Full Circle

by Naia Zifu

"Whoah, everything's so big and wappy!" Seiya said. "How do I look?"

"Like a big, dumb dork!" Yaten replied with a giggle. "My turn!" She, too, tried on my new wire-rimmed glasses, which magnified her big green eyes to an almost freakish size. "Whoah, Taiki, you really can't see well, can you?"

Seiya pointed and laughed. "You look like a frog!"

Yaten poked out her tongue.

"See what I mean?"

"Well, they look good on you, though," Yaten said, returning them to me.

"Yeah," Seiya agreed, "nobody will ever accuse you of looking nerdy again!"

Yaten punched her in the arm for that, but I wasn't bothered. I was seldom accused of being a nerd anymore anyway; there's nothing like finding out you're a Senshi to increase your social status and popularity.

"Excuse me," a cute pink-haired girl said as she approached, carrying a ball. "My friends and I would be honoured if the three of you would join us in a game of Fighter Ball!"

"Huh?" Seiya asked. "Oh, you mean Seiya Ball!"

"We renamed it in your honour!"

"Well, do me a favour and un-rename it, okay?" she asked. "For tradition's sake. In a hundred years I want there to be no doubt who invented everyone's favourite playground game: Seiya Kou, the coolest and best-looking Fighter of them all!"

I laughed, sure that though we all looked the same in every life, every Fighter thought she was the best-looking of the line.

"Pass," Yaten said. "I don't do sports."

"And I'd rather be reading," I said.

"Aww, come on, you guys, it'll be fun!" Seiya pleaded. "And it'll help get us ready for class! We're doing simulations today!"

"Neat," the pink-haired girl said. "How does it work?"

"Um. . .kinda like Seiya Ball, I think."

"Like Seiya Ball? How so?"

" 'Cause they put you in a room full of people who pretend to attack you, and you've gotta fight them off, like being a goalie in Seiya Ball!" she said.

Yaten and I laughed at her, but the pink-haired girl bought every word.

"Then come play with us," she said. "We'll help you train!"

Seiya readily agreed, and tried to convince us to play, but still we refused. After all, how could some stupid game help train us for real Senshi duty?

As it turns out, we really should've listened.

For our simulation, we were taken to a dilapidated old house behind the school, which had no door, broken windows, and a sagging roof littered with holes. Through the empty doorway, musty old furniture could be seen, covered in dirty white sheets. Some small animal of the rodent persuasion was either dead or napping on one of the livingroom chairs.

"Now that's realistic," Seiya said, "as if our princess would ever go into a creepy old place like this!"

"Are you sure it's safe in there?" Yaten asked.

"Sure it's safe!" our teacher said. "We've been doing sims here for two hundred years and nobody's been killed yet!"

"Well, that's comforting," Seiya deadpanned. "So exactly how does this 'sim' business work, anyway?"

Our teacher passed out armbands in our respective Senshi colours, and three matching small rubber balls apiece.

"These are your attacks," she explained. "For purposes of this simulation, you're limited to three shots, where you'll shout your real attack phrase and throw one ball. If you miss, you score no damage. If you run out, you may not reuse them. If you are hit by any ball, friendly or enemy, you take damage. Three non-lethal hits, or just one to the head or heart, and you're dead. Your objective, as always, is to protect your princess, even at the cost of your own lives. Any questions?"

"Princess?" Seiya repeated. "Is she here?"

"For purposes of this simulation, the part of the princess will be played by an actress. Hidama?"

A young red-haired woman arrived wearing a flowing gown and tall hat, Kakyuu's kinmokusei blossom birthmark drawn on her forehead with make-up, and did her best curtsy.

Seiya's tongue hung out of her mouth. "She'll do!"

"Hey!" Yaten shouted. "How come she gets a costume, when all we get are these stupid armbands?"

"Do well in your sims," the teacher said, "and you'll get the real thing soon enough."

I raised my hand and asked shyly, "Do I have to say. . . well, you know. . . that 'u' word?"

"No, Maker, you don't have to say it," she said, and waited for my relieved reaction before adding, "you have to shout it!"

"But I--"

"Every Maker since the dawn of time's had the same power, and they all used it proudly. What makes you so special, to think you can break that age-old tradition?"

"Oh, all right," I said with a sigh, "I'll try. . ."

"You'll do more than try, little Maker; you will!" she insisted. "Now get in there and defend your princess!"

If we thought that place looked bad from the outside, it was even scarier within! The wind whistled through the broken windows, the dirty sheets flapped like restless ghosts, and the floor creaked beneath our feet with every step.

I lagged behind the others on the way in, quietly practising my attack phrase, and not doing very well at that.

"Star Gentle. . . Star Gentle U-- Star Gentle. . . That's the easy part, it's just that last word is too embarrassing to say!"

"All right, Taiki, you're the one with the past life memories," Seiya said. "Which way do we go?"

"It looks vaguely familiar, but I'm not sure," I replied. "Let's try that way."

"All right, everybody stay together, and watch your backs."

"Star Gentle U-- Star Gentle U-- Ute--" I continued as we walked. Suddenly, a large figure in dark clothes leapt out of a closet! "Star Gentle Uterus!"

My purple ball hit the figure square in the head.

"Ow!" she cried. "Lighten up, girl, it's just a sim!"

"Sorry," I said. "But I got you, didn't I?"

"Yeah, I'm dead."

"Good. Anyone else hiding around here, waiting to pounce us?"

"Like I'm gonna tell you!"

I shrugged. "Worth a try."

"Good job on saying that attack with a straight face, though!"

"All right, Taiki, stop chatting with the enemy and let's get going!" Seiya ordered.

"This room looks clear," Yaten said, "but there's someone in the next room on a major anxiety attack!"

A black rubber ball sailed through the doorway and struck Yaten in the arm. Her own balls fell from her hand and rolled away in all directions.

"Take cover, everyone!" Seiya cried. "Yaten, are you hurt?"

"Just in the arm; I'll be okay. But I dropped my attacks! Am I allowed to pick them back up?"

"I think so, since you haven't used them. I'll cover you."

I pulled Hidama behind a sofa, while Seiya covered the door, and Yaten scrambled around the floor for her balls.

Another black ball whizzed by just overhead.

"Do those guys have a three ball limit, too?" I asked Hidama.

"I. . . guess so," the actress replied. "Seems only fair."

"Well, this one's used up two already."

"That's three!" Seiya said as another ball just missed her head. "Let's hope she's out now."

"I got mine!" Yaten cried.

"All right, we're going in! Taiki, hang back with Hidama until we're sure it's safe."

A moment later I heard a "Star Serious Laser!" followed by a word nine-year-olds shouldn't even know. "She got away!"

Hidama and I followed a few paces behind as we crept from room to empty room in search of our escaping "villain."

"I've got a bad feeling about this," Yaten said.

"Seems our little psychic's got something," Seiya said. "Talk to me."

"Something doesn't feel right about this," she replied. "I think we might be falling for a trap."

"Taiki?"

"Uh. . . let's try upstairs," I guessed.

"You don't sound too sure."

"I'm not, but it's better than falling into a trap down here!"

Seiya shrugged. "Okay, upstairs it is."

The second floor looked even worse than the first! Large patches of sky were visible through holes in the roof, the floor boards were rotting out, and splats of bird dung covered everything.

"Are you sure we're supposed to be up here?" Yaten asked. "It looks kind of unsafe."

"Well, it wasn't roped off or anything," Seiya said. "But if it makes you uneasy, we can always go back down."

We turned and started back down the stairs, when a hail of black balls flew up at us! Seiya, at the front, took the worst of it.

"Back upstairs, everyone!" she cried. "I'm dead, but I'll try to block the stairs with my corpse the best I can."

"Star Sensitive Inferno!" Yaten called as she threw a ball down the stairs to scatter the baddies.

Seiya sprawled out on the stairs and latched her hands and feet to the rails to prevent being moved, while the rest of us ran back upstairs and ducked behind the smelly old furniture.

"Two balls left apiece," Yaten said, "and I counted at least half a dozen down there. I don't know if we can make it."

"Kakyuu-princess is a Senshi, too," I remembered. "They didn't happen to give you any red balls, did they, Hidama?"

"Nope, sorry; it's your sim," she replied. "You're supposed to be protecting me!"

Yaten echoed Seiya's earlier curse word, and added a few of her own.

"Well, our only obligation is to get her out alive. If we could find a way out from here. . ." I said, surveying the room.

"Ow!" Seiya cried. "Watch it! I'm not really dead, you know!"

"If you've got an idea, make it fast," Yaten said. "Sounds like we're about to have company!"

I saw a door on the other side of the room, the first intact one I'd seen yet in the house.

"Let's try for that door," I ordered.

"All right, then, on the count of three. One. . . two. . ."

Two dark-clothed "villains" entered, black rubber balls in hand.

"Star Sensitive Inferno!" Yaten cried, but when she threw her ball, it didn't even reach them!

"Star Gentle Uterus!" I called, and struck one of the baddies square in the chest. "I'll cover you. Just get Hidama out of here!"

My last ball hit the other in the head, but more "villains" were right behind them. I charged towards them, dodging black balls the whole way, hoping to fight them off hand-to-hand long enough for Yaten to get the actress out of there. Suddenly I heard a loud cracking sound and a pair of screams behind me. I turned just in time to see Yaten and Hidama fall through the floor.

The simulation stopped immediately, and the girls who'd been playing our enemies rushed down the stairs to get help.

"What happened? What happened?" Seiya demanded as she ran into the room.

"I don't know," I replied. "I only turned my back for a minute, and then. . ."

Seiya cursed and leapt into the hole after them.

I closed my eyes and joined her a moment later, landing gracelessly on my bum, as the room filled with dark-clothed girls with eyes full of guilt and concern.

"Are they all right?" one of them asked.

Yaten wriggled from beneath Hidama, holding her arm, and tried and failed to stand up.

"I think my ankle's broken," she said, "maybe my arm, too. But I'll live. What about Hidama?"

The actress' eyes fluttered open. She tried to sit up, but collapsed, instead, into Seiya's arms.

"What happened?" Hidama asked dazedly.

"The floor gave way," Yaten replied. "You fell right on top of me."

"Good thing you did, or you might be sitting here dead right now," Seiya said. "Whatever they're paying you, girl, it's not enough! You should ask for a raise."

The actress laughed weakly. "You think they're paying me for this?"

When an ambulance arrived a few minutes later, even the paramedics remarked on the condition of the place; how unsafe it was for little girls to be playing there. They carried Hidama out on a back board, her neck braced, in case she had spinal injuries. And though Yaten insisted she'd be fine, they took her to the hospital as well.

"You said this place was safe," Seiya shouted at our teacher. "They could've been killed in there!"

"If you'd done a better sim, that wouldn't have happened," she replied. "You, Fighter, should learn not to risk your princess' life unnecessarily."

"I didn't!"

"Healer needs to improve her toss, and you, Maker. . . practise your attack phrase and stop being so timid and indecisive!"

"Timid?" I repeated. "But I wasn't--"

"How do you know what happened anyway?" Seiya asked. "Were you watching us?"

"I'll have to examine the tape for more specific recommendations," the teacher said. "And, for future reference, the top floor is supposed to be off limits. It's unsafe and we have no cameras up there."

Seiya growled, "Future reference, my cute little--"

"Seiya!" I scolded.

"We are not going back in there," she insisted. "If you want us to do sims, fine; we'll do them all day if you want. Just find somewhere safe to do them or we're out of here!"

"All right, we'll have this place fixed up, and find a safer place to do them in the meantime," our teacher said. "Your safety is of the utmost importance."

"Then you'll understand why I'm cutting the rest of school to go to the hospital," Seiya said. "My friend and the girl I was meant to protect got hurt, and I can't help feeling responsible. I'm going to go make sure they're all right. Join me or not, I don't care."

Then Seiya turned and started off.

I watched her for a moment, biting my lip, weighing the penalties of missing school against my guilty conscience.

"Send me my assignments," I said. "I'll do them tonight."

I rushed to catch up to Seiya. As we walked away, I expected our teacher to call us back and reprimand us, but she said nothing. We walked off campus without being stopped, and made our way across town to the hospital in silence. We didn't even think there'd be a problem getting in until we got there.

"We're here for Yaten Kou and Hidama. . ." Seiya turned to me. "Is 'Hidama' her given or family name?" But I just stared blankly. "The one dressed as Kakyuu-princess! That Hidama!" Seiya said. "You can't miss her!"

The desk nurse pushed her glasses up on her nose.

"I take it you're not family?" she asked.

"No, but I'm responsible," Seiya said. "Please, at least have a look."

The nurse looked down at us, and I took a step back so she could see my school uniform, to prove we weren't just some silly girls off the street. Her eyes came to rest on my lavender armband.

"You're Sailor Senshi?" she noticed.

Apparently that changed everything. The nurse typed something into her computer.

"I can't look up this 'Hidama' on just the one name, but your other friend, Yaten Kou. . . that's with a 'K'? No-one by that name has been brought in."

"Try 'Healer,' " Seiya said. "She might be here under her Senshi name."

The nurse looked again.

"Ah, that's got it!" she said. "She was brought in an hour ago, injured in a fall. But she's not a priority case; she's still waiting in chairs."

"Great," Seiya said. "Come on, let's go find her."

She grabbed my arm and dragged me off before the nurse could protest.

It wasn't hard to find Yaten, as she was the only white-haired little girl in the waiting area. She sat, looking terribly bored, in a big, yellow plastic chair. The only treatment she'd received so far was a cold pack for her swollen ankle.

"Hey, girl," Seiya called, "how ya feeling?"

"Seiya? Taiki? What're you doing here?" Yaten asked.

"Ditching school to come check on you, of course!"

"This is how you know I love you," I said. "I've never ditched school before for anyone!"

Yaten hugged us both with her uninjured arm.

"Thanks for coming, guys, though I know you're gonna regret it. It's so boring here!"

Seiya sat down and picked up a kids' magazine.

"Then I guess we'd better make ourselves comfortable," she said. "We're gonna be here as long as it takes to make sure you're okay."

"A bad ankle sprain and a hairline arm fracture," I told my parents when I finally got home that evening. "We were there eight hours for an ankle sprain and a hairline arm fracture!"

"Well, it was kind of you to sit with her anyway," my mother said. "And your other friend?"

"Hidama? Well, it took some work, but we found out where she was and eventually got in to see her. The doctors think she'll be all right, but they're keeping her overnight anyway to make sure."

"So, I guess there'll be no more simulations for a month or two."

"At least it'll give them time to find a better place to hold them," my father said. "I'm not comfortable letting you do any more until I'm sure you'll be safe."

"I don't know why we have to do sims anyway," I complained. "We'll know everything we need to once we transform, won't we?"

"Knowing what to do and doing it are two different things, Kou. All the Senshi knowledge in the world won't do much good without the proper physical training."

"I guess so," I said with a sigh. "It just seems like they're trying to take credit for discovering us and teaching us all we need to know. Don't you think, if this is our destiny, it would happen on its own, whether they interfered or not?"

"Well, I, uh. . ." my father sweatdropped and scratched the back of her head. "Honey, this is just how it's done. It's been like this for thousands of years; you can't break that kind of tradition."

"Well, what did they do before that?" I asked.

My father had no answer for that, and all my mother had to say was, "Go practise your attack phrase."

I blushed. "Are you sure? It's pretty embarrassing. . ."

"It's a fine attack, Honey," my father said.

"But it's--"

" 'Star Gentle Uterus?' " my mother said, and I blanched at the sound of those words from her mouth. "That's nothing to be ashamed of, sweetie; it's just part of who you are as Maker."

"Practise as much as you have to," my father said. "We're proud of you no matter what your attack is."

"And then she said it," I told Seiya the next afternoon, "my own mother! I was mortified!"

Seiya shrugged. "Not your fault you've got a weird attack phrase."

"I know it's just because I'm Maker, but couldn't they find a less disgusting reference?"

"Nah, this one's great!" she said. "It takes a lot of self-confidence to say something like that."

"Then why didn't they give it to you instead?"

"I'd be happy with that," Seiya said, and imitated, "Star Gentle Uterus! See, it's not so hard."

"Oo-ooh! Seiya said a bad word!" Kiyoshi said.

"Seiya, what's a 'uterus?' " Mai and Mieko asked at once.

"Uterus! Uterus!" Hoshi repeated, giggling.

Seiya flushed and cried, "Hey! Don't say that!"

"Still want to trade attacks, do you?" I asked with an "I told you so" smile.

"Oh, stop gloating and help me do my homework!" Seiya said. "Sailor Kronos, do we like her or not?"

"I don't like her myself," I said, "she's so aggressive! But she's always honourable. I think we can count on her in a pinch."

"All right, how about Sailor Endor?"

"Cute and furry, looks a bit weird in the fuku, but I hear she's nice."

"We've never met her?"

"No, she's from a galaxy far, far away."

"Then why do we have to learn about her?" Seiya asked. "Geez! Okay, then, what about Sailor Optera?"

"Bad, bad, bad," I said. "Maybe a few hundred years ago we could've worked together, but now she's a slimy, vindictive witch bent on vengeance."

Seiya made a face. "Remind me not to vacation there!"

"Or, if you do, don't sniff the flowers!" Seiya's father joked as she entered the room.

Seiya's father, also named Kou, looked exactly like her namesake daughter, sans ponytail. She had the same caring, playful spirit, too. She loved spending time with her family, and spending so much time away on her two jobs really hurt her.

"Come draw with us, Daddy!" Mai pleaded.

"I can't right now, sweetie. Daddy's gotta go to work," she said. "But I'll be back in time to tuck you in tonight, okay?"

The little girl sighed. "Okay, Daddy."

"If you have any leftover desserts, bring some home for me!" her twin said.

"Leftover desserts?" her father repeated. "You never ask for leftover computer parts!"

"I'll take some!" Kiyoshi said.

Her father laughed and patted her curly head.

"I'm sure you would, kiddo," she said. "We'll see what we can do about the desserts, anyway. But I do have to go now, girls. Give Daddy a hug!"

She collected hugs and kisses from all Seiya's sisters, sprawled out on the floor drawing and playing blocks. Then she came to the dining table, which had been taken over by our homework. I'd finished my work already and sat playing with a strange deck of cards the counsellor gave me. Seiya toiled over her own work, trying to finish in time to play. Yaten, however, had fallen asleep on her homework an hour ago and was currently drooling on her science papers.

Seiya's father hugged and kissed her eldest daughter on the top of the head.

"See you later, dear," her father said. "And number five should be 'Sailor Vulcan.' "

"Huh? No it shouldn't!" Seiya protested. She looked it up again in her history book. "Oh, yeah, I guess you're right. Thanks, Dad."

"No problem," she said with a smile.

Then her father hugged me, too; a gesture that had taken a while for me to get used to.

"Bye, Taiki." She examined my cards for a moment and said, "Ooh, whatever you're asking about, girl, it looks bad!" I just stared blankly. "You're doing a tarot card reading, right?"

I shrugged. "School counsellor gave me these. Apparently they belonged to the last Maker. She said I'd know what to do with them, but so far I can't figure it out. Do you know?"

"Yes I do."

"Then will you teach me?"

"Yes I will," she replied, "next weekend, when I'm off."

Seiya asked excitedly, "Hey Dad, can Taiki and Yaten sleep over next weekend?"

"We'll see. But they'll have to ask their parents first." She stroked sleeping Yaten's hair, but the girl didn't stir. "Make sure she gets her homework done."

"I will," Seiya said. "Just leave it to me, Dad. Bye!"

As soon as her father was gone, Seiya's smile became a sly grin. She grabbed Yaten's long white braid and pulled.

"Ow!" Yaten cried, sitting bolt upright. "What was that for?"

"Dad said to make sure you do your homework," Seiya said. "Now get to work or I'll pull your hair again!"

"Why you-- I'll pull yours!" Yaten said, and gave Seiya's ponytail a tug.

"Ow!" Seiya cried, and pulled Yaten's hair again.

A fight was about to start when I reminded them, "Yaten's injured; this is no time for fisticuffs."

"Yeah," Seiya said, "so stop arguing and do your homework!"

"I don't see how I can do this assignment anyway," Yaten complained. "It's about heredity. We have to make a chart showing from which family members we got which traits, but I never knew my real parents."

"They shouldn't make you do that!" Seiya cried.

"You can ask the orphanage you came from," I suggested. "Maybe they know something about your family."

"But it's due tomorrow!" Yaten whined.

"This is why you shouldn't wait till the last minute."

"We'll get you an extension," Seiya said, "and help you with the research, if you need it."

"Thanks, guys," Yaten said. "You don't know how hard it is being an orphan at times like this. You're so lucky to know your real families; you can just look around and see where all your traits come from. I'd give anything for a chance like that."

"You wouldn't say that if you'd grown up with family like mine," I said.

"Oh, you're not fooling anyone, Taiki. We know where you really came from," Seiya joked, and Yaten joined in, "cloning!"

"Hey, I don't believe that anymore!" I protested. "It took some prodding, but I finally got my mother to tell me the truth."

"You were hatched?" Seiya guessed.

"Funny. Actually, I hear my father. . .um. . ." My friends watched, amused, while I squirmed. "She got a special body with an. . . ugly part. Then she and my mother did. . .ugly things. . .and that's how I got here."

"She really said that?" Seiya asked. " 'Ugly parts' and 'ugly things?' No wonder you're an only child!"

Meanwhile, on the floor, trouble was brewing.

"Hey! That's my picture!" Mieko cried. "Draw your own!"

"Okay," Hoshi said, and obligingly moved on. . . to her other sister's paper.

"Quit it, Hoshi!" Mai whined. "You're ruining my picture of Daddy!"

"Draw Daddy!" Hoshi said.

"No!" Mieko ordered. "Go play blocks with Sissy!"

"Yeah! Blocks!" Hoshi cried, heading right for Kiyoshi's giant block tower.

Kiyoshi blanched and waved her arms wildly, but it was too late. Hoshi slipped on one of her sisters' markers and toppled right into the block tower. Blocks flew everywhere! Kiyoshi yelled at Hoshi for wrecking her tower. Hoshi cried because she fell down. The twins cried because they got hit with flying blocks. Seiya had to drop everything and go defuse the situation.

"And this," I said with a smirk, "is why I'm glad I'm an only child."

Finding Yaten's real family wasn't as easy as I thought. The orphanage knew nothing but their names and death date, but it was a start. A little research turned up the obituary and a blurb of an article on the accident that killed them. Digging a little deeper, we found their last known address and places of employment. A weekend spent talking to co-workers and people in their neighbourhood, and, slowly, a picture of Yaten's parents began to emerge.

Her mother, Saki, was lovely, ethereal, and deeply spiritual; an angel with powder-blue eyes and alabaster skin, her silky white hair feathered to frame her face perfectly. She had strong, well-honed precognition and empathy, with (some said) a touch of clairvoyance, all of which she used to great advantage as a homicide investigator. At sixteen she'd entered an arranged marriage to a much older, yet still handsome, and quite successful silver-haired psychiatrist called Joi, whose closest thing to psychic power was her hypnotic pale-green eyes. The couple tried for years to have a child on their own, with no success. Finally, on the advice of a friend, they asked science to intervene. The fertility treatments took, and eight months later, Yaten was born. Sadly, they wouldn't get to enjoy their new baby for long; she was just under a year old when they died.

Yaten knelt before the stone and ran her fingers over the names.

"This is it," she said quietly, "I finally found my real parents."

"If you need some time alone, we can just--" I began, but Yaten shook her head.

"I think I need friends around at a time like this," she said.

So Seiya and I waited with her, trying not to feel too awkward, while she brushed the dirt and leaves from her parents' tombstone and filled the vase with a bouquet of rare and expensive flowers.

"Hey, you guys," Yaten said to the stone. "It's me, Kou, your daughter. It took a while to find you, but I finally got here! Did you miss me? Well, in case you were worried, I'm doing okay. A lot's happened to me lately; I'm getting adopted by the Bhotan family-- you know, heirs to the Akina clothing fortune, close personal friends of the royal family-- which basically means I gotta take etiquette classes, and I'm not allowed to touch anything in my own house. Somehow I thought being rich would be more fun, but I'm getting used to it. And I've transferred to the Ouritsu Gakuin, and made some friends there." She cast a backward glance to us, and we both waved shyly to the tombstone. "I know they don't look like much, but they're the best, most loyal friends a girl could ask for, and I love 'em. . . even Seiya, who teases too much for her own damn good. But the best thing that's happened is, I'm in training to become a Sailor Senshi! I just wish you were here to share it all with me-- I know you'd be proud. It doesn't seem fair; all you went through to have me, and you don't even get to see me become a Senshi. But now I know where you are, I'll come by every week to bring you flowers and tell you what's going on with me. I promise we'll never lose each other again. Now, is it okay if I--" She took out a blue crayon and a sheet of paper, and made rubbings of her parents' epitaphs. "I just wanted a copy for myself. I gotta go now; my friends get nervous in graveyards. But I'll come back and see you next week, okay?" She kissed her fingertips and ran them lovingly over the epitaphs. "Bye, guys."

"You're nervous in graveyards, Seiya?" I asked as we left. "But your mother's passed on. Don't you visit her grave?"

"My mom doesn't have one; she was cremated," Seiya replied. "You know that urn on the mantelpiece?"

"That's her?" Yaten asked. "Cool! I wish I had my parents around like that!"

But the idea of living amongst the dead made me uneasy. That's what cemeteries were for; to keep the dead in their rightful place, away from the living.

I made a face. "Remind me never to be alone in your livingroom again."

Seiya laughed. "What's wrong, Taiki? Dead people creep you out? I thought you were supposed to be the morbid one!"

"I'm not morbid," I protested. "Everything dies, Seiya. I can accept that. I just think it's spooky to bring them home and put them on the mantelpiece."

"You'd rather put them in the ground and walk on them?" Seiya argued. "What kind of love and respect does that show?"

"My papers!" Yaten shrieked.

We'd been so busy arguing we'd forgotten her! Hobbling along on her sprained ankle, with a crutch under one arm and a sling on the other, she couldn't properly hold her papers, which scattered on a passing breeze. Seiya and I chased them into the next row, where they came to rest on some well-maintained graves.

"Sorry, ma'am," I apologised to the poor woman whose grave I was crawling over. "I'll be out of your way in a minute."

Suddenly, Seiya gasped and shook me by my shoulders to get my attention. I followed her gaze to the large marble headstones with their exquisitely carved Senshi angels perched on top. Then my eyes wandered from the angel in front of me to the epitaph on the headstone. I screamed and fell over on my bum-- I'd just been crawling on my own grave!

Yaten hobbled over to see what our problem was, but stopped in her tracks the moment she saw the angels.

"Oh my stars," she whispered, "it's us!"

"Which ones are they?" Seiya asked.

Though the headstones were old-fashioned, the death dates were just thirty years ago. That would be--

"The time before last," I replied.

"How did they. . .you know. . ."

"Seiya!" Yaten scolded.

"Well, they don't tell us that part in school," Seiya protested. "Those bodies down there used to be us; I think we have a right to know. Taiki?"

"I-I'm not sure," I admitted. "I don't remember everything, and what I do know is out of order."

"But I thought you knew all about our past lives," Seiya said.

"I never said I knew everything; that's just what you assumed."

"And you never said otherwise!"

"Well, whatever she knows, it's more than us," Yaten said. "Even if we don't know what killed them, we know how they died; as heroes. Do you think they'd want us arguing over their graves like this?"

"She's right," Seiya agreed, "these girls were heroes."

"And as many lives as we've had. . ."

"There could be hundreds, even thousands, more graves just like this!" I finished.

None of us spoke for a long time. We all knew we'd lived before, but the idea of all those graves out there, all those bodies, all of them "us," was kind of overwhelming.

"We've gotta do well in those sims," Seiya said, echoing my own thoughts. "History class, too. We've gotta be the best Senshi we can, to try to live up to their memories."

The simulations resumed a month later, once Yaten and Hidama had recovered. While the old house was being renovated, our sims were held outdoors in wooded areas, closed streets, and back alleys. Our performance improved each time, but we never survived, or even saved our "princess." So we practised after school and weekends at Seiya's, where her sisters took great joy in watching us mock-fight and ridiculing our techniques. When the little ones got restless, we played catch with them to help improve Yaten's toss, or tag for speed and agility. I even locked myself in my room every night before bed, and practised my attack phrase until my throat was sore.

I didn't get to read or write poetry much anymore; there was little left in my day but school and practising for sims. I went to bed each night with my throat sore and every muscle aching, and woke up stiff and groggy each morning. It was a lot for a nine-year-old to endure, and some mornings I didn't feel like going through it all again. On those days it didn't feel worthwhile to get up, I'd stare at my growing collection of epitaphs, and my feelings of hope soon returned. Rubbed from headstones all over the city, from lives as old as two hundred years ago, they were tangible evidence of past lives and deaths half-remembered. They reminded me where I came from and what I was working towards; that I was part of something bigger.

"Been crawling around old graveyards again, I see," my father said. I hadn't even heard her come in. "Every time I come in here you've got more."

"You think I'm morbid for collecting them?" I asked.

"Nah, you're curious about your past lives; I understand that."

I sighed and plopped down on my bed.

"I just can't decide if they're me or other people."

My father sat by me on the bed and studied my face.

"They're not you, Kou," she assured me. "When I look at you, I see myself at your age, not some leather-clad Senshi, and those beautiful eyes come from your mother, not the stars. You've got my intelligence, your mother's kind soul, my mother's love of poetry--"

I smiled. "Your mother loved poetry, too? I never knew where I got that!"

"Maybe all of them," she said, pointing to the rubbings on the wall, "had violet eyes and high IQs, too. They may have even loved poetry, I don't know, but they didn't have your family, your life, your experiences. . . They're not you."

"Maybe not, but another ten or fifteen years and I'll be one of them."

"Given time, Kou, we all end up like them," my father said. "Don't look for death or worry how much time you have; any one of us could die at any time, Senshi or not. The trick is to live and love life as long as it lasts, so that when you do go, you'll have no regrets."

For a scientist, my father had quite a romantic side sometimes! Maybe she had more of her mother's poet's soul than she'd like to admit.

"I'm kind of scared, though," I admitted. "We've been working hard on our sims these past few months, and we've finally started winning some. Teacher says if we keep going like we are, we'll have our final test on Monday."

"But that's good, right? All that hard work finally paying off?"

"I guess so, but that test has me really nervous," I said. "If we fail, we can't become the princess' protectors. But if we pass, I'll have to be Maker full-time and live in the castle, and I don't know if I'll ever see you and Mother again!"

"That is a tough choice, isn't it?"

"I don't think I like either option."

My father hugged me close and kissed the top of my head.

"Well, no matter what happens Monday," she said gently, "you'll always be my little Kou, the light of my life."

I kissed my parents good-bye and met Seiya and Yaten outside my building early Monday morning. We were all droopy-eyed and yawning, barely able to sleep a wink the night before in our anxiety.

"Morning, Taiki," Seiya said through a yawn. "You look like crap!"

"You, too, Seiya!" I retorted.

"I'm afraid we all do," Yaten said. "How are we supposed to get through our test like this?"

"If they have any decency," I said, "they'll take one look at our condition and want to reschedule."

But it was clear the moment we arrived there would be no rescheduling. The royal carriage pulled up to the school just ahead of us and all three of the queen's personal Senshi emerged. The one in yellow offered a hand to help our young princess out, and Seiya stopped in her tracks so suddenly, she almost fell over.

"Princess," she whispered, staring wide-eyed and drooling a bit at one corner of her mouth.

Kakyuu turned her red eyes to us, and we immediately fell to our knees before her. She came to us, surrounded by her mother's Senshi, and lovingly touched the tops of our heads.

"You've come so far these past few months," the princess said. "I'm so proud of you! There's just one last test you must pass to take your rightful place at my side. Keep strong, my Starlights, and remember. . ." She knelt down to whisper, "I believe in you."

Then she stood and walked-- practically floated-- away, into the building.

"She touched me," Seiya said dreamily. "I'm never washing this head again!"

"Then you can bet that's the last time she'll touch you!" Yaten quipped.

"Kakyuu-princess said she believes in us," I said. "We can't let her down."

Yaten agreed, and we started inside, when we realised Seiya wasn't with us. She just stood there, in kind of a daze, drooling and rubbing her fortunate head.

"She smells so pretty," Seiya mumbled to herself, "like an exotic flower."

I let out a frustrated sigh, took Seiya by the arm, and dragged her inside.

Fortunately our test was first thing in the morning; sleep-deprived as I was, I didn't think I could stay awake through even one class. We were all ready to dazzle our princess with our mastery of throwing rubber balls at dark-clothed girls to protect Hidama, but the actress was nowhere to be seen.

"Where's Hidama?" Seiya asked. "Is she sick?"

"Sorry, no civilian players this time," our teacher said.

"No Hidama?" Seiya asked, visibly crushed.

"Then who're we supposed to protect?" Yaten asked.

"And whom do we fight?" I wondered.

The queen's Senshi stepped forward, and the three of us blanched at the thought of it.

"Are you nuts, Teach?" Seiya protested. "They're more than twice our age, and real Senshi to boot! How are we supposed to fight them?"

The teacher unlocked her briefcase and unceremoniously tossed something to Seiya, one to Yaten, and finally, to me.

"Maybe this'll help even things out," she said.

I looked at the object she'd thrown me-- a large, metal, winged shooting star-- and nearly dropped it to the floor. I don't know which shocked me more; that this was my real henshin device, or that she'd thrown such an important item so casually! The three of us looked at each other with stunned expressions.

"Well, what're you waiting for?" our teacher said. "Go on and try them out!"

I hesitated a moment, unsure I was ready at nine to give up my normal life and take on such a big responsibility.

"Fighter Star Power, Make-up!" Seiya called.

I loved my home, my family, my poetry, my schoolwork. . .

"Healer Star Power, Make-up!" Yaten called.

And I was really going to miss my birth name. . .

"I guess I have no choice in the matter," I said with a sigh. "Well, here goes. . ." I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and shouted, "Maker Star Power, Make-up!"

My fragmented memories fell into place like a jigsaw puzzle. I remembered everything from every life I'd ever lived-- millions of
lives-- as clearly as yesterday, yet I didn't lose myself as Taiki to them. I simply felt whole and content, like I'd found what I'd been
missing my whole life. But once I saw my nine-year-old body in my skimpy black fuku I knew what was missing; it was the youngest I'd ever gotten my powers, and I was used to filling it out more. My friends, too, seemed similarly displeased with their young bodies.

Kakyuu was overjoyed to see us, though, no matter our age. Her royal manners failed her for a moment, and she ran to embrace us.

"Fighter, Healer, Maker," she said, tears streaming down her face, "I've missed you so!"

She was just a child when she knew the last Starlights. We were fourteen when Kakyuu was born, newly awakened as Sailor Senshi.
We were her baby-sitters more than her protectors, feeding and changing her, playing games and teaching her alphabets. We watched
her grow from a newborn, to a rambunctious toddler, to a precocious five-year-old who loved ponies and couldn't sleep unless the three of
us sang her lullabies every night without fail.

The night we died, we sang the young princess to sleep as usual and tucked her in with her favourite plush pony. We'd just settled
in for the night ourselves when our world was attacked, without warning, from the sky. I heard the princess' cries from the next room and rushed in to find her sitting up, screaming, in her bed, while chunks of the ceiling fell in around her. I snatched her up just as the wall was starting to cave in, crushing her bed, and leapt from the window with the little girl in my arms, screaming the whole way. We landed in the middle of a war zone.

Before us lay a city in chaos. Trees were uprooted; vehicles scattered about like toys; homes, businesses, and even the local shrine had been levelled. In the distance, flames could be seen rising from downtown, as once-proud skyscrapers groaned mournfully and collapsed into twisted hulks of metal and shattered glass. Charred bodies of the dead and dying were tripped and trampled over by panicked survivors searching in vain for safety as the bombardment continued.

The queen's Senshi joined us, frightened queen in tow, as the palace quaked and crumbled to the ground. I handed the princess off to her mother, and her Senshi whisked them off for the labyrinth of underground tunnels beneath what remained of the palace, where I knew they'd be safe. Kakyuu stretched her little arms for me, tears streaming down her plump cheeks, as she was being taken away. I turned my face from the heart-wrenching sight to focus coldly on my duty. There was no room for such emotion during a war, after all. We both knew it would be the last we saw of one another.

"You mean you've been waiting for us all this time?" Fighter asked.

"Is that why you started searching so soon?" Healer asked. "Because you missed your old friends?"

"I don't know what good we'll do you this young," I admitted, "but we're forever in your service nonetheless."

"Save the tearful reunion, kiddies," the Senshi in pink said. "The job's still not yours yet, not till you've proved yourselves ready."

The queen's Senshi, dubbed Protostars after the volatile stage in a star's formation, were lead by Sailor Starhunter, the most petite and youthful-looking of the three. She was athletically built, with perpetually unkempt cherry hair and eyes the same baby-pink as the spiked "I"-shaped collar and arm guards she wore. Lest anyone take her stature and pink theme for signs of weakness, it should be said that Hunter earned her status as leader by besting the others in (marginally) fair combat many times over the millennia. Sailor Starraider had the sinewy build and thick grey mane of her sacred animal, the wolf, with golden eyes to match the chevroned choker and arm guards of her fuku. In many ways she shared the animals' untamed behaviour and pack mentality as well. . . most notably that she was often the one challenging for alpha. Sailor Starreaper boasted a delicate, exotic appearance that belied her baser tendencies. Taller than the others by a head (partly owing to the orange coiled choker that stretched the length of her neck), she had a willowy build and warm cocoa skin that set off the bright tangerine of her eyes. The most serious and duty-driven of the three, she was the queen's "pet" and near-constant companion. The three of them were born of older stars than we were, and fuelled by more primal energies. They thought themselves naturally superior to us and never missed a chance to try to prove it. That rivalry had lasted for millennia. Who were we to argue with tradition?

"We've kicked your butts before," Healer said. "Just 'cause we're young now doesn't mean we can't do it again!"

The older Senshi stood before us, even the shortest almost twice Healer's height.

"You're gonna kick my ass?" Raider taunted. "You're the size of a six-year-old! You can't even reach my ass!"

That was the worst thing one could say to a Senshi who's never topped five feet in millions of lives, and was quite self-conscious
of that fact! Healer's eyes narrowed and green energy crackled around her small body. Even as we tried to calm her down, the energy collected in a ball in her hand, which she surely would've released had our teacher not intervened.

"Not in the building!" she ordered. "Save it for the test! Here's the rules: You've got an hour time limit, all attacks half strength or less, nothing fatal, no time outs for any reason. You keep your princess safe, you've passed the test. It's that simple. Now take it outside where you won't destroy the school, okay?"

"Let's use that old place behind the school," Fighter said.

"We can't take our princess in there," Healer argued, "it's not safe! They aren't finished fixing it yet!"

"I sure hope not!"

Healer looked confused, so I hinted, "Just remember who was the last to use it."

She smiled and nodded understanding. Being last to use the old building, we knew more about its present condition and weak spots. Of course, the others might be too smart to fall for it, but it was our best and maybe only chance to beat them.

We turned to our princess for the final word.

"I trust your judgement," she said without hesitation.

"All right, then," Fighter said, "the old house it is."

There was yellow hazard tape across the doorway, and the wind rustled plastic film taped over the broken windows. Most of the
furniture had been removed, and a few wooden supports erected, but it seemed the renovations hadn't yet begun in earnest. Good.

"You get five minutes' head start before I send in the others," the teacher said. "Time starts on my mark. Ready?"

My pounding heart counted the seconds as I waited, muscles tense, while the wind whipped at my hair and raised gooseflesh on my
overexposed body. But still, the wind picked up, until the rustling of plastic reached a deafening crescendo, and I barely even heard it when the teacher shouted, "Go!"

We shot off down the hall, to the dining room Yaten and Hidama fell into. The splintered table had been removed and the ceiling
braced with wooden supports and plywood.

"Take out those beams," Fighter ordered.

I hesitated. "But the rules. . ."

"I didn't hear any rules against sabotage, did you?" she asked with a mischievous smile.

"Then we'd better start taking these out, too," Healer said. She leapt up and snatched the camera right off the wall. "Wouldn't
wanna give them any advance warning!"

"Now the beams," Fighter said.

With one quick chop, she snapped the beam nearest her. I shrugged and followed her lead, until all except one centre
beam were broken.

We heard the queen's Senshi enter and bound down the hall after us, whooping like savages. It didn't take them long to find us in
that dining room.

"Star Cynical Arrow!" Hunter cried as the three of them burst into the room.

A pink shaft of light shot forth, and I dove to avoid it. The shot exploded against the wall, leaving a hole big enough to walk through.

"Hey! That wasn't half strength!" I protested.

"So screw the rules!" Healer cried. "Star Sensitive Inferno!"

Her attack glanced off Reaper's side as the three scrambled to dodge. But hers wasn't half strength, either; it cut through the orange strap at Reaper's waist and into her flesh, where it drew a trickle of blood.

"All right, clear!" Fighter called. The four of us hurried out of the room and she shot out the last beam with a, "Star Serious Laser!"

The ceiling quivered, and the rotten beams strained under the weight of the plywood. . . then, nothing.

"O-kay," Fighter said, sweatdropping, "On to 'Plan B!' "

"What's 'Plan B?' " Healer asked.

"Run, hide, and try to avoid confrontation until we figure out a 'Plan C!' "

"Works for me!"

Healer took our princess' arm and ran with her, with me right behind, and Fighter laying down cover fire. But when I heard Fighter
scream, I sent the others ahead and went back for her. She staggered into the old kitchen holding her side, while blood oozed from her shoulder and a nasty-looking gash in her thigh.

"Maker!" she called, relief in her eyes.

I reached out just to steady her, but her knees wobbled, and she collapsed into my arms.

"Are you going to be all right?" I asked frantically. "You've lost a lot of blood. Can you stand on your own?"

"I'm fine, I'm fine," she insisted, though she obviously wasn't. "But these girls aren't playing; they're treating this like a real battle! Our princess--"

"I won't let them anywhere near her," I promised.

Suddenly I heard a cry of, "Star Impious Cannon!" and a large, yellow energy sphere just missed my head.

"Star Gentle Uterus!" I cried.

My attack struck Raider in the middle of her chest, and she was thrown back, through the wall, by the force of the blast.

"That one was just half strength," I said. "Anyone want to try for full?"

Hunter laughed. "Maker, the meek, brainy one who always plays by the rules," she said, "who thinks the word 'gentle' belongs in an attack, is threatening us?"

I fired a full strength attack purposely aimed to just miss the queen's Senshi in hopes of scaring them, but it didn't work.

"My turn!" Hunter cried. "Star Cynical Arrow!"

"Star Gentle Uterus!" I said quickly, and my purple beam leapt to intercept her attack.

Hunter's power was the strongest of any Senshi on Kinmoku. Even pouring all my strength into it, I could feel her bright pink energy overtaking my own.

"Star Serious Laser!" Fighter combined her power with mine.

Hunter strained against our combined attacks, but held us both off, the stress of the effort showing in her face.

I had nothing left to give; it was all I could do to keep from collapsing as it was! Even with both of us together, Hunter was just too strong for us. But suddenly, just when I thought I could take no more, the whole thing dissipated in a flash of light.

Hunter fell to her knees, panting heavily.

"I can't believe it!" she said between gasps. "The strongest Senshi on the planet, fought to a standstill by two little children?"

"That's two little Senshi!" Fighter corrected.

"But then again, you always have underestimated us," I said.

"A mistake, I assure you," Raider said, yellow lupine eyes aglow, "that won't happen again!"

"You're hurt," I said to Fighter as the queen's Senshi helped their leader up. "Get going, try to catch up to the others. I'll slow these three down as much as I can."

"Just don't kill them, okay?" she said. "It's only a test."

"I'll do my best," I promised. "Now go!"

But when I found myself faced with three pair of angry, glowing eyes, I wanted to turn and run with her!

"Can't we sit and discuss this like rational people?" I asked weakly.

But they'd been pushed well past reason already, and their bodies began to crackle with energy.

I panicked, and with surprisingly little effort, picked up the old cast-iron stove behind me. I hurled it at the angry Senshi and ran, without waiting to see whether I'd hit, pinned, or only blocked their way with it.

"Star Sensitive Inferno!" A bolt of green energy just grazed my arm as I approached a bedroom at the back of the house.

"Don't shoot!" I called. "It's just me!"

"Maker! Thank the stars!" Healer cried. "I thought you were one of them!"

I ran in and blocked the doorway with a chest of drawers. It wouldn't keep them out, especially as angry as they were, but a heavy
blockade felt a bit safer than an empty doorway. Healer watched the entrance from behind their makeshift fort of an upended bed and a few wooden crates, while Kakyuu tore strips of cloth from the hem of her skirt to bind Fighter's wounds.

"Oh, dear, now your nose has started bleeding!" the princess said, gingerly wiping the blood with her sleeve. "Were you hit there
as well?"

I choked back a laugh. "She'll be fine, Your Highness. It happens all the time."

"Once we're finished here, you'll have to get that checked out," she said. "Spontaneous nosebleeds just can't be normal!"

"They're coming," Healer said, "and they're not happy!"

It didn't take a psychic to know that. I heard them bounding through the house, snarling like pack animals, and by the sounds of it, smashing any and everything in their path.

A room with one entrance might be easier to defend, but it was an awful place to be pinned down by barbaric Senshi! I frantically searched the room for any means of escape. The only windows there were decorative; a series of small stained-glass windows set high in the walls. If they could be reached and opened, our nine-year-old bodies might just fit through, but our teen-aged princess probably wouldn't. I scrapped that idea immediately-- if Kakyuu couldn't come with us, we weren't escaping! Then, inside what appeared to be a closet, I found a small staircase leading up, and beckoned the others inside. At the top was a door leading to the decaying upper level. My mind immediately flashed back to Hidama and Yaten falling through the floor.

"Maybe we shouldn't have come up here," I said.

But any choice we had, vanished when I heard the queen's Senshi smash the chest of drawers and enter the bedroom. Our disappearance had them puzzled for the moment, but it wouldn't take them long to figure out where we went.

"You said you trust us, right?" Fighter asked our princess.

"With my life," Kakyuu replied. "Why?"

" 'Cause I'm gonna ask you to do something really dangerous."

Fighter took the princess' hand and started across the room, following the wall as closely as possible. I took Healer's hand and did the same, expecting the floor to collapse from beneath us any moment. Even so near the wall, the floor creaked and gave a little under our feet, but somehow we made it across without falling.

The door exploded off its hinges just as we reached the other side, and the three older Senshi burst into the room. I found myself wishing they'd fall through, but they weren't quite as dumb as I'd hoped. When the floor started to give under their feet, they backed themselves against the wall and fired across the room at us.

"Star Cynical Arrow!"

"Star Inclement Scythe!"

"Star Impious Cannon!"

The room's condition left us no room to dodge! We had no choice but to fire back and hope we were strong enough to hold them off.

"Star Serious Laser!"

"Star Sensitive Inferno!"

"Star Gentle Uterus!"

The attacks met with a crash and blinding flash of light. The whole room shook, and bits of roof rained down from the force of the
collision. I felt their attacks start to overtake ours immediately. It was like trying to hold off the tide with a water gun! We put all our
power into those attacks, and then some, but it was just no use. The queen's Senshi were more than twice our age, and consequently, nearly twice as strong. We'd never beat them in a contest of brute strength alone!

Suddenly, Fighter broke off her attack.

"What're you doing?" Healer screamed.

Without Fighter's help, it was all we could do to keep their attacks at arm's length!

"Star Serious Laser!" she fired at the floor beneath their feet.

The rotten floor disintegrated and the queen's Senshi fell through, but it didn't stop there. The plywood collapsed as well, taking out the adjacent floor beams with it. Within seconds, half the floor was gone, and the remainder drooped as though it might go at any moment.

"Now how do we get out?" Healer wondered.

There was no reaching the door on the other side of the room, and the main staircase was half a room away across a sagging floor. Fighter chanced a few steps towards the stairs, clinging to the wall for support.

"Seems safe enough," she decided. "Come on!"

No sooner had she said that, than the heel of her boot broke through the floor. Fighter lost her balance and nearly fell, but Kakyuu caught her hand just in time.

"Now where to?" Healer asked.

"I guess there's nowhere left to go but down."

With that, Fighter wrapped an arm around our princess' waist and jumped through the gaping hole in the floor. Healer's eyes grew huge and frightened, as if flashing back to her last time through that floor.

"You'll be all right this time," I promised.

I took her hand and, on the count of three, leapt into the hole. This time, we both landed safely on our feet.

"Come on," Fighter said, "let's get our princess out of here before--"

"No," I interrupted. "We've got to go check on the others first."

"Are you crazy, Maker? After what they did to us?"

"Even if there's a rivalry, we can't let them die," I said, "not for a test."

"She's right," Healer agreed. "The test is over. We've won."

We found the queen's Senshi in the dining room Yaten and Hidama fell into, a bruised and broken pile amidst the splintered remains of
the floor. Fighter knelt beside them and poked Hunter in the arm.

"Hey, you guys alive?" she asked in a small, squeaky voice. None of them answered, so she tried again, louder. "You guys?"

"I'm okay," Hunter said at last, as she sat up and brushed the dirt from her tousled red hair.

The others began to stir as well, testing their battered bodies for signs of serious injury.

Healer offered a hand to help Raider off the floor.

"Told you we could take you," she gloated.

"Beginner's luck," Raider muttered.

"We went easy on you," Reaper said with a wink.

"What, anything that doesn't kill us is going easy?" Fighter asked.

"We're nine-year-olds taking on adult responsibility," I said. "They've got to be rough on us. Where our princess' safety is at stake, we can't leave any doubt as to our readiness."

"Yeah, cheer up, girl!" Healer said. "We're gonna be our princess' personal Senshi!" She leapt onto my back, crying, "Carry me, Maker! This is the happiest day of my life!"

The whole school gathered outside to cheer us as we left the crumbling old house. Healer giggled as I carried her through the crowd on her victory lap, and the students reached out to touch us as we passed, just like celebrities.

A few hours at the hospital treating our wounded, and we were whisked away to our official appointment ceremony, televised live around the world. Then there were press conferences, celebrations, even a parade through the centre of town in our honour! It was well past dark before the events were all over, and the royal carriage finally pulled up outside my apartment building.

My young body, as yet unaccustomed to the fuku, was sore and sweaty. My heeled boots were killing my feet by then, and my shorts were beginning to chafe. But, uncomfortable as I was, I decided not to revert-- my mother had waited anxiously for months to see me in my fuku. If I came back without it, she'd never let me hear the end of it!

I was still fumbling for my key when the door was flung open for me.

"Oh my stars, look at you!" my mother said through tears. "You're so beautiful!" I shifted uncomfortably while she inspected me from head to toe. "Honey, are those pierced earrings you're wearing?"

"Yes, but don't worry, Mother, I hardly felt a thing," I said. "Just one little stick when they appeared, that's all, I promise."

"Well, can you see okay?" she wondered. "Are you sure you don't need your glasses?"

"I'm fine," I replied with a giggle. "I don't need them while I'm Maker."

"Do those clothes fit okay? They don't look very comfortable."

"They're not," I admitted, "but I can't do anything about that; they form to fit automatically when I transform. I'll get used to it, though. I always do."

"Well, you look lovely anyway, dear," she said. "Come now, let's go show your father."

"She's here?" I asked. "I thought she'd still be at work."

"Now what kind of father would I be if I worked the most important day of my daughter's life?" my father said. "We've been watching your broadcasts all day, and you know what? I've never been prouder."

"Even if it means I can't live with you anymore?"

My mother broke down again at the very mention of it, but my father tried to smile.

"Going to live in the castle, I've heard. Just don't let it go to your head."

"Come visit every chance you get," my mother ordered. "We'll have your old room ready and waiting."

I nodded, tears forming at the corners of my eyes.

"And I'll write you," I promised, "every day if you want."

"Dinner's almost ready," my mother said. "Have you got time to stay and eat?"

"No, the others are waiting for me outside," I said. "I just came to say good-bye and get a few things from my room. We've still got to go to Seiya's yet. That's going to be the hardest part!"

"I can imagine," my father said. "Are those kids going to be all right while she's gone, or do they need someone to look out for them?"

"Kakyuu-princess is having her old playroom turned into a day care," I replied. "The three of us can help take care of them there."

"Well, if they need anything else," she said, "tell them our door is always open."

I nodded. "I'll pass it along."

Then my parents reluctantly stepped aside to let me get what I needed from my room.

But once I got there, I found out how little I really needed. Since I'd be spending most of my time as Maker, I packed only a few sets of clothes. The royal library was immense, so I packed only books of sentimental value. I packed family photos, my favourite doll, poetry notebooks dating back as far as I could write, and the fancy journal Seiya gave me. I even considered taking my wall of epitaphs, that miniature shrine to past lives that got me through months of simulations. For the first time I remembered them all, their lives and their deaths, with total clarity.

"My father was wrong," I said. "They really are me. When I die, I'll be just another one of them, and the whole thing's going to start all over again."

"But for now," my father's voice said from behind, "you're still Taiki Kou, no matter what you're wearing." She gave me a hardbound book with my name and baby picture on the front. "This is just so you'll never forget it."

The first page held my birth announcement and pictures of my proud parents holding me. Other pages were full of milestones and more photos, while pouches held such treasures as my tiny baby booties, first baby tooth, first lock of hair, a sound chip recording my first words, and mini-disc recordings of my first steps and me playing in cake at my first birthday party.

"I can't take this," I said, "this stuff's irreplaceable!"

My father smiled. "As are you."

"I'll take good care of it," I promised, and thanked her with a hug.

I scanned my room for an appropriate gift, but saw nothing that even approached hers in significance. I bit my lip, giving it a long moment's thought, until finally. . .

"Here, I'd like you to have this," I said, pulling my most recent poetry journal from my bag. "You always wanted to know what goes on in my head. It's all in here."

My father was elated. "You haven't let me read your poetry in years," she said.

"Since you laughed at the one I wrote for Kage. . ."

"Honey, you were a four-year-old girl writing a serious lament for your dead kitten!"

"I know, it was pathetic, but I've improved a lot since then," I insisted. "This is my newest book; at least try to read it all before you pass judgement, okay?"

"You misunderstood. I didn't laugh because your poem was bad, just that a four-year-old could write something so serious," she said. "The words you used and the depths of emotion you showed were far beyond your years. It was adorable!"

"Then you're not disappointed I want to be a poet?"

"Well, there are better paying jobs, I suppose," she began. "But, Kou, I'm your father; I'm always going to be proud of you, no matter what."

I threw my arms around her, tears streaming down my face. My father, stoic as always, held and consoled me without so much as a sniffle.

There was a cautious knock at the open door, and I raised my head to see Fighter standing there, looking a bit uncomfortable.

"I'm sorry, Maker," she said softly. "We waited as long as we could."

I nodded, and squeezed my father, hard, one last time.

"I love you," I whispered in her ear.

I felt something warm and wet drip down my back as I reluctantly pulled away, and caught my father dabbing at her eyes.

"Are you crying?" I asked, in shock. "I've never seen you do that!"

"I'm fine," she said in a quivering voice. "Just go, before I change my mind and decide to keep you."

I nodded and took my bag from the bed. Then Fighter wrapped an arm around me, and without another word, led me away before I could change my mind and decide to stay.

©2001/2007 (revised and retitled HTML version) Naia Zifu all rights reserved. Originally published under the title, "The Sims". . . yes, it took me this long to come up with a better title than that :-P . . .
Kakyuu and Three Lights are SM characters I don't own rights to, but Hidama (the Kakyuu actress), Sailor Protostars, the chibi-Lights' families, and anyone else I might have forgotten appearing, are my own original characters. As always, I'm not trying to make money off anyone else's ideas.
Yes, I know the first bit should've come sooner, but I couldn't find room for it in the other fics, and it was too kawaii to leave out entirely, so here it is. Let's just say the Taiki family is very slow to change. I think that fits pretty well with their pattern, don't you?
Due credit for Hunter's name to the Sera-myu songwriters; when I was thinking of names for the queen's Senshi, I couldn't get that song
out of my mind!
You may view my pics of the queen's Senshi at my fanarts page: http://members. (in the fic characters section). Since I'm getting back into these fics now, I might even feel inspired to draw them more :-) .