff's count down. "I think it went off early." He frowned.

      Shampoo looked at Rei. "Is Raccoon always crazy, or just around Shampoo?"

      "This is one of his good moments, dear," Rei said and patted the girl's shoulder, and looked away as the tape came loose. She felt Shampoo press up against her.

      "You not like Pervert Girl?" the Amazon purred.

      Rei felt the vibrations through the contact.

      "So certain everybody getting wild nookie, while she not. But all want her?"

      Rei stepped back suddenly, blushing furiously. "Yes, I've met the Virgin Goddess, and I am not similar to her, nor do I enjoy her company," Rei explained quickly, "And no, it's not -"

      "Shampoo very beautiful," the girl purred as she approached Rei again, "And bubbly not just refer to Shampoo's - "



      Rei stammered denials, and Shampoo broke down in laughter. "Shampoo - turn - into - cat, 'Want - boyfriend' - skirt - fighters - turn into - noisy - statues," Shampoo managed in her gales of laughter.

      Rei sighed and hung her head, It's almost worse they are my friends doing this. I can imagine an enemy doing this, and how I'd come apart. She glanced over and noted, He's hiding a smile, not well, but he is trying.

      Shampoo calmed down, "Temple clear, Lightning Lass, Shampoo and old pervert clear out all bad men." She sidled up to Jeff and purred, "Lightning Lass is Lightning Lass again, very excited and excitable."

      Jeff said something, presumably in Chinese, then repeated in Japanese, "Passionate?"

      "Yes, very passionate . . . and still crazy. She take Happosai as teacher."

      "He fainted," Rei said as she stared down at the prone figure.

      Shampoo waved her hand. "Is easy to understand, once you know Happosai. Bad mens gone from temple, safe for Fire Skirt to go home, to grabby priest, so maybe Happosai you used to."

      "Lightning Lass and Fire Skirt?" Rei said to divert the conversation away from her grandfather being similar to anyone who could make Jeff faint.

      "Fire Hair - Asuka Langley - say it first," Shampoo explained as she hauled Jeff to his feet and slung him easily over her shoulder, "Fire Skirt, should have made Fire Skirt take coat. Sailor Mars, powers of fire, wears really short skirt, Fire Skirt."

      I'm glad I didn't point out it implies something else, but that would make me sound too much like the Virgin Goddess, Rei thought and kept silent on that subject, So there are more Senshi, and this Happosai is overly, friendly, like grandfather. Somehow I don't think things can get much worse.

      "I did make Kasumi a Senshi," Rei threw in, and smirked as Shampoo nearly dropped Jeff on his head, "She was off terrorizing the market with her new powers and - "

      "Costume," Jeff said as he slid off Shampoo's shoulder.

      "Very funny! You want to break Shampoo's brain, you nearly do it. Happosai teach Senshi, Kasumi is Senshi, next is wedding of stupid Mousse and Spatula Girl, then Shampoo shave her head and become a Christian monk." Then she brightened. "Maybe airen no afraid of cats!?"

      "His reaction to cats is . . . different, but it's the shoggoth Shampoo-neko will have to worry about," Jeff said.

      "Elders still not give up. If not get Shampoo today, maybe tomorrow," Shampoo said sadly.

      "They will go after someone else next," Jeff counseled, "Someone they think is easier. It would be best if they `accidentally` went after one of the new enemies. That way, their ferocity and brute hard-headedness can work to our advantage."

      "Is always Raccoon, sneaky plans always," Shampoo whispered to Rei, "Raccoon sneaks up on eggs to fry them." She giggled at Rei almost believing her.

      " 'Let's you and him fight'?" Rei asked, "That sounds like your strategy."

      "Let you and him fight, while I sight in many, many, too too many cannons, then we talk nice," Shampoo corrected, "That his strategy, all guns set to TOT, all shells arrive as one."

      "Yes, that does sound like the strategy he would employ."

      " 'Cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them, cannon in front of them volley'd & thunder'd'" Shampoo recited in superb English.

      "And you're the target," Rei replied.

      "Where's Makoto?" Dr. Tomoe asked, after he'd ordered his two daughters to the family room and sat them down, he remained standing, "Is she playing Sailor Senshi out there? No lies, either of you, I can tell."

      "She's . . . practicing," Kiima explained, "We . . . "

      "Before she died, she had a boyfriend, a nice boy," Hotaru blurted out.

      The Professor stared at Hotaru, but caught the look of despair on Kiima's face. Okay, that's a genie that can't go back in the bottle, he thought, What else is there?

      "We thought we'd set her on a collision course with him, and see what happened."

      "That was yesterday, I'm guessing, you mean she's been out all night?" he asked neutrally, watching his daughters' resistance crumble.

      "That kinda worried us too," Kiima admitted, "She called last night, from Nerima, where she had a safe room for the night, but we didn't hear from her this morning."

      "But you assumed she ran into her old boyfriend and they . . . what?"

      Hotaru blushed at that.

      "How intimate did those two get?" the professor demanded, "And how is it I never met or even heard of him before?!" He kept his tone level, but Hotaru and Kiima cringed at that.

      Shouting won't help at this point, he thought, They played a juvenile trick, now it may mean something more. I've got to get the information out of them, so we can go help Makoto.

      Hotaru broke down and threw herself at his feet, hugging his knees. "Please poppa, forgive me! They were so lonely, and I didn't want you hurt again. So I - when they all died, I wished . . . "

      "Wished what?" the professor asked, looking from Hotaru's to Kiima's terrified expressions.

      "Maybe you should sit down, dad, this . . . this is going to require some explanations you aren't going to believe," Kiima explained.

      Professor Tomoe sat, and braced for the worst.

      Rei walked alongside Jeff, the train station was nearly in sight, and Rei was hoping to escape again with her life. "Who was that guy who folded himself up and disappeared?" Rei asked, "He seemed to think it was a grudge match or something."

      "The Origami King, he's the only guy to have ever beaten me. I can't fold myself the way he can, and folding is their art."

      "It was cruel making him fold himself in half 64 times. My grandfather pulled that trick on me when I was little. It can't be done."

      "That's why he disappeared," Jeff replied, "The last time I told him not to come back, after threatening him with my lighter. He didn't listen, so I sent him away again."

      "Are you sure it's safe to go back now?"

      "Shampoo and Lightning Lass have taken care of the problem. Besides, if Happosai does have one redeeming characteristic, he does try to protect children, and you still qualify."

      Rei frowned at that. I guess I can take solace in that, she thought, After all, to a 300-year old man, a 14-year old is a kid.

      "I think we have a problem," Jeff said as he watched a young woman in a far too small yukata running towards them with murder in her eye. While she'd managed to belt it partially closed, it still displayed the short shorts and improvised halter top she wore beneath it. She stopped scarcely a meter and a half from them, breathing hard from her run and anger. Rei noted that Jeff seemed to be enjoying the show.

      Something seriously worried Rei. "She's . . . big." Rei took a step back from the intimidating display.

      "She certainly is," Jeff said admiringly. The girl blushed immediately and somehow her expression grew more murderous.

      Rei turned her own anger on Jeff. "I didn't mean that!"

      Jeff looked at Rei so innocently. "You don't think she's tall?" he asked, practically in tears.

      Rei wasn't buying it. She glared at him.

      Jeff looked back. "Oh! I see. Yes she is, big soft, handfuls," Jeff said cheerily.

      The girl went from bright red to sheet white, and tried to cover herself more with her inadequate clothing.

      "The natural, soft brown is such a nice color, and the ponytail is such a nice touch, although I understand you have to wear yours in a more traditional style, and with your very traditional blue-black color, it's very attractive on you," he added, mystifying both girls, "Do girls usually cut their hair short after they're married, as a signal they aren't in the market anymore, or because they figure they don't have to be as physically attractive to their husbands? I know the comment is it's easier to take care of, but they tolerate the length before they're married for some reason, don't they? I mean your hair practically screams 'I'm traditional and proper', her's 'I'm a tomboy, but I'm fun', Akane's says 'I can't be bothered'."

      "I'm not sure I understand," Rei admitted, seeing equal confusion on the girl's face.

      "You don't? Weren't you . . . " Jeff said, then gasped, "You naughty girl! Just because her yukata is too small and her halter is too tight, it's probably all she could find. That's no reason to insult her on how much she's got and how much she's showing off!" He stepped over and combed through Rei's hair, while she blushed deep red. "No Oni horns, so it must be Happosai's influence."

      My face must be the same color as her's, Rei thought as she stepped away from a grinning Jeff, giving the other girl a clear path to attack. The other girl was looking at them aghast, one to the other.

      The girl's screaming charge was pure Nerima. But instead of confronting the girl, as he had Akane, he sidestepped, and pulled Rei's much abused miko outfit from her satchel.

      "I need to borrow this," he said as he continued to duck, bob and weave, and sidestep the girl's furious kicks and punches.

      "Why not?" Rei shouted and shrugged.

      It's only been covered in frongs - frogs! - served as a bed for cats, was worn by another cat. I was going to have to burn it anyway, Rei thought, It might as well serve as a bull fighter's cape.

      While Jeff did hold it up, he didn't taunt the girl with it, as he would have Akane. He awaited a wild punch and draped the cloth over the girl. Instead of yanking it off to spin her around or confuse her, somehow he morphed it into an elegant dress with evening gloves and a choker. White as the shirt had been, the dress seemed even whiter, with a large deep red rose pattern on the skirt. The fight, if it could be called that, took a bizarre turn. The girl punched, and Jeff caught her wrist and put his other arm around her waist. He sidestepped the knee to the groin and spun the girl around, letting her drop until her ponytail almost touched the street, then pulled her back up until she rested against him, then stepped smartly out of reach of her punch.

      She's trying to kill him, and he's turning it into a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers impersonation, Rei realized, That's her! That's the girl he was taken with! She's trying to kill him, and he won't even let her get hurt! What do I do? He's in control, despite all she's doing. If I distract them - Rei's decision was made as Jeff tossed the girl three meters in the air. I do nothing, she thought, It's too delicately balanced. He only looks to be in total control, but it's a hair's breadth from disaster.

      Jeff whirled the girl around, tossing her from his left arm to his right, leaving her too dizzy and frightened to continue the attack. The battle ended with a dip out of the most passionate tango, and the looming promise of a kiss.

      JUST KISS, YOU IDIOT! Rei wanted to shout at both of them, as she watched terror and expectation war on the girl's face as her tormentor held her helpless above the pavement, Don't chicken out! We can explain things, make it right!

      He set her carefully back on her feet.

      "Why didn't you kiss her!" Rei screamed at both of the blushing couple, "Why didn't you kiss him? You don't hate each other! Not really!"

      The girl pushed Jeff away, the conflict written all over her face. "I don't care if I have to marry you and have your babies to save you! I hate you!" She turned, lifted the hem of her dress and ran away.

      Rei considered running after her. Even in a dress, she's faster than I am, she realized, then she glared at Jeff, who was also watching her leave.

      "Why didn't you do something!? Why didn't you say something?! Anything? At least give her a peck on the cheek!"

      Jeff looked at her and she recoiled. He looks old, and tired, she thought.

      "Why?" she asked quietly.

      "Because it wouldn't change anything. What happened before, would happen again, and again."

      "I won't lead them to their deaths," Rei promised, "We could still catch her."

      "Not her, all of them. Over and over, again and agin. I'm tired of it. Everyone," he said equally quietly, "You know it's weird."

      "How so?" Rei asked, "How could this possibly get any weirder? Even for Nerima?"

      It's not weird, it's pathetic, she wanted to tell him, Kasumi was right - wait a second! Kasumi! Yes, this will work.

      "Because first, that was Sailor Jupiter, your comrade in arms, and ally in battle."

      "I guessed part of that," Rei replied sardonically as the plan took shape in her mind, "What else?"

      "That last part, why do you assume she was talking to me?" Jeff asked.

      The screaming charge was pure Nerima.

Sailor Jupiter II 12 - There'll Be No One to Save, with the World in a Grave

      The station wagon picked its way carefully through the streets of Nerima, due to Tatewaki Kuno's expert driving. Admiral Takarada rode shotgun, scanning the passers-by intently, so Kuno could avoid the more obvious traffic problems.

      None of that mattered to Hotaru, who had curled up against her father as soon as they got in. Or Kiima, who sat on the driver's side of the bench seat in back, trying to pull herself into a small package holding her legs tightly against her body.

      Professor Tomoe wanted to get Tatewaki and Takarada alone, to verify some of the story he'd heard from his two daughters. They need me more than I need answers.

      "Kiima," he said softly, causing the girl to jerk her head around to look at him.

      Quick little stops and starts, like she did when she was little, or when she gets nervous, he thought.

      "There's no time I can remember when you weren't my daughter," he told her and saw her apprehension give way to hope.

      Ta-chan was right, she's terribly lonely, and terrified of being alone, he thought, I'm guessing Makoto is the same. That's why Ta-chan decided we needed a bigger family.

      "I still think of you as my daughter," he told her as he extended his arm.

      Kiima grinned shyly, and leaned up against him. "Thanks . . . dad."

      He smiled. "That doesn't mean you aren't all grounded until you're twenty," he told her sternly, "You aren't going out without an armed escort." He caught the here-and-gone smile from Takarada.

      Yes, Admiral, you've got me, he thought, But my real concern now is my third daughter.

      "There!" Rear Admiral Takarada pointed to the figure, who looked like Cinderella in her gown, after she realized she'd forgotten to leave the glass slipper behind. She looked elegant in the gown with the long evening gloves, and fancy dancing pumps. The rose on the front gave it a distinctive look, and the gown flattered her blossoming figure.

      But none of that can hide from her father, the lost, hurt, little girl inside, Tomoe thought as Kuno turned the car swiftly, blocking Makoto's advance with the passenger side, he got out and let Makoto's listless steps carry her to him.

      "Maru-chan?" he asked, using her `baby` name as she seemed to notice him.

      "Daddy?" She finally focused on something around her. "Daddy?"

      He braced for the impact as Makoto threw herself in his arms and began sobbing uncontrollably. Tomoe just held his daughter, letting her cry herself out. He caught sight of his other daughters watching him, and that Kuno was directing traffic around the parked station wagon. When someone with a sword tells you how best to get away from him, you take his advice, he thought as a modicum of traffic flow was restored.

      Makoto was not making much sense from the fragments between sobs. She tried to kill him, so he danced with her, and during the dance, he changed her into a miko's costume, then put her into this dress? After she was attacked and put in yogurt and socks? he tried to puzzle it out, I guess it makes sense for Nerima.

      Finally, she calmed enough. "Honey, we're going to park the car, and you go into the noodle place with Ta-chan and Ki-chan, and a get a table for all of us. Ta-chan has something she needs to tell you, and then I'm going to come in and discuss it with you. But I've got to talk to Tatewaki and the Admiral."

      " 'kay," Makoto said, still looking shy and fragile.

      He waited for Hotaru and Kiima to take Makoto under the dancing cat sign and inside, before he turned to confront Kuno and the Admiral. "You knew, and you chose not to tell me."

      "Upon meeting you, I was supposed to tell you , 'You once sold your soul and the soul of your only daughter to present the great enemy a foothold into this world, and as you made preparation to release a horde of demons against us, I cut you down'?" Kuno asked, stared the man up and down, "It would have led to a rather strained conversation afterwards. As the Senshi were reborn, losing the pain of their battles, their failure and their death, so too you came through the same fire. My beloved . . .has no memory of time or place of me, or of our times together. The devious Shaman was intimate, though I mightily doubt sexual, with Kino Makoto, yet Tomoe Makoto attacks violently at each encounter. My love is happy, healthy and has the entire world before her, without endless service and the specter of death hanging over her head. I know not Raccoon's feelings towards Makoto's new family, but I suspect that he values a welcoming family as greater than war, blood, and loss."

      "And you made the job offer because I was - experienced - in technomystic equipment, even if I don't remember the incident."

      "No one else can make heads or tails of Kuno-chan's equations or Asuka's refinements. You sat down, and in 18 hours had a prototype that would allow the Type 74's and Type 90's to at least support the Super Heavy tanks," the Admiral replied cooly, "You're a scientist. If someone gives you a breakthrough like that, and looks to be able to give others, what would you do?"

      "I don't like it," the professor said.

      "I don't either," the Admiral admitted, "I have two adult daughters, even though one is a fully-trained soldier, I wouldn't want either being a Senshi. Better used up old farts like us, with all the skills and experience of 40-50 years of hard life. With the knowledge that sometimes you lose, and getting up after a loss is the real test. The Senshi failed that test once, and Hotaru proved it was only a temporary set back."

      The professor paced to burn off his growing nervous energy, while Tatewaki pulled the car off the road.

      "Maybe their boundless idealism is needed, but they still need us, their fathers to cry on and comfort them. The Pilots all lost their mothers, the Senshi their fathers, except Hotaru and Usagi, and the new Makoto," the Admiral explained.

      The professor smiled. "Very good diversion. Young Kuno didn't tell me because he killed me. Why didn't you tell me?"

      "Would it have mattered if I had? I'd still need you, and their history is a complication they didn't need."

      "Ki-chan and Ta-chan always knew," he countered as he walked into the restaurant, where his daughters were comforting each other as Ta-chan spun her tale.

      "What else is there to know? The identity of the other Senshi? Do their parents know?"

      "Their parents know," the Admiral assured him, "I'm certain of that."

      He exhaled and stared at the Admiral. "I won't have them caged, or studied in a lab."

      "You may have quite an argument with Doctor and Miss Mizuno on that point," the Admiral quipped.

      The professor nodded. "Yes, but that's a bit different."

      "You've seen what we face, and that your daughters, and their friends are our only real defense," the Admiral said, "I won't put them under Self-Defense Force jurisdiction, because we need Cabinet authority to move, but they cannot be allowed to operate untrained and unsupervised, and I doubt you have the resources to call on that I do."

      The white-haired man stared at the ground as his mind whirled. There are no easy answers, he thought as he walked through the restaurant to his girls, The Admiral means well, but he is beholden to the politicians, and they can't be trusted. He also has to be loyal to Japan, not my family, that's my job. He saw that Makoto had seen him, and stood instantly, wearing the same terrified look of expectation that Kiima had.

      Before she could speak, he put his hands on her shoulders and told her, "You're my daughter, I am your father. That's the end of it," he said gravely, then smiled, "You remember that day you spent trying to catch dragonflies? And you never did. When you fell and scraped both knees, you cried, until the dragonfly landed on your head, as if to ask if you were all right, you remember? How could both of us remember that, if you weren't my daughter?"

      "Yes," Makoto said, her eyes gleaming with tears of joy.

      "Well so do I. I don't care what happened before. Maybe you'll want to find out about the Kino family, but you and Kiima are my daughters now, and always have been , as far as I know."

      "Yes." Makoto hugged him fiercely. He held her, the other patrons were more interested in the spinning, jumping waitresses than the familial display. He looked at the entertainment around him. "What kind of restaurant is this?"

      Kuno put a hand on the professor's and Makoto's head pushing them down, to avoid the bowl that looked like it might have hit them. "A Nerima restaurant."

      "Okay, now we're going through it again, with the Admiral's and Kuno-san's help. Then we're going to figure out what to do."

      Makoto nodded and took a seat between her two sisters.

      "Okay?" he asked as the three men took their seats.

      "Kino Makoto's parents were killed in a plane crash, she lived with her aunt until she was old enough to attend junior high, where-upon her aunt died, leaving all the family assets in her hands and a small trust for her to live on, until she came of age," the Admiral said, "I believe that you still will receive that legacy when you come of age. At the same time, only child Tomoe Hotaru and her villainous father lived with five witches and together they plotted the overthrow of the world."

      "The Devious Shaman frightened the spirit out of young Hotaru, typical of him," Kuno explained.

      "Then in China, the Phoenixi, their god-king's chief general began having nightmares about a destroyer who would slay their godhead permanently, on his ascension."

      "Now as a father, I get a little nervous about the next part," the professor said.

      "Don't worry papa," Hotaru chimed in, "She's been trying to kill him every chance she's gotten."

      Makoto's head dropped as she stared at her lap.

      "I take it sharpening my sword while talking about his plans for my daughter wouldn't work?"

      "Unless you desired lessons in honing such a blade, as well as a frank discussion," Kuno said, "It was her combative nature that drew him in. He thought it was . . . endearing."

      "You meant 'cute'," Hotaru said.

      " 'I hate cute, cute rots the intellect'," Kuno replied, "He has already done the job the Sailor Senshi are tasked to do, as have I. I suppose he has not, and will not take threats to his health and well-being seriously."

      "And a threat to Asuka, or anyone he loves, will result in a deadly response," Kiima added, "That's why he took out Saffron, because he threatened Asuka."

      The professor shook his head. "Actually, I was talking about becoming a Sailor Senshi and the rather spotty advice and training you had for that task."

      Isn't 14 also the wrong time for critical thinking? I read somewhere that the most fanatical army would be 14-year-old soldiers, and 40-year-old officers. I'll have to talk to the Admiral about that.

      "Why attack one at a time practically on top of you?" Asuka, dressed in her waitress costume, asked as she whirled into place, "Even I know you swamp a superior opponent with numbers. Can I take your order? The Neko-chan's ramen and okonomiyaki are justly famous. A friend needed some added help, but the situation resolved itself before my ride got me here. The test went well, now I have to take your order."

      Kho Lon approached the empty field that the challenge letter had directed her to. She has no hold over me, she thought as she considered what Har Du could say, Xian Pu is safe, and the others are aware of any attack.

      The only sound that came to her was the sound of flies in their thousands. The pile across the field was black with them, the stench of the pile should have repulsed her. I'm getting too curious in my old age, she thought as she approached.

      Kho Lon waved her staff, dispersing them for an instant. A pile of chopped meat, she thought as she circled the pile and waved the flies away again. Revealed this time was a sign in the Amazon language, written in their script, 'Never Laugh At Live Dragons'.

      She must have ambushed young Makoto, Kho Lon realized, Poor Har Du, she never thought things through. Kho Lon looked up at the skies over her head. I wonder which of the three did the deed? 'The Boy', his would-be lover, or 'His Lordship', she considered, I shall tell the village that it was the dragon who so defeated them, and that he even now plans to strike at the village, unless I can bribe him to spare them. I suspect I could convince 'the Boy' to make an appearance, to support the lie.

      She left the pile of meat to the flies and the vermin. Good riddance to fools, she thought as she headed back to the restaurant.

      Aino Minako couldn't scream, the web which had tripped her and kept her from her backpack, also covered her mouth. If I can just reach my school bag! she thought as her questing fingers advanced towards their goal, the webs cutting into her flesh, drawing her blood as she strained to reach her bag, and the henshin within. I'm getting a pocket sewed into my skirt, she thought as she ignored the pain, I don't care what the school dress code is!

      She glanced over her shoulder at the nightmare who stepped into the light of the streetlights, revealing its horrible form. "So, a little fly comes to my web," the spider-centaur joked, "My venom will fill your belly, and I will suck the life from you in the most delicious juice."

      I have to get my henshin! she thought as she dug her fingers in the ground to scrabble the last few centimeters, only to touch her bag and the suspiciously weak-looking threads dragged her hand back.

      "Struggle, beg, plead, your suffering will provide the most exquisite flavor."

      Great, you can't just eat me, she thought as she marshaled her strength for another try, I have to get a gourmet.

      "Ha! Ha! Ha!" it laughed.

      One of those too!

      Several of the lines holding her snapped, allowing her not only to get her bag and her henshin, but to make a one-legged, one-armed lurch out of the youma's reach. Let it figure out who saved me, she thought as her hand closed on her henshin, I hope I don't actually have to talk for this. Moon Power Transform!

      "Sailor V!" the youma cried in fear, then looked to the tops of the buildings, at the figure silhouetted against the moonlight, his cape fluttering in the breeze, his top hat at a jaunty angle.

      Sailor V put her face in her hand. "Only my luck with guys could be this awful!"

      "Net fishing without a permit, and not releasing those not full-grown," the grandfatherly voice said.

      Groan is right, V thought.

      "Disrupts the laws and their harmony. I the Masked . . . Treasure shall punish you! Treasured Rose Strike!"

      The rose buried itself stem-first to the petals, in the youma's nose, before exploding, and surrounding its head with a choking cloud. Which also exploded, but hid the grislier aspects of the creature's demise from plain sight. Unfortunately for Sailor V, a moment later, the 'Masked Treasure' joined her. "Hello Happosai."

      "Heh," the old lecher chuckled, but actually looked embarrassed, "You must have me confused with someone else."

      "Like the little pervert who broke into Buckingham Palace to steal some underwear, and threw me six blocks through the air and into the Thames? It took a week to get the smell out of my hair."

      "I did break up the assassination attempts," the old man replied petulantly, "And that explosion would have killed you. Oh, I just admitted I was there. You Senshi are a sneaky lot! Maybe that's why I like you so much."

      V didn't visibly cringe at that statement. "You aren't tall enough to be a dashing hero, and you're too big -"

      Ugly, perverted and wrinkled, she wanted to add.

      " - to be an animal advisor." She looked down on him, now that he was wearing a beckoning Raccoon costume and posed correctly, but his eyes filled with tears.

      "Am I really so terrible?" he whimpered.

      "I'm not falling for it."

      "What if I told you, I knew where there were more Senshi, and, for a promise of more considerate treatment, I could . . . arrange an introduction, without the 'Two Heroes Who Don't Know Each Other' fight?"

      "I'll consider it."

      "I'll bring them by your school tomorrow."

      "Where did you find out where I go to school?! How did you?"

      The small pervert was disappearing over the buildings, his cackle remaining to mock her.

      "I wonder if I can get eaten by a youma before school tomorrow?" she asked as she headed home.

      How could he know where I go to school? Then he'd know who I am! My folks could be in danger! She ran the rest of the way home at her best speed.

      I walk to the market, enjoying the feel of my legs moving at my direction, then I spot Davis-san ahead. He too is walking to the market, to buy supplies for their restaurant. We often walk together in silence, after exchanging pleasantries. He still regards me and our entire family with intense suspicion, I remember, Moreso since Mars made me a Senshi, over his objections. He was and is, always polite, and would respond to anything I asked with meaningless politeness. I have to admit, it bothers me that anyone could regard my family, and me, with such obvious hostility and fear. But today he seems even more bothered than usual. Even Kho Lon and Xian Pu, even Ukyo could come to me with confidences and . . . while Ranma was here they did. I frown slightly as I walk, my hand touching the henshin in my apron pocket. The pilots learned about us from Nabiki, and from the attack we foolishly made on them and their base. Kidnaping them from their homes. And we've never offered to return them home. Maybe now we, or at least I can help. The Senshi must have a way to find their home, and open a portal to there. But until they - we - do, his anger and suspicion -

      "No, it isn't so hard to understand at all," I say sadly.

      "Did you say something, Tendo-san?" Davis-san says from where he is walking, a `correct` distance of a few meters away.

      'Tendo-san', everyone else calls me Kasumi, I think, I wonder how Makoto managed to get past those defenses. I wonder why I can't.

      "Just thinking about something," I answer.

      He nods, saying nothing.

      I catch sight of a small metal cylinder set in the middle of the road. It is brightly colored and it has 'Jefery' written spirally around it. Davis-san stops, leans down to look at it closely. A moment later, he stands, and walks briskly away from it while rummaging through his pockets.

      I am not prepared to leave something like that lying around, I think as I approach.

      "You should not -" I touch the metal to pick it up out of the road.

      "Nooo!" he shouts as the cylinder detonates.

      Fine powder sprays in my face and on my clothes. In an instant my eyes burn with fire. I scream, reaching up to clear my eyes, only to have my arms yanked down.

      "Don't touch!" I hear Davis-san order, someone bends my head back and water pours over my face. The burning eases, but does not cease.

      "Open your eyes," he orders again.

      I do as he ordered. The light is painful, I cry out again but the water dilutes the powder and lessens the pain.

      As the pain is washed away with the powder, my legs falter. No! I just got them back! I can't say, Don't take them away again! As I kneel down, with him supporting my weight, I look at him as the water stops flowing. He sets the canteen he held down, takes me in both of his arms and looks into my eyes. The look is just professional compassion, I try to remind myself, A medic seeing to a patient. But I am the enemy, his instinctive reaction is to help me? the thought jangles in my head, I saw and heard the fear in his voice when I was in danger and the fierce commands to prevent me from injuring myself. His handling of me was not correct - too familiar and forward - but was very gentle. He saw to my safety over unnecessary propriety. My heart skips a beat. Why have I never really looked at or thought about this boy??

      "I don't see any obvious damage," he says, peering into my eyes. His expression softens. "When you see a land mine in the road, you don't set it off, except at a distance." He smiles.

      "Yes," I say. He is kneeling down, cradling my shoulders in his arms. Looking down at me.

      "Can you stand?"

      I don't want to, I want to stay this way, so protected and cherished, I think, Why can't I say it?

      "Let me help." He lifts me to my feet.

      Drat! I still clung to him.

      "I don't feel . . . " I lean into him, enjoying the strength suddenly supporting me, holding me close. I lean my head on his shoulder. "My father is out training with Saotome-san, Mirei-san is clearing out her old apartment. Would you take me home, please?"

      I'm pressing close. I feel the subtle movement and tensions that play through him, I think and almost giggle at his nervousness, He's weighing his options.

      "No, I was the target, you're going to the hospital. Something innocuous shouldn't have knocked you off your feet this way."

      Darn, I overplayed it!

      "So much to do, I can't afford the time. I'll be fine."

      "I'll take care of it," he assures me, "And take it out of the hide of whoever did this," he murmurs quietly. He leans over to collect the canister and its remaining contents. Putting both in a plastic bag, he pulled from a pocket.

      If he's going to take me to a hospital, I must lay the foundations for later actions I think as I let him pick me up, cradling my head against his shoulder.

      Kho Lon heard activity in the girls room, she was not ready to face the morning coffee klatch. Let the Admiral and Mousse deal with them for the moment, she thought as Ukyo charged out of the room.

      "You should be glad," the spatula-armed chef shouted over her shoulder, "Since Shamp's been helping with my English, that vampire's been even more unreasonable." She sidestepped quickly. "Honored Elder." And gave her business partner a bow. "There's a little problem in my room that needs your special touch." The girl chuckled and ran down the stairs.

      When she grows cunning, either events are turning for the worse, Kho Lon thought, Or she's been coached. She headed for Xian Pu's room, which she shared with Asuka.

      "You out of practice!" her `once-descendant` teased her favorite foe, in English.

      "Only because I'm not waxing you by my usual margin," Asuka teased back, then took a lecturing tone, "You have to quit assuming that just because there's opposition, you must attack that spot."

      Good, they aren't practicing martial arts up here, she thought, And it is good advice.

      "Good morning lazy-bones," she began, then saw the two figures chained to the walls and ceiling, being ignored by the pair huddled before the game machine.

      "I thought only the Origami Masters could fold that way," she remarked on the boy who had been twisted into a shape that would have been agonizing, had he been conscious.

      "Fire Hair wouldn't let me kill either of them," Xian Pu said in the Amazon-dialect as she stood and bowed. "But she was too embarrassed to stop me from putting some of the tricks Raccoon learned into practice."

      The woman chained to the opposite wall had her knees bound to her shoulders, her wrists chained together, and the ends looped around her waist and between her legs. She seemed quiescence for the moment.

      "Wonderful thing, duck tape," Asuka added in the same language.

      "Use it on Mu Tsu all the time," Kho Lon answered.

      The Council's best assassins, Kho Lon thought and sighed. She examined the completely stoic Xian Pu carefully, She has not revealed anything, although I would wager that Ukyo's 'little problem' is the third of their number. Fools, if Har Du's fate at the hands of 'the Boy' were not sufficient, this attack on 'Langley' will move an even greater dragon to rage. I was correct, the Amazons are doomed, and by their own hand no less.

      "I think this is my cue to go entertain the young ladies downstairs," Asuka said and nodded to Xian Pu and Kho Lon, then softly closed the door behind her.

      "She doesn't know," Xian Pu switched to English, which the assassins had never deigned to learn, "On purpose, so she suspects."

      "What did they come here for?" Kho Lon asked, "They always taunt their victims."

      "They just stabbed Fire Hair, and were surprised when she played dead. They said that there is only one tribe of Amazons, and that is how it will always be."

      So, they finally figured it out. Our best warrior, a poet who practically memorized every legend and story of our real and constructed history, and several others who might learn one or the other, Kho Lon thought sadly, I moved to preserve the spirit of our people as we have always claimed to be, not as we truly are. So much for hiding my seed corn.

      "Don't worry, it is Council business, and is being dealt with," Kho Lon assured Xian Pu.

      "By the Scholarly Dragon," Xian Pu said sadly, "He will know, Har Du attacked me, and Lightning Lass. Now Fire Hair. His rage will be terrible, his cruelty, unimaginable."

      I'm more worried about why they chose such a time, Kho Lon considered, The timing is just too convenient. If our Raccoon had followed his original plan, and if the last demon hadn't intervened, we would be facing a greater problem than we are. Now I must ask, where else has their blow fallen?

      Kasumi waited in the examining room. She was alone for the first time in several hours. He didn't take me to a public clinic, but a private hospital, she thought nervously as she glanced around, One well beyond our family's ability to pay. The expense frightens me more than the possibility of a serious injury. This is the premier eye-care hospital in Tokyo. I don't even want to know who he called to get me in here so quickly.

      As she sat alone, her doubts which had been growing lately, again tried to devour her. Neither I nor my family has ever given Jeff or Asuka-chan a reason to give such an extravagant gift. The demon I can explain away as a snub to my family, and destroying a real enemy, but not this. Unless it isn't extravagant, she thought.

      I remember the look of concern on his face, the faint underpinning of anger. A person was hurt by something meant to hurt him, so he felt responsible. But all this is analysis after the fact, she admitted to herself, There is no reason for the act, the instinct, in the first place. I'm supposed to be the saint, but who is first into the battle to save others? Not me, that's for certain. If it's young children to be rescued, even Happosai beats me in that regard. I may tend their hurts after, but I have never risked injury for another.

      "No," she said softly, "It was more than that."

      Ranma and Tofu-sensei had always been polite, respectful in their own ways. I never needed rescuing the way Akane often did, so I don't know how they would have reacted to rescuing just me. But I never took the chance to rescue anyone else. I could have rescued Ranma that first day, taken the responsibility to be his fiancee, but I didn't. I could have forced Akane to treat him more civilly, but I didn't do that either.

      She kept coming back to his touch. Gentle, not wanting to hurt or frighten me, wanting to make me feel safe and secure. Yet forceful, when I was in danger of injuring myself, he hadn't hesitated to handle me most improperly. But once the danger was over, he was embarrassed, and had been so correct and caring. She chewed her lip, and remembered, The run to the hospital had been like something out of a dream. No normal person could move that fast. I'd buried my face in his shirt and felt the muscle . . .

      "Stop that," she chided herself, "I'm acting like a smitten schoolgirl."

      And what's not to be smitten about? her mind asked, He's handsome and kind, and when was the last time when a man, any man, looked at you like that? She jumped off the examination table, pacing the room to banish these almost perverted thoughts. He's sixteen, you're twenty, an adult, that's illegal, she reminded herself.

      He's an emancipated minor, that means he can marry, came unbidden.

      "I have responsibilities to my family," she argued.

      And for how long? Until you and Mirei can teach Akane enough that she doesn't need you anymore?

      Kasumi stopped, vaguely horrified. She knew, As the heir, Akane would become the woman of the house, then she wondered, Where does that leave me? I can't believe Akane would ever throw me out. But she could. And what have I to fall back on? An education, a career, any kind of life outside of Kasumi the housewife of the Tendo Dojo? Being a Sailor Senshi won't put food on the table or a roof over my head.

      Akane and father threw Ranma out of the house, as was their right, there's nothing to prevent them from exercising their right to dispose of you.

      She shook her head, trying to throw that image out of it. The image of Jeff staring into her eyes returned unsolicited, but not unwanted. By all accounts, he hates Ranma worse than Kuno or Ryoga do, but by the same accounts he's stood by him, taught him, even been wounded to protect Ranma.

      Would he help, me?

      "More than he already has?" she looked around at the sterile tile walls. The doctors had already taken blood samples and done other tests to discover if she'd been poisoned.

      She knew, In a place like this, those tests cost money. Money he was willing to spend on an enemy, she thought, In the Dojo, he could have been trying to teach Rei-chan, but no one but me would have known what happened here. I'm not an innocent bystander, not when Akane threw out Ranma and started the entire chain of events.

      "And broke Ranma's heart," she cursed herself.

      I'd been a proper housewife, a respectful daughter accepting the injustice with silence. Nabiki had been the honest one, citing Ranma's unceasing rescues of Akane, of the Dojo, of the, of her, family's future and honor. And how did we repay? she had to ask herself, Not with justice or with honor. Nabiki was practical. She'd seen an investment and a protector leave and she'd gone after him, unsuccessfully. Then she'd abandoned them, us, in disgust and vengeance. Mirei was meant as a blow to our honor and image of ourselves, not automatically as a help. Just like Sasami, another nail in the coffin of the Tendo family preconceptions. A stake in the heart.

      "Is that what I'm trying to do?" she asked no one in particular, "Has his plan worked, that I am ready to break free? Is that what he was trying to do? And if so, for who? For me? For Nabiki?"

      She remembered the feel of the muscle, the sound of labored breathing. Jeff exerted himself desperately to get me to expert help as quickly as possible. The memory of muscle sliding under her touch excited her. But more than that, the herculean effort being made on my behalf.

      "He helps everybody!" she countered.

      Not everybody, she reminded herself, He shot your father and put Saotome-san in the hospital, twice. Not to mention the times he's beaten Kuno, and what he's done to Ryoga. His attempt to cook and eat Ryoga as P-chan, despite Ukyo-chan telling him about the curse, and his clash with the Black Rose when she had the demon, sent the girl away screaming in terror and agony.

      No, he's a very dangerous enemy. So why didn't he leave you out in the street, victim of a trap set for him by your family or their allies. The agony of the fire on her eyes, and when he'd taken it away, she'd opened them to see him looking down at her. That wasn't just duty. He'd been genuinely worried, and then insisting I go to a hospital, everyone else would have rushed off, knowing 'Kasumi will be all right, nothing ever fazes Kasumi'. But was he looking at me, holding me as he'd hold any patient or as he'd hold a beautiful woman, undressing her with his eyes -?

      Kasumi stomped her foot to give her something else to focus on. She smiled, not her usual smile, but a bitter one. Why would any man look at you when he could look at the women of Neko-chan's, or his Makoto, or if they could pursue Akane? His teen-aged coworkers are all beautiful, even Mousse is pretty, and every male who enters Nerima has or gets a fixation on my younger sister, except Tofu-sensei, and Akane spent years trying to take him away from you!

      "All these doubts and uncertainties are just my anxieties over the tests," she said, to break the spell that seemed to have gripped her, "Besides, Akane isn't likely to marry until he gets the cure."

      A magician could cure, has cured worse. And how do you think he defeated those demons? came unsolicited to her mind.

      I've been such a fool. Of course, I could ask him to heal Ryoga, she thought, So the wedding could go ahead.

      And how would you pay him? she could almost swear that was Nabiki's voice.

      That stopped her. He isn't one of Akane's suitors, his personal honor? He was a gaijin, he has none - no, that's wrong, he has his own code of honor, and helping Akane in any way wasn't part of it. Besides, if Ryoga is right, Jeff put him in that condition. Money? Only the Kuno's have enough money to tempt him and that would be an entanglement I don't want to consider.

      You could give yourself to him, again Nabiki's voice with its sardonic air.

      "No," she said clearly, "This is useless." She sat back on the examining table. She sighed, "Besides there's no guarantee he'd accept. The Dojo was proof of that, although the Oni was aiming at disconcerting Rei-chan. One gentle touch . . . "

      And the touch was gentle, pushing my sodden hair away from my eyes, cradling me as I fell, holding me . . . She bunched her fists in frustration, pressing them down on her legs. Imagining that strong, gentle touch on her inner thighs. She yanked her hands away as if she'd been scorched. Staring at them in total disbelief, I never think this way!

      Besides, he's homely, even for a gaijin. She folded her arms across her chest, remembering the strong arms holding her tightly against his body as he ran, pressing her body against his.

      She jumped off the table, and stared around the room in shock. Am I going mad or is something else happening to me? I shouldn't be considering such perverted things. I am supposed to be dutiful and respectful, and respectable.

      And what will that get you? came her other voice, An empty house not your own, and an empty life?

      She was glad when the doctor entered, asking her to accompany him for the eye exam. As she walked, she could hear someone asking 'Is being the mistress of a rich, homely gaijin really so bad?' "I must remember to ask about psychological effects," she reminded herself, thinking the material must have had some psychotropic or psychotic effect.

      Rei waited as patiently as the pending end of the world allowed.

      Jeff bustled up as Rei's patience neared the snapping point. "This is not a good day for this."

      "The end of the world never has an auspicious day," she tried to let her own anger overshadow his, but it failed, "I did try to call Sailor Vesta first."

      "She's in the hospital, and there are some people who are even more displeased about that than you are. Now, I can't be a moderating influence."

      "What happened?" Rei gasped.

      "She'll be all right, it's just something meant for me, blew up in her face, literally," Jeff explained, "She should be home soon, but she's at a hospital right now."

      "If I knew anyone else who could handle this, I would have called them," Rei said, moderating her tone, "But who else could assist preventing the end of the world?"

      "Gee thanks," he said and looked around, "What are we doing here?"

      "If I knew!" she shouted back, then clamped down on her fear, "I wouldn't have needed anyone's help. I don't know. I saw . . . something . . . and then I saw the world surrounded by heavy starships reducing the planet to rubble. That's all I know. How it starts or how it goes together, I haven't the faintest idea. What I saw made absolutely no sense."

      "Okay," Jeff said, visibly calmed down, "You better tell me, don't leave out any details. Maybe I can make sense of it for you."

      Before Rei could answer, someone in a nearby house opened a second-story window, and threw a black cat out of it. Jeff raced to catch the cat who had several bandages on its head.

      "That's part of it," Rei said as she raced to where Jeff stood with the cat, "The rest is - how'd you know to do that? I didn't tell you."

      "Hello Luna, say hello to Sailor Mars," Jeff said once he'd removed the bandages.

      "Mew?" the cat said.

      Jeff's expression darkened. "Today is not a good day to play games with me, Luna. Knock it off, or I'll twist your head off."

      "You're in a mood," the cat said.

      "Should, should I ,get some, hot water?" Rei stammered.

      "What's she talking about?" Luna asked as she stared at Rei.

      "Rei, Luna, Luna, Rei," Jeff made the introductions, "I take it the Princess was not happy about being told her destiny?"

      "She put band-aids on my head and threw me out a window. What do you think?" the cat grumbled.

      "I think your frost-damaged memory excuse and you dragging her kicking and screaming into your view of her future probably wore thin. She probably also remembers her getting the beatings and you standing on the sidelines passing out critical information only as you saw fit."

      "I didn't remember!" Luna protested.

      "There's nothing wrong with your brain or your memory, I checked. You flat out don't know, or was that too embarrassing to admit?"

      "What are you two talking about?!" Rei demanded.

      "She originally recruited you, and then neglected to have a proper training regimen or adequate combat intelligence on your enemies. That lack is one of the things that got you all killed. Once-a-week monsters didn't imply that Beryl had a large army to face off against you. While Usagi probably doesn't remember the details, she probably remembers enough to know following the instructions of talking cats is a bad idea."

      "You said 'Princess'," Rei said cagily, "I think I want to talk to her. Alone!"

      "The front door is right there. Luna, give Rei the Henshin you were trying to give Usagi, or I'll get one of the archeo-Henshin, and you'll be dealing with Sailor Serenity right off the bat."

      The cat couldn't hand Rei the pen-like device fast enough.

      "Is she that bad?" Rei asked, using the language she and Jeff shared.

      "Good heart, but the head needs work," Jeff said, "You'll find out soon enough."

      Rei had a feeling of dread as she walked to the door alone, and knocked. The things I do to save the world, she silently lamented.

      The elders hadn't been happy when the jet-black dragon swept over their village, scooped up the Council house, and tossed it into the air. Unhappiness became fear when the building never came down. They'd been down right angry or gleeful when it scooped up the Council members' houses, all of them, and tossed them in the air. Angry when they lost an ally, gleeful when a rival was sent away. Each had privately thought they would escape. And be undisputed monarch of the Amazon nation.

      The rolling plains they'd soft landed on seemed a less harsh prison than they'd expected. The black dragon stared balefully at them as they put on their robes and reassembled their dignity.

      "You will return us, or suffer our wrath," the current leader of the council told the dragon.

      It merely pointed to a sign, and launched itself into the air. The sign read 'Even Hibiki Ryoga can't get here.'

      "I think we're in serious trouble," another aged Amazon suggested.

      "At least he's seen Hell," one Elder commented, "So we haven't that to worry about."

      They laughed nervously, and returned to their homes to assess the situation.

      Jeff returned to the Neko-chan after the lunch rush had ended.

      "Sleeping with the enemy?" Asuka teased. Jeff ignored her, heading for Kho Lon.

      "Honored Elder, I apologize for my delay." He bowed his head slightly, Kho Lon had learned not to expect more, "The enemy's land mine and my need to attend to the victim, and several other problems, delayed me. I can only offer my nature as an excuse and my apologies for the disruption to your routine."

      "Laying it on thick," Kho Lon said to hide her growing concerns, "I like that, but what do you want?"

      Is the village still standing? What did your alter ego do? she wanted to demand of him, His exceptional courtesy worries me.

      Jeff removed a sample of the powder. "This was the grenade's payload. I need it analyzed. It has various mineral salts as a base, and a complex organic component, I don't recognize it."

      "I'll analyze it." Kho Lon hopped away, "Get to work!" she commanded, knowing the boy was already doing that.

      Salts as a base, that narrows things down, she thought, If it's Har Du's work, I think I can find the answers shortly, much faster than he can. Why didn't he call up her shade and get the answer from her? Or maybe he did, and she didn't know. That's a thought to trouble an old woman's sleep. She began looking through her books on Chinese alchemy and herb magic.

      Kasumi waited in the lounge, thoughts returning as she sat alone, waiting for the results. Thoughts came unbidden to her mind, she couldn't shut them out. And all her attempts to block, redirect or ignore them directed them to a collection of points. First, Tofu-sensei would never marry her, he was too addled by her presence to do anything, and he'd left abruptly, evidently coming to the same conclusion. Second, she was honor-bound to prepare Akane to take over the household, and equally honor-bound to step aside as soon as that was accomplished. Third, she had no skills to start a career once she was on her own, she had no prospects for an advantageous marriage and she had no savings to return to college, to get an education.

      The only tangible accomplishment in my life, raising my two sisters, is a mixed success at best. Someone else finished, or would finish the job for me. Nabiki, who had the skills to survive no matter what happened and has finally learned to love, and has effectively disowned me and the entire family, and Akane . . . is now Mirei's problem more than mine.

      Kasumi sighed, "Akane was not a sterling example of my parental efforts, and if neither of us can have children - the line and the family ends with us."

      I have to admit, the two of us brought this down on ourselves. The real truth is, my life is empty. Perhaps I can gain excitement from being a Senshi, but still, because of honor, duty and propriety I keep a house that would never be mine, made meals for people who were not my husband and children, and I'll possibly never know anyone who would call me 'mommy', except in error. The only boy who showed any interest in me at all, is a gaijin in an extreme sense of the word. He isn't from another country or even another time, but a whole other universe. He might not even be completely human. She wanted to laugh about that. A boy who is my family's foe, and at the same time a possible source of my family's salvation. Even if he doesn't cure the cancer, he could research and arrange for more effective treatments. She sighed again. Of course he would. He hates Akane for bringing him and Asuka here, for being the reason for their continued torment. I don't even know why he hates Ryoga so much, but he does. He has absolutely no reason to help us, and every reason to revel in our despair.

      But that isn't true either. He's insulted Akane since they'd captured him, he's embarrassed her repeatedly, but he's never started a physical fight. His exploits, if they can be believed, make him a stone-cold killer, but he's never killed any of us. He's acted only after we acted and then only to safeguard his friends. The loyalty he showed also impressed her. He seems willing to bear anything, suffer anything, to rescue or protect them and never to `win the hand of Shampoo, Cologne, Asuka or Ukyo.` They were friends and colleagues, he protected them.

      The way he protected and helped you.

      She began wondering, Is my propriety costing me more than it gains me? I am proper because a Japanese housewife is supposed to be proper, but I'll never be a housewife. I fear the ridicule of our neighbors and the comparisons to my mother, that I don't measure up. That ridicule would be nothing, compared to the 'Christmas Cake' comments that will start on my 26th birthday, and will haunt me the rest of my life. I guess I could do a lot worse than a rich, brave gaijin who knows our culture and language. She stopped. You have no guarantee he's interested in you. He has Makoto, and she has him, you saw that clearly enough. You have no guarantee he would ever be interested in you. She paused, then resolved, Then get him interested! You saw how tentative he was with Makoto!

      "And how do I do that?" she whispered, "I don't know what he saw in her, what would attract him, how she held his interest."

      He's a 16-year-old boy, for Kami's sake, you aren't so ancient you can't remember what 16-year-old boys wanted. She shied away from that thought. The idea was against everything she'd lived with for these last years. Or is it you're just embarrassed?

      She considered, I almost automatically stepped into the mother role when mother died. Taking it completely when I graduated High School. I had good grades, excellent in fact. I might have been able to get into Tokyo University, if the family could have afforded it, which they couldn't. I could have gone to a lesser, cheaper college. But that would have required I drop more - release more - of the domestic responsibilities on my sisters, something I was unwilling to do. In retrospect, it had been the wrong and selfish choice, it made both of them dependent.

      But you enjoyed being a martyr for the family. Too bad no one in the family noticed your martyrdom.

      Kasumi frowned at the truth of that. But it did give me power and control I so craved.

      And why did you do that? Why did you need any power, wasn't it enough to simply love them?

      She had to admit, I don't have an answer to that, except a feeling of guilt that I dug my present hole for myself, and threw myself in with open eyes.

      So take advantage of the ladder he's offering.

      "It's wrong and it's dishonest. He has a beloved, I'd be manipulating a boy."

      And why is that wrong, or rather isn't that what courtship really is? In the West the woman can pursue the man, let him know she's interested, sometimes very interested. Or are you too much of a coward to let him know how you feel?

      "I didn't do that with Tofu-sensei."

      Because he's a proper Japanese and would be offended, Westerners aren't like that. You've seen how forward Asuka is around him, the double-entendre, the out and out blatancy of her touch and words, and she's only a colleague and friend. Makoto was shier, but they were physically very intimate. To get his attention you have to be forward. Bringing in cookies or muffins will only look like a peace offering, and taking him on walks only invites ambush, whatever your intentions are.

      Kasumi shook her head, wondering why she was of two minds about this, nearly to the point of schizophrenia. I'm never this indecisive, and the suggestions that came to her mind, Maybe there is some truth to the idea that the canister had something strange in it, or maybe it is worry and isolation when normally I would be safe in my own house.

      It isn't yours, you're just holding it for Akane. She closed her eyes tightly to forestall tears. It was the cruel truth that cut her like a cold knife, and maybe that was hammering at her. I am no longer `safe` in my current role. I shall be marginalized, pushed aside and forgotten. Now I have the rights and privileges of the lady of the house, soon I will be the servant, forced to defend and explain every decision against someone completely untrained in making those decisions.

      You know more than the `boss`, and you resent it.

      I have to admit to the truth of that.

      "But Kasumi never resents anything." She sighed, shook her head.

      I have always HATED the damage the house and Dojo suffered during the incessant attacks, I have always HATED the constant bickering. My job was to provide a tranquil environment, it was a desperately hard job the last few months after Ranma arrived, but I did it. And my reward, is to be pushed aside. Congratulations, here's your prize, don't let the door hit you on the way out.

      Now she did cry. The answer was right in front of her, all it required was that she throw away all she tried to be, all that everyone saw when they looked at and thought of her. At least I can ask his advice.

      "And when he laughs in your face for your cowardice? I can't just ask him something like that." She let the tears fall, tears of frustration as much as sadness.

      "But he'd never laugh at me, he'd pity me, and that would be worse. He'd help poor, frail Kasumi," she wept.

      I don't want to go from strong to helpless, that was the situation I'm in.

      No! she took hold of her thoughts, mastering them, drying her tears, To get out of this requires radical action. That doesn't even address the question of what to do about the Dojo and what about Jeff's relationship with Makoto, and especially Nabiki. Getting back into Nabiki's good graces would let me tap my former younger sister's financial acumen and Jeff has money. She laughed bitterly at that prospect. Going from Akane's servant to Nabiki's. At least Nabiki would insist on a house and a wage for my efforts. I could even arrange time to attend college or have a career or business outside of simple housekeeping.

      "Nabiki would love that," she said with a tear of irony, " 'Oneechan's finally got interested in money!' Yes, Nabiki would laugh at that."

      The bigger problem will be finessing the relationship with Nabiki: I don't want to return `home` every night to a cold, empty house, and a cold, lonely bed. And if I can't bear children, I'll never get any man to look at me. I could never be a wife, only a mistress.

      "That would probably have Nabiki rolling on the floor. Me keeping someone's house, raising her children and for, for what?"

      She bowed her head, steeling herself. I have to face the truth, as sad as it is.

      "For my clothes on my back and my food on my table, and someone to love me. Not me alone, but at least . . . " Tears came again

      It is hopeless.

      A revelation. She suddenly abandoned that line of thought, "If he could get home to Nabiki and his friends, he would have already done it!"

      He is here, confined, possibly with no chance of getting back home. Kasumi rejected the idea of trapping him here outright, He'd never forgive me.

      "He might even just kill me."

      That wasn't funny, she chided herself, But I do have the time and opportunity to declare my feelings, to work something out with him and Makoto, before he rescues himself or his friends rescue him.

      And what arrangements would that be? He's not going to marry a woman with nothing to recommend her, no matter how well she can cook, clean and keep house. He's nearly as good as you are in each of those categories. I have to let him know I care about him in a way that - Images of being carried along safe and warm flooded her mind, - the idea of him touching me with more than -

      "Stop that!"

      That is the other aspect, homely or not -

      He's not homely, he just isn't terribly handsome.

      Gaijin or not, no one had ever touched me like that, I've never felt the way I felt in his arms. And it wasn't just safe and protected, I'd been excited, embarrassingly so.

      I was disappointed when he wouldn't take me home. Almost as disappointed as with his little `fire drill` trick. Yes, it showed his respect, but I don't want to only be respected.

      And what would have happened there? 'Tear his clothes off and having your way with him, page by page?' She blushed furiously, remembering Jeff's not too subtle advice to her on dealing with Tofu-sensei. That isn't what I want. But to be touched and held with the same gentle arms, to be kissed with all the - She blushed furiously again.

      "I sound like Happosai. He's a boy."

      You're a girl.

      She frowned. This argument is becoming circular, I'm trapped and lonely, he is hardly a 'knight-in-shining-armor', but he has the means, drive and intelligence to get me out of my current predicament, and romance is the only coin I have to pay him with. The fact he might be interested in me -

      And is the only man who is, she stomped on that thought, It didn't hurt that he was attractive.

      AH HA!

      "I didn't say he was handsome."

      But he is attractive. Young, he is already tall, he's mature for his age, for any age. And intelligent, that he kept the 'Nerima Wrecking Crew' as he and Asuka called it, turned against themselves instead of free to attack them is ample proof. He is also passionate, his drive to rebuild the restaurants after the attack, and his battles against 'The Wrecking Crew' are proof enough of that.

      And his loyalty. And that his loyalties cannot be divided between sides, but can be divided among people.

      That he'd refrained from killing any of them, spoke to his gentleness. He'd cured Kodachi of her madness, rather than having to continuingly fighting the Black Rose, he and Asuka had set up the 'Kuno's head' tournament that kept Kuno away from Akane and Ryoga, and all the other suitors it kept otherwise occupied, as a peace offering. Until they realized the futility and instead turned both the Kunos into allies. It showed his dislike for the NWC is professional, not personal. I doubt he'd actually meant to cook and eat Ryoga. He'd wanted Ryoga to stop spying and had used a wickedly funny way of making certain. Ryoga was reluctant to go anywhere near Neko-chan's, even in human form. And absolutely no one wanted to risk spying on them anymore. Ripples spread through the community, giving the pair of them a reputation for utter ruthlessness, they no longer had to fight endless and meaningless battles. 'Peace by fiat and the will to enforce it.' Then they seemed to combine their efforts to assist the Senshi. Did Asuka also help Makoto catch Jeff? Could I ask her help?

      "So I know what a his age boy wants. Can I get what I need in return?"

      She sadly decided on the path, Once more Oneechan must sacrifice herself for the family.

      Be careful of his sacrificial knife.

      Kasumi gasped at that thought, and that it wasn't unwelcome at all. "There has to be something wrong with me."

      Kasumi returned to the empty house. Once Jeff had gone, her need to feign helplessness had ended. The cursory exam detected nothing untoward and the eye exam detected only minor irritation, no permanent damage. Fortunate she had so competent a rescuer, so she suffered no permanent injury the doctors had told her.

      Yes, fortunate, she thought as looked at the house, it gleamed inside and out, as if someone had spent a year cleaning and polishing. Or a master mage cast a spell, she realized, He certainly took care of it. She considered beyond the edifice, to what it meant, It had been mother's home. It had been mine, for a while, soon it would be Akane's. She sighed, fully understanding Nabiki for the first time. Akane is the heir, Kasumi would soon be superfluous here, and I feel trapped, trapped by honor, trapped by duty. Nabiki had taken a way out, now I have a way out. All it would take is bold action and sacrifice on my part. Some of my honor sacrificed, perhaps, much if not all of my reputation, that is certain. But it will guarantee the Dojo will have an heir, and it will reduce the expenses of the household. Akane needs to learn that being mistress of the house requires more than simply being the heir. It will also secure my future, admittedly a lonely and possibly loveless one, but it might not be empty of other rewards, and that wouldn't be too bad, if I approached it correctly.

      Kasumi considered the time and resources she had, The fathers will not be back before Akane and Ryoga are back from school and treatment. I have that long to wrack my brains on everything I know about gaijin customs in general, and Jeff in particular. She smiled as she realized, So it's my cleverness and intellect pitted against his, to put the compact forward in a way he is guaranteed to accept. That's a challenge I haven't had in a long time, maybe that's what's so fun about this. First, he's cut from the same cloth as Nabiki: vicious, underhanded, and immensely loyal to what truly mattered, for her: keeping herself amused; for him: his friends and family, even the extended family he'd assembled here in Nerima. Second, the nickname Raccoon speaks of a trickster, that means he will try and figure out a situation instead of acting blindly. There are ways of turning both those qualities against an opponent. I'm very glad I've taken part in none of the attacks on them, even offering help when my foolish father and Happosai burned down the Nekohanten. Taking part would have made this impossible. Now I have to decide how a gaijin from the nineteen forties would consider the state of affairs, and the best way to present it. Not the easiest task in the world, especially to a mature 16-year-old. Although he is much more worldly and mature than his apparent age would indicate, he is not completely a boy, and not quite a man. Then again, he is a combat pilot used to being under severe stresses, so normal patterns might not apply. I have much to think about.

      "Stop!" she told herself, "Don't over complicate things. Start with basics and develop a plan of action for all variables."

      Chopping complicated problems into smaller, readily-soluble segments allows me to deal with the distresses that so perplex the others. The first problem can be solved quickly, if I can find it quickly. Working it over will give me time to consider the details. I know I'll have to build my case a brick at a time, never give him time to form a counter until . . . no, that's unfair, she thought, It's almost impossible to accept, but there is a chance, that nothing I do will make a difference. That he will reject me no matter what I do, what I offer, and in all fairness, I will have to allow it to happen. Making him my enemy will solve the problem as well, but not in a way I'd want. Besides, there's Makoto as well, so I'll have another chance.

      She found the first weapon for her arsenal, her old dark-blue gym uniform, a leotard. It was thin and worn, an asset now, and it also was slightly too small. The tear across the chest mortified me at the time, first because of where it was, and second because it forced the family to spend scarce money for a new one, there was no way to repair it. She smiled at that. She extracted a pair of scissors from her sewing kit and carefully enlarged the hole considerably. Then cast about for the thread to properly reinforce the edges and the other seams, and to highlight what it displayed. White, no red, she thought, and hummed a pleasant tune, quietly thinking about her plan and separating what she actually knew from what she only suspected. I'll have to react to subtle cues from someone raised in a very different culture, she found she was looking forward to the mental challenge, The Oni was clumsy, this has to be seemingly obvious, but insinuative.

      The youma recoiled as the white robed and masked figure announced himself.

      "EEK!" the newly reborn Sailor Moon announced to the world, incidentally shattering the glassine youma into millions of glittering fragments. "A member of the Taliban! You're going to drag me off the Andaftrastan and make me wear a bunker!"

      The barrage of objects that drove her would-be rescuer back, proved that Senshi definitely received enhanced strength from the transformation. As a mail box, a park bench, a cop, two tanuki statues and an inadequately careful mooncat were all launched at the stunned rescuer, who's remained mostly untouched solely because he hadn't moved from exactly where Sailor Moon had been aiming.

      "Waah! I don't want to be kidnaped!"

      Fortunately, only the mooncat made a direct hit on the target.

      The Scholarly Dragon accepted the bowl of popcorn from Tokemi. "Not one of yours then?" he asked as they watched the scene between the destined couple play itself out.

      "I wish. There's an artistry here I can't put my finger on. That girl is definitely talented," Tokemi remarked.

      "You should see the one with her cap set on catching the Boy."

      "So this is the cartoon, and the latter is the main feature?" Tokemi asked and smirked, "Why aren't you going to intervene?"

      "I have my own plans. I know the Boy and Lightning Lass better than they do, the outcome will be as I desire it."

      "The girl's chaotic aspect may be all that's saved her and her friends thus far. I assume that Setsuna is part of your plans? And that plan goes well?"

      "Predictably," the Dragon replied dryly, "Every time I think I've got her in the clear, Pluto steps up and walks all over her. I have a contingency, but I'd rather not invoke it. It's hard to call back."

      "I understand. The others, Washu's little mistake, you think leaving that to 'the Boy' and 'Langley' is a good idea?"

      "Could you or your sisters handle it?" the Dragon teased, and handed back the popcorn.

      "No." Tokemi frowned at that.

      "That's why we're doing it my way," the Dragon explained, "Their weakness is an asset. 'Alliances must be made.' It's a polite fiction, but none of them will question it."

      "Then I'll leave you to your plots," Tokemi said, "While I enjoy the next show."

      "The Youma must have run away, and I beat that crazy man!' Sailor Moon posed and crowed, then noticed the rather peeved cop, "Don't worry officer, the life of a defender of Love and Justice is an exciting one." She took to her heels before the cop could say anything.

      A few blocks later, she stopped. Luna wandered towards her, zigzagging drunkenly most of the way.

      "Where did you disappear to!? I thought the policemen got you," Moon gushed as she hugged the mooncat.

      "Where . . . where did I disappear to," the mooncat kept stammering, as she let Sailor Moon carry her the whole way back home.

      "Is that your native language? I can't understand a word of it."

      "I was just reminding myself that I serve the princess," Luna commented.

      "Oh! When do I get to meet her?! Rei-chan said she will serve a great purpose! I just can't wait to meet her, she's probably tall and graceful, just so smart and caring, and - " Moon stopped to inhale deeply.

      "Eventually," Luna said tiredly, then stared at the detransformed Usagi, "Don't you need to breath when you talk?"

      "I bet it's Sailor V. I'm sure she's the princess, she's so brave and pretty. I know I'll meet her soon!"

      The mumblings of the mooncat continued.

      Stirogi wasn't just terrified, he was well beyond that, and into numbness. His Lordship asked me to serve tea and snacks while his Lordship conferred with one of the gods who'd created this universe, he thought apoplectically, They just 'chat' about the human foibles they observe.

      He refilled the bowl of popcorn and saw to the lady's tea, then thought, I don't even exist at this moment, as long as I keep the tea flowing and the popcorn full. With the near empty containers changed out for full ones, he stepped back to prepare their replacements.

      I might as well be serving in Cologne's restaurant. Why was he so insistent I not be there?

      The evening meal had been cleared away, Kasumi had watched everyone go to bed. She walked out to the Dojo, ostensibly to clean it. She looked around and sighed. Broken brick and other debris litter the place, again. Akane simply assumed Kasumi, or someone else, would always clean up her messes. Kasumi forced down her anger. I begin to understand why Nabiki willingly went to a world where violent death seems such a expected element, she could matter, for what she did. She could, would, be measured by her effects and successes, what she did, rather than who she was.

      Kasumi-chan wants that too, she thought, chuckled at the childish tone, To be valuable to someone. She located the bag with her `costume` in it. No one had disturbed or discovered it. She stripped out of her blouse and skirt and her underwear, folding them carefully and placing them in the bag. Then she squeezed into the modified uniform.

      "Oh my." She blew out all of her breath just to fit and was very glad she'd reinforced the seams. I hadn't realized I'd filled out so much since early high school. It's uncomfortable, but it fits like a second skin. No deep breaths unless - until you want to shed it, she thought and stifled a laugh.

      The dark green kimono was next. A correct and very formal garment: protective camouflage. The leotard covers me up to my neck, except what it now doesn't cover is concealed by the kimono. Ordinary shoes, I can't risk a misstep on geta or high heels. Besides, it would draw attention if I were too formal, or too foreign.

      She let out another breath and rearranged herself in the leotard and kimono. To approach another Japanese in this way would be hopelessly forward and very insulting. I normally would never have considered it, it was completely out of my normal character. But that character is going to change drastically before the end of the year, if I don't start changing it now, I'll never survive.

      As she stepped out of the Dojo into the yard, she looked around. This had been my home, the center of my universe for so long, soon I'll only be welcome as a visitor or a servant, a slave. She toyed with her hair, still uncertain about the best presentation, My usual braid or hanging free on my shoulders? He likes long hair, she paused and silently vowed, I will do all I can to assure Akane will uphold the family's honor and tradition, but I also have to look out for my future, my own future. I still have one stop to make, before I arrive at the Neko-chan's. I shall ask my mother's blessing and approval, on the sacrifice of my honor for the, for my family's future, and possibly my own future happiness.

      The knock on the door brought Hotaru down the stairs at a run. She opened the door to a wizened old man in a black gi, wearing an expression of abject misery.

      "Master Happosai?" Hotaru asked.

      He looks so sad and lonely, Hotaru thought, and took the old man's hand when he nodded.

      As soon as the door closed behind them, she hugged him tightly, and let her healing energies flow through him. Ki-chan was right, what Mako-chan started, I can easily help finish.

      "I'm so glad you agreed to help me," she told him while she adjusted the flows, corrected what he had tried to do to gain immortality, and raised his already almost limitless health.

      The energy seemed to have raised the old man's spirits considerably. "It's a martial artist's duty to protect the weak, and if he can't do that directly, he should do it second-hand, to the best of his ability."

      Hotaru practically beamed at him and nodded eagerly. If what Ki-chan said is even half true, those would have been empty words, just a few days ago, she thought, But it seems all the Senshi have a `purifying` effect, or our energy does.

      "I've trained with Asuka-chan, and the Meliorist, so I have a good background, but I've only heard of you in stories. It's an honor to train with you."

      He smiled and patted her shoulder. "Asuka's a skilled beginner only. I'll train you up proper."

      "I'm glad, I won't need anything but my glaive. It's been worrying me," she said as she led the old man to their training room, and let some of her concern show, "My best attack ends the world, and kills me. I'd rather have some other skills to allow me to battle my foes."

      In the makeshift training room, Makoto and Kiima waited, along with their dad, who looked even more nervous than Happosai did.

      Ki-chan and Mako-chan both hugged him like a teddy bear, dad gave a bow. The hugs both raised and lowered the old man's spirits.

      He's happy to feel good, but he's not sure about losing who he was, Hotaru realized, I could put you back, but I think you'd pester me to `restore` you to your changed condition if I did. I will have to remember to offer it to you, then it will seem like your choice, not something we did to you.

      "Honored sir, I'm so glad you are willing to help us," dad said as he bowed again.

      "Are you willing to devote your entire life to martial arts?" Happosai asked sharply.

      "Uh, with all respect, no," dad said nervously, "I'll need to be good enough to fight hard enough, so I can run away."

      The old man laughed with real mirth at that. "An honest man," he croaked, "I can teach you that." Happosai sat, and gestured for them to do likewise. "We shall begin with breathing exercises, whether you want to fight, or run away, you need to breathe properly. The manipulation of the energy should be easy for the Senshi, but the energy of life is different than magic. The two together will be stronger than either alone. Don't wince, we'll have some very basic hand-to-hand training later."

      They sat, and breathed, under Happosai's watchful eye.

      "Is Mako-chan doing it right or wrong," Hotaru asked, "You seem to be concentrating on her."

      The old man and the Senshi sputtered a bit at that.

      I arrive at the Neko-chan's. They close at 9:00 P.M., I've assumed half-an-hour to clear out the last customers, and 45 minutes to an hour-and-a-half to finish the clean up. I arrive at 10:15 P.M., knocking at the wooden door.

      "Please excuse, we closed. Welcome to come back tomorrow at 10:30 A.M.," Xian Pu said through the door.

      "Xian Pu, please," I say.

      Xian Pu opens the door with a concerned look on her face, "Kasumi-san?"

      I keep my eyes and face downcast. I hope she doesn't notice the cosmetics or perfume I'm wearing, it isn't for her. I don't want her to warn Jeff.

      "I need to see Jeffery Davis," I say it carefully. I practiced the American pronunciation until I got it perfect, "It is very important."

      Xian Pu looks worried and turns back to call, "Raccoon, Kasumi here for you to see."

      For once, the Amazon's mangled Japanese achieves greater accuracy than she knows.

      "Come in." She lets me pass. Closing the door behind me.

      Jeff is in the kitchen. He must have been cleaning. I glance up at the faces, not raising my head, all of the faces are etched with concern. All of them are worried for me.

      "Tendo-san?" Jeff asks, stepping around the corner, "Are you all right?"


      The truth.

      "I need to speak with you, in private."

      There's a flash of anger, Jeff looks around, he isn't sure about things.

      He suspects a trap, suspects I'm being forced.

      "Is my room upstairs acceptable?"

      I keep the smile of joy from my face. Being gravely polite is working best.

      "Yes, I am sorry to trouble you this way."

      "I will be up in a few minutes. I have almost finished my work."

      I bow and walk carefully up the stairs, desperate not to damage my `costume`. I hope my careful tread is taken another way.

      The room is bare, two futons rolled in the corner, barely enough space in the room for both of them rolled out. A quick search detects a short brown hair on one. It must be Jeff's. I roll it out, placing it near the door and kneel down on it, waiting for him. There are clues here, but he'll overthink the too obvious similarities to the Oni's attempt, never assuming that my intent is similar to the Oni's. I've positioned the futon and myself so it gives him only one place to stand in the room to speak with me. As I loosen the kimono, to shed it easily, I feel slightly dishonest. Tainted, but sometimes you have to do things that are necessary. He arrives at the door, stepping inside.

      "What happened?" His voice betrays worry.

      For me, for himself? Or both?

      "The door." I keep my head down, not looking at him. He slides it closed. I can smell him now. Sweat, oil, spices, like stir-fried mushrooms in ginger and salt. It is an odd, but not unpleasant smell.

      "Your shirt, if you would." My voice quavers slightly.

      Things are going too well, overeagerness and concern war to disrupt my thinking and carefully-constructed demeanor. I look up enough to see his face, he's leery while he unbuttons his white shirt. He can't sense any danger, perhaps he thinks the smell offends me. Perhaps he's just humoring me. He's wearing a white, cotton T-shirt underneath. Drat! I can't ask for that too.

      I take the shirt and carefully fold it and put it aside, each movement careful and measured, like origami or a tea ceremony. For the same reason, all to calm. He relaxes a bit, I have put the lower hem of my kimono under my feet. I practiced this too. My hair is loose, freed from the usual braid. A moment to center and steel myself. Now!

      I stand suddenly. He backs up a pace, against the wall, braced for an attack, but none comes. The kimono remains on the floor. Just me.

      He looks me over once, quickly.

      Looking for weapons, for danger. He finds none, my feet are flat on the floor, hands empty at my sides, my hair and clothing can't conceal even the tiniest weapon.

      Watch his eyes, I remind myself, I can afford to be patient, I have to be, timing is everything. His actions or lack of actions dictate what I do.

      His eyes look me over head to toe again, less wary, more confused.

      Intellect and instinct can't find a pattern. Hormones are starting to report in.

      The next sweep is slower, pausing occasionally at interesting spots, my own heart races in excitement and uncertainty.

      Yes, I am well put together, even by Western standards.

      His eyes lock with mine, try to remain there. I see only confusion, wariness fading. I let myself breathe now, deep, slow breaths. His eyes flash down to watch the movement, a moment of wariness. Then back up to look into mine

      He doesn't understand, he also doesn't trust his voice. Actually, I don't trust mine either, the way he's looking at me, at my body. The warrior's instinct has assured him I won't attack. Now intellect casts about desperately for a pattern while his body is starting to get him ready for the only conclusion his youth and hormones can come up with.

      The eyes show the battle's progress, down and linger, then forced back up to stare at my face, sees the cosmetics, the effect, nose detecting the scent. More data that doesn't fit. He appreciates the effect, and it has an affect on him. There's a slackness of his expression.

      This is beyond his experience, no answer can be found, except the most obvious which doesn't make any sense. My hands go behind my back, shoulders back and I take the deepest breath I can. I feel the seams strain and the shifting under the fabric. He watches with undisguised interest. I nearly lose myself for a moment, but I have to stay in control for a little longer.

      He's losing the battle and he knows it, my move doesn't create the wariness it should, we've been at this less than a minute and he knows he's losing his edge, he tenses, forcing himself to stare directly into my eyes. The tension prevents him from countering my next move. I step directly into him, pushing him back. My hands are behind my back, no strike to vulnerable spots while my whole body is up against him and pressing in. An electric feeling courses through me, for an instant, I'm afraid I may push both of us right through the wall behind him.

      Reason rallies.

      His hands come up. I catch them with mine, pulling them back around my waist. With that counter deflected, I press in on him and raise myself on my toes, rubbing my whole body against him. My tongue darts out, licking his throat, soft, quick and catlike before he can jerk away, then back down on my heels, reduce the pressure. I look at his face, he's sweating, his body is reacting and while he's terribly embarrassed, he's also enjoying the attention. I am too.

      So long I've been a pleasant household appliance, to cook, to clean, to dispense advice. Never a woman. Never to be desired the way he's looking at me right now, even Happosai pays me little mind.

      I hadn't thought how much that hurt, until now. I slide my hands, and his, lower on my back, now he reacts, trying to step back, to pull his hands away from my body. But there's nowhere to step back to, and I've turned his hands so I have a leverage advantage. I have to push him harder, intellect and hormones, I've seen which way they're leaning. His mind can't formulate a reply to my actions, so it denies, while his body is eagerly responding, the result is stasis, only his instincts can disrupt this balance. Wariness and propriety, but neither fully apply right now. I'm not attacking or hurting, and neither is he. He has to find another course of action, or succumb.

      Another full body rub as I go to my toes, seemingly propelled there by his touch, a slight moan in his ear, then a quick lick. "Take me, now." Back down, then up on the other side of his face. My cheek brushing the down on his, not old enough to shave, but definitely a man-child. A cat-lick, "I want you." I moan 'Please,' as I slide down on my heels.

      There's no chance he'll agree, but I must place the thought there, I think, For later.

      I lean my hips into his, leaning my shoulders back, forcing him to decide to either support my weight or drop me. He chooses to hold on, rather desperately. My dreamy smile is not wholly feigned.

      His expression has changed from confusion to complete surprise.

      He's lost any control and context of the situation he might have. I didn't attack, I didn't act like the Kasumi he thinks he knows.

      "Langley," he says softly, desperately, tearing his eyes away from me, staring at the door. I manage to be standing up when Asuka and Xian Pu yank the door open a second later. The two of them stare at us, utterly shocked.

      Jeff looks like he expects an immediate pounding. I play to this. "I'm sorry, Xian Pu. I had no idea he was your Airen." I kneel, quickly bowing in her direction. She is completely speechless.

      "Her?!" Asuka shouts, "Are you crazy?"

      "Oh." I cover my mouth. "I should have known."

      Asuka's mouth opens and closes, she shakes her head to clear it.

      I put my arms around his knees and place my cheek against his excited member, "Both?" I look up at him without breaking contact, then at the two girls. I smile a `typical Kasumi` smile at them, hugging him closer, "I hope you share."

      Asuka has seen enough, and knows that if you can't win, you retreat.

      She grabs Jeff's ear and drags him out of the room. He doesn't seem to be protesting too much. "Get her dressed and downstairs," Asuka orders.

      Xian Pu moves in slowly.

      She's trying to decide if my madness is contagious.

      They hugged the old master and received nary a grope in return as he left.

      Kiima waited until they had returned to the family room before she spoke. "I remember legends about him." She smirked at Makoto. "I think you broke him, poor, old, dirty-old man."

      "He's nice!" Hotaru protested.

      "Until you fill out more," Kiima replied.

      "Oh?" Makoto asked and raised her arms over her head.

      "Very well, what about when he decides to drag us on a training trip, or some such."

      "A family vacation might be very nice," dad said, then looked at his daughters, all staring at him. "That's what it would be, not some ten-year excursion."

      The girls all chuckled at the prospect of their dad explaining to Happosai that the trip was a family vacation.

      In the restaurant, we are all sitting together, my kimono is back on and I'm back to `normal`. I'm sitting next to Jeff, despite a warning growl from Asuka. I don't touch him though. Part of my mission here is to gather intelligence, winning this boy's heart will be a difficult endeavor. Xian Pu lost her bid by pushing Ranma too far and too fast. I don't intend to make that mistake, besides a Western proverb tells that 'Every man wants a lady in public, and a whore in private.' We are now in public.

      "Xian Pu assure you that Jeff is not Airen." Then she looks at Jeff alarmedly. "Unless Raccoon defeat Ranma."

      Jeff assures Xian Pu, "I lost the only fight we ever had."

      Asuka says, "That isn't completely true."

      "What means?" Xian Pu asks the two occidentals.

      "He fought him in a mental duel and won hands down," Asuka explains.

      "That was training and it doesn't count." Jeff dismisses the notion.

      "Mind duel?" Xian Pu asks.

      "Will and control of the environment," Jeff explains, "Our enemies sometimes attack in dreams, you have to be able to fight them."

      Xian Pu nods.

      "Unless you defeated someone who defeated Ranma." I remember my extensive studies of Amazon Law.

      "Well," Asuka considers.

      "It wasn't human," Jeff amends.

      "Not matter," Xian Pu says.

      "Well, it should," Jeff says as he and Asuka exchange glances. She nods to him, encouraging him to tell the story. "Asuka and Ranma were defeated, convincingly so, by one of our enemies. Shinji and Rei had to kill the thing. But that was only the herald, a precursor to another monster," Jeff says, then repeats it in Chinese. "Anyway, since the real manifestation was coming, we trained especially to face it. All seven of us were in the EVAs, three `pairs`: Nabiki and Rei, Asuka and Shinji, me, Ranma and Ranko."

      "Ranma's female form," Asuka adds.

      "It took all seven of us to kill it."

      "A stronger side to the one who defeated Ranma?" I ask.

      "Yes, same entity, just - more - of it - I guess - than the first one," Jeff explains.

      Good, I think of his nervousness with me this close, close enough to touch. I had a conclusion.

      "Why is that so important?" Asuka looks from Xian Pu to Mu Tsu, both have stricken expressions.

      "Airen defeated," Xian Pu says in a small voice, "Must marry victor, victor is defeated, must marry defeater. If all seven . . . was honorable fight?"

      "I . . . I guess so." Asuka is lost.

      I take advantage of the confusion to pat Jeff's knee, he practically jumps out of his chair. No one else seems to notice. "What Xian Pu means is, she has to marry all seven of you."

      Ukyo and Asuka chorus, "WHAT!!"

      "I like Xian Pu," Asuka says desperately, "But not that way!"

      "Her job will be to insure you have children," Mu Tsu chimes in, "And have a part in raising them. Jeff, Ranma and . . . " He searches for the name. "Shinji, will be expected to father children with Xian Pu."

      "Hold it!" Jeff stands up, "First, we pilots are all too young to start families, and second, Langley and I have to get home. The Amazon village and the Tendo Dojo may be the center of the universe around here, but if we lose our war, this planet may be wiped from existence in a few years to a few centuries, as our enemies sweep across all the universes."

      "Then I will make your time very pleasant," I tell him.

      His hands come up defensively and he backs away a pace, "Tendo-san, I appreciate the offer. But you're under the influence of something. I don't want to force you to - "

      "Force?" I stand and let my anger out, let it show. "Force! I'm here, I started this, not you!" I push him back into his chair. "Force. I've been forced to be a good daughter, a good homemaker, and a good counselor." I'm not quite shouting. My feelings are not feigned or forced.

      I never realized how angry I was about this, sacrificing my future for Nabiki's and Akane's.

      "And do you know what happens to me when Akane marries Ryoga? She's the heir."

      His face is full of confusion but no anger, he doesn't mind being corrected by a woman, another important point, but he doesn't understand my fury.

      Kasumi never gets angry, Japanese girls don't make a scene, I can read from his expression.

      I bow my head as I fall to my knees in front of him. "I'm out. An extra, I will be allowed to stay only at Akane's sufferance. And she'll be free to send me away, any time she wants, no warning, no protests." I let my feelings of frustration and helplessness flow into my words. I feel the tears flow.

      "I know I cannot be the one your truly love, I accept that as a just penalty." I lay my cheek on his knees, "But I promise to cook your meals, keep your house, raise your children, even if they aren't mine." I look up at him, "And I will keep your nights warm, and your wife's, if that is what you both want. I don't ask that you love me. I only ask for food, and clothes and a place that is mine."

      I watch his eyes. They are filled with fury and compassion, fury at the picture I have painted, compassion for me. Occasionally he glances at the other women. As if polling them, seeking their advice, a good sign.

      He comes to a decision. Taking my hands and lifting me to my feet. "Tendo-san, I don't think you fully understand what you're asking. I'm a combat soldier. I like many of the people here. I like you. But if that gate opens and I can go home, I'm leaving as fast as I can, because my mission is there. And I know, you'll say 'I'll go with you.' But I can't guarantee I'll be alive next year, next month, tomorrow. I can't guarantee anything more than right now. And please look at it from my perspective. You've been friendly but neutral this whole time. That mine goes off and suddenly you want to be my wife - "

      "No, I'll settle for being your mistress," I correct him, "And your wives'," this derails his train of thought.

      From the length of the silence that follows, the wreck must have been spectacular.

      "Then there's the age question - "

      "You think I'm too old, you think I'm stale."

      "Would you STOP doing that!"

      Real anger in his voice that time. I should be careful about teasing him.

      "My mother married at 22, my aunts at 24 and 27, I have a cousin who married again at 43. You aren't too old, I'm too young. I'm only 16, that's too young to make decisions like that. I'm not saying 'no', I'm saying 'not yet.'"

      "I understand."

      And I do, he's confused and frightened.

      "And you need a chance to discuss it with Nabiki and Makoto."

      "Neither has anything to do with this." He shoots back angrily, then more gently, "Now is not the time."

      This time I'm speechless. From all I've heard and saw, the pair were perfect.

      "Besides, they can't marry until they get his family's permission, Ryoga's I mean. They'll have to get all three of them together, that gives us some time to deal with your underlying problem." He's too quick, I can't get a comment in, "Besides, I'd never marry someone without a college education or a business."

      " 'What did you do at work today?'" he says in falsetto.

      " 'Oh, Langley and I worked out the bugs in the new stardrive, cuts the travel time to Alpha Centauri from 10 years to six months, and you?'" with exaggerated bass.

      " 'I discovered this marvelous recipe for steamed Brussel sprouts.'" Again in falsetto.

      He continues in a normal voice, "Unless she's a chief chef at a her own restaurant, or for an airline or a hotel chain, that would be total incompatibility."

      I nod, laugh. I do see his point and that would solve both of our problems. I'd have a degree, he'd be older.

      "But how do I pay for it?"

      I consider stepping closer, Implying what I can offer, but he needs his mind clear, and besides, he already said he didn't say 'no.'

      "That isn't the problem. How are you going to make sure Akane doesn't let the place fall to ruin?" he asks sternly.

      We are making a contract, now his `honor` comes to play.

      "Agreed. I'll let you work your magic, I and Mirei shall work ours."

      He nods.

      "And then we can wait."

      I don't tell him, 'You'll learn to love me', he's off-balance enough as it is.

      "Before you make plans," Kho Lon began.

      Elder Kho Lon has been waiting patiently, trying to discover something about the boy as he worked through this problem, and to analyze my motives.

      "You were correct, it was a powerful potion, six actually, in extremely high dosages. Three of the drugs are almost legendary love potions," the Amazon Elder explains, "This is beyond what Har Du could have concocted."

      "Antidote, antidotes?" Jeff asks.

      My face must have betrayed my disappointment.

      "Your health may be seriously damaged by the combination and the high dosages," Kho Lon tells me, "The boy is justifiably concerned."

      He seems more confused by that. "Ukyo-san? Can you escort Tendo-san home?"

      Ukyo nods.

      I want to tell him to use a more familiar honorific, or my personal rather than my family name, but I remind myself, Be patient, I'm winning, and I have weeks or months to work. Now I have another piece to bring into the equation.

      With Kasumi safely gone, Raccoon turns to the rest of us, especially me.

      "Well Langley, you can all start laughing at me now, you won't hurt my feelings, or hers."

      "We not laugh, is not funny," Xian Pu said.

      I agree.

      "Look Raccoon, normally I'd laugh at the absurdity of your universe, but she really is hurting, badly."

      "Thank you, Langley." He smiled tiredly. "The floor is open for discussion. I have no idea what to do."

      "Marry her," Mu Tsu suggested, "If the antidote comes later, she may wish to continue the arrangement."

      "I have never seen a love potion where the victim retained so much of her, or his, ability to think and plan," Kho Lon said. "Or would ever entertain the idea that her love wouldn't be reciprocated. That is the major downfall of such potions."

      "Is there an antidote?" Raccoon asked.

      "With legendary potions, there are equally legendary antidotes, all totally useless I'm afraid, the combination is too dangerous. There is the possibility of a universal antidote, but it is the hands of the Amazon's sworn enemies, in the depths of China."

      "Short of a major assault, that rules that out," Raccoon said reluctantly.

      "What about that purge spell, the one you used to deal with the poisoned L.C.L.?" Asuka asked.

      "Langley," Raccoon told me, "Can you imagine the fight suggesting that would have started? Besides, it's almost useless against people who don't want it."

      "Uh . . . ," Asuka admitted, "Are you going to take her with us? Back home?"

      "I was hoping I could get advice on that, Mu Tsu says marry her, no one else said anything."

      "Until you are sure she's acting of her own free will," Kho Lon declared, "Make no decision. If she does truly care, she'll hate you for taking advantage, and care more if you don't."

      "Langley?" he asked her.

      "Relationships, I don't know. You know what I mean."

      He remembers with me, it seems everyone who claims to love us eventually abandons us. Even Makoto. I thought he was being stupid with her, now that I've seen her act, maybe I'm not so certain.

      "Xian Pu? I know your great-grandmother has spoken, but what do you think?"

      "Xian Pu not." She shakes her head, "Xian Pu not understand enslaving woman to house, then throw out. Xian Pu also think about monster beat Ranma, then seven beat monster's true self. All make very confused Xian Pu."

      Raccoon nodded.

      Xian Pu is a nice girl, a good fighter, a loyal friend, but too proud and not a quick thinker, Asuka thought, Like Misato.

      "Okay, that's one for, one against and two abstentions. I'll ask Ukyo-san when she gets back." He shook his head ruefully.

      I feel some sympathy, I went through the same thing when Kaji betrayed us.

      "Just remember Kaji," Asuka told him, "You were right about him all along. Trust your instincts."

      "My instincts say it's not my problem, don't ask for more trouble, enough is delivered already."

      I'm going to have to talk to Kasumi about that. She'd be good for him, from a confessor to sex toy and in between, and we need a spy in the enemy's camp, Asuka thought, Besides, I can only think of one person who would conclude putting a love potion land mine on the path Raccoon and Kasumi take to market nearly every morning, would be a good idea, le grande hentai: Happosai. But supposedly he's if not turned over a new leaf, then he's at least partially reformed from such meanness. Raccoon was supposed to trip it and make an ass of himself all over Kasumi. Raccoon suspects, Kasumi needs to know that too: she's become an expendable pawn in the grand game. That makes me furious, why do these people act like Gendo? At least he's trying to save the world from a terrible fate, these bastards are talking about running the family business a particular way.

Sailor Jupiter II 13 - Take a Look Around Ya Boy, It's Bound to Scare Ya Boy

Disclaimer - I do not own the characters of Ranma «, NGE, Tenchi Muyo or BSSM, they belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Gainex, AIC Productions and Naoko Takeuchi, respectively.

      The young man approached the military trucks, but despite his fatigues, he didn't look like one of the soldiers. "Dr. Mizuno. I'm Ono Tofu. The Admiral said you needed an expert in Chinese medicine and folklore."

      The woman looked him over. "How did you get your experience?"

      "Mostly study, I also studied the people of Nerima for several years, until I couldn't remain any longer."

      The doctor nodded, leaving the man the secret he was undoubtedly trying to hide. "Would you care to see the results of our medical tests?"

      "Unless they were updated in the last three hours, I already scanned the results the Admiral forwarded to me. This seems more my area of expertise than a pediatrician's."

      "There are wounded people up there," the doctor said, "I intend to help them, as do the people here."

      "I have no objections," the man said and smiled, "I was just pointing out the disconnect."

      "Maybe I can learn something," Dr. Mizuno offered as she climbed into the truck.

      Tofu followed her.

      "The crystal is impressive, the people, girls mostly, are quite lovely," Dr. Mizuno explained as they walked unchallenged through the halls, "But the entire place has a sterility, like a museum, rather than an apartment building. As if it were to house relics and memories, rather than living, growing people."

      "And the disease they suffer from?" Ono-san asked, "Is this part of the sterility?"

      "Perhaps, that is what you are here to observe, and perhaps have us deal with."

      "There are more knowledgeable people than I. Some of them real mages."

      "They are otherwise occupied. It seems that this is part of an attack en echelon. Each strike drawing more and more reserves, until they are stretched to the breaking point." She looked at the stunned Rangers who accompanied them. "Yes, I listened. A good pediatrician has to listen to both what is and what isn't said. Straightforward communication by the fearful is not always possible."

      The folk healer nodded.

      They arrived at the throne room and Dr. Mizuno's heart sank. Nearly a quarter of the beds had been removed, and all those that remained were occupied. "They were lying on the floor, for lack of bed-space, when we started," she whispered to Ono, before greeting the much harried GrandMaster, "This is Ono Tofu, an expert in more . . . mystical elements of disease. I think he may give us insights to deal with your problems."

      "Any help would be welcome," the GrandMaster said sadly, "Even NeoSerenity is at a loss. We've lost so many."

      "I grieve with you," Mizuno said, "I wish there was more we could do. So much going on, and we have to cover all of it."

      The GrandMaster simply nodded.

      Whatever arrogance the woman once had, it seems to have bled out of her, Mizuno thought as she reviewed the cases with Ono, the GrandMaster followed them more like an internist than the leader.

      "I wish they had . . . I'm sorry," she turned and said to the Senshi, "Thinking like a doctor and being undiplomatic."

      "I understand," the GrandMaster replied.

      "You've lost those not wounded in battle?" Mizuno asked.

      "Yes, it's as if they lose too many friends, and they cannot go on," the GrandMaster explained, and looked near that point herself.

      "And their crystals too are cracked and broken?" Ono asked.

      "Their hearts wither and shatter, and they cannot go on."

      I wonder why none of the three in our camp suffer these symptoms? she dared not ask.

      "It may seem forward, but have any had a liaison with our soldiers," Dr. Mizuno asked.

      "Certainly not." The GrandMaster's fire briefly returned.

      "You might suggest it," Mizuno said, "From what I have seen of the Senshi of this world, and from my researches, a certain boy-craziness is to be expected. Romantic feelings or emotional intimacy, may . . . if not cure, then may have a prophylactic effect, as I explained. I'm no expert, but it seems logical."

      GrandMaster Saturn smiled sadly. "I wish you had told us that before. We could have raided your camp, and survived."

      "It is still not too late."

      "I fear it is. What we had hoped, is undone. What we escaped from, has followed us. It is finished, and we only await the end," the GrandMaster said, and ran from the hall weeping.

      "The question," Ono said, "Is do they lay down and die, or decide their deaths must 'have meaning'."

      "That worries me," Mizuno replied.

      The phone rang very late, well after the Neko-chan had closed. "Good evening," Jeff said as he answered the phone.

      "Jeff-chan . . . I need a break. Did Cologne-chan mention it?" came the voice at the other end of the line.

      "Yes, Sasami-chan," Jeff replied, "I've heard from the Dragon as well."

      "Yes, things have been . . . tense," came the tired reply.

      "Do you want me to pick you up, or do you want to come down on your own?"

      "I'd like the teleport, slip away without being detected."

      "How's tomorrow? I need to make some preparations, and Sasami-chan, pack a small bag."

      "I . . . don't have any money."

      "My treat, but that's why I need a day. I'd hardly be a proper kidnapper, if I made you pay for things."

      "Kidnap . . . to avoid using the 'd-word'?" Sasami giggled, "You're going to do something crazy."

      "I certainly am. There's another little girl, about your age, who needs a break from her normal life. Your kind of craziness should be an anodyne for her existence."

      "Good," Sasami chirped, obviously feeling better, "Tomorrow."

      "Tomorrow," Jeff said and hung up, "Can this day get any screwier?" He glanced at the clock. "It's only got another hour, it better hurry."

      The soldiers were out of uniform, and clearly not used to the 20th century.

      "I don't know who you are!" Sailor V threatened, "But I won't allow you to roam the streets of Tokyo! Or of Rome for that matter."

      The men, rather than being intimidated, drew odd, rune-covered knives and long rifles. "If we kill her now, maybe we won't have to deal with her in the present."

      "You're worse at mangling proverbs than I am," V replied.

      Then one of the men darted forward and just scratched her. Only the complete and immediate weakness kept her from screaming at the burning pain racing up her arm from the tiny wound.

      "Too bad we haven't used these on the real thing."

      Sailor V couldn't protest, I am the real thing. What's blocking out the stars in the sky?

      "Wiseman knew you couldn't be trusted," a gravelly voice rumbled out of the long, scaled throat above her, "You just had to play with her, when it wasn't your orders." A tongue nearly the size of a python wrapped itself around her and drew her past evil-looking, blood-red teeth, into a maw that stank of rotten meat. Before she could scream, darkness enclosed her.

      The Scholarly Dragon chewed with gusto, the cracking and popping sounds terrified the soldiers, who clung to each other. "What were your orders? Do any of you remember them?" he asked, then resumed chewing.

      "To secure a base and await the Spore's arrival."

      "Were you to even reveal yourself to the natives? Were you to engage the Senshi? Especially, were you to play with one?"

      "No," the terrified soldiers replied.

      "Then get back to work," the dragon told them and they were only too happy to comply. Leaving only the dragon and a dust cloud in the pool of light near the streetlight.

      As soon as they were out of sight, the dragon spat out an unscathed Sailor V. "You taste like cat fur, you know that?" he asked the soaking wet Senshi.

      "Ahhhggah!" she screamed in English, "I want to go back to England. This would have never have happened to me in England!"

      "True," the dragon admitted, "But then you wouldn't be in position to stop the invasion."

      He carefully opened a fire hydrant and used part of the stream to hose the girl off. She's not even complaining about the cold water, he noted of the still-drenched Senshi, who just sat there.

      "Yes, invasion. They intend to kill several people now to assure a different future. One of them from that future. If you see a girl with pink hair, styled to let her smuggle carrots, give me a call." The card he handed her read '1-800-D-R-A-G-O-N'.

      "How would they know what future they would be creating?" the girl asked, "And doesn't this have the wrong number of numbers."

      "That would make it a numeratrix, like an emperor, king of kings. As for the morons, they don't care. 'It has got to be better', ignores the fact that without you and the other Senshi, there might be no life in the future."

      "We have to stop them!"

      "Agreed," the dragon said to the restored Senshi, "Which is why I put a tracking spell on them, and will vector the appropriate forces against them. You need to return to clearing up the remaining Youma."

      "So I'm just a second wheel, eh?" she complained.

      "Hold still I'm going to spin dry the second wheel," he said and gestured, spinning the Senshi, then she slowed and stopped, and was dry, "I can hardly sneak up on anything smaller than a warship," he pointed out, "You did draw out what I have been searching for, for days. Congratulations. By the way, here." He tossed her a white cat. "That's the real Artemis. I found him and I'm returning him to you."

      The girl brightened immediately, hugging her furry friend.

      "Tell her about Luna, and the other Senshi, Artemis. She deserves to know what you've been doing since you abandoned her. And I've got the Outers on a short leash, tell her about them too. Or I'll get the other cat back from his new owners, and put you with them. I've love to watch you hitchhike from Peru." The dragon spread his wings, to leap into the sky.

      "Wait!" Sailor V called, "Who are you?!"

      "I'm Sailor Saturn's and Pretty Sammi's cute animal advisor. See what happens if you feed them after midnight?" The dragon leapt into the air and was gone.

      "Artemis!" Minako said as she returned to her civilian identity, "If you were finding other Senshi, I almost forgive you."

      "Thank you. We have much to discuss."

      "Is fish still your favorite?" Minako asked eagerly, and waited for him to nod. "I know it's late, but we'll get you some salmon, and some tuna, and maybe some of the eel you always complained you couldn't get in England."

      "Why do I think I'm going to get all of it before sunrise, or after midnight tomorrow?" Artemis asked worriedly.

      Minako smiled nervously. "You're imagining things."

      "Dragons eat virgins," Artemis reminded her. He tried to ignore her angry growl.

      "Their ki is all the same," Ono reported to the Admiral and his assembled staff at the last item of the morning meeting. The man looked around the conference tent at the confused expressions.

      "For the benefit of the ignorant," the Admiral replied, "Why is that so shocking?"

      "That would be the same as taking an Indian, an Aborigine, an Ainu and a European and finding out they all had the same DNA. They're all Caucasoid, but they can't be the same people, and blend in with their native groups. It doesn't work that way."

      "So a blonde and a brunette can't have the same ki?" the ranger medic asked.

      "It's more dependant on personality and world outlook, but essentially, that's true. Two people can't have the same ki. It can be similar, maybe similar enough to seem that same, but it can't be the same."

      "So them all having the same ki implies what, they're all the same organism?" Dr. Mizuno asked.

      "Or they have none of their own and they're all feeding from the same source," Ono replied.

      "It could explain why our three have hitched onto Langley-san as strongly as they have," the Admiral speculated.

      "Her ki is very different, and she produces a vast amount of energy these Northern Senshi could use instead of ki," Ono explained.

      "It also explains why they didn't take the obvious route of infiltration. If they'd slipped into camp to . . . feed, by spending time with your troops - "

      "No need for euphemism, Doctor," the Admiral said, "We're all adults here."

      "In any case, however they passed the time, they wouldn't have flitted back to NeoSerenity. They would have been bound to the ki they'd latched on to."

      "Is it possible we could save them by sending troops in?" the Admiral asked, "What effect would this ki drain have on those men and women?"

      "As long as the medics have been rotating in and out, there have been no ill effects. But they haven't bonded with any of them either," the chief surgeon explained, "I'll run some blood tests, check on elevated white cell counts and other immune responses."

      "I'll supervi . . . assist. I may see something outside your expertise. I'm more used to disease than a surgeon might be," Dr. Mizuno added.

      "Then what do you recommend?" the Admiral asked.

      "We storm the place and start fraternizing," the doctor said with all seriousness.

      "The Psychic Rumble Soldiers and Kodachi-san might be a better bet," Ono suggested, "They have greater reserves and no history with these people."

      "Agreed, what about you, doctor?" the Admiral asked, "I assume you are aware of your own ki."

      The doctor squirmed under the intense interest of the others. "I honestly hadn't considered it. Although the parents of the Senshi must have factors in common that place them outside the human baseline. They haven't drained me, if that's what you're asking. Maybe they just have to be around it, an active field, like moving magnets inducing a current, and vice versa."

      "Brief them, and have them accompany the next cycle. I think with what's brewing in the south, we'll be more than busy enough." The Admiral stood and bowed. "Thank you, dismissed."

      The meeting broke up.

      Sasami ran. Everywhere she turned, everywhere she ran, she saw him. Even the many dream guards Jeffrey and the Dragon had left couldn't stop him from appearing. "Think you can get away, little princess?" the voice taunted.

      "Big brother Tenchi killed you!" Sasami shouted, "I have friends who'll protect me!"

      "I came back, and your friends can't be everywhere. They have Sasami round about with guards and trap. But you are Tsunami too, how do you guard two at once?" The figure materialized out of the darkness. "I can come back, and keep coming back. Can you?"

      Sasami woke, screaming into her pillow so she wouldn't wake the household. She clutched it to her chest, briefly wishing it was Tenchi or Ryoko, as she sobbed into it. They'd think it was just a bad dream, she thought miserably, But it isn't, it's going to happen. He isn't even after me, he's after Tsunami! If he just gets me, maybe all the others will get away. Jeff and the dragon can help. Even Tsunami-sama thinks they can.

      She looked around the room she shared with Ayeka, sighed. There's nothing to do. I should just take my `vacation`, and relax, she thought, If I can rest, then maybe I can fight back, instead of depending on others.

      She stood and dressed as silently as she could, packing a small bag. She selected one of the outfits she and Asuka had bought on her last visit.

      "Jeff-chan," she whispered, "I'm ready."

      "I just have to leave this," came a familiar voice from behind her. He carefully laid the piece of paper next to Ayeka's sleeping form.

      "What's that?" Sasami whispered as Jeff withdrew.

      "A ransom note, for Tuxedo Mask. They'll go nuts looking for you," he told her, "It also contains my diabolical plan to make you sleep through all of this, and they'll all poison each other with their own cooking."

      "Big brother Tenchi can cook." Sasami covered her mouth to stifle a giggle. "You are awful."

      "Of course," he replied, "But the universe seems to be getting its revenge on me." He held out a hand. "Ready?"

      She nodded, took his hand, and they vanished. A moment later, a face appeared out of the wall, smiled and left. Moments later Ayeka's scream at having her bed filled with ice cubes awakened the entire house.

      "I don't see why these fools don't simply change what they are demanding," Kodachi said, glanced at the PRS who clustered around their princess protectively. She resisted the urge to stamp her foot and set them all scurrying.

      "Maybe they can't," the mousy princess replied.

      The three other princesses entered the room. "Do you know when Asuka is coming back?" Jupiter asked.

      "Missing your mommy already?" Kodachi teased, and smirked at Jupiter's growl, "And I thought Miss Mizuno was so enjoying your company. After all your training, she hardly squeals when you knock her down any more."

      "I could knock you down," Jupiter told her.

      "If you dropped a tank on me," Kodachi replied dangerously, then took pity on the girls, "Jeff ran into a spot of trouble even he couldn't handle. Although what that could be beggars even my vivid imagination. She will remain until later today."

      "We could help!" Pluto insisted.

      "I find that a ridiculously laughable thought," Kodachi replied, "If she required neither I nor my crazed brother, I fail to see how anything less than Godzilla could be of assistance. And she already has his assistance."

      "Asuka knows Godzilla?"

      "As well as several other martial arts," Kodachi told them, and smiled as the entire group collapsed and lay twitching on the floor.

      Tomoe looked at the schoolyard and trudged into school. She hid her disappointment from her family, but she hated this place. The other students parted for her, none wanting to get close to her. They think I can't hear them, she thought sadly as she looked forward to another spate of loneliness, Papa and my sisters don't understand that these kids are afraid of me. Makoto and Kiima didn't hear what those three women said about me to dad and Dr. Mizuno, that they should be afraid of me, of what I am, and what I can do, and what I might become. Dad's worried, he hides it, but not perfectly. Fortunately, he's afraid they'll try again. I try, I try so hard not to worry him, but I notice it, more and more, now that I know what to look for.

      She sat in her seat and let the day wash over her.

      The tall, elegant woman who walked in changed the day from ordinary to terrifying. "Good morning class. I'm Meioh Setsuna, your new guidance counselor. I'm certain that you'll - " A spitball the size of a bowling ball hit the woman in the face, toppling her to the ground.

      "She's a vampire and she's eaten Hotaru!" a voice shouted in wailing terror, as Hotaru vanished from the room and reappeared on the roof.

      "Jeffrey!" Hotaru complained, even while she hugged him.

      "Should I have shot her instead?" Jeff asked sardonically, "Your dad's been informed, although I didn't expect they'd try again. They must be suitably . . . punished. So I'll let them come charging to your rescue. After all, you've been kidnaped."

      Sailor Saturn was confronting Jeff now. "Indeed?"

      And Saturn confronted a large dragon. "Indeed. Besides, Sasami's in trouble and I think we may be her best chance." He returned to human form.

      "Why didn't you say that in the first place?" Hotaru asked as she too detransformed.

      "I have my reasons." They vanished and reappeared in the Neko-chan. Sasami was at the counter watching intently as Kho Lon taught her some cooking.

      "Sasami!" Hotaru announced herself, then practically tackled the smaller girl.

      "At least somebody around here knows how to greet a friend," Kho Lon teased, "Although you should let her breathe occasionally. It's so hard catching new friends."

      Sasami inhaled a loud gasp of air, and gave a frazzled glare at her friend, who smiled back.

      "Since you've both been kidnaped," Asuka said as she practically squeezed the stuffings out of both girls, and was less enthusiastically hugged back, "What evil things are going to be done to you? There's ice cream until you're ready to explode, then one more bite." Asuka ignored the drooling. "But there's not really much open this early . . . except." She leaned over and whispered in Sasami's ear.

      The girl brightened and smiled. Then glanced at Hotaru.

      "My work is done," Asuka said happily, "Say, Raccoon. I'm heading back north, have you got anything that will let someone teleport?"

      "I can tele - oh, you might have to play commando raid. Yeah, something, too bad you aren't a Senshi. They can teleport too, although not as precisely or as often as I can." He fished a small box out of his pocket. "You have to set it, and it only has five settings beyond 'home', so I'll take you up north, then come back."

      "Juuban too," Asuka said, "I have a bad feeling this is all a diversion for something much bigger."

      "Agreed." The pair vanished.

      "Okay, follow my lead," Sasami told Hotaru, "You know what to do."

      Hotaru considered, then nodded eagerly.

      A few moments later, Asuka and Jeff returned. "Okay, you're set. Now." He grinned evilly and rubbed his hands together.

      Hotaru and Sasami grinned at each other. Jeff's evil laugh sent chills up their spines and shattered any illusions they might have had. Asuka cringed and hid behind Xian Pu, who thrust Mu Tsu and Ukyo in front of both of them.

      "So, what do you fear?" Jeff asked with convincingly authentic malevolence.

      "Please!" Sasami clasped her hands together, and made her eyes huge and watery, "No fishies."

      "Please no fishies!" Hotaru reinforced the plea.

      A laugh that would have given Kodachi chills heralded the pronouncement, "The Tokyo Aquarium!"

      "NO!" all the girls wailed, including Kho Lon, before the youngsters vanished from sight.

      Asuka waited a moment, before dialing the phone. "Hello Thunder Thighs, is the cute one around?" Asuka asked, "Now Akane, language like that is why Kuno doesn't want to date you anymore." Asuka paused as she listened to Akane stammer and exclaim. "Who said I was talking about Tatewaki?" Asuka explained, "No, not Kodachi either. That little episode with the principal and you parading around in your swimsuit. Very Lolita, you're Happosai's discipline all right. Oh, hello Kasumi, Akane fainted? Did she dent your floor? No, good. I've got an escort mission for Sailor Vesta. By the way, did you know Senshi can teleport?"

      Haruka towered over Setsuna. "What do you mean she was kidnaped?"

      "I tried," Setsuna admitted as she lay on the couch, a large icebag covering her face and the huge bruise on it, "But there was nothing I could do. I told you, once that little bitch destroyed the Time Gates, I've been cut off from the Time Stream."

      "What about a physical response?" Michiru asked disdainfully.

      Setsuna sat up, reeled, and removed the ice pack. "I'm always ready for a fight after I take a cannonball in the face." The ugly bruise elicited the titters from both Outers, as it had from the paramedics. " 'Doctor Who was here'," Setsuna said with disgust, "When I find out what sick mind did this -! Oh shut up, both of you!" Setsuna said angrily.

      "I think we need to track her," Michiru said as she examined the projectile, "Oh, dear, all-wise, all-knowing Pluto, our mentor and master? Did you bother to unwrap the present and see what was inside it?" Michiru held up a rubber duck, one of a dozen that had been wrapped in the spitball. She squeezed it, producing a loud, but pathetic-sounding squeak. "The invincible Senshi of Time, battled and defeated by a duck storm."

      "You weren't there," Setsuna said as she lay back and placed the icepack back on her face.

      " 'Evil Geniuses For a Better Tomorrow'?" Haruka read off the bottom of one duck, "It even has an address. 'If lost return to . . . ' this address is in Nerima. Martial Arts Duck Chucking?"

      "Why don't you so brave warriors go down there and check it out. Teach them a lesson," Setsuna suggested.

      "I agree," Michiru said, but frowned in deep thought.

      "Maybe we should assemble the Inners as well," Haruka suggested nervously, "It is Nerima after all."

      "We hardly need the crybabies to deal with one little kidnapper," Michiru said, "We just have to be able to duck." The pathetic little squeak didn't add to their confidence.

      "Here I come to save the day!" was yodeled over the streets of Nerima, which meant while the local cats took a quick, nervous look around, no one else paused in their business.

      Except Gosunkugi, who snapped several pictures. "So Akane has become a Senshi. She'll need a faithful knight!" he proclaimed and dashed for school, to get to the metal shop before everyone else got the word.

      "They're like little jewels!" Sasami said excitedly, as she peered in at the tropical fish swimming in the display.

      "You left a note?" Hotaru asked Jeff.

      "Actually I called your dad, explained the situation, and got some rather pointed questions about your sister. Which I won't go into. He understood."

      Hotaru's response was interrupted by Sasami's unexpected hug. "Thank you. I finally feel safe again."

      Safe, around me? Hotaru thought, an eagerly hugged Sasami back.

      "Jeff-chan, Tomoe-chan, I have been having dreams. I . . . he got through, somehow. I couldn't keep him out. He got past all your defenses, all your tricks and guards. I don't know how."

      "Hotaru-chan, the 'he' she keeps referring to, is Kagato. He imprisoned Washu and Ryoko, either of whom could eat all the Senshi for lunch. Tenchi killed him, and he's the only person in this Universe, besides yourself, who could do me in permanently. So if he's up and walking around, that means someone very powerful is behind him."

      "So he's going after Sasami. Why not let Kitty deal with him?" Hotaru asked, "Can't he do something? No, he can only do something if he has a target. So we're drawing him out?"

      "I thought that's what Sasami had in mind, but I was wrong," Jeff said.

      "I just wanted a break," Sasami admitted, "He's got me so frightened, that I couldn't think up such a plan. But my friends could." She smiled brightly.

      " 'I have captured Tuxedo Mask's civilian identity'," Tenchi read the note, "These are evil geniuses? They think Sasami is Tuxedo Mask?"

      " 'Did you really think you could hide him in such an obvious location?' They are either completely stupid or completely insane," Ryoko said as she floated above the boy's head, then pointed glanced at Washu, "They don't know that you can cook, either."

      "Someone kidnaped Sasami!" Mihoshi wailed, and grabbed Kiyone to blubber on her shoulder.

      Washu snatched the paper from their hands. "I'll find her." She'd just passed through the door to her lab, when an explosion rocked the area, pyrotechnics and a great cloud of smoke filled the entire living room.

      The assembled group made it outside, except for Washu. While Kiyone and Ryoko opened all the windows to ventilate the house, Tenchi wetted his shirt, put it over his face and headed back into the house. As the smoke cleared, Washu stood there by her door, dyed solid purple. Hair, skin, clothing, all a uniform purple. "It was a trap," she explained. Then grinned. "You were worried about me!"

      Tenchi rolled his eyes as he headed outside. I think I recognize this, he thought, So I doubt Sasami is in any danger.

      Haruka looked at the sign beside the doorway. "This is the place."

      " 'Those wanting to challenge the owner to ferocious combat, go around back'." Michiru looked around. "So do we go around back? I'd hate to be impolite."

      The two walked around back.

      As the group left the aquarium, Jeff appearing more as a pack mule than a kidnapper, unseen, or ignored, a tall green-haired woman watched the trio. And the Solider of Ruin is away from her guardians, and will soon return to the rest of the Outers.

      A kitchen sink crashed down on her head, and as she lost consciousness, dozens of glaive-wielding, fuku-clad figures marched in a circle around her head and the shattered porcelain.

      Three stories above, Sailor Vesta looked rather vexed. "Oh my, oh clumsy me. Wherever shall I get another sink? I knew I should have gone with stainless steel. Sigh. No one listens to Tendo Kasumi, not even Sailor Vesta." She shook her head sadly and walked away from the edge of the building.

      "Now my pretties," Jeff told them and cackled, "I'm going to make you explode!"

      "Oh no!" Sasami gasped, then in calmer tones, "So, I can order anything I want."

      "Anything. I will destroy you both with your greed for ice cream! Bwahahaha!"

      Hotaru stared and the pair, and smiled. As she looked down the menu of the ice cream shop, she considered the largest and most expensive sundae there. And no one will object, she thought as she considered, If I eat that whole thing, I just might explode. Or throw up. She laughed at that thought.

      "Oh cru-el man!" Hotaru denounced and then swooned. She smiled again as Sasami clapped her hands and giggled.

      It's good to see her smile, Hotaru thought, I wonder if among the Senshi, is the only time I'll feel normal? I wonder if that's why I collected Makoto and Kiima, because I wanted a family that wouldn't be frightened by me.

      "Bad dreams," Hotaru whispered, then added in a conversational tone, "Kiima's been having some weird dreams too, about a pink-haired girl from the future."

      "The Dragon is taking care of that. Yesterday night, he said 'she should arrive tonight'. I haven't heard back yet. Looking for another of the Young Senshi club?"

      Hotaru frowned. "No, it's just Kiima thought she was important."

      "She's somehow related to that pack of pseudo-Senshi we have up north. It's all starting to fall into place. I only hope that the stones they found and the mythos critters at the Hino family temple aren't directly related, because if they are, then we're in a lot deeper than I fear we are. But all that's a subject for another time. The pink-haired girl is the Dragon's problem, unless he specifically makes it ours. Ice cream volume and detonation are your worries." He rubbed his hands together gleefully.

      The two girls nodded, and placed their orders. The waitress seemed a bit bug-eyed, and grew more so when Jeff put a 50,000 yen bill in her hand as a tab. "Just give me the change when we settle up." The stupefied woman walked away shaking her head.

      "Maybe she thinks you're a pervert," Sasami whispered.

      "I let her see my Nerima pass card, so she's probably calling UltraMan right now," Jeff whispered back.

      The ash-faced manager came back. "I must apologize," he said as he bowed, "I cannot accept -"

      "The pretty young woman outside, in the travel-worn trench coat. Do you have chocolate cake? Don't I mean just with chocolate frosting, chocolate sprinkles, etc.; I mean so chocolatey that if someone were allergic, just speaking the name aloud would send them into shock."

      "I'm sorry, sir. We just have carrot cake and brownies."


      "Yes, sir," the manager seemed confused, then looked at the nearly empty restaurant and smiled, "I understand, sir. Thank you." He bowed and walked away, taking the bill with him.

      Jeff then looked at the two curious faces. "Tendo Kasumi got sprayed by a love potion, a powerful one I can't simply undo, not without hurting her. And considering Rei and I just got her out of her wheelchair, and Rei made her Sailor Vesta, an asteroid Senshi, I don't see that hurting her severely at the moment is a good idea. She's been through enough and she's psychologically very delicate right now."

      "Who'd she fall in love with?" Sasami tried to ask with a straight face, but her giggles bubbled just under the surface.

      "I think you both can guess," Jeff said despondently.

      Both girls practically rolled on the floor laughing. Jeff could only sigh. The laugher ended instantly as the ice-cream, and the cake arrived.

      "Death by chocolate," Sasami whispered as she stared at the cake.

      Jeff cut a thin slice, and transferred it to one of the plates. "And a small scoop of plain vanilla," he told the waitress, "She'll refuse anything else." The waitress nodded and left.

      "I think we will explode," Sasami said, never taking her eyes off the cake, with the chips in the icing, and the alternating dark and white chocolate decorations atop. Then at the three layers, bottom and top not deep brown but nearly black, and the center with its swirls of light and dark like used motor oil poured into milk.

      Hotaru could barely notice the cake, for the size of the sundae in front of her. It's . . . huge, she thought.

      "Well, if I have to die, dig in!" Sasami proclaimed ominously, she paused after the first bite, her eyes shining and expression rapturous, "It's so delicious."

      Hotaru found herself smiling again. It seems the natural state of anyone around Sasami, she thought, then glanced at Jeff, Well, anybody human. Then she saw something sneaking up on them, approaching very slowly and carefully.

      "What is that?"

      "Ryo-Oh-Ki!" Sasami said, and collected the rabbit-like creature, who 'mrow'ed in pleasure, licking at her mistress's face. Sasami giggled, tickled by the tiny tongue cleaning the bits of ice-cream and cake crumbs from her face.

      "She doesn't fear me," Jeff teased, "I must prove my true evil."

      "Oh," Sasami said, draping the creature on her head, where she lounged like an odd cross between a hat and a stuffed animal.

      "Yes, observe," he said darkly, sending chills down Hotaru's spine, "Ryo-chan, they make a wonderful carrot cake here. Big - thick - slices."

      "Mrarow?!" the creature said as she perked up expectantly and stared at him with eyes shining with joy.

      "And the - carrot - flavored - icing - shavings - real - carrot . . . "

      "Mraw?" Ryo-Oh-Ki asked as she stood on Sasami's head, leaning so far forward she looked like she'd fall off.

      "With a marvelous - carrot - sherbert - on the side. Just - scoops - of - carroty - sweetness."

      The creature's jaw hung open, her eyes wild and ears standing straight up.

      "And you can't have any," Jeff told her.

      The creature flopped back on top of Sasami's head, now looking like a bad toupee, except when a limb twitched spasmodically. Sasami clutched her hands beneath her chin and begged. "Oh please kind sir, do what you want to this poor, old head, but spare my cabbit."

      She's good at this, Hotaru thought as she felt herself nearly melting at Sasami's pleading expression, and hating Jeff for making her so miserable, I know it's an act, but it's so believable. I'd do anything to make her feel better.

      Hotaru signaled the waitress, who'd been standing a short bit away, looking on with horrified fascination. "Large slice of carrot cake, with two scoops of carrot sherbert."

      The woman scurried away, glad she'd been released. Hotaru grinned, then saw Ryo-Oh-Ki standing on Sasami's head and growling ferociously, while Sasami herself looked behind Hotaru at something, her face etched with terror.

      She and Jeff were out of their seats in an instant. Hotaru had her henshin in hand, the words to trigger her transformation on her lips. "There's nothing there."

      Jeff looked back, forth, up and down, then back at Sasami who'd relaxed. Ryo-Oh-Ki was also looking around frantically, even under the table and under the dishes of ice cream. Hotaru slid onto the bench next to Sasami.

      "I saw him," the girl explained as she hugged Hotaru.

      She's shaking like a leaf, Hotaru thought as she held Sasami.

      "I know I saw him," Sasami said, "You believe me, don't you?"

      "Yes," Hotaru said as she stared into the frightened girl's face.

      I believe you saw him, she didn't say aloud.

      Jeff snapped his fingers, and a look of revelation graced his face. "He isn't after you, Sasami, that's how he got by all the defenses and guard."

      "He's after Tsunami," Sasami admitted, "He told me that."

      "Wouldn't that be like, taking on God?" Hotaru asked in confusion, as she set Ryo-Oh-Ki in Sasami's lap.

      "Something like that," Jeff said distractedly, "Now it's all starting to make sense. I was thinking he was after the Jurains, and making common cause with the enemies of them and their allies. He's . . . trying to buy someone off."

      "How?" Sasami asked.

      "I think Washu found her answer a long time ago," Jeff said distractedly, "And she just didn't share. She's the only one stupid enough to care only about the goal ahead of her, and ignore the consequences of seeking that goal."

      "Can you provide a translation?" Hotaru asked peevishly.

      "She and Kagato stomped all over the eggs, and now, he's trying to buy off the dragon," Jeff explained flatly.

      Hotaru closed her eyes and shivered. "I did ask for a clear picture," she lamented.

      Sasami watched her friend pensively stroking Ryo-Oh-Ki, the good mood of the day completely evaporated by her vision. Then the waitress brought a quarter of a carrot cake with its garnish of carrot shavings, and a bowl with two huge scoops of carrot sherbert. Ryo-Oh-Ki again was intercepted before she could do a belly flop in the middle of the cake.

      "Sit," Hotaru commanded, with surprising steel in her voice, while the spoon laden with carrot cake and sherbert moved back and forth, mesmerizing the cabbit.

      Ryo-Oh-Ki sat at attention, no part of her body moving, except the eyes, which remained locked on that spoon. Satisfied, Hotaru lowered the spoon, and broke the mood again as the cabbit cleaned the entire spoon with one bite, then returned instantly to seated at attention. Hotaru scooped up another combination, and repeated the performance, and the laughter.

      Both seem so happy, she thought of the cabbit, who ascended into Heaven with each bite, and Hotaru who kept laughing at the small creature's performance. And Jeff-chan's eyes never rest, and never quite touch his smile, she thought, As if two separate people are there, a warrior running the eyes, and an entertainer running the rest of the face. She looked across the rest of the place. Where is he hiding? she wondered, In the city? Is he even on the planet? Movement right in front of her drew her attention back. A spoon filled with carrot cake and carrot sherbert loomed right in front of her nose.

      "Don't bite through the spoon," Jeff warned as he held the spoon dead steady.

      "But I can bite through your arm?" Sasami asked sweetly as she carefully and daintily ate what he was offering.

      Minako looked at the card that told her to wait at third floor across from the number three stairway. She looked at Makoto arriving, and seeming to look around without trying to. The girl glanced at a white card that was exactly like the one Minako held.

      Happosai kept his word, Minako thought as she held up her card so Makoto could see it.

      "Mizuno," Minako said, the recommended 'password' on the card. Makoto froze and stared at her.

      "You?" Makoto asked incredulously, then clearly said, "Hino Rei."

      Aino Minako sighed, "All right, we're just missing one of the 'Inners', then there are the 'Outers' and the 'Knights' we have to concern ourselves with." Minako smiled. "Unless you don't what to tell me who 'Jupiter's Knight' is."

      The large girl turned red, but it wasn't a blush. Minako wisely took a step back.

      "I have no idea. You have more info than I've got," Makoto admitted, "I only have the location and the passwords. But there are supposed to be five of us. I already knew about this. I met some Senshi from another world, so I know some of us. Sorry I didn't tell you, but I only became a Senshi a little while ago, and there were only three that gave me their names. My little sister is another, Hotaru, you may have seen her around."

      "I just wonder who the other one is."

      "Oh my god! You have those cards too, you must be the princess, you're so wonderful," Usagi ran up to Minako and gushed, "Oh, you must be Sailor V too! I'm so excited! Can I be on your team? I know I can help! I've got a talking cat, I've met Hino Rei, and I know all this stuff about this princess we have to find!"

      "Can I resign?" Makoto asked the particularly harried Minako.

      What or who did I offend to deserve this? Minako hung her head and wondered.

      Haruka limped as Michiru held her upright. "Don't worry slugger, you'll get her next time."

      "I kin still tak'er," Haruka slurred as Michiru practically poured her fellow Outer into the car.

      The girl in the yellow gi stepped out of the dojo and shouted at them, "Come back when you've been properly trained."

      "Thank you," Michiru said and waved. "Uncute tomboy," she muttered under her breath as she drove off. "You know, if you'd transformed first, maybe she wouldn't have thrashed you so badly," Michiru scolded her fellow Outer.

      Haruka growled, and winced, before she pulled her gi top open, to reveal her seifuku underneath. "I did."

      "Ah," Michiru said, "Maybe you do need more practice."

      "Nerima martial artists are monsters," Haruka moaned as she laid her head back on the headrest and closed her eyes, "You know Pluto will be there, Saturn in hand, and asking how we enjoyed our day. As if we didn't look like we'd been thrashed to within an inch of our lives."

      "Speak for yourself," Michiru said, "One cracked rib told me that I was completely outclassed, and these weren't the Evil Genius we were looking for."

      "Ha, OOWW!"

      "I'm glad we could drop all that stuff off," Jeff said as they exited the Neko-chan.

      "Isn't that -?" Sasami commented on the car driving away, "What did you do?" Sasami accused.

      "I figured that Akane needed to remember she wasn't totally inept. She's been tangling with battleships lately, so I sent in a couple of light cruisers for her to chew up and spit out."

      "Who are they?" Hotaru asked as she tried to get a good look at them.

      "Two of your fellow Senshi, who made a rather bad first impression," Jeff said, "When they tried to kidnap you."

      "I'm just glad my big sisters didn't see them then," Hotaru said worriedly, "They might have finished what they started."

      "They're the dragon's problem. Sending them to the Tendos was his idea," Jeff said, "Getting your fellow Senshi nearly killed doesn't seem a good plan to me."

      "Speaking of fellow Senshi." Sasami pointed to the figure running towards them. "Isn't today a school day?"

      "Full day," Hotaru said as the girl ran, her long, silken, black hair flowing in the breeze, "She's pretty."

      "Most of the Senshi are, on the outside," Jeff commented as the girl stopped less than a meter in front of him.

      She grabbed his lapels and tried to shake him. "Why?!" the miko demanded.

      "Because?" Hotaru replied.

      "Why not," Sasami answered.

      "God wills it," Jeff replied.

      Now Rei looked thoroughly confused.

      "Sailors Mars, Sailor Saturn, Pretty Sammi," Jeff introduced them.

      "You didn't kidnap these two girls to kill them?"

      The trio looked at each other. The two girls broke out laughing, while Jeff tried to explain, "Officially, and for public consumption, yes," Jeff admitted, "Because, both of them needed a break, Sammi more than Saturn, but even though they are both too young -"

      "We'll grow out of it," Sasami supplied.

      "- yes, there are consequences to calling it a, three, two, one," he said.

      The three braced themselves. "A date," they said together.

      Dozens of ninja zombies and skeletons leapt through the pavement, drawing their weapons as they surrounded the group. Their decaying neon yellow, lime green, fuscha and puce stalking suits rippled in the breeze that existed only in the other world.

      One skeletonized ninja raised his hand. "You have -"

      "Excuse me!" Jeff held up a hand as he flipped through a binder, "The Sorcerous Secret Society of Set's Subtle Sublime Servants?"

      "Did they get a bulk discount on 's's?" Sasami asked, "Oh no are they here to steal our 's's and add to their name and fame?" Sasami fainted and Hotaru caught her.

      Rei and the assembled undead stared at Sasami in shock.

      "Jeez lady, switch to decaf!" one of the zombies shouted in affronted tones.

      "Yes, we are they," the creature looked from Sasami to Jeff, the furious red glow of his eyes had faded considerably.

      "Two streets north, four west," Jeff offered helpfully, "Do you need a qualified miko to send your opponents or your own fallen to their well-deserved, or well-earned rest?"

      "Does she do Presbyterian?" came a voice from the back. Several of the undead began scuffing their toes on the ground embarrassedly. "I was just asking," came the same voice, defensive now.

      Jeff pulled a small bible from his pocket and began rearranging the book marks.

      Sasami was still unconscious in Hotaru's arms, the cabbit was flapping her ears to fan her friend. Rei looked from one scene to the other, and seemed to be trying to decide which of the participants was the most mad.

      Jeff shoved the open bible in Rei's hands. "Valley of the Shadow of Death, that should cover things nicely," Jeff told her.

      Rei stared at him open-mouthed as the brightly garbed undead escorted her away. As she passed Sasami, the girl recovered and closed Rei's mouth for her. "Have fun Rei-chan!" Sasami told her cheerfully as she waved.

      "So sorry about this," one of the rear guard offered.

      "Think nothing of it," Hotaru said and smiled, "Glad we could help."

      Once the group was gone, Sasami shook her head sadly. "Poor girl is going to give herself an ulcer or a stroke before she's twenty."

      "Or wrinkles," Hotaru suggested, then she and Sasami shuddered at the thought.


      "I'm an onee-san!"

      "Oni-san, if you ask Usagi," Jeff added.

      "Why do you go nuts when you enter puberty?" Sasami asked Hotaru.

      "There are biochemical reasons," Jeff offered.

      "Is your Tenchi that way?" Hotaru asked.

      "No, he just doesn't want to hurt Ayeka's feeling. Because then Ayeka will share the hurt," Sasami said thoughtfully, "Imagine, rejected by your half-brother, and your grandnephew. She'll get a complex."

      "Maybe she should be nice to everyone, instead of just nobles," Jeff suggested.

      "A noble marrying a commoner!" Sasami denounced with much mock outrage, "Surely you jest!"

      "I'm not kidding, and I'm not Shirley," Hotaru replied deadpan, then both girls started giggling.

      "Oh I have to get one of those!" Hotaru shouted as she dragged her friends towards a particular store.

      "I think you're going to have to get the whole set," Sasami replied as she pressed her nose against the glass alongside Hotaru to stare at the complete set of SD Sailor Senshi stuffed figures, "They even have me."

      "A little louder," Jeff warned, "I don't think they heard you in Nagasaki." Then his expression fell. "Oh be still my aching wallet!" Jeff lamented, "Take a look at that!"

      "Oh that's just perfect!" Hotaru said, "Mako-chan will go crazy!"

      "Yes, I'll get the regular figures, you get the wedding pairs," Sasami suggested, "I wonder if they have one that looks like Tenchi-chan!" Sasami added excitedly.

      "Made while you wait," Jeff pointed at the sign, "And that gives me an idea."

      "Breathing gives you ideas," Hotaru teased.


      "Moon and Tuxedo Mask look so pretty. Jupiter and Jupiter's Knight look so brave. Mercury and Mercury's Knight look so elegant," Sasami said, "They're just perfect together."

      "What about the unattached?"

      "Every bride needs bridesmaids," Hotaru suggested.

      "Who do you dream of being?" Jeff asked, "The ring bearer?"

      " 'One ring to rule them all and one ring to find them'," Hotaru said ominously as they entered the store.

Sailor Jupiter II 14     "SailorJupiter1.htm#TOCSJA2"> Back to Index

Sailor Jupiter II 14 - Yeah, My Blood's So Mad Feels like Coagulatin'

      The four 'Inners' stood atop a building and watched the trio enter the shop.

      "Should we wait for the Outers?" Moon asked, "And how do we know they're Outers? Is it their bellybuttons, or something else?"

      Sailor Mars rounded on Moon, "It has to do with where their planets are! Not how their belly bottons are shaped!"

      "But Saturn's one of us, and so is Jupiter, and those are Outer planets," Moon whined as she cowered from Mars' anger.

      "She has a point," Venus said, "Maybe Mercury could explain it, better." She regretted speaking a moment later.

      "Oh Princess, I knew you liked me better than Oni-chan!" Moon gushed as she hugged Venus, and stuck out her tongue at Mars, "But why'd you have to change your name when you joined? V - us, I'm not Moon-us because I'm part of the team, or maybe you're V when you're alone, and V-us, when we're all together as a team. So, if I'm alone, I'm Sailor Moe, because I'm cute. She's Sailor J and she's Sailor Ma, and Mercury would be Sailor Me, or maybe Madam Curry, like the lady who invented radiation; why'd they give her a noble prize for that, I don't think a king would want nobles having radiation, especially if he didn't, unless he wanted then to get killed by it, and - but then why would they give her the prize?" She shook her head. "It makes my head hurt."

      "You've got company," Jupiter said as she rubbed her temples.

      Mars stared at Moon. "It's amazing," Mars said.

      "What?" a horrified Venus asked, "She said all that without taking a breath, until she was done."

      "No, if you ignore the irrational premises, it actually was logical."

      "Why are you being mean to me?!" Moon wailed, copious tears followed.

      "Have you got any other stupid questions?" Mars asked.

      "Yeah, who's the lady in the trenchcoat?" Moon asked and pointed. The Inners turned, to stare at empty air. "She's gone!" Moon exclaimed.

      "Our quarry isn't," Jupiter said as she returned to staring at the shop, "We should just charge in there and put a stop to this!" She punched her hand to show how she'd deal with their foe.

      "Why don't we just level the entire store?" Mars asked sarcastically.

      "That would be mean!" Moon shouted her disapproval, "And it might hurt Saturn and Pretty Sammi! And you call me stupid!"

      "I was being sarcastic."

      "If you don't want to take pills, they have herbs for that," Moon suggested sympathetically.

      "If they did, she should quit taking them," Venus said, "She's sarcastic enough as it is."

      "I wonder if he has a girlfriend," Moon said, getting starry-eyed.

      "Who?" Jupiter asked.

      "The boy with Sammi and Saturn. Would she be tall and strong and brave like Jupiter -?"

      "Moon," Mars warned, seeing the angry look on Jupiter's face.

      "- be kawaii like . . . Venus." Moon smiled at her idol, who was staring at the approaching green, pink and white thunderhead. "He dresses like a gentleman, so he'd want to go dancing, the old dances."

      "Moon!" Mars' warning again went unheeded.

      "But that's romantic too, his arms around you, holding you close while you just look into his eyes . . ." Moon sighed happily, turned and looked into Jupiter's furious expression. "Your eyes are really bloodshot."

      "I - am - not - his - girl - friend!" Jupiter said as clearly as she could, as calmly as her temper allowed.

      "He's your boyfriend! I'm so jealous! He's so tall and dashing, I bet he'd be the kind to just dive in and race to your rescue!" Moon told Jupiter and hugged her tightly.

      Jupiter stared into space in utter bewilderment. "I could have sworn I said -"

      "I think Makoto will go crazy," Hotaru said as they exited the shop.

      "Why did you get multiple sets?" Sasami asked.

      "Because I know your household. They'll try to make them disappear. So you'll have to have plenty of replacements."

      "I think your 'friend' will be offended," Sasami replied.

      "Why? Just for doing his job? I explained what it's really for."

      "But paisley?" Hotaru asked.

      "Best color for it, Gendo Ikari showed me that, I think -"

      The wind from the explosion plucked at their clothes.

      "I knew we should have stayed away from there." Jeff pointed to the college from which the explosion had come. "I'm afraid this isn't as relaxing as I'd hoped it would be."

      "It's a break from, not being able to do something about it all," Pretty Sammi said as she tossed the parcels into the now-transformed Ryo-Oh-Ki mech.

      "What better place than a battle?" Sailor Saturn asked, "If you really want to kill us."

      "Okay, stay close. This is the standard diamond four defense, nice and tight, good support," he told them as they forced their way through the crush of retreating students and faculty.

      Ahead, there was a tight knot of fancily-garbed women facing off against an utterly shapeless cloud that poured from one of the buildings.

      "That isn't smoke," Jeff told them as they charged, "You three stay together, but stay out of the building until I personally give you the all clear."

      The shorter brunette of the other group was tossing odd Stielhandgranates into the smoke, while a dark-skinned one was surrounded by a circle of glowing runes and symbols composed of magical fire. Neither the potato-masher grenades, nor the spell circle had any effect on the cloud or its expansion. Saturn tripped one boy who seemed ready to dash into the building after Jeff.

      "My sister's in there!" the boy protested as he clambered to his feet, only to have Saturn trip him again.

      "Don't go in there," Saturn told him forcefully, "There's no one alive in there."

      Nothing alive in there, Saturn thought, And I just saw Jeff dash in there.

      Jeff stalked the halls, the dark smoke of the monster curled away from him. So you avoid me too, eh? he wanted to ask.

      "Why don't you just go back home, and save all of us a lot of trouble?"

      There's enough trouble for me, just waiting outside, he didn't add, What a mess. He advanced, trying to sense the center of the target, the place where an attack would do some good. Use all your spells and ordinance on the useless distractions, he thought of the explosions and lightning he heard outside, You couldn't do worse if you were in here. Even here it would slide and slip into places you could not reach.

      "And you wonder why I hold you in contempt?" he quietly asked those outside, "As if you really knew what you were doing, as if you really had been briefed on the nature of the universe you inhabit. As if you actually understood God's plans, rather than being as mystified as the rest of us. Hubris will get you all."

      "How about you?" he shouted in a language the creature might understand. Beyond the smoke, the paint of the building curdled, "You want to be a dead hero, or a smart, live coward? I've killed better than you, but I just want you gone. So run away, some place out of this universe where I can't find you. You can't expect fairer than that!"

      Damn monster is going to make me work for it, he complained, And You, You are having entirely too much fun at my expense. You're making me wonder if I should start worshiping You Socratically, so You'll stay away from me. 'Asuka and Jeff can handle it, let's drop them in the mess and watch how they clean it up.'

      "God is Good, God is love," Jeff whispered, then shouted, "God is also an underhanded, sneaky SOB who changes the rules whenever it suits Him! 'Any tree except that one.' Did You put rose bushes and honeylocusts all around it, with their nice, long thorns? No, that would be too easy. They call that an attractive nuisance. You wonder why the moderns hate Your guts? Because You make them think and hold them responsible for their choices, and they hate that. The world is supposed to be safe and easy. Instead, You make it unfair, You make them work for things. Don't You know? You're supposed to just hand them things on a silver platter, that's how you get popular." He turned the corner and saw the core, a matrix of energy that would have sent any of those outside into screaming conniptions, if they even survived.

      "You know, I offered you the easy way out. We know you didn't take it, you thought I should work for my victory, so be it." He drew his cane and steeled himself. "For reasons that have nothing to do with Love, Justice, or the Moon, I'm going to punish you."

      The sidewalk between the buildings is not suspicious, Pretty Sammi thought as she advanced, Sailor Saturn behind her, walking backward, guarding her back, The TV on the table at the end of the path isn't suspicious, in and of itself. The fact that the cord to the TV can't reach anything, there are no chairs to let people sit and watch it, and no school with slaves - students - would allow a path to get this weedy and overgrown. All together . . . She glanced back at where Ryo-Oh-Ki mech was peering through the windows of the building, tracing Jeff's progress towards the monster. Put them together . . .

      "Sammi!" Saturn shouted as the far end of the sidewalk rose up.

      Sammi threw herself off the sidewalk, as Saturn dashed past her and cut the 'neck' of the TV table from the rest of the sidewalk.

      "Cuddly Adorable Avalanche!" Sammi shouted and a firestorm of ball lightning and fireballs rained down on the creature, tearing it to pieces as Saturn stood ready to chop it even finer. "I need to get better names for these attacks," Sammi whispered, "These are embarrassing."

      "Hurray!" Saturn shouted as she hugged Sammi as the crispy critter disintegrated, "We did it! By ourselves!"

      Sammi grinned.

      "Let's go kill another!" Saturn declared, then laughed at Sammi's stunned expression.

      Senshi of Death and Ruin indeed, Sammi thought as they passed the gaggle of older women who'd witnessed the well-executed killing, Some of them are horrified, others appreciate the skill.

      "We're professionals," Saturn told them coldly as they walked by.

      "Myroow!" Ryo-Oh-Ki announced as she did a little dance.

      Sammi felt a weight lift from her spirit. "He did it!" she sighed, "It's over."

      "Admiral!" the lieutenant ran into the Admiral's office shouting, "The southern force reports they are under heavy attack, the Cabinet has authorized immediate combat action!"

      "Our FJM? Or several?" the Admiral demanded as he sprang to his feet and crossed to where the man stood.

      "No, sir! Something else," the lieutenant read excitedly, "A huge black dragon -"

      "With glowing yellow eyes?" the Admiral interrupted in a disappointed tone, "And two rows of short spines down its back, and blood red teeth? And all the attacks seem to explode just short of the creature?" The Admiral returned to his desk and the paperwork there.

      The man scanned the message, finding all the Admiral's comments noted. "Ah, yes sir, how did you know?"

      "Take a message, lieutenant. 'To the officer commanding southern group, when he beats you, listen to him. This is probably an exercise, if you're lucky.' Get that off immediately."

      "Sir? Aren't we going to head down there?"

      "And be humiliated with the rest of the army?" He shook his head. "Not a chance." Takarada returned to his paperwork and pitied whoever was in command of the group down by the Sagami River.

      The wing commander's own plane unloaded its payload of air-to-ground rockets, only to watch helplessly as they exploded well short of the increasingly angry monster.

      The monster's breath weapon struck his plane, and that of his wingman. The entire plane, and everything within became nauseatingly pink. The commander grimly decided that he would survive this embarrassment and rearm to attack again, when he realized he was outside his aircraft and his parachute was deploying without any action on his or the automatic system's part.

      As he floated down, he watched the tank corps's attack, as well executed, and as useless as the attack by his two air wings. All the while, the artillery kept lobbing shells on to the monster. All fire detonated just short of the creature. Its breath weapon struck the tightly packed formations of tanks, forcing them all to halt. The pilot wept with rage at the brave crews slaughtered by the monster, until hatches on every single tank opened, and their crews bailed out.

      Are they insane?! he wondered as some of the crews watched the monster step over their useless, helpless machines, while it advanced on the IFVs following. Some fired their sidearms, while others simply got to work on opening the engine covers of their charges.

      "It's going to destroy the infantry!" he shouted helplessly as the parachute wafted him over the battlefield like a spider on the wind.

      No! What is that thing doing?! he watched as it somehow singled out the senior armored brigade commander's track in amongst the IFVs and the infantry commander's a moment later, carrying both the vehicles across the field like a pair of footballs. It dug a huge hole, although tiny compared with the monster. It got the rear hatches of both IFVs' open, and shook out the crews into the hole. It set the IFVs aside, and than reached up thousands of meters, to pluck the air commander from the sky, setting him in the hole beside the other captives.

      "I am not afraid to die," the pilot told the monster to its immense face.

      "That's been brutally obvious since the beginning," the monster said angrily, "I'm certain the people you were supposed to be protecting, including your comrades here, will be only too happy to express their gratitude at your willingness to leave them unprotected, over your next few, very pink months." The immense monster suddenly shrank, into something merely large. "You with the radio, get me the commander of the artillery forces."

      As if to punctuate the request, dozens of artillery rounds slammed into the force shield over their heads, even the monster winced at the impact.

      It raised its head and bellowed, "That's nice shooting soldier." Then it looked into the pit. "I'm going to let the rest of you post this area, while I have a conference with the morons." He again focused on the radio man. "I was very clear. I could remove the radio, and use it myself, but it would be traumatic for you." The monster carefully scratched the buttons off the man's uniform with a claw the size of an artillery shell. "And digging the codes and frequencies out," it purred as it leaned close, "Well, that would just be terribly unpleasant for everybody. And if you think you can give away our position and strength." Dozens of rounds exploded over their heads. "I think he knows the first and doesn't care about the second."

      The infantry commander gave the order to comply. "I can order him to stop," he offered.

      "Why would I want that?" the creature asked, honestly perplexed, "The artillery are the only force on this battle field who know what the Hell they're doing!" With a gesture, a table and chairs appeared out of the ground. "Sit, and anyone who jokes about 'the comfy chair' gets a free flight to England, and I can guarantee reentry without a space capsule will be a real bear."

      He set a map of the area on the table. "What idiot told you to attack first without armor and artillery support?" the monster pointedly asked the pilot. "You have to give your target so many targets that it can't just swat your squadrons out of the sky."

      "You think this is just a training exercise!" the armor commander demanded, "That you can force us to sit and listen to you?!"

      "Can I just - kill him? Please? And his offspring," the creature asked, "It really is for the good of your race, evolution should not be denied."

      The radio operator broke the tension by holding up the phone. "Sir, artillery commander on the line."

      The creature looked at the comparatively tiny handset. "I appreciate the courtesy, but think soldier, think."

      The man looked that the huge creature and then put the headset to his ear. "Ready to pass your message, sir."

      "Good job man, well done, but there's always room for improvement. Now, the Americans developed a way to fire off six rounds at varying elevations and powder charges, so they all arrive on target at about the same time. You may want to practice that. I'm sure one of the soldiers here will be willing to report on your progress. By the way, good discipline to fire and scoot, very commendable. Oh, about the shells and expense, as the only force who was able to halt the creature, I doubt they'll begrudge the cost too awful much. End personal message, but keep transmitting the lecture."

      "Now, back to business. The line of tanks is impressive, and it allows the shells to hit all at once, but the artillery uses a time on target barrage to the same effect from spread out positions. Learn it, love it, live through the battle. Next, the air cover should go in not before, but immediately after the armor or artillery strike hits. The air will be clear, and the enemy will be distracted. And for the Love of God, egress aggressively! You pilots are expensive and hard to replace, the planes too, don't hang around in the sky waiting to be shot down. An infantryman with a radio and a telescope can do a better job of damage assessment, and can hide better than an airplane can. And who authorized such puny rounds? You're fighting something that looked like it ate battleships, who armed you with 250 kilo bombs and 82 mil rockets? Thousand kilo bombs and the biggest shipkillers you can get in the air should be the minimum weapons. The Hood, Yamato and . . . either Fuso or Yamashiro, fired off another salvo after they'd been cut in half. If I cut any of you in half, I doubt you could still shoot. Big things can still fight even when hit badly. I'm not an army that can be whittled down bit by bit, I'm not a plane or tank that can be killed by a single catastrophic hit. I'm a monster of magic and might, who would be immune to anything except nuclear weapons, and if my shields are up, even those won't do the job. Are you getting this solder?" he asked the radio man.

      "Yes, sir," the man replied, "Not worth my life not to, sir."

      "There's a man with a clear view of the circumstances."

      "Salvo on the way."

      "Let's watch the fireworks, then continue our little chat." He fixed on the pilot. "Did you know how pink you are?"

      Jeff walked unstably down the stairs to the main hall. "You've got feet, remember to use them," he reminded himself.

      Not much of a mental challenge, but boy was it used to not having a physical form, he thought as he continued walking down the stairs step by unsteady step, Or possessing something that already knew how to move.

      He paused when he reached the ground floor. He saw Sammi and Saturn waiting with the Ryo-Oh-Ki mech in the background. I don't see the ghostly trio, or their hangers on, he thought as he tried to focus on just moving, rather than floating away, or what else he'd learned from his latest victim, So the nihilists are getting in on the game. At least they're just humans, so the Admiral can deal with them.

      "Now, a quick escape, and we can - " He saw the girls' expressions change, and turned to face what they were reacting to. So the axe struck the side of his neck instead of the back.

      Setsuna looked at the two battered Outers, and helped Michiru carry Haruka to bed. The two ambulatory Outers left the comatose Uranus well-wrapped in bedding.

      "What happened?" she asked, and noticed Neptune's wince as she sat down, "A pack of evil Genii too much for you?"

      "A Nerima martial artist," Michiru said angrily, "She wiped the floor with us. I kept telling Haruka that if we told her who we were, she'd stop fighting us. She wouldn't hear of it."

      "Probably a good idea, she'd probably insist on joining up," Pluto told her, "And only a complete imbecile or a total madman would want to recruit one of those maniacs." Pluto smiled evilly. "Unless you know 'she' would want to play with you two."

      "Even you aren't that hard up," Michiru replied sharply, "As a young boy, she would have been presentable. As a girl . . . I like tomboys, but not that much."

      "I am NOT hard up. I don't let my hormones run away with me," Pluto replied coldly.

      Pluto's certainty did little to shake her fellow Outer's grin.

      The Admiral hated times like these. The meeting brought the best minds, regardless of rank, and still no new insights were forthcoming.

      "I wish I knew, sir," Princess Pluto told him, "I do know that nothing like that flying jellyfish monster ever bothered the Moon Kingdom, or Crystal Tokyo. If it had, we would have heard about it."

      "Any chance it was hushed up, that it masqueraded as something else?" Captain Tachibana asked.

      "No chance," Princess Jupiter explained, "The only enemies we ever faced were more humanoid."

      "What about the myths, any of the creatures we've discussed?" Asuka asked.

      "None, outside of some really you're probably more familiar with, having lived it," Princess Mercury shamefully admitted, "Like the disease the others are suffering from. I've never heard of anything like it."

      Ami patted the Princess's hand and smiled encouragingly.

      "Is that why you didn't want us to go back? You were afraid we'd catch it?" Jupiter asked.

      "Something like that," the Admiral told them, "There's more to it, but once the disease cropped up, that was the clincher."

      "Since Kodachi and the Psychic Rumble Soldiers went there, they haven't lost a single Senshi. It seems your theory about ki depletion is holding up."

      "So, you can blackmail them, like vampires?" Asuka asked.

      "No," the Admiral replied, "GrandMaster Saturn suspects the delicate balance, and I think we could negotiate with her, if she were the one in charge."

      "Can they survive the loss of the 'head man'?" Asuka asked, "Or is it all a projection of that person's thoughts and desires?" She looked at the worried expression on the three Princess' faces

      "I'm no mystic expert," Tofu replied, "All the mages are still otherwise occupied."

      "The stones, how are they connected to this?" the Admiral asked.

      "Other than occurring at the same time?" Asuka asked, "Nothing. We do need to find where they went, and either put them back, or kill whatever they were holding. This is as bad as Serenity sealing away her nemeses like someone dumping toxic waste in the ocean. 'It's someone else's problem.' I'd like to shoot people who think like that."

      "Fortunately, you'll have a cannon to put them in, Businessman Horai has already taken possession of numerous segments of the Babylon Gun from the U.S.," Admiral Takarada replied, "Those gun tubes, with appropriate cooling measures, should more than handle the stress of multiple firings."

      " 'Businessman'?" Asuka asked.

      "He used to be a general, the commander of this unit in fact," Imai told her, "He was cashiered after Beryl's attack on our headquarters."

      "Ah," Asuka said in lieu of something else.

      "All right, our next order of business is the apparent build up in the south. I have no idea why they are so certain that the attack will come from the south instead of anywhere else, but the High Command is absolutely committed to that course of action. We have to be ready to move if . . . when they are outflanked."

      "Much as it pains me to say this," Asuka said, and unrolled a map of the western Pacific, "The Americans have five heavy carrier groups close in, including the one based at Yokosuka. The Russians have Vladivostok, and they've already seen what this thing can do, and I doubt the South Koreans are immune. If they're so certain it's coming from the south, then perhaps the U.S. Marines can guard the back door. The SS troops were only really nervous about three groups, the Canadians, the Gurkhas, and the US Marines."

      "Having foreign troops doing this? South Koreans? Armed, on our soil?" Imai asked, "As if we could not defend our homeland ourselves!?"

      "The fighting is all in the south, how can any of them be defending the homeland if they're with your troops in the north?" Asuka asked, presenting a face of perfect doe-eyed innocence.

      "They'd be observers," Princess Mercury supplied, "Seeing how your magical allies and Dr. Tomoe's new shells work against the enemy? You and your troops are to protect them should the unthinkable happen, that the enemy might slip a few infiltrators past."

      "Why would they be fully armed?" Tachibana asked.

      "So they can see better?" Asuka supplied, "I'd advise letting the Bolsheviks get a little closer to the monster at sea. I don't like them, no one can trust them, not even each other, but they can fight."

      "We can put it all on the table, and let them take it off later," the Admiral said, "I wanted ideas, now I have some. What about our forces?" He directed the last at Asuka.

      "The three dragons are available, although Jeff is currently running an op with Saturn and Sammi. The Senshi, the originals, are disorganized. Ami is here, and not henshined."

      "I'm not certain I want to be," Ami admitted, "It would feel weird, a Sailor and a Princess, both Mercuries. Maybe if one of us was an Amerind, there'd be an alternative."

      "Instead of a Mercury, a Pontiac?" Asuka asked, and ignored the groans.

      "Why Asuka, that's awful," Ami replied, and smirked.

      Asuka glared at Ami, and continued, "The other seven are down in Tokyo. Also, the Scholarly Dragon found three more, so there's one for each planet, plus Vesta, Pretty Sammi, the three Princesses, as well as myself, the Psychic Rumble Soldiers and the Kunos. Only the PRS are of doubtful quality. The Senshi and the Kunos can be directed."

      "So if there's a disaster, they'll let us use our overwhelming power to bury the dead?" Jupiter complained.

      "I suspect that the enemy will outflank our mainline; and the reserves, us, will suddenly find ourselves as the frontline," the Admiral said, "In that regard, I'd like as many of the tank shells available as possible. We also should look at modifying the plasma cannons to something we can use."

      Kodachi Kuno burst into the room. "I think you might want to look into fire trucks instead. Princess Mars unexpectedly had a fit, and was surrounded by fire. In those flames, she saw all of Tokyo ablaze. I believe her vision to be the truth."

      Asuka noted all the gazes aimed at her. "I'll . . . work on it," she said, then whispered, "The whole city, put it out? Asuka der Kriegsgott, als Ebenbild Gott, that's a challenge."

      Jeff woke suddenly. My head's still attached, or has been reattached, he thought as he looked over at the white-haired figure, Those facial markings, I've seen that pattern before, but she's dead! I killed her with my own hands! And she looks like she wants to finish what she started. Jeff heard someone clear their throat.

      "I . . . apologize," the white-hair ground out, glancing at the throat-clearer, "I acted hastily and without proper thought."

      I'm not sorry I chopped your head off, Jeff translated as he turned to see the room's other occupant, I'm just sorry I choose this time to do it.

      "Nonsense, you were correct in your basic assessment and refreshingly honest in your reaction. Far more honesty that I see from most of your kind. Hello, Mars, close your mouth you're catching flies."

      "She cut your head off!" Rei stammered as he looked at her. Rei seemed to be holding a glaring contest with white-hair.

      "Yes, but it's well attached and functions now, so it's a minor set back among those who hunt and kill monsters. I hope it rolling down the stairs didn't hurt anyone."

      Rei broke off glaring at white-hair to stare at Jeff.

      "We still can't get 'The Princess' out of her tree," Rei commented.

      "Most of you are out of your tree," Jeff said as he verified he was still wearing his clothes before he cast the bedding aside, "Some ice-cream should do it."

      'Ah, you're well,' Jeff heard in a voice that fulled him with dread and rage. He turned, to have his worst fears fully realized.

      "You must forgive Lind, she - "

      "I've already completely forgiven her, best it's all forgotten as well, and I do apologize for disturbing your home," he said as he stepped around to where Rei was seated. He switched to the language he and Rei shared and whispered to the Senshi, "If you love your life and the others, we have to get out of here now! If you love your soul, keep smiling and don't ask questions, I'll answer them all later."

      When he saw Rei couldn't resist, he picked her up by the scruff of her neck and told her in Japanese, "We mustn't trouble her further with our little concerns. We really should be going." As he backed to the entrance, twisting Rei's arm in a `come-along` when she showed resistance in leaving immediately, he switched back to the language they shared, "If any of the others are still here, drag them out by the hair if you have to." Once he was out of sight of the room, he released Rei, but covered her mouth. He wrote the answer to most of her questions on a card, and showed it to her. "Are we clear?" he asked the panic-stricken Senshi, "Let's rescue our friends first." He slipped the card in the pocket of Rei's skirt and left her to find the others. I've got to get Sasami and Hotaru out of here, they're my responsibility. He headed towards where he heard their voices.

      He spotted the pair with another one, a young, long-haired brunette, who cringed the instant he came in the room. So she knows what I am, too bad, he thought as he headed straight for Hotaru and Sasami.

      "Sorry," he told the girl as he picked up Sasami and Hotaru and slung them on his shoulders like two bags of meal, "We really have to be going. So much time and so little to do."

      He saw Rei searching for her fellow Senshi as he headed out into the open. Once he was clear of the buildings, he teleported away.

      Rei was in a panic. I got Sailor Vesta and Sailor Jupiter out of the kitchen and they're on their way out, all I've got left is Venus. How can someone hide in a place this small?

      She found the blonde listening intently to Urd, in her room.

      "You just sometimes have to help people along," Urd told Venus, who was nodding eagerly, "Sometimes romance needs a little kick-start."

      "Excuse me, I do beg your pardon, but I need her to help us rescue our leader. So I must break in," Rei said, bowing with each sentence.

      "I'm sure - OW! - let go of my hair! I can walk on my own!" Venus complained as Rei dragged her away.

      "Uh," Sailor Vesta said worriedly, "I think you're hurting her."

      "Vesta, thank you, can you take us back to Moon?" Mars said as she released Venus, and ignored the frightened and angry looks from her fellow Senshi, "I think she's calmed down enough to get her out of the tree."

      "But she was going to have us for dinner!" Jupiter complained.

      "You have no idea how right you are," Mars replied, smiled, "Everybody wave." Then whispered, "Vesta, get us out of here!"

      The Senshi vanished and reappeared on the campus. Rei finally relaxed.

      "I knew you were pushy," Vesta said peevishly, "But that was beyond impolite and downright rude. When did you ever care about 'Dumpling Head'?"

      "I apologize, and I will apologize to Moon as well. She was right, and I was wrong, and -" Rei paused and stared up, then hung her head, "Can we please get her out of that tree first? Before the Senshi become a complete laughing stock."

      "I'm not coming down!" Moon wailed, "I don't want to be killed!"

      "There's no one here to decaffeinate you!" Venus called up.

      "Too bad," Mars said.

      "And everyone can see up your skirt," Venus finished.

      "I don't care!" Moon wailed as Vesta positioned Jupiter below Moon. Vesta hit the tree a seemingly glancing blow, and Moon fell right into Jupiter's arms.

      "Training," Vesta said and smiled at the thoroughly shocked Senshi, "But I'm out of practice."

      "Riiiiight," Venus said.

      I'm not going to say anything, Mars thought, I know I made the right decision, but why does everyone who's most helpful, also have to be completely looney?

      "Some military people, the Kunos, and I, found some enemies pursuing and trying to kill the personification of the dreams of all Japan. That is, the aspirations." Rei looked at Moon. "Being a bride and mother, not finding a world made out of ice cream and cookies."

      Moon's expression darkened. "Steal the dream of all Japan! They must be punished!"

      "I shot one in the face, and the rest were driven off a 1000 meter cliff," Mars told them coldly, "I think that punished them sufficiently."

      Moon gulped and nodded. The other Senshi squirmed uncomfortably at the images conjured, but kept silent.

      "Their boss' name was Celestine . . . he's dead too, but with someone like him, that might not really matter. Asuka Langley and that boy we rescued, killed him a long time ago."

      "What does that have to do with the bums' rush you were giving us?" Jupiter asked, folding her arms and glaring at mars.

      Mars held up the card which read simply, 'She's Celestine's Muse.' "That's why Mr. Invincible freaked and would have dragged us all out of there by main force if he hadn't feared setting Belldandy off."

      "Shall we go back and take her out?" Jupiter asked nervously.

      "ARE YOU KIDDING?!" Mars shouted at Jupiter, "Or just not paying attention? Somebody who could survive getting his head chopped off wants to run away, what chance have we got?"

      "We will have to deal with her eventually," Vesta reminded them, "What were she and Celestine really trying to do?"

      "That's inhuman!" Sasami protested, and could feel Tsunami cringe within her.

      "That's why Kagato feels so justified about doing what he's doing. He knows that even if the universe is destroyed, you're all just part of a grand experiment."

      "But, Tenchi will stop them," Hotaru asked desperately, "Right?"

      Jeff picked up the little girl and held her. "Sorry, I don't see how he can," Jeff admitted, "Much as I despise Washu's callousness, she's the only one of the three to be able to create an entire universe exactly the same as it was. Tokemi and Tsunami just adjusted Washu's designs."

      "But now that they have their answer, Washu won't bring them back."

      "Sasami, is that a question, or a statement?" He asked as he set Hotaru down and the two of them approached Sasami.

      "A statement," she answered sadly and hugged the two people hugging her as she cried, "A statement. Why won't she?"

      "Because Washu is amoral, beyond our judgements of good or evil. And we are all just toys or pieces of laboratory equipment to her. In that way, she's even worse than most of the Great Old Ones. They won't wipe out an entire universe, just because it isn't useful to them. A planet, a race causing trouble, or ants in their sugar bowl, yes, but some take the long view that even ants may prove useful, so you don't kill all of them."

      "Just the ones in your sugar bowl," Hotaru said.

      "So your dislike is professional," Sasami teased as she wiped her eyes.

      "As well as personal," he told her and kissed her forehead.

      "What about Tsunami?" Sasami asked.

      "You can answer that better than I can."

      "Well?" Sasami demanded, then seemed transfixed by the inner dialog, until she burst into tears, "It's not right! It's not fair!" Sasami wailed as Hotaru hugged her and tried to soothe away the anguish.

      I can guess what Tsunami told Sasami, there's going to be trouble for that, Hotaru thought, Like that creature who was inside me.

      They were in the park when Rei again caught up with them. "If you wanted to come with us," Hotaru teased, "You could have asked to come on our date."

      Rei cringed, looking around for anything that might happen.

      "This isn't Nerima," Jeff reminded her, "With all of you trailing us, I'm surprised you haven't run over each other."

      Rei stared at him. "How did you know?" Then she blushed as all three started laughing.

      "Rei-chan, two gods can't spot a bunch of love-hungry teenagers?" Jeff asked.

      "They want to see if you'd be a good husband and father," Sasami told them, and laughed at Jeff and Rei's total embarrassment.

      "It's not like that!" Rei insisted.

      "Oh yeah?" Jeff asked, "I bet if I gave you a passionate kiss right now. No matter how much you appeared to be fighting it, or how much you denied it afterwards, your fellow Senshi would be staring daggers at you for weeks."

      "You wouldn't!" Rei gasped and stepped away.

      "Jan-Ken-Pon!" Hotaru and Sasami called, displaying paper and rock respectively.

      "Interesting, since Japanese women typically display scissors, was Hotaru trying to lose, or trying to counter Sasami's nontraditional status?" Jeff asked.

      Rei stared at him incredulously. "Do you over analyze everything?"

      "That's an interesting question, you see -"

      "It was rhetorical!"

      "I was trying to distract them from deciding whether I should kiss you or not," Jeff explained, "You really do need to learn to trust others' judgement. They don't see the world as you do. For instance, I don't think you've realized just what you've done," he began, "Vesta was not Hestia, despite the similarities. Not all the Roman gods were ported over from the Greek. Vesta was one of the few who didn't exactly correspond to her Greek counterpart."

      "So how does this matter?" Rei asked.

      "The Romans, especially in the city of Rome itself, were patriarchal and oppressive to women on a scale not seen even in Japan. But the servants of Vesta, were not so bound. They took a long vow of chastity -"

      "I know that."

      "But they could move freely in the city, in carriages, which was denied most other women. Vesta's real power was immortality, that was more than living forever, that was being unkillable, and that might apply to the spirit as well as the body."

      "Why didn't you say this at the time?" Rei accused.

      "Because I hadn't had time to process it. And besides, stammering half-formed conclusions would have irreparably harmed the image of infinite knowledge and wisdom I was trying to make you believe."

      Rei "Is there a reason why I shouldn't kick you clear back to Nerima?" Rei asked pointedly.

      "Three, first, you'd break your leg kicking someone that hard, and two, once you calm down you're going to laugh about it. Three, I'll leave unspoken. My point with Kasumi/Sailor Vesta is she cannot be stopped, except by her own will, and she can eventually grind down anyone or anything she comes up against. She doesn't have any special offensive powers, because she doesn't need them, beyond her family's martial arts skills. Mere implacability would make her the match of anything that exists. Great Old Ones can die, she can't, her life and her spirit will keep burning no matter what. For an enemy that's a daunting enough prospect, for an ally, it's a terrifying one, especially for someone who has been actively suppressed by others her entire life and forced to use endurance as her only weapon. Suddenly she can survive and outlast anything that will be thrown at her. 'No' means 'maybe', and 'Hell No!' means 'later' or 'not in my lifetime' at most."

      "But she won't do anything bad would she?" Hotaru asked.

      "Define bad," Jeff said sharply, "More evil is done in this world by people who think they're doing right, or God's will, than are done by people intentionally doing evil. An evil will eventually reach satiation, boredom or guilt, a hysterical reformer has no such block because they are doing it 'for good' and no appeal to gods or morality will stop them, because they believe they are on the same side."

      "And you think Kasumi will do this?" Sasami asked in horror.

      "I deal with what is, not what I wish it to be," Jeff replied, "She's been forced into a secondary role her entire life, now she knows she has powers and responsibilities greater than she's ever had. She isn't a saint, merely extremely polite. She's been forced to knuckle under and endure, no matter what came at her. Like you have Sasami, to a greater or lesser extent. Lately, she's realized she has not, nor will she ever, be rewarded by her family for her conscientiousness. The idea that there is only punishment and restriction, and no reward, will weigh on her mind."

      "What's got you so agitated?" Rei demanded.

      "The real reason for all the atrocities by the Japanese Army was not Bushido, but that the people had been removed from their usual set of rules and restrictions, and no new rules replaced them," Jeff said worriedly, "Kasumi has been put into exactly that situation. The old rules are being scrapped, and you and the others have yet to set the kinds of cultural and familial behavioral limitations that she is used to dealing with."

      "You're really shaken up about this," Rei commented.

      "Yes. I am."

      "Did she propose or something?" Rei joked, and stared at Jeff's studiously blank expression.

      "I wouldn't be 'really shaken up' by something as trivial as a marriage proposal," he explained, "I'm more worried about the reaction of her family to her new status and her new found independence. They are used to ignoring her, now they will have to consider her and they are infinitely more likely to cast her out of the family, rather than divide their attention between their two daughters, when all attention was once focused on Akane."

      "She could take care of herself," Rei said, then realized how stupid it sounded, "Except when they abandoned her to that demon. So, you're saying she'll go nuts if, when they toss her out."

      "I'm saying that when they throw her out, unless she has another path to walk, she'll take off in whatever direction catches her attention. Nothing will stop her."

      "Then what are we supposed to do? We aren't exactly a collection of moral philosophers."

      "You've got some time to figure something out. It's something you all will have to develop."

      "Wonderful," Rei complained, "I've got a headache, so I'm leaving."

      "Fine, don't thank me either!" Jeff shouted at the departing girl.

      "For what?!"

      "Distracting them again!" Jeff shouted back. Rei immediately took to her heels and ran away as fast as she could.

      "That was a dirty trick!" Hotaru said, "Now how are you supposed to kiss her?"

      "Wouldn't you rather I kiss Mako-chan . . . even if she is trying to knife me at the time?" Jeff asked with disgust.

      "From what I've heard about Tendo Akane," Sasami said, "I'm surprised she didn't try to kill you in your sleep."

      "Oh, she did. Ruined a perfectly good shirt, holes through both sides. And she had the all-fired temerity to complain when I suggested she take the shirt off before she ran me through."

      "Unforgivable," Sasami replied and shook her head as Hotaru nodded.

      "Okay, what's next?" Jeff asked.

      "Can we lose them?" Sasami asked mischievously.

      "Certainly." The trio vanished from sight.

      "Now you think you all get it, and are ready to try again?" the Scholarly Dragon asked of the assembled commanders.

      "This isn't standard war-fighting doctrine," the new overall commander of the armored force said, mindful that his two immediate superiors were naked, painted purple and tied to a tree somewhere in Okinawa, so he was somewhat unwilling to express his full misgivings and thus test his Escape and Wilderness Survival training.

      The commander of the attack helicopters was more vocal, "Do you really think after you've proven to be no threat, that they'll allow this to continue?"

      "Oh goody! You've been completely taken in by my ruse, or have you? Whoever said I was no threat?" the Scholarly Dragon asked, "Look, politicians have a sitting end, and a thinking end, since their success depends on their seat, you talk about defending voters, and how your swift and resolute defense ensured the survival of the voters and the politician's chances of reelection."

      The men smiled knowingly.

      "Good, now, let's take it from the top."

      I may have lost my connection to the Time streams and the recently destroyed Time Gate, but I still have a feel for the focus of momentous events, she thought as she transformed and watched her quarry, Those two, and their kidnapper draw me as nothing I've every felt before Crystal Tokyo and all I've waited for will rise or fall on their actions in the next few hours. I know it. But without the Gates, I still don't know how.

      "Maybe ditching the others was a bad idea," the Sailor of Ruin admitted as Sailor Pluto stepped out, and sprang her trap.

      "Dead Scream." The energy bolt collapsed the stacks of merchandise, blocking the way back.

      "And I thought the Inners were hard on the surrounding," the man commented.

      "Surrender the girls to me," Sailor Pluto leveled the Time Key, and demanded.

      "BWAHAHAHAHA!" the man bellowed, "Don't be so proud of this state of terror you've failed to construct. Your Hello Kitty church key, is insignificant, next to the power of a farce."

      Pluto bristled at the insult.

      " 'Church key'?" the Jurain Princess whispered.

      "Bottle opener," the Sailor of Ruin whispered back.

      "Beer bottle opener," the man leaned down to whisper, "And keep it down, you're spoiling my act."

      " 'ACT'!?" Pluto kept her voice and facade calm, despite her fury at being trivialized this way.

      You will prevent it all, Pluto realized, I see it now. He is the enemy.

      "Fiend, using children to do your dirty work. Step clear and face me yourself."

      "And them being innocent children would stop you from bashing their brains in, of course," the man answered sarcastically.

      Pluto frowned at the teasing tone.

      The girls exchanged looks, and nodded. "BRAINS!" They lurched toward the stunned woman.

      "Curse you Romero! I wanted Karloff!" the man shouted and shook his fists at the lightning crossed skies.

      "What have you done to them?!" she backed away as they pair shambled forward.

      "What shall I do with you? Bwahahaha. I shall make you scream and writhe and beg for a mercy I shall not grant. Bwahahaha!" Jeff intoned as he skulked towards her.

      Pluto leveled her staff, and was shocked when he easily pulled it out of her hands.

      "I don't think you'll be needing this." He set it aside.

      "No one can touch that, without being killed!" Pluto gasped in shock, as the two girls grabbed her wrists.

      "How fortunate I'm dead, just peppier, don't you want to be a peppy too?" he asked in a teasing tone, then malevolently shouted, "Now, I shall reduce you to a babbling, quivering mass, stripped of all dignity and honor!"

      Pluto struggled against the impossible holds the two girls had. I should be able to break free easily, she thought as she struggled, then kicked at the girls, to no avail, They've been trained! But how?

      "Break free, what hold does he have on you?" Pluto asked, "You don't have to follow his orders!"

      "Ice cream," the soldier of Ruin said leadenly.

      "Fishies, please, no more fishies," the other added in completely narcotized terror.

      "There's nothing you can do to me," Pluto told him regally, "I have fought and bled for my Queen for longer than you can imagine."

      "But have you laughed?" he asked, just oozing malignity. Then he poked her in the side with a finger.

      It was all the two girls could do to keep her from leaping away screaming.

      I might as well use my ability to practically trip over my nemesis while tracking Hotaru, Makoto thought as she homed in on the trio, she climbed a ladder to get to a roof above them, Vesta and Mars had to go talk. So I guess I'm it, for now. I nearly died when Ta-chan told me to get a nightie, so he could kidnap me to.

      "I'm going to enjoy watching dad kill her when she gets home," Makoto said and grinned.

      I still don't know why the others wouldn't tell me his name. Usagi and Minako I believe, the others were hiding something, even that Belldandy character. Although in her case, I do know why. She wanted to turn us against him later . . . which really confuses things, Makoto silently admitted to herself, Which really makes me confused. I would want to help her.

      "I hate him."

      But . . . at the same time . . . she thought, It's got to be a cover up, there's more to him than we've seen. There's got to be a monster there, somewhere.

      "And when he shows himself -" She clenched her fists, awaiting the moment to use them.

      The moment came. "Dammit!" she cursed as the trio confronted the woman who'd tried to steal Hotaru before, "She's a Senshi?! That's it! It really is a kidnaping he's work for . . . no he isn't."

      Who do I root for? she wondered as Hotaru and Sasami grabbed the woman's wrist and the man disarmed her, Sensei Happi would be proud. Makoto tried to ignore the odd mix of longing and anger the filled her belly as she watched. Then he started poking the other Senshi, and Makoto squirmed in sympathy. You'd think that being a Senshi would protect you from something like that, but Ta-chan and I are even more ticklish as Senshi, Makoto thought, 'Babbling, quivering mass, stripped of all dignity and honor' that about describes it. He doesn't even have to touch her now. Like Kiima's tactics, Ta-chan hates Kiima's `Zen tickling`, of letting Ta-chan laugh herself sick without touching her. I see begging for mercy doesn't work, she's lucky it's not Ta-chan, she'd be tickling her with her glaive!

      "Like a worm on a hook," Makoto whispered, growing queasy.

      What would have happened if he'd attacked me that way? If he'd tickled me while we were underwater? Or in front of Mars? Makoto blushed furiously at the thought of her writhing on the ground, or underwater, totally helpless.

      Makoto froze as the other Senshi let out a completely different sound. Is she all right?! Okay they got her off the street, she's quiet, but even Ta-chan wouldn't leave her hurt. What's he so embarrassed about? Makoto wondered, then realized, Oh boy!

      She turned and ran in the other direction, leaping off the roof she'd watched from, onto the adjacent roof, and kept running.

      Okay, there are worse ways for our fights to have turned out, and that was one of them! she thought as she realized she could transform and teleport home, That would almost be worse than dying!

      The Admiral read the reports on the battle, and the committee formed to study it, without laughing too much, although he knew the story was going through the camp already. "I just hope they learned something," he said, for public consumption.

      "Now what is this about needing our attack and SAR helicopters tonight?" the Admiral asked as he signed the authorization, "If he's worried enough about something to ask our help, I'm worried."

      Sasami and Hotaru exchanged glances, then broke into giggles, they both knew they were going to get tremendous mileage out of the incident.

      "Poor Mako-chan, they love each other, but won't admit it," Hotaru whispered to Sasami, who nodded, "And this other woman comes in and . . . "

      "Tenchi's the same way, afraid of hurting someone. And afraid of being hurt."

      Hotaru nodded, then grinned, then returned to torment mode, "I don't understand why you're embarrassed," Hotaru began, "You didn't hurt her."

      "You didn't really touch her, once you got her to know what to expect," Sasami added.

      "Yeah," Hotaru chimed in, "You just mentioned a location, said you were going to tickle her there, and she started squealing."

      "Funny, I wonder if Mako-chan would react to you tickling her that way," Hotaru mused seriously, "She never reacted that way to me tickling her." She was rewarded by Jeff hanging his head even lower.

      Both girls nodded to each other, yes this was going to be a great game.

Sailor Jupiter II 15 - I'm Sitting Here Just Contemplatin'

      Setsuna walked in, her hauteur in place like an invisible suit of armor to protect her from the world outside her skin. Nothing could protect her from what was within. Haruka and Michiru were snuggling together on the couch. She simply noted their attempt to rearrange their clothes. I can practically feel their questions, she thought of the other two's raised eyebrows.

      "Who's your stylist?" Haruka asked, "I recognize the hairdo. Michiru sometimes has that hairdo. In the morning."

      Setsuna forced herself not to cringe at the pair's laughter. She merely stared until they guiltily sobered. "I would not be rutting in the streets when there was work to do," she answered haughtily, causing both girls to shiver.

      "Of course," the pair said as she continued to her room.

      Before she was completely out of earshot, she heard both laughing again. Once she had the door closed and locked, and a chair wedged under the doorknob, she broke down and silently cried.

      The dragon's claw made ripples in the pool, obscuring the image of the sobbing woman. "It seems the boy's affinity for chaos has forced my hand," he said quietly, "So be it. Setsuna will be a good deal more separable, now that one of Pluto's major pillars has been broken."

      Kiima peeked in on Makoto, after she heard her sister take a shower, but didn't take a long soak in the tub. She came in with that stunned expression, took a shower and disappeared in here, Kiima thought as she looked at her sister, I would have expected some noise by now.

      Makoto sat in the corner of her room, still dressed in her school uniform, hugging a pillow to her chest with her arms on her knees and staring over the top of it.

      She hasn't been crying, Kiima thought as she sat in Makoto's line of sight, Her expression almost makes it look like she watched Hotaru die, then it softens and she snuggles the pillow.

      "Is the pillow a surrogate for someone in particular?" Kiima asked and fell back when Makoto jerked.

      "I didn't notice you!" her sister told her.

      "I've only been sitting here a couple minutes," Kiima replied, "Hotaru's okay, or you'd be angry. What happened, versus what you planned to have happen?" She watched Makoto blush, then recognize how she was sitting.

      Makoto quickly put the pillow back on her bed and stood up. "Nothing, Hotaru is safe, and I'm fine," Makoto said quickly, her hands moving nervously, "I saw the woman who tried to kidnap Hotaru, but Ta-chan and her friends dealt with her. She's a Senshi, or at least has our uniform and weapon."

      "All that is fine," Kiima said patiently, "But it doesn't explain why you're in here." Kiima looked pointedly at the pillow. "Something else happened, something you want to tell me about? Something -" Kiima fell silent as Makoto turned away to stare at the wall. She watched her 'invincible' sister's shoulders shake as she cried.

      "Am - I . . . cute?" Makoto asked in a little voice.

      It's going to be one of those conversations, she silently lamented, At least she isn't crying like she did when that idiot dumped her.

      "You're too tall and forthright to be cute," Kiima replied with dewy eyes, ending with an empty-headed giggle, "You're a beautiful, strong and compassionate young woman. There are lots of men who'd find that attractive, but it scares most boys."

      "Would I scare them away, is that it?" she asked in the soft voice.

      "Mako-chan, when you find someone who really cares about you, sometimes they'll do things they think are for the best, even if you don't understand them. You have to get to know them, and get them to know you."

      Okay, we had another close encounter. The Dark Prince showed up and sent little sister, in front of two imps, to romance la-la-land, Kiima realized, And she hasn't figured out how she feels about that. Terrific.

      "Mako-chan, next time he's in your grip, maybe you shouldn't let go. He doesn't know the right thing for you. You just hang on until you can tell him."

      That also prevents you from bolting, Kiima silently added.

      "But if . . . what if I find, he's the enemy?"

      "Our enemies tend to just want to kill us. If you fought him, if you were in his clutches and helpless, and you're still alive, either you killed him, or he's not an enemy. Boys like to tease, it covers up their real feelings, and their insecurities."

      Especially that one!

      "But he wouldn't hurt you intentionally, and if he did it accidentally, he'd stop, apologize, and probably leave," Kiima explained.

      Makoto turned around and nodded. "But - but - what if it wasn't me? What if it was - somebody we didn't like?"

      Now I am confused, Kiima thought, I almost think she's jealous.

      "What happened?"

      "I don't want to talk about it."

      Ta-chan is right, I think we capture the pair of them, strip them naked, chain them together and lock them in a vault together, Kiima thought in frustration, Explaining it to dad would be easier than going through this, again.

      Sasami and Hotaru were trying to be sympathetic. I guess I should feel sorry for Jeff's victim, Hotaru thought, But after what she said about me, my father and Ami-chan's mother, I can't really feel she didn't deserve what happened, Hotaru thought as she fought back a smirk, Worse that Jeff didn't physically harm her, and she didn't realize what was happening either, until it happened, almost makes it poetic justice. I can feel bad that Jeff didn't expect it either. I shouldn't find it funny, but that he so completely lost control of the situation, it is funny.

      "Don't worry," Sasami said, "I'm sure she doesn't know what happened. The Senshi never . . . well, only once, but other than that - " Sasami started giggling at Jeff's stricken expression.

      "You -aren't - helping!" Jeff insisted, causing both girls to start laughing, "I've never - " He sighed and fell silent.

      I almost expected this, Kasumi thought as she spotted Akane and Soun awaiting her. She took a moment to make sure her coat and house dress were secure after she'd detransformed more than a block away from the house, before she ran straight to Akane.

      "Oh, I couldn't find you anywhere, you're back, I was so worried!" she exclaimed, hugging Akane tightly, "Father was so worried about you!" She listened to Akane make confused, unintelligible noises.

      Soun cleared his throat. "Kasumi dear, we need to talk about you going out and fighting monsters as a Senshi."

      Kasumi released Akane and stared at Soun. "But if I do that, father, who will cook the meals and clean the house while I'm gone?" Kasumi asked as she stepped into the yard and walked to the house.

      While Soun seemed confused by this, Akane plunged ahead. "We saw you transform and fly out of here, this morning!"

      "Akane, have you been improving the miso soup again?" Kasumi asked as she paused in the genkin to change into her inside shoes. She giggled. "Imagine, me a Shishen."

      "Senshi," Akane said.

      "I thought the newsmen called them Shishens."

      "They are Senshi!" Akane insisted.

      "You seem very sensitive about that Akane-chan," Kasumi said sympathetically as she walked into the house.

      "What do you have to say for . . . yourself . . . ?" Soun asked as he looked around the spotless house.

      He didn't remember it being spotless when he left to confront me, Kasumi thought as she entered the kitchen.

      Kasumi came out with an ice pack. "Akane," she said sternly, "I understand you having to hide your adventures as a Sheshin."

      "Senshi," Akane corrected, "I'm not the Senshi! You are!"

      Akane and Soun were dumbfounded when Kasumi began to laugh. "I should be very cross about you teasing father and I that way, Akane-chan, but it's just so cute." She put the icebag on her father's head. "But confusing father this way, and making him worry, without at least warning me, is very inconsiderate."

      Akane and Soun stared at her.

      "I understand your need to keep your secret identity secret, and without Nabiki here, you have to misdirect your enemies, but wouldn't Shampoo have been a better choice? If your enemies attack her, she'll be more able to defend herself."

      "But you're the Senshi!" Akane shouted, "We saw Rei give you a transformation pen! We saw Sailor Vesta!"

      "That's a pretty name, Akane," Kasumi said, "If you can say that, why are you having trouble in Miss Hinako's English class?"

      "Rei gave you a transformation pen, we all saw it!" Akane told her doggedly.

      "Oh, Akane-chan," Kasumi gasped, "You used your powers on yourself? Is that safe? What if you slipped and forgot mother, or your own name? Or that you are the heir to the Anything Goes School?" Kasumi laid her hands on Akane's shoulders. "You must promise me never to use your memory-altering powers on yourself, ever again! Promise me!"

      "I - promise," Akane stammered as she stared unbelievingly at her sister.

      "Can you imagine, me, a Sheshen. Who'd believe that? Leaping over rooftops in a miniskirt. Firing energy beams from my eyes - I hope they'd come out of my eyes. I saw one of Master Happosai's funny little books the heroine fired her energy beams from her . . . " Kasumi tugged her coat tighter around her and blushed. "Oh, Akane, playing a trick like that on your poor father and sister." Kasumi giggled, then grew serious. "Where is your cute animal advisor?" Kasumi looked around. "It wasn't P-chan, was it? No, of course not," Kasumi hastily amended as Akane grew angry, "Of course." She clapped her hands. "Panda-san! It's just too perfect, considering everything."

      Akane stared at her, her jaw hanging open. "But we saw you!?" Akane sounded like she was beginning to doubt the facts herself.

      "Wouldn't a Shishin have disguise magic?" Kasumi asked.

      Akane shook her head sharply, then grabbed Kasumi's purse and went rummaging around in it. Finally, she pulled out the henshin pen. "HA! What do you say to this!" She brandished the pen triumphantly.

      Kasumi applauded. "Can you pull a coin out of my ear next? Or maybe a card trick? I've always wanted to see a card trick up close!"

      "You are a Senshi!" Akane shouted.

      "So, you want me to be your sidekick?" Kasumi looked around nervously, then whispered to Akane, "You know that tradition demands I be either a cute animal, or a hunky guy. I have to admit, Akane-chan, I don't want to be either of those. I'm sorry, I just have to refuse."

      "This is yours!" Akane insisted, thrusting the pen into Kasumi's hands.

      Kasumi looked from Akane, to Soun, and back. She covered her mouth with her hands and gasped, "Oh, forgive me, I didn't realize!" Kasumi stood up tall and faced Soun. She took a bad parody of a Senshi pose. "Yes, I Kasumi Tendo am a Soldier Shenshen."


      "Not Akane Tendo," Kasumi continued, "I will be horribly wounded and killed fighting monsters, not Akane. I will be hated and feared by those I've sworn to protect, not Akane. I , not Akane, will be forced to forsake my home and family, my duties and obligations to be a Shishen Sailor."

      "Oh Akane-chan!" Soun shouted and burst into tears, "You won't abandon the School and all our hopes to go off and be a Sailor Senshi?!" he sobbed as he hugged her.

      "Senshi," Akane murmured almost by reflex.

      "Oh, Akane, I know that you - I will be so brave and beautiful, fighting for the safety of the children of Japan!"

      Soun sobbed harder now.

      With a crash like a steel barrel full of cymbals falling off a truck, Gosunkugi and his armor arrived. "Oh, brave Akane, I your true knight make my appearance."

      "Oh!" Kasumi shouted in alarm and dashed towards the boy, "You don't understand. I'm the Sailor Scout."

      "Senshi," Gosunkugi corrected.

      "Do you understand? I am the Scout," Kasumi told him urgently, "Father couldn't handle Akane being a Sailor Scout, so I am, understand?"

      "Sailor Senshi!" Akane insisted.

      The boy stared at Kasumi, then at Akane supporting their sobbing father. He saluted Kasumi smartly. "Of course, I understand completely Sailor . . . "

      "Vespa," Kasumi supplied.

      "Vesta!" Akane amended.

      "Oh, yes, I am Scout Vespa - Vesta!" Kasumi said, then whispered to Gosunkugi, "You don't turn into a cute animal too, do you? I'm well-studied in veterinary medicine, for when you get all mangled up."

      Gosunkugi blanched at that possibility.

      "Oh, Akane!? How could you keep secrets like this from your poor father?" Soun wailed.

      Setsuna sat in the establishment, while they served drinks and no food, it was hardly a bar. It was a place where people of a certain social status and discretion came to consume alcoholic beverages, alone. Setsuna had the money and manners to be a member here, and was currently enjoying a bottle of very smooth 30-year-old scotch. The ice bucket that had held the bottle of chilled sake occasionally clinked, as the last of the ice melted. I don't feel like a Senshi right now, she admitted in her vague horror, I was completely at their mercy. I was humiliated and helpless, and they didn't intentionally harm me, even seemed disconcerted and chagrined when they - when I . . . when he . . . she couldn't finish the thought. 'Cold, unapproachable, inhuman Pluto' just had her first . . . experience, in her long lifetime, she felt her heart breaking as she thought, And it was completely by accident!

      Another sip of the smooth liquid that warmed her going down, rather than burning, Not like the rotgut I've smelled on the breath of those two. As if they could fool me. No, the only one who can fool 'all-knowing Pluto', is herself. I am the fool. Serenity and Fortitude never called me that, but they gave me tasks to keep out of their hair. My advice was ignored, my . . . needs were ignored. I serve, that is all. That always was enough. She sipped again, enjoying the faint muzzy feeling that was beginning.

      "Am I pretty even?" she asked quietly, as a single tear rolled down her cheek. "I let Serenity's dream, then the Moon Kingdom, then the Gates of Time consume so much of my time, so much of me."

      The Inners are just silly little girls, not soldiers, but I bet they wouldn't be as shocked as I am, or feel as helpless. There was no malice in what he ended up doing. He just wanted to see me giggling like a mad woman. I had hurt his friends, he just wanted to prove he could beat me whenever he wanted, without really hurting me. He didn't even touch me anywhere inappropriate. If I'd been wearing a bikini, he wouldn't have come close to the covered parts. Most of the time, he didn't even actually touch me, he just wiggled his fingers close and told me where they were. So, why did I . . . enjoy myself that way? Setsuna hugged herself to try to contain the emotions raging within. This is worse than the fool Inners and their desperation for a boyfriend! Am I so desperate for human contact that I'll . . . If the contact is aggressive, and male? Am I really like that?

      "So, drinking alone?" the male voice asked, "You know what that says about you, don't you?!"

      She turned to face her tormentor, and fell onto her back as she stared into the pupilless, yellow eyes.

      "If you are expecting me to rape or eat you," the gravelly voice continued, "I have the stomach for neither. If you wished to drink yourself insensate, several bottles of fortified wine would serve better, and be far cheaper."

      "I am - "

      "Helpless without the henshin pen you left at your home," the dragon replied, "Helpless because you've addled your senses and judgement. Are you so certain that you're unlovable, that even an accident makes you feel unclean and unworthy?"

      "Why you - !" Setsuna sat up and shouted, only to double over and vomit up all she'd drunk.

      "I need you sober, Rini needs you even more. If you wish to wallow in your uncertainties, do so when your job is less pressing, when the need is not so great."

      "Bastard!" Setsuna growled as she wiped her mouth clean. Suddenly, she was flat on her back again, a black finger the size of a telephone pole pinning her down.

      The yellow eyes stared into her's, filling her with fear. "I could do whatever I wish with your body and your mind, and there is nothing that you or Sailor Pluto, could do to stop me. What I chose to do, is sober you up, and task you with a job."

      "I serve Queen Serenity!"

      "Who is a millennium dead, and mourned by only three of the entire Universe. A poor legacy to be sure. Ramses the Second elicits more sympathy and interest. All she `created` was sterile and barren: her grand plan, her kingdom, and her daughter, need I go on? The Moon Kingdom, a good place for her sterile perfection, with glittering jewels of rampant narcissism to orbit around her and reflect back her glory. Why do you think she exiled you to the coldest, most barren planet? Gave you the eternal job of guarding what could have been sealed with a journeyman's magic and bag of concrete?"

      "The job was important, no one should be permitted - "

      "HA!" the voice boomed, silencing Pluto's rage at the insult to her and Serenity. "No one with the power to command the gates to serve them, couldn't also travel through time by a host of other means." He placed a claw tip on her belly, just hard enough to dimple the skin, as long as she didn't inhale. "You were sent, banished, because you of the original three could produce new life, and your queen had to force you into the crone's role, so she could usurp the role of mother." The claw and threat of evisceration were removed, and Pluto could breathe again. "Did you ever wonder why you never had trouble getting servants? On Pluto? On Charon? You were far from the court, you were far from the excitement of the storms of Jupiter, or Saturn, far from the solar disk and it's endless fascinations, you despised the luxuries and fripperies of the court and the other Principalities. And yet, people flocked, not to the barrenness of Pluto, but to the warmth of the home you created there."

      "I never played house with any of those people!" Pluto insisted.

      If I had my henshin, I could show this monster what for! she thought angrily. The henshin, her henshin, dropped on her stomach.

      "You were saying? I said 'home', not boudoir," the creature corrected, "Those two Outers could live in dour debauchery anywhere, why are they under your roof, living by your rules? You perverted your gifts and goals on Triton, delved with a pick axe where a gentle hand would have gathered them in, and you should have left well enough alone. I suspect as punishment, you alone have been forced to live through the long ages, knowing the fall and failure."

      "What are you offering, redemption? A chance to undo my past mistakes?" Pluto demanded.

      "Of course not, to be reborn, you have to die first," the creature told her, and laughed at her fear, "I offer you a place to go and a person to be, after you've died." The creature's mocking laughter was all that remained after a few moments.

      How did something that big fit in just this room? she thought as she looked around, Where is what I -? She barely got the ice bucket under her before she actually spewed forth what she had been drinking.

      "Okay, an illusion," she said, then rinsed her mouth with a swig of the scotch, and spit it into the ice bucket when the thought of swallowing it made her stomach churn.

      The knowledge of where she would have to be, later tonight, slammed into her mind with such force, it ignited a hangover of epic proportions.

      "You wanted to feel sorry for yourself, now, anyone and everyone who understands your pain will feel sorry for you," the voice taunted, "Amazing how real agony drives out existential concerns and angst over trivialities."

      I should curse him, Setsuna thought about it, But I'd have to make a noise to do that. No, no noise.

      "That was the boy's real problem," the voice teased, sending agony through Setsuna's mind, "You Senshi types like it rough."

      Pluto sat up and shouted, "You rot - " Setsuna collapsed to the floor in a little ball of agony.

      "You really should pay attention to Sailor Pluto, she runs away and leaves you the mess. 'Brave, Sacrificing Pluto' indeed, you are her sacrifice Meioh Setsuna," the voice whispered at a merely painful level, "I'LL SEE YOU LATER TONIGHT! AND YOU CAN HIT ME THEN!" shook the rafters.

      Setsuna whimpered, afraid of what else might be coming.

      "Admiral," Captain Tachibana asked as they stood outside near the edge of the camp, "What if we need those choppers?"

      "Captain, sometimes, you must have faith in the people under you. At a certain rank, you learn you cannot fight the battle, you have to manage the battle. If he didn't need all of them, he wouldn't have asked for all of them." The admiral smiled. "Besides, I like the idea of him owing us a favor, and that he is neither omnipotent, nor omniscient."

      "Or he wants us to believe that," the Captain replied.

      "Even that is a comfort," the Admiral replied as the lights of the chopper force disappeared in the direction of Tokyo. "Now, Captain, we have to manage the battle. And we have to hope that the lessons taught to our colleagues at the Sagami River, are not lessons we too must master."

      Rini watched the street race towards her, she clutched Luna-P and screamed. Then, she landed. The old truck she'd landed on had been flattened by the impact. Why aren't I hurt? she wondered, Why didn't I have Luna-P become a parachute or something? We fell for long enough.

      She hugged Luna-P. "He said we had two friends on their way, and that I should wait for them." She looked around the deserted street worriedly. "But they have to know where and when I arrived. I can't stay here, or the Black Moon will find me."

      She scrambled out of the ruins of the truck, and headed to a more lighted area.

      Sailor Saturn moved easily through the night. "How hard could it be to find a pink-haired girl?" Hotaru asked into her communicator.

      "She moved from where she landed, and I'm picking up other temporal distortions," Kitty's gravelly voice told her, "So the short answer is 'very hard'. I've got additional help and eyes searching. Don't worry, Pretty Sammi and the military are having as hard a time as you are."

      "Good enough," Hotaru said.

      I just wish the troops were the Admiral's, instead of those Kitty taught a lesson to earlier, she thought as she moved, I trust them, I'm not sure I can trust people I don't know.

      "So what's causing these temporal distortions?" came Sammi's voice over the communicator, "Are they decoys or more troops?"


      Neither I nor the dragon are happy with that, Hotaru thought as she continued searching.

      "All units report," the Admiral commanded, as he looked over the map and the operators assembled around it. He listened to the three small squadrons of choppers reporting their readiness and highly dispersed positions.

      "Admiral," Captain Tachibana reported, "No contacts."

      "That's impossible," Asuka interrupted, "They have the location of at least two confirmed targets. They have to be able to find them!"

      "Unless - "

      "They're being jammed!" Asuka finished, "Pull them out of there!"

      "Pull up and take evasive action!" the Admiral ordered, "It's a trap. Be aware of ground fire and air attack." He turned to his staff. "How did they know?"

      Even Asuka didn't have an immediate answer.

      "Admiral, Gray 5 reports an enemy ship over Yokohama, approaching fast."

      "They aren't the only ones who can spring a trap," the Admiral said angrily, but nodded to Lieutenant Imai.

      "Your Highness, your target is over Yokohama, any assistance you can offer -"

      "I'm on my way," came the haughty reply, "If they threaten Jurain royal blood, they will die."

      "Can't ask for better than that," Imai replied.

      "Admiral, southern command has two squadrons, one of F-1's and the other F-15DJ's, they can keep her Highness clear of gnats."

      "Coordinate with her Highness," the Admiral replied, "Any further threat to our choppers?"

      "Not from the air, sir," Tachibana replied, "we don't know about ground attack."

      "Wonderful. Which is the diversion, and which is the real attack?"

      The Ryu-Oh raced in at the large ship that had appeared over the skies of Japan. Ayeka's grip tightened on the arms of her chair. "If they think I'd sit by and let someone threaten Sasami," she growled, ignoring the terrified members of her crew. "DIE!"

      The fusillade reduced the other ship to a flaming wreck.

      "We mustn't let that debris hit the ground!" Ayeka commanded, as she continued firing, "HA! HA! HA!"

      "Of course not," Tenchi agreed from behind a stack of tables.

      "Very commendable," Washu agreed as she cowered.

      "Are the little ones with the Japan flag on our side?" Mihoshi asked.

      I can feel it, feel them, Rini thought as she ran, trying to dodge traffic and other people, I thought I could get away, now I know I can't. She nearly ran down a soldier in uniform, but missed him and kept running.

      She saw the odd light high overhead. "NO!" Rini screamed in terror at the abomination she knew would pursue her until she or it was destroyed. "He said there would be people to help! He lied! He lied!" She ran with tears streaming down her face.

      "Two blocks up, three left, you'll see a barricade, flash your lights three times, they'll let you through," came through the car's radio as Setsuna drove through the city streets. Overhead, choppers and fighters crisscrossed the city.

      "You'd think they'd spotted Godzilla or something," she complained as she approached the barricade, but flashed her lights, and the soldiers opened the barricade for her, saluting as she passed.

      What is going on here? she wanted to scream.

      "Sir, we have the target," Tachibana reported, "Switching."

      "If you have any of your specials, send them," the soldier shouted, "I don't know what it this, but we've got nothing that can handle it!"

      "We're vectoring Strike Wave in and Death Star is approaching," Asuka reported, "Dark King is heading in for extraction, expect aggressive egress if under fire."

      "Are weapons free?" Tachibana asked.

      "Do not fire, until fired upon," the Admiral said. "I hate lawyers righting our rules of engagement."

      "I just hate lawyers. SAR chopper has visual," Imai reported, "It is closing on the Package. No ground fire reported, so far." The image on the screen caused the soldiers to gasp.

      "Vector White Star, and all available air support," the Admiral ordered.

      "If they don't shoot at us, what can we do?" Tachibana asked.

      "We can watch. Rules of engagement."

      Hotaru watched the huge, winged mech fly over the streets. "That's a big bird! AH!" She caught sight of a flash of pink. "Got it!" Hotaru transformed as she ran.

      Maybe I can hold that thing off until help gets here . . . but who could deal with that? She looked up at the two armed helicopters that buzzed the target, but were ignored. Why aren't they shooting at each other?

      "Rini!" she shouted to the fleeing girl. The girl turned to the sound, Hotaru winced as the girl's hope turned to stark terror.

      "Mistress Saturn!" the little girl breathed in dread.

      "Mistress . . . ? We have to get out of here, now!" Saturn told her and tugged at the petrified girl who had tears running down her face.

      "He lied, he lied, he lied," she kept staring at Saturn and repeating.

      I'm going to have to carry her out of here, Hotaru thought, and was thrown from her feet as the huge mech landed.

      "He lied, he lied!" the pink-haired girl whimpered.

      "Too bad Princess, all we need is your broken body. Wiseman will get what he needs."

      "We have enough problems with Kagato!" Saturn shouted at the mech as she put herself between it and the girl, "We don't need imports!"

      "So be it! Die with her!" The mech aimed not at them, but the building next to them. A can bounced off the mech, and began spewing green smoke. The mech's shot pulverized the building.

      "Silence Sphere!" Saturn shouted as she held the girl close and felt the debris raining down on her shield.

      "Death Star and Package are west of smoke, repeat west of smoke, other friendlies north of smoke," Stirogli heard.

      "Attacking from west," he told them, "I see green smoke. Engaging!"

      As if I had a choice, Stirogli breathed at the huge machine as he closed, He'd kill me if I didn't rescue the girl.

      Layers of frost became sheets of ice. And Stirogli was past. "Damage? Confirm condition of friendlies."

      "Negative on friendlies, Negative on hostile, no effect."


      "White Star, take evasive action, you have inbounds!" he heard as he evaded.

      "Order the Wild Weasels to protect White Star," Tachibana ordered, "Chaff and flares."

      "Cabinet is now meeting," a comm officer reported, "They are debating weapons free."

      The Admiral didn't frown. Instead, he nodded to Asuka.

      "Spectre," Asuka said quietly, "Close support, friendlies within 30 meters, engage."

      Xian Pu ran into Raccoon and Mu Tsu's room. She spotted Raccoon bent over a large silvery sphere. "Raccoon, there big fight on television!" she told him, "You must see!"

      "I didn't think Ukyo's balance was that good," Raccoon replied in a distracted tone, making gestures over the sphere, never taking his eyes off it, "She isn't fighting Mu Tsu, is she?"

      "No, fight downtown, pictures of fight on . . . oh, you watching fight right here," Xian Pu realized.

      "Nope, I'm doing what Rei is supposed to be doing right now," Raccoon replied as he made another gesture.

      "What that?" Xian Pu asked as she leaned down to look into the sphere, before turning away from the nauseating images.

      "Looking for a spider," Raccoon replied.

      Rini knew she'd been abandoned even by God, as she looked at the massive armored form that had deflected most of the debris away from them as the building fell. I can't even be given a clean death, she thought as she twisted and turned to get out of the renegade Senshi's grip, Free! She nearly ran into the hand of the Jurain warmech.

      "That's Ryo-Ok-Ki!" she stammered, not even trying to run away now.

      That's what they built to prevent mother, and the other Senshi from 'interdicting' trade with the traitors! Rini thought of the clean lines and faux humorous form that disguised the brute power of the empire's ultimate war machine. She let herself collapse and be captured again. Nightmare on nightmare, she silently wailed, I won't survive, at least the Black Moon would just kill me.

      "I want to go home," she whispered as she clutched Luna-P and closed her eyes.

      Ryo-Oh-Ki shook the debris clear of those girls first, and I won't let them get hit again! Sammi silently vowed as she shed the last of the building material.

      "Ryo-Oh-Ki! Attack!" Pretty Sammi commanded from the cockpit.

      "Mrwol!" the cabbit turned warmech shouted as it charged. Her opponent was shattering the ice blocks that had encased it.

      "Aa - AGGH!" Sammi's shout changed as her opponent executed a perfect hip throw and sent pilot and mech flying into and through a building. Before she could pull herself clear, it grabbed Ryo-Oh-Ki's arm and flipped her again, this time straight at the pair she'd sworn to protect. Only by twisting painfully, did Sammi and Ryo-Oh-Ki manage not to land directly atop them.

      "Reow, reow, reow," the images of Ryo-Oh-Ki's face exclaimed as they spun on every screen.

      "Ooo, I know how she feels," Sammi said as she tried to figure out if she was up or down. Doors in the enemy mech opened by the dozens, revealing missile launchers. "Ryo-Oh-Ki wake up and move!" As dozens of small projectiles flew their corkscrew paths towards them, frost, then ice formed on all of them. Most lost tracking and slammed into the ground, or the buildings and exploded. The frost, then ice reformed on the mech, setting off some explosions from the launchers, tearing off antennas and small sensor heads.

      But the explosions didn't get to the magazines, Sammi thought as she watched the enemy advance, while on a smaller screen, the pink-haired girl broke away from Saturn and hugged the white and blue dragon's leg. Well, up and at them! Piloting a Mech is harder than I thought. I should have let Raccoon or Langley teach me first. Ryo-Oh-Ki would be better without me, and I'd almost be better without her. We have to learn to be better, together.

      "Don't just charge in," she told the groggy cabbit-mech, "Fire and move."

      Ryo-Oh-Ki sent beams of power at her target while she weaved drunkenly side-to-side as they advanced. The effect was neither scored many hits, but the enemy gave ground.

      At least once we close to hand-to-hand, I know how to fight that way, then she realized, But Ryo-Oh-Ki doesn't!

      The instructions were flawless, Setsuna thought as she headed towards what was clearly a battlezone, And the signals meant nobody stopped me. Why am I following those instructions? If the Princess was involved, I would have heard. So why am I driving the way Haruka only wishes she could? Why do I need to get here? She glanced at the seat beside her, at her purse, My hands just itch to get around my henshin, and transform. She considered how she, Setsuna, had dodged through traffic and the barriers, with a calm, skill and reflexes she hadn't possessed before, I bet if I transform, I'll lose my driving skills. I also suspect I'll be terrified of nearly trading paint and passing police on my way out.

      She stopped the car, took her purse, and ran towards the sound of the guns.

      "I'm getting the hang of this!" Sammi cried out joyfully as she managed to reverse the throw the other warmech tried on her. She ignored the dubious look on all the screens showing Ryo-Oh-Ki's face. As her opponent stood, it opened several large body panels, like a parody of a daisy.

      "MOVE!" Sammi shouted, and Ryo-Oh-Ki did, easily. "Can't hit - NO!" she screamed as she realized she wasn't the target.

      Saturn was still having trouble with the girl, and the dragon and girls were directly in the path of the beam. Sammi felt Ryo-Oh-Ki move and leap into the path of the still-firing beam weapon that tore through shield after shield that Saturn brought up. Sammi and Ryo-Oh-Ki screamed together as the beam tore through armor and shields, and into the vitals of the Ryo-Oh-Ki mech, filling the cockpit with exploding equipment, sparks and smoke.

      Stirogli managed to shake off the girl while he fired a beam of such intense cold that frost on the target mech was only a side effect. He leapt the distance and landed on the mech and dug his claws into the mech's shoulders. His claw ripped through the cold-embrittled armor, while his back claws came level with the mech's chest, and he ripped straight down, like a cat gutting its prey. The claws ripping through armor, tearing of the firing panels, and shattering the energy beam's central crystal.

      Before Stirogli could rake again, the mech fired another fusillade of missiles that raced out and curved back in. The dragon and the battered mech took hit after hit. The battered dragon slid to the ground, unconscious, while the mech staggered back, to assess its damage and chance for success.

      Saturn watched as Sammi's mech, then the white dragon toppled in front of them. Even wounded, they still kept trying to protect us. Why isn't the Japanese Army doing the same? Saturn thought as she tugged at the girl, I should have just thrown her over my shoulder and run for it. She nearly collapsed in exhaustion. Who am I kidding? I can barely walk myself. That thing is going to just lurch over here and stomp us.

      "Why did she do that?" the pink hair asked.

      "We're heros," Saturn exclaimed, "We save people."

      Not that we couldn't use a few heros of our own right now, Saturn didn't add, Is she finally getting it? Can I finally drag her away and get her to safety, so I can really clobber this monster!? Over the fallen body of the Ryo-Oh-Ki Mech, Saturn saw the other Mech approaching. "Too late," Saturn said as she released the girl and stepped clear, leveling her glaive, "I would have liked more time to train." She tried to make her hands quit trembling from fear and fatigue.

      The siren that filled the air would have been struck fear in any Allied soldier of the 40's from the Caucasus to the Bay of Biscay. The low shriek that rose in pitch and volume echoed among the buildings until it was impossible to pinpoint the source.

      "Kitty!" Sammi announced woozily from the mech's speakers, while her opponent tried to scan the skies, and brace for the attack.

      Saturn watched the soldiers bounce another can of smoke off the creature, and then run away. The mech turned as if to strike them. Before they could fire, a bolt of black so dark it stood out stark against the night sky struck the mech, driving it back. Saturn and Rini watched as the covers on the missile launchers and the jagged and torn sections of armor melted away like candy in boiling water. Then the rest of the armored skin, and the composite bones melted as they were exposed, then burned away.

      The source of the screech and the bolt flew over the city streets to survey the carnage. Black, ancient and malevolent beyond words, it settled on all fours amid the carnage. Folding its wings and glowering with distaste at the pitiful beings around it.

      "KITTY!" two girls exclaimed and ran towards the monster.

      "Another entrance ruined," he commented as each girl tried to wrap her arms around his wrist, "Maleficent will drum me out of the corps at this rate."

      Setsuna transformed into Sailor Pluto. I arrived just in time to - she thought and threw herself flat as the huge warmachine was effectively evaporated by an even larger dragon. She looked up and saw Saturn and another girl step into view. More to this than meets the eye. She lifted the Key of Time and advanced at a fast walk.

      The near tackle knocked her back and almost knocked her down.

      "PUU!" the pink-haired girl exclaimed, nearly squeezing the life out of her. "I knew he'd send help! I knew it!" The face that looked up into Setsuna's was as full of joy as she had ever seen. The tears streaming down her little face only highlighted it.

      I've never seen anyone so happy to see - me, ever, Setsuna thought as she hugged the girl tightly to her.

      "Yes, I'm here," she said and lifted the girl up so she could wrap her arms around her neck.

      As if by magic, the girl's happiness somehow actually increased.

      Setsuna looked at Saturn carefully helping another pink-haired girl out of the fallen machine, while the black dragon helped the white and blue dragon unsteadily to his feet. Setsuna walked towards the group, the little girl rubbing her cheek against Setsuna's neck. I detransformed, she realized, I've never done that by accident either, or, not for a long time.

      "I told you I'd bring your mother," the black dragon rumbled.

      Setsuna looked at the two girls and the small animal they were healing. Where'd the mech go? Is one of them her mother?

      The girl looked up at the dragon, not releasing her hold on Setsuna. "But Mistress Saturn? And the Queen of the Jurai?!" she protested.

      "How better to demonstrate that things are different here?" the terrible monster teased "Your sire and dame are elsewhere, but your mother is here," it added more seriously, pointing at Setsuna.

      I don't know which of us is more thunderstruck, came as her first rational thought after that.

      "I . . . I . . . " she stammered, only calming when the little girl stared at her.

      "Puu isn't my mommy, but I always wished she was," she said quietly, before laying her head on Setsuna's shoulder, "She was the one I wanted to be." A moment later the hold became a ferocious hug. "Now she can be!" the girl whooped.

      "For a little while," the monster amended, almost tenderly.

      "Kitty, you're right," the girl exclaimed happily, "But you're nuts!"

      "Kitty?" Setsuna asked of the huge creature.

      "Relax, Winifred, the dormouse will be serving tea later, just watch out for the Hatter, he likes to pinch."

      Setsuna groaned, she had abandoned her attempts to preserve her hauteur, and now was just trying to remain standing. "Can we go somewhere away from prying . . . eyes?" She looked around at the cave they had appeared in, even her car and the smaller dragon.

      "Away enough?" the malevolent creature asked as Sailor Saturn led the girl and her pet away, casting angry glances over her shoulder at Setsuna until they were out of sight. "Your eagerness, nay fanaticism is now revealed, at least its hidden service," the creature rumbled, then seemed to chuckle at the scene. "One soul, one terribly lonely soul battered its way into your loneliness. Reason enough, perhaps not, but perhaps the straw that broke the camel's back."

      Setsuna frowned at what he was accusing Pluto, and by inference her of. I have not been following the progress of Crystal Tokyo, just so Rini will be born and seek me out! she wanted to angrily shout, At least he isn't saying it so Rini can understand. But that smirk means he knows that I know what he's talking about.

      "I think you're reading too much into the situation," she countered, " 'Sire and Dame'?"

      I know who he's taking about, but what does he mean by this? she wanted to ask, then she noted Rini had fallen asleep in her arms.

      "More elegant that egg and sperm donor, but no less accurate," he said quietly, as if not to wake the girl.

      I should be terrified, Setsuna thought, Instead I'm angry at his teasing. Somehow, I think that's the point.


      The creature chuckled again.

      A surprisingly warm sound, Setsuna realized, Now that I realize I'm one of his playing pieces, and won't be exterminated at any moment.

      "You humans are too lost in the visual and procedural world," he said, in an almost amused and friendly tone, "I know what you are thinking, feeling, and planning. You may school your face as well as a Noh player, but you cannot hide the chemical telltales, pheromones, and hormone breakdown residues you fill the air around you with." He chuckled again. "Have no fear, you cannot fool her either, she knows the you-who-may-be far too well. The masks you wear are merely for show, against either of us. The Caron's Poivre you wear occasionally, that she stole a drop of, before she left. She's smart enough to realize if she smelled more like you, she might be more acceptable. Odd, you would spend such an extravagant sum on such an indulgence, and a scent whose name means 'Pepper'? Intriguing indeed."

      "What would you know about me, or her?" Setsuna demanded.

      "Far north, a fallen example of what you struggle for, now strives against itself, and dies of that jihad when submission would bring about a victory beyond any they dreamed of, as well as another chance to achieve what they claim to want."

      "I've fought them," Pluto retorted, "They must have a plan."

      "Not to educate your bunny. You hope too much," he said easily, "We: you, I, your bunny, even our princesses are not people, just things either in the way, or to be converted to something useful. A very . . . draconian attitude, and it explains why dragons do not rule, and we certainly don't reign. They could be more than the target of more powerful forces. The bunny's fascination with 'Love' and 'Justice' amuses me, but I'd rather have one of her power and enthusiasm hold to such illusions, rather than one where they 'make it better for everyone.' One size fits all doesn't work with underwear, why do so many assume it works in governance? Relax, Happosai does not know you are here."

      "I was not considering Happosai, but another underwear thief," Pluto responded as she got her nervousness under control. "Why are you so interested? If all we are is amusements to you."

      "Everyone wants their team to win. Besides, your side can be stopped with words and a good show of contrition. Your enemies would insist on spilt blood. There's more, I frankly prefer to avoid shedding blood on trivialities. While there is nothing magical about blood, taking it out with anything other than explicit permission, and clinical detachment, always escalates things."

      Pluto smirked, but nodded. "So what do you want of me?" The creature's long pause and weighing gaze made her skin crawl.

      "Interesting symphony of scents, it implies . . . many things. First your assumptions, your body's reaction to them, and then your mind's interpretation and your body's reaction to them. Instinct and logical thought, all displayed to one with a nose as a novel would be to you. I will not speculate on where you'd purchase such a novel, however." The chuckle this time was throatier.

      Pluto blanched and squirmed under that amusement. "So what do you want me to do?"

      "I could demand you cease lying to yourself," the monster said grimly, "But I already know that is futile. Too many of Serenity's worshipers refuse to see any flaw in her person or actions."

      "Serenity is - " Setsuna stopped the tirade, as she saw the trap, and Rini shifted unhappily at the yelling, "I won't be drawn into that argument. You could never understand."

      "You are correct, I don't, and never could. My free will and freedom to act are precious to me. I cannot imagine anyone besides God Almighty Himself who could make me surrender them. So I'll demand something you can deliver. A home for a wayward waif. You had plans to take Hotaru, so you must have had the support structure needed by a young girl. This one is merely younger, and you will face a reduced level of resistance. I can arrange the necessary papers. I am owed some rather substantial favors. I believe I should call them in, before they grow stale."

      "Then I'll owe you, is that it?" Setsuna asked as she marshaled her defiance. His laughter was unexpected.

      "You expect me to demand the payment of legend?" the dragon asked incredulously, "Don't say you didn't! I smell it on you!" The monster laughed, a terrifying yet joyous sound. "You certainly qualify, despite what happened earlier."

      Setsuna wanted to scream at that reminder.

      "But that never was a requirement."

      "Are you - how could - I have - I just haven't - "

      "You are," the dragon cut through Pluto's sputtering, "There was a time it would be something to take pride in. It prevented the spread of fatal, insanity-causing diseases to the next generation, among other things, when wonder drugs weren't available as a cure. Also having orgasms wasn't the be-all and end-all of all human existence."

      I don't know if I could blush worse than I already am! Setsuna thought as she stared at the dragon, Why am I stunned he doesn't want to . . . ravish me? I guess it would be like getting turned down by a tentacle demon. I'm not used to this.

      "So what is the price for your help?" Setsuna asked.

      "Raising a responsible adult will be payment enough," he replied quietly.

      The verbal sparring kept me from following those two girls! Pluto realized. Went she took a step, a wing descended in front of her.

      "Ah. You haven't earned the right, yet."

      "And how could I earn the right?"

      "When a human seeks truth, especially a personal truth, why do they always look outside themselves, when truth, especially a personal truth, as opposed to facts, cannot be separated from the person?"

      "Which tells me precisely nothing," Setsuna told him, "Do you want to hear the sound of one hand slapping?"

      "It tells me you aren't as insightful as you wish people to believe. It also tells me that two behavioral templates are at war within you. The first Meioh Setsuna, who is a human who happens to be a Senshi; and Patience, an ancient ally of Serenity, who projects herself into a human frame of reference called Sailor Pluto. Sailor Pluto is Patience's plaything, but with the Gates of Time gone, the Moon Kingdom gone, and two examples of how Crystal Tokyo could go terribly awry once founded, Meioh Setsuna has become more than an appurtenance to Patience/Sailor Pluto. Don't deny it, I smelled the difference each time you changed. Setsuna wants a life of consequence as a human, perhaps a new life of her own growing in her womb. Patience fears stepping out of Serenity's shadow, for fear of seeing how small the three of you actually were, and the magnitude of your crimes. Setsuna could walk in there free and unencumbered, Patience, and therefore Sailor Pluto, would be crushed by the truths she would be forced to experience. Whether Setsuna is strong enough to take up Sailor Pluto's mantle when Patience falls . . . I prefer not to test."

      Setsuna shivered at his cold certainty. "Very well, I will know when I am allowed. Then how will you know that - you'll smell the difference, won't you?"

      "Very good, I will, but you won't die passing through, that's the real test. Now I have a question for you. The death of billions, how can that be justified by rewarding the rest with an idle paradise?"

      "Crystal Tokyo would be paradise!" Pluto retorted angrily.

      "Built on a slaughter that would beggar Hitler, Mao, Stalin and Tojo combined? You assume that the populace would care nothing for the sacrifice of innocents required for its existence, and their survival? If you are correct, that they care nothing for the fallen . . . I would rather the survivors would at least question the cost, have grand memorial festivals likening to the Mexican Day of the Dead, or some of the Roman rites to propitiate the deified ancestors. But such means of dealing with survivor guilt would get in the way of enjoying paradise and worshiping their saviors. You cannot allow the humans to be human, that would ruin everything."

      Pluto seethed at this inhuman monster's smug tone and his certainty on the behavior of something he could never be.

      " 'A true victory is to make your enemy see they were wrong to oppose you in the first place,' Behr and Beimler. Gods want adults who do not need them, but desire a relationship anyway. Only tyrants want all to be children who depend on them for everything. Which was the Moon Kingdom? Which is/will be Crystal Tokyo? Intentions' nobility do not excuse the unintended consequences of any action." He watched Pluto fume at the slander. "You can't answer because Pluto refuses to think about it, she will only feel. But Setsuna will have to consider the cost of her support of Patience's actions. So you will have a kingdom of free thinkers, or one who reacts only with emotion? Which of those would win a contest? Emotion cannot be sustained forever. Patient planning will bring down any mountain."

      "I will not give up on Crystal Tokyo!" Pluto exclaimed, "Usagi will be the mother of a better, more noble Human Race!"

      "Celestine and Belldandy tried that once before," he said sadly, then glared and Pluto feared for her life, "Langley and the boy were weak, young and inexperienced, yet they prevailed, and they are not those things any more. And for all your bestowed power, you would find their resolve terrifying, to say nothing of their methods. Coming from something like me, that's saying something."

      "You would deny the survivors of a cataclysm paradise?" Pluto replied, "Who is being the cruel one now?"

      "I would prevent the cataclysm in the first place," the dragon replied, his cold tone against Pluto's heated one, "You and your queen are either omnipotent and omniscient, or you aren't. That you know it could happen, presumably when, where and how, and choose inaction, shows deliberation on your part. To beggar Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Leopold II, and build your paradise on a mountain of skulls." The dragon smirked. "And then claim divine right to rule because of your superior nature? That separates you from any other bloody-minded tyrant in history how? Oh, you're giving the survivors paradise. The whole web does not bear close scrutiny. What if the Senshi dissent? Rini talked of 'Mistress' Saturn, whom she feared, are the others merely a meat shield one and all for NeoSerenity? What will their function be when all is a utopia?"

      "There will be enemies," Pluto replied.

      "Of paradise?" the dragon asked sarcastically, "Oh, how could that be? Why would anyone not wish to live in paradise? And would not the citizens in their idyllic lifestyle not wish everyone to partake? I've talked with Rini. She's gotten the watered down answers from tutors as besotted by NeoSerenity as Pluto is. Evil still exists there. If it is truly evil, you kill it, not toss it somewhere and hope it goes away. The rulers of Crystal Tokyo seem intent on making exactly the same mistakes as the ruler of the Moon Kingdom. How many of Serenity's old enemies are lurking out there?" The dragon gestured at the nighttime sky. "How many in her strength she locked away, so that her reincarnated descendants, in their weakness and inexperience, would face them after a millennium of preparation and marination? They return, with the preparation and the will to engage a system-spanning Queendom, and find a pack of untrained, half-tested girls. Who developed that plan? Genma Saotome? Even Gendo Ikari knew he had a couple of trained aces to back up the newbies, and that the EVAs themselves were capable of fighting without their pilot's direct control. No answer?"

      I want to grind my teeth in frustration, Pluto thought, On his neck! But I'd wake Rini, so I'll do that later.

      "Queen Serenity knew what she was doing!" Pluto insisted.

      "That's loyalty and wishful thinking talking," the Dragon replied. His tail wrapped around Rini and plucked her off Pluto's shoulder and put her in Sasami and Hotaru's arms. "She's had a hard couple of days, she'll be sleepy, so don't let her stay up too late," he told the two girls.

      "Of course not," Hotaru reassured him, with Sasami nodding eagerly.

      " 'But 2:00 AM isn't late, it's early'," the dragon said in a high-pitched voice, then in normal tones, "Do you have the bag?"

      "Oops!" Sasami dashed away, then ran back carrying a large shopping bag. "Thanks for reminding me."

      "Give Ta-chan and Rini some," the dragon advised, "That way you can catch him in a crossfire."

      "What was that all about?" Setsuna asked, staring at the three departing girls.

      "Payback, and target acquisition," the dragon explained, when he saw Setsuna's expression, he chuckled then told her, "The Devil is a proud spirit and cannot stand to be mocked. Neither I nor the boy mock, when a quick knife between the ribs does the job."

      "That makes no sense."

      "You leave others' transgressions and Karma to them. You have your own crimes to atone for, such as thousands of years ago, three beings: Serenity, Fortitude and Temperance, arrogated to themselves the right to direct Human destiny. They took chaos from the hearts of Mankind, and Fortitude bound it all within herself. Serenity and Temperance collected the artifacts at the Galactic Cauldron and formed a band of warriors to hunt down and eliminate the remaining chaos. Serenity named Temperance Pluto, and exiled her to the Time Gates supposedly to prevent anyone from traveling back and stopping them, especially the Jurains. Her real reasons can only be speculated about. Neither ever checked up on Fortitude, who had been consumed by the chaos bound within her, until it became Chaos, an entity."

      Pluto gasped at the revelation. "You can't know that! It's impossible for you to know that! None of the Senshi knew, none of - "

      "It was written big as life on the walls of Beryl's palace," the dragon replied, "Along with other things that even Beryl probably didn't understand, but Washu and her lover's revenant Kagato would. I even read how Temperance confronted Fortitude at the very edge of the Time Gates, preventing her from undoing exactly what had driven her mad. Temperance drove her off, but you died that day. Serenity scraped up all she could find of you, and renamed the remaining resonances of Temperance: Patience, and set you again to guarding the Time Gates. That's why you're so loyal, you think she saved you, but if she hadn't played her games, if she and Fortitude had bothered to listen to you in the first place, you wouldn't have been killed in the first place. That's like falling in love with the sentencing judge, because the executioner screwed up and didn't completely kill you. Go ahead and yell, that's why I sent the girls away."

      "You rotten that's not Serenity was kind and you wouldn't understand I don't and never - " Pluto screamed at him. "What would you know about any of this! The human race was untamed and causing all kinds of trouble and discord!"

      "Which is exactly what they were supposed to do. This entire universe is a laboratory to answer a question about existence, that any human with a mind and soul could answer in two seconds. The chaos you decried so was the fundamental nature of this universe, put there on purpose, for a purpose by beings so far above you three, that you could scarce imagine their entirety."

      "What!?" Pluto managed, "The goddess of Jurain myth? That's superstition and folklore."

      "So is the belief in the flawless Serenity, but there were three of them, Washu the mad creator, Tsunami of Jurai, and Tokemi the Chaos-Sower. The Jurains managed to harness that chaos within themselves and created a golden age where inspiration for great art and new innovations ran like water. Yes, it was noisy, chaotic, and people who couldn't keep up and wouldn't get out of the way were hurt, but nothing like the way the universe is now. When that suddenly stopped, when you three suddenly stopped it, the Jurains went from good-natured pirates out of a Disney story, to xenophobic extremists. They could no longer funnel their nigh-limitless energies outward, or create with them. Instead they turned inwards, sometimes on their subject peoples, more often on each other. Resulting in the problems we have today. Do you even know how many of Serenity's enemies were of exiled Jurain houses? Beryl was, so was Neherenia, all of Beryl's generals and how many more? Even I don't know. As well as the, some would say, insane attempts to return to the halcyon days of discovery which led to a disaster you either don't know about, or fail to understand the implications of."

      "What disaster?" Setsuna asked.

      "The complete and total obliteration of this universe, what else?"

      On one hand, I feel marvelous, Happosai thought as he watched the military examine the battle site, On the other, I feel just awful. They're all going to grow into great beauties. Kiima almost recognizes me, so does Hotaru. But they haven't said anything. I've . . . behaved, and 'grandfather Happi' is greeted warmly, but I don't feel like myself. He considered his losses, compared to his gains, As long as I stay, I have all the energy I could possibly want, and I think Hotaru changed the process so I am truly immortal, but is that worth the call of the silky darlings, which I can't hear anymore? Happosai reminded himself, They're still kids. Despite their powers. So I have to protect them.

      "So why haven't I just stolen their henshin, made them stay home and leave fighting monsters to . . . monsters like me? While it's nice having respectful students, who treasure an old man's wisdom. They'd eventually get over losing their dangerous `specialness`. I could train them . . . no, I'm my own man. They had no right to `purify` me," he shouted angrily, then he sighed, "Only I started the process, myself, by accident. They just finished it, to keep me safe. I could start back on my road to recovering - " He was interrupted by a vision of Makoto's and Hotaru's disappointment, then their faith in and respect for him shattered. He bowed his head and let a single tear fall.

      A youma who'd been sneaking up on a 'tired, old, madman', got a free trip to Tokyo Bay with a flick of Happosai's pipe. "It just doesn't feel right," he complained, then smiled, "But I suppose it will be fun to watch. I'll miss Kasumi's cooking, but Makoto's is almost as good." He sighed sadly, then looked up at the figure streaking across the sky. He knew where it was headed instantly.

      Happosai leapt to his feet. I've got to defend my charges! He fell over backwards. That can't have been who I think I saw! And why didn't I ever notice her before?! It had to be a trick!

      He steeled himself, and raced toward the Tomoe home, intent on facing whatever came of it.

      Sailor Vesta landed in the Tomoe's backyard. Vesta's form, or not? she considered, then decided, The whole truth will serve me better. She brought out the plate of cookies she'd prepared, unwrapping them from the multiple layers of cloth from her `behind` bow. Amazing, it returns to the original size and shape, she thought, I do wish I knew where Akane got the Chloral Hydrate she added to the salad dressing, but Mirei and I just had our salads plain, so it wasn't a completely bad thing.

      She knocked on the back door and waited. Oh good, Makoto and Kiima, but where's Hotaru? I can begin immediately, she thought as the pair answered the door. She handed Kiima the plate and engulfed Makoto in a hug that would have done Shampoo proud.

      "Oh sister Senshi, he is troubling, but I am here to help. Kiima-chan, you spilled the cookies."

      Happosai hadn't planned on opening the door, before going through it. But it's already open, and I can feel the energy in the place, he thought as he approached Professor Tomoe stepping out.

      "There's a Senshi heading this way, not one of yours."

      The man paled as Happosai dashed past him. He bounded through the house. He spotted Kiima, who turned to run back the way she had come. Happosai easily passed her, and reached the dining room. The new Senshi had already grappled with and defeated Makoto, who was hanging unconscious in her arms. She isn't one of the Northern ones either, he realized as he charged, then froze.

      "YOU!" the Master and the Senshi cried and once. They both braced for violence as they analyzed their new opponent.

Sailor Jupiter II 16 - You Can't Twist the Truth, it Knows No Regulation.

Lime Warning, some things implied.

      "Aren't you curious why they didn't include you in the command center team?" came the smooth voice that had haunted Ami's dreams for weeks now.

      "I'm not part of the military," Ami countered and choked back a retort.

      He'll find flaws in my arguments, she thought helplessly, Just to make me feel helpless and stupid. She looked at the vague outline in the darkness. Like he's done so many times before!

      "And why haven't they asked you to join? Too young? Asuka isn't much older, and she's practically an officer, and she isn't even Japanese."

      She could feel the breath on the back of her neck. If I turn to face it, she thought as she stood stock still, I'll see nothing, and he'll laugh at my foolishness.

      "The truth is," the voice seemed to crawl through her skin and plant its foul thoughts in her brain, "They don't trust you." He made the word 'trust' seem like a stab into her flesh.

      "They've seen how dangerous Asuka is, with just her more limited intellect."

      "Asuka's good and kind!" Ami shouted back, walking away from the foul presence.

      "Because she doesn't swat all the flies around her?" the voice taunted, "There's more to goodness and kindness than that."

      As if you'd know anything about good or kindness? Ami wanted to shout.

      "They've seen how dangerous Kodachi is. Maybe now you would call her kind, but in her madness? No one would," the words whispered and echoed in Ami's skull, "All she was, was a gymnast. They know what you, with your greater intellect, could do with a Henshin."

      "I haven't asked for it! I don't want it! Can't you leave me alone?"

      "Haven't asked, don't want?" the smooth voice insinuated past her defenses, "That is only true now. What about in a year, or ten? What happens if they come on bended knee and beg you . . . you'd enjoy that. It would alleviate your guilt and responsibility. It would make them seem like the lesser things you have been trained not to think of them as. You didn't seek it out, they came to you. And gave you the worship you cannot admit you know you deserve."

      Despite her eyes squeezed shut, Ami saw her friends bowing low, bowing to her. The Admiral bowed and extended his hands to offer the Henshin pen. Ami's hand took it, and Mercury's cruel laughter shook her certainty in her own goodness.

      "Now you see, now you understand? You can't expect them to let go of it so easily. If you can conceive of the details of a time and place when they would need Sailor Mercury more than life itself, they know at least that such a time and place must exist. They are fools, but not wholly without cleverness that substitutes for true intellect," the voice soothed, "They know you could change your mind later. And then . . . " Something grabbed Ami's hair and yanked her head up from where she'd been burying her face in her arms.

      The sound of hundreds of tiny, metal feet made Ami recoil. Standing before her, wearing a grin of amusement, was Sailor Mercury, perched on her shoulder was one of the small hunter-killer robots she'd surrounded Ami with. Ami looked at the small lights and faint sparks in the darkness all around her.

      "Power corrupts, and absolute power . . . " the voice laughed along with Mercury as Ami scrambled away from the small robots that lunged at her, only to miss by centimeters.

      Ami screamed again and again as the tiny horrors drove her back. Occasionally she saw one more clearly. They aren't just machines, there's flesh and blood parts as well, she knew from previous dreams, In some other dreams, I recognized the parts used. She looked at the smirking Sailor Mercury who found Ami's terror so entertaining. I know what, or rather who she used for her machines.

      A sword cut down the smirking Mercury, and another, more pleasant, though no less war-like Mercury stepped into view and brandished her bloodied sword.

      "Perhaps Mercury will be needed," the voice asked, as if the question had no import, "Will you abandon your friends, family, and all the others then?"

      Ami practically fell over the prostrate people, surrounding the Emperor himself offering her the Henshin. "No, I won't take it I won't! I gave my word! Isn't that good enough?! I don't lie! Why don't you believe me?!" Ami screamed and ran from the apparitions into the darkness.

      The voice took on a affectionate but lecturing tone, "I know you'll eventually grow tired of Human stupidity, and want to improve things. And your improvements won't be accepted. 'Why should we teach our children that way.' 'All I want is a beer and a porno flick.' 'What's wrong with being ignorant?' Humans will never accept your improvements, because they're jealous, because you won't make some better than others who could thereby rule over the rest, or because they are afraid of seeing the world as it is. Would you let them wallow in ignorance and savagery, fighting over a loaf a bread when together they could make a hundred loaves? Yes, now you won't force them to do the right thing. Now, you'll let them suffer in hopes they'll learn. Now, you'll let millions starve, and suffer, and die, to keep your hands clean. So that no one can accuse you of 'forcing your will on others.' But you'll begin. At first, you'll convince them. Argue, learn the words that manipulate and twist. Then, just to save the suffering millions, you'll put a bit of power behind it, just to speed up the process."

      I won't! I won't I wont, I won't! Ami wanted to shout, But I might, there might be something so important that I . . . no, I won't take the Henshin! I can convince, but I won't force people to do what's right! I won't put myself in that place!

      "Then you'll find that the people have already made up their minds before you even entered the room, and they'll need a little more power to change their minds, or to give up the demand that makes them rich, while others suffer."

      I can't even deny I'd do that, Ami though desperately, and silently cursed, If someone wanted someone else hurt, before they'd let me help millions of others . . . what would I do? What would I do? I can't get involved, that's the only way to keep from doing that.

      "It would never come to that!" Ami growled.

      "Are you them going to hide your brain under a basket. Find some dumb stud and pump out kids until a runny nose is more important than world peace? Even you don't believe that. It's why you and the others are perfect virgin goddesses. The unwashed masses who will never appreciate you, are more important than your own lives. You know you'd never do that. You have fought people who've tried to take away the pitiful lives of those same masses, at the expense of what you could really do. You saved lives, yes, but what would Asuka or your mother do with the power you've been given? Would they help a person here, fight a monster there, or would they go right to the source of all misery and change that? And what if someone stood in her way? Asuka runs right over them."

      "I'd never - "

      "Beryl probably thought the same, until she was pushed too far. People who fear someone else will do something when they get power, are usually the first to do it when they get power, because they think that's how it's done."

      The apparitions all vanished, leaving Ami alone. The darkness vanished in the face of scenes of all the suffering in the world, and how the Sailor Senshi could so easily set it right. And I know what a trap that would be, Ami thought, Stop a war, and get shot at, maybe by both sides. End world hunger, and have a hysteria over how you did it. Educate people how science isn't evil, first you have to get rid of all the scientists and politicians who scare people with pseudoscience.

      "Or perhaps, they know you study medicine," he said and the scenes were of nanomachines and retroviruses, "Your improvements don't even have to be visible."

      "I won't unleash a plague on the human race," Ami shouted, then added, "Or the galaxy."

      "Even if it's for the best? Of course you won't," the voice asked teasingly, "Your faith in your current accepting self does you credit," the voice said, while scenes typical of an infomercial with crying children, the sick and the hopeless, played all round her. "But as frustration and failure mount, which direction does tormented genius take?" Now the scenes were Ami as a mad scientist, cackling, or Ami as a suicide, surrounded by newspaper clippings of problems she knew she could fix. "Why do you think your mother trained you to be such a shrinking violet? Not because she was bad, but she needed to give her poor little girl an excuse."

      "My mother loves me!"

      "Did I ever imply she didn't?" the voice sounded hurt, "I just said she did it because she loved you. Do you believe her intellect isn't a match for yours? That she spent her entire life hiding it from her patients and their parents, and the world? Yet even she made foolish mistakes. Having a child with a man who would never stay around to help her raise it. Your mind is powerful, but like your mother, your emotions will overrule your intellect. Love has it's costs, she proved that, but you have to know that so does anger! Poor pretty Mercury only blows bubbles. Just think what you could do with those bubbles." Images of bubble-based shields, chemical reactions at interfaces, bubbles inflating and raising objects, and the like. "Even when you were a Senshi, you held yourself back, because you feared what you could become. In the battle against Beryl, you gave up. Why? Because you saw what you could do, and were so frightened by it, that death was preferable."

      I can't refute that, I don't even remember being there!

      "There's a great crater, left by a failed experiment into the nature of the universe. It's called Washu's Pore, and it's dozens of kilometers across. Surely you can guess how others would perceive a genius who could rival the legendary Washu? The aliens from space will know you are a threat to them even if you do hide yourself on this pathetic little planet. They'll also realize that if you are confined on this one, little planet, they can come get you and force you to work."

      "I'd never leave Earth! Or build weapons!"

      "Do you think Serenity was clever enough to build the first Henshin? Or do you think someone else gave them to her? Someone clever, but unskilled in the ways of the world? Who does that sound like?"

      "I - " Ami bowed her head. "It sounds like me."

      "There, there. The first step in solving a problem, is to realize it is there."

      "I'm not the problem!" Ami shouted.

      "Yes, the entire rest of the universe is, aren't they?" the voice said, and laughed.

      Ami quailed at that laughter. "I wouldn't - I couldn't!"

      "A moment of clarity and you run away? You know that the fools who'd threaten you are the real problem. Are you certain you don't want your Henshin? Just to protect yourself? Of course you don't," the voice said, before Ami could, "As a Senshi, you could travel to other planets. If your own nations, your own people don't destroy you out of self-defense, some other star-nation will."

      "No! I've refused the Henshin every time it was offered!" Ami insisted, "I just want to be a doctor! I want to help people!"

      "You want to destroy diseases, to hunt down and eliminate suffering, to thrown down the effects of injury." Images of the most horribly injured and diseased people looking or reaching out beseechingly swirled around Ami.

      "You make it sound like a knight's crusade," Ami replied disparagingly, "My mother was a doctor, not a knight."

      "Your mother rebelled against everything she was taught," the voice angrily accused, "Your mother was a revolutionary! Your mother threatened the very fabric of the society. In a less permissive age, she would have been stoned to death or crucified."

      Ami quailed at the fury in his voice.

      "Her revolution was so complete and overwhelming, you cannot even conceive of a time when it was not the law of the land. What similar revolution will you undertake? What grand crusade will you march forth to conquer? Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, any of a list of infirmities of the young, or the old?" now the tone was challenging.

      He paused, Ami refused to reply, so he continued, "What will you do, what madness will claim you, when you finally realize that the source of all suffering is finally and ultimately, in the soul of Mankind?" He laughed at her horror-stricken expression. "Will you destroy them? Oh, I forgot, you will. We have the proof you will. Not everyone, not everybody, just most. Ask Princess Mercury about it. Ask Chibi-Usa. Ask those who've pursued each. If I dropped one of those hunters in here with you, they'd tear your heart out with their teeth, if that was all they had left. That kind of hatred must come from somewhere. Despite the delusions of the `experts`, there must be a smattering of truth in the great leader's lies, there must be envy or some other strong emotion for a person to rise up and hate with all their being. What do you think you did - will do - to these people to incite that kind of hatred? You will claim that mankind is good and decent. I tell you to ask your future victims. You aren't blameless, even now."

      The image of the monster they'd watched destroy the Northern Group's castle appeared. Ami yelped and scrambled away.

      "It is fearsome, isn't it? Embodying fear, you call it 'The Flying Jellyfish Monster' to trivialize it, to suck away its power to terrify. Do you know what it really is? The souls of all those people who died and have been forgotten, by you and your country."

      "That's insane!"

      "Yes it is, all your nation's victims, all the soldiers who sacrificed, all being ignored by the populace. No grand flagellation of the national psyche, no parades for the fallen, and when was the last time you burned incense for your grandfathers, or your grandmother who died in the bombing? Never? No wonder they are angry." Images like some documentary marched around her. Soldiers shouting Banzais, bombers firestorming Japanese cities, and within it all, the deaths of soldiers and civilians.

      Ami looked at the images flickering around her. "I - I haven't - ignored them!"

      "You've been busy with other things? Your whole country has been busy with other things. You want to know how people treat heros? Now you know. If you win, your victims grumble about how unfair it was, if you lose, you shovel all that history into a hole and bury it. That's your doing, that's the Senshi's solution."

      "That's a lie."

      "That's what she did to Beryl. She didn't kill her. She locked Neherenia away, and didn't kill her either. And how many others? That's the Senshi's solution. You've been doing it wrong. You're supposed to collect these creatures and lock them away, until you can't hold them anymore, and they are the problem of someone dozens of generations later. You Senshi never want to look at the dark side of your own history. Because you'd realize that the dark side was the facts, and the sweetness and light was your own propaganda written after the facts, to explain away your own mistakes, or your own callousness. You ignore anything that had to do with the fall, and in either case, you ignore the victims. Either the people you oppressed, or your own populations you failed to protect."

      The images changed, to the humans following Beryl being twisted into Youma, while the Silver Millennium's populations were exposed to the Mercurian heat, the Venusian atmosphere, the cold of Mars and the Moon, and the incredible pressure of the gas giants. The grislyness of the deaths shocked Ami.

      The Senshi . . . left their people to die, like that?! Ami turned away from the images, only to face worse before her. And I . . . Sailor Mercury never sought a back up, a safe guard? I would never ignore that duty! she realized, Does that mean, I, Mizuno Ami, am really not Sailor Mercury? That I'm some kind of . . . mask?

      "Ask the Princesses if that's what they did, to their victims . . . oh, I forgot. They couldn't even remember their own names when Asuka first met them. What chance do they have to remember their victims?"

      "We've fought monsters, and we've killed them," Ami shouted back, then added mockingly, " 'Oh, being a murderer is better than being a jailor?' You can't have it both ways!"

      "I did say not locking them away was evil, and did I complain that you were 'not doing things correctly'?" the voice sounded almost respectful, "You are in fact exceeding what Serenity did. Whether that is good or ill, I'll leave for you to speculate on." The images vanished, leaving Ami in total darkness.

      Then he switched to a patronizing tone, "Of course, you have to understand: what right does Mizuno Ami have to live, when Sailor Mercury must be reborn? You are no longer Mizuno Ami, merely the chrysalis, any more than the others are who they say they are."

      "We are!" told the darkness around her.

      "You stole the lives these people were supposed to have. Who they were supposed to be. You have thrust yourself into their lives, crowded out their hopes and dreams until you crushed and ground them away. Mizuno Ami could have gone to Germany to study medicine, away from the pressure-cooker of Japanese high-school and college entrance exams. You took that away from her," the voice accused.

      Then it angrily added, "You think ignoring the revelation of what monsters you are keeps you from being those monsters?" His mocking laughter tore at Ami's certainty.

      We did the right thing! I don't care what he says! We did what we had to! Ami thought desperately, trying to hang on to something she could believe in, I have to believe that what we did, was right, or right when we made the decision. If it wasn't, I don't know what I could believe in.

      "You were monsters, from the moment of your conception to the moment of your death, why limit yourself to just one life usurped and sacrificed to the greater good of the Sailor Senshi? One for each planet, that's ten lives. Why not a hundred, why not a thousand? Find those who -"

      Wrong, I've got you! she thought.

      "There are only nine planets," Ami countered.

      "You assume you know everything, don't you. There is a tenth planet, cold and forbidding, but just barely habitable." He continued in a cheerful tone, a barren planet appeared, dotted with volcanic vents, "Maybe you'll leave your victims alive, and just ship them out there, just to prove how kind and sympathetic you are. Sending all those women and children to that frigid wasteland that would make Siberia in winter seem paradise. Those people would be forced to cluster around those vents, like the thermophilic life around the hot sulphur vents in the ocean floor. Travel from community to community would be taking your life in your hands. All those little towns, cut off from each other, isolated, alone."

      Ami shivered at the sight. "The Senshi would never do that! It's inhuman!"

      "Do you really believe that the Senshi will trouble themselves with the trappings of humanity, when they are in control," he sounded disappointed, "You mistakenly believe that evil is grand gestures and grandiose plans. Evil is banal. 'Hiroshima and Dresden had nothing to do with the war' people proclaim, yet they were major transportation centers. That, and that alone made them viable targets. All those people who 'had nothing to do with the war' made sure the weapons and soldiers went where they were supposed to go. All those innocent people ensured that the misery could continue unabated, that their government didn't have to find a way around them. As for the Senshi not sending droves of minor enemies there to freeze to death, or starve, what makes you so certain I was talking prophesy and not history? Why are you certain it wasn't already done? Why are you so certain the bones don't already lie waist deep on that poor benighted, little world? Have you asked the Princesses? Have you asked what this world is like in a millennium? No, because you know what it is like. What the return of ruling godlike Queens and Princesses means for the human race, when the people are chattel, not even serfs bound to the land, but things to be moved around as necessary. You're too intelligent not to have considered it, and all the implications. I agree, in the first years or decades, a strong leader might be needed, but after a century of peace, no constitution, no limitations on power? As time passes, no Magna Carta demanded by the other Senshi, no Constitution demanded by the people, just the divine right of the Queen," he said almost sympathetically, "Mizuno Ami would not tolerate such a thing. So how little of her survived in Sailor Mercury?"

      Ami felt the tears running down her cheeks. I used to love the idea of being Sailor Mercury. Now I fear it, even begin to hate it, she thought, But if I'm already dead, if my life is over and only Sailor Mercury will continue, and be a monster, what point is there? Did we fight monsters, only because the monsters were the Senshi's old enemy? And only to become worse monsters ourselves? When I was a Senshi, did I go after murderers or rapists, or any other monsters? Or just the monsters I was supposed to? She could find no answers in her memories.

      "Do not cry little one, after all, that's all you are for."

      "We are there to help people," Ami said weakly, feeling beaten down and exhausted.

      "You are a meat shield for Princess Serenity, until she ascends the throne and dominates all those on this planet. All that you and your fellow 'heroes' leave alive. The rest of your victims, the most vibrant, vivid lives and lovers, you will allow to die. So you can rule over all the sheep who'd never stand up to you. You'd do as you've done so many times before. Do you have any idea how many times you and the others have replayed this same scenario? A thousand years of shining indulgence, a thousand years of hibernation, and then return. Over and over, rise and disastrous fall, again and again, learning nothing, saving no one except those threatened by the enemies created in the last iteration. You accomplish nothing, save the death of those shining souls who might transcend you: Mizuno Ami, Tomoe Makoto, Tomoe Hotaru, and others. Kodachi and Asuka might have opposed you in the past. How many brave souls like them have you slaughtered I wonder? Fortunate you do not remember. But the stars do, the Jurains do, and so does the rest of the galaxy. There will be no celebrations at the return of Serenity, but mourning, and battle plans. Those plans with be for your final and complete extermination. The Jurain King already tried to kill all of you once, only a trick stopped him, ask Asuka about that."

      I have, and he's right, Ami thought, They tried to kill Saturn on sight, and would have killed the rest of us, if their initial attack hadn't rendered us incapable of fighting.

      "I know, you think, you hope it's all lies. But ask the Princesses, ask Chibi-Usa. They'll tell you what they did, and you'll find out how right you are, and how right I am, about the Senshi and what they truly represent. From hero, to mass murderer and tyrant, all in one generation. Of course the survivors flocked to you, because like you are now, they couldn't imagine their heroes would do anything bad, could do anything bad, even by accident. To claim it was done on purpose, would be the foulest slander, and be the truth."

      Ami was assaulted by images of the marching, adoring throngs chanting her name, and never once noting the piles of rotting corpses and bones they trampled to get close to her.

      "Shall I tell you what I have learned? Chibi-Usa's most ardent followers were most eager to tell me such stories. Crystal Tokyo had an immortal population of one million. Out of six billion ordinary humans near the end of the twentieth century, what percentage is that?"

      I won't calculate it! Ami thought and dragged her mind away from that problem and the horror it implied.

      "I'd - we would never do something like that!"

      "Then you've never considered what happened to the ordinary citizens on Mercury, on Jupiter, on Pluto, on the Moon, when the magic that sustained all life failed?" The laughter was bitter this time. "When Serenity withdrew her power, to send her daughter and her Senshi, including you, forward in time? You've never imagined what fate those people faced, when the fury of their environments came crashing down on them full force? You've never asked Asuka? She's looked at those slaughtered places. Her ally felt the moment of agony ground into the very fabric of the ruins. If true, it's a level of indifference I would not have expected of you Ami-chan. Maybe you -"

      "That's not what I meant!"

      "Oh, just haven't had the time?" he asked mockingly, "So busy with interesting projects? Working with brilliant and experienced people washes all other concerns away? Even if one of them, is the one who could easily answer all those questions? Where is the questing mind Mizuno Ami once had? It was blunted by Sailor Mercury, that's where. You will find more and more difficult questions shunted out of the way, as you consider how best to serve Serenity. Sailor Mercury's influence is barely noticeable to you, and look what it's already done to you. Asuka fears the effect of the Great Old Ones, so she redoubles her efforts not to fall to their trap. You fell head first, and haven't even noticed you're drowning."

      "Those monsters had to be stopped!" Ami insisted.

      "Ah, so monsters are the most important thing, more important than people, and when people are the monsters, then they have to be stopped. Very logical and well-thought out."

      Ami ignored the sarcastic compliment. "You don't know me."

      "I don't know Mizuno Ami, but she's fading away more and more. I am an expert on the Senshi, and the more you become Sailor Mercury, the more I am an expert on you. The people who depend on you, sorry, depended on you, once a monster showed up, they can be forgotten. Until you need them to mourn for. The people of your Kingdom, you allowed them to die. 'Never say die, never give up.' Yet billions died, while you did nothing. Billions more died as your future self will do nothing. Maybe you decided it was better with fewer people. More sustainable, more Green, and you let yourself go along. Maybe you decided that only those who'd resist your better ideas should die, so that the rest could live in the paradise you gave them. After all, you can't have paradise if some people disagree it is paradise."

      "NO!" Ami shot to her feet and thundered, "I would never do, I would never allow that to happen! You can't trick me into thinking I would!"

      " 'Would'? 'Would'?" the man's laughter cut Ami like a knife, as scenes of the dead appeared and whirled like a kaleidoscope before her.

      Ami drew back. Those places! I - I almost recognize those places and the people. The planetary kingdoms! My - the Kingdom of Mercury! All those people, all dead, because of me. Because I didn't find a better way. Something that didn't depend on Serenity's magic to sustain them!

      The clear memory struck her like a hammer. "Oh gods I never even looked for one!" Ami sobbed as she crumpled to the ground.

      "No more boasts that 'I'll never do that'? Now that you've seen what you have done, the misery you spread, and the heartache you inflicted on so many others. What would your mother think about what she'd brought into the world? What would your father?"

      "You leave them out of this!" Ami shouted as tears streamed down her face.

      I know what they'd think, what they'd feel, Ami realized, They'd be ashamed. Of me, and of themselves. Sailor Mercury is a monster, and Mizuno Ami will be thrown aside as soon as all the Senshi have entrenched themselves.

      "So you see. When the doom comes, rather than stop it," the voice said soothingly, "You'll take away the pain of those that survived, then lead them to an idyllic life right out of the Elysian Fields. The cost? It's just you standing by, at the crucial moment. A moment's selfishness, then you will be too busy with the paradise you'll have to create. A perfect world, for your perfect chosen to stay in."

      " 'I won't do that,'" he said in a whining parody of Ami's tone. "No, Ami wouldn't, but Sailor Mercury has, a thousand times before. A cycle of mass death, paradise, and fall, every few thousand years. How many times in a million, how many times in ten million years? How many lives lost, with each iterations? How much blood on your hands?" The voice seemed to hover over her as she wept. "How many Ami-chan? How do you deny the three examples that you and your friends did and do precisely that. Ask Princess Mercury, what did she do, when Ami's world ended, and Princess Mercury's began. Ask Chibi-Usa if anyone tried to stop the cataclysm, or if they just rebuilt afterwards. Did you try and save your friends and family, or did you pave over their graves to produce a solid foundation for your new world paradise? You can't deny you had a hand in permitting the disaster. Mass murder, planetary genocide of not just humans, but what other species? Do you weep for them, pardon me, will you weep for them after having buried foul humanity?"


      "All your intellect couldn't come up with a better solution, all your love couldn't reject mass murder, and all your justice became simply 'the end justifies the means'. You made the world fair and harmonious, and any concept that the individual existed for anything but Serenity's good, was tossed out the window and burned. That's what you did, in the past and in two separate future timelines. You and your friends did effectively the same thing."

      "Why are you doing me in this? What do you hope to achieve?"

      "To destroy all your illusions. To strip away the lies you've been led to believe. It's a good start, a big lie told to girls who are the peak of when they want to have friends and truly matter. But the cost, oh Ami, you just can't figure the cost. I'm not the villain here," he assured her, "My friends were just hunting for a way to put an end to this nightmare, before it can begin again. There are free thinkers who'll survive, despite your best efforts. They live on the planet you - will - exile them to. They hate you Senshi, they hate the very thought of you. Because you couldn't let them live in your little paradise, or anywhere in the vast emptiness of your world, and you won't let them live as they choose on theirs. You Senshi encouraged them to leave, and then insisted on the right to still govern them. The place you created together must have been a wonderful place to live, when millions of people were willing to give up paradise and immortality, to leave the only truly inhabitable planet in this system, to emigrate to a barely inhabitable rock in space and live like tubeworms around hydrothermal vents. You of course, said you care about what people do, so couldn't allow them even the tiniest plot of ground on Earth. I guess a paradise can only be paradise, if someone else, someone bad, is suffering."

      "We'd never do that," Ami said, lacking the will for a more forceful denial.

      "I told you, you will do it, you already have done it. I know, statistically, two samples in an entire population isn't significant. Only the Silver Millennium followed the same pattern: the perfect planetary kingdoms, or correctly Principalities since they had Princesses and only the Moon had a Queen. While poor Earth, had mud huts, squalor, disease, war, starvation and no hope of ever approaching what the Moon Kingdom had. So I guess it is telling that where the Senshi rule, misery for the 'common' folk always follows."

      "The Moon Kingdom fell, because of Beryl's evil!" Ami insisted.

      "So too say the ones driven from their home by their latest victims. They are just harmless flotsam and jetsam in the path of evil. Even when you girls just started out, you stood against a parasitic way of life, or the vampiric way of life. But where you rule, wasn't and won't be enough to suck the life from them, you had to make they feel like dirt under your feet while you were doing it. I guess once you got in power, the ordinary people had to toe the line, or suffer."

      "It's nothing like that."

      "Then where is my analysis wrong? Where have I not correctly extrapolated from mountains of historical data, to apply it to future patterns? Every utopia, every golden age in story and in fact comes crashing down, and always when those who rule least expect it. Perhaps I'm doing you a favor. As long as you expect the mob to rise up and come after you with torches and pitchforks, with tar and feathers, with wood and rope for a cross, then the government goes ahead swimmingly. Since I've pointed out how you destroyed all those lives, and will kill more in the future, I think you should thank me."

      "Why should I thank you?" Ami asked, "For torturing me? For calling me murderer and destroyer!? Why should I thank you?"

      "Because I can save your friends, or rather, you can," the voice whispered, then laughed at Ami's horrified expression, "Those people from the future. I questioned them most thoroughly, and do you know what I learned? That you are the key. Without you and your brilliance, the whole scheme falls apart. Without you, what you know, and what you can figure out, the others never go from Sailor Senshi, to Princesses."

      "No," Ami tried to deny it to herself.

      "They keep believing the lie, because they keep living the lie. They never become the monsters they were supposed to become, because they can't do the mental gymnastics that lets the ends justify the means. Only you can split the moral and ethical hairs that would be necessary to lead them down that path. It takes a good intellect and trustworthy mien to tell people convincingly that black is white and white is black, that sadism is salvation, and perfection for a few is worth annihilation of many."

      Ami could only shake her head.

      "You can save them all, let them keep the illusion that they are heros, let them be heros. All you have to do, is one thing. I want you to accept that there is hope."

      "Hope?" Ami raised her head, "In all the dreams . . . you've never offered hope."

      "Because you finally accept," he said patiently, "Now that is the hope. The 'Northern Group' was evidently driven out by some more powerful force, and Chibi-Usa fled here, with elements of the resistance against your little ego-maniac empire in pursuit."

      I know what that 'one thing' is, Ami thought desperately, But I can't refute his charges. He may be exaggerating, but I heard what the Northern Group did, that they attacked one of the Senshi's friends, that they beat Asuka nearly to death, that they kidnaped all those people and the military had to rescue them. I also know that power corrupts, and if we have absolute power, then we are corrupted absolutely. The Senshi from the future didn't recognize Asuka. But I don't think I could ever forget her. So Asuka, and Koda-chan, and the others aren't Princess Mercury's friends in the future. I can't imagine Asuka, or any of her friends letting someone attack a little child, whoever this 'Chibi-Usa' is. It's impossible, but I can't see how it isn't at least partially true, and it's hard to imagine how it isn't mostly true. Ami bowed her head. There is one way to save them. Don't I owe my friends that much? Ami knelt. I know what is coming.

      Instead of a tanto, the huge polearm that dropped in front of her made Ami jump to her feet and scuttle away.

      "Oh thank you," came a sarcastic voice, and equally sarcastic applause, "I should have brought some popcorn. Oh, Ami-chan, Asuka must really bring you up to speed on inferential information, knowing something without apparent logical backing. Ask Asuka about Niels Bohr's violin and atomic structure. Kagato, Kagato, Kagato, you pathetic, twisted, self-hating, little girl."

      Ami gawked as she heard the man's voice growl in fury.

      "First Sasami, then Ami. I'm not sure, but it seems like sadopedophilia to me Kagi-chan. Maybe Washu's young form is why you betrayed her, and tortured your female self. I think you get all . . . excited, torturing kids, but nothing from adults." The red-haired, red-armored woman stepped into the scene that Ami had had to live through, again and again. She nodded to Ami. "I apologize Mizuno-san, if we'd known this poor perv was slithering around in your mind, we could - we would have acted sooner. We should have known, and you should have told us if we didn't. If you had, we could have done something sooner."

      "Asuka?" Ami gasped, before running across the expanse and throwing her arms around the woman.

      "Not exactly," the woman explained, "Asuka's dreamform. I'm called the Meliorist."

      "So, you . . . "

      "I'm a knight, I'm here to save you. Sorry, I used all my money on effective armor and training. I didn't have any left for a theme song." As Ami looked at her, the glaive-like weapon returned to the Meliorist's hands. The warrior took a guard stance, blocking the direct path to Ami, as the large figure stepped out of the darkness and materialized a sword.

      "Nice bit of sophistry. You get her so turned around about needing the Henshin to protect herself, then about the evils she'd do as a Senshi, that you leave suicide as the only option," the Meliorist said, "Very skilled. You get her so wound up in justifying herself, trying to make herself acceptable, she never realizes it is all a load of horse manure."

      "The future cannot be denied," the figure said.

      "Kagato, Washu is stupid, Ami is a frightened child, Sasami is even younger, and Tsunami is trying to be good to make up for what she knows is coming, by her and her sisters' hands. I'm not any of those things. I've gotten used to people calling me every name in the book for the most trivial reasons. I don't care what people think of me."

      Then you aren't like Asuka, Ami thought.

      "Are you really prepared to -ARRGH!"

      The interruption came from the warrior's glaive embedding itself in Kagato's chest. The man staggered back and barely kept his feet as blood stained his robes and dripped onto the dark floor.

      "The Scholarly Dragon finds you amusing, and needs to find out who your master is. I don't." She swung her arm and the polearm ripped out of his chest, spraying blood and viscera all over.

      "Now you see why the red armor," the warrior whispered to Ami, who grinned in spite of her self.

      Kagato fell to his knees, and stared at the blood streaming from the gaping wound.

      "Most people just navel gaze," the warrior told him, "But to each his own."

      Kagato grimaced and mumbled words. His efforts closed the wound. "I will destroy you for that!"

      "For what? Dumb jokes?" the Meliorist asked sarcastically as she grounded the butt of her polearm and waited, "If you think those were bad, I could tell some of Raccoon's." She held out her hand towards Kagato like a 'stop' gesture. "Ami, did you know Einstein got so wrapped up in his Relativity research, that on the way to work, he'd ask the bus driver 'Does the Patent Office stop at this bus?'"

      Ami guffawed. "That's awful!"

      "Teeny Glasses probably doesn't get it," the Meliorist sneered, "Why don't you try to fill my head with stuff and nonsense to get me to commit suicide? Sorry, Ami-chan, but how could you take someone so ridiculous looking seriously? Get a dye job and some contacts, you cretin!"

      Ami gasped in horror at the Meliorist's bluntly insulting manner, and Kagato's murderous rage in response. The Meliorist closed her outstretched hand into a fist, and Kagato barely had time to toss his energy sword away as it bent towards him, sliced open his robes, and nicked his breastbone.

      "Aww, I wanted to see if you truly did have a heart, Pre-Columbian style," the warrior whined, then shouted, "By tearing your still-beating heart out of your chest!" The warrior brought her polearm up and advanced on Kagato at a brisk walk.

      Ami followed carefully, a couple of meters behind. That's Asuka all right, she thought as Kagato floated back out of range, Asuka in full flood. She even terrifies the terrifier.

      "Asuka-chan?" Ami asked

      "Not quite, Ami-chan," the warrior replied, "Asuka has vowed never to take a human life, even if her own is threatened. I am not so burdened." Kagato moved out of the way of a languid swipe. "You know, killing you is going to present a problem. Not technically, I could do that easily. Politically and metaphysically, it has complications."


      " 'What?'" the Meliorist sneered, "Do you have to have a script to be loquacious? You get off script or forget your lines, and all we get is: 'What?' God! You're disappointing. They promised me you'd be smart and dangerous. I expected clever, mind-challenging, gut-twisting threats, marvelous swordsmanship and cunning in battle," the Meliorist sounded bored, then shouted, "All you are is ennui personified!" she quieted and continued, "I might as well be shooting cats in a blind alley with a pistol. Although I have to admit, Ami-chan, I prefer using a rifle. A pistol big enough to load a cat inside of is a cumbersome thing."

      Ami snorted in disgust at the image.

      "You will be made to suffer!" Kagato growled.

      "See, Ami-chan," the warrior said, without taking her eyes off Kagato, "Passive voice, 'made to', not I will make you suffer, indicating he was going to be a craftsman about it, like he was with you and Sasami. He's just going to be boring. You're boring! You are boring me! More than anyone ever has! Even Wondergirl sound asleep couldn't be as boring! Does that qualify as suffering?!"

      "Oh no!" Ami gasped, "He's going to show his vacation slides!" she shrieked, "All of them!"

      "Oh Ami-chan, that's just too sick for words! The cruelty of it all," the warrior replied, "Actually, I'm not bored, I was just waiting for you to realize I'm just holding you here for the dragon to return. He has . . . questions."

      In Kagato's moment between rage and fear, the Meliorist snagged his cape with her polearm and dragged him forward into her knife. Kagato vanished, screaming like a banshee from the small wound and the knife still embedded in his flesh.

      "I knew Akane's cooking was bad, but that's just ridiculous," the Meliorist said as she set her polearm down, and approached Ami.

      "You know he'll be back," Ami said, her smile faded and her warm feeling at his downfall faded, "And he'll be more angry than ever at his disgrace."

      "Oh, I do hope so. I'd love to meet him again. Problem with that is, Raccoon and Rei were tracking his location. I'm ashamed to admit, but that's how Asuka found out about your nightmares. Now that they have a location, once the dragon finishes up his rescue, he's going to visit your little friend. In that, Kagato is lucky. The Dragon will kill him, to get the information he wants."

      "Where do I go now?" Ami asked, "I don't like this place."

      "I could take you to green fields and let you chase butterflies. Then blackmail you with the recordings," the Meliorist said thoughtfully.

      Ami giggled at that, when she opened her eyes, she looked into the face of the Meliorist replicated and shaded, until they formed a mosaic of the Meliorist's face that took up an arc of the sky easily 170 degrees side to side and top to bottom. A meters-wide palm supported Ami.

      "You, little dust mote, are going back to your mommy."

      "I'm - ?" Ami asked, but a puff from the Meliorist mosiac hit with the force of a typhoon, sending Ami tumbling through space.

      When she landed, she sat up and screamed as the pent up terror rushed out of her.

      Doctor Mizuno had been warned to expect this. It's still shocking, she thought as she wrapped her arms around Ami, She hasn't screamed like that since she was a little girl . . . when her father left.

      "Don't worry Ami-chan, you're safe, I'm here," she told her, as Ami tried to focus on the face in front of her, "Yes, it's me. Everything's all right Ami-chan."

      The girl gripped her as if she feared being torn away, and related all the insults and terrors the man had been heaping on her for days.

      Doctor Mizuno silently vowed, If I ever catch him, what I'll do to him will . . .

      Setsuna squirmed and twisted under the leisurely onslaught of kisses and caresses. He could almost feel her mind whirling in the maelstrom of scents coming from her as she tried to react `appropriately`, But she wants this, to feel like this, she cannot admit as she undulates towards and away, resting her weight against my arm across her hips. I won't let her easily escape, but I will not let her fall. When was the last time you could say that? he wondered. He breathed in the scents coming off her, felt the heat patterns of her ever more sensitized skin, and enjoyed it almost as much as she did. Enjoyable, manipulation to be sure, he admitted with dark humor, Her reaction to my taking the likeness of a much older version of the boy was amusing. I'll have to thank Stirogi for that little trick and insight. The way she wriggles . . . well, I need her healthy, and more importantly, alive. She is lively.

      Fascinating, now and before, all that passion to live, all bottled up, he thought as she turned around, tried to dodge a few of his kisses, Trying to be so stoic, and instead just curdling inside.

      "What are you afraid of? That's I won't buy, once I've got a free sample?" he asked, as he held her tightly against him.

      "I - I'm not afraid," she tried to tell him, her voice shaking, her heartbeat and scent clearly showing the lie.

      "I can smell it on you," he told her, "And other things. You cannot lie to me, so you shouldn't try. You should also not lie to yourself. You aren't a robot set to do a job. You are a young woman, with all the drives and feelings that go with it. If you serve Love and Justice, who are you allowed to love? Without love, justice is just the Law."

      "But Serenity's dream?" Setsuna asked, the passionate embrace keeping Sailor Pluto away.

      "If you are the keeper of Serenity's dream, then honor the spirit, not the letter. If Serenity's dream offers only cold isolation to those who must uphold it, then there is a flaw in how you're interpreting it. The first rule is, know the problem. People are always a ruler's first problem. You have to let yourself be a person first."

      Let the boy have the girls, I'll take the woman, who has been denied the right to be a woman for so long. I can smell the elements of 'fight or flight' chemicals, he thought as he kissed her neck and set her twisting again, The other chemicals her body is finally releasing into her bloodstream, as it realizes this isn't combat. She rubbed her body against him. Break the blocks on her reservations slowly, slowly, let her sensitivity increase as passions arise. Breakdown the mental barriers that let her see only the Moon Kingdom and Crystal Tokyo with all the sights and sounds that normal people experience every day. Subtle brainwashing, he thought as he unbuttoned her jacket one more button, and exposed one shoulder. Making tiny nibbles on the soft, warm skin.

      She answered with soft cries. "We mustn't, Rini will hear."

      "Rini sleeps the sleep of the saved," he answered between kisses, "She would applaud otherwise. That 'Puu' found someone who wants the whole package."

      So I do a little brainwashing of my own. With Rini's return, and an evening, and perhaps breakfast, she will return to a world not so gray, dull and banal. A world worth more than she remembers, the dragon thought as the last jacket button opened, and Setsuna's hands went to her shirt's buttons, she paused as he lowered her onto his cloak, which hovered over the ground and gave slightly at their weight. He pulled the jacket and blouse down to her elbows. He enjoyed the goosebumps rising as she looked at him worriedly.

      "You -? What are -?"

      "Let it take time," he whispered, licking her ear as he ran a finger up her inner thigh from the knee to just below her skirt, "We have all night. I don't have anything to prove, other than that you'll enjoy it." He smiled at her expectant whimper.

      Soon, me proud beauty, soon, then again and again. Pluto has forgotten what happens when you deny a healthy need so totally, he thought as he felt her blood pounding through her, and the very distinctive change in her scent, You give it a tremendous power.

      Rini checked on Stirogi, who had taken the form of a human girl. She's asleep, she thought, Saturn and Sasami made sure he . . . she, will recover from those wounds. Rini kissed the girl-form's forehead and made sure the blankets kept her warm.

      "Thank you," she whispered, then walked over to where the other two girls waited. They helped her lift an egg from the warming bowl they rested in, before they each took an egg out themselves.

      Rini gasped as the blue-green pattern of the egg changed.

      "The - it - I didn't -" Rini paused as the other two girls giggled at her shock.

      "It likes you," Saturn supplied, and cuddled the egg in her arms. Rini saw a similar color change on the egg.

      "Oh," Rini said and mimicked the cuddling and gentle stroking of the eggs in the other laps, "Why are you doing this?"

      "The dragons inside the eggs grow faster and healthier," Saturn told her, "Kitty calls it 'quickening'. So, what is your name?" Mistress - Sailor Saturn asked as she detransformed, "I'm Tomoe Hotaru."

      "And you're Sasami Masaki Jurai," Rini said to Pretty Sammi as she too returned to her 'civilian' identity, "In my time, you are one of the Queens of Jurai."

      "One of?" Hotaru asked, then grinned, "And who are you sharing Tenchi with?"

      "Ryoko," Sasami said, and shrugged when Rini nodded, "We already share Ryo-Oh-Ki. It's only fair I share something with Ryoko." Sasami turned to Rini. "Are our kingdoms friends? They weren't in the past, but Ta-chan and I decided to prevent that from happening again."

      "Saturn and the Jurains are allies," Rini said, then she saw that the two girls noted she was sweating.

      "You notice how nervous she is?" Hotaru said as she leaned closer.

      "Have you noticed she didn't answer my question?" Sasami asked, also leaning close as Rini leaned away from both of them, "I bet she's the Moon Queen's daughter."

      "They did call her 'Princess'," Hotaru agreed.

      "There are other princesses, besides the - NeoSerenity's daughter. The Queen's child is Chibi-Usa, or Small Lady. She's refined and delicate. I'm Rini, and I like to run around, poke my nose where it doesn't belong, and have adventures."

      "Where's 'Rini' come form?" Sasami asked.

      "When Princess Mercury was teaching me the names of the elements, I liked Rhenium. So I would run through the palace halls calling 'Rini-um'. My mom, the woman who looked after me . . . uh, Pluto, started calling me 'Rini'. I'm Rini."

      "Well, that explains the Dragon's cryptic comment," Hotaru said.

      "In the future," Sasami asked, "Do you still only figure out what he meant, like two days after he says it?"

      "Uh, I only met him a week ago. He never even told me he was a dragon, I thought he was a garden wall."

      Hotaru and Sasami nodded. "Sounds like Kitty," they said together, and began giggling.

      Rini smiled. "I'd never even heard of him before then."

      "Maybe they're different from the Northern Group," Sasami commented, "They didn't know who he was or who I was. And you're Pluto for them."

      "He also said there'd never been kids in that palace," Hotaru added.

      "Can you two start making sense?!" Rini demanded.

      "There's a group of Senshi from the future, up north. Our friends are keeping an eye on them. But three broke away when Asuka visited. Mercury, Jupiter, and Pluto, but their Pluto was our Saturn, and their Saturn was our Pluto," Hotaru explained, "They hurt Asuka, and they really didn't want to let us go, so I don't think they're nice."

      "They wouldn't know who you are," Sasami reiterated, "Because they didn't have any kids. So don't go there."

      "Okay," Rini said, "What did Kitty say?"

      "When he sent me to find you, he said: 'Now you'll understand Pluto's obsession with the youngest Senshi.' She tried to steal me from my dad, and Mercury's mom. But Mercury and my sisters beat up Pluto and her two friends. She thought I was you. Now that you're here, I don't think she'll try to steal me again."

      "I can't imagine her doing that," Rini said forcefully, then added gently, "She was always kind to me. When I was scared or hurt, I went to find her, not anybody else. She always talked over my head, but . . . I got the feeling she was as lonely as I was."

      She missed the nod between the two girls.

      "Okay, so now that you're here, you'll stay with her," Sasami said cheerfully.

      "How would she manage that?"

      "She's got a car, and two roommates, so she's got to have a big house," Hotaru explained, "She told my dad that. Although our house is hardly 'cramped', even with my two sisters." Hotaru looked around. "She told us a lot, while she was trying to mind-control my dad to turn me over to her."

      "Ah," Rini said, "So, Sasami's got Tenchi, Any nice guys you know about Hotaru?"

      "One," Hotaru said wistfully, "A real gentleman." Then Rini was facing a terror greater than Mistress Saturn, Wiseman himself, and the Jurain Queens combined. "BUT HE'S MAKO-CHAN'S SO JUST FORGET ABOUT HIM!"

      "Yeeber, yeeber, yeeber," Rini whimpered.

      "Just remember that, and we can stay friends," Hotaru said cheerfully and smiled.

      "Is it safe to come out?" Sasami called from across the room.

      "Master Happosai," Sailor Vesta said politely, but stood ready to do battle.

      "Sailor . . . Sailor -?" the old man replied.

      "Vesta," she said fiercely.

      "Can I invite you two outside, before you kill each other?" Kiima asked, "Oh and leave Makoto behind, she'd be a lousy shield."

      The pair looked guiltily at Kiima.

      "Perhaps we should . . . discuss this, elsewhere," Happosai suggested.

      Vesta's eyes narrowed but she nodded, handing the unconscious girl to Kiima, before backing out of the house. She kept her eyes on Happosai the entire time.

      The master followed, and a moment later they were sailing over the roof tops.

      Once they landed, Vesta took up a combat stance.

      "I invented your art, Kasumi," Happosai reminded her, "You think I taught all my tricks to those two? Do you think they bothered to learn all of them I did try to teach them?"

      "It's your tricks that concern me, Grandmaster Happosai. Don't assume all my skills come from my father, or Panda-san. I knew I'd learn no more from him, when mother died. I learned other things, and I won't allow you to harm those girls. You destroyed the harmony of my home, I will not allow you to spread your evil to my allies," Vesta threatened, "Even if I cannot deal with you, I have many friends who can."

      Happosai sighed sadly. "They've already dealt with me." He sat down, pulled out his pipe and slowly packed it. "You are right, before I met them I would have . . . Jupiter was so - " He felt Vesta's aura, saw it light the tobacco, so he hurried on. "Uh and I tried to absorb some of her energy. It changed me, then Hotaru-chan healed me further."

      "I'm not my father, or Akane," Vesta replied, not relaxing a whit, "I see the world, not just what I want the world to be."

      "Did you ever wonder why I never availed myself of you?' Happosai asked distantly, and chuckled at Kasumi's anger, "Oh yes, despite the fact you and Nabiki are more womanly than Ranma-chan, I never went after either of you. You probably thought about it a lot. Prettiest girl in Nerima, and no one gave you a second look. Your tomboy sister got all the guys. That must have grated. Even the perverted master never groped."

      "Does this have a point?" Vesta asked, and frost formed on Happosai from the cold chill of her words.

      Happosai shivered, scattering the ice. "I sensed your anger, that deep well of frustration." He laughed. "Was that all that kept you warm on those lonely nights?"

      Vesta towered over him. "I'm through being victimized by you or anyone - "

      "You'll never get him," Happosai replied, ignoring his impending doom, "I'm not even sure if Makoto-chan could."

      "What?" Kasumi exclaimed, then looked at her detransformed clothes.

      "If I was as bad as you think I am," Happosai said, "I could have defeated you right then. But I have changed. Even if it was against my desires, I have no desire to go back."

      "What did you mean?"

      Happosai patted the ground next to him and looked at Kasumi.

      "Asteroid Power Make-Up!" Kasumi shouted, and Vesta sat next to Happosai.

      "Have it your way." The old man puffed on his pipe. "I could feel your anger. Smothered under layers and layers of duty and forced complacency. I wanted nothing to do with taking the lid off that. Now, all your emotions are stirred up, and you'll find it hard to control them. You may accept now that he doesn't love you, but soon you'll find it galling. Frustration will change to anger, and then fury. I'm only telling you it isn't personal. Perhaps Asuka was the last person he fully trusted, perhaps she's just the last one alive, but he will not love anyone else. Where you had a seething mass of coals under smothering layers, just waiting for a breath of air to blaze to life again, he has extinguished all but a few sparks. He might enjoy your presence, he might marry you, father and raise your children, but he'll never love you."

      "I have already realized that, and that's why -"

      "It won't work," Happosai interrupted, "You can't make him love you by looking out for someone he loves, and that would be Asuka, not Makoto. He wasn't the one who destroyed the Amazon who did this to you, the Dragon did that. That's the price he paid to avoid going insane when he looked into the face of things even I've shied away from. He won't give up that armor for home and hearth, no matter what other benefits go with it."

      Vesta blushed at that. "Maybe I can save him."

      "You can't save someone who doesn't want to be saved," Happosai said, "The Senshi couldn't have changed me, if I didn't realize that I wanted to keep . . . being who they'd made me."

      "Then I can heal him." Vesta said firmly.

      "He'll fight you," Happosai warned, "And immortal or not, you will not survive that. So, keep a watchful eye on me. Take him out and let him pamper you. You might be able to be friends, you may become husband and wife, but the fire I sense inside you, he'll never feel again. Not until the war is over, and that will be the end of him. I don't even think he realizes that. Expert on curses, ha! He'd see the way out if he cared to. You want an impossible quest? Try to prove to him that at least one person who cares for him won't abandon or betray him, be that person, and you'll do yourself and him more good than you know."

      "Why didn't you ever talk to Ranma or Akane this way?" Vesta asked.

      "Because, they'll never listen, and I couldn't sit still long enough without trying to touch them, needing to touch them. So, I am an expert on needs that can't ever be really fulfilled," Happosai said, "Are you going to tell them your version of the truth?"

      "I will warn them," Vesta warned, "But I will say that you've changed."

      "That's all I can ask. Are you going back?" he asked as she stood up.


      He held out his arms. "Carry me?"

      "What?! Why?"

      "Oh, just humor an old man," he said, looking at her with big, sad eyes.

      "How about I send you back the way Akane would?" Vesta growled.

      Happosai cackled as he leapt off the roof and headed back towards the Tomoe house. Vesta grimaced and followed.

      Setsuna's grip, while all-encompassing, was as weak as a newborn kitten's. "I thought men were the ones who wanted to just roll over and go to sleep," she offered muzzily as she snuggled against him.

      "You've had a long and rather shocking day," he told her, stroking her skin and enjoying the warmth of her body.

      "Oh, no, no more," she mumbled, "I think you're trying to kill me."

      "Just enjoy the faces of your two companions, when they try to keep up."

      Setsuna snickered at that, but the demands of exhaustion, and the curious soporific feeling of being safe, and cared about, soon dragged her off to sleep.

      Serenity, you were ten kinds of a thrice-blind fool, the Dragon rumbled deep within his own mind, Such a deep need, and you thought you could hold it all for yourself. I guess Orwell was right, and Serenity used it on her Senshi thousands of years before. I should warn Langley about this, but it will be fun watching her discover this on her own, unless she can divert the Princesses to others.

      He heard the faint footsteps, and saw Rini peeking around the corner. The girl's eyes widened as she saw the scene.

      Mommy and daddy both under the same sheet, mommy lying atop daddy, he thought as he put his finger to his lips, then pointed back down the corridor.

      Rini covered he mouth and nodded, before hurrying away.

      And when were you last loved as you desired, my insatiable little Senshi? While Serenity still lived? Before? Were you and Fortitude 'an item'? So Serenity split you up, and set lover against lover to guard her mad plan? he wondered idly as he ran a finger over her skin, causing her to snuggle as she slept. He ceased his teasing finger's roaming and cast a spell over her to drive off the sweat and grime of the day, leaving them both clean.

      "Sleep, and dream little one," he rumbled, "Tomorrow shall be a day of endless paperwork and explanations . . . for me. You I think need to repair your standing with our two young Senshi, and deliver a shock to the two oldest. I think the Admiral and his masters will like thinking they have something to hold over my head." He smiled at that, and watched her sleep untroubled by duty or dreams.

      Sleep had finally come, despite all their efforts to stay awake to greet the sunrise. Sasami walked the corridors within her own mind. I'm back in Tenchi's house, so I know what's coming, she thought and glanced down at the shopping bag she carried, and smiled, I also know what to do.

      Ta-chan and Rini-chan exited Tenchi's and Ryoko's bedrooms.

      "You live here alone?" Ta-chan asked.

      "There are other people who live here. They just aren't here now."

      "So the Princess has changed her guards," came the voice she dreaded above all others, "You should have kept the others. I walked in with no trouble." The white-haired man floated above the ground.

      "We let you in," Sailor Saturn told him as she leveled her glaive.

      "Now, we have presents!" Rini shouted as she changed Luna-P into a slingshot, and fired.

      Kagato caught the projectile easily, and sneered. "I am to fear this?" He laughed at the ridiculous stuffed animal, as Sasami and Sailor Saturn stood ready, and Rini reloaded.

      "A smart man would!" Sasami shouted, and threw another. This one landed on his head.

      "I'm afraid cuteness is not a viable defense strategy," Kagato said as he formed his energy blade, "Neither is insanity."

      "I think it is," Sasami replied confidently.

      Kagato felt the weight clinging to his sleeve shift. He stared in growing horror, as the pattern of the paisley shifted and changed, while the tiny hands gripped his robes, and the small tentacles quested for a better grip on his wrists and hands.

      "What madness is this!?" he exclaimed and looked up to see the other gripping his hair. His horror at the possibilities, was the signal for the three girls to begin throwing the toys at him.

      My bag isn't getting any emptier, Sasami realized as she threw with unerring accuracy, I think somebody noticed we've found his target.

      "No, get them off!" Kagato was swinging wildly, trying to blast the ones coming in and tearing at the ones already attached.

      "You scream like a little girl!" Rini shouted at the fleeing figure, "I should know!"

      "What did you -?" Kagato's furious advance, was derailed by getting a figure right in the face. The toy ripped away the villain's glasses. The Ruin Plunderer looked at not a laughable stuffed animal, but at his nemesis's avenger. Kagato ran screaming from the girls, slamming into the walls of the house, trying to dislodge the slowly crawling figures.

      Sasami burst out laughing at the horrified screeches that receded in the distance. "It's good to have friends," she managed and went on laughing at Kagato's terror as he fled.

Sailor Jupiter II 17 - Handful of Senators Don't Pass Legislation

      "He doesn't love you," Setsuna heard and she became aware of all around her.

      I wasn't in my bedroom before, she thought as she grabbed for where she kept her Henshin pen, It's not there.

      "You aren't where you are in charge," Sailor Pluto stepped out of the shadows of the bedroom, "If you keep this up, you'll have no right to be Sailor Pluto."

      "The Time Gate is gone," Setsuna replied, "The eternal guardianship is over. Rini needs a guardian, and we will need allies to defeat our enemies."

      "So you take him to your bed and hope to make him love you?" Pluto's laughter felt more cold and cruel than an arctic wind. "You know what must be done. What you must do and have the others do."

      "So, Serenity's dream must be built on lies and half-truths? What kind of foundation is that?" Setsuna countered.

      "People will believe."

      "That's not an answer," came a gravelly voice, and the darkness all around them moved. "Shadows sometimes do move when you watch them." The massive head came into view. "She was right, I don't love you, not a comment on you, but a comment on dragons. A dragon rarely loves anything, even himself. In the vast sweep of years, we are briefly intrigued, a century or two of flirtation with an person or idea, then, on to something else. We're just butterflies at heart."

      Setsuna snickered at the ludicrous pose the dragon took, and Pluto's aghast expression. "If we are going to achieve anything, we have to work together," Setsuna said, "The web of alliances among the Inners and their allies will not stand the handling and strain you keep assuming it must. There's a better way."

      "You know nothing," Pluto said.

      "So Kagato was right, but just about the wrong Senshi," the dragon said. "I know you," he told Pluto, and ignored the point-blank Dead Scream she fired at him, "There are greater powers in the game than you've calculated for. Jurai is on the move, and a worse Chaos than the one you expect stretches forth his hand even now. I can bite off those fingers, can you?" the dragon asked and his mocking laughter stunned the two women.

      "He doesn't believe in Love or Justice!" Pluto protested.

      "True also," the dragon admitted, moving his massive hand into the light, and examining his claws, "But I can wish they were true. Instead of using them as a bludgeon on the gullible. You don't believe in them either, except as a shadowy shepard's crook to drive the sheep to your fold. You know that since they don't exist, they can be anything you want them to be. Who is the true cynic here?"

      "You have - "

      " - no idea about the godlike wisdom that you've come into possession of through communing with - who? Serenity? Order?" The dragon grinned salaciously. "Endymion? Sticking to the plan, so this time you'll get him, not Serenity or Beryl?"

      Pluto looked on the verge of apoplexy, or choking to death on her own outrage. Setsuna's jaw hung open at the charge, and the lack of instant denial.

      No, I have to live with her, I won't say anything, Setsuna thought, But it is an interesting question.

      "Oh, you don't have to answer, but I can smell your reaction," the dragon said, then looked at Setsuna, "If you started smelling like that . . . I'd be very worried."

      I don't know how I don't burst into flames, or have my heart burst out of my chest, Setsuna thought as she blushed and turned away. She heard Pluto's scream of rage and the Senshi had vanished before she could turn back.

      "Do . . . do you really think - ?"

      "Pluto is a good deal more intimate with Endymion that we have been with each other," the dragon said.

      Setsuna's blush faded and she paled. "Then Usagi -?"

      "Is Serenity's daughter. Serenity stole from Temperance the prerogative of fruitfulness, and took it for herself. Intimacy is not just sexual or aimed at reproduction," the dragon said, "There are certain levels of intimacy I do not wish to experience with you, because you would be harmed by that closeness. People are separate because they sometimes need to be. If there are no shadows to wait in, there is nothing but the light, not people within the light."

      "But Light is good," Setsuna said, then thought, "You were saying chaos is good too? That doesn't make sense."

      "Too much of anything can be dangerous or lethal. What would 500 eclairs a day do to that marvelous figure of yours?" He ran a clawtip over her skin setting her shivering, but neither scratched nor broke the skin.

      "Some, a balance, a harmony," Setsuna thought, then realized, "No, a domestication. That's what you've been alluding to. Allow a small amount of chaos, controlled and regulated. How?"

      "Allow each individual to seek his own balance. Beryl was correct, close contact with Serenity and the Senshi distorted Endymion. That he reveled in the distortion and that she overreacted, are the issues and the reason she became a willing pawn of Chaos. Endymion found his balance, and Beryl couldn't accept that, so she lost hers completely." He snapped his fingers. "Meet me in the waking world. There is something I need to show you, and I will not give you the excuse that your were dreaming when you experienced it."

      Setsuna watched the huge creature vanish and frowned. "How the heck am I supposed to just wake up?"

      "What is the sound of 10,000 cockroaches clapping?" came the gravelly voice, "The sound of tapdancing on spilled corn chips."

      Setsuna pulled the covers tight around her and looked around at the silent, empty room, expecting her personal phobia to come pouring from behind the walls and baseboards. "YOU'RE EVIL!" she shouted.

      Rini lay on the futon in the surprisingly warm core. She looked at her three rescuers and shook her head. Though I walk through the valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil, because I am the deadliest bastard in this whole goddamn valley! she thought, Mistress Saturn's younger self, Queen Tsunami's younger self, both as Senshi, the legendary Kuno Tatewaki and Tenchi Masaki as young men, as well as living dragons, what other surprises are there out there? This Scholarly Dragon could probably eat the entire Black Moon family, including Wiseman, for breakfast. Only -

      She froze as she heard footsteps approaching. The dragon, in human form, lay Puu on Rini's mattress. Puu lay there, almost bonelessly as he rearranged her into a more comfortable posture, but left her clothing disheveled. "What did you do to her?" Rini quietly protested.

      Instead of answering, he grabbed her hand and enclosed Puu's hand in hers, with Puu's hand holding her Henshin pen. "Pluto Crystal Power Make-up," he said, his tone and expression demanding she repeat the incantation.

      Rini did, and they said it together. A brief flash, and Puu was in her uniform.

      "That should be more comfortable to sleep in until I get her some pajamas, and more comfortable for you."

      Rini watched in stunned amazement as he survived picking up the Staff of Time and set it aside, something even NeoQueen Serenity couldn't do. "As for our actions, let us just say your speculation during your slumber party were wrong in that they were incomplete, rather than they were too fanciful."

      Rini stared open-mouthed at the man.

      "I find her intriguing, and it's always nice to be asked for something you wanted to give anyway."

      Rini shook her head, stared from the man, who was becoming a black dragon, to Puu, and back. Okay, it's impossible, so either I'm dreaming, or I'm not and I've gone crazy, she thought as she snuggled next to Puu, as she had in other times she'd been troubled or felt abandoned by the Inners. And by my . . . mother, she thought as a sound asleep Puu pulled her close and held her, As my mother so seldom did. Maybe the Dragon is right. Puu was my mother, their Royal Highnesses are just my 'sire and dame'. She enjoyed the warmth of the other woman, both physical and spiritual as the dragon withdrew.

      The dragon felt Hotaru's eyes on him. He knelt beside her futon and watched her make a gesture. Silence enclosed them. "That is the woman who helped the other two try to steal me from my family," Hotaru said angrily.

      "A battle, I believe, your sisters and Miss Mizuno won handily," the dragon replied, "As I said earlier, if you heard you would have to guide and guard the youngest Senshi, or the world would burn. What would you do?"

      Hotaru frowned and glanced at Sasami sleeping next to her.

      "She is the oldest," the dragon corrected her, "Do not attribute to malice, that which is adequately explained by stupidity. But be wary of that stupidity, it will lead them to other mistakes in the future."

      Hotaru nodded, "Thanks Kitty."

      "You're welcome, Eeyore." He headed to the egg chamber and the charges there. "Ten, Langley, only one more, and you'll have what you need. Yet -" He looked up through the limitless reaches of space, his vision not reduced by the yards of volcanic rock over his head. "I fear other events will intervene. Rini was running from someone as well as something. I don't think that someone was a nominal enemy." He signed. "I think I need to play a social call on some others, and discover whose side they are on."

      Makoto woke as she heard the footstep. She threw herself at the intruder, only to wind up being placed back on her bed. The moon light illuminated the features of the woman she'd met earlier today.

      "You tried to kill him," Makoto said, "Am I next?"

      "I would think you'd want to help," Lind said, and extended a dagger, pommel-first, to her, "A Great Old One cannot really be affected by one of us, but a human can reach all the places they would wriggle away from us."

      "I haven't exactly been able to get in a decent hit," Makoto said as she took the dagger.

      "That's because you attack him," Lind said, then paused as if trying to remember the words, " 'Try honey instead of vinegar.' Let him get close to you."

      "I'm not an assassin," Makoto protested.

      "Do you know what a Great Old One is? A perversion of all things. They can kill normal beings just by being seen or getting near them. They don't even hate people. They are just so alien they don't understand killing us is wrong."

      "So why don't you kill them?" Makoto asked, "You chopped his head off, why did you stop there?"

      "Because I'm a Goddess." Two Angels appeared behind the self-proclaimed goddess and it was all Makoto could do not to run in terror. "And even then, some things are beyond my ability."

      "What am I supposed to do?" Makoto asked, trying to get further away from those two Angels.

      "Strike what I cannot. You've felt the wrongness of him, although you guessed wrong about the source. He is alien. His people, facing an onslaught from beings even fouler than he, fused humans and a bit of their enemy together. He's one example, Asuka Langley is another. The only way to kill such monsters is to tear them to spiritual pieces. Asuka and the one I tried to kill, absorb the pieces, slowly becoming more and more like the enemy. He would probably thank you for destroying him ,if he becomes a threat to the world."

      "So how does this work, if he's unkillable. I certainly don't want to become what he is."

      "The resulting pieces will be far too small and powerless to reintegrate. That's all I can do for you." She leapt through the window and the two angels flapped their one wing apiece and carried her into the night sky.

      Makoto looked at the plain-looking knife and wondered. "So, just smile, then slip it in. That sounds almost too easy."

      Lind felt unclean. "All I said was strictly true. But it still felt like a lie. And what I failed to say was surely a lie," she said, seemingly to the open air, "I held my hand because I felt his mission, as if it were printed on his flesh and burned into his soul. He defends against the chaos with every sinew. He would never surrender to what they are, nor would Asuka Langley. So why aim that Senshi at him? If she fails, it will harm two of Heaven's allies. If she succeeds, it will likewise weaken our cause. I don't deserve or expect an answer, KamiSama, but the question must be asked."

      She flew on in silence, returning to hunting Keiichi's missing sister.

      The dragon form arrived in the temple grounds he recognized from his earlier encounters. The robot guard took one look at the patch of blackness landing out of the darkness, and fled.

      Nothing wrong with his instincts, he thought as he glanced around. Headlights illuminated him and a Morris Mini raced out to confront him, Or not. Oh dear it's trying to attack me! he thought as he reached for it, and it went from full forward to full reverse. He picked it up before it could retreat into the collection of buildings. Its engine revved futilely as its wheels hung some 18 inches off the ground. Makes its attempt to escape or further attack pathetic, he thought with a smile as the little car use revving its engine to try to shake itself loose, while it honked and flashed its lights, Still some fight.

      "Usually I have to actually threaten someone before they react like that. So we have the brave armored knight." The dragon reached over with his tail and plucked up the figure who had been trying to hide from him. "And the beautiful, virgin princess."

      The mousy girl seemed caught between blushing with the comment, and terror at the monster.

      "You will behave, or it will go badly for your friend," he told both of them as he set them down side by side.

      The door popped open. "Quick Sora get in!" the Mini's radio blared and the girl did as ordered.

      "Megumi?" the girl asked as the door slammed and she buckled herself in.

      "I don't know what happened," the Mini explained as it tried to make its escape, but only managed to spin its wheel as the dragon leisurely lifted the drive wheels off the ground. "You can't get her now!"

      "What makes you think I was threatening just her?" the dragon said and chuckled.

      I may just leave her like this and make a present of the pair to Langley, he thought, No, she'd never get the joke. He scooped up some rainwater from the barrel and poured it on the car.

      Sora and Megumi, both within Megumi's blazer and skirt, still faced the dragon.

      "Do tell. Just be glad you weren't hiding in the trunk or the engine compartment. It would take surgery to remove you."

      The girls exchanged glances. "This isn't Nerima or Juuban!" Sora wailed.

      "Or Okayama?" the dragon offered, "There's also hostile intent missing on my part. Although you were brave to change into a car to save your friend, I didn't come looking for a fight, at least not with you two. There are three Norse women residing here. I intend to resolve any quarrels with them, before proceeding with my plans."

      "What are those plans?" Megumi asked as Sora slipped out of Megumi's clothes.

      "To save the world of course. They might try to stop me. If so, I'll have to kill them."

      "Why would Belldandy try to stop you from saving the world!?" Sora shouted at him. His glare silenced her.

      " 'Belldandy' she goes by? How like her, to take the name of the arbiter of humanity's fate. I suppose the other two call themselves 'sisters' and took the names Urd and Skuld? Hubris," he grumbled angrily, setting the two girls trembling. "Why? Because sentient, feeling humanity will eventually replace the gods. Belldandy doesn't want that to occur, or rather, she didn't when she killed my friends."

      The two girls stared at him.

      "Oh, because she's convinced you she's cute and sweet, and I'm black and scary, you take her side. The one prejudice no human can overcome. The conflation of beauty with goodness. It's so tragic," the dragon wailed piteously, "The charming mass murderess against her scary victims, of course you side with her!"

      The girls looked completely stunned.

      "I understand, you don't believe me, because a sociopath is very good at manipulating others emotionally. But I will prove my case, ask this Belldandy or Urd about Celestine. Belldandy will either avoid the question or chatter about her wonderful old teacher. Urd will look like she just swallowed a barrel full of live spider."


      "Spider. One big, giant, hairy one all set to eat her from the inside."

      "Oh," Sora said.

      "The elimination of all human suffering, sounds like something Belldandy would support 100%, right?"

      Sora brightened, "Of course."

      "You're both engineers. If you could, how would you accomplish it? Assume for the moment that nothing was truly beyond you," the dragon said, "But to clarify the problem, consider how you slaved and agonized over a final exam. Then the aftermath when you were convinced you'd failed and would have to repeat the test. Now consider yourself in 1947, both waitresses at the college cafeteria, because not only were female students not allowed, but you would have starved to death back home. Both of you much as you are, nearly lusting after the chance to prove you could be students and even engineers. You Sora, with Morebe and Ana both depending on your income and efforts to keep a roof over all your heads, food on the table and clothes on your backs."

      "How do you know about them?" Sora gasped, "I've never mentioned them here. Not to anybody."

      "I'm a dragon and a wizard," he said reasonably, "In situ, which of you two is suffering more? The 1940's waitresses, or the modern students?"

      The two girls stared at each other, a hesitant conversation of whispers followed before Megumi spoke up, "Wouldn't it be just as bad for both?" she suggested tentatively.

      "Exactly. With the idea that suffering is relative to your actual experience, i.e., someone who has been shot is going to react to a toothache differently that someone who's never had even a paper cut. Now, how do you eliminate human suffering? All - human suffering, when a splinter is as agonizing as a broken leg, because it's the worst pain you've ever felt."

      He let the girls expressions change from suspicious and confused to horrified. "They'd become callous to everything," Sora said miserably.

      "Or they couldn't understand pain," Megumi said, "Theirs or someone else's."

      "Exactly. Now put an effectively infinite power source behind the impulse to force either or both solutions on every human who lived, or ever would," he paused to let them consider, "That, is our point of contention. I believe that suffering makes children into adults, by both experiencing it and alleviating it in and for others. The gods want adults to accompany them. Children cannot understand the secrets of the gods. Only tyrants want all to be children, because some adult must be in charge. Belldandy and Celestine would see us all as pampered, sheltered children from the cradle to the grave, never suffering, never feeling empathy for another's suffering. There is no middle ground, no compromise between these positions. Either you allow suffering, and the ennobling of those who survive or offer succor, or you do not."

      Sora and Megumi gulped and nodded.

      "Is there a flaw somewhere? Have I reached the conclusion in error?"

      The girls looked at each other. When they turned back, misery was etched on each face. "I don't see one," Megumi admitted. Sora shook her head.

      "I shall hunt elsewhere," he said, "The curse on you is lifted, I think you should remain here, then your brother can find you easily when he returns, rather than have you two searching endlessly for each other." He spread his wings and took to the air.

      Those two getting to the bottom of things should keep these meddlers occupied, while events play out. I do wonder who changed the girl into a car in the first place.

      The dragon returned with a package under his arm. Rini woke as he approached in human form. He held up the pajamas. "I'm going to steal your snuggle toy," he told her.

      "Do you need my help to change her?"

      "Dress up Puu, eh , Eeyore? I have a trick," he said as he pulled the blanket off, draped the pajamas on Pluto, then covered her with the blanket. "I'm from the government and I'm here to help," he solemnly said as he wiggled his fingers over the mound. "Death and Taxes." He pulled the blanket away, revealing Setsuna in the black and white silk pajamas.

      Rini put her hands together and bowed.

      "You've been a lovely audience, now go back to sleep. We have a busy day tomorrow." He tucked her in and carried Setsuna away.

      Setsuna woke and felt the empty space next to her. Why am I panicking? she wondered at the flash of fear she'd experienced on awakening alone, This is his house, he has to come back.

      The faint grinding of the stone brought her attention around and she stared in horror and amazement at the huge creature that somehow was blacker than total darkness, save for the pupiless, yellow eyes.

      "I just checked on the kids," he rumbled softly, "It's easier for me to get close, if the weight- bearing part is far away."

      "I was just wondering, why didn't you - ah, considering all we did you never - " Setsuna sighed. "It's a simple thing, I should be able to at least discuss it."

      "Not when they're yours," the Dragon said, and rubbed cat-like against her, "Then it becomes important. Now are you saying you've recovered and want more?"

      Setsuna blushed and nodded shyly.

      "And you wondered why it was all touching and no more?"

      "Yes, it's . . . now that you're a dragon are you?"

      The monster chuckled. "Our customs, and physiology are especially different. I prefer coupling as a human. Besides -"

      " 'Besides'?" she asked, recognizing his teasing tone, "Besides what?" She pouted and posed cutely.

      I don't know why am enjoying playing all the weak and silly games, Setsuna wondered, Especially with someone who could break me in half without trying.

      "You don't love me?" she asked in her best lost, little girl tone.

      "Well, it's that . . . " The monster feigned shyness. "A dragon's is only about a third the size of a pinkie."

      "Oh," Setsuna said, stroking his muzzle and hiding her grin, "I didn't know."

      "There's also the question of proportion," he told her, holding up a pinkie the size of a railroad tie and as long as a fence post.

      "I . . . see," Setsuna said worriedly, "The screaming and begging for mercy would spoil the mood."

      "It's the ballooning and explosion at the end that really is disappointing," he replied, carefully running a knuckle down her back and setting off shivers in her, "Cuts down on next dates, oh yes." While she curled catlike under the touch, he changed to human form. "I prefer this form."

      "I think I do too," Setsuna said as she rested her nose and forehead against his so she could look into his eyes, "It makes me feel like I'm less of a toy."

      "You are no toy. You are intriguing."

      "So I'm an intriguing bauble?" Setsuna said as she sat up, facing away from him, "Something to add to your hoard?"

      "More like to add to my horde, but why do you insist on downplaying your beauty and spirit, to turn a compliment into an insult?" the Dragon asked, "Ah, you don't see it. I do apologize. I thought a Senshi's senses would see it."

      He ran a finger down her spine, setting Setsuna shivering, then she gasped at what she saw and heard. He left his hand on the small of her back.

      "Sight, hearing and taste are the strongest human senses. What I experience, that evidently you don't, has replaced your normal senses as long as you aren't using them."

      As Setsuna darted her gaze this way and that , the Dragon covered one of her eyes with her palm. When she got the message and kept that eye closed, he took her hand and covered one ear. "This is . . . bizarre," Setsuna gasped.

      "That is how I see the world, translated a bit so you can understand it."

      Setsuna stared at her arm. "It's like a thunderstorm."

      "Listen to it with your covered ear," he told her. He sat back, enjoying watching her discover, and the patterns dance and changed as she saw and heard the depths of Meioh Setsuna that she hadn't even considered before.

      "This is what you . . . experience?" Setsuna asked, sounding like an awed child in her amazement.

      "There's more. Are you ready?" he asked. When she nodded, he transformed into his normal state.

      "That's what you - it's . . . I can't . . . "

      "Yes," he said in amusement, "The darkness that you can pick out of even total blackness, it's part of this. Rather than the gold and silver filigree and the rainbow of colors, I am darkness, and storm." He smiled to ease the terror that built within her, "There's more. Of course."

      "May I see?" she asked in amazement.

      "Certainly," he said, suppressing a chuckle, "Watch and listen with everything."

      "Okay." She watched her arm with her open and closed eyes.

      "YEEEH!" she squealed as he licked her back under her pajamas.

      "You were going to try to pound me . . . until you catch all the changes," he told her as what she was seeing and heard amazed her, "So, is this what a person looks like when they're totally disgusted?" she shouted at him as he returned to human form.

      "No, when they gain a revelation."

      "And what was revealed?" she asked angrily, still squirming at the cold, wet stripe on her back.

      "Never trust a grinning dragon," he replied. She growled at him. He growled back. He withdrew the spell, returning her senses to normal.

      "I know. I need to rest, busy day tomorrow."

      "Clothes, toiletries, and all the forms for Rini to be part of the 20th century." He lay down next to her.

      She stifled the urge to do something nasty to him. "Will she be staying? She's the Queen's daughter, although for some reason, she refuses to acknowledge that."

      "There's a good reason a royal princess doesn't want to be a royal princess, just a normal princess. She'll tell us eventually," he told her and Setsuna lay down atop him.

      "You are very irritating, you know that?"

      "Keeps all the filigree flashing and the clouds roiling."

      "It also means I may knife you in your sleep," she replied.

      "Rough foreplay, I like it!" he replied as he closed his eyes, ignoring her embarrassment.

      Kasumi waited outside her room to confront Makoto. She's just hurting herself. Bad enough, but she's also hurting him. I have to prove that she can trust me, she thought as she entered the girl's room.

      "You don't know what to do, do you?" Kasumi asked.

      The girl put what she'd been looking at in the drawer and turned around. Her every gesture telegraphed her nervousness and guilt. Then she took a combative stance. "Who are you?"

      "You didn't get any cookies," Kasumi said and smiled, getting a smile in return. Makoto relaxed as she realized who she was facing.

      I've had to calm down Akane, Kasumi thought, You're a push over.

      "It's not appropriate for them to be breakfast . . . although a certain someone we both know made a batch into porridge. Ah, you can smile." Kasumi chuckled at Makoto's blush. "I can see why he fell for you. You have power, but use it sparingly," Kasumi explained, deepening Makoto's blush with every word, "I can teach you how to catch and hold him."

      Kasumi was stunned when Makoto collapsed to the floor and began weeping.

      "I don't want him," Makoto sobbed quietly, "Why does everyone insist I do? He's not real. The real one is only in my dreams and fantasies. The real one's a fake. I dreamed - and he was so wonderful, and kind. Just us together, no sisters, no dad, but then - he's not real!" Makoto shouted then shot to her feet, "He's just a trick from our enemies! Taken from my dreams to make me doubt myself, before I became a Senshi!" Makoto covered her face and slumped to the floor.

      "Oh, Mako-chan," Kasumi knelt beside her and wrapped her arms around her.

      Akane awoke in the koi pond, beside her father. "What's going on!?"

      Happosai landed in front of them. "If you're going to be a Samurai Shenshen, you aren't going to embarrass the Anything Goes School!" he shouted, then turned to Soun, "And quit coughing up furballs in my room!"

      "But Master -"

      "MOVE!" He hit Soun with his pipe, sending Soun scrambling. Akane took a stance and confronted the old master, and wound up in a heap next to her father.

      She stared aghast at the advancing old man, then decided running was a better option.

      "But Kasumi's breakfast," Soun moaned.

      "I sent her out, you need no distractions," the old Master cackled as he chased both of them into the sunrise down the streets of Nerima.

      "I think he's going to be mad," Sasami said as she watched the huge creature delicately make blueberry pancakes. Mixing, pouring and flipping, using both hands and his tail.

      "You are assuming you showed him disrespect. While being disrespectful of a god is a bad idea, you're looking at this more like a human than a god."

      "I don't think Tsunami would be pleased."

      "You weren't randomly throwing Tsunami plushies, you were using images as weapons to locate a target, and then allow attacks to carry through them to the target. You were more like a forward observer than a defamer. The Admiral doesn't get mad at his recon screen for finding what he wants, so why would he be mad at you?"

      "It's just . . . seems weird," Hotaru added as she approached with an empty plate.

      "Where do you three put them all?" the dragon asked as a massive tail approached Hotaru, the three tail 'fingers' gripping a seemingly tiny spatula. He shoveled up another dozen pancakes onto her plate.

      "I'm still nervous about it," Sasami admitted.

      "It wasn't your idea, it was the boy's, that's who would have to worry, if anyone had to worry," the dragon explained.

      "What did you do?" Setsuna asked as she yawned and approached, "Coffee?"

      "He's not here," the dragon said, "But there's some tea."

      "Kagato has been running around in my dreams," Sasami explained.

      "Both you and Sailor Mercury had run ins with him as well," the dragon added.

      "Nothing stopped him," Sasami continued, "Until last night, when we pelted him with Cthulhu plush - stuffed animals."

      Setsuna stared at Sasami, then into her half-drunk tea, and than at the dragon as she raised an elegant eyebrow.

      "They came alive and attacked Kagato. Cthulhu can possess images of himself, especially in dreams," the dragon explained as he put a plate with a few pancakes in front of Setsuna.

      "Where is the table these are sitting on?" Setsuna asked as she looked over and around the plate that hung suspended in the air.

      Sasami laughed. "They're plates from my homeland. They don't fall."

      "So, if they got possessed, and attacked Kagato, and not you, why are you worried?" Setsuna asked.

      "Hence the need for some adult supervision," the dragon said as he set five different kinds syrup in front of Setsuna, those too hung in mid-air as if sitting on a table.

      "I'm going to quit thinking about this. I'm in a dragon's cave, it's probably perfectly normal," Setsuna said, then picked up the chopsticks and stared at the people who were all innocently examining the walls and ceiling around them, while they ate their pancakes with forks and knives. She glared at the dragon, then carefully poured a dollop of syrup on the plate, rolled up one pancake and gingerly dabbed it in the syrup and ate it. She glanced imperiously at the studiously uninterested ones around her.

      "I really need to learn to glare at people like that," Sasami said.

      "She can teach you when we go shopping for Rini," the dragon said.

      "You're willing to go shopping?" Hotaru asked in mock amazement.

      "I have a copy of War and Peace," the dragon said, "I've always wanted to read it. And by the way, the clothes don't make anyone look fat, the fat is inside the clothing. And all yours is right where it should be."

      "Why is everything you say slightly - lurid," Setsuna asked.

      "You only think they're lurid," the dragon replied and smiled, "One of your good points."

      Kasumi held Makoto, rocking her gently as she had since Makoto collapsed. "There's an old tale, called the Hedgehog's Dilemma, a small animal that raises its spines to protect itself. But what does a hedgehog do for - procreation and companionship?"

      Makoto had finished crying a while ago, but looked almost childlike in her relaxation. She shook her head.

      I wish Akane or Nabiki had ever let me do this, Kasumi thought, I was only big sister, never mommy. I want to be the mother. I guess I resented not being allowed to be.

      "They relax, and the spines come down, giving them a smooth coat," she said as she released Makoto, stroking her cheek, "Smooth."

      Makoto smiled at that.

      "Mako-chan, the dreams, they were real. An enemy bonded you together, because you were supposed to drain the life out of some poor fool, and get groped by him in your sleep, or in the bath, and get him killed in the crossfire. But they attached you to someone who was a gentleman, and a warrior practically from birth." Kasumi lowered her voice, trying to hide her jealousy, "You were very much in love. I never saw him happier. You practically glowed when you two were together." She chuckled. "Although there were times I think you would have gleefully killed him. I guess that means you really loved him."

      Makoto laughed at that.

      "Then . . . you went away, Kino Makoto, and he let Tomoe Makoto have her life and her family, away from war, away from death, away from all the dark things in his life. I don't think he made the right decision, but it was the choice he made. When you went hunting monsters, you ran into him, because that's what he is for, hunting monsters. I don't know what you dreamed, but I bet they were not dreams, but memories. Memories of before you and the other Senshi went off without your many friends, without him, and died."

      Makoto hung her head. "Monster hunter, eh? I guess that's why I kept running into him. Hotaru was chasing after the leftovers from Beryl's troops. Of course, he'd be doing the same. I knew that's what . . . the guy I remembered - would be doing." She looked at Kasumi, her face showing her desperate need for answers. "Why didn't he say something? You'd figure he'd say something if a girl was trying to beat him up."

      "My little sister could take out all of the Senshi at once, and he could and has danced around her like she was a novice. To people who've hurt him and his friends, he can be very cruel that way. I also think he was waiting for you to say something. He can be very cowardly that way too. You've never had a problem talking about your old sempai. Maybe he was looking for some hint of recognition. A hint he never saw. That was you being cowardly."

      "Yeah, I guess," Makoto said.

      "Maybe you should try to just be friends, get to know him, get him to trust you, and then -"

      "Ohno, badidea sorryhavebreakfasttomake, gottago!" Makoto said as she dashed from the room.

      Kasumi stared at the dust cloud as it settled. "I'm glad we could have this talk together."

      Ami had sought out Asuka with a mission in mind. She met the girl as she headed for the mess hall. "Asuka, I met the Meliorist last night. Who is she, she was you, and not you?" Ami asked Asuka.

      "She was who I dreamed, to escape the fakers and mundane idiocy of the Waking World. I called her the Meliorist, someone who believes that improvement of society depends on human effort."

      "That sounds like you," Ami said dryly, "Frankly, Kagato's attempt to make Sailor Mercury sound like a monster sounds more like the Meliorist and you too." She turned and stared into Asuka's wide grin.

      "Then you shouldn't be teasing me about it," Asuka said through her clenched teeth, "Am I right?"

      Ami gulped and retreated.

      Keiko and the doctor watched the fire blaze as the priestess did her 'fire reading'. The bishop is none too happy about using a 'pagan' ritual, Keiko thought, but ignored the man's expression, Rei has proven she more than knows what she's doing. The most important lesson being, when to call for help.

      The fire writhed and pulsed as Rei chanted the words. Finally the fire stabilized and Rei fell silent. She composed herself for a few moments, before she stood up.

      "The stones are no longer material," the girl said gravely, "They have lost their power, and nothing will restore them.

      "What they were holding?" the doctor stammered.

      "Is awaiting nightfall to be freed. I require a car to take me to Mount Fuji. There will be help there, perhaps our only salvation," the miko answered in a distracted monotone.

      "I'll arrange a helicopter," Keiko said as she reached out to steady the girl who appeared out on her feet, "Are you all right?"

      Rei looked at her, exhaustion layered on hopelessness practically beat down the girl's spirit. "I doubt I shall ever be all right again. I never wanted to see . . . what I saw."

      "I'll arrange for the chopper," the doctor said, and practically dragged the bishop after him.

      "Now that you don't have to be strong in front of the boys," Keiko told Rei, "Are you all right?"

      "The world will end in seven hours, and there's nothing you, or your father, or any of his troops, or any of the Senshi, can do about it," Rei said flatly, "Maybe some people would want to know that before they died. I don't."

      "Your friend Jeff - "

      "He will be insufficient," Rei said tiredly, as if bored by everything, "But he has an ally, at Fuji. If he will help us, then we've won. If not, then everything is useless."

      Keiko stifled the twin urges to hug the girl and tell her everything would be all right, or to rush off to scream at someone to hurry the chopper along.

      Haruka and Michiru watched Setsuna drive up to the house.

      "If she damaged my car and had to get it fixed," Haruka growled. The pair stared in amazement as five people climbed out of the car.

      "I recognize Setsuna," Michiru said, then Setsuna picked up the young pink-haired girl and hugged her tightly, "No I don't." She stared at the laughing pair.

      "Did the Great Stone Face just laugh of her own free will?" Haruka asked, "Or have I gone mad?"

      "Just look at who is with her," Michiru gasped and pointed at the violet-haired girl who was being burdened down with packages by the man who'd also gotten out of the car. He then began loading the blue-haired girl as their once-target followed Setsuna towards the house.

      Michiru ran for the door.

      "Quick, stack the couch and tables against it!" Haruka told her as she tore her eyes away from the impossible procession of pack mules, then ran to support her lover as she opened the door.

      "You're catching flies, deary," the little, pink-haired girl riding on Setsuna's out thrust hip told Michiru, almost as Setsuna would have said it. The pair smiled at each other and hugged.

      Haruka covered Michiru's mouth to prevent any questions.

      "Darakonesu Rini, she'll be staying with us. Tomoe Hotaru we've met, along with her sisters, and Princess Sasami Masaki Jurai, Heir Presumptive to the Throne of the Kingdom of Jurai," Setsuna introduced each girl.

      "Who's he?" Haruka asked, jerking her thumb at the man who was already unloading the two smaller girls, "What's you're name?"

      "You cannot contain what I am in an ill-crafted cage of the ephemeral smoke that are mere words," he told them darkly.

      "I think the lights dimmed and the temperature dropped 15 C," Haruka said, rubbing her goose pimped arms.

      "People call me - "

      "Kitty!" all the girls chorused, and dissolved in laughter.

      Haruka and Michiru looked at the laughing Setsuna, hugging the laughing girl, and decided that the seemingly malevolent male was less threatening to their view of the world, and their place in it.

      "I split Setsuna's head open with an axe and Rini jumped out," the man explained.

      Haruka's eyes crossed as she tried to decide which was more unlikely, that the girl had been born like that, or that Setsuna was still laughing.

      "Uh, interesting," Michiru managed while trying to slip behind Haruka.

      The man approached Rini and Setsuna. "I'll make sure you have no trouble getting her enrolled," tender tone as he tousled Rini's hair at odds with the deadly seriousness he'd shown since he arrived, "I have some people who owe me some large favors."

      "Getting her registered will be help enough," Setsuna said, then leaned over and kissed the man on the lips, "Thank you, Kitty."

      The man smiled. "You're entirely welcome, Winnie."

      For an instant, the old dour Pluto was back, but only for an instant.

      "Why do I have to go to ordinary school?" Rini protested.

      "Because uneducated girls are tastier." The man licked his lips. "And the willfully stupid are simply delicious," he said, staring straight at Haruka and Michiru in a way that made their flesh crawl. The man accepted a double hug from Setsuna and Rini before collecting Hotaru and Sasami. The trio left, leaving the two younger Outers in shock.

      "What just happened?" Haruka asked as Setsuna collected some of the parcels and carried them and Rini to the spare bedroom.

      Despite the load she carried, the pair noticed the spring in Setsuna's step.

      "I think I know one thing that happened," Michiru teased, "The rest usually takes nine months." She collected several more parcels, and was stunned when Setsuna turned her head to look at the pair.

      "Jealous?" she asked and continued to the bedroom.

      "Is leaping through the window to run screaming down the street appropriate? Or even noteworthy?" Haruka asked as she collected the last packages. "Clothes, bedding, even a toothbrush," she said of the contents and followed.

      The dragon looked over his cavern and considered the future. "The girls are safe, but there's quite a lot to do."

      He looked up and around. I almost recognize her, he thought of the figure stumbling towards the entrance to his home, Better get out the tea and crumpets. Then I -

      "REI?!" he shouted as the girl came into sight, two bloody holes where her eyes had been.

      "No one should have to see what I have seen," the miko said calmly as she stumbled forward, "No one should know, what I -"

      He caught her as she collapsed.

      "The end of the world. It's today. A few hours is all we have at most. He planned it well, oh yes," she said serenely, smiled at him, "Our bodies or our souls, by fire or by steel. We have so many choices. And I've seen them all. Am I wrong to prefer the certainty and swiftness of fire?"

      The dragon cringed at her eerily euphoric tone.

      "I knew you could help, that you could save us."

      I know I should make light of this, some comment about eyes for wisdom and ravens, he thought, But somehow I can't. It . . . it just isn't done.

      "I'm sorry. You need to know, what I've seen. Even if I don't want to know it anymore."

      What to do, what to do? he thought as he helped her lie down, Well, it's always worked in the past. It just needs some refinements.

      "Yes, I'll get it," he kept his tone light, "I ask you to trust me. It may hurt."

      "I am beyond that. Death, and forgetfulness, will be welcome," she said almost dreamily. She reached out, he put his head where she could touch him. "You were right, 'the boy' was right. Love, Justice, they are illusions Nothing is real, everything is an illusion."

      "Just because they are illusions, that doesn't make them unreal," he told her.

      She patted his head as if he were a well-meaning, but backward child.

      "Brace yourself, this may be jarring."

      "I -" she said dreamily,the she screamed as he took her spirit from her body. The body continued to scream as he drove his claw through her chest and into the hard rock below. The screaming stopped as the miko dissolved into a fine gray ash.

      He carefully swept the ash into the hole he'd created beneath her, and covered the hole with a stone. The spirit stood by, staring in mute horror at her murder. I see the memories and the malignancy of them. Rei, you are right, some things should not be looked at closely. He gingerly tore the visible mass of tainted visions from her spirit, erasing the memory of them, absorbing them as he had taken her memories from her body.

      "Now to work. I doubt anyone will have any of my blood to dissolve her back, and she could survive a little extra fire." He scratched open his wrist, allowing the blood to well up and drop into the hole. The ash began to seethe and sizzle. While he spoke words no human throat could duplicate, he thrust the spirit back into the seething mass, and watched it take form as his breath played over it.

      He pulled the solid mass from the hole and carefully dressed the partially-formed figure in the miko's robes while he considered, This is an interesting problem. Kagato wasn't the overreaching fool I thought he was. I don't like it when my enemies change my plans. The dragon sat back on his haunches as the figure returned to human shape, and breathed.

      "You couldn't figure out a better way to debrief me than to kill me?! What kind of an sadistic idiot are you anyway?!"

      "Ah good, you're normal. I thought you might be shy and retiring."

      Rei growled at him, "Are you going to answer my questions or not?"

      "From the girl who dug her own eyes out with her fingernails? I got the color right, although I did remove the slight cataract that was forming. Besides you forgot one thing my dear, little miko," he said sweetly.

      "What?" she asked as she stood and brushed herself off.

      She was on her back, pinned beneath his hand, while another claw stood poised over her head. "I am not one of the fluffy good-guys. I do as I will, and I do it in my way. I play by human rules, because otherwise the game is too easy, and victory has no savor," he told the wild-eyed, terrified girl, "I cherish humans, not because they created me of their fears and terrors, I curse them for that, but because they make the endless centuries interesting. Do you wish to be made more interesting? I can return what I took, and shall enjoy watching you tear yourself to pieces because of it."

      "No," Rei squeaked.

      He pulled his hands away. "You will collect your grandfather, and a few days clothing. The battle will be joined, and the time of isolation and secrets for all of you must and shall end."

      "Yes . . . sir," Rei said carefully.

      "Go," the dragon ordered, and hid his smile as the miko scurried away.

      Now you cherish your life and wholeness, he thought, Good craftsmanship, if I do say so myself.