Chapter 25: Closer Than They Appear

[Translation Notes (Up here to avoid spoilers):

*1. From Japanese: "shouri", "winning" and "yuuken", "postage stamp". Yes, this is an extraordinarily nerdy language pun. No, I'm not apologizing for it.

*2. Cantonese interjection, meaning "Bye bye; see you later; so long", etc.

*3. Japanese equivalent of the western LOL in chatspeak. Short for warai, "laughter"]

The Lighthouse, Sekigahara Training Grounds

"That's it, Sakura-chan. Keep focusing, you're doing great."

"Hnnnn."

"Feel the power gathering within you, deep in your belly. Now just channel that energy up, up into your chest…"

"Hnnnn…."

"Don't try to force it. Just let it flow into your fist and-"

"Hanyaaa~!" Sakura Kinomoto exclaimed and threw a punch with all her might. Sure enough, she felt something erupt from her hand… Though her eyes were shut tight, she felt the air whoosh past her ears as it soared across the room, then a burst of heat as it crashed against a solid object.

"Good, Sakura-chan!" said Nanoha Takamachi's voice over the sound of hands clapping. "That was very good!"

"I agree." That was Fate Testarossa Harlaown, next to her as always. Her clapping was more restrained, but still audible. "Most new students can't manage that without at least a month of training."

"Way to go, Sakura!" And of course, Kero could probably be heard shouting from the next Vertex Point over. "Yer gonna have this Strike Arts stuff mastered in no time!"

Sakura cracked an eye open. "Did I really do it…?"

"You certainly did," said Nanoha, who wore a proud smile. "See for yourself."

So Sakura looked, and squealed. "Hoeeeee~!" The target lay fragmented a few meters away, its largest pieces smoking and blackened with soot. "I did that?!"

Kero fluttered over the shattered target for a closer inspection. "Ya sure did! Man… keep this up and you'll be chuckin' fireballs Ryu-style in no time!"

Sakura blinked, uncomprehending. "Ryu…?"

"Oh man, ya don't know who Ryu is?! Where have ya been?"

"I-"

"Ya know! Ryu!" Kero flapped his wings and raised himself an inch or two in the air, his tiny paw raised high. "Shoryuken!"

Sakura stared in abject confusion. "A… a prize-winning stamp*1? Hoeee~...?"

Making a face of purest misery, Kero put his face in his paws and moaned.

The two other occupants of the room watched from the sidelines, one showing considerably more interest in Sakura's training than the other. Alph's gaze was riveted as she sat stock still, her ears standing at attention. Her only motion was the constant back-and-forth swishing of her tail.

By contrast, Meilin Li's attention wandered. It took a few seconds of delay each time to collect herself enough to clap for Sakura's latest achievement. Sakura was a natural, because of course she was. Not just Clow Reed's chosen successor anymore, but one of the Three who would save everyone.

Including Shaoran? The thought was bitter as a too-ripe olive. Losing Shaoran once was hard enough. Now he was lost in the most complete way possible, and to get him back, if that was even possible, she had even- No, thought Meilin, shaking her head. I'm being stupid. It's not fair to blame her for that. That was my choice, no one else's. I've got to live with it.

"Something wrong, Li?" said the wolf girl next to her. It was still hard not to stare at Alph sometimes, but for the past few days she had been making regular appearances at Sakura's training sessions. That helped Meilin adjust to her presence. A bit. "You look kind of down."

"I-I'm fine, Alph-san. Thank you." Meilin's cheeks turned faintly pink as she clutched her hands in her lap. "Just thinking."

Alph could smell the worry radiating off of her plain as day, but she knew better than to try to press it. With a noncommittal flick of one ear, she turned back to watch the training session.

"Remember, proper breathing is key," Nanoha was saying. "Even people with no magical ability at all can do amazing things if they learn breath control." She cupped her hands below her ribs to demonstrate. "Just like this: inhale through your nose, hold it for five seconds-"

There was an audible snicker from Kero as Sakura's cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk's.

"- and let it out through your mouth."

"Puah~!"

"Good, you're getting better. Now this time, as you inhale, draw your power from your center, direct it into your fist…" Gracefully, like a dancer, Nanoha moved into an attack stance. Her arm pulled back, and pink light shone from between her clenched fingers as she made a fist.

Sakura copied the movement as closely as she could. There was no light, pink or otherwise, but she felt something warm gathering in her palm, at least…

"Hold it, and… release! Spark Splash!" The endless fields of grass rippled from the force of a minor shockwave as Nanoha's power manifested into a fist-sized bullet of light. It flew straight and true, punching a flawless, smoking hole in the next target.

"Hanya~!" Sakura's shot was larger, colorless and formless, nowhere near as controlled. An indistinct blob rather than a bullet, it struck the target adjacent to Nanoha's nonetheless. A network of cracks spread through it, and the faux-plastic broke apart.

"Was… was that good?" said Sakura.

"It was excellent. Just-" Nanoha teetered on her feet, the field went swimmy… "Just…"

"Nanoha-chan?"

"Nanoha!" In an instant, Fate was at her side, catching her before she could begin to fall.

"I'm all right," said Nanoha, faint but firm. "I'm all right. I just… overdid it a little. I just need time to recharge my mana."

Sakura hovered over them, at a loss for what to do. By now, she had heard about the incident that hospitalized Nanoha, a year ago by her time scale. Details were still hard to come by, but from what she understood, along with the grievous injuries to her body, Nanoha's very source of magic had been damaged. Some days, it seemed to her that Nanoha was strong enough to take on Dead End single-handed, but others-

"That's enough for today," said Fate. She said it while looking at Sakura, but it was clear the statement was directed at them both, and she would hear no argument. "Keep practicing, Sakura. I'll let you know when we're ready to try again."

Nanoha nodded with a weak smile. "You passed today's lesson with flying colors, Sakura-chan. Congratulations."

"Th-thank you, but is there anything I can do to help? C-could I get you some water, or-"

"No, thank you. I just need rest."

"And you need to stay in bed this time." Fate's remaining eye narrowed. "Don't make me put a binding spell on you."

That prompted a soft chuckle. "You're scary sometimes, Fate-chan... All right, yes ma'am. We'll see you later."

Sakura continued watching, dithering in place as they slowly walked arm-in-arm through the arch, which melted behind them. It was only once they were gone that her own fatigue set in, all at once, a numbness descending on her like a blanket. Sighing, she let herself fall backward into the grass, sweat rising from her tired body in a cloud of steam…

"Ya really are getting better at it," said Kero, descending onto her shoulder and giving it a pat. "I mean, considering this stuff ain't even from our universe…"

"Thanks, Kero-chan." A thought occurred to her, and she turned her head toward the sidelines. "Hey, Meilin-chan! I just had an idea. Maybe you and Hikawa-san could teach me some of your martial arts too! You know, while Nanoha-chan is recovering."

Meilin stood up in a hurry. The corners of her mouth trembled. "N-no, that's okay," she said, waving a hand. "You're stronger than me as it is, I couldn't teach you anything."

"Hoe~?" Sakura blinked. "Meilin-chan, that's not true-"

"It's fine, really!" Meilin waved harder. "Go on, go get cleaned up. I'll meet you back at our Vertex Point, okay? Zàijiàn*2!" Before anyone could stop her, she turned and fled through an arch that sprung up to accept her…

"Koumusume?" Kero crossed his arms, his brow furrowed. "What the heck's with her?!"

Sakura had no answer. It didn't make sense, the Meilin she knew was so proud of her martial arts… what could have happened?

"Hey," said a shadow leaning over her. It extended a hand to help her up. "That really was great today."

"Oh, Alph-san!" said Sakura. She took it gratefully, then squeaked. Alph was strong, she could probably lift her over her head one-handed. "Th-thank you," she said, dropping into a bow. "I hope Nanoha-chan will be all right."

"I'm sure she will. Listen…" The wolf girl's eyes moved to the tiny golden creature hovering over Sakura's shoulder. "Could you give us a moment?"

"Why?" Kero raised an eyebrow. "Anything ya have to say to Sakura, you can say in front of me!"

"Girl stuff," said Alph with grave seriousness. "Very personal. You wouldn't like it."

"Augh." That made Kero blanch. Living with Sakura for such a long time had acclimated him to some of the mysteries of human females, but- "Yeah, no, say no more, I get it. I'll go try to see what's buggin' koumusume. Probably hormones or somethin'. Later, Sakura." He left in a hurry through his own miniature arch, one a quarter the size of the others, which materialized floating in mid-air before him.

They were alone. Sakura fidgeted. Her face grew warm. "Um, Alph-san, I'm sorry, but I really don't feel comfortable talking about-"

"Blockade Territory," said Alph. A vermillion spell circle appeared and spread out beneath them both. "Don't worry," she said with a sympathetic smile. "It's not about what you think, I just wanted some privacy."

"But Kero-chan would have-"

"Listen." Alph laid her hands on the smaller girl's shoulders. "It's important. These Cards you have… I need to know which ones still work, exactly."

"Hoe~?" Lost again, Sakura blinked. "Why?"

"Call it a secret project."


The Lighthouse, Vertex Point Five

"You should come see me practice sometime, Rei-san says I'm improving every day."

"Mmm."

"Oh, and Nanoha-chan even said I could learn to practice Strike Arts! I can start training along with Sakura-chan whenever I want to."

"Mmm."

"Umm." Madoka Kaname winced and fidgeted in her seat. "Homura-chan, that's a little too hard…"

Damn. Homura Akemi retracted the hairbrush in a hurry. She was slipping again. "I'm sorry, Madoka," she said. "Are you all right?"

"Mmm-hmm, it was nothing, probably just a tangle. Don't worry about it, it barely even hurt."

"Even so," said Homura, deadly serious. "You know I can't bear seeing you hurt, even a little."

"Homura-chan…" The smaller girl let out a gentle sigh. "You really are like my guardian angel, aren't you?"

Stab. That hit far too close to home. Homura kept her voice even. "I wouldn't put it like that."

She turned, rose-colored hair swishing loose over her shoulders. "No, really. You're always there over my shoulder, always protecting me…"

Again needles pierced her belly, and Homura tried to ignore it. "That's the way it should be."

"But it's funny." Her features crinkled in thought. "You and Fantine-san both told me I was special, back when I was a magical girl. That I was stronger than anyone else… but that's not true, is it? I mean, look at you! You can stop time, and teleport us from place to place all by yourself, and-"

"Madoka." Unable to face her, Homura squeezed her eyes shut tight and looked away. "I… I don't think it's a good idea to train with Takamachi. Learning archery with Hino is one thing, but-"

No need to look at her to confirm it, Homura could feel the wounded look in Madoka's eyes. The needles pushed in a few centimeters deeper. "But why not? It's important that I get my powers back, isn't it? So that when the time comes to fight-"

"I don't want you to fight." Her words trembled with the effort of suppressing the pain. "Risking your life and your happiness for others… you… you did that before, and-"

"And that's what got us both trapped, isn't it."

Damn it all. How much longer would this torment last? Madoka knowing the truth and abandoning her for her betrayal, as she had every right to do. Madoka not knowing the truth, but inexorably inching closer to it. Both possible outcomes were unthinkable; the only choice was whether to endure each of the poisoned needles of guilt and betrayal and the millions more in store as they came, or have her heart torn from her chest all at once.

They stood at most a meter from each other, but to Homura the distance was a vast canyon, open to an endless abyss. Once upon a time, in a facsimile of this very room, Madoka came to her seeking answers… and when Homura could bear it no more, she threw her arms around her beloved and confessed to it all. The misery. The death and destruction. The years upon years of failure. All her fault.

This time it was Madoka who came to her and embraced her. Not in agony, but in understanding. Understanding was far worse. "Homura-chan," she said. "Whatever it is that happened, that I can't remember… It doesn't matter. You're my best friend, nothing will ever change that."

Oh, if only. If only that were true… but Homura knew better than to hope for it. Life, fate, and the universe simply did not work that way.


TSAB L-Class Inspection Cruiser Arthra

Starboard Ops

"Healers," said Michiru Kaioh, leaning over the table with a grave expression. "Healers, doctors, anyone with any kind of medical training or healing abilities. Those should be our primary targets."

"It seems like a good enough plan," said Rei Hino, on the opposite side. "That would include Mercury, obviously."

Cure Black, Nagisa Misumi, nodded. Her hands were clasped in front of her mouth in deep thought. "And Honoka. I mean, she's a scientist, but I know she understands the basics of medicine. And if we're together, we can do Rainbow Therapy, that's worked to heal people before."

Rei stared. "'Rainbow… Therapy…?'" It was difficult not to snort, but her snarkier half lost out on that one. "Well. I suppose Usagi's 'Starlight Honeymoon Therapy Kiss' isn't that much stranger, come to think of it."

"We didn't pick the names, Hino-san. Besides, 'Starlight Honeymoon-' how do you guys even remember something that long?!"

"It doesn't even make sense." In lieu of sitting at the table, Iona Hikawa leaned against the Ops chamber's wall. Her brow furrowed. "What sort of kissing would you even do on a honeymoon that's so special…?"

Unbidden, an old but familiar fantasy popped into Black's head: a certain daydream involving Fujipi in a black tuxedo, slowly leaning forward toward her with his eyes closed and his lips pursed… "Gaaaaah!" The scream ripped out of her mouth as she buried her burning face in her hands. "Nonononononoooo…!"

Fortunately, none of the others seemed to notice. Rei's attention became occupied with a perfectly ordinary bulkhead on the other side of the room, and Michiru lapsed into a prim and elegant but still violent coughing fit.

"What?!" said Iona, looking indignantly from one face to the other. "What did I say?! I was only asking what sort of kissing-"

More moaning from Black, more staring from Rei, and more coughing from Michiru.

A spiky head of brown hair poked in from the door frame leading to the Ops station's primary computer terminal room. It was shortly followed by a pair of glasses with thick, round lenses. "Is everything all right in here?" asked Umino. "What's all the noise?"

Iona turned to him and bowed, desperate for help. "Please, Umino-san, you're married…! I was just asking the others what sort of kissing someone would do on their honeymoon that's so special-"

"Mmmphnghn!" Umino's lenses fogged and his face turned the color of a ripe beet. Seized by what looked like a sudden respiratory emergency, the young man ducked back into the terminal alcove.

"Umino-san? Umino-san, not you too! We do need doctors…"

"I-If we could all try to focus, please," said Michiru, making a valiant effort to regain control of both herself and the situation at hand. "Alph could be here at any moment with the others, and we need to coordinate to prioritize our rescue targets. Mercury is essential, and Cure White is recommended… but who else do we need? Black?"

"Um," said Black. She wracked her brains, banishing her fantasy back to her subconscious. "Well. Most Precure have one kind of purifying energy thingy or another, but as for actual medics… Cure Pine's a veterinarian, but she's also got healing powers in her Cure form, I think."

"Pine," said Michiru, nodding and tapping a holo-keyboard that materialized at her fingertips. "If nothing else, she could be of help in case the cats or fairies are injured. Who else?"

"Diamond's studying to be a doctor. She's a genius type like White."

"Cure Honey," Iona chimed in. Her hand balled into a fist at the thought of her teammate, taken right before her eyes, and by one of her closest friends... "Honey's powers can heal almost anything in a very short time."

"Oh yeah!" Black nodded. "Thanks, Iona. Yeah, Honey's a definite yes."

"If we possibly can, we should also try to reactive Shamal of the Wolkenritter," said Yuuno Scrya, emerging from the same alcove Umino disappeared into. "From what I heard back there, it sounds like she and your Cure Honey would be the most valuable to us at this point."

"Agreed." Michiru finished her typing and dismissed the keyboard with a wave of her hand. "Now, as much of a temptation as it may be to rescue everyone we can at once, I must caution you all against going after your friends, family members, or loved ones on this mission. The more attention we attract, the less likely it will be that we escape the palace unnoticed. Our actions must be subtle, precise, and controlled. We are vastly outnumbered and outmatched. Any unnecessary risks could put the entire operation in jeopardy. Is that understood?"

All around the room, heads nodded in reluctant agreement.

"Good," said Michiru. "Then as soon as Alph arrives with the rest of our ranks, we should be underway."

"There's one thing I don't get, though," said Black. "Fantine sees everything, and she wants to keep us all here. Won't she notice that we're all missing? And even if she doesn't, what about the others?"

Michiru smiled. "As it happens, Alph has a plan in that regard..."


The Lighthouse, Vertex Point One

Minako Aino's face lit up as the door to her room swished open. Strange, how quickly she had come to think of it as "her" room. Being stuck in the Lighthouse was hardly fun, but it had its advantages. After years of cramped trailers and tiny dressing rooms, in the Lighthouse she had all the space she could ever want for an Olympic-sized whirlpool bath, a private music studio, an entire library of manga, or whatever else she could think of. She even had a full indoor volleyball court, for when she felt like indulging in her old favorite pastime, before her idol days. Smacking a ball around was quite therapeutic, provided that she imagined it as the clown's smug face.

When it came to Joker's theft of her voice… well, she had done about all the crying it was possible to do, and sitting around moping about it wasn't her style. In every other respect, she was still perfectly healthy. No sense staying in a hospital bed all day when she could be doing other things. Volleyball, for example. Or taking out her frustrations on a punching bag. Or eating several gallons of ice cream, guilt-free. The latter was all Immaterial, so it didn't exactly taste right, but as long as she got to eat as much as she wanted, with no managers to nag her about her weight or shove health food in her face… it could taste like sawdust and she would still dig in.

When she wasn't volleyballing, attacking punching bags, or eating, Minako wrote. It was Michiru's suggestion, actually. Every time she felt like she needed to scream, she would craft an Immaterial notebook and pen and pour out everything in her head. Every deliciously horrible thing she wanted to do to Joker, all her frustrations, all her regrets. When it was done, she would melt the notebook and its contents back into Immaterial, never to be seen again. Michiru called it some fancy word, "cath-" something-or-other, Minako couldn't remember the rest of it. Whatever it was called, it worked. It was… cleansing.

Nothing was better at cleansing her mood than having company, though. Her face lit up with a smile like the sun as Rei Hino stepped in. Minako didn't know and didn't much care if Rei was the Rei from her universe, the Rei from the other universe, or a combination of both. Her fundamental Rei-ness was there, and that was all Minako needed. She sprung up from her bed, waving and mouthing: Rei-chan!

"Hello, Minako-chan," said Rei with a smile and a bow. "Sorry for coming by unannounced. Are you busy?"

Out came the cell phone from Minako's back pocket. She couldn't talk, but she could still text like a pro. Her thumbs flew over the screen.

Rei's own phone buzzed a second later. She flicked open the screen to read: [busy, me? wwwwww*3 not at all, it's like i'm on vacation ^v^; what's up?]

"I'm just…" Rei's smile faltered a bit. Uncertainty danced in her glowing eyes. "I just need to get away from the gloom and doom for a while. Visions, you know."

Minako nodded and stuck out her tongue. Hard to believe that she had once been a little bit jealous of Rei's psychic powers. When she found out what her visions usually entailed…

"You have a really impressive set-up in here," said Rei, looking around at Minako's furnishings. "It's very… uh, creative."

Minako gave a silent laugh. Rei was looking at the bed. One of the indulgences Minako afforded herself with her idol singer profits: a real, Western-style memory foam mattress, housed in the body of a gigantic cartoon tiger plushie. A custom order that cost way too much, but it was worth every last yen; she would never go back to sleeping on a futon if she could possibly help it. Recreating it with Immaterial was simple enough, since she designed it herself in the first place. [don't try acting all superior, rei-chan,] she texted with a smirk. [i see that longing look in your eyes. you can come by here and take a nap on it whenever you want… so long as you don't set it on fire www ~3]

Rei blanched. A few curls of smoke rose from the red streaks in her hair. "I told you, I have that under control! Mostly."

A devious grin spread across Minako's face. [it suits you! you always were a hothead!]

Groan. "I can't believe that with all you've gone through, you can still make those stupid puns…"

[www you know you love me ~3]

Now the shrine maiden's cheeks lit up almost as bright as her eyes. Of course it wasn't intentional, it was just Minako being Minako. She didn't know, couldn't know, that she had the memories of both Reis… including the Rei from the timeline where they were more than friends. Both parts of her were still in conflict over how exactly to deal with that. Best to change the subject, she had a job to do. "Come on, I need to get my mind off things. Show me your arcade, I know you've made one in here."

[have i ever! prepare to get stomped~]


A few rooms over, Hotaru Tomoe looked up from the book of Emily Dickinson poetry she was absorbed in at the sound of the door swishing open. "Chibi-Usa-chan?" she said as her best friend stepped in. "I wasn't expecting you back from your meeting so soon. Is everything all right?"

So far so good. Hotaru's senses were sharper than most, but if even she didn't notice anything… perhaps this would work after all. "Everything's just fine, Hotaru-chan. The meeting was canceled, so I've got the rest of the day free." She smiled. "Want to play cards?"

"I… I suppose so, yes."


The Lighthouse, Vertex Point Two

"You're being unusually quiet today," said Toya Kinomoto to his little sister.

"Mmm," said Sakura, slicing another few pieces off of the carrot. Yukito swore that replicated carrots had an odd taste to them, but they were better than Immaterial ones, at least. Besides, given how much Yukito ate in a typical meal and how quickly, taste couldn't be much of a concern for him.

"You know," said Toya, pressing harder. "Quiet, for a monster."

"Onii-chan!" Forgetting about the carrot, Sakura flailed her arms and fumed, her cheeks puffing out. "I'm not a monster!"

Toya smirked and held her off one-handed, as he always did. There it was. "Is everything all right, though?"

"I'm just… worried," said Sakura, frowning over the carrot again. "It's… Nanoha-chan. I think she's using up too much magic to train me. I just don't want her to get hurt like she did before."

Toya wasn't thrilled with the idea of Sakura fighting, but he reminded himself once more that it was necessary. "Maybe you could ask Li to help you train while she's resting?"

"Meilin-chan? Maybe," said Sakura. "I brought it up today, but she said she didn't think she could teach me."

That gave Toya pause, his knife hovering over the radish he was dicing. His eyebrow raised. That didn't sound like the Meilin Li he knew at all. His memory of her was largely of someone entirely too proud of their talents, impressive though they might be. "Is she all right?"

"I don't know. Kero-chan went to talk to her, and I haven't seen either of them since."

"It's a big place. If I know them, they'll show up in time for dessert," said Toya, clapping a hand onto her shoulder. "We're having that pudding the little monster likes so much, after all."

Her cheeks turned faintly pink as she squeaked in alarm. In the past, Toya displayed a remarkable ability to see right through her, no matter the circumstances. Not anymore, she reminded herself. Things were different now… and no matter how difficult it was to keep him in the dark, she had her job to do.


TSAB L-Class Inspection Cruiser Arthra

Second Recovery Ward

Towa Akagi feared falling asleep.

Once, long ago when she was a small child, an evil presence led her astray by preying on her worries, her doubts that she would ever measure up to her beloved older brother, Kanata. That presence trapped her in darkness for the better part of ten years while Hope Kingdom, her home, fell to ruin in her absence… It only awakened her as a twisted mirror of herself, as Princess Twilight. It forced her to fight against the very people and things she once swore to protect. It nearly made her kill Kanata… and it was only through her brother's sacrifice that she was freed from that waking nightmare, restored to her true self.

Twilight was supposed to be gone forever. Her last remnants were supposed to have burned away to ashes in the purifying flames of her first transformation into Cure Scarlet. She had found redemption. She had found friendship in Haruka and Minami, the Precure who never gave up on her, and in Kirara, she had found something more than that… The nightmare that was Twilight faded in time, buried under the warm memories of her time at Noble Academy with the people she loved.

Now, that nightmare returned whenever she looked in a mirror, whenever she saw the strands of silver shining in her red curls. Just a few, probably less than two dozen in all, but nothing she did could make those strands go away. If she cut them or pulled them out, they grew back. Attempting to dye them had no effect; they absorbed the color in an instant. Even if she wore something to cover those strands, some kind of turban, or a shawl perhaps, she knew they were there… until they were gone, the nightmare wouldn't be over.

Kirara. She had attacked Kirara, her best friend, her beloved. There were still faint marks from Twilight's nails on her neck. Whenever she saw those marks, it was a reminder that any time she fell asleep, she could wake up as Twilight again, as she did days before…

Nurse Balzac, growing increasingly worried about her health, offered to help by providing crystallized spells which would enable her to sleep soundly and dreamlessly whenever she needed it. Towa turned his offer down. To live without dreams was almost worse than losing control of herself.

The door chime rang out in electronic cadance, and as usual, Towa started at the sound. "... Yes?"

"It's me, Towa-chi."

"Please come in."

In came Kirara Amanogawa, still all smiles and jokes and nicknames despite everything. Towa knew that this ordeal was killing her inside, it was evident by the growing shadows under her eyes, but she also knew that Kirara would never let it show. It was one of the things she loved about her, her incredible willingness to pour everything she had into whatever she set her mind to. Right now, Kirara's mission in life was making sure that she was there for Towa whenever she was needed, with any and every kind of support she could supply. "Oi," she said, flashing a grin and a handful of thin, clear cards, each the size of a slice of bread. "I've got something special today, you're gonna love this."

Towa titled her head. "Is that… food?"

"No, silly," said Kirara, taking a seat on Towa's mattress and dangling her legs off the edge. "Holo-cards. They're sort of like flash drives or SD cards on Earth. Things you use to store pictures and movies," she clarified before Towa could ask. Hope Kingdom's technology was behind Earth's by a few centuries, so anything computer-related beyond the bare essentials was beyond her. "Anyway, I went and asked the nurse about what kind of stuff people do for fun around here, and he showed me how to download holo-movies from the main computer's database on one of the ship's terminals. We're gonna watch fashion shows…" Her grin grew wider and more excited as she paused for effect. "... from other planets."

"Oh my..." So much of Earth fashion mystified Towa, she couldn't even imagine what it might be like anywhere else. But love for the art was ingrained into Kirara, and her enthusiasm never failed to be infectious.

After snuggling up close, Kirara slid the first chip into the integrated slot on the arm of Towa's medical bed. A holo-emitter in the ceiling filled the room with cool blue light. Clouds of pixels resolved into 3D shapes over the sounds of a cheering audience and thumping, synth-heavy music. Towa's mouth fell open in astonishment, enraptured by the display…

Perfect. She took hold of Towa's hand and leaned against her shoulder. All according to plan.


The Lighthouse, Vertex Point Three

"Oi. Hey, Coffret. Oi."

Erika Kurumi's fairy partner yawned and rubbed his eyes. It was just like her to wake him in the middle of a pleasant nap. There wasn't much else to do but sleep while Chypre was busy helping Tsubomi with her gardening projects. Grimacing, he tried to swat away the finger poking at the pink spot on his furry cheek with one of his large, fan-like ears. "Uwuuu… Erika, what is it, ~desu?"

Erika pressed her hands together and tilted forward. "I need my Precure Seed to transform. Don't worry, you can go back to sleep as soon as I've got it."

"Transform? What for?" Coffret blinked. "We're not under attack, are we?"

"No, no, nothing like that. I just want to spar with some of the others for a bit. C'mon, please?" Time to use the secret weapon. "I'll sneak you some chocolate from the replicator thingies on the Arthra…"

Rats. That was hardly playing fair. "Okay, okay." Coffret rubbed the sleep from his eyes with the back of his paw, then mumbled the usual incantation with little enthusiasm. "Precure Seed, go, ~desu..." A cool cerulean light rocketed from the silver brooch around his neck to Erika's waiting fingers, solidifying into a round, jewel-like seed marked with the Heartcatch emblem.

"Thanks, partner, you're the best!" said Erika. She gave him an affectionate pat on the head between the ears, then threw in a few scritches for good measure. "Enjoy your nap."

"Yeah, yeah, ~desu…" The little fairy's mouth opened in a gaping yawn. Rats. It was almost impossible to fall back asleep right away after being woken up, and Erika knew it. Coffret tossed and turned in an attempt to regain a comfortable spot. When that didn't work, he fumbled for a nearby scrap of Immaterial fabric left over from Erika's latest fashion project and dragged it around himself as a makeshift blanket.

Ah, that was better. Already he felt warm and sleepy again. His bleary eyes watched Erika step through the door, all agrin…

Weird. She appeared to be talking to someone just outside the door in a hushed voice. Very weird, because Erika's default volume was almost always set at the high end of the decibel level. Even weirder, whoever she was talking to looked suspiciously like a second Erika…

Whatever, Coffret decided. There couldn't be two Erikas; the universe(s) could barely contain the genuine article. For another thing, there were so many people sharing the Lighthouse that there was bound to be at least one person staying here who looked like her. Besides, everyone was so stressed-out lately... the second Erika could well be him seeing things. Stress and lack of sleep could do that to a fairy. Coffret shrugged his tiny shoulders, snuggled into the blanket's embrace, and fell back to sleep in moments.

And throughout the Vertex Points of the Lighthouse, the various occupants who elected to stay by themselves returned to their respective rooms for the night: Michiru Kaioh, Cure Black (with Mipple in tow, as always), and Iona Hikawa.

Alph, the wolf-like familiar, spent the night by her master Fate Testarossa Harlaown's side in her room in the Arthra's infirmary, as she had done every night since she transported aboard following Viluy's attack.

The battle-scarred TSAB cruiser switched to low-power mode for the main crew's sleep cycle, with only the nightwatch officers staying awake to perform their duties. None of them could see, hear, or sense the party of nine making their way down to the long-range teleportation pods, the compact shuttlecraft docked within the hangar on the ship's underbelly. Likewise, the ship's systems remained silent. There was no alarm raised when one such pod detached from her moorings, no alerts to the senior officers when the hangar bay doors slid open, and no reaction when the pod slipped clear of the Lighthouse and vanished through a runic circle that bathed her metallic surface in a vermillion glow before collapsing in on itself. To the eyes and senses of the nightwatch crew, to those staying in the Lighthouse, and to the Arthra's sensory equipment, the pod was still in place, the hangar doors were still sealed shut, and everyone was exactly where they should be…


TSAB Long-Range Teleportation Pod LV-A59

Designation: "Miller Meteor"

"Starboard Ops to Miller Meteor. Are you reading us?"

"Loud and clear, Arthra." said Alph, seated behind the pod's primary control console. "The launch went off without a hitch. Everyone's on board, and Operation Batman is underway."

"Roger that, Miller Meteor. Everything's nominal here, too," said the voice from the comm speaker. "I've triple-checked, and nothing we're doing is appearing on any of the Arthra's sensors or ship's logs, so it'll be safe to operate as we planned. How's everyone holding up?"

"As well as can be expected, I suppose." Alph lowered her voice. "Thanks for doing this for us, Yuuno… we owe both you and Umino one."

"Just make sure you all come back safe."

"I will, I promise," said Alph. Her fingers curled into fist so tight that her claws drew blood. "Once we have our hostages are rescued, and that Viluy woman is dead and buried permanently."

Another voice cut in from behind Yuuno's. "Tempero-spatial coordinates to Sagittarius A* are ready to transmit, Alph-san. Whenever you're ready."

"Roger that. Ready to receive."

"I still can't believe it was that easy," said Erika, watching the Cardcaptor in awe. "I mean, this is wild. They really won't notice that we made the switch?"

Both of Sakura's hands were clenched on the staff of her Sealing Wand. Her eyes were screwed shut in concentration. The "eyes" on the Wand's birdlike head pulsed with faint light, and her magic circle shone at her feet. "I've used MIRROR like this by myself before," she said. A bead of sweat rolled down her forehead. "When I had to go out and gather Cards without my family knowing I was gone. She always took my place back then, and she always came through…"

"You sure you'll be able to handle it?" said Cure Black, buckled into the seat next to her. Only Alph's assurance that Sakura wouldn't actually be fighting made her even slightly okay with this plan, but still… Sakura was one of their Big Three. Even removing her from the safety of the Lighthouse for a short time was an insane risk. "I mean, copying your Cards was one thing, but can you really keep that other one running for all this time? We don't know how long this is gonna take..."

"I can do it," said Sakura firmly. "Alph and I went over the plan so many times that I have it memorized: copy MIRROR with TWIN, enough times to replace all of us with MIRROR duplicates, then use ILLUSION just to be sure everybody in the Lighthouse or on the ship sees what they want to see until we get back. If everything goes right… no one will ever know we were gone until the mission's done."

Michiru smiled. The girl was truly remarkable, she thought. To her knowledge, no one else had powers versatile enough to pull off something like this. Perhaps there was hope of saving Haruka after all. Hope was a dangerous and frightening thing, but if it could make the impossible happen… "Thank you, Kinomoto-san. You're doing us a great service."

A few seats down, Chibi-Usa pressed her index fingers together and squirmed in her seat. "I'm still not really sure why you wanted me and not Usagi, honestly." She frowned. "She's the real hero, the real Sailor Moon, not me."

"Don't sell yourself short, Chibi-Usa-chan. We don't just want you, we need you," said Rei, laying a comforting hand on her shoulder. She remembered when Chibi-Usa only expressed doubt in herself in private moments with Hotaru, or with Mamoru… the fact that she was opening up to near-strangers proved just how much she had grown since they first met years ago. "Usagi needs to stay out of danger for now until she gets her full powers back. Besides, you still have your Silver Crystal, and she doesn't."

"But she's the one who could heal people with it, I've never-"

"But you've never tried to use yours that way, have you?"

"Well, no. But-"

"First time for everything, yeah?" Kirara grinned, cheerful as ever. "Don't worry, Chibin, you're a real Sailor Senshi, same as Rei-nee and Michirun. I know you'll do great." If only she felt that same confidence in herself. All Kirara could do was keep up the mask, keep stubbornly pushing ahead as she always did. For Towa-chi, she thought. For Haruharu. For Minamin. For Yuiyui. For everyone...

Iona said nothing. Calling on all the discipline of her years of martial arts training, she sat with her hands folded in her lap, attempting to purge her mind of any distraction. Easier said than done. Every time her focus wavered, she relived the same terrible memories: Mirage throwing Cure Lovely through the Pikarigaoka Bridge, the agonized shriek of tearing metal as it collapsed into the river. Cure Honey being struck in the back with a bolt of hellish red light that stung her eyes, seeing her frozen motionless within a coffin-shaped mirror in its afterglow. The unfeeling, psychotic leer on Lovely's face, the face she had come to know and love as a friend corrupted into a foul shadow of her true self. And Maria, Cure Tender, her beloved sister, screaming down from the broken sky on black butterfly wings with her fist raised and murderous intent aglow in her eyes… Unseen by the others, she trembled.

Alph stood up and leaned against the arch frame leading to the passenger cabin. "We should be in sight in a few minutes," she said to the rest of the team. "Everyone, I want to thank you again for what you're doing. I know it's not easy keeping secrets from people you love, but-" Her ears swiveled back as she shut her eyes. "It's better this way. The others have fought and suffered enough. If we can make a difference, save some people, and hit Joker where it hurts without getting them involved... it'll be worth it in the end."

There were nods of approval all around.

A low rumble shook the pod as it emerged from transport. Ahead on the forward viewscreen lay the ornate, glittering cathedral that was once Galactica Palace, half of its structure now warping and twisting out of reality like a dream… Below it were the fathomless depths of the black hole at the galactic center, blacker than black, only visible by the traces of dust, gas, and light swirling on its event horizon as they were drawn into its cold and inescapable embrace.

Rei, Michiru, and Chibi-Usa all shuddered. That place was already the site of so much evil, so much death… for it to have grown worse...

Closer and closer they drifted, until the great palace dwarfed everything else on the screen. The Miller Meteor's automated guidance systems lowered them onto the narrow outcropping of rock that held the palace's foundations. In the vacuum of space, the pod's retractable landing pads made no sound as they touched down on the dusty grey surface.

"ESDs on, everyone," said Alph. Emergency Survival Devices were standard for any vessel in her universe; most flights on Mid-Childa wouldn't even take off until all passengers were issued one. They were no substitute for Intelligent Devices like Nanoha's Raising Heart or Fate's Bardiche, of course, having no onboard AI or weapons systems, but they provided oxygen, basic shielding and life support spells, and personal gravity control to their users, and they were simple enough for non-mages or even small children to operate.

A flurry of hands switched on the tiny, compact plasteel alloy boxes clipped to their belts, and there was a pleasant stereo hum as the ESDs' systems activated.

Alph took a breath and released the spell that held her Barrier Jacket in storage. This was it. "Those of you who can transform, now's the time."

Many voices shouted at once:

"Mars Power, Make Up!"

"Neptune Planet Power, Make Up!"

"Moon Prism Power, Make Up!"

"Precure, Open My Heart!"

"Precure Kirarin Star Symphony!"

"Precure Princess Engage!"

All the typical flashes and sparkles lit the cabin, but when the transformations were finished, there was only somber silence. No one felt like performing the ritual speeches or poses. This was not anything approaching a typical battle with a single nameless, easily vanquished monster. It dawned on them all with grim finality: This is war. A pall settled over them, growing oppressive as the cabin depressurized. The hiss of oxygen escaping the airlock broke the quiet for a moment, only to be muted once all the air was vented. Only silence remained…

Sakura looked from one serious face to another, and said the only thing she could think of: her invincible spell. It issued from the comm speakers of everyone's EMDs at once. "Don't worry. Everything will be all right, somehow." She tried to smile. "I'll… I'll be waiting for you all when you get back."

Alph nodded. "Keep the engines on standby, just like Yuuno and I taught you. We may need to leave in a hurry."

"R-Roger."

"Well, let's go, then!" Erika, Cure Marine, threw a fist in the air. "Enough standing around already! I wanna kick those jerks right in their Dead Ends." With that, she made for the airlock, descended the ramp, and made straight for the palace's front steps at great speed, a sky blue dot amidst the dull grey wasteland-

A meter from the first of the great marble steps, she slammed face-first into an unyielding, invisible force, almost breaking her nose. "Kyaaa~! Sonafa… what the hell is this?!"

"Geez, Marine, be more careful! Are you all right?" Kirara, Cure Twinkle, bounded to her side and checked her for bruises. "What is it, a force field?"

Black rapped her knuckles against the empty space. She couldn't see anything, but there was no give, it was solid as the rock they stood on. On impulse, she threw a punch… "Owww!" Mistake. Definitely a mistake. "Nope," she said, wincing and shaking her poor hand. "Looks like we're not hi-yahing our way through it. Anyone want to try an attack? Throw some fire or water at it or something?"

"Wait…!"

Everyone turned and gaped. The voice spoke from their comms, but its owner was still some fifteen meters behind them, making her way through the craters. The magic circle made for a somewhat comical sight as it followed beneath her every step.

"Kinomoto, what are you doing?! Your orders are to stay in the pod!" Alph moved in her direction. Deviating from the plan already? It was a bad sign, a very bad sign.

"I know, I know," Sakura panted. As she came close, they couldn't help but notice that the Cardcaptor was flushed and disheveled, more than anyone should be after only running twenty meters… "I felt it… as soon as Erika… I mean, Marine... hit the wall…! It's not… a force field…"

"What do you mean?" said Rei, Sailor Mars.

"It's… not a force field," Sakura repeated, almost out of breath. "I... can feel it, I'm… sure of it! It's... The LOCK… it's one of my Cards..."

END OF CHAPTER 25