"BURNING AMBITION"

A Sailor Moon fanfic

By Bill K.

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Sailor Moon and all related characters are (c)2004 by Naoko Takeuchi/Kodansha and Toei Animation and are used without permission, but with respect. Story is (c)2004 by Bill K.

As always, for those only familiar with the English dub:

Usagi=Serena

Ami=Amy

Rei=Raye

Makoto=Lita

Minako=Mina

Haruka=Amara

Michiru=Michelle

Setsuna=Trista

Mamoru=Darien

Yuuichiro=Chad

Seppuku=Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment to atone for unpardonable failure or embarrassment.

Bento=roughly, a lunchbox.

Ronin-in modern usage, name for a student who has graduated high school, but hasn't yet passed the entrance exam to college.

Finally, Haruka and Michiru are NOT cousins.

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"Oh, no," groaned Artemis as he put his paws over his ears. "Here we go again."

"Stop trying to run my life!" bellowed Minako angrily.

She stood braced against the dinner table, her shoulders hunched and her face twisted into a glare that would have given Pharaoh 90 pause. Across the table, sitting placidly in a chair with an almost regal calm was another woman.

The woman was only slightly taller than Minako, with a mature grace and beauty that her thirty-nine years had only managed to turn into excellent vintage. Her brown hair, slightly below shoulder length and immaculately styled, framed eyes cast down to the table, eyes that stubbornly refused to acknowledge the unseemly tirade before her. Her mouth, still full and red, thinned as she stomped down on her welling anger. Soft, elegant hands creased a table napkin for the eighth time.

"I merely suggested that your time might be better spent on improving your grades rather than . . ." Mrs. Aino began.

"Rather than pursuing my dream!" snapped Minako.

"Rather than frittering away your time going to auditions and contests and chasing a childish fantasy."

"It's not childish!"

"Minako," her mother said in measured tones, engaging her daughter's glare for the first time with her own, "I have tried to be patient with this. I have indulged your whims. I've let you barely scrape by as a student and I've ignored how you stay out all hours of the night. Your father and I even indulged you when you went all the way to England for that-that modeling excursion. But it's been three years since that happened and nothing's come of it, has it?"

"I've had chances!" Minako blurted out. The "modeling excursion" had been her cover for Sailor V traveling to England to battle the Dark Kingdom, but she couldn't tell her mother that.

"Has anything come of it?" her mother persisted. "Minako, I know. You want to be a star. I can understand that. When you were a little girl, it was a nice harmless ambition. But you're seventeen now. You're going to have to start a career soon."

"I've got a career!" Minako huffed. "I'll make it! Don't you worry, I'll make it!"

"Minako, there comes a time in everybody's life when they have to put childish dreams away and grow up. That time is coming for you. I'm sorry if this seems harsh, but I just want what's best for you."

"No, you want what's best for you! I've never been anything more to you than a-a life-size Barbie doll that you dress up and control!"

"That is not true!" scowled Mrs. Aino. "I just don't want you to waste your life!"

"It's my life! I don't think of it as wasting my life, but even if I am, it's my life! But you just can't grasp that! You'd rather see me become some faceless secretary or some dime-a-dozen sales girl at some department store and watch me whither away and die, because the only thing that matters to you is that I do what you want!"

"There's nothing wrong with having a normal job! Even if you managed to become some sort of star, which doesn't look like it's ever going to happen, what kind of a life is that? The drugs, the sex, the lack of privacy - - fame is a trap that grinds people up and spits them out! It isn't normal! It isn't the life I want for my child!"

"But it's not about what you want! It's about what I want!" Minako roared. Then she threw up her hands. "What's the use! You don't understand! You've never understood!"

Turning on her heel, Minako headed for the door.

"Where are you going?" demanded her mother.

Minako's answer was the slam of the door. Galvanized into action, Artemis scampered up to the window in Minako's bedroom and peered out. He glanced down to see Minako's mother stick her head out of the door, but neither of them could catch a glimpse of where Minako went.

* * * *

Makoto opened her door when she saw through the spy hole that it was Minako. No sooner was the door opened then Minako breezed into the apartment.

"Do come in," Makoto smirked ironically.

"Hey, Makoto," chirped Minako. "I'm not interrupting anything, am I? You don't have some guy squirreled away, do you?" and she looked around in an exaggerated motion.

"If I did, I wouldn't have opened the door for you," grinned Makoto. "What's up? Is there trouble?"

"No, nothing like that. I just thought we might hang out."

"Minako, it's ten at night."

"So?" she shrugged. "There are parts of Tokyo that never sleep."

"And those are parts I usually try to avoid," Makoto grinned.

"Come on! Live a little! Maybe we can get lucky!"

"And maybe we can get totally humiliated, too. Besides, there's school tomorrow."

"OK, I'll help you study."

"You?"

"OK, you can help me study!"

"Good night, Minako," and Makoto began herding the blonde to the door.

"Oh, come on! We can stay up and trade juicy stories!"

"I've heard all your stories."

"I'll make up new ones!"

"Good-bye, Minako!"

"OK, I'll listen to your boring ones again!"

"Go home, Minako!"

"Would you stop pushing me!"

"Minako," Makoto sighed, looking her friend straight in the eye, "if there isn't something legitimate going on, I need to get to sleep and you need to split."

Minako's chest heaved out a heavy sigh. Her smile disappeared and she looked down. Now Makoto knew something was wrong.

"Did you have another fight with your mom?" Makoto asked. Minako nodded. "Any chance I can sleep here tonight?" she said in a barely audible whisper.

"Just how bad was this fight?" Makoto gasped.

"No worse than any of the others," Minako scowled. "I just can't deal with it anymore. I know I'm imposing, but I just don't know where else to go."

"Sure. No problem." Makoto bit her lip nervously. "You want to call her and tell her you're here?"

"What's the point?" Minako said, flopping down onto the sofa. "She doesn't care."

"I think she does," Makoto offered.

"Then I don't care." Minako shrugged. "Go ahead and call her if you want. It doesn't matter."

Just then Makoto felt her senshi communicator vibrate. She turned from Minako and flipped it open.

"Mako-chan, this is Usagi," she heard Usagi say, even though she could see Usagi's face on the miniature screen. "Artemis called Luna. Minako got into a fight with her mom and ran off. Have you seen her?"

"She's here cooling off. She's going to stay with me tonight."

"Should I come over?"

"It's after ten, Usagi."

"So?"

"I'll handle it. If she still needs it, you can give her moral support tomorrow morning."

Usagi nodded and disconnected. Makoto turned back to her guest.

"Mom got the bloodhounds out looking for me?" Minako grimaced.

"Artemis," Makoto corrected. "He's pretty worried."

"He worries too much," Minako replied, but Makoto saw the corners of her mouth turn up in gratitude.

"You probably give him a lot to worry about," Makoto joked.

"Probably," Minako smirked. "But he knew the job was dangerous when he took it."

"You want to go to sleep or do you want to talk?"

"Well," Minako sighed, "I sure don't feel sleepy right now."

"I'll make us some tea," Makoto said.

Ten p.m. suddenly turned into one forty-four a.m. Minako munched on her eighth cookie and sipped on her second cup of tea while Makoto watched her. The conversation meandered onto the subject of her on-going argument with her mother for the third time that night.

"I don't see why she's always on me about my grades and preparing for a life outside of show business," grumbled Minako. "Gen Shizaki only completed second year high school and look at him!"

"Look, Minako," Makoto began delicately, "don't bite my head off for this, huh? But what if your mom's right?"

"Meaning what?" Minako asked pointedly, her eyebrow raised in challenge.

"Meaning," Makoto continued slowly, "there are no guarantees in life. I mean, sure, you've got movie star looks and you sing OK and you dance pretty good. . ."

"Only pretty good?" sniffed Minako.

"And you're easily the biggest drama queen I've ever met," smirked Makoto.

"Thanks a lot, I think," Minako grinned back.

"But there's hundreds of girls out there that try to catch their big break every year. And they've all got good looks and a nice voice and good moves, too. That's some pretty stiff competition and there aren't that many entertainment jobs out there, are there? I'm not saying you're not going to make it. But not everybody does, you know, and it may not always matter how talented you are - - so it might be a good idea to have something to fall back on."

"It's not a problem," Minako grinned encouragingly. "I'll make it."

"But what if you don't?"

The blonde thought a moment, then shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. Seppuku?"

"Don't-even-joke about something like that," glared Makoto.

Minako sighed. "Might as well. If I don't make it, I'm just going to whither up and die anyway."

"Come on," chided Makoto.

"Makoto, you just don't understand. How could you? You've never been there." Makoto watched Minako as she explained and saw the excitement dance in her eyes and light up her features. "You've never been on a stage in front of people. But to get up there and dance or sing or act and then look at them and see how they're hypnotized by your every word and every movement - - that they're spellbound, by you. That they're hanging on what you do next and they're in the palm of your hand. And when you finish and they applaud and yell and scream and cheer - - Makoto, it's a rush like I've never felt!"

She looked down, embarrassed - - Minako was actually embarrassed. She nervously twisted on her right index finger with her left hand.

"I'm a junkie for it. I admit it. I need it. I need the applause. I need the adulation. I need the rush." She sniffed and Makoto couldn't tell if she was tearing up or not. "I need to be somebody. If I have to spend the rest of my life as some faceless little shop-girl in some department store selling cosmetics, well what's the point in even going on?"

Makoto wanted to hug her, but she was afraid the sudden movement would spook her. She searched for something to say, but couldn't find a way to articulate her sympathy.

"But," Minako said, perking up and showing her usual indomitable courage and optimism, "that's all pointless speculation, because I am going to make it. And you can tell everyone you know that Minako Aino once got cookie crumbs all over your sofa."

"What?" gasped Makoto. She lunged forward and shoved Minako out of the way. "Oh no! Where's my mini-vac!"

"Thanks for staying up with me, Makoto," grinned Minako. "I'm going to catch some 'z's'. You still got that sleeping bag in your closet?"

Makoto watched her walk off into the bedroom, then glanced down at the used teacup and plate abandoned on the coffee table. She stared up at Minako again, eyebrow arched, then surrendered to the ironic smirk sprouting on her lips. She'd been up this long. Five more minutes to vacuum the sofa and wash these dishes wouldn't make that much difference.

* * * *

In the morning, Makoto had been surprised to find her guest already up and in the bathroom. It was an industrious side of Minako that her host didn't expect to see. Shrugging, she pulled on a sweatshirt and some slippers and went to make breakfast.

She finished making breakfast - - no Minako.

She finished eating breakfast - - no Minako.

"What?" howled Minako in response to the pounding on the door of the still occupied bathroom.

"How long are you going to be in there?" Makoto huffed.

"Not too much longer," Minako replied.

"Well your breakfast is getting cold. And I have to get ready for school!"

"Sorry!" Minako replied. "I'll just be a few more minutes!"

Twenty minutes later, Minako emerged in the same clothes she wore last night, but with her usual pristine face and hair. Makoto glared.

"Some things take time," Minako shrugged.

"Are you going to have time to stop by your place and pick up your school uniform?" Makoto asked.

"Nope," Minako replied. "But since I'm not going to school, that's not important."

"Why aren't you going to school?" Makoto asked.

"Because Mitsusuki Records is holding auditions!" Minako squealed. "Isn't that just the bomb!"

"So you're going to cut school?"

"Unless you've got a way I can be in two places at once."

"Is this part of what you and your mom were fighting about last night?"

"It led up to it," shrugged Minako.

Makoto looked at her, frustrated.

"Don't start with me, huh? Just wish me luck," scowled Minako.

"Why? Isn't it just a matter of time before you're discovered?" Makoto grinned.

"Yeah," smirked Minako. "What am I saying? See you tonight!"

Makoto kept her grin - - until she turned and surveyed the bathroom. There was water on the floor, hair in the sink, wet towels and washcloths everywhere and the bottle of shampoo, the cap off, was floating in the tub, its contents leaking out into the water. Makoto stood framed in the doorway, staring numbly in shock at the havoc before her. Only the slam of the front door snapped her out of it.

* * * *

"She cut school?" Ami gasped as if she'd heard Minako had just committed murder.

"Audition," Makoto replied. Nothing more needed to be said. Ami and Usagi sighed in unison.

"Well I called her place and told her mom where she was," Usagi related. "And Luna told Artemis."

"What was the reaction?" Makoto asked.

"I don't know. Luna doesn't tell me anything!" grumbled Usagi.

"From her mom," Makoto scowled.

"Oh. She thanked me for calling. She was REALLY mad."

"They must have really gone over the line," Ami mused. "I can't really blame her mother for being angry. Skipping school to go to auditions is very irresponsible."

"Well, yeah," Makoto nodded. "But if you're going to be in show business, what's more important: getting seen by people in the industry or going to Tanaka-sensei's history class? Minako's got a point, too - - and the first one who tells her I said that dies."

"But Makoto, most people in the entertainment industry don't achieve success initially. They spend years struggling before they make it. If Minako has no skills or higher education, how is she going to survive until her big break comes - - as a waitress in some ramen restaurant? Or worse?"

"Worse?" Usagi asked.

"The clubs on the Ginza," Ami prompted uneasily. "The ones with the girls in skimpy costumes getting salarymen drunk - - and doing who knows what else."

Usagi gasped.

"More likely she'd be singing in those sorts of clubs," Makoto corrected. "But a lot of those dives are yakuza fronts. I'd hate to see her end up in a place like that. They're hard to get out of."

"Well we've got to do something!" Usagi cried. "We can't let poor Minako become a-a-a comfort girl on the Ginza!"

Heads turned toward them in the school yard, the students all staring at them curiously. The three girls shrank with embarrassment.

"Could you keep your voice down just a little?" Ami asked impatiently.

"Sorry. But guys, we have to do something!"

"How about we give it a few days," Makoto advised, "let them all calm down. If nothing happens, then we can nudge them both just a little. I think Blondie can be reasonable, but she has to want it to happen. If we nudge too soon, that mule will just dig her heels in."

"Will you be all right with her staying with you?" Ami asked.

"Sure. I don't mind the company," Makoto smiled. Then she sobered. "Although I'm going to have to lay down some ground rules."

* * * *

"She didn't?" Mrs. Aino said. The news on the phone hadn't been good, but wasn't quite unexpected. Minako hadn't shown up and the school counselor was calling. "I apologize for her behavior, sir. It was very irresponsible of her."

Then came the question she dreaded.

"No, there's no trouble at home," she lied. "Minako's just - - demonstrating her lack of maturity. All she needs is a firmer hand." She listened, praying he accepted that excuse. "Yes, sir, I will. Again, please accept my apologies for her behavior."

Her hand rested on the phone long after she'd hung up. Her lips thinned to a single line as she stared straight ahead at nothing.

"Minako," she fretted. "Why are you determined to throw your future away? I suppose I'll have to go and make you go to school."

She sat down, because her legs suddenly no longer had the strength to support her.

"No, I can't. She won't listen. Certainly not after what happened." The woman began creasing the edge of the tablecloth over and over absently. "She's made her own mess. She's going to have to clean it up herself for once. Maybe it will teach her a lesson."

Though her mouth was hard and bitter, Mrs. Aino felt the sting of tears welling in her eyes. She blinked them back.

"She's probably wasting her time at some audition somewhere," the woman told herself.

Looking away, she spotted Minako's bento sitting on the counter in a corner. Her lip trembled.

"Although I guess it wouldn't hurt to check with her friends," she whispered fearfully, "just to make sure."

* * * *

Rei mounted the steps to the Cherry Hill Shrine, her school valise over her shoulder. School had been a pain. Math class was into an area she was having trouble in. The people she wanted to be friends with continued to avoid "the spooky psychic girl", while the vapid air-heads she wanted to avoid followed her around like puppies proclaiming her every move to be "cool". Her religion class had erupted in a heated debate between her and the teacher over the merits of Christianity versus Shinto. English had a pile of homework. Plus she just knew Grandpa had neglected his chores, meaning she'd have to do them. As she ascended the top step, Deimos and Phobos flew over and landed on her shoulders.

"Hi, ladies," Rei smiled. The birds clicked their beaks in response. "Not tonight. I'm getting a sense that something's going to come up and I'm going to be pressed for time. I hope it isn't Grandpa's chores. Maybe this weekend?"

Deimos ruffled her feathers.

"Deimos, don't be a b. . ." and Rei stopped. Turning, she spotted Minako standing by the door to the shrine's living quarters. Minako was leaning against the shrine as if waiting for someone. She spotted Rei as soon as Rei spotted her.

"Hey, Rei," chirped Minako as the miko approached.

"What's up?" Rei asked. "Are the others here?"

Minako shook her head. "Just me."

"How'd you get changed so fast? Or didn't you go to school today?"

"Didn't go. Had . . ."

"An audition," Rei scowled.

"Yeah. And . . ."

"You didn't make it."

"Hey, who's telling this story?" groused Minako.

"Know it by heart," Rei said, waving her hand dismissively. She entered the shrine, Minako following and the crows heading for the trees. "So why are you here? I thought you were staying with Makoto. Or did you finally drive her into kicking you out?"

"Why would she kick me out?"

"I imagine she got sick of your rude, crude and lewd personality," Rei grinned viciously.

"And you wonder why you have no friends," Minako said, returning her vicious grin.

"You're not sleeping here tonight," Rei jabbed back. "This shrine has a reputation to maintain. It's bad enough we let Yuuichiro stay here."

"I'd rather sleep on the street. It's a better class of people," Minako volleyed back. "I just - - um . . ."

Sensing her distress, Rei tossed her jacket on a chair and turned.

"Rei, um, could you," Minako stammered, her cheeks reddening, "um, you still do fortune-telling, don't you?"

"Yeah. You want me to tell your fortune?"

"Could you?"

"How badly did this audition go?"

"No better or worse than the others," Minako shrugged. "It's just - - I am going to make it. But - - I'm beginning to wonder when. Maybe you can tell me?"

"Did you want an exact date?" Rei marveled.

"If you could?"

"I can't."

"Oh."

"You're serious about this?"

"When it comes to being a star, Hell yes!" Minako replied. "I need to know if I going about this wrong? Do I concentrate on singing or acting? Do I go full bore or maybe back off and learn more about my craft? Do I," and the words caught in Minako's throat for a moment. "Do I listen to - - people - - and devote more time to school - - just in case it's a little farther off than I thought it would be."

She looked at Rei and the miko couldn't recall ever seeing Minako this vulnerable. The girl looked like she was at a crossroads.

"And you came to me?" Rei asked.

"Well yeah!" Minako said, almost masking her fear with a jaunty reply. "I've seen you in action. If anybody in this world can give me a hint of what I can expect, it's you."

For the briefest moment, the corners of Rei's mouth turned up. Then she became serious.

"Go into the room at the end of the hall," Rei told her. "I'll be in shortly."

Minako nodded. She turned to leave.

"And DON'T touch anything!" Rei growled.

Minako pulled down her eyelid in reply.

* * * *

Deep in thought over what Rei told her, Minako absently inserted the spare key Makoto had given her into the lock. She opened the door and tossed her purse carelessly onto a nearby chair, expecting to find Makoto home. Someone was home, but it wasn't Makoto.

"Artemis?"

The cat was seated in the center of the room. He looked up at her and instantly Minako saw the sadness over their brief separation. She squatted down on the carpet next to him and began stroking his fur. The white cat allowed himself a few moments to enjoy it.

"Missed you, little guy," Minako whispered.

"Yeah," Artemis replied. "Um . . ."

"When am I coming home?"

Artemis smiled. "It's scary when we can read each other's thoughts like that."

"I bet it's real scary when you're reading mine," Minako grinned. The grin faded quickly. "I don't know, Artemis. Maybe never."

"Why? Why is this fight different from any of the others?"

"It's not. It's just the same old fight, over and over again. And it gets to a point where you're sick of fighting. At least I am. So if I have to go out on my own to put an end to it, I guess that's what I have to do. That makes sense, doesn't it?"

"I don't think you're giving her a chance," Artemis told her.

"I don't think she's giving me one," Minako retorted.

"You know, there's a way you can end this and go back home," Artemis shot back.

"Don't say it."

"You could compromise."

"You said it!"

"Minako, I'm not saying she's totally right. You say you're going to be an idol, I believe you. I've seen you do too many miraculous things in the last four years to believe anything is beyond you - - except maybe concentrate on something for more than thirty seconds." Minako shot her tongue at him. "But she's not totally wrong, either. Your pursuit of your dream is so single-minded that you're ignoring your responsibilities."

"My 'responsibilities' are boring!" Minako fumed.

"OK, they're boring!" Artemis fired back. "Part of growing up means you have to do boring things occasionally! Life isn't twenty-four/seven excitement, no matter how much you want it to be!"

"So what boring things do you have to do?"

"Listen to you for one thing," Artemis said, his expression telling her he was once again trying to deflate her massive ego. Minako flopped onto her back in a huff. "You don't have to be as good as Ami. I think your folks would accept a 'c' student - - and it might get them off your back."

"Or it might make her think she can hound me even more to get her way," Minako replied. Artemis scowled. He knew her too well and he could see the heels were still dug in.

"So," Artemis began cautiously, "what about us?"

Minako sat up. "What about us? We're still the dynamic duo. You'll move in with me!"

"Don't you think you ought to ask Makoto first?"

"She'll be cool with it!"

"Uh huh," Artemis replied, giving her the eye. "So how'd the audition go?"

Minako flopped onto her back and blew out air.

"Didn't get it, huh?"

"I made the finals! The record exec said I had a great look! And he complimented me on my stage presence and the way I interacted with the audience."

"But?"

"He," Minako hemmed and hawed, "said something about my phrasing being undisciplined and my vocal range being weak." She thrust back up into a sitting position, blonde hair flying everywhere. "But he said they were correctable and that I had a chance! And Mom says I'm never going to make it!"

"Sounds like singing lessons might do the trick," Artemis nodded.

"Yeah, that's what I was thinking!" Minako gasped happily.

"So how are you going to pay for them?"

Minako deflated.

"You are such a killjoy," she grumbled.

"Somebody's got to think of these things," groused Artemis.

"I'll get a job."

"With your grades? Sounds like you'll be flipping burgers at McDonald's or greeting customers at some department store. I thought you didn't want a boring job like that."

"It'll just be temporary," Minako muttered.

"Temporary? How long do you think singing lessons will take, two weeks?"

"Three weeks?"

"Years," Artemis scowled.

Minako frowned. "Well," she began hesitantly, "if that's what it takes to get me to my dream, then I'll just have to suck up my stiff upper lip and do it." Artemis glared at the malapropos.

"And what happens if the world needs Sailor Venus?"

"Ohhhhhhhhhwwwwwwwwwww!" Minako fumed, flinging herself back onto the floor. "The whole world is conspiring against me!"

"Don't blame the world," Artemis told her. "Your being in this situation is the result of your stubbornness and unwillingness to compromise."

"Whose side are you on?" Minako howled.

"I'm on the side that gets us back to the status quo - - because except for the arguing it was a pretty good status quo."

They heard the key turn in the lock and looked up. Makoto was framed in the doorway, holding her satchel.

"Hi, Artemis," Makoto said, masking her initial distress. "What brings you here?"

"Just trying to talk some sense into her," the cat replied. "Sorry for letting myself in."

"I wasn't the only one being stubborn!" Minako growled. "I was right and she was wrong and if you're going to live here you better own up to that . . .!"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Makoto interrupted. "Since when is he living here?"

"I told her to ask you first," Artemis alibied weakly.

"What's wrong with him living here?" Minako whined, sitting up again.

"My lease, for one, which says 'no pets'!" Makoto responded heatedly. "Besides, cats shed all over everything! And they have stinky litter boxes! And males mark their territory! And I work hard to keep this place looking nice!" She swallowed, recalling Artemis. "Um, no offense."

"None taken," Artemis scowled.

"All right, you made your point," Minako grumbled.

"I can't believe you'd just invite someone else to live here without asking me!" Makoto continued.

"It's just Artemis!" Minako huffed.

"This is not your place! You are a guest here! Which means it's not your place to invite anyone you choose to flop here!"

"OK!"

"And while we're on this subject, there are a few rules you're going to have to follow if you're going to stay here. The biggest one is 'CLEAN UP AFTER YOURSELF'!" I'm not your maid and I'm not your mother!"

"Well you're doing an awful good impression of her!" Minako shot back. She got to her feet and headed for the door. "Come on, Artemis. Let's go find a comfortable park bench!"

"Um," Artemis said, hesitating at the door on the heels of Minako's departure, "sorry. I-I'll try to talk to her." And he headed out the door after her.

Makoto stood in her apartment, stunned and visibly upset. In a burst of frustration and anger, she flung her satchel onto the sofa.

"Way to go, Makoto," she muttered, cheeks flushed. "You know better than that. Nothing good has ever come from you getting angry." She stood, arms folded across her chest, staring hotly at the floor. Then a thought crossed her mind.

"Just how did Artemis get in here?" she wondered.

* * * *

Salaryman Aino lumbered in through the front door of his home and deposited his shoes by the door. He was glad to be out of them. After a day at the office, his feet were ready for freedom and elevation.

"Home!" he called out, just like he did every day. That would elicit a response from his wife, who was either in the kitchen or the family room. Sometimes he'd get a response from his daughter, too. She usually beat him home when she wasn't out running with her friends or frittering her life away at the Crown Game Center.

But this time there was nothing. Not even that blasted cat rubbing against his ankle.

A short investigation of the house found his wife sitting in the family room. She had the album out and was looking at the pictures of their trip to Mt. Fuji when Minako was seven. It broke his heart to see his wife's melancholy over the images from happier times. He remembered the trip. Minako had been such a ball of energy, running, play-acting, getting into everything because the word 'boundary' didn't exist in her vocabulary. Life was always an adventure to her, a play to be performed until the climax - - but back then they were her partners in the adventure. Sometime between then and now something happened and they were suddenly at odds. Did she change or did they?

His wife noticed him watching her. Embarrassed, she closed the album and stored it away.

"Your dinner's staying warm," she said quickly, heading for the kitchen. "It'll be ready to eat in a few minutes."

"You could always apologize to her," he suggested. "I don't think this has gone beyond the point of no return - - yet."

"I don't think I have anything to apologize for," she replied curtly. "Our daughter is being childish and irresponsible. Do you know she cut school today?"

"No."

"I found out when the school called! I had to find out she was on another audition when the Kino girl stopped by! It's completely irresponsible and very inconsiderate!"

"Agreed."

"She's seventeen. She has to start growing up sometime, and soon, or she's going to end up in some menial, dead-end job, just like she's so afraid will happen. Can't she see that?"

"Everything you said is exactly right," he told her, grasping her upper arms. She leaned in against him for support.

"This is your fault," she muttered. "You indulge her too much."

"Of course I do," he sighed patiently.

"And you're a poor example to her," she persisted.

"Well while we're playing the blame game, let's just remember what drove her to this."

"But an idol?" she asked, turning around to face him. "Why can't she be more realistic? Becoming an idol is a one in a million shot! If she just wanted to be any kind of entertainer, I might understand, but an idol?"

"OK, it's a one in a million shot," her husband replied with fatigue. "She's not expecting a guarantee. She just wants to take her shot. Who knows, she might be that one in a million."

"She might. But what if she's not? What will she have then - - nothing! She'll either be stuck in a job she hates or have to marry someone and spend her the rest of her life having children and wanting something more." She didn't notice her mate wince.

"OK, suppose she doesn't take her shot. She'll spend the rest of her life wondering if she threw away her one chance at greatness. Is that better?"

"I'm just trying to protect her," his wife responded with a trace of bitterness.

"Well, you said it yourself: she's seventeen. She doesn't really need protection anymore. Guidance, yes. Motivation to do what's right, like go to school, apparently. But she's a big girl now and SHE needs to be the one deciding how her life's going to unfold - - not you."

She looked down. He gently brushed the hair from her forehead with his thumb of his free hand. His left still held her right hand.

"I know you love her and I know you mean well. But you're only seeing this through your own experiences. And if you'd stop being so stubborn, you might see that," he whispered. "Try to look at this from her perspective. Try to remember the light in her eyes and the spring in her step when she acts or sings. Try to remember the passion she shows for it. Try to see the burning ambition she has. And think about how you'd react if someone tried to bar you from something you were passionate about." Kissing her forehead, he let go of her hands and trudged to the living room. "Forgive me. I've got to sit down. My feet are killing me."

* * * *

The door eased open. Minako stuck her head in and found Makoto on the sofa, studying. Embarrassed, she entered and closed the door behind her.

"Can I apologize," she began timidly, "or should I get my things?"

"Do you want to leave?" Makoto asked softly.

"Uh uh."

"You don't have to leave," Makoto said.

"Well, I figured I might not be that welcome here anymore."

"I'd be a pretty lousy friend if I let us break up over a childish fit of temper."

"Childish?" Minako bristled. "What do you mean childish?"

"I was referring to me," scowled Makoto, "although if the shoe fits . . ."

"Yeah, I guess I did overstep my bounds there - - old habit."

"No, really?" Makoto smiled. "Dinner's ready if you're hungry."

"I was hoping you'd say that," Minako grinned back. She brought a plastic shopping bag from behind her back. "I got dessert. The best cheesecake three thousand yen could buy." Minako flushed. "I figured I might need to bribe you."

"Then you have a talent for picking bribes," Makoto joked, eyeing the cheesecake hungrily. The schoolbook was put away and Makoto headed for the kitchen.

"So what are we going to do tonight?" Minako said, following Makoto into the kitchen.

"I don't know about you," Makoto answered, "but I've got a ton of studying to do."

"And I suppose one of your 'rules' is I have to study, too?" Minako asked sourly.

"You're a newly independent woman," Makoto shrugged, pouring some food into a bowl. "You can do what you like. The only rule I have in this situation is if I'm studying, you be quiet. That means no TV, no music, no gossip, nothing."

"Geez, I might as well study," grumbled Minako.

"There's always the Crown," Makoto offered.

"Can't," Minako said sheepishly. "Spent all my money on the cheesecake."

Makoto struggled to keep from laughing. "Well, I hope it's worth it. Dinner's on. Dig in."

"All right!"

"And use a napkin!" Makoto barked.

"Yes, 'Mother'," Minako sighed.

* * * *

On her way to school, Usagi stopped when she heard her name called. Turning, she saw Minako running up.

"Hi!" Usagi waved. Minako caught up and they continued walking to school. "Sorry about the audition."

"How'd you find out?" Minako asked.

"Feline grapevine," Usagi giggled. "Anything you tell Artemis, Luna will know in a matter of time and the other way around. Is that why you're coming to school today?"

"Well there's no reason to cut if I don't have an audition. Besides, all my friends are here. Being on the outside would be boring and you know how I hate anything boring."

"I'm with you," nodded Usagi. "You've got your uniform. Did you, um, go back home for it?"

"Makoto picked it up on her way home yesterday."

"That was nice of her."

"Yeah. Now I'm glad I bought that cheesecake for her."

"Mmmmmm . . . cheesecake . . ." Usagi drooled. "So you two are getting along?"

"Well, it's not like I've got much of a choice," Minako confessed. "And there are certain advantages." Minako held up a bento.

"Mako-chan made that for you?" Usagi gasped. Minako nodded proudly. "Lucky! But does this mean you're not going to go home?"

Minako didn't answer.

"Don't you miss your mom and dad?" Usagi persisted.

"I miss Dad," Minako replied softly. "I guess I miss Mom - - when she's not trying to run my life for me. But if this is what I have to do to be an idol, I guess I have to do it. They say the road to stardom isn't easy. I guess this is the hard part."

"So are you going to get a part-time job? I mean, right now you're living off of Mako-chan and I'm not sure how long she can support two people."

"Well if the industry would hurry up and discover me, it wouldn't be a problem!" groused Minako. "I don't know, Usagi! I know I can't keep freeloading off of Makoto, but I don't know what else to do! If I have to do something like sell tickets at the multiplex, I'll do it - - but only if it's a step towards my dream and not a step away. I have to be careful."

"Maybe Rei could help you," Usagi suggested.

"She already has," Minako smiled cryptically.

"YOU GOT HER TO TELL YOUR FORTUNE!" Usagi gasped. Minako smirked. "What did she say?"

"Uh uh. I'm not jinxing it." Minako sobered. "But maybe I better start thinking about what I'll do until it happens. And that might just involve - - steady, stomach - - studying harder." Minako punctuated the statement by making a face.

"Well isn't that what your mom's been saying?" Usagi asked her. "If that's the case, you could just live at home, couldn't you?"

"Man, I must be really messed up if YOU can out-logic me," Minako murmured.

"Exactly," Usagi said proudly. Then she sobered. "Hey!"

* * * *

Makoto entered her apartment wondering if Minako would be there or at the Crown. Then she remembered Minako's financial status.

"Probably settles that," Makoto grinned to herself. "Although that brings up another point. I don't know how I'm going to support two people long term. Minako's going to have to start pitching in something to help pay for things around here." Makoto hesitated in the middle of pulling off her shoes. "I just don't know how I'm going to tell her that."

She entered the living room and found Minako on the sofa, her legs crossed underneath her, munching on what looked like pizza rolls and pouring over a script. Minako looked up, spotted her roommate and smiled.

"Finally got out of the library, huh?" grinned Minako. "You're getting as bad as Ami."

"If I could start getting Ami's grades, I wouldn't mind," Makoto replied. "What's that, a script?"

"Uh huh. There's an audition for a new TV show in two weeks and they're looking for a girl to play the sweet, angelic good girl. This could be it, Makoto. That's why I've been memorizing this script."

"Instead of studying."

"I'll study later."

"Uh huh."

"Run lines with me?" Minako asked. "I want to know what you think of my performance."

"I have to study."

"We'll study later! I promise!"

"I still have to make dinner."

"I already made it!" Minako said, gesturing to the tray of pizza rolls.

"YOU made those?" Makoto asked skeptically.

"Hey, I may not be as good a cook as you, but I'm not Usagi. I can make a few things. Try them."

Makoto eyed them suspiciously, then plucked one.

"OK," she said, then moved next to the phone, "but I'll do it here just in case I have to call 9-1-1." Minako pulled down her eyelid. Makoto sampled it. "MMM! That's good! What do you put in these?"

"State secret," Minako replied smugly. "If I told you, I'd have to kill you."

"Hmm, not basil," Makoto mumbled, analyzing the sensations from her tongue. "It has oregano, but it's not that."

"Are you going to run lines or are you going to spend all night analyzing a plate of pizza rolls?"

"OK," Makoto said. She sat down and picked up another pizza roll. "But by the time this platter is finished, I WILL know your secret."

"Knock yourself out. You'll never get it. Here," and she handed Makoto the script. "Start from the top of the page. You be 'Miss Suzuki'."

"Um, I can't really act, you know," Makoto flushed.

"We're not trying to find out if you can act. We're trying to find out if I can. Just read the line. You don't have to put any inflection into it. But I'll play the part the way I think I should and we'll see how it turns out."

"M'kay," Makoto mumbled, her mouth full of pizza roll. "Rosemary?"

Minako glared.

Initially Makoto's concentration was divided between reading her line and analyzing the pizza roll. But as they went, she began to notice Minako's performance. There were times when she slipped, but Minako seemed to become another person. She suddenly was this sweet, innocent, demure little thing that was a perfect stranger to Makoto. It was amazing. Only when they reached the end of the scene and Minako seemed to return from limbo did Makoto realize it was an act.

"That was pretty good," Makoto gasped, munching on one of the few remaining pizza rolls.

"Thanks," Minako replied glumly, flopping back on the sofa and stuffing three rolls in her mouth. "But I was trying for 'really good'. Guess I still have some work to do." Minako stretched like a cat. "But not tonight. You want to tackle the math book together?"

"I'm not going to have to force you to study?" gaped Makoto.

"No!" Minako growled, then flushed. "I - - was told that doing better in school would probably be a good thing - - short term."

"Rei tell you that?"

"HONESTLY, USAGI HAS THE BIGGEST MOUTH!"

"Second biggest," Makoto laughed, picking up another pizza roll. "Right behind you. So how come you listen when Rei tells you that, but not when your Mom tells you?"

"Because Rei can see the future," Minako countered. "Are we going to study this math or what?"

"Turmeric!" Makoto shouted.

"What language is that 'yes' for?"

"In the pizza rolls!"

"Oh crap!" fumed Minako.

"I'm right, aren't I?" Makoto said in triumph. "I told you I'd figure it out!"

"Yeah, after about a hundred guesses! Nice detective work, Inspector Zenigata!"

"Now that I know how, I'm going to have to make a batch of these. They're addictive."

"Tonight?" Minako asked as Makoto headed for the kitchen.

"I'm just going to wash this platter," huffed Makoto. "Get my math book out, huh?"

Makoto walked into the kitchen - - and her mouth dropped. The stove was a mess. The counter was a mess. The sink was a mess. There was flour on the floor. Tomato sauce was spilled on the dish rack. Grease stains were on her hand towels. Makoto stood in shock at the state of her kitchen, her kitchen that only this morning had been immaculate.

"Hey, let's go!" Minako yelled in from the other room. "How long does it take to wash a dish?"

* * * *

It was five days since Minako came to stay with Makoto. Ami and Makoto met along the path they usually took to school. Ami looked up at Makoto and noticed her hard expression.

"Makoto?" Ami inquired. "Is something wrong?"

"Nothing," Makoto said softly.

"You know you can tell me anything."

"It's," Makoto hesitated, "not worth bothering you."

"OK," Ami nodded. "I respect your privacy. But feel free to open up at any . . ."

"It's just that some people can be so," Makoto continued, grasping for the right word, "inconsiderate!"

"Minako?"

"Is it that hard to put a cap back on a tube of toothpaste?" Makoto demanded. "Is it that hard to throw an empty carton of milk away instead of putting it back in the refrigerator? And could you let someone know you just drank the last drop so she can get some more?"

"I agree, that is inconsiderate," Ami offered. "But they're minor things, Makoto. They aren't worth getting angry about."

"Maybe not one at a time," groaned Makoto. "But add them up and - - Ami, where I live is important to me. How it looks is important to me. I work hard to keep it neat and clean and I don't always have time to do it, but I do it. But she doesn't care! She acts like she'd be happy to live in filth! Or else she thinks the magic cleaning pixies are going to clean up after her! Do you know she's been living there five days and I've had to tell her each day to get her feet off of my coffee table!"

"Makoto," Ami began.

"And the bathroom; god, you should see the bathroom after she gets done!"

"Makoto, you're dwelling on her bad points. She isn't all bad, is she?"

Makoto let out a deep sigh. "Well, we do have some fun together. And I actually think she likes studying more when we do it together. And she's got a killer sense of humor. We had some cheesy historical drama on last night and she was substituting her own dialogue in on the fly. It was so funny she had me rolling on the floor." Makoto noticed she was smiling. "I never said she was all bad. I mean, she's my friend, Ami, and that's important to me, too. And I'd trust her with my life without a second thought."

"You see," Ami smiled warmly.

"But I can't help it. There are times when it's all I can do to keep from killing her!"

Ami patted Makoto on the shoulder. "Well, if it ever does come to that point, please feel free to call me at any time. We can talk it out."

"Thanks," Makoto flushed. "I'm going to put you on speed dial."

* * * *

Returning from the grocery, Makoto found an unexpected visitor approaching her door from the opposite end of the hall. Bowing respectfully, she invited him inside. She quickly doffed her shoes and entered the living room.

"Minako, you," Makoto began, then sucked in air in surprise. Minako was watching television with a bag of chips nestled in the cushions of the sofa, her feet propped up on the coffee table next to a perspiring bottle of pop. "Ahhh! How many times have I told you to use a coaster!"

"You want an exact number?" Minako asked obliviously.

"GET YOUR FEET OFF OF MY TABLE!"

"All right!"

"And if I find chips in the sofa cushions again . . .!"

Makoto caught herself in mid-rant, then stood up and took a deep breath.

"You," Makoto began in a very strained, very controlled voice, "have a visitor."

Minako looked up to the doorway to the fourier. A squat, burly shape was shedding his shoes.

"Dad?" Minako said with surprise.

Her father looked at her and she noticed all over again how tired and stooped he looked. The twelve-hour days of a Japanese salaryman were evident in the way he sagged and the way he lumbered across the floor. With his thinning hair and thick glasses and droopy face, he was every inch the stereotype.

One more reason not to be ordinary.

"Hello, Minako," he wheezed. He always sounded like even the act of speaking was the last thing he had the energy to do. "I've missed you."

"I've missed you too, Dad," she replied contritely.

"So has your mother."

"Yeah, I'll bet."

She was surprised to hear him laugh to himself.

"I knew you'd say that," he smiled. "You're just like her."

Minako scowled. "Has she sent you to drag me home?"

"You're seventeen. I doubt I could drag you anywhere," he muttered, ambling over to a chair. He didn't sit in it so much as collapse into it, sagging like an innertube leaking air. "I'm inviting you to come home. You still have a home there."

"Dad, what's the point? Nothing's going to change. Mom has no respect for my dream and no respect for me. I'm beginning to wonder if she even loves me."

"She loves you. You just have to understand her way."

"She's always criticizing me! Nothing I do is ever good enough! And she stomps on my dream with hob-nailed jack-boots!" Minako turned to him. "How can you even defend her? How many times has she told you to your face that you haven't amounted to anything?"

"I'm used to it," he replied gently. "I endure it because she's given me her companionship for eighteen years. I endure it because she gave me a beautiful, energetic daughter. I endure it because I know I wasn't the man of her dreams, but she agreed to marry me and she's stayed committed to that vow for eighteen years. That's a mark of her character and her maturity."

"Dad, I'm trying to grow wings and soar up into the heavens," Minako said dramatically, "and all she does is pluck out my feathers one by one."

"Minako," he sighed, "you have to understand something about your mother. When she believes in something, she throws everything she has into making that something come to pass, whatever it is. She's very driven. So sometimes diplomacy falls by the wayside." He smiled at a memory. "You should have seen her on the tennis court when she was younger."

"Mom played tennis?"

"Your Mom was an assassin on the court. She was very athletic - - and very competitive. And very pushy - - if you don't realize she's got your best interests at heart, it's very easy to take offense. That's all she's doing, sweetie. She wants you to be your best."

"Yeah, right. She's just a manipulative . . .!"

"Ah, ah," he said, wagging his finger at her. "She just doesn't react well to people not trying."

"Face it, Dad. She hates me."

"Sweetie, if she hated you, she wouldn't say anything to you. She'd ignore you. She's only this hard on the people and things she cares about most." Her father wheezed and leaned forward, his arms propped on his knees and his suit straining to contain his squat frame. "She's not gentle, but all she wants is what's best for you."

"So why can't she see?" pleaded Minako. "Being a star - - that's what's best for me!"

"I think she does, deep down. Life's just made her more cautious than you. You and her, you're two sides of the same coin. Passion just bubbles from you, sweetie, like a boiling cauldron. And once you get an idea in your head, a person can't knock it out with a mallet. Your mother's the same way. The only difference here is - - you look at show business and only see the good. She looks at it and only sees the bad."

Minako bowed her head in frustration.

"She wants you to succeed, even if it's at being an idol," her father continued. "She's just afraid of seeing you at forty, singing in some filthy yakuza bar with no way out and no education to fall back on."

"It's not going to happen that way!" protested Minako.

"It might," he said, grasping her hands in his. "You just don't want to see it. Just like your mother doesn't want to admit that you could be discovered tomorrow and have a platinum album by this time next week. You get your tunnel vision from her, too. If you become a star . . ."

"When," Minako corrected.

"'When' you become a star," her father smiled, "your mother will probably be in the front row of every performance, cheering louder than anyone. But until you make it, she's going to worry. Doing better in school will give her less to worry about."

Minako blew her bangs out of her eyes.

"Sweetie, part of growing up is accepting the fact that you might have to do some things you don't want to do because there's benefit in the long run. Look at me. I put in sixty-hour weeks when I'd rather be at the ballpark or at home with the two most beautiful women in the world. I do it because I have to support those two women. Your mother stays home and cares for us and our home. She'd probably rather be out playing tennis or going to school or traveling, but she puts those things aside - - for us."

"So I'm being selfish?" Minako asked.

He began rubbing his thumbs along Minako's knuckles. He always did that when he was serious about a subject.

"I know you think school is boring and unnecessary. I never thought it was very entertaining, either. But if you'd put a little more effort into your schoolwork, your mother would worry a lot less and she could get back to taking care of us and spend less time badgering you. It's not that much to ask of a mature person, is it?"

"So you're saying I'm immature?" Minako asked.

"Well, you're the one who ran away and pouted when she didn't get her way."

"This isn't pouting!"

"This isn't a sleepover, either." Her father got to his feet with some effort. "Look, don't think I'm just giving you the hard sell. I had a long talk with your mother, too. She's not blameless in this situation. But neither are you. And if you two would just bend a little, I think we could be a family again." He looked away suddenly. "I won't force you to come back. But the door will always be open. And if you're willing to compromise a little, I think your mother will, too."

The man trudged to the door. Before he left, he stopped and turned back to her.

"Oh, and that cat of yours misses you, too," he said. "All he seems to do is pace anymore."

Mentioning Artemis broke her last vestige of resolve.

"Dad," Minako sighed. Her head flopped back so her neck was bent over the back of the sofa. "I'll come home."

"You're sure?"

"Are you kidding? You and Artemis are the only men in my life I can depend on. I'd be crazy to mess that up. Besides, Makoto's a bigger grouch than Mom is."

"You . . .!" came a voice from the other room, quickly stifled.

"But if she starts in on me again," Minako began.

"I will mediate," her father assured her. "You just have to give me something to work with. Say thank you to your friend. I'll wait in the hall for you."

When she heard the door close, Makoto eased into the room. Minako was gathering a few things into her purse. She glanced up and saw her host.

"Guess you heard, huh?" Minako asked.

Makoto nodded. "Small apartment. I wasn't trying to eavesdrop."

"Then you've got a lot to learn," Minako grinned. Her expression sobered. "Sorry if I was a pain."

"Guess we're just too set in our ways," Makoto grinned back. "It wasn't all bad. But you're going back where you belong, so it's all good."

"Yeah, but for how long? You may not want to roll that sleeping bag up just yet. I could be back."

"You sure you want to live with a grouch like me?"

"Yeah, you're right," Minako said, struck by the thought. "Maybe I better stay with Usagi."

Makoto cuffed her on the side of her head.

"Ow!" groused Minako. "Bully!"

"Slob," Makoto retorted.

The two stared at each other for a moment.

"Good luck," Makoto said, hugging Minako.

"Thanks," Minako replied, hugging back.

From his vantage point on the stairs, Artemis watched Minako's father escort Minako inside their home. She seemed a little tense, but was Minako for the most part. Then she entered the kitchen, where her mother was. The temperature in the room seemed to drop fifty degrees. Both women looked away.

Her father sighed. "This would happen when the Ham Fighters are on TV tonight. I believe you two have some things to say to each other," he prompted.

"I'm - - glad your home, Minako," her mother said stiffly.

"Yeah," Minako replied glumly. "Me too."

The silence in the room was oppressive.

"Irabu's pitching tonight and if you two make me miss it," muttered her father. "Can't either of you do better than that?"

He was answered with more silence. Then Minako got up and headed for her room.

"Hold it!" her father barked. "We're not through here. Sit down."

"But Dad . . .!"

"Sit!" Minako reluctantly complied. "You, too," he said to his wife. "I'm still the man in this house and for once you two are going to listen!" She started to protest, but a look from him silenced her and she complied. "I don't kill myself sixty hours a week to come home to this. You two have some things to say to each other and you're going to say them. But first we're going to start with a few premises. First off," he said, looking at his wife, "you were wrong to belittle her career aspirations. It's not fair for you to expect her to take an easier path just because you're afraid she'll stumble on the more difficult one."

"I just," she began, but he stopped her. She sighed in frustration.

"And you," he said to Minako, "were wrong in shirking your responsibility to educate yourself and make yourself the best person you could be. It's not an 'artistic choice', it's just lazy and irresponsible." Minako dropped her head, her cheeks burning crimson. "Now I believe you two mature, reasonable women have some apologies to make and some things to discuss." He headed for the living room. "I'll be back if I start hearing screaming."

Minako and her mother sat across the table, not looking at each other. Artemis watched from the doorway, wondering which one would give a little first.

"Minako," her mother began softly, still not looking at her, "I apologize if I was belittling your aspirations."

"Sorry about what I said," Minako replied just as softly. "Sorry about goofing off in school." She forced her gaze up and looked at her mother. "But you have to understand, Mom, I've got to do this. I've got to be somebody."

"Dear, you already are somebody."

"Somebody famous! Somebody who can change a person's life by what I do, make them feel better about life, even if it's only for five minutes. I have to do it, Mom! Life's just not worth living otherwise!"

"That's what your father was talking about - - your 'burning ambition'. If only you'd attack your studies with such passion," her mother sighed.

"I'll try. I promise no more goofing off. But show business has to be my number one priority, because my big break could come at any time. And I have to be ready to grab it when it shows up, because it might not come again! So you may have to settle for a 'c' student instead of an 'a' student."

Artemis smiled at hearing the echo of his own words.

"I think you're making a mistake. I think you're just making your future path that much more difficult. But I suppose a 'c' student is better than a 'd and f' student. I hope you'll be ready when your big break appears, dear. I just want you to be ready if it never appears."

"It'll appear," Minako told her, thinking back to her session with Rei. "I've got it on good authority."

Her mother rolled her eyes. "Are you hungry? I can still fix you something?"

"Sure," Minako smiled sheepishly.

"What would you like?"

"I'd like some of those pizza rolls you showed me how to cook," Minako grinned, eliciting a fond smile from her mother. "But that's probably too involved, so I guess some eggs will be all right." Her mother turned to comply. "With cheese?"

Her mother went about cooking. Minako noticed Artemis in the doorway. She flashed him the 'V' sign. He gave her a cynical smirk and headed upstairs.

"Mom," Minako asked out of the blue, "what was your dream?"

"My dream?"

"Yeah. You must have wanted to be something when you were a kid. What was it?"

"My 'burning ambition'?'

"Yeah," Minako grinned. "That's a good word for it. So what was your burning ambition?"

"Well," her mother said hesitantly, "I did want to be a nurse."

"Really? What happened?"

"I didn't have anyone to push me," she said, scooping eggs from the pan to a plate. "So I wasted a lot of time running around with my girlfriends, chasing after boys and playing tennis instead of studying. And when it came time for the entrance exams to the university, I couldn't pass them. I spent three years as a 'Ronin', trying to get into the university. Finally I had to give up and married your father." She turned to the sink and began washing the skillet. "Don't forget to do your homework tonight, dear."

"Yeah," Minako said softly, staring at her eggs. "I won't."

THE END