Disclaimer: Chikyuu Shoujo Arjuna © 2001 ARJUNA PROJECT/ Sotsu Agency/ TV Tokyo. This work is not intended for commercial gain or to otherwise challenge the status of these copyrights.

Author's Note: Juna Ariyoshi meets an old schoolmate who is sick with an unsually dangerous and potentially fatal disease, one that forces the Avatar of Time to make a choice: her friend's life, or her mission?

Dedicated to Kathy Nicandro. You fought long and well. Rest now.

The Girl with the Ugly Arm: An Earth Girl Arjuna Sidestory

How hath this weakness taken thee? Whence springs
The inglorious trouble, shameful to the brave,
Barring the path of virtue? Nay, Arjun!
Forbid thyself to feebleness! it mars
Thy warrior-name! cast off the coward-fit!
Wake! Be thyself! Arise, Scourge of thy Foes!

-Krishna
Sankhya-Yog, The Book of Doctrines
Chapter II, Bhagavad-Gita

The Avatar of Time jumped nimbly between the two massive steel chemical tanks, looking for all the world like a tiny glowing pink sprite in the gathering city darkness. Hotly pursuing her was a gigantic wormlike apparition that looked as if it had been lovingly crafted by one of Satan's artisans in Hell, a violet-hued tubular monstrosity with a quad-partite mouth, numerous lethal feelers and tentacles, and armed with a disposition that only a woman with PMS could understand.

"Juna! Careful!"

The faraway voice came from a blond-haired teenage boy who was sitting astride his scooter, just outside the tall steel-and-concrete fence of the chemical factory. His hands gripped the handlebars in a tight, nervous hold as he watched her soar up into the evening sky, her ethereal white ribbons billowing out behind her.

The being, whose entire attention had been focused on the fiend pursuing her, risked a quick look down. "Tokio!" she shouted, her strangely alien yet familiar voice echoing through the night sky. "Get away! You—unh!"

"Juna!" Tokio Ooshima reached out with his hand as if to catch her.

The monster chasing after her had loosed a bright cerulean beam of energy from its hellish open orange-colored mouth, and it had grazed her head. She fell from the sky, stunned, and landed heavily on top of one of the chemical tanks. The abomination roared in triumph and slithered its way to the tank, spiraling up it until its head was above the top. Then it looked down and searched for its diminutive prize.

Arjuna was there, standing unsteadily waiting for it, her bow Gandiva already drawn, an arrow already readied.

She loosed a shot that split the monster in two. It exploded in a burst of light and a hail of gooey chunks of translucent alien flesh that spattered all around her, decorating the top and sides of the two chemical tanks in a messy violet polka-dot pattern that would gradually fade into nothing.

Arjuna lowered her bow slowly, a solemn look on her face. She knelt down and scooped up a small gobbet in her hand. How long must I keep doing this? she thought, looking closely at the dripping indigo tissue, sparkling faintly in the darkness. She put her palm down and the gelatinous glop fell back onto the steel surface of the tank.

She turned around and bounded away with a superhuman leap into the air, fully intending to land beside Tokio and his scooter. Midway through the leap, however…

"Ah!"

Her body had suddenly changed back into its ordinary form, that of high schooler Juna Ariyoshi. Her bow disappeared into its otherworldly hiding place; the glowing pink aura suit that covered her turned back into her school clothes; the head of V-shaped, bright-gold-colored hair that showed she was in an altered state transformed back into her ordinary, shoulder-length black locks.

It was only with difficulty that she was able to muster enough strength to call back part of Arjuna, enough to slow her fall. Her hair turned brown and stood up again in a V, and the ribbons that extended from the region of her elbows appeared again to delay her descent, but nothing else changed.

As she looked down, she saw that Tokio had already left his scooter and had positioned himself to catch her. She waved frantically at him to step aside, as she was already set to land, her legs slightly bent, her feet aiming at him.

They collided with a painfully loud thud and went sprawling onto the asphalt.

"Ow!" Tokio yelled, clutching his chest and rolling onto his left side, curling up. "Ow, ow, ow!"

Juna, unharmed by the fall, rolled over and quickly stood up, rushing to his side. Her ribbons retracted and disappeared as she ran. "Tokio! I'm sorry! Are you okay?"

He turned to look up at her. "That hurts," he said, grimacing. "Leave me alone for a minute, okay?"

She nodded and went to lean against the concrete base of the chemical plant's fence, scuffing her black school shoes against the pavement as she waited. After he had regained his wind, Tokio slowly got up.

"Are you alright?" Juna repeated, walking to him.

Her would-be suitor dusted himself off. "I guess," he replied. "Some date this turned out to be," he grumbled, adjusting his half-size red sunglasses. "How come those SEED jerks didn't take care of this one too?"

Juna shrugged. "I guess they just weren't here to," she said.

"What happened to you anyway?"

Juna reached up and massaged the right side of her head with her right hand. "That hit must have taken more out of me than I realized." As she spoke, her hair turned back into its ordinary form. Now she really looked like any other high school student, except for the bean-sized blue apostrophe mark of the Drop of Time on her forehead.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Just a bit dizzy."

Tokio fished around in his back pocket. "Here, fix your hair," he said, offering her his comb. "It's a mess. Oh, never mind, let me do it."

He walked behind her and began to comb and straighten her hair.

Juna smiled a little as she tilted her head forward to make his job easier. She still couldn't decide whether to answer him or not, but that made no difference to the fact that he could be a sweet guy sometimes. And a jerk on other occasions.

When he had finished, he put the comb away. There was an awkward silence as they stood in front of each other, unsure of what to say.

"Thanks," said Juna quietly, breaking the impasse.

"No problem. What do you want to do now?"

She smiled self-consciously. "Could you take me home, Tokio? I think I need to rest." She scratched the back of her head.

"Oh, okay." Hopping onto his scooter, Tokio said, "I guess it's a good thing you landed on me instead of my bike."

"Why is that?"

"You're awfully heavy." He grinned.

"You rat!" she shouted, pounding his shoulder with a small fist. Her efforts were rewarded with a yell of pain as she struck a spot still sore from their collision.

"Ouch!"

"I'm sorry," said Juna guilelessly. "Did that hurt?"

Tokio rubbed his shoulder briskly. "No. Come on, let's go."

It was already nighttime when they reached the Ariyoshis' apartment. Juna rang the doorbell and was greeted by her sister Kaine.

"Well, well, the Green Lady and her knight-errant return," she said when she saw them, smirking.

Juna pushed the door wide open and walked in. "Hi, sis," she said, too tired to respond to her sister's cutting remark. "Is Mom in?"

"No, she went out. Someone called a while ago looking for you, though."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. I wrote her number down by the phone."

"Thanks."

Juna told Tokio to take a seat while she went to the telephone. Picking up the small slip of paper beside it, she read the name and number her sister had written down.

"Uso!" she exclaimed. "I can't believe it!"

"What is it?" Tokio asked, idly lounging on the living room sofa.

"It's an old friend of mine," answered Juna, smiling. "One I haven't seen for a long time. Help yourself to the fridge while I call her."

Tokio nodded. He stood up and made his way into the kitchen.

Juna dialed the number and listened to five soft rings before it was answered.

"Moshi moshi."

"Good evening, is Miss Katsunari Hoshinogawa there?"

"Yes. Wait one moment, please."

There was a short period of silence, then the sound of footsteps.

"Hello?"

"Katsunari?" said Juna. "Hi, it's me, Juna Ariyoshi. You called?"

"Juna! Hello! Yes, I did call." The voice was very soft, almost inaudible, tired-sounding. "It's been ages."

"Yeah. The last time we spoke was what, a year ago?"

"Uh-huh. Last May."

"So, what's up?"

"You still live in that apartment of yours?"

Juna rubbed her temple. Her head was starting to hurt again. A kind of cold, prickling sensation descended on her shoulders. "Yup. 'bout you?"

"Moved back recently. Look, could we meet somewhere, say, tomorrow?"

After checking to see if she was free, Juna said, "Sure. Have any ideas?"

"There's a kissaten near the city library named Aoi Kochou," suggested Katsunari.

"I think I know the place. Can we meet at four? I have archery practice after school."

"Sure. We have lots to catch up on."

"We sure do. See you then."

There was a click, and the dial tone returned. Something wet seemed to be sticking to Juna's ear. She looked at the receiver.

And screamed.

Tokio, who had been watching TV and sipping melon juice, bolted off the sofa in fright. "Juna! What's wrong?" He saw her fling the phone from her hand and produce Gandiva.

Juna saw something red and gooey starting to ooze out of the receiver earpiece.

"Tokio! There's a Raaja coming out of the phone!"

"What? I don't see anything!" He dashed to her and forced Gandiva down. "Juna, there's nothing there!"

"Can't you see it?" The red gunk was starting to coalesce.

"No! Put the bow down before you destroy something!"

Slowly, even as she watched the viscous substance building up before her, Juna calmed herself and unstrung Gandiva. The weapon disappeared into nothingness.

Tokio picked the phone up. "See? There's nothing wrong with it."

Juna blinked. She looked at the instrument, as clean and normal as it could be.

"I–I guess I was just seeing things," she said shamefacedly.

"What's going on?" asked Kaine, running into the room from her bedroom.

Before she could even open her mouth to reply, Tokio said, "Juna saw a mouse."

"A mouse? Is that all? I thought you were killing her or something…" Kaine went huffily into the kitchen.

Looking up at her friend, Juna smiled in thanks.

"What did you see?" asked Tokio, setting the beeping receiver down. After she had told him, he remarked, "These visions of yours are getting really funky."

"I know. Sorry."

"Don't be. Just think twice before shooting anything, okay?"

Juna nodded. It was becoming harder for her to distinguish between vision and reality. Without Tokio's help, she didn't know if she could have survived up to this point.

"I've got to go," said Tokio. He pushed his shades up the bridge of his nose. "Are you going to be alright?"

"Yeah. Thanks. See you."

After Tokio had left, Juna went to her room and changed into her house clothes, a sleeveless baby blue t-shirt and brown canvas shorts. She lay back on her bed and tried to remember what she knew about Katsunari Hoshinogawa.

They had been friends and schoolmates a long time, ever since she was a little girl. They used to play together and occasionally visited each other's house, but that had all changed when Katsunari—or KatKat, as everyone called her, being a fond cat-lover—and her family had to move away because her father had been reassigned by his company. Their contact had been reduced to regular letters and postcards, and the occasional phone call, then to nothing at all. Juna had not heard from her in ten months. Not until today.

Juna wondered why her old friend had suddenly called her out of the blue. She guessed she'd find out tomorrow, and rolled off the bed to rummage through her bookbag for the schoolwork she had to answer.

-oOo-

Juna ran down a street near the Kobe City Library, her tall blue yumi case wobbling in the air behind her. She was late.

She wasn't late because she had encountered another demonic entity or anything like it. She was late because her mind had been wandering again, and this had earned her the ire of, and a lecture from, her archery teacher, who had watched her poor form and poor shooting at the practice target. And to top it all off, as she was leaving school she had to stop and fend off another vision, one that started with the school fence suddenly coming to life and chasing after her, and ended when she tripped over a crack in the sidewalk.

She blushed as she recalled falling on her face. That was embarrassing, to say the least.

Reaching the door of the kissaten, she pulled it open and quickly looked around, ignoring the welcome of the store manager.

A black-haired girl sitting at one of the few tables, dressed in a long-sleeved blue sweater and knee-length dark-blue skirt, looked her way, smiled in recognition, and waved.

Juna waved back and retrieved her bow case from her backpack, holding it horizontally in her hands, since it was so tall she couldn't enter the kissaten with it sticking up in the air. She made her way to her friend.

"Hi, Ka-chan. Sorry I'm late."

Katsunari Hoshinogawa smiled up at her. "Only you could call me 'Ka-chan.' What are people going to think? I don't look old enough to be a mom, do I?"

Juna stared at her friend. This wasn't the Katsunari she remembered. Her face and hands had an unhealthy, grayish pallor, the dark eyes behind the gold-rimmed glasses had no sparkle in them, and she looked tired.

"Juna?"

Juna shook her head. "What? Sorry, Ka-chan. What happened to you?"Katsunari looked down at the cup of coffee on the table in front of her.

"Sit down, Juna, and I'll tell you."

After she had done so and placed her things to one side, Katsunari said, "Would you like something? My treat."

"Uh, just coffee would be fine."

Ka-chan relayed her order to the attendant and added her own. She then turned to her friend.

"I'm sick, Juna, to tell you the truth."

"Sick? Of what?"

"Oh, nothing much." Katsunari sipped her coffee. "Something called end-stage renal disease."

"What's that?"

"My kidneys are dying. It means poison is building up in my body. And I can't piss much any more," she added, embarrassed.

Juna stared in disbelief at the way her friend spoke so matter-of-factly. "That's terrible."

"Don't I know it." She laughed. "I'm not exactly the picture of health, am I?"

Their conversation was interrupted as the waitress brought them their order. After she had left, Juna looked at the food and drink in front of her.

"Well? Go on, eat up," Katsunari prompted her.

Juna hesistantly picked up the cup of coffee and, taking a deep breath, took a sip.

Her eyes widened as her power showed her where the coffee had come from, and she quickly and covertly spit it back into the cup.

"What kind of coffee is this?" she asked. She wondered if there was a restroom nearby where she could wash her mouth clean.

"Palm civet coffee," replied Katsunari. "They say it's the best kind there is."

"Uh… yeah, it sure tastes like it." The smooth, mellow taste registered in her mind, but it couldn't take away the images she had seen.

Ka-chan toyed with the food on her plate. "Juna, I… that is, I called you… because I wanted to see you one last time."

"One last time?"

"This disease of mine has no cure," said Katsunari quietly. "Pretty soon I'll be too weak to even go out like this."

"Ka-chan! This… this is so awful," Juna whispered. She placed a hand on the other girl's.

"Yeah. I'm sorry I had to spring it on you like this, but I have to be straight to the point, since I get tired so easily."

An awkward silence descended over the two girls.

"Oh, come on, Juna," Katsunari said finally. "I get this reaction from everyone I meet."

"Well, how do you expect them to react, Ka-chan?"

"Why doesn't anyone say something like, 'Let's spend the remaining days having fun, KatKat?'" She sighed. "Everyone becomes afraid to touch me, like I'm some kind of fragile china doll."

"Well, they ought to treat you that way, since you're so sick."

"That won't make me any better!" Katsunari insisted. "I'd rather spend my days having fun than moping around the house, which is all I do now."

"Having fun, huh?" An idea was forming in Juna's mind. "Maybe I can do something about that."

-oOo-

The Avatar of Time was present over the city again that afternoon, but this time she wasn't fighting a Raaja, and she had someone with her.

"Whee!" yelled Katsunari Hoshinogawa, clinging to Arjuna's back, her short black hair whipping in the wind as they soared through the air.

"Having fun yet?" asked Arjuna, smiling, looking back at her with those inhumanly bright red eyes.

"Oh yeah!" Ka-chan replied gleefully. "Are we near?"

"Look over there."

Katsunari looked at the bright silver strip in the distance, beyond the city. "I see it."

"Say, Juna," she asked, flattening herself against her ride's back as they started to descend again towards the city, "how long have you had this, uh, power of yours?"

"A couple of months now," Arjuna replied.

Katsunari poked the slender pink structures on Arjuna's back. "Do you use these to fly?"

"Not really. It's more of a mental thing. But flying around needs more concentration, so I usually jump from place to place, if it's not too far."

"Gosh, imagine that. Juna the superhero!"

Arjuna was silent as she watched the ground rushing up to meet them. "You know, I never thought of it that way."

They landed on top of an office building. "Hold on tight, Ka-chan," Arjuna warned as she gathered herself for another mighty spring.

"Eeeyaaah!" Katsunari yelled as Arjuna launched them again into the air.

"Are you okay?" Arjuna was worried whether Katsunari could take the stresses of her powerful take-off. She was only human—and a sick one at that.

"Fine, fine." Katsunari adjusted her displaced glasses. "Juna, if you're the superhero, who are the bad guys?"

Arjuna paused. "We are, Ka-chan."

"Huh?"

"Our greed, hate and apathy will be the things that will destroy us one of these days."

"I understand what you're saying, but I still don't understand, if you know what I mean."

Arjuna began to explain about her origins, SEED, the Raaja, and her part in fighting them. As she spoke, a cold, prickly feeling manifested itself along her back. She chalked it up to her revulsion for the entities she fought.

When she had finished, they were only a couple of city blocks away from the bayside. After she had landed, Arjuna hurried with Katsunari into a small alleyway so she could turn back into her ordinary self.

"I guess we can walk from here," Juna said as soon as the process had finished, turning to face her friend.

"Yeah, it's not so… Juna?"

The possessor of the Drop of Time was staring at her, a horrified expression on her face. One of her hands was raised partway to her face, as if to shield herself.

"Juna? What's wrong?" asked Katsunari, her voice rising in alarm.

The terrified girl could only blurt out "Ka-chan… your face…"

"What's wrong with my face? Juna, answer me!" Katsunari ran her hands over her visage but could find nothing amiss.

In Juna's eyes, her friend had suddenly turned into a walking abomination. A Raaja was coming out of her eyes, her nose, her mouth, and her ears, its tentacles waving slowly in the air like some hideous red seaweed caught in a strong current.

This makes sense, a detached, impersonal part of Juna's mind told her. She is sick, and she is undergoing treatment…But how come it only manifested now?

"Juna," called Katsunari. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

"Ka-chan, how do you feel right now?" she asked, trying not to stare at the vision.

"A little unwell, now you mention it," her friend answered. "A bit queasy. That's part and parcel of my sickness, unfortunately."

As Juna watched, the crimson tendrils retreated back into her friend, like the feelers of an anemone when disturbed.

"I… it's nothing, Ka-chan. I must have been seeing things again."

Katsunari went to stand in front of her, hands on her hips. "Ariyoshi," she said, "that is the weakest excuse for a lie I have ever heard. Tell… me… what… you… saw." She distinctly enunciated each word.

Juna took Katsunari's hands in her own, and tried not to flinch at the new visions that revealed themselves. "I can see how unwell you are, Ka-chan. That's all." There was no need to tell her of the hideous sight she had just witnessed. Taking her backpack and bow case from the sick girl, she asked, "Well? Feel like a stroll to the water?"

"You bet. I'm feeling better now."

"Let's go then." They exited the alleyway, and Juna attempted to lose herself in conversation with her childhood friend as the walked along the sidewalk to the bay. She tried not to dwell on the realization that Ka-chan was beyond any help Arjuna could give; her sickness was too far advanced. The Raaja inside her was holding fast, and squeezing her life out.

-oOo-

"Hey, Juna?"

They had found a bench facing the sea and sat down on it, watching the setting sun sparkling off the orange-hued water.

"Hmm?"

"Every superhero needs a sidekick, doesn't she? Do you have one?"

Juna laced her hands behind her head and looked up at the sky. "Well, aside from the people of SEED, I have this friend who helps me…" A small smile formed on her lips.

"He's someone special, I'll bet."

"Eh? How'd you know it was a guy?"

"I know that look on your face, Ariyoshi. Is he your boyfriend?"

"No he's not. He's just a friend. What about you?"

"I have one, but…" Katsunari hung her head. "This illness of mine is putting a great strain on us."

"I can imagine."

"Do you know, when I was operated on the first time to put this thing in my arm—" she held her left forearm up and pulled the sleeve of her sweater back, exposing a crosshatched scar on her inner wrist, "—my parents said he actually admitted to them he was scared? I mean, him? One of the toughest, coolest guys in school, scared?"

Juna peered at the bulging scar on Katsunari's arm. "What is that?"

"Huh? Oh, it's called a fistula."

"What's it for?"

"Remember what I told you about going through dialysis?"

Juna nodded.

"Well, so my body can keep up with the machine that filters my blood, it needs to provide blood at a high enough rate. This enables it to do so. They fused an artery and a vein of mine, and hey presto! Double the blood flow. Unfortunately, it also made the blood vessels in my arm swell. " Katsunari rolled up her sleeve some more, to reveal a limb whose surface was a landscape of needle scars and whose ashen-hued skin bulged unnaturally in several places.

"Ugh," Juna said, unable to restrain herself. "That looks terrible."

"Yeah, it does. You're lucky you don't have to look at it all the time. But there's one nice thing about it." She held her arm out. "Touch my arm, Juna," she said, indicating one of the bulging vessels in her forearm. "As in lightly. Don't squeeze."

Juna pressed the tips of her fingers against it and immediately drew her hand back. "Whoa! What was that? It felt like I got shocked by an electric current…"

"That's called a bruit. It's caused by the high blood flow."

Juna touched it again, and felt it throb like a heartbeat. Throb, throb, throb…

She sank into another vision, watching the life in her friend pulsing through her veins, a life that refused to quit even when set upon by the most vicious of problems.

"Ka-chan," Juna whispered. "Somehow, I find this comforting."

Katsunari smiled at her impishly. "Can I have my arm back now, Juna?"

It was several seconds before Juna complied and removed her fingers.

"I find it useful when I'm trying to find out if I'm still alive," Katsunari bantered, rolling her sleeve back down, covering her deformed arm.

"I'm surprised you can joke about stuff like that," remarked Juna.

Before Katsunari could respond, a white minivan rolled to a stop behind them and the side door slid open. The car looked suspiciously familiar to Juna.

"Hello, Juna. Am I interrupting anything?"

Juna peered into the shadows within the vehicle, but didn't need to see the face to know who was talking. "Hello, Cindy. Let me guess, I'm needed again."

Katsunari looked at the child who emerged from the van. "This is SEED?" she asked in disbelief. "Is she part of it?"

Cindy Klein looked up at her with animosity written on her young face. "Don't tell me you've been blabbing about us, Ariyoshi?"

"Relax, she's my friend. She won't tell anyone."

"That's easy for you to say, you're—"

Whatever Cindy meant to say will never be known, because she stopped talking to them at that moment and looked inside the van. "I understand," she said, replying to an unseen person.

"No time to argue," she announced as she turned to face the two again. "Get in, both of you."

Juna looked worriedly at Katsunari. "We can't bring her with us, it's too dangerous. Besides, she's sick."

All of a sudden a powerful voice echoed inside her head. So am I, but you see me beside you when you fight, don't you?

Chris?

Get in, Juna. Cindy will look after both of us.

Sighing, Juna said to Ka-chan, "You wanted to see a superhero in action? Now's your chance."

"Great!" said Katsunari enthusiastically. "What are we waiting for?"

They hopped into the minivan. As soon as Cindy shut the door it negotiated a u-turn and burned rubber down the way it came.

Katsunari listened as Juna introduced Cindy and the silent figure sitting in what appeared to be a high-tech wheelchair, with his blond hair covering one of his icy blue eyes, a bizarre earring hanging from one of his ears.

"This is Chris Hawken."

Katsunari nodded and introduced herself. "Pleased to meet you." The figure turned and stared enigmatically at her.

"Miss Hoshinogawa," said Cindy slowly, "you realize that what we're about to show you is for your eyes only. Cindy here will look after you while you're with us."

Ka-chan looked at Juna in confusion.

"Chris can't talk to you directly," explained Cindy. "He tells me what to say."

"Chris is a telepath," added Juna.

"I understand," said Katsunari, nodding at the sandy-haired boy-man. "My lips are sealed."

"Unlike some other people's," Cindy muttered, throwing a glance Juna's way.

"How'd you find us?" Katsunari asked, curious.

"SEED can track TI emanations," answered Cindy. When Ka-chan still looked confused, she pointed at Juna. "She's a TI-2, and Chris is a TI-1."

"Where is it this time?" asked Juna.

"The reservoir," answered Cindy. "They had a little problem with their generators and spilled some chemicals into the water."

Juna asked a few more questions, then fell silent, the tension beginning to build in her again in anticipation of combat. Katsunari was quiet as well, trying to digest much of the new information that was redefining her concept of 'impossible.'

The minivan pulled off the road and into a nearby park, where a squat, boxy Chinook helicopter disguised with the markings of the Kasuga Helicopter Kuyutai of the JASDF was waiting for them, rotors turning. As they boarded, the soldier manning the cabin door cast a questioning look at Katsunari.

"Don't ask," Cindy told him, seeing his expression. "She's with TI-2."

They took off in a flurry of flying leaves and dust and headed for the mountains.

-oOo-

High on top of a cliff near the reservoir dam, Katsunari watched as Arjuna battled the many-headed green monstrosity writhing around in the water near the power generating station. One of the soldiers had taken an interest in her and lent her his helmet, which had a special set of optics designed to help ordinary humans see Raaja better. She reminded him of his lost daughter, whose death from an allergic reaction to the antibiotics in the beef they ate was the impetus for him to join SEED.

Katsunari watched a magnified view of the battle going on below through the helmet. Arjuna flitted to and fro in the air, dodging the Raaja's shots like a glowing damselfish, preternaturally quick, impossibly fast.

"Yikes!" she exclaimed as a red ball of energy zipped inches past the Avatar's left leg. "Go get him, Juna!"

"This isn't a game," said a voice beside her.

Katsunari lifted the helmet visor to see Cindy Klein standing beside her.

"Are you having fun?" Cindy asked rhetorically, a disdainful look in her catlike yellow eyes. "I can assure you Arjuna is not. If she makes even one mistake now, it may kill her."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to belittle what Juna is doing. It's just that I've never seen anything like this in my entire life." She flipped the visor back down and continued watching the fight. "Surely you can understand that."

"All too well."

"What do you guys do, anyway? Apart from sitting here looking important and harassing strangers?"

"Don't push it, Hoshinogawa. If we wanted to, we could make you disappear right now."

Katsunari put the visor back up. "Hah! You don't frighten me. Death's my friend now. I've walked a long mile with it and I've gotten to know it quite well. Well enough, in fact, to learn that it's nothing to be afraid of."

Cindy turned her nose up at Katsunari's statement. "That's crap. Everyone's afraid of dying."

"Not if you're in my position," murmured Katsunari with a conviction born out of bitter experience. "Not when life has become a living hell. Get sick once, kid. Then maybe you'll see eye-to-eye with me." In her head she felt an insistent buzzing. She wrote it off as another symptom of her illness.

Cindy was about to snap back with an angry reply when she suddenly fell silent. She looked at the figure in the hoverchair sitting perilously close to the edge of the cliff.

"Yes, Chris, I'm sorry. It's just that our… guest… is a bit annoying." She faced Katsunari. "You're lucky Chris needs quiet to help Arjuna. Otherwise—" a nearby rock floated up into the air, and the sick girl watched as an unseen force pulverized it into grayish sand "—that might happen to you if you get on my nerves." The sand dribbled back onto the ground.

Unfazed by the young girl's display of power, Katsunari said, "You didn't answer my question."

Cindy snorted. "Well, Chris is teaching Juna how to use her powers. He used to do what your friend is doing now. I act as go-between for him when he needs to talk to ordinary people like you."

"Does he have any powers like Juna?"

"Some. He's very powerful mentally. Much more than me."

"How come he seems so weak physically?"

Cindy's look turned somber. "I can't give you the answer to that."

The conversation languishing, Katsunari returned to watching her friend. The Avatar of Time was finishing off the last of the heads of the Raaja, raining down a hail of arrows on it until it finally vanished in a burst of light that lit the early evening landscape.

Katsunari watched as Arjuna turned away from the battlefield and began to fly towards them, her long translucent ribbons stretching out behind her. The buzzing in her head grew much louder, then resolved itself into something surprising.

Why must you always kill?

Katsunari's head snapped up and she raised the visor. There was no one near her. Cindy had moved to Chris' side. And it definitely wasn't hers. It was male.

Didn't I tell you to use your head? Killing the Raaja is not the solution.

Walking up behind the two, Katsunari politely cleared her throat. "Pardon me," she said, "but is getting superpowers catching? I mean, I'm hearing a voice in my head."

The figure in the chair looked up at her, a startled expression on his face.

You can hear me?

Katsunari nodded, eyes growing wide with awe behind her glasses. "So it's you. I thought I shouldn't be able to hear you." It was as if she was listening to a bad AM station.

"You shouldn't," said Cindy, as mystified as anyone else. She was silent for a couple of seconds. "Can you hear me?"

Katsunari shook her head. "Not a peep." Hawken-san, what about me? she tried on a whim.

Chris looked at her with renewed interest. Remarkable. You are the only one aside from Cindy and the other TIs who can communicate to me telepathically. A frown emerged on Chris' normally impassive face. I wonder why that is so.

Katsunari felt a wave of nausea wash over her. She staggered slightly. "So do I. I… I think I'm going to sit down for a while."

"Are you okay?" asked Cindy.

"I will be in a moment." She went to sit back down on the rock where she had been previously watching the combat, fighting the urge to throw up.

Chris' gaze followed her intently as she walked away. His eyes narrowed. Ah, yes. Very interesting, and quite unfortunate. I think I see why she can speak telepathically with me.

-oOo-

"Juna, Chris has something to ask you," Cindy said.

Almost immediately after she had returned, Juna had been taken aside by Cindy, who said Chris wanted to talk to her privately.

What is it, Chris? Her Avatar predecessor was sitting some distance away from the Chinook, in a copse of Japanese cypress. She was expecting to be castigated again. Nothing she did ever seemed to satisfy him, even when she defeated the Raaja. She was getting used to it, but that didn't make it any easier to bear.

Cindy put a palm up in warning. "Chris wants you to talk to me. Don't do it telepathically."

Cindy frowned. "Juna, did you know your friend has Raaja in her?"

The worried look returned to the Kobe native's face. "You saw it too?"

"Yes, I did."

Sighing, Juna said, "I was hoping it was just a hallucination of mine." She leaned against a tree, feeling the life pulsing within its aged, mossy trunk, seeing in a momentary vignette its origins from a seed deposited more than a century ago. "I didn't tell her."

"Why didn't you?"

"The knowledge wouldn't have helped her. It would only have made her more miserable than she already is." She looked at Chris pleadingly. "Don't tell her, please."

"But why not? Have you tried excising the Raaja?"

"I saw it inside her. It has too good a hold, it's too widespread. I don't think I'll be able to help her, and I'm afraid I'll hurt her if I try."

Cindy looked up at her. "Chris says he'll need to think about it. In the meantime, follow your own counsel, but remember, having the Raaja inside Hoshinogawa will only harm her in the long run."

Juna nodded. It was unusual for Chris to be so direct. Usually he would talk to her in such a cryptic manner it confused and antagonized her, like when her instructed her to stop the alien marauders without killing them, but didn't tell her how to go about doing it. His being forward probably meant he was just as puzzled and worried as she was. And then there was the business about not communicating telepathically. Juna asked Chris why.

"Thanks to the Raaja," Cindy replied for him, "she can hear us when we speak with our minds."

Juna's eyes widened, a look of surprise on her face. "Can she hear us now?"

"Chris says he's not sure. He tried to find out before you arrived, and thinks we're safe for the moment. He's just playing it safe." Cindy gestured at the trees, telling Juna the sheer mental noise generated by them and their inhabitants would probably keep their conversation from reaching Katsunari.

"But how can the Raaja enable her to do that?"

Chris looked away from her, and Juna thought she saw a look of guilt cross his face. I don't know.

-oOo-

The helicopter took them back to the now-deserted park, where it made a night landing, pausing only long enough to deposit two female passengers from inside its belly before disappearing back into the black sky.

"What a day!" Katsunari exclaimed, stifling a yawn. "That was so exciting!" She smiled at Juna. "I'm glad you're alright."

"Me too. What about you? Are you okay?" Juna hefted her things, and they started to walk out of the park.

Ka-chan nodded. "Just tired, though. Time for me to go home."

"I'll bring you there," said Juna.

"Oh, no, it's okay. I can do it by myself from here. My home's actually nearer here than from the kissaten," Katsunari disclosed.

"No, you're too sick for that," Juna said adamantly. "Come on." With a flash Arjuna was back, standing before Katsunari, lighting up the darkness in her pink glow. She held out a hand.

A look of irritation flashed on Ka-chan's face. "Oh, alright, Miss Know-It-All. God, I hate people doing this sooo much." She took Juna's bag and yumi case and piled them on her back, but before she could cling onto Arjuna, the Avatar scooped her up in her arms and began rising slowly into the air.

"Eh? What gives, Juna?" she asked, a blush erupting on her face.

"You might get too tired to hold on," said Arjuna. "Point me in the right direction, Ka-chan."

As they flew over the city, Katsunari felt herself being lulled to sleep by the cool wind blowing over them, and by the warmth of her friend as she rested against her. She shook herself awake.

"The city looks so nice tonight," she said softly, watching the lights twinkling as they passed beneath her.

I guess it must seem that way to you, a female voice echoed in her head. You're lucky you can't see as much of it as I do.

Katsunari smiled guiltily. You know about this, huh? Guess Chris and Cindy told you.

Arjuna nodded. You're unique, Ka-chan. I know of no one else outside SEED who can do telepathy.

The sick girl blushed furiously. It's an accident, that's all it is.

Arjuna frowned inwardly as she remembered what Chris said about the Raaja.

Thanks for everything, Juna. I'm sorry we probably won't be able to meet again.

Arjuna herself felt the regret her friend was talking about. Same here. But I'll try to visit you.

I feel like a kid who's just been to Disneyland, Katsunari thought. Or Wendy after visiting Peter Pan in Never-never Land.

Arjuna smiled. I'm glad to hear you say that.

It'll be nice to remember this day while I'm in the center. Katsunari's face turned serious. Memories, Juna. I want to make more of them, but I feel my time slipping away.

Don't talk like that, Ka-chan. You're far from dead, and you shouldn't give up hope. Because of the way she held her friend, Arjuna could feel the bruit pulsing beneath her left palm, and the sensation somehow lifted her spirits.

Don't give up hope. She gave her friend a gentle squeeze with her other hand. I'll be rooting for you. You're more of a hero than I am.

-oOo-

Just before they arrived at Katsunari's house, Arjuna felt a sense of fear and guilt rise in her friend. She found out why after they rang the doorbell and an elderly woman—Ka-chan's mother, Juna assumed—answered it.

"Katsunari!" the woman had exclaimed. Her face was a study in worry lines. "Where have you been, young lady?" She pulled her roughly into the house. "Your father and I have been worried sick!"

"I had fun, okaa-chan," Katsunari said defiantly. "And I feel a lot better now than I did before I left."

"Please forgive her," said Juna, reluctantly butting in. Why didn't you tell me you didn't get permission to go out? she asked her friend. Katsunari didn't appear to hear her.

The angry woman directed her glare at Juna. "I-I'm Juna Ariyoshi," the high schooler stammered, bowing. "We used to be neighbors."

The look of indignation changed to one of happy recognition. "Oh, yes, I remember you! Thank you for bringing my daughter home."

"Please don't mention it. It was my duty."

"I'm sorry she if she caused you any inconvenience," the older lady said. "She's very sick, you know."

"Oh, no, no, no inconvenience at all. It was nothing like that," said Juna, looking at Katsunari, who was still standing beside her mother, defiance still radiating from every inch of her. "I had a great time. She's still very fun to be with."

"Really? Well, I'm happy to hear it. I'd invite you in, dear, but Katsunari needs to rest."

"It's no problem." Juna bowed. "See you sometime, eh, KatKat?"

"Yeah, sure, Juna," Katsunari said, reluctantly emerging from her sullenness. "Thanks. Good luck to you."

Juna smiled and, bowing once more, left.

As soon as she closed the door, Katsunari's mother turned to her. "You shouldn't have been so rude to your friend."

"Did I sound like it?" she asked contritely. Without waiting to hear the answer, Katsunari pushed past her mother and flung the door open.

Too late. A cold wind blew on an empty little garden.

Rushing outside, she searched the street quickly. Juna was nowhere to be found. Sighing, the sick girl made to go back inside, glancing up to find a star in the sky to wish on.

"Juna!" The small form of the Avatar floated in the heavens, glowing faintly in the darkness, in harmony with the stars that surrounded her and made her seem like just another slightly larger one of them.

Katsunari could see her stop and turn around, the ribbons spread out on either side of her wafting gently in the night air.

Arjuna waved.

"Thank you!" Katsunari yelled, waving back vigorously. "Thank you, Juna!"

Don't mention it, Ka-chan. Take care of yourself.

The little figure whirled and continued on her way.

-oOo-

In a dream without any light but her own, Arjuna faced the worst horror she had yet so far.

She floated in the darkness some distance away from a red Raaja, coiled up like a serpent, waiting for her, looking her way. It resounded with a rumbling sort of sound, like a lion's purr made louder by fifty times, and it glowed with a bloody scarlet light strong enough to match her own.

"Juna!" it shouted, its tripartite mouth moving in a parody of a human's, the soft, girlish voice disgustingly incongruous with its snakelike body.

Arjuna stared in shock and anger at the Raaja, for on the back of its head, stuck on its skin like some obscene decoration, was Katsunari. She was on her back, naked, arms and legs splayed out in an X, unseeing, unmoving.

"Juna!" the apparition spoke again. "Help me, please!"

"But how can I help you?" Arjuna asked in despair. "I can't shoot you."

"The pain, Juna," it said, its skin rippling. "End the pain."

"How?"

"Kill me," it said softly. "Kill meeeeAAAGGHH!" The girl's voice turned into a Raaja's roar, and the monster swiftly uncoiled itself and slithered towards her.

"No!" shouted Arjuna. "Stay back! I won't do it!" She flew backwards away from the demon, but it continued to close with her.

"Juna!" it roared basso profundo. "Kill me! Hahahaha!"

"Ka-chan!" Arjuna sobbed. "I can't kill you!"

"Then I will kill you! You will make a fine meal, little insect." The monster loomed large before her, rearing up like a cobra about to strike.

Looking down at the Avatar frozen in fear, the fiery red monstrosity spoke again in Katsunari's soft voice, its mouth moving like the petals of some hideous flower. "Kill me, Juna. It's the only way." Then it opened wide.

Arjuna stared into the black maw of the beast as it descended on her. Gandiva appeared in her hands. "Forgive me, Ka-chan," she whispered as she aimed, drew the bowstring back, and fired...

-oOo-

Juna Ariyoshi bolted upright in her bed, mouth open, breathing hard. She looked around at her room in momentary confusion, then, realizing where she was, clamped a hand on her forehead and took a deep breath. She tried to calm herself.

Another nightmare, she thought. She had been having them a lot more since she became the Avatar of Time. But never this vivid. Never this real. Feeling lonely and frightened, she looked at her bedside clock. 3 AM. No one to talk to. Sighing, she reached for her cell phone and tapped out a message for Tokio, one he would read when he woke up. Then she pulled the bedcovers over her head and tried to go back to sleep.

-oOo-

Two weeks passed before Juna could keep her promise and visit her friend. This time Tokio went with her, intrigued at the story she told him about their meeting. They visited her at Konnan HP's dialysis center.

It wasn't a very pleasant place to be in. At first Juna was very reluctant to enter the dialysis room. She could see rows of patients in recliners with machines at their sides, all humming or beeping softly. Occasionally, one would give off an alarm, which sent the nurses at the station scurrying over to check on it.

She didn't need Arjuna's sensitivity to feel the suffering of the people in that room. It hung in the air, almost palpable, like a suffocating miasma. But as she watched some of the patients conversing with one another, or with their guardians, she also saw glimpses of the strength of the indomitable human spirit shining through, like lightning in the night, in their smiles and quiet laughter.

Katsunari's mother came from the room and beckoned for her to follow. Juna looked at Tokio, who nodded. He put a mask on, since he had a slight cold—something which was a mere inconvenience to him but could be fatal to any one of the patients—and together they went inside.

The air smelled of the typical sterility of a hospital room, of disinfectants and the infrequent sharp smells of vinegar and citric acid. The cold of the air-conditioning inside made Juna shiver a bit, but she saw some of the other patients with the necks of their shirts open, fanning themselves, as if they were hot.

Katsunari was lying in a stretched-out blue recliner, her legs covered with a thick blanket. To Juna she looked rather woebegone, but the sick girl's subsequent behavior belied her condition.

"Hi, Ka-chan."

"Hi, Juna!" She smiled shyly at Tokio. "Who's your friend?"

"This is Tokio Ooshima," answered Juna. "He's the one who helps—"

"Ah, yes, your boyfriend!"

Juna and Tokio looked awkwardly at each other.

"She's not—" began Tokio, trying to save Juna from embarrassment.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," giggled Katsunari, noticing the looks they gave each other, waving her free hand. "That was just the first thing that popped into my mind."

"So you spend eight hours like this every week?" asked Juna, sitting down in the visitor's chair beside her friend.

Kastunari nodded. "The doctor's thinking about increasing it to twelve."

"How do you pass the time? I know I'd get bored," said Tokio.

"Oh, I read." She lifted a thick paperback from the small table on the side opposite where Juna had sat down. "And I eat. I can eat freely when I'm hooked up like this, so it's not a total loss." She pointed to her disfigured arm, which lay immobile on the armrest, connected to the cabinet-like dialysis machine by two plastic lines red with her blood. Juna noted the large size of the needles that stuck in it, showing through the clear hypoallergenic tape used to affix them.

Katsunari, seeing Juna looking at her arm, quietly tucked it away under the blanket, not wanting it to draw her visitors' attention.

"That must hurt," Tokio commented. He had been looking at it too.

Katsunari shrugged. "I have good days and bad days. Today was a good day."

She calls this a good day? thought Tokio. "What happens on a bad day?"

"Oh, nothing. They just have to stick me a million times because the connection won't work, or they stick me and my blood vessels blow up like a balloon." Katsunari grimaced. "That hurts quite a bit."

Juna winced in sympathy as she tried to imagine what the sight must look like.

Katsunari scratched a leg under the blanket. "Oh, joy," she grumbled. "I'm starting to itch again." She pulled the blanket away to reveal the member, as ashen-hued as the rest of her, and scratched more insistently at it. "The bad thing is, it doesn't go away when I scratch it. It feels like it's on fire."

"Why don't you put some lotion on it?" suggested Juna. "It looks kind of dry."

"Ah, that won't work. It's all the phosphorous in my body that's causing the itch."

"Phosphorous? Where does that come from?"

"The food I eat."

Juna cocked an eyebrow. "Such as?"

"Oh, things like soft drinks and snacks, beans, diary products, that stuff. Plus coffee," she added, smiling a small, embarrassed smile.

"Ka-chan!" Juna complained, remembering their rendezvous at the kissaten. "And there you were, drinking that civet coffee."

"Sorry," Katsunari apologized meekly. "I can't help it sometimes. There's not much that makes me happy nowadays."

Not knowing how to reply to that statement, Juna changed the subject. "Oh, well, let's try putting lotion on it anyway. It might help."

For a moment irritation appeared on Katsunari's face. Then she sighed and reached down into the handbag on the floor beside her chair. She brought out a small bottle of lotion, which Juna took from her.

"Here. I'll do it."

She applied a generous layer on Katsunari's leg, slowly, rhythmically smoothing it in. "Any better?"

"A bit," replied her friend, closing her eyes. "Thanks, Juna." Katsunari was silent for a minute or two.

"Juna?" she called softly, opening her eyes at the same time, staring at the ceiling.

"What?" Was it her imagination, thought Juna, or were Ka-chan's eyes getting red?

"Could you please call the nurse? I'm not feeling well."

Juna nodded and started to rise, only to be stopped by Tokio.

"I'll do it," he said, and walked away.

Juna turned back to Katsunari and gasped.

The Raaja was starting to come out again.

"Ka-chan?" she said tentatively, laying a hand on the sick girl's shoulder. "Are you alright?"

"Just a bit dizzy. I can manage." But in her head Juna could hear her going I'm not going to throw up, I'm not going to throw up, over and over again, while a wave of nausea also made itself known to her.

"Hang on, the nurse is here."

Juna stepped aside and the chubby woman in the maroon uniform took Katsunari's blood pressure. She called the doctor, who then came over and examined her.

"Looks like hypoglycemia," she said to her patient after a minute. "We'll lower the blood flow and stop pulling water, okay? You'll be fine in a few minutes." Whispering some instructions to the nurse, she returned to her station.

The nurse manipulated the dialysis machine's controls as Juna looked around at the other patients. None of them had Raaja as far as she could tell. Only Ka-chan had those ghostly tentacles waving from her orifices.

"Sorry," croaked Katsunari. "This happens sometimes." She closed her eyes. "Do I feel awful," she whispered.

"It's okay, Ka-chan. Just rest."

Wishing to distract herself from the unpleasant sensations coursing through her, Katsunari ignored Juna and continued talking. "I was just thinking last night about what you said…"

"About what?"

"Well, you said man's greed and carelessness were going to do us all in…"

The girl with the mark on her forehead nodded.

"But if we want to stop the destruction of our planet, that would mean… well, I can't think of any way to stop it other than totally revamping civilization…"

"Me too," agreed Juna, a hint of bitterness in her voice. "But of course, that's not going to happen."

"But Juna, even if that were possible, I couldn't agree with you on that," Katsunari said quietly.

"Why not?"

"Well, just look at me. I need this civilization to survive. I need the drugs, the machines, the chemicals… if things went the way I think you and Chris and SEED want them too, I'd die."

"I didn't say I had all the answers, Ka-chan. Even I don't agree with what Chris spouts sometimes. But one thing's for sure: we're not going to make it the way we're behaving right now. And you know what? Every time I say that someone looks at me like I'm crazy or something."

"Saving the planet is crazy?"

"No, Ka-chan. You misunderstand. We're not trying to save the planet, when all is said and done. The earth won't care if all of us humans vanish tomorrow. It doesn't need us." A hard light came into Juna's dark brown eyes, and for a moment Katsunari felt she was looking at a completely different person, an individual far beyond the conventional mores of a short-sighted humanity. "In the end, we're trying to save ourselves from our own stupidity."

-oOo-

Several minutes later, Mrs. Hoshinogawa returned. By that time, the Raaja had once more disappeared into her daughter and she was feeling much better. Juna and Tokio told her mother what had happened, then said they had to leave.

She bowed. "Thank you for visiting."

They bowed back, and Juna laid a gentle hand on Katsunari's shoulder. "Ka-chan, I have to go. Look after yourself, okay?"

Katsunari looked up at her through half-lidded eyes. She smiled weakly. "Thanks for stopping by, Juna. Give my regards to your friends." She reached out and gave her friend's hand a squeeze.

Juna nodded and squeezed her hand back.

As they exited the center, she asked Mrs. Hoshinogawa what had caused her daughter's disease.

"The doctor isn't sure. Most likely it could be an infection of some sort, or an allergic reaction to some chemicals in the environment."

Juna somberly thanked her for the information, then she and Tokio exited the building and went to the motorcycle parking slots. As they put on their helmets, he said, "Living like that… isn't living at all."

Juna said nothing, but Tokio noticed that when they hopped on his scooter, she hugged him extra tightly. Some minutes later, as they wended their way through the afternoon traffic, she said, "Tokio?"

"Hmm?"

"If I ever take too long to answer you, go find someone else, okay?"

"What on earth are you talking about?"

"Seeing Ka-chan like that… she reminded me how precious each day is. Don't waste time on me."

"My time is my own, Juna. I can wait as long as I like," he told her.

"Yes… but not forever."

"Well, then," he said as they stopped at a red light, turning to face her, "can I ask one thing from you now?"

Juna looked up at him. "What's that?"

"How about a kiss?" he requested, his helmeted head leaning closer. He said it jokingly, but Juna knew him better than to think that nothing serious was behind it. So for an answer she smiled and batted him away with her yumi case. Again.

-oOo-

Two days later Cindy Klein accosted her as she went to the archery range for practice.

"Ariyoshi!"

Juna was surprised at her presence on the school grounds. "Cindy? What is it?"

"We've got trouble! Come on!"

Juna frowned. Normally someone else would fetch her, not Cindy, who was needed frequently by Chris.

Juna asked a favor of a passing fellow kyuudou-ka and hurried back to the young headset-wearing girl, who led her at a run to the white minivan waiting outside the front gate, ponytailed orange hair bobbing up and down. They got in and the driver sped off.

"Details?" she asked.

"In the port area, on a ship."

"Where's Chris?"

"He's waiting in the helicopter."

The van drove to an open-air basketball court. A minute later the Chinook was hovering above them, lowering a rope ladder from its cabin door. Its downwash kicked up great amounts of dust that made both girls squint.

Cindy clambered on, followed closely by Juna. They were not even halfway up the ladder when the helicopter started to climb away.

"Don't look down!" Juna shouted. Cindy nodded without looking at her and continued upwards.

They tumbled one after the other into the cabin, and a crewman pulled the ladder in and shut the door after them.

Teresa Wong, an important SEED official, was there waiting for them in her battle gear, as was Chris Hawken.

"So glad you two could make it," said Teresa.

Juna, Chris Hawken sent at her without preamble, we have a Raaja that might prove difficult for you to handle.

"What do you mean?"

You'll see when we get there. His normally impassive face somehow seemed more grim than usual.

"I'm surprised to see you here," said Juna to Teresa Wong.

The head of SEED's Eastern Division nodded. "Well, we're going to test out a couple of new inventions from SEED's North American branch."

"New inventions?"

"They supposed to help us help you when you're fighting against the Raaja."

"That's welcome news indeed. Any help would be welcome."

Juna heard a ghostly snort in her mind. Not this kind of help.

Teresa, oblivious to Chris' comment, was explaining. "They're weapons designed to destroy the Raaja. We've tested them once, and they seemed to work."

"Then why do you still need me?"

"Because we don't know if they work against all the Raaja."

Chris' face clearly showed his misgivings. They're curing the symptoms, and not the disease itself. Of course, you know who sponsored their development.

In a few minutes they reached the docks.

Several fires lit the troubled area in a smoky yellow light. As she looked out of the helicopter's round windows, Juna could see the ghostly Raaja on board a small coastal freighter, its crimson bulk twined around a loading crane.

As they neared the field of battle, Juna tapped the soldier manning the door. "Drop me off!"

Without a word the soldier opened it. A furious blast of wind greeted Juna as she stepped into the doorway, flapping her short blue skirt and raven hair. The shrill whine of the Chinook's T58 turbines deafened her.

She took a deep breath and jumped into space, transforming into Arjuna in a heartbeat, and dove towards the freighter, seeing the momentary traces of weapon fire lash out at the Raaja as she approached.

Down at the pier, one of the soldiers battling the monster took another shot at it with his specialized weapon, which looked vaguely like a cross between the insides of a vaccum cleaner and a home stereo system that had stuck itself to his hand. It spewed a bright flash of light which lit up the side of the creature. Roaring, the Raaja retaliated by sending a ball of energy his way.

Caught in the open without any cover, the man watched his death arcing through the air towards him. In a heartbeat before it hit him, however, he felt himself pulled violently off the pier. The Raaja's projectile impacted against the concrete, sending chips flying everywhere.

"Thanks!" the man said to Arjuna, lifting his helmet visor as they zoomed away from danger.

"You're welcome," responded the TI-2, placing the soldier safely out of harm's way behind a warehouse before leaping back into the fray.

As Gandiva shimmered into existence in her hands, Arjuna surveyed the dock where the battle was taking place. The monstrosity was being rained upon with fire from all sides by the SEED contingent, but it held its ground on board the freighter.

Why won't it escape? she thought as she brought the bow to bear, her jump sending her back into the engagement.

She launched an arrow, and it hit the Raaja like a miniature comet. It roared in pain, snapping a gantry in half as it thrashed around.

A ghostly seabird suddenly materialized beside her. Hold, Juna.

Arjuna landed on the pier. Chris!

You might want to look closer at your enemy. The apparition then flew off, to circle at a safe distance away, above the water.

Arjuna did so, and as the monster pivoted to fire at another of its tormentors, she realized why Chris was cautioning her. There, on its back, was a very familiar figure, crucified on its skin.

Katsunari.

Arjuna's eyes widened and her quiet self-confidence instantly shattered.

"No!"

-oOo-

At her cry the monster turned to her and spat another ball. She dodged it by leaping upwards, performing a backward somersault and landing on the roof of one of the surrounding warehouses.

Chris! Arjuna thought desperately as she watched the monster preparing to fire again. What can I do?

There was no answer from her mentor.

Damn you! She brought Gandiva up and aimed for the creature's tail end, but hesitated, not knowing if this one would blow up in one shot like some others she'd seen.

She shook her head angrily. "Ka-chan!" she called.

The Raaja looked her way and, if anything, seemed to quiver in recognition.

"Juna," it said in a soft girl's voice, its mouth moving. "Help me."

Arjuna's heart fell even further. Her nightmare of some weeks ago was coming true.

Chris! she called again. Please tell me what to do!

I can't, even if I wanted to. The voice in her mind was hesitant, unsure. I've never seen a Raaja like this before. It's a mix—

The sentence was left unfinished as Arjuna dodged another shot from the creature.

"Ka-chan," she pleaded, "please stop! It's me, Juna!"

"Juna?" the voice said tiredly. "I can't. I'm not in control."

Arjuna flew down to the pier, putting her bow away. "How can I help you, Ka-chan?"

The monster belched another blast of energy, which the Avatar blocked by producing a transparent shield of energy in front of her, the impact causing a bright flash of light to wash over the area.

"Jun-na," came the soft voice haltingly. "Kill me."

"I can't!" Arjuna screamed. "I won't!"

The monster roared, and spoke again in a very different but not unfamiliar tone.

"Then you will die, maggot!" it declared in its own rumbling voice. The voice of a monster.

Three projectiles pounded upon Arjuna's shield, sending her staggering back. The last one caused it to disappear, having exhausted her remaining power, and her will to fight as well.

Arjuna jumped far back and landed beside a pair of SEED personnel hiding behind a stack of crates next to a warehouse door. One of them was Teresa Wong, who had taken up a weapon and joined her soldiers on the front line.

"Keep it busy!" she shouted to the world at large, and the volume of fire, which had dropped off to nothing while Arjuna was talking to the creature, increased again.

She watched as the Avatar dropped to one knee and placed a hand, knuckles down, on the ground to steady herself. She was lost in thought.

"Juna," snapped Teresa, "I've already lost five of my men. If you're going to do anything, you'd better do it quick."

The being looked up at her, its inhuman face and bright yellow hair looking all the more eerie because of the tears running down its cheeks.

"I don't know… I don't know what to do."

"Well for God's sake do something!" Teresa shouted, her eyes flashing fire. "Are you going to trade all our lives for the life of your friend?" There was a horrendous blast nearby, and the humans ducked instinctively, cringing behind the crates.

Arjuna remained where she was, caught in the grip of indecision.

Juna, came Chris' thought, remember that there is more than one way to stop a Raaja.

Arjuna wiped her face with the back of a hand. Many lives versus one, she thought. In her mind she saw again the Katsunari she knew, as they played in the street, as they shared the food Juna's mother had prepared for snack time, as they lay in bed giggling over their elementary school crushes, and as she lay in the dialysis center, smiling through her suffering.

She slowly stood up, unmindful of getting hit by the enemy's increasing barrage, staring in the direction of the freighter, a faraway look in her eyes. "Miss Wong," she asked slowly, "will you be able to take care of the monster by yourselves if you have to?"

"Eh?" Teresa hefted her weapon. "I guess so."

"Then do so. I will not be here to help you." Arjuna turned to face her. Another tear coursed down her face, and the SEED leader had the impression she was looking at an ages-old person with an ages-old sorrow about to be solved at long last.

"Remember me," Arjuna said, her voice low but intense. "Remember me and fight."

Teresa wanted to say something, to chide or give encouragement to this being who suddenly seemed resolute and forbidding, yet incredibly sad. Instead, her conscious mind settled for "What the hell are you talking about?"

Arjuna leapt away, leaving her a void bereft of an answer.

-oOo-

Chris Hawken's spirit soared over the battlefield, borne on the wind from the sea and given flight by the wings of death. He watched as Arjuna landed right in front of the monster.

Juna, what are you doing?

She didn't answer. Instead she spoke to the Raaja.

"Ka-chan," she said, "if you can hear me, I have something to say."

With much shuddering, the grotesque marauder stopped firing and looked down at the tiny glowing figure in front of it.

"I can't help you, my enemy and my friend," said Arjuna. "But if I give myself up… will you leave these people alone?"

Back at the crates, a shocked Teresa Wong ran a hand over her close-cropped brown hair and exclaimed, "What did she say?"

The Raaja spoke again in its soft, out-of-place voice. "I'll try, Juna."

Arjuna nodded. "Good. It's either them or you… I'd rather go with you." She tilted her head upwards and extended her arms out to her sides. "I have never taken a human life before, Ka-chan. I am not about to start now."

"It's nice to know you still think of me as human, my friend," said the monster. "Thank you, and farewell."

The Raaja hovered above her for a moment, swaying and hissing like a bamboo caught in a stiff breeze. Then, as quick as a striking snake, it opened its mouth and extended its maw down to the pier, engulfing the Avatar of Time. When it withdrew itself, Arjuna was nowhere to be seen.

"Juna!" one of the SEED veterans exclaimed in horror. He had been working with her since the very beginning, and liked the teenager better than he did his own superiors.

"All units open fire!" yelled Teresa into her mike. "Destroy that thing!"

Galvanized into action by the sight they had just witnessed, the SEED soldiers began firing nonstop upon the Raaja, illuminating the pier in a light show that would remain forever unparalleled in Kobe history. The creature roared in pain, and it began to fade away under the onslaught.

Encouraged by the sight, the soldiers continued to fire for all their worth, even as some of them were injured by their overheating weaponry.

The monstrosity shuddered, then suddenly began to swell, emitting sounds of distress as it did so. The fusillade petered out as the SEED personnel watched the strange sight.

The Raaja continued to puff up until its body looked like a gigantic balloon. Then it shrieked one last time and vanished in a silent explosion and blinding burst of light.

Teresa Wong squinted against the glare, then sniffed. The normally foul air of the port actually smelled cleaner now. She looked around for the monster as the light died away, but could find no trace of it. Unfortunately, the same was true for the chemical-bearing freighter. And Arjuna.

A figure flew up into their view from beneath the dock, holding something in its arms.

"Juna!" came the collective cry.

The Avatar, her glow muted by the slime she was coated in, landed on the pier. She bore an unconscious Katsunari in her arms. The back of the girl's clothes were torn and missing.

Shouting joyful noises into the air, all the SEED personnel lowered their weapons and ran to the pink being.

Arjuna watched them coming and knelt down, laying her friend on the scorched concrete surface as gently as one would a baby. Then she smiled weakly, struggled to rise, and failed, collapsing onto the pier like a falling leaf, her body reverting to Juna Ariyoshi as she lost consciousness. By the time Chris' spirit form arrived at the scene, a crowd was already gathered around the two unconscious girls, and the close-cropped, technically hermaphroditic SEED leader was yelling into her radio, calling for an ambulance.

Chris gazed at Juna, who looked like she was simply sleeping, her V-shaped black hair spread on the dock. You're learning, Avatar. Slowly, but you're learning. I envy you and your friend. Deep inside him, the darkness stirred.

-oOo-

"Hey, she moved!"

"Hi, Juna! Wakey-wakey!"

Juna emerged from the darkness of sleep. Blinking her eyes against the ceiling lights, she croaked, "Tokio?"

"Good evening. How do you feel?"

"Uhh… like somebody's been pounding on me with a mallet." She rolled her head to the left. "Katsunari…"

"Hello, Juna." The girl with the grayish pallor and ugly arm was sitting in a seat beside her bed. She was smiling.

"Where am I?"

"In the hospital. Don't worry, your mother's here and the doctor said you'll be able to go home tomorrow."

"But… what happened, Ka-chan?"

"You saved me, Juna."

"How did… why did the Raaja come out like that?"

Katsunari frowned at her. "I don't know. I don't remember either. All I know was I felt really bad that night. And then when I fell asleep, I thought it was all a dream, until I reached the port and someone started shooting at me."

"I'm glad you're okay."

"So am I!" Katsunari laughed. "That was way too much excitement even for me."

"Don't laugh, Ka-chan," Juna admonished her. "Miss Wong told me your Raaja killed some of her men."

Katsunari's laughter died away. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be insensitive."

"You can't possibly be blaming her," said Tokio.

"I'm not. But still, people died." Juna smiled feebly. "At least I was able to save you."

There was a knock on the door, and the brown-haired, bespectacled Mrs. Ariyoshi came in. "Ah, you're awake. How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine, Mom."

Mrs. Ariyoshi put her handbag down on the beside table. "Those nice people from your school said they'd pay the hospital bill," she informed her daughter. "That's a weight off my mind."

Huh? Juna thought, confused. She was about to speak when Ka-chan laid a hand on hers.

That was Miss Wong, she sent. Juna's eyes widened in surprise.

You still have your power?

Just a little. I can do this now only when I touch a person.

Juna peered intently at her friend. I hope this doesn't mean you still have something inside you.

Chris Hawken doesn't think so.And that's another thing I want to talk to you about, Ariyoshi. Why didn't you tell me?

Juna couldn't answer, because her mother was scolding her. Something about looking both ways before crossing a street.

Tokio looked knowingly at her and winked. "Mrs. Ariyoshi," he said, "I don't think Juna should hear that just now. She told me she was sorry already."

"Well, just so she doesn't do it again. I mean, really. At your age, you still get hit by a car even when all you're doing is walking across the road." Mrs. Ariyoshi sniffled a bit and went to the bathroom to check herself.

As her mother retreated into the enclosure, Juna turned to Katsunari. "Are you still sick?"

Katsunari nodded. "Yes, I am. But I've got good news." She grinned. "My father found a stranger who's willing to donate a kidney. They've already tested him, and he's compatible with me. He's flying over to Japan the day after tomorrow, and if everything goes well, I'll have a transplant operation next week."

Juna sat upright in her bed, ignoring her various aches and pains. "That's great!" she exclaimed joyfully. "Good luck, Ka-chan! I'm so happy for you!"

"Hey, Miss Superhero, without you, I wouldn't be alive to receive it..." Tears started to well in the girl with the ugly arm's eyes, and she stood up and hugged her friend tightly.

"Ka-chan, I can't breathe…"

"Sorry."

There was another knock on the door, and Mrs. Hoshinogawa came in to fetch her daughter. Just before they left, Juna shook hands with her childhood friend and asked What does she know?

Oh, I ran away from home again and helped bring you here. So she's not so angry at me. There was a girlish giggle in the back of Juna's mind. Would you believe Miss Wong actually offered me a job at SEED? I said I'd think about it. I guess I'm inclined to accept. It's the least I can to do to make up for the damage I've done.

Juna frowned. Just so you know, Ka-chan, I'd be very careful about joining SEED if I were you. Very careful indeed.

Katsunari nodded. Yeah, I sort of figured that out myself. Then, as her mother coaxed her into leaving, she waved. "See you around."

Mrs. Ariyoshi, who had just exited the bathroom, insisted on escorting the pair to the hospital lobby, so her daughter was left alone with Tokio.

"Juna?"

"What?"

"What in Heaven's name were you thinking, pulling a stunt like that?" he shouted. "Miss Wong told me everything that happened."

"Sorry. It seemed like the right thing to do, somehow. Why?"

"If I had known you had such a death wish, I never would've bothered… never would've bothered falling…" Tokio swallowed as Juna waited, heart soaring in anticipation.

"I never would've bothered falling in line at the store to bring you this!" His hands came up, holding a large furoshiki with a red 'Get well' written on it, his mouth splitting open in a wide grin.

Juna looked up at him for a split second, then laughed. "You jerk! I should have known you'd get back at me like that!" She suddenly grabbed one of his hands and squeezed it fondly. "Oh, Tokio. Forgive me for worrying you. I have no intention of leaving this life again. At least, not for a while." The black-haired girl's countenance turned bleak as she looked up at him. "My job as the Avatar still isn't finished, and I don't think it will be for a long time. Can you handle that?"

Tokio looked down at her keenly. "Heck, don't worry about me. The question is, can you?"

Juna turned and stared out the narrow window of her hospital room, into the deep, dark night lit up with the lights of civilization. Somewhere out there, she knew, monsters were stirring, both human and bestial.

"I don't know, Tokio. I just don't know."

THE END