The Contract : Chapter One

Arrival

Raindrops blurred the world outside the driver's windshield, disturbed by the rhythmic pulsation of the windshield wipers. He paid them little heed except annoyance, his focus on the road, on his car and his surroundings, which sang with luxury. The plush seat below him was warm, black leather that ignored the raging storm without. The compartment behind him was likewise heated and controlled. In the rearview mirror, as well as the screen mounted on his dashboard that displayed video feed from a cleverly hidden security camera, he could see that all was well in the back–the slight vibration of the wheels hadn't even disturbed the filled champagne glasses placed between the seats. He smiled. All was ready for his guests.

On the road ahead, his passengers appeared. Five women--he frowned, he was only supposed to pick up two–stood huddled together on the sidewalk, clutching black umbrellas to shield from the rain. He could tell they were talking, but they stopped as soon as he pulled alongside them. With his right hand, he flipped the switch to lower the passenger side window. Leaning over, he spoke to them. "I'm here for Ms. Aino and Ms. Mizuno."

One turned to look at him, his breath hitched in his throat and he couldn't seem to look away. This was the most perfect human being he had ever seen, with large, blue eyes and almost white hair that flowed to her waist, she carried an air about her of a peace so deep it could not be disturbed, a happiness so profound it could be touched by sorrow. A smile came to her eyes at his expression–he quickly schooled his face to it's normal calmness–and she murmured "A few moments, if you please?" It was hardly a request.

Still, he thought later, a few moments was dragging on rather long. Five minutes showed on his wristwatch before two women turned to face him, their austere, impassive manner casting shadows over beauty rich as the first's. He pressed a button, and the door opened. "Get in."

They shut their umbrellas, and stepped into the car. He noted, on the display, that both wore black. He almost thought of asking 'who's funeral?', but he knew the answer to that question, and he knew the normal travelers of this car did not much like conversation.

The drive back to the apartments was as uneventful as the drive from them had been. The streets were hardly empty, even in this storm the city bustled on without a care. He smiled grimly. Even in the wake of a war, the people would not acknowledge their surroundings enough to let their lives be disturbed. Foolish, blind. He had no tolerance for them.

The women behind him, he saw, seemed as unaffected as the pedestrians hurrying outside. Their drinks stood untouched, their hands folded in their laps, their legs tightly pulled beneath the seat. They did not speak, or so much as glance at each other. Both were lost in worlds of their own, beyond the windows through which they stared, beyond the car in which they sat, beyond the world that trapped them. He had known others like them. They were often sad, and he had never seen one smile. He pitied them.

When the time came, when the destination slid up to them, he opened the door. They left without any prompt from him, leaving nothing but wet seats to mark their passing. As he pulled to the garage, one of the champagne flutes tipped and fell, sending bubbles flowing out across the floor.

He sighed. Two beautiful women. A pity.

Ami

When the driver let her out, she stood before a tall, impassive stone structure–like so many others in this city. She had lived in one of them before, and she'd live in one of them now. The architecture was neoclassical and screamed of wealth. She pursed her lips with annoyance at the gaudy display, then walked up seven steps to the door. About to knock, a voice behind her made her pause.

"Ami." She turned, and there was Minako, just where the driver had left her, her eyes filled with grief. She was smiling, though, a forced smile that did nothing to expose her beauty. "I'll miss you, Ami."

Ami met her eyes, knowing how cold she must look. "We'll see each other again, Minako. This is no end."

"Don't lie to me, Ami." Minako shook her head. "Please, not you, too."

Ami glanced over her glasses at her long-time friend. "I don't lie, Minako. You should know that." Then she turned, and entered her prison.

The foyer was empty. She hung her umbrella on the coat stand, to drip dry on the marble floor. A soft thud-thud sounded as the water hit the floor, and she shivered. It was too quiet.

An open door ahead of her revealed stairs, she climbed them with a feeling of–what? Regret? I shouldn't regret this, she told herself for the hundredth time, it was necessary. Anyway, one cannot regret fate.

At the top of the stairs, she entered a spacious room full of furniture and cold air. The furniture was strict, all right angles and straight lines. It was the type of furniture she had appreciated before, but she had never gotten to choose how anything would be decorated. This was the first time she had seen it outside of fantasies for the old living room. Now, it was hardly comforting.

This room, too, was silent. She looked around, no one. The doors around the room were closed, and she felt enough like a visitor that she couldn't open them. "Hello?"

Her voice sounded odd, like she had thrown a stone and caused ripples where no ripples were meant to be. She swallowed, nervously. Nothing to be nervous about.

She walked around the room, noting the million shades of gray and the dark mahogany wood. She placed her portfolio down beside on of them, then smiled self-mockingly as she remembered why she had brought it. Her carefully planned speech echoed in her head. I have made an attempt at anticipating problems that might come up in the duration of this agreement. I have always believed in planning before execution, I hope you will agree with me that especially now we should know how to deal with any given situation. If you would take the time, I have several charts that might interest you...

Etiquette had molded herself and her life thus far, she believed in a proper way to do things, and tried to fit that ideal as best she could. She knew that the doors had been closed to her for a reason, she knew that she should wait and be patient, but her nerves sang with preparation for this meeting that she had rehearsed a million times. If she did not act now, she might never be able to. She approached one door and cracked it open, then paused, waiting for something, anything to stop her.

There was no sound. She opened the door the rest of the way, and saw a bedroom. It was large, everything here was large, and the furniture square. She noted with relief that the monotony of the colors was broken, the grey was present, but interrupted by navy blues and crisp whites. She walked through it, running her fingers over the immaculate bedspread, the polished chest of drawers. She paused at the desk to glance at the first sign of mess she had seen since entering this place, scattered papers and uncapped pens. She read the top one with interest, then whistled through her teeth. Research on genetically altering little known deadly pathogens to cause worldwide epidemics–she frowned, it stunk of government research. Perhaps he...no. She stopped the thought in it's tracks. For two weeks she had avoided speculation, refusing to let dreams and fantasies ruin this relationship. She wasn't about to stop now.

The bedroom had shaken her calm. She left it, shut the door behind her, and moved to main room again. Four more doors. First came a kitchen, where she did not linger; despite a healthy understanding of chemical processes, that particular room had never held any charm for her. Next, a bathroom, as clean and neat as any other room she had seen. She came to the third door, and opened it, and strode through. Her breath caught, and she stared. It was a lab, a fully furnished lab, just like the one before...she shook her head, looking around in wonder. It had everything, though not as ordered as the other rooms in the house, she could see everything she could ask for. Could it be possible he had prepared this, for her?

No. She would not think that, not yet, but the lab made her feel secure as nothing else she had seen could have. She looked over it once more, and froze. There was a man, a man she had missed on the first look round, standing in the far corner. His back was to her, she could see the laptop he was looking at so fixedly.

Relief, she was surprised to notice, flowed through her. Finally, someone to speak to, to be with. Finally, a voice to break the silence.

She cleared her throat, to get his attention. He did not turn. Puzzled, she called to him. "Hello? Sir? I'm Ami Mizuno. Sir? Sir?" His back remained to her, his eyes locked on the screen. She did not know how long she stood, calling to him, until at last she gave up and walked into the main room, to face a prison a million times more desolate now that she could not know her captor.

Minako

Ami was gone, up the steps and into the large building, and Minako stood in a street mercifully empty, feeling tears stinging at her eyes. Her friend's last words hung in the air I don't lie, Minako, you should know that, and Minako couldn't help but feel that they really were the last, as if the final vestige of her previous life had died and been buried.

"It almost is that way" she murmured, staring fixedly at the doorway where Ami had been, and it was, because the distance between them now was as great as the distance between the living and the dead. She would never see Ami again.

She would never see any of them again.

Minako closed her eyes as the knowledge struck her, a thousand times more painful now that it had actually been realized then it had ever been on those empty nights when she lay alone and thought of this day, this hour, when she would be separated. All my planning she thought, her voice bitter, even in her mind. All my planing, torn to shreds and cast to the wind. There was nothing left now. They had been separated. She had failed.

That knowledge was like a blow to the stomach.

She felt tears sting at her eyes, as a mocking mantra began in her head. Failed. Failed. Failed. Failed. She shook her head, feeling raindrops trickling down her scalp to her neck, feeling her clothes adhere to her body, feeling her eyes weep and the skies weep and the patterns of the world shatter around her.

She lingered for some time, there, caught in distress and grief, before her mind shed the phase like it shed almost any emotion that wasn't joy. With the passing came the guilt that shadowed her always–guilt that she could not grieve, even now, at the end of all things. Guilt would not sustain her, though, and she was becoming aware of a decided drechedness and coldness on her legs. "Haven't got the brains to come out of the rain" she said, then strode determinately towards the building on the corner.

Five minutes later, Minako stood before the door she had dreaded for a month, pausing before she would raise a hand to knock on it and change her life forever. Her smile became sad, and her voice was too quiet for any but her to hear when she murmured the last words she'd say as a free woman. "I guess this is it for the Serenity Doctrine."

Then she knocked, and stood waiting.

Serenity

They were all gone. She shuddered as she walked through the now empty house, suddenly cold, and very lonely. As she looked about her, searching for something to ease the growing ache in her chest, her senses bombarded her with memories of the way things had been–she smelled the muffins Mako was accustomed to baking every morning as they cooled on the counter, felt the woven carpet Rei had insisted they buy rub against her feet, heard the classical music Ami had left on playing from the living room. And then she came to the table, and stopped dead.

She could almost see them all sitting there, and herself too, as she remembered the countless hours they had spent working through small defeats and big victories gathered around it. She smiled as she imagined them–Mina in her element planning and bossing, but only with sound ideas, Ami nearest the wall so her laptop could be plugged in and she could research Mina's thoughts, bringing them from plausible to probable. Rei would have her hair wrapped up, with several pens sticking through it, she would be focused on writing speeches and papers would be scattered around her, looking up every so often to argue tactics with Mina. Mako would be holding the newspaper, or calling a magazine to schedule an interview, or doing any of the thousand little jobs that would never have gotten done without her, sometimes looking up and rolling her eyes at Mina's and Rei's anitcs, so only Serenity could see, and then they would both giggle silently. She remembered the last time they had won something really significant, when thanks in great part to the information they had spread hundreds of women from the city set up makeshift hospitals to tend for the sick, and this new awareness of death had led to a faster end of the war. She remembered the day the war was over, and they had danced around the bedroom till three in the morning, laughing until tears came to their eyes, and even after, till they were sobbing uncontrollably and hugging and smiling–that had been two months before. Serenity smiled, it was one of her favorite memories, and often during the troubled time she had recalled it. It had brought her peace.

No peace was to be had from it today, though. She wandered listlessly from the table and into her bedroom. Sheets, blankets and pillows still scattered the floor, remnants of their last night together when they had refused to sleep apart. She had to choke back a sob at that memory, though–it had torn her beyond belief when she had heard the others crying quietly because they thought she was asleep, and wouldn't be burdened by their grief.

"I was burdened by it, though," she choked out, before falling on the bed and beginning to cry herself. "You promised me you'd never make me cry!" she shouted angrily into the empty room, "You promised! I'll never be able to forgive you! Never!"

Twenty minutes later, when she had cried herself hoarse, she lay staring at the ceiling–that odd sense of tranquility that comes after crying about her. "I will forgive you," she murmured quietly, almost pleading "I will forgive you, just come back to me. Don't leave me alone anymore. I can't stand to be alone."

This made her cry again, because she knew no one could hear her, and she knew that no one ever would.

In the dark room that they were accustomed to using for meetings, three figures took their places around a low table. One of them produced a tea pot, and poured cups all around, and as the steam filled the room, the first spoke.

"How are they?"

The woman sitting to the right of the first speaker responded. "As well as can be expected. Ami and Mina have arrived. Mako caught the train, she's being picked up as we speak. Rei is in the air. Serenity cried for two hours today. None of the men" she sent a glare at the man across the table "have greeted them yet. You'd think they'd know some manners."

He chuckled. "They do, I assure you, and given time they'll all charm each other of their respective feet. But I must remind you, they moved into these houses little over a month ago, they have hardly adjusted to the residence, let alone the women. I still say we're taking this too fast."

The first spoke again. "Be that as it may, it had to be done. I know the adjusting period will be painful, but there is nothing I can do about that. We have to hope that they get over it as soon as possible, they need to start working together. Is there any way we can speed this up?"

The woman answered. "No, there's nothing we can do, except give them the same subtle hints we've been providing all along. You know that."

"I do, but so much depends on this working! We can't let it all up to fate."

The man snorted. "Fate's been guiding our hands pretty well up to this point."

The woman glared at him.

He raised an eyebrow at her. "It's true."

"I never said it wasn't."

He made a low, frustrated sound, then abruptly stood up. "If that's all the business we have tonight, I'll take my leave. Luna," he nodded at the woman, then at the other. "Serenity. Good night."

After the door had shut behind him, Serenity turned toward her last companion. "Luna, did I do the right thing by playing my hand in this?"

Luna stared at her for a long moment, composing a truthful answer from her chaotic mind—Serenity always preferred the truth. "I don't know."

End

a.n. new format. Realized my last one wasn't coming up right. Hope this all makes more sense. I've revised this chapter, got rid of those silly grammatical errors. Yay!

For anyone who isn't rereading this, enjoy it. I think it's much more readable now.

DF