Author's notes: The content is based on the manga, but I do borrow elements from the anime, especially from the first season (mostly for the characterizations and fates of the four generals). Other notes are at the end. The story takes place approximately one year after the battle with Galaxia and Chaos.
March 2009: Re-posted chapter to fix formatting and some errors that made me cringe. No changes have been made that affect the plot.
Disclaimer: Sailor Moon and all associated characters are the property of Naoko Takeuchi and Kodansha, Ltd. A few characters and situations from Homicide: Life on the Streets are courtesy of Tom Fontana, Barry Levinson, and Baltimore Pictures.
Prologue: From Ever After to Ever After
Sometime in the future
First, let me say that I am thankful to be here at all, right now. And I... I... damn, I promised myself I wasn't going to lose it like this... just give me a second, okay?
Anyway, I am thankful to be here, and I am thankful to be here with you. All of you, because I'd like to think that the ones who aren't with us now... that they're... they...
Thanks, Mako-chan. I'll be okay, honest.
Well, it's been a rough ride, but it's been worth it, and I wanted to remind us all of some of the things that brought us here together, today. And no, I'm not going to start quoting "The Princess Bride," unlike some others I could name...
You know, it is frightening how well you do that "wuv, twu wuv" bit! Now are you jokers going to let me get on with my toast before I forget what it was I was going to say?
Someone once said that to tell a story, you should begin at the beginning, keep going through the middle, and end at the end. Well, if I was going to start at the real beginning, we'd be sitting here until morning, and I think the lovely bride-to-be here... and you know you're lovely, so stop it... might have some objections to that.
Ah, hell. I've had too much to drink, so I'll cut this short before I get myself in any more trouble. There are hundreds of stories we could tell about how we have found each other, lost each other, and found each other again throughout the years. I think, though, that when we look back we'll always think about the past year, and that summer when everything finally started to come together. Despite everything that's happened and is still happening, I like to think of today as the happy ending we've all been waiting for. And with that, I say...
To our next beginning!
Later that evening, the best man asked Kino Makoto for her opinion on the way he had ended his toast. In her estimation, when had everything changed?
Makoto looked up at the stars and thought about it for a while. The paper lanterns that had been strung up around the clearing swayed in the mild breeze, flickering in counterpoint to the stars above. She heard the sharp clack of wood on wood, some rather inventive swearing, then the sound of someone pawing through the underbrush.
"I think that's number five," the best man said. The croquet match had quickly devolved into a game of knock-Haruka's-ball-into-the-woods. "So, Mako-chan, when do you think everything really started to change?"
"I'm thinking! It's not the easiest question in the world."
There was the day that she first ran up against Zoisite, and first knew that things in this world were stranger than she had ever dreamed. Then, just a short time later, the sleeping Senshi within her was awakened, and that knowledge was confirmed and forever carved in stone.
But no, that was when her own life had changed. She thought a little while longer, but her thoughts were interrupted by a puppy's shrill yark-yark-yark. This was quickly followed by Usagi's bellow of outrage over something. Stolen food, no doubt.
She giggled. Some things would never change.
Finally, she was about to say something along the lines of "when we first learned about Crystal Tokyo," when the bride and groom's first dance started. She gasped in delight at the song that was chosen--it was not one she had ever expected.
"That's it!" she cried out. "That's when it all started!"
For just a measure or two, she swayed to the music, memories of another time returning as if they had been perfectly preserved for just that moment.
"Usagi's party." She shook her head, thinking about how long ago it seemed, but how frighteningly recent it really was. Her world was such a different place now. "Well, right around then, anyhow. If I'd known what to look for, I might've seen it--I mean, if I were Ami or something. If we'd been paying attention..."
Then they might have stopped things from happening. They would have made different choices. She thought about Michiru, and Setsuna, and Hotaru, and Mamoru, and most of all, herself. What would we be doing now? she wondered. How would things be different?
"Are you all right?" Warm arms circled her from behind.
Makoto's voice shook. "They'll be expecting us on the dance floor," she said.
"That's a no, I suppose. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have stirred things up."
She looked over her shoulder at him and smiled warmly. "I'm fine, really. I guess I just started thinking about the might-have-beens."
He sighed. "You know what I told you about that..."
Makoto laughed. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black, she thought. She wriggled to get him to loosen his arms, then turned so she was facing him.
"There's no point in worrying about what might have happened--or what won't ever happen, hon," she said, mimicking his words and accent just a little too well. "Maybe I was wrong to say that it all began on Usagi's eighteenth birthday."
She backed up, leading him towards the dance floor. His arms were still around her, as if they were already dancing. She rested one hand on his shoulder, savoring the warmth she could feel through his jacket. "I remember that day so clearly," she continued. "It was such a wonderful, wonderful day."
He swept her into the dance, and she followed his lead.
"Maybe I should say that it was the day when things finally started to come to an end."
Chapter One: Convergence
Friday, June 29
"I see trees of green, red roses too…"
Makoto half hummed, half sang along with Louis Armstrong's smoke-and-whiskey vocals. The rapid chopping of her knife flowed into the slow beat of the melody. Once the celery and carrots were diced, she checked the onions, which had already been cooking for a few minutes. Perfect. A flick of the knife transferred the celery and carrot into the cast iron pot. She gave the mixture a stir to distribute the oil, then leaned against the counter to rest and listen to the music and the comforting sizzle of the oil.
"They're really saying, 'I love you.'"
She wanted to take this day and put it up in an old-fashioned canning jar. Her balcony window stood wide open, letting the late afternoon sunlight stream into the apartment along with a warm, lazy breeze. She wiped the condensation from her glass of iced tea and took a deep drink. Everything--the dust motes swirling lazily in the sunbeams, the gentle touch of the warm summer air on her skin, the sweet smell of cooking onions, the music, even the constant noise of the city outside--cradled her in contentment and peace. When winter came and the days were short, the planters on her balcony empty and covered with plastic tarps, and her nights filled with anxious cramming for exams, she could go to her pantry, take this day down from its shelf, wipe away the dust, and take a long, long drink.
She filled a second glass with some more iced tea and wandered out into the living room. "Sorry to ignore you like this, ChibiUsa-chan, but I have to get the sauce started if we want to have dinner at a decent time tonight."
ChibiUsa was bent over one of Makoto's plants and inhaling deeply. Her eyes were closed and her lips were set in a serene smile. Standing there among the greenery, she reminded Makoto of a delicate yet sprawling rambling rose. The once-little girl had grown since her last visit, now probably standing as tall as Usagi's shoulder, maybe even a little taller. Her face still had its baby roundness, but her body now had the coltish and awkward slenderness of someone on the edge of her teens.
"That's okay, Mako-chan," she said. She took another sniff. "What's this one? It smells wonderful!"
Makoto handed ChibiUsa the iced tea, then knelt down by the wooden stepladder she had converted into a rack for her potted herbs. She relished any chance to brag about her babies. "This is English lavender. I dry the leaves and flowers out on my balcony and make little sachets that you can put in your closet or your dresser drawer. I can give you some to take back to the thirtieth century with you, if you like."
"Mmm. That would be nice." ChibiUsa straightened up. The soft smile faded away. "I don't even know if we have lavender in the thirtieth century."
"Then you'll have to give some to your mom, too," Makoto said after a moment. She tried not to read too much into ChibiUsa's statement, but she had to admit that it bothered her. She knew far too little about Crystal Tokyo and the future that she and the other Sailor Senshi would have a thousand years in the future. She'd seen Crystal Tokyo for herself. The name alone made her think of smooth, bare walls, of still air, of untraceable echoes, of empty streets. She did not think of a place where dust motes danced in the light, where the smell of her cooking filled the air, or where she would feel comfortable singing along to her Louis Armstrong tape.
At least once a week, Makoto sternly reminded herself that she had not seen Crystal Tokyo at its best. After all, it had been devastated by the Black Moon clan and their poison crystals. Surely that was the only reason it seemed so... sterile.
But for ChibiUsa not to recognize the scent of lavender? That couldn't be right. Well, they probably preferred roses at the palace, she reasoned. Maybe she just wasn't familiar enough with the scent to recognize it. That must be it.
Even so, Makoto vowed to check her inventory of seeds, just in case. Paradise would not be paradise without the scent of lavender and nicotiana and lemon verbena, the sense of a job well done from pruning and staking a recalcitrant rose bush, not to mention the taste of fresh basil and juicy Roma tomatoes, still warm from the sun... the sauce!
She dashed into the kitchen, stirred the vegetables (perfectly tender, with the carrots adding just the right amount of sweetness), and poured in the chopped tomatoes (some from the market, some from the container garden on her balcony) and, of course, herbs from the stepladder garden. Disaster averted, she decided to pry loose some more information about her future. There had to be something about this pre-ordained future that she could look forward to. "Maybe you could bring a lavender sachet to my future self. Just by way of saying 'hello,' or something..."
"Well, I don't see you guys all that much, but I'll try..." ChibiUsa appeared to be studying the carpet.
"I guess we're really busy guarding your mom, huh?"
"Yeah." ChibiUsa's dark red eyes glimmered. She wasn't crying, was she? Makoto started to apologize for bringing up the subject, but ChibiUsa shrugged and blinked her eyes clear. She even smiled, just a little. "Mama says I still need some training, but she's letting me do some Senshi stuff, especially now that Ceres and the others are awake. Just a little, though. Sometimes." The smile died back down.
"Hey, that's great! Before you know it, you'll be fighting right alongside us!"
She should have been already, Makoto thought, trying not to scowl. The little girl was just as brave a soldier as any of the rest of them! But then, Makoto could see perfectly well why Usagi... why Serenity wouldn't want to put her only daughter in jeopardy.
"Maybe you can get some more training while you're here. You know, I can blast open a steel door with a Supreme Thunder Dragon, but if I used that against a human..." Makoto shuddered, but it was only for effect. There were certain deserving individuals she sometimes wished she could treat to a short, sharp, shock. "There's other things you'll need to learn besides how to use your Senshi abilities. How about I teach you a few basic martial arts moves?"
"Could you?" ChibiUsa's real smile came flooding back. This time, it even reached her eyes.
"Of course! How long are you staying in our century this time?"
ChibiUsa shrugged, and went back to studying the carpet. "Mama said I could stay as long as I wanted, as long as I kept up my training and went to school."
ChibiUsa couldn't be homesick after just one day, could she? Makoto decided her curiosity about Crystal Tokyo could wait for a while. "You know what would be fun? We should have a slumber party while you're here--just the two of us. We can rent the kind of scary movies that Usagi won't watch with you. You know, Ringu, that kind of stuff. I had a lot of fun last night."
Once again, that wonderful smile lit up ChibiUsa's face. She gave Makoto a big hug, heedless of the tomato-and-oil-stained apron.
"Me too, Mako-chan."
ChibiUsa had come back to the twenty-first century last night, and had headed straight for Makoto's apartment as planned. It was only the second time she'd been back to their time since they defeated Galaxia and Chaos.
Shortly after the Senshi got back to their own time and place, and were still trying to account for absences that ranged anywhere from several weeks to a few days ("My apologies, sensei. I was unexpectedly attacked by an agent of Chaos and reduced to a lifeless pile of dust. Here's a note from my doctor.") ChibiUsa came rushing back to the year 2000. Makoto still got a lump in her throat when she thought of ChibiUsa's reunion with Diana, Luna, and Artemis. Until then, Makoto had not even known that the cats had been among the fallen as well.
What would it be like, to come home one day, and find that against all reason, her parents were there? Would she run to them and throw herself into their arms? Or would she, like ChibiUsa, just collapse and start sobbing and laughing all at the same time?
"I'm so glad you had the idea about this surprise party, ChibiUsa-chan," said Makoto. Her voice felt a little rough for a moment. "I bet it was pretty hard, waiting almost a year for this. I can't believe it's only been that long since we've seen you. It seems longer, somehow."
If Makoto were in ChibiUsa's shoes, she would have just turned around, popped right back through the Gates of Time, and showed up in Tokyo on the proper date. Makoto shook her head. Better not to think that way. It was much easier on the brain if she thought of thirtieth century Crystal Tokyo as being somewhere else instead of somewhen else. For some reason, Makoto couldn't help thinking of it being somewhere in Antarctica. She'd probably gotten the idea from Superman's Fortress of Solitude.
"Tell you what," she said. "Once Usagi-chan has had a chance to have you all to herself for a while, we'll set a date, and you can come and camp out over here. In the meantime, I'll dry some of this lavender, and when you come over, we can go to the fabric store and you can pick out some fabric and lace and you can make sachets for Usagi and your mom."
"You want to know something funny?"
"Mama sent Usagi a birthday present."
Makoto stood and blinked as she tried to wrap her brain around
"Well," she finally said, "at least she can be sure it'll be something Usagi will like."
ChibiUsa flopped down on the wicker couch.
"When's Usagi going to be here, anyway?"
"Mamoru said he would bring her by between seven fifteen and seven thirty, so you need to make sure that you and Diana are in the bedroom. Where is Diana, by the way?"
ChibiUsa jerked her head towards the balcony door. At first, Makoto could not see the kitten. It wasn't until ChibiUsa told her where to look that Makoto could just see the tip of a gray tail sticking out from under a plant stand. The tail-tip twitched sharply from time to time. "She's hunting beetles," explained ChibiUsa.
"Oh. That's... nice." She a mental flash of Diana in human form, chomping down on a juicy, squirming bug. Add another inconceivable notion to the list. The Moon Cats had been easier for her to deal with when she only knew of their feline forms. And what did Minako think about all this? Artemis had always slept at the foot of her bed, and his human form *was* pretty cute...
Oh, boyohboyohboy. She really wished she hadn't thought that.
"Only another two and a half hours! I can't wait to see Mama's--Usagi's--face!" ChibiUsa stopped bouncing and stared at Makoto. "Mako-chan? Why are you blushing?"
"Uh... just thinking about what Usagi's face will look like when we surprise her!"
The doorbell rang just then, and Makoto gave silent thanks for the chronically punctual.
Mamoru had come to the rescue just in time as always, but this time with a bag full of 'party supplies.' He greeted Makoto with a one-armed hug as he transferred the paper shopping bag into her hands.
"Mako-chan! It smells wonderful in here, as always."
Makoto blushed again, this time with pride. It was also nice to get the hug. Living alone as she did, close human contact was a rare treat. "We'll have plenty of leftovers, so I'll be sure to pack some of them up for Mr. Starving Med Student."
She didn't have time to say anything else as ChibiUsa caught her beloved Mamo-chan in a death grip. That gave her the opportunity to hide the shopping bag in the pantry along with the other presents. The "party supplies" were the remainder of the presents the other girls had bought for ChibiUsa. So far, it looked like the little girl hadn't twigged to the fact that this party was for her as well.
Mamoru went to lift his future daughter for a hug the way he usually did, but stopped short. "You've grown!" He hugged her then stood back to get a good look. He smiled broadly, but Makoto could see just a little sadness in his eyes. "I don't think we can do the piggy-back rides any more."
"That's all right," said ChibiUsa, although she did sound a little disappointed. "I'm just glad I'm finally growing!"
"Wait until you see Hotaru," Makoto said dryly to ChibiUsa. She turned her attention back to her guest. "Would you like some iced tea, Mamoru-kun?"
"Please. Starving Med Student is also Sleepy Med Student" He went over to the couch. ChibiUsa followed and sat down beside him. "Hotaru's nearly as tall as Ami and Usa-ko, now."
"What is it with the Outer Senshi and being tall?" Makoto called from the kitchen.
"Says the pot to the kettle," Mamoru muttered.
"You want to wear this iced tea?" she warned as she came back into the living room. "It's amazing," she continued. "She's only in eighth grade, and she's already quite the little heartbreaker. Unlike some of us, she's got practically every boy in the school--including some of the seniors--trying to get her to go on a date with them."
ChibiUsa sighed, then giggled. "I wonder what Haruka thinks about that."
Makoto and Mamoru exchanged a look. Makoto had to bite her lips together to keep from laughing. The kid was a lot sharper than she looked.
"What?" demanded ChibiUsa.
"Well," drawled Makoto. "As you can imagine, Hotaru's 'Haruka-papa' is a tad overprotective, and she's not thrilled that all of these boys are chasing after her precious little Hotaru, and she's not exactly nice to the ones who call Hotaru at home. One night, she really put the Fear of Haruka into this one boy..."
"This one boy that Hotaru had been hoping beyond hope would call her," continued Mamoru. "Things were a little rough for a while, but they're okay now."
Makoto wished he didn't sound so glib about it. He hadn't been the one to roll out a spare futon for the girl until Michiru and Usagi were finally able to convince Hotaru and her 'papa' to see reason and make amends. Makoto suspected that Michiru had exiled Haruka to the couch for most if not all of those nights.
"By the way, you might want to wait to talk to Hotaru about boys and stuff until Haruka's well out of earshot. Haruka's discovered that she likes setting curfews."
In a way, Makoto couldn't blame her. For the few nights that she'd had Hotaru as a roommate, she'd noticed that the younger girl had developed a willful streak, almost as if she wanted someone to swat her. It didn't help that she was nearly as smart as Ami. Makoto did some quick calculation. Hotaru was fourteen, while Haruka and Michiru had both turned twenty this past winter. That wasn't much of an age difference. Makoto was desperately afraid that the little patchwork family was heading towards a nasty implosion. If only there was some way they could have kept Hotaru at twelve for just a few more years.
Mamoru began to stand as if to leave, but ChibiUsa whimpered and pulled on his sleeve. "Hey, you're a girl, not a puppy," he chided. Then, he sighed dramatically. "I guess I can stay for a little while longer. Is that okay with you, Mako-chan?"
"Sure. Do you want me to put together a little something to eat?"
"Please!" Everyone, including Mamoru, laughed at the desperation in his voice. "Money's not tight, or anything," he reassured a worried Makoto. "I'm not starving because I can't afford food. It's just that now I'm on clinical rotations I'm lucky if I have the time and energy to manage anything more complicated than instant ramen."
Probably made with hot water straight from the tap, thought Makoto. She didn't even want to think about what he ate when he had to stay overnight at the hospital. She would have to have another word with Usagi and with Ikuko-san about getting Mamoru over to the Tsukino household for dinner more often. Not for the first time, she thought it was a shame that Kenji-san had insisted that Usagi could not get married until she had both graduated high school and successfully completed at least one semester of college.
When she'd heard the mandate, Usagi tearfully demanded if he intended for her to wait until she was ninety before she was able to marry Mamo-chan.
Makoto hummed to herself as she took some pickles, cold chicken, rice balls, and other assorted leftovers and assembled them into a sizeable, simple meal. The sound of ChibiUsa telling Mamoru about all the things she wanted to do while she was here was sweeter than any music.
I have a family now, she sang to herself. I finally have a family.
She and Mamoru were orphans with no other family. ChibiUsa's family was a thousand years away and seemed to be distant in some other ways as well. Rei might as well have been an orphan for all the notice her father paid her. At least she had her grandfather, although his health was steadily declining. Ami's mother seemed nice enough, but always so busy, busy, busy. But thanks to her, they had a place to come that had soft places to sit, that had good food, that was free from the sense of loneliness and the smell of sickness.
Makoto peered out of the kitchen to where father and daughter talked and laughed and teased. Yes, this was a safe, happy place.
Of course, Usagi and Minako each had a full set of parents, and Usagi even had a little brother. You'd think they should be happy, but somehow, it never seemed quite right. How many times had Minako shown up at school with her eyes red and puffy, and the tendons in her jaw about to pop? Just another fight with her mother, she'd say. Same old, same old. That's just the way the old lady is. Hag. Bag. Bat. Battle-axe. Bitch. Witch. Vole.
"I wish I could fight with my mother," Makoto would retort, but only in the quiet of her mind. Out loud, she would merely point out to Minako that the proper word was "shrew," and not "vole."
Minako would then stick her tongue out at Makoto, and everything would return to normal for a while.
For a long time, it seemed that everything was perfect for Usagi and her family, but one night, a few months ago, Usagi showed up on her doorstep out of the blue, tears streaming down her face. Makoto was hit by a numbing fear that something had happened between Usagi and Mamoru. For a long time Makoto could only sit on the floor, confused and on the verge of panic, holding a hysterically sobbing Usagi and rocking her back and forth while rubbing her back and telling her over and over that it was all right, that everything would be all right.
Once Usagi had cried herself dry, and could speak through the hiccups that always followed one of her crying jags, she said she had started to think about how much she wanted to be able to talk to her mother about everything, to tell her how desperately scared she was about this future, this destiny, about how much was resting on her shoulders, how afraid she was of the day when she would have to face Chaos again, and how she would be all, all alone. All she wanted was for her mother to be able hold her, understand her, and tell her that everything was going to be all right. And it hurt, oh God how it hurt, that she couldn't talk to her mother, and who was going to be there for her when it was just her and Chaos...
And the only thing that Makoto could think of was what it would be like to have someone larger than you and your fears, someone who smelled of soap and cinnamon, someone who could wrap soft arms around you and tell you that everything was all right, that everything was going to be all right. For nearly an hour, she sat there with her friend in her arms, and all she could do was hush and hum as she helplessly waited for Usagi to stop sobbing.
Makoto started to ask why Usagi didn't think she could tell Ikuko-san about Sailor Moon and all the rest of it when this thought stopped her cold: Just which mother did Usagi mean?
Makoto's stomach did a tiny flip-flop as she realized that in a certain sense, Ikuko-san wasn't Usagi's mother.
"I want my mommy!" Usagi wailed at just that moment, and it would have been funny if it hadn't been so heartbreaking.
Usagi later apologized to Makoto. All of the stress of senior year must have gotten to her, for her to break down like that, she said. She shouldn't have been complaining like that when Makoto didn't even have a mother. This was accompanied by the nervous smile and giggle that always seemed to break through Makoto's defenses.
"Don't be ridiculous. We have each other," Makoto said, shaking Usagi's shoulders gently. "Each one of us. We all have one another. We will always have one another."
She believed it with all her heart, and she hoped that Usagi did, too.
With those thoughts settling back to rest, she brought Mamoru his dinner, and refilled his glass of tea. ChibiUsa ran to pick up the pot of lavender and she demanded that Mamo-chan smell how pretty it was, and didn't he think Usagi would like one?
Makoto's heart sang within her, love rising in a sweet arabesque. She loved ChibiUsa, but not quite as a daughter. That was Usagi's prerogative. Maybe I can be an aunt, she thought. She liked the sound of that. Mako-obachan. That would make Mamoru, what, her big brother? Mamo-niichan. She could get used to that. Oh, yes. She could very easily get used to that.
"What are you smiling about, Mako-chan?" asked Mamoru.
"Nothing," she said. "I'm just glad to see you eating a decent meal for a change. If you ever feel the need for a home-cooked meal, just call, okay? I don't want you getting sick."
"Oh, you!" she laughed, throwing her dishtowel at his head.
If only she could capture today in a bottle...
On a whim, Seidou Taiyouko had decided to take the long way home from work. In other words, instead of taking the ten-minute bus ride back to her apartment, she walked fifteen minutes to the garage where she stored her clunker, then drove until she was miles outside of the Tokyo city limits. She headed southwest along the coast of the Boso Peninsula, taking the highway as far as Kisarazu, then crossing over to the east coast and taking a sea-side route back towards Tokyo proper.
She drove along an old scenic route that wound along the jagged cliffs above the sea. Its curves and jinks were treacherous, especially since any warning signs had been kept artfully subtle and discreet, so as not to interfere with the dramatic views afforded by these curves. An inattentive tourist stood a real danger of getting a lot closer to nature than he intended.
Taiyouko liked to drive this stretch of road shortly after sunrise, when the sunlight would hit most of the cliffs full on, and turn the breakers into sprays of diamond. In the dying light, the scene took on a subtler beauty, with the hard edges of the cliffs made soft and indistinct. The breakers were now curls of gray mist surging up from a sea clouded by shadow. She liked it, but she preferred the scene as it was in brash, sharp sunlight. This was a smaller, gentler world than that. It was... pleasant, but it didn't stir the soul. It reminded her of ink-wash paintings and of England.
England. That reminded her--she owed Barbara a call, or at least an e-mail. Taiyouko's thoughts wandered from there to whether London was later or earlier than Tokyo, when a sudden movement in her rearview mirror caught her attention. A silver-blue sports car roared up behind her, slowing just short of her bumper.
Well, well. Someone's in a hurry, thought Taiyouko. The road turned up a steep incline. And isn't it just too bad that my poor old crate can't accelerate uphill, Mr. I've-got-a-hot-car.
Taiyouko checked the rear-view mirror. The sports car--which looked more like a jet than a car--was right on her tail, so close she couldn't see its headlights in her mirror. The driver was a young man, ash-blond, one of those androgynous pretty-boys the teeny-boppers were always sighing over. He looked familiar. One of those no-talent idol singers, maybe? Hell, that would explain why the son-of-a-bitch was driving a car that would cost her more than a year's salary.
As she crested the hill, she tapped on the brakes, just to see what would happen. She grinned. Even in the rear-view mirror, she could practically see the veins in his forehead about to explode. She checked the map. The turnoff for the scenic overlook was about a kilometer ahead.
Might as well put on the turn signal now, she thought. Just to be safe, of course. She cast another glance in the mirror and chuckled softly.
The sports car dropped back a bit, then swung out to the right in order to pass her, heedless of the possibility of oncoming traffic and the sharp curve up ahead. It was a nasty one, with nothing but several stories of empty air on the other side of the guard rail. The empty air wasn't the bad part. The bad part was the big pile of rocks at the bottom that brought the empty air to an emphatic end.
Taiyouko held her breath as the silver-blue car negotiated the turn at high speed without even a hint of squealing tires. "Professional. Stupid, but professional."
Other drivers were less skilled. She saw trails of skid marks leading up to the curve, and a rainbow of paint streaks on the guard rail that ran the spectrum from Fiat red to BMW blue.
She put the sports car out of her mind as she looked for the signs announcing the "scenic overlook." The last time she had been out here, it was night, and someone had been waiting with a flare to mark the turn-off. The lights and sirens of the police cars and emergency vehicles had also made it hard to miss. This time, the lot was empty except for a single car. Presumably it belonged to the young couple necking on a bench by the cliff's edge.
She got out the car, taking a large manila envelope with her. It was one of the ones that was fastened by means of a red string looped around two circles of red cardboard. She had been hit by a wave of nostalgia when her superior officer handed it to her. These days, her case files were sealed with metal clips that were always breaking off, and with growing frequency, an annoying bit of re-useable stickum that stuckum to nothing but lint.
The wind whipped at her light-brown hair ("crème brulée" according to the box) leaving it no more messy than before. It probably wasn't all that bright of her to bring the original case file out here with her, but she wanted it handy in case anything jogged at her memory.
She grimaced. Memory was the real problem, wasn't it?
If only this little experiment brought back the right kind of memory. She rather liked the novelty of being able to go to sleep at night without chemical assistance.
Thanks to the way this part of the coastline curved, the cliffs opposite the overlook faced west, and caught the full light of the setting sun. Taiyouko was thankful it was late June.
Otherwise, the sun would have been below the horizon before she could get here, even if she did leave when her shift ended. The others had been shocked when she left right at five-thirty. In a way, she was still on the job. After all, she was visiting a crime scene. A crime scene on a case that was finally active again.
She sat on the empty bench right next to the young couple. They seemed oblivious to her presence, but then, one would have to stretch the definition of necking pretty severely to describe what they were doing now. Well, that was their business and it didn't bother her a bit. She began to look through the case file--she smiled a little as she recognized her own handwriting on some of the reports.
The couple stopped fondling one another after a while and gazed out at the view. It was a romantic setting, Taiyouko admitted. The light of the setting sun made the sea look the way wine looked in her dreams. The rocks on the cliff glowed a golden-red she wanted to wrap around herself like a blanket.
The light also made the shadows stand out more, and the contrast of light and shadow made the rocks look very, very sharp indeed. Although exquisitely beautiful, this was not a place of peace.
The girl on the other bench sighed. "Aren't the waves pretty, Hiroshi? Look at how they reach up all white and sparkly." She sighed again and trailed a finger down his cheek. "It looks just like a wedding veil, doesn't it, Hiro-chan?"
"Hiro-chan's" voice cracked as he agreed with this bit of proposal-bait while Taiyouko masked her laughter with a discreet cough. Then she sobered. It took very little imagination to see the spray from the breakers as a piece of tulle and lace. It didn't take much more imagination to see it as a huge white paw reaching up from the ocean, claws extended to catch the unwary and shred them to ribbons.
It took even less imagination if you had seen the autopsy photos.
Taiyouko reached into the file and pulled out one of the photos. It was impossible to tell without reading the caption whether this was the man or the woman. One would almost have to take it on faith that the photo was of a human being. She peered at it carefully, looking at the cuts and contusions, not seeing the remains of a face, but a pattern of marks, gashes, and dents, one of which might be the thing she was looking for, something that would confirm the use of something more regular in shape and size than a rock.
The divers had pulled the bodies out of the sea just minutes before she had arrived on the scene. The forensics team was snapping photo after photo, their flashbulbs illuminating the remains in bursts, giving some semblance of life to the unlucky couple. Although it was clear there was nothing to be done for them, everyone on the scene worked quickly.
The fourteen-year-old photos, though static, brought that same sense of urgency. What was left of the faces and hands had been reduced to a meaty pulp and was thoroughly waterlogged. Horror, pity, and rage passed in quick succession, now as it had back then, only to be replaced with a sharp, focused coolness. Whatever once made the remains in the photograph a living, breathing, fallible, beloved, and irreplaceable human being was long gone. All that was left was a challenge to her wits and determination. There would be time enough for anger once she knew what quarry to pursue.
A sudden gust of wind ripped the photo from her hands. Taiyouko gasped in horror and leapt to her feet as she saw the piece of evidence about to be blown out to sea, but the young man snatched the photo out of mid-air. He smiled politely and stood up to hand it to her. Then his face turned green.
Hiroshi thrust the photo at Taiyouko, who took it with a bow and a demure "arigatou." She sighed as he continued to stare at her, wide-eyed and pale. "Sorry to interrupt your little... er, outing, but I'm following up on a murder case."
"M-murder?" Hiroshi backed away while his girlfriend craned her neck, eager to see the photograph. Taiyouko slid it back into the envelope.
"Yeah. Nice young couple, from what we could tell. They were just out on an nice romantic Sunday drive, when boom!" She jerked her head towards the cliff. "We found the bodies right down there."
"Down... there?" It was clear that he wasn't visualizing any damn wedding veil this time.
"Mmm-hmm. We still don't know who did it," she said in her perkiest 'office lady' voice. She reached into her blazer pocket and pulled out a business card. Tucking the envelope under her arm, she held out the business card in both hands. "Detective Seidou Taiyouko. Homicide. Be sure to call me right away if you see anything suspicious. I'm assuming the two of you come here pretty often, right?"
She didn't so much smile as pull her lips back from her teeth, encouraging them to get the hint and get the hell out.
Hiroshi looked at his girlfriend, looked at the card in Taiyouko's hands, then grabbed his girlfriend by the wrist and practically dragged her back to the car. The tires spit gravel he sped from the parking lot.
"Heh. Maybe I should have told him that this all happened fourteen years ago," she mused. At least she could think in peace, now that she had brought her own personal brand of sunshine into the young couple's lives and sent them packing. She sat back down and pulled a box of Pocky out of her pocket. She jammed a cookie-stick into her mouth, then cursed around a mouthful of chocolate as she caught herself searching her pockets for a lighter.
Fourteen years ago. Her first time as primary on a big homicide case. The case that could have built her career but that damn near scuttled it before it had a chance to start. She riffled through the photos until she found the one of the brake line. For a car's brakes to fail anywhere on this stretch of road was potentially fatal, but only potentially.
A lot of accidents happened along this stretch of road. Many of them resulted in fatalities. This crash could have been an accident. It certainly looked like an accident to the casual observer.
This photo, however, clearly showed that the brake line had been cut nearly halfway through. The puncture was too neat for it to have been anything else but deliberate. There were other things as well, things that made this case stink like a week-old haddock.
Every possible piece of identification had been removed from the couple's bodies, including the labels on their clothing.
The registration and tags were missing from the car, and the VIN numbers had been scraped off the doors, engine, and dashboard.
The couple's faces and hands were so crushed and mangled that fingerprints and dental records were useless.
In fact, the injuries sustained by the young couple were so severe that the medical examiner at the time--a man infamous for his unwillingness to speculate--doubted they could have been caused by the crash and fall alone. For once, he showed evidence of a spine and suggested that the majority of the couple's injuries could have been inflicted post-mortem. The official cause of death was listed as drowning. Taiyouko made a mental note to have Watanabe Juni take another look at the coroner's report.
Taiyouko slapped the envelope against her knee and scowled. Back then, her 'instincts' told her that this crime was connected to several others, including a vicious assault on an old friend of hers some three years before. When she then suggested that professionals were involved, the case was ripped from her hands so fast it caused friction burns.
To be honest, once she looked back at her personal case notes, she could make little sense of what she had written. Abbreviations that had meant something at the time now might as well have been in ancient Sumerian. She also could not imagine why she would ever think that the man who'd tried to stab Ku-chan could be connected to the case. And as for instinct, she now believed in that the way she believed in luck, eternal love, and risk-free investment plans. It might exist, but you'd be a fool to rely on it.
Now, nearly a decade and a half later, Harada-san called her into his office just as she was getting ready to leave for the day. He murmured something about her otherwise perfect closure record, and slid the file to her across his desk with no further explanation.
He also gave her a college transcript. It was the one link they had, he said, to the most important witness to the accident. Its appearance was what gave him the idea to re-open this case.
Harada-san admitted that he wasn't sure if it was a valid link. It had come in anonymously, but he wanted Taiyouko to follow up on the lead--just in case. At the time, the only other person they'd been able to interrogate was the man who'd seen the broken guard rail and who had called in the accident. There was, however, one other person Taiyouko wished she had been able to speak to at the time.
Despite the severity of the fall and of the couple's injuries, and despite the fact that the car had been underwater for over an hour before a rescue team could make it down to the violent surf, there had been a survivor. A six-year-old boy.
Miracle of miracles, the back seat of the car was not badly crushed, and a tiny pocket of air had been trapped in the back of the car. The car was tilted so that the seatbelt holding the unconscious child upright kept his head in the middle of the air pocket. It was enough, but barely. The divers said that if they had arrived even a few minutes later, the boy would have been dead. As it was, they had to use mouth-to-mouth once they got him back to shore, and he coded twice more on the way to the hospital.
Taiyouko had demanded that she be allowed to question the boy. Unfortunately, he had sustained a severe blow to the head, and the doctors said that anoxia may have caused irreversible brain damage. They said there was a fifty-percent chance he would wake from his coma, but even Taiyouko could tell that those numbers were weighted towards the optimistic.
She would never forget what happened to her when she saw that boy for the first time.
She had gone to the boy's hospital room, and sat by his bed for hours, staring. The doctor, a chauvinist pig if she had ever met one, had commented about how sweet it was to see her doting on the comatose boy. He suggested that maybe this was a sign that it was time for Taiyouko to quit the force to settle down and have children. The fact that he followed this with an invitation to go out dancing nearly resulted in his abrupt transfer to the gastro-intestinal ward for stethoscope removal.
Doting? Heh. When she looked at the strange, nameless boy, his head swathed in bandages, something dark and primal beat on the walls of her conscious mind, howling in fury, and it wasn't anything resembling maternal instinct. It wanted something, and Taiyouko suspected that what it wanted was blood. Whose blood, she didn't care to guess, but the boy was the key.
After having the case pulled from her, she allowed herself to wallow in her rage and frustration. Nightmares that hadn't plagued her since childhood rose up to overwhelm her, tinged with the blood-lust of the thing lurking in the primitive parts of her brain. After two nights of this, she was afraid to go to bed.
She went six days without sleeping. On the seventh day, she collapsed in the hallway between her desk and the coffee machine. When she woke up from the inevitable nightmare, she was in the hospital with an order to take two weeks of leave. She recovered and went back to her desk after only one week as if nothing had happened. It was less than two months before she was once again a lead investigator on the toughest murder cases.
It took nearly five years before she could fall asleep without the help of tranquilizers.
Shortly after returning to work, she went back to the children's ward at International Catholic only to find that the boy had been made a ward of the state, assigned a name, shuffled off to an orphanage, and lost in a tangle of red tape and confidentiality clauses. She nearly went insane as the fury howling in her mind rose to a shriek. No matter what she tried or how many orphanages she visited or boy's home directors she threatened, she could find no trace of the boy. Over the next year, the howling in her mind faded to a whisper.
None of her later cases affected her in that way. Oh, there were some that kicked her anger level up beyond its normal simmer, and there had been at least one time when she nearly took justice into her own hands, but this case still haunted her.
It didn't bother her that her record had this one blot. What bothered her was that she had somehow missed something very, very important. Not a clue, not the identity of the murderer or murderers, but the why. The thoroughness with which these identities were erased suggested that this was bigger than two faceless people and their nameless boy. Then, the boy had been hidden so well that she couldn't even figure out where to begin looking for a trail. You had to have powerful friends or powerful enemies to be able to pull that one off.
But now she had a name and a school record. If she could assume it was the right person, then Mystery-boy was in his third year of medical school. She didn't have his address or phone number, but the registrar at Keiou would hand that over once Taiyouko flashed some identification and attitude.
What was he like now, she wondered. And would he remember anything about the accident and what happened after? Or, more importantly, what had happened before? The thought that she would soon see him brought a chill that was at once ecstatic and terrifying. She read the name given to the boy and spoke it aloud, feeling the shape of the syllables in her mouth.
Taiyouko stared out at the raging ocean and the dying light. "Just how much do you know about yourself, Chiba Mamoru? And why are you so important?"
Usagi stood in the doorway to Makoto's apartment, giving a very good impression of a beached mackerel. Mamoru stood behind her, gently laughing.
"We'll do our date night tomorrow night," he said.
"Oh, but that's my night out with the girls," Usagi cried. Then she looked at the room full of grinning girls. "But they...we...tonight..." She turned to glare at Mamoru. "You were all in on this together, weren't you!"
The rest of the girls continued laughing. Mamoru gave her an affectionate kiss on the forehead. "That's my Usa-ko. The reservations and concert tickets are for tomorrow, just in case you were wondering." He pulled her into a hug and gave her another kiss. The kiss was chaste, if only because seven girls were surrounding them, nudging each other and giggling. "I'll see you tomorrow at seven. Have a nice night with the girls... and look out for any more surprises."
Usagi shook her head, now laughing with the rest of them. Minako was still pink in the face and her struggles to stop laughing kept sending the others into giggle-fits. "I don't see how this can be any more surprising unless Rei and Minako have some practical jokes planned."
Rei--ever on her dignity--spluttered in protest, which of course sent Minako back into gales of laughter.
"You are so busted, Rei," Makoto drawled. Rei just gave her the evil eye. Minako was now coughing, and waving off any other attempt to get her going again.
"Guys... oh, man... I hurt. Whooo... I don't think I've gone off like that in ages!"
Usagi kicked off her shoes and hurried in to give everyone a big hug. "I can't believe you guys pulled this off! I had no idea! Whose idea was this, anyway?"
They all looked at one another, grinning as if they knew some big secret. Setsuna gave Usagi a gentle hug, their cheeks feather-brushing together. "It was everyone's idea. Someone suggested a surprise party, someone else suggested pulling Mamoru-kun into the game, and so on." She smiled. It was her typical sphinx-like smile, but it was more amused than mysterious. "Someone else came up with the idea for the really big surprise."
"Speaking of which," said Ami, "shouldn't we bring out the surprise?"
"No way! There really is another surprise?" Usagi's mind raced to think of what it might be. Had they pooled their money to get her something wonderful? She couldn't think of anything she wanted. Jewelry, yes, but that was something she specifically wanted from Mamoru. She hoped she had dropped enough hints.
Minako and Ami were about to dash for the bedroom door when Michiru interrupted. "Don't you think we should wait for Haruka? I can't imagine why she's running late." If she was worried or annoyed, she hid it well. "If you want to go ahead, though, I'm sure she wouldn't mind."
Usagi was about to say that they could wait when Makoto's door slammed open. "Haruka-san! Is everything all right?"
"Traffic," snarled Haruka. She kicked her shoes against the wall and stalked into the apartment. "Happy birthday," she growled, thrusting a present into Usagi's hands. Then she stopped, collected herself, and hugged Usagi close. "Don't mind me, kitten. I'm sorry I couldn't be here on time for your surprise. Happy birthday." She let Usagi go before anyone would have any excuse to comment.
"Let's get on with the surprise!" Minako said. "I don't think I can wait any longer!"
"Am I going to like this surprise?" Usagi wondered. Something about the way Minako was giggling made her nervous.
"Actually," Rei said in an unusually loud voice, prim priestess mode at gale force nine, "we should probably wait until after dinner to bring out the surprise." She winked at the group. Her normally stern face glowed with mischief.
Usagi forced herself to keep smiling. This was getting stranger by the second.
Minako did a quick double-take. She was looking at the bedroom door as she spoke. "Maybe... maybe we should wait until after dessert?"
Hotaru stifled a laugh.
Ami jumped as Minako jabbed her in the ribs. "What? Oh, oh yes. Absolutely. There's no point in bringing out the surprise until dessert is all gone."
The bedroom door flew open. Silhouetted in the doorframe like a vengeful gunfighter out of some old Western stood a furious Chibi-Usa.
Before Chibi-Usa had the chance to lodge any more protests about the possible lack of dessert, Usagi launched herself across the room and half slid, half fell to her knees as she pulled Chibi-Usa into a tight embrace.
"Oh, baby... I've missed you... I've missed you so much!"
Chibi-Usa buried her face in Usagi's neck and murmured something the others could not hear. Mother and daughter, yet sisters in a way, the two held each other close for a long time. It was impossible to tell if they were laughing, or crying, or both at once.
Makoto watched, and smiled. She now had some idea of why NeoQueen Serenity would allow her daughter to travel back through time.
The rest of the evening was devoted to food, laughter, presents, and fun. Over dinner, everyone did her best to play catch-up. Makoto spread a picnic cloth in the middle of her living room floor so that everyone could move around as they ate and talk to everyone they wanted. Naturally, Chibi-Usa was in great demand, but Usagi and Setsuna managed to monopolize most of her attention. Luna and Artemis finally showed up, and immediately cuddled up with Diana. The others drifted into a variety of conversations about boys, school, their futures as Senshi, the latest game fad, the resemblance of certain of their enemies to sports or movie stars, the existential unfairness of pre-calculus, and the nature of good and evil itself.
At one point, Hotaru, Michiru, and Haruka went out on the balcony to talk, with Ami tagging along behind. It was only when the conversation appeared to be heading south at an alarming rate that Makoto went out to usher them inside for cake and presents.
"Haruka-san," Makoto ordered, "there are some birthday presents in the hall closet. Could you bring them into the living room? Ami-chan, I need some help with the cake. Would you mind?" She pulled Ami alongside her and dropped her voice to a whisper. "Are they at it again?"
"What do you think?" Ami retorted.
Minako grabbed Hotaru and hustled her into the kitchen to help with the dinner dishes.
Although the others tried to be discreet about it, Usagi didn't miss a second of what just happened. Lately, she thought, they were all spending a lot of time running interference between Haruka and the now-adolescent Hotaru. She wondered if there was something else they should do, or if it would be better to let things run their course.
After a few minutes, Michiru dimmed the lights and Ami and Makoto walked in with the cake. As the others all sang "Happy Birthday," Usagi realized that there was something odd about the cake.
"Why," she asked, "are there only fourteen candles?"
"Ami-chan, do you care to explain?" asked Makoto.
"Well, since this is your birthday and ChibiUsa's birthday, and since both of you are here, we thought that we'd have a joint celebration."
ChibiUsa gasped in delighted surprise, but Usagi's brows were still drawn together.
"Yeah, but why fourteen candles? I don't get it."
Ami explained patiently, the way she always ended up doing during their study sessions. "It's simple, really. You are eighteen. ChibiUsa is nine-hundred and nine years old. At least that's the case in the thirtieth century, but since having more than nine hundred candles on one cake isn't really practical, I thought it might be better to take ChibiUsa's age in this century. Therefore, since Usagi is eighteen and ChibiUsa is, technically speaking, negative four, we have fourteen candles."
There was a moment of silence.
"Ami-chan," Minako said, "you're weird. We love you to pieces, but you are seriously weird."
"It made sense to me," Ami said.
ChibiUsa and Usagi blew out the candles. They made a competition of it, seeing who could blow out the most candles first. Makoto took the cake, saying she would divide it up and scoop out the ice cream while Usagi and ChibiUsa opened their presents.
Rei, being less prone to stammers and blushes than Ami, less prone to giggle-fits than Minako, and less encumbered with chocolate sauce than Makoto, was designated as official present-giver. Setsuna was in charge of the camera, and Hotaru, who was something of a packrat, volunteered to salvage any ribbons and paper that might be reusable. Haruka and Michiru were content to snuggle up together on the couch.
"As you all know," Rei began, "poor Usagi won't be able to marry Mamoru until she passes her entrance exams. Given past examples of her academic performance, we thought that Usagi might need the help and support of her friends." She paused and waited for the inevitable Usagi-fit to pass. "A few of us got together and decided to give you some gifts to help you get through your senior year. Now where should we start?"
"Rei-chan, why don't you hand her my gift first," said Makoto. "Oh, and unless someone says otherwise, I'm going to assume that everyone wants ice cream and hot fudge." It surprised no one that Michiru was the only one to turn down the offer.
"And just a teeny-weeny little sliver of cake, if you don't mind," she added.
Usagi, less than enthusiastic at the prospect of practical gifts, pulled the ribbon off the first package. Conscious of Hotaru's anxious stare, she was careful to pry the wrapping paper apart at the taped edges. "Study fuel," said the label on the box inside. The box was full to the top with homemade cookies, and the card contained a handwritten gift certificate redeemable for one box of cookies each and every month until exams were over. "You don't have to share those with Shingo," said Makoto. "These are extenuating circumstances"
"You'll share with me, won't you Usagi?" asked Chibi-Usa. For some reason, Makoto found this funny.
When Rei announced Ami's gift as a set of tapes meant to supplement Usagi's scheduled study-times, Usagi forced herself to look cheerful. Only Ami would think of extra study sessions as a fun gift. Usagi told herself to look excited and grateful, even if it was a series of tapes on The Joys of Differential Calculus, or perhaps Fun with Organic Chemistry. Therefore, when the tapes turned out to be the entire OAV series of Magic Knights Rayearth she was so stunned that she could not speak, and later she had to reassure Ami over and over that she loved the gift.
"One thing you've taught me, Usagi-chan," Ami said, "is that there's more to life than studying. Breaking for fun once in a while will help keep your mind fresh." There was a mischievous twinkle in her eye. "Just remember that those are for when you are done with your scheduled studies, not instead of your scheduled studies."
Rei's own gift was next. "As a priestess, I felt that I should give you something to help further your spiritual readiness for these exams." Usagi opened the proffered envelope with some hesitation, expecting special charm or something of that kind. Instead, it was a gift certificate to a well-respected but not overly posh salon that could be redeemed for a series of stress-reducing massages and aromatherapy treatments. Usagi recalled that this particular salon was also associated with an excellent bakery and café so once could get a chocolate éclair to go with one's seaweed wrap. The thought alone sent Usagi's stress levels down significantly.
Next was Minako's gift. "A certificate for one day at a special... cram school," said Rei, "this Sunday--as in the day after tomorrow--from nine to six."
"So that's why you got me to schedule all day with you, Minako-chan," said Usagi. She had figured out her friends' little joke by then and ripped open Minako's envelope with frightening enthusiasm. "Let's see what this--OMIGOD!!" She leaned over and nearly crushed Minako's ribs in a bear hug. "It's that manga-drawing class I was dying to go to! Thankyouthankyouthankyou!" She hugged Minako again.
"I'm also registered," whispered Minako. "It may be your birthday, but some things are more fun if you share the experience, right?"
"Where's Setsuna?" asked Rei. "She had the camera."
Setsuna walked in from the balcony, hands raised in conciliation. "Sorry, everyone. I just wanted to see if I could get a better camera angle from outside. Haruka, do you have our gifts handy?"
The gifts from the Guardian Senshi of the Outer Solar System also appeared to follow a theme, although the four denied that any planning was involved. From Haruka, Usagi received a pair of earrings. The baroque pearls were tear-shaped, and had a tiny diamond accent on the setting. Michiru gave her a collection of Shiseido cosmetics that must have cost a small fortune. There was also a gift certificate for a makeup lesson from one of Shiseido's expert makeup artists. Hotaru's gift was a scarf of dove gray silk chiffon. The corners of the scarf were weighted with small crystal beads, and a pattern of sakura petals had been hand-painted onto the scarf. It was meant to appear as if the scarf had been left out during cherry-blossom season to collect a random scattering of the delicate petals. Setsuna gave her a certificate saying that she would make Usagi a dress in any style and fabric she wanted, custom fitted. "But not a wedding dress," she said. "That will be your wedding present when the time comes."
Although no one would ever point this out to anyone else in the room, it was obvious that the Outer Senshi still regarded Usagi as their beloved and holy princess, while the Inner Senshi saw her as their dear, if somewhat goofy, friend.
The gifts for ChibiUsa did not reflect any such distinction. Whether they called her Small Lady, or ChibiUsa-chan, or You Brat, all the Senshi treated ChibiUsa as they would any other beloved eleven year old.
She got a variety of cute outfits and pajamas (all of which would have to be exchanged, thanks to her growth spurt) from Haruka, Michiru, and Minako. Rei had found an antique teapot shaped like a rabbit curled up for a nap. Setsuna gave her a sweet little umbrella from what was apparently some famous store in France. The handle was carved into the shape of a rabbit, and the cloth of the umbrella was a plaid in what could only be described as Easter-egg colors. A white eyelet edging completed the piece. From Makoto she got a hand-painted basket full of cookies and a hastily made gift certificate for personal, specialized martial arts training and cooking lessons. Ami gave her a hardbound sketchbook, some really good pencils and ink pens, and a box of watercolors with more colors than ChibiUsa had ever seen together in one place.
Hotaru's gift was far heavier than it looked, and ChibiUsa nearly dropped it. It was fortunate that she didn't, since the package contained a thick-walled pottery bowl. It was mostly white, and the inside was sponge-painted strawberry pink. An ivy border ran around the outside rim and had obviously been painted with great care and bated breath. If you looked closely, you might notice that the bowl was just slightly lopsided and that one of the ivy leaves had smudged. But only if you looked closely.
"We're doing ceramics in art class right now," said Hotaru, "and this bowl is the first thing I made that I actually liked." A blush showed up on her pale skin. "I remember, when we first met, and I was so lonely, how you gave me that Grail you made."
Usagi was about to say something, but Minako pinched her.
"That meant so much to me, especially when you said that your teacher told you to give it to someone who was very special to you. So," continued Hotaru, "I wanted you to have this, since you're very special to me." She and ChibiUsa hugged for a moment, and when they parted, ChibiUsa was blinking back tears.
"Is that all the presents?" asked Minako. "Man, that went by way too fast!"
"I feel so bad!" cried Usagi. "I didn't get you anything, ChibiUsa!" She paused. "But then again, I didn't know you were coming, so how could I get you a present?"
"Oh, I'll be here for a while," said ChibiUsa, "so you'll have plenty of time to make up for it."
"Why you..." snarled Usagi. This of course started a tickle fight.
Makoto stopped in the middle of scooping ice cream. "Wait a minute. Is that all the presents? ChibiUsa-chan, didn't you say that there was something else?" When ChibiUsa gave her a blank look, Makoto mouthed, "your mom."
"That's right! Wait right here, Usagi!" She ran to the bedroom. The three cats followed.
"Isn't that just like you, to run away from a tickle fight just because I'm winning!" teased Usagi. "What a birthday!" She blinked a couple of times. "Wait a minute. Did you just say something about more presents?"
ChibiUsa came back from the bedroom with two boxes. One was wrapped in bright yet ordinary wrapping paper. The other was wrapped in silver paper that shimmered like water and was tied with gossamer bows that were little more than a suggestion of iridescence in the air around the box. Everyone gaped. Even unopened, this was quite a present.
"Who's that from?" asked Usagi.
"From Mama," said ChibiUsa.
There was another moment of silence while everyone digested that bit of information.
"How can it be a birthday gift when she's going to get it back in nine hundred years?" asked Minako.
"Silly. She'd already had it for nine hundred years. She doesn't get it back." Rei said. "Wait a second. Something about that doesn't seem right."
"So if she had the present to give to Usagi," said Ami, "then she must have received it for her own birthday nine hundred years in her past so she could send it back to our present. So where did the original present come from? Someone had to make it. It couldn't just exist in some weird loop of time, could it?"
Inevitably, everyone turned to look at Setsuna.
She covered her eyes with one hand and shook her head slowly. "Don't even try to figure it out. It won't make sense unless you...well, unless you're someone like me." The others waited for an explanation, but none was forthcoming. "Usagi-chan, please promise me one thing."
"What is it?"
"In your future, please don't mess with the space-time continuum. Just don't, okay?" she said wearily.
Curious about what her future self thought would be a good gift, Usagi opened the package. She took her time, enjoying the feel of the unusual ribbon. It felt like water slipping through her fingers. The paper, which looked like water, actually felt more like some kind of rice paper. It was somewhat anticlimactic to find that it covered a plain white box sealed with a single piece of cellophane tape. While ChibiUsa fidgeted anxiously, Usagi slit the tape with her thumbnail and opened the box. "Oh my goodness, would you look at that..."
She placed the box on the floor next to her and lifted out a large jeweled object.
"What is it?"
"What's it supposed to be?"
"Are those real diamonds? They're huge!"
It was an egg. A little smaller than an ostrich egg, the 'shell' was made of a pale pink clear enamel laid over an engraved silver surface. The engravings almost but didn't quite form some sort of pattern.
"Those swirls look like Mandelbrodt sets," murmured Ami. "What's all the decoration on the top and around the middle?"
On top of the enamel were bands of gold and jewels, forming a cage of rambling rose. The heart of each rose was a different brightly-colored jewel surrounded by diamonds that caught and refracted the light. The veins on the golden leaves were filled in with some sort of copper or bronze that had been given a light green patina. It was a work of art, a perfect balance of wild and the artificial.
"It's beautiful," breathed Usagi.
"Yes," said Ami, "but what does it do? What is it for?"
One band of rambling rose circled the egg around the middle. "It looks like this might be hiding some sort of opening," said Usagi. "Ami-chan, you're the clever one. See if it opens. I'm afraid I'll break it."
She handed it to Ami. ChibiUsa squawked in protest.
"It's Ami, silly. She won't drop it!" Usagi chided.
Even so, ChibiUsa squirmed and bit at her lower lip as Ami took the egg and began to examine the metalwork.
"It looks almost like one of the Fabergé Easter eggs that Tsar Nikolas used to give to his wife," said Michiru. "Those always opened up and had some sort of surprise inside, like a little golden coach-and-four or a portrait of their children."
"I can't seem to find the opening," said Ami. "Do you want to take a look, Mako-chan?"
"Later. I've got chocolate sauce all over my hands." She licked one finger clean. "Such a tragedy."
Ami offered it to Hotaru, who was busy untying and rolling up the ribbons and salvaging the wrapping paper. She said would take a closer look later. Something in her tone earned her a glare from Haruka. Ami handed the egg to Michiru. Michiru examined the egg from all angles, running a well-manicured fingertip over the filigree and jewel roses. Haruka looked on with her, one arm around Michiru's shoulders. Michiru passed it to Minako, who also tried to find some sort of opening.
ChibiUsa sighed and shrugged, apparently figuring that it wasn't her problem if Usagi's present got broken.
"Maybe it's just supposed to be decorative. It is quite pretty, after all," said Michiru, as a frustrated Minako passed the egg to Rei.
Rei turned the egg over and over, admiring the workmanship. Then she just held it for a moment as her eyes glazed over. She blinked a few times and shook her head. "I didn't feel anything odd," she said. "I'd have to agree with Michiru." She handed the egg back to Usagi and Setsuna clicked another picture.
"Maybe the future queen was looking for an excuse to clean out her attic," muttered Luna.
"Do palaces even have attics?" asked Minako.
"The idea does seem rather mundane, now that you mention it," said Luna.
Last of all, it was time for ChibiUsa's present to Usagi. The wrapping was not as nice as that on Serenity's present, but it was cute, and clever. It was also very heavy. Usagi hesitated before opening it, but ChibiUsa urged her on.
"Oh, how sweet!" she exclaimed. As far as the others could see, it was a golden square with a complicated, ruffled edging.
"Is it a picture frame?" asked Ami.
"Turn it around so we can see," ordered Minako.
Usagi did as she was asked. "ChibiUsa made a picture of me and Mamo-chan," she said, grinning from ear to ear.
It was of Usagi and Mamoru, or to be more precise, Usa-ko and Mamo-chan. It wasn't King Endymion in his sunset colored cloak and NeoQueen Serenity in her dress of spun silver. It wasn't even Tuxedo Kamen in his formal wear and Sailor Moon in her fuku and tiara. In fact, Mamoru was wearing his usual green jacket (which he refused to get rid of despite the fact that it was starting to look rather scruffy) and Usagi was wearing her Juuban high school uniform. They looked like any other young couple you might find on the streets of Tokyo, although if ChibiUsa's drawing was to be taken as forensic evidence, it would be a couple with unusually long legs and large heads.
"It was Mama's idea for me to give this to you. She even had it framed for me."
"It's beautiful," said Usagi, who was trying very hard not to get weepy the way she always seemed to these days. The frame was golden, with a border of flowers and leaves in a style similar to that of the filigree on the egg, but without the jewels and verdigris. "It's perfect."
"Mama said it reminded her of when she was you, and of how much she--you--always loved Mamo-chan, even from the very beginning."
Usagi gave up her struggle for control, barely managing to get out a shaky "arigatou" when Minako handed her a handkerchief.
Friday, June 29
8:55 p.m. Tokyo time/7:55 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time
"Hey, man. Stop worrying. I told you we'd get to the airport on time. You've got plenty of time. Craploads of time. I mean, you're only supposed to be there, what, an hour before your flight?"
"Three hours for international." Jason Wright leaned his head against the Chevy's window and winced in agony. It felt as if Lewis was aiming for every pothole. He was also a little nervous about driving down by the Inner Harbor ever since the recent sewer gas explosions that had sent 300 pound manhole covers spinning into the air like lethal tiddlywinks.
Lewis pulled a long face. "Someone woke up grumpy. You want I should put up the light and turn on the siren? It'll get us there faster."
"NO!" Jason rubbed his forehead. Why, why, why had he let Lewis and Falsone talk him into a 'bon voyage' party at the Waterfront last night?
Despite the rush hour traffic, they were making good time. Once they passed Camden Yards and turned onto the highway, it would be smooth sailing all the way to the airport. Jason wondered if he would be back in Baltimore in time to see Ripken's last game. The International Police Association exchange program was only supposed to last four weeks, but Jason might need to extend his stay for a while. He had hinted as much to one of his brothers, but as far as Lewis, Gharty, and the rest of the squad knew, he was returning at the end of July.
There was a good chance he wouldn't be returning at all. He couldn't say he hadn't thought about the possibility. There was a part of him that loved this city, a place that had eschewed the glitz and glamour of other east coast cities. He loved the neighborhoods that made this place more a collection of small towns than a city. He loved the little Hampden row house he'd bought last year, loved being able to sit on the front stoop on Sunday morning and read the paper or a Tom Clancy novel, while half the neighbors were out on their stoops and the kids chased each other up and down the street and their mothers or grandmothers screamed at them to come back inside and get dressed for church now. He had spilled his blood to protect this city. How could he not love it?
But Baltimore was only half of home. There was a piece of his soul that had been flapping loose in the wind since before he could remember. And over the past few years, the part of him that was tied to this funky little city had been stretched, pulled, abused, and twisted in a hundred unspeakable ways. Who was to say that this trip to Tokyo wouldn't be the thing that severed that remaining tie for good? It wouldn't take much. God, what kind of crap hadn't he seen recently? At least he wouldn't have to ever see Eric Maddox again. It was over. Case closed. The trial was a sure thing, but how many times had he heard that before only to watch some piece of human garbage walk free?
"Yo, Wright. What's up with the silence? You ain't thinking about the trial are you? They've got prints, DNA, opportunity, everything but a choir of heavenly angels coming down to point their fingers at the bastard. Half his neighborhood is turning out to tell the jury what kind of scumbag Maddox was."
"I wasn't thinking about the trial" he lied. Lewis might be a schmuck, but he was surprisingly good at reading people. "I was just wondering if they've got a Starbucks in the international terminal."
"It's probably just as well that you're getting the hell out of Dodge. You know, I still can't believe you got picked for this thing," said Lewis, who persisted in ignoring the signs that Jason did Not Want To Talk. "I mean, you don't even speak Japanese, for crying out loud."
"Urusei, Lewis-san. Onegai." Shut up, Lewis. Please.
"Was that Japanese? When did you learn to speak Japanese? You never told me you knew how to speak Japanese." Lewis swerved across two lanes to get to his exit, ignoring the angry honking of the other commuters.
"Omae wa ooki na baka da na, Lewis-san." Lewis, you can be such a jackass. He rubbed his temples with his thumb and forefinger. Was this headache ever going to go away? "What's the big deal? So you didn't know I spoke Japanese. What's so wrong about that?"
"You never said anything about it, that's what's wrong about it. The past few years you've... ah, hell. I don't know. It's just that you never open up the way you used to." He shook his head. "No one opens up anymore. It's like I'm working with a squad full of strangers."
"Dammit, Lewis! You're acting like I'm deliberately hiding some deep, dark secret! I mean it's not like I'm covering up, oh I don't know, some whacked-out scheme for world domination or something. If you'd ever bothered to ask me anything like 'do you know any foreign languages,' I would have told you."
"Are you covering up some whacked-out scheme for world domination?"
"Nah. Gave it up three years ago for Lent."
"Okay then. Answer me this. How come you know Japanese? You only had the two years of college, right?"
"I was born in Japan."
"You don't look very Japanese, Blondie."
"Hey! You never gave Gee this kind of crap about being Italian, and he's blacker than you are."
"I never gave Gee any crap of any kind, thank you very much."
"Bull. Besides, there's plenty of blondes in Japan." He sighed. It had to be the hangover making him this snappish. He forced himself to speak more calmly. "No, I'm not Japanese. I was just born there, that's all. Navy brat and all that nonsense. I spent the first ten years of my life around Yokohama. I've stayed in touch with a couple of friends off and on, spent a couple of summers there, kept up with the language, that kind of thing." He thought for a bit. "Funny, I've lived in Baltimore for nearly twenty years, and I still think of myself as being from Asia. I guess your early life is as influential as they say."
"In other words, this whole police cultural rah-rah diplomatic understanding blah-de-blah learning experience thingy is just an excuse for you to have yourself a nice little vacation and get together with your peeps on the company dime." They headed east towards the airport, and Lewis pulled down his trademark fedora to shield his eyes from the sun.
"Something like that." It had also been a timely coup for an increasingly demoralized department. Most of the other law enforcement professionals going to Japan for this four week exchange were from the FBI, the Secret Service, even the Texas Rangers. Jason's acceptance into the program was a real bragging point for the brass.
"You don't mind me saying so," Lewis continued, "you look like you could use a vacation. You looked at yourself lately?" He pointed at the sun visor. "Go on, take a look."
Jason obediently pulled down the visor so he could look in the mirror. There was no point arguing with Lewis when he was like this. His eyes were bloodshot—no surprise there. He also looked very much his age this morning: twenty-eight going on sixty-five.
"I haven't slept well lately. I'm looking forward to the trip itself, but I'm dreading the flight."
"Humph. Funny that a guy named Wright should be afraid of flying," said Lewis.
"I'm not afraid of flying. I just don't like airplanes. It's that feeling of being squished or trapped, like you can't move, or go anywhere, or do anything, and the seats these days are so damn small you can't even twitch. I can't even begin to tell you how much I hate that, and I'm going to be on that thing for almost twenty-four hours. I think." Trying to sort out the intricacies of the International Date Line gave him a roaring headache.
"Yeah, and the food's no good either. Well, get some R and R when you're not playing goodwill ambassador, okay? I haven't seen you this strung out since that whole 'incident' three years ago."
Too many painful memories and a whole string of 'incidents' came to mind. "We were all pretty strung out back then, Meldrick. You weren't exactly Mr. Sanity yourself." If he were ever asked to rate the darkest parts of his life, then the first half of that year would take Best in Show, no questions asked.
"Here we are. What airline?"
"Air Canada. Yeah, yeah, I know," he said when he saw Lewis's incredulous look, "but it goes straight through to Japan with only the one stop in Toronto."
They went around the terminal loop until they came to the international pier. The airport was crowded, with cars three deep at the curb, but Lewis pulled up into a red zone, and flashed his badge when the traffic cop looked like she was about to give them grief.
Lewis popped the trunk and Jason got out of the car. "We'll make this quick," he assured the traffic cop, using his most winning smile. He was only trying to keep Lewis out of trouble, but the cop smiled back at him and waved a skycap over. Guess I've still got it, thought Jason, but somehow the thought didn't make him happy. He had just stepped up on the curb to help him out when Lewis called him back.
Jason leaned back in the window. The skycap loaded the bags on a dolly. "What is it now?"
"I was thinkin'... say I meet some nice Japanese lady and I want to, you know, impress her. Get things off to a good start. Make her feel at home." He circled his hands as he spoke. "Is there anything I could say or do that might smooth the way to a little 'cultural exchange?'"
"Yeah. Try this. 'Ore wa hentai.' Works every time."
"Ore wa hentai." Lewis repeated the phrase a few more times until he could say it smoothly.
"Not bad, my man. You'll have 'em eating out of your hand in no time." He stood up and thumped the car door. "Now get out there and keep the streets safe and clean. I'll call in when I get the chance, let you all know I got there okay. Sayonara!"
"Adios, amigo. Don't drink the water!"
The unmarked cruiser pulled off. Jason tipped the skycap and went in to the terminal, not sure if he was anxious or relieved. Maybe by going back to Tokyo, even after all these years, he could find his old friends, put his ghosts to rest, and have a chance of a peaceful life. Part of him still hoped that he would find nothing--that the ghosts were only fantasies and the memories nothing more than a bad dream.
Another part of him knew that he was only kidding himself. Deep down in his heart, he knew what he'd find. He just didn't know what the consequences would be.
He hefted his bags as the Air Canada agent waved him up to the desk.
Only one way to find out.
Friday, June 29
A girl stood on the balcony of an empty apartment. This particular apartment was on the second floor of an apartment block that was absolutely identical to every other apartment block in a three-street radius. This apartment, however, let her look right across the street into another apartment.
It had taken Mother a very long time to find this place, the girl knew, many more years than she could count. It had taken her a long time to find these people, and it had taken even longer before Mother had been willing to let her go near the apartment on her own.
Across the street, she could see a whole lot of other girls in that apartment, far more than Mother had told her to expect. They were all laughing. They were having fun.
The girl cocked her head to one side, wondering what they were talking about. It was tempting to jump across the street to land on the balcony on the other side. To listen, and maybe, just maybe, join in. Not now, she reminded herself. Not yet. Mother had been very firm about that.
The girl reached into a pocket of nothingness and pulled out a crystal ball no bigger than a hen's egg. It looked perfectly round, but it was not a true sphere. Rather, the surface was made up of hundreds of tiny facets, each absolutely identical. If a mathematician were to measure and add up the angles of the crystal, the numbers would suggest that the crystal could not possibly exist. The numbers did add up correctly, but then again, most mathematicians would only think to measure in three dimensions. To the girl, however, it was just a pretty crystal--a special crystal.
The crystal shone a faint reddish-gold in the moonlight, but as the young women in the apartment across the way passed near the balcony window, into the crystal's line of 'sight,' the facets brightened and refracted the light in different colors. The girl with the long purplish black hair made the crystal glow red. One of the three blondes--the one with long hair held back from her face with a cute red ribbon--turned it orange. Mars and Venus, the girl told herself, confident that she had gotten it right. It had taken her a while, but she knew all of the colors by heart.
Four other girls went out onto the balcony to talk together. Two had short dark hair. Another had long, aqua-blue hair. The fourth was another of the blondes, the tall one with the short hair. She had her arm around the shoulders of the one with the aqua hair. The crystal responded with a confused pulse of many shades of blue, from baby to navy and from almost-green to purple.
The girl frowned. The crystal wasn't supposed to do things like that. One of the girls must be Mercury, because she did recognize the sparks of pure, pale blue. The girl decided it was the one with the long, wavy aquamarine hair. She was the prettiest, after all, and had the nicest dress. But who were the other three? What did their colors mean?
Another girl, this one with long brown hair pulled up into a high ponytail, came out onto the balcony to usher the others inside. Something about cake and presents, it appeared. That sounded like fun. The one with the ponytail was alone on the balcony for just a second, and the crystal turned pure forest green. All four Senshi were there, just as Mother had said they might be.
Six of the girls remained a mystery. The three on the balcony. Then, there was another woman with long dark hair who hadn't yet passed by the window. The remaining two obligingly moved towards the balcony.
There was a third blond aside from Venus and the blue-glow blonde, and there was also another girl with pretty pink hair. Sisters? Yes, she decided. They wore their hair the same way, after all. They stood together with their backs to the window while the others started singing and Jupiter brought in a huge pink cake covered with candles. The watcher refused to let her desire to leap across the road get the better of her. Instead, she reminded herself of what Mother had said and forced herself to focus on the crystal and whatever it had to say about these two girls.
Maybe it was their closeness, but they seemed to confuse her crystal. At first, the moonlight danced across the crystal in every shade of the rainbow, with motes of darkness suggesting that the crystal was refracting colors undetectable by the human eye. At first randomly, then pulling into a rapidly tightening spiral, the colors blended together until they formed a silvery white marbled with a pale, rosy gold. She gasped as the glow grew more intense.
The princess? It was possible, certainly it was possible, but...
The light went out as if the crystal had been plunged into a bucket of ink. The watcher looked up.
Across the street, one figure leaned out over the balcony railing, as if looking for the source of the strange light. She turned her head this way and that, slowly, like someone trying to locate by scent rather than sight. The woman was backlit, so that the watcher could not see her face. All she could see of the woman was the light that outlined her and gave a greenish cast to the long, dark hair.
The watcher pressed her back to the wall behind her. She could not afford to be seen. Not now. Not yet. In a near panic, she looked down at the crystal, hoping that it hadn't started glowing again.
It hadn't. At least it hadn't started glowing in a way that anyone could actually see. If such a thing were possible, the crystal glowed black. This was not just the absence of color. It was a deep black that held all light captive. It looked like a hole in her white-gloved hand.
The black-glow woman lifted her head in surprise, turned, and went back into the apartment. The watcher nearly yelped in surprise as the photons that had been held in stillness were released in a flash of violet light.
The watcher slipped the crystal back into its pocket and leapt up and across the street to the roof of the building she had been watching. She had found the Senshi, yes, but apparently she had found much, much more than that in the bargain.
The princess? Could it be? Had she really found her?
Mother would be so proud of her!
On the way back from the garage, Taiyouko stopped at an all-night mini-mart. There was a chance she might have a house guest for a few weeks, and she wanted to make sure that she had some real food on hand. Not many people had the same views as she did as to what constituted acceptable breakfast food. She contemplated picking up a carton of cigarettes, but instead threw a few more boxes of Pocky into her basket. As a sop to her conscience and her waistline she also picked up some celery and carrots, even though a tiny voice in the back of her mind told her they stood a seventy percent chance of turning in to primordial soup before she became desperate enough to snack on them.
As she rounded the corner from the bus stop, she noticed a group of about five people yammering excitedly and pointing upwards. One of them was pointing a camcorder towards the rooftops. Her police instincts took over, and she started looking for a fire, for signs of a domestic dispute in one of the surrounding apartments, or for something even worse. It never occurred to her that these people might be excited about an advertising balloon, or searchlights that were advertising some new nightclub, or some teen idol lounging on a balcony.
She finally saw it. There was a flash of white and gold as a girl leapt from the top of her apartment building to the roof of the apartment building across the street. The crowd gasped as the girl landed easily, then rose into another graceful leap and out of sight.
"Whatever," Taiyouko muttered.
It was just one of those supposedly magical crime-fighting girls. The Sailor Somethings. It was the one in the yellow micro-skirt. Although she found it hard to think of them as anything but somewhat silly amateurs, she didn't begrudge the girls their activities. In fact, she found herself cheering them on. If they wanted to fight unearthly demon scum bent on death and destruction, then more power to them. That left Taiyouko's slate clean for her to concentrate on fighting all-too-earthly human scum bent on death and destruction.
Her partner also recently observed that as an upside to all of this, his oldest daughter no longer resented having to wear the traditional sailor uniform to school. Of course, it also meant that his wife was going crazy trying to enforce what she saw as a modest hemline. She unlocked the front door to the building. She was halfway up the stairs to her third-floor apartment when a stray thought stopped her in her tracks.
The one in the yellow skirt?
Author's notes: If you are not familiar with "Homicide" (one of the best cop shows ever), don't worry. Anything you absolutely need to know will be explained in the course of the story.