Past Lives - By Kirika


The eighth chapter.

- Kirika


Chapter 8 - From The Inside, Act I

Rei stood in her bedroom at the Hikawa Jinja. It had been home for as long as she cared to remember. From the soft tatami mats to the frugal furnishings, little had changed within the four walls from that first night she had spent here, curled up on a musty futon, in the care of someone she didn't really know, crying herself to exhaustion. That night she had been born. Before, Rei hadn't really been somebody. She had simply existed, bending as the world pushed, doing what was expected of her, obeying because she knew no other way, content in her place as a young girl, the daughter of a mother and a father. Her mother had taught her love, had shown it to her every day before that night, had assured her the same would have come from her father had he been there-her mother had made her feel that all was right with the world and her place in it. Risa Hino had been the young girl's shelter from the real world, the world everyone else was forced to live in one day. And the real world had come for Risa Hino one day. Raw reality came, but still she had sheltered her daughter. Still Risa Hino had shown her love, still she had promised that her father had the same inside him, that everything would still be alright. Up until her very last breath.

Rei had woken up the next morning in a different place in a different world. Every waking morning since then it had shaped her. The raven-haired girl was older now; older than her years. She was old in spirit, aged beyond her peers, and wiser to the ways of the world. Underneath the fire hers was a soul of scars and burns.

Rei wondered who she would be now had fate seen her live differently. Would she still be standing in this room in the Hikawa Jinja? Would she still feel as she did now? Had fate decided that this, *this* person standing here, would be the Senshi of Fire and Passion the world needed? Had her mother been chosen to die, had her father been made to be what he is?

It was a passing introspection only, collecting with the teenager's other idle thoughts and fantasies, fading into her subconscious. It hadn't always been. Rei had carried those questions for a long time, had dwelled in the what-if, had let it all smoulder inside her. She still hadn't any answers. Yet it no longer mattered. There was no going back. There was no changing anything. But most of all Rei didn't want to change who she was now. Rei was content in her place in this world.

Rei stood in her bedroom in the Hikawa Jinja. She gazed at the walls, at the bookcase's shelves, at her desk and dressing table. Little had changed in the room since that first night, but what had changed spoke of a life lived and savoured-it spoke of someone who knew love and how to show it. Deep down, the young girl Risa Hino had sheltered was still here. If Rei's mother could see Rei now she would surely be smiling.

Photographs plastered the bedroom's walls; walls that had been bare in the past; a jumbled assortment illustrating generations of the girl's friendships. At first there was only a young miko with her Grandpa, standing hesitantly outside her new home. But then there Rei was with Ami, when it had just been them and Usagi, thrust together by destiny, three youngsters all of a sudden meant to fight against a great and ancient evil reborn. Then Makoto appeared in the pictures, another discovered ally-another friend. Eventually Minako's grinning visage joined in, the tight-knit group complete at last. The girls in the photos grew older, but other faces stayed young; Chibi-Usa and Hotaru showing up. The five girls in the photos got older still, as did the new friends, Haruka and Michiru and Setsuna captured next to Rei and the others. There were snapshots of Rei with Yuuichirou mixed in, and with Mamoru and Motoki, none no less friends than the others. It was a life on these walls, of a girl growing up, finding her feet, and finding her way. Rei had a smile on her lips in every photograph.

The photos on her shelves and desk were framed, picked out from the rest. It was these that Rei spent most of her time looking at. For as great a story as the wall montage told, it was second to the tale told here. Snaps of Rei with Usagi were everywhere, the girls aged as they were now, and not appearing as they had in the other shots. The pair was by themselves, and they had something... more... in their eyes unlike those pictures in the past, something greater about their smiles. Their looks were gazes, their hugs were embraces. The photographs told a tale just begun, a tale without end. A tale about more than friendship-a tale about love.

Rei picked up one particular picture from her dressing table. Behind the glass the framed photo was a tad ratty. The corners were folded and squashed, some creases ran through it, and there were some dirty smudges and speckling that could be dried blood-her blood. Rei and her Princess were still young in this picture, snapped in the era when it had just been the early trio of Senshi; Moon, Water, and Fire. It was during a time of innocence, before... everything now. How far Rei and Usagi had come since then.

"Do you think it was worth it?"

Rei heard the pitter-patter of Luna's paws on the kotatsu behind her, but it was the cat's question that lingered in her ears. The Senshi of Passion looked at the picture, her own older reflection caught faintly in the glass. She had carried this photo with her throughout her absence from Tokyo and from the rest of the Sailor Senshi... and from her Princess. In Yokohama it had sustained her, the one keepsake she had brought with her into that new... existence. It hadn't been a life. Rei had still breathed, her heart had still beaten-but she hadn't been alive inside. Back then she had believed it the better path, the lesser pain... if only for herself. She hadn't put into full consideration the people she had left behind. She hadn't fully considered Usagi. Of course Rei had known Usagi and her friends would have been hurt, however their anguish had still been second to her own. She had been selfish and wrong. What would have happened had Rei never come back? Would the Senshi of Fire have returned on her own if Setsuna hadn't summoned her? Would the secret love she had buried in her heart have faded with time and distance, or would the tie between Senshi and best friends eventually, inexorably, have tugged her back into her Princess's sight? Where might Rei be standing now, staring at this same photograph, had Usagi not needed her?

"How is Usagi?"

"Asleep," Luna answered, with a longsuffering tone that said it shouldn't come as a shock. There was a moment's silence, the miko sensing the feline's hesitation. "She worries about you. But Usagi is Usagi."

Rei dipped her head slightly in acknowledgement. Usagi was resilient. She was better than Rei at surviving.

"Was it worth it?"

The Fire Senshi smoothed a thumb over the photo frame's glass where the dots of blood were. She had been right about one thing; Yokohama had been the path of less pain. For all the wounds and sorrow her absence had caused to herself and others, it had been a drop in an ocean of blood and misery compared to what had happened after her return. Even now there was still suffering because of the choices Rei had made.

The raven-haired girl glanced down at the letter she held in her other hand. It was from the T*A Private Girls' School administration expressing their regrets that she was leaving the academy's care. The phrasing made it sound like it was Rei's decision; that she was going onto bigger and better things; that she had another school waiting somewhere else to take her in. Her father, ever true to his politicking poison, had surely spun it in that manner to save face. He would never publically disgrace her, not while she still bore the Hino name, not while her 'muck' could splash on and soil him too. He wouldn't even let her see the rest of the semester out. At last, Rei had done something to demolish the status quo, such that it was, that she had with her father. Being in love with a girl was evidently too much, tipping their rocky relationship finally over the edge and into a no doubt long spiralling descent. The girl's feelings were mixed, part of her afire to have riled him so, glorying in the victory. The rest of Rei; the parts that had her stomach knotted and her mouth dry; saw no victory bar a hollow one, and all the upcoming hardships that followed it. If her father could resort to this so quickly it did not seem promising that the Hikawa Jinja's coffers would be showed leniency. It was going to be gruelling on Rei's elderly Grandpa. For his sake the miko felt the worst.

And then there was always Usagi to consider. To think Rei's father would leave the blonde alone now was a delusion. Takashi Hino would never give up on trying to split Rei and Usagi. Never.

"Would you say it was?" Rei asked. The Fire Senshi and Usagi's furry advisor had not been on the same page very often since the girl's absence in Yokohama, a total turnabout from how it used to be between them. In some sense Luna was an enemy to Rei like the miko's father was; a dissenter, the naysayer; always in opposition to the teenager's choices... and desires. Perhaps it was too much to lump Luna in with Takashi Hino. However Rei recalled occasions when the cat and her pessimism had really tested her temper. Out of respect for Usagi and the blonde's close relationship with her four-legged companion, Rei had done her utmost to simply ignore Luna's criticism, regardless of how grating or hurtful her words grew to become. In the past Luna had been the mouthpiece for the niggling doubt in Rei's mind, expressing the fears for the future Rei had already carried deep within her, fears the Senshi of Fire hadn't wanted to acknowledge were there, let alone confront. Hearing them out in the open had naturally been... trying... on their rapport.

Why Rei asked Luna for her opinion now, when it had not mattered before, she didn't quite know. Maybe it was because there was no one else here to ask but herself otherwise. Maybe, intoxicated with how at peace she was, Rei needed to hear that voice of doubt again and remind herself that although she was content in her place in the world, others might not believe she had a right to be.

Rei heard Luna exhale heavily behind her, and the feline was quiet for a time. The girl supposed Luna hadn't thought to have her question posed back to her. "I can't say if it was all worth it," Luna eventually admitted. "A lot happened that should not have happened. Senshi fighting Senshi. Gambling with Chibi-Usa's very existence, risking Crystal Tokyo-risking the *future* of the *planet*!" Rei could virtually hear her whiskers bristle and twitch. "You were lucky. For whatever reason, fate smiled on you. And, fortunately, on Usagi.

"Now I see two people I've watched grow up twice over, happy," Luna continued. She had relaxed some, whether in defeatist resignation or from genuine contentment at the outcome of Rei's actions, the girl couldn't tell. "Perhaps that is all that really matters. Perhaps the ending is all that counts. 'Was it worth it?' That's not for me to say. Only you can, Rei. Only you."

Rei stared at her naive young self in the photograph. She blinked, and looked at herself as she was now staring back up from the shiny glass. If Rei could talk to her young self back when this photo had been taken... nothing would have passed her lips. Rei was standing where she was meant to be standing. The struggle, the pain-hers had not been an easy path, but it had been the right path. It had been the only path. There would always be more struggles, more pain... more blood. It didn't end just because she was content. Rei had fought for and earned the right to be in love; she had to keep proving to the universe that she still deserved it.

That wouldn't be a problem.

Rei crushed the letter in her fist and looked over her shoulder at Luna. The Senshi of Passion had a smile on her face. "She is always worth it."

Luna, to the teen's surprise, nodded sagely, and then smiled too. "The Moon Princess has no greater protector than you. If for nothing else, I'm grateful for that."

"I wasn't exactly deadweight before," the Fire Senshi retorted with a smirk.

"You know what I mean. Love... it has a power."

"I know what you mean," Rei said solemnly, the bravado gone. "Thank you, Luna."

Luna leapt from the kotatsu to the dressing table with all the grace her feline body possessed. She looked over the array of framed photographs. "You make Usagi happy. You're happy too. I don't think I really saw it before. I think I only saw what could go wrong."

"You were just being a good guardian for our Princess," Rei graciously remarked, mustering more than she thought she had for the cat. There was a definite change between them. The tension wasn't there anymore. Luna wasn't an enemy. Had she ever truly been? "What brings you here anyway?"

"Oh! I, um... no reason..." Luna started, her coat of fur standing up some, "I just thought I should check in after what Usagi told me happened yesterday. I was on my way to see Artemis as a matter of fact!"

"Uh huh," Rei replied, unconvinced. Luna hadn't 'checked in' in months. The raven-haired girl put down the battered picture of her and Usagi back in its spot, before nuzzling the top of Luna's head with a knuckle. She wondered how much influence that beaming odango atama in the photo had had in Luna's sudden visit and change of heart.

"What's that?" Luna inquired in a blatant diversion of subject, pointing her little nose at the balled up paper in Rei's other hand.

"It's nothing important," the Senshi of Passion said, tossing the T*A Private Girls' School letter in the bin by her desk to lay with the rest of the trash. It wasn't a lie. It wasn't important when weighed against everything else in her life; everything wonderful, everything that truly mattered. "Are you hungry?"

"No, that's okay. I should be off. Someone has to get Usagi out of bed!" In a blink of an eye a flustered Luna had hopped off the dressing table and was bounding over the floor, slipping out the way she had no doubt come in-through the crack left by the slightly open rear shoji screen door.

"I thought you were going to see Artemis?" Rei called after her, with more than a bit of amusement.

Hungry herself, Rei left her bedroom for the long halls of the Jinja, and the kitchen at the rear in an attached sub-building. The scents that wafted through the halls and titillated her nose said that someone else was peckish, and invigorated her own appetite past what she had thought it was. The captivating smells led the miko the rest of the way to her Grandpa who turned out to be the chef; the old man slicing vegetables for a broth that was simmering behind him on the kamada. He stood on a stool to reach the counter, his short stature rather crippling for a modern kitchen. The Hikawa Jinja's kitchen had evolved with the shifting era, everyday appliances and contemporary cabinets lined up against one wall, however at its core it was still a kitchen from the Edo period. The entire room was sunken into the ground with the lacquered flooring of the connecting corridor ending in favour of bare soil, and Rei's Grandpa did nearly all of his cooking on a traditional wood-burning clay kamada. There was even a well. The outdated methods weren't too much of a detriment to cooking, especially when it was the regional fare under the knife and on the stove, but there were occasions when you just wanted to reheat a leftover lasagne. It was during those times that Rei was grateful for the invention of the microwave.

"Rei!" the girl's Grandpa merrily greeted, halting his chopping to give her a big smile. "Lunch isn't ready yet. There are onigiri I made last night in the fridge if you're hungry."

Rei hopped down into the kitchen and opened the fridge, pulling out a big riceball. "What did you put in them?" she said, before taking a bite out of the top to find out.

"Katsuobushi," her Grandpa replied as he resumed his slicing.

"When did you say you made these?" Rei said through a munching mouthful of rice and seaweed and fish, not recalling the snack at the dinner table yesterday.

"Last night," the elderly man said, while intent on the daikon under his blade. "You were out."

Rei stopped chewing for a second before starting again much more slowly. Had Usagi told him *specifically* where she had gone last night and who she had met? No, the blonde would have mentioned it to her. Rei had wanted to keep everything from her Grandpa if she was able. Being kicked out of school would come as an especially brutal shock to him. Or maybe it wouldn't, with her violent and trouble-filled history and her Grandpa's assumptions.

"Oh yeah...?" the Fire Senshi murmured with feigned inattentiveness, as if her outing yesterday evening was no major thing.

For a moment or two the knife hitting against the cutting board and the gentle bubbling from the kamada replaced the conversation, and Rei began to believe she'd hear no more of yesterday. The miko ate her onigiri with renewed gusto.

"You and your Dad had words again." The girl's grandfather was many things, but he was no fool. And he said it so nonchalantly, as if he wasn't very aware of the fireworks that delightful scenario *always* caused.

Rei took a second big bite from the riceball and chewed at a snail's speed once more, buying the time to cobble together the most judicious response in her head. She weighed how well her Grandpa was informed against how much she wanted to bring him into the loop. The retraction of her school tuition was definitely out. The miko wouldn't lie to him... however what he didn't know couldn't upset him. Rei's Grandpa didn't have a delicate constitution by any stretch, but he wasn't getting any younger and the stress might shave off some years. She had to spare him where and when she could. At least that's what the miko told herself. Rei couldn't lie to herself either, her feelings of guilt already building.

"I had to see him," Rei said once her mouth was empty. "'Words' had to be said."

"What was it this time?" her Grandpa said in his same cheery vein, unfazed by the teenager's grimmer air. "It must have been something for *you* to seek *him* out."

"It was. It *is*," the Fire Senshi retorted, heat beginning to sink into her voice. She stopped and took a long breath to control it, the fire never for her Grandpa. "What do you think it is?" she continued, still getting angry, but her words deliberately slow and enunciated to promote calm. It only barely helped, the bitter sarcasm yet prominent to her ears. She hoped her grandfather couldn't tell. "What's changed with me recently? What's *good* in my life right now? What is it that my father can 'disapprove of' now that I'm happy?"

"I see why you're angry," Rei's Grandpa remarked, pushing the sliced daikon aside and picking up a stick of celery for his board. "Usagi is a special girl. Your Dad just doesn't know her."

Rei blew air through her teeth. "Yeah. Right. He doesn't want to know her." She shook her head irritably as a sudden burst of rage hit her. "And it's not even about Usagi! It's about *me* being with her. It's about him not liking that."

"Your Dad; he is a traditionalist," the girl's Grandpa said. It sounded like he was *defending* her father. "And, you know, with his position-"

"That's *not* an *excuse*!" Rei shouted, absolutely sick of Takashi Hino's role in the country's government as a license to mistreat his family. "It wasn't *then*, it isn't *now*! He tried to *buy* her, Grandpa! He tried to buy Usagi off so she wouldn't see me anymore!" The onigiri, unwittingly already squashed between her fingers, abruptly was hurled from her hand against the kitchen counter, exploding like a grenade on contact.

Rei's chest rose and fell quickly. She closed her eyes, concentrating on her breathing, forcing herself to draw it out; slow it down. "I'm sorry..." she said, glancing at the riceball mostly flattened like a pancake to the counter and then away, "I didn't mean to... I'll clean it up."

"Oh, I don't agree with that," the miko's grandfather said, finishing with the celery and moving onto dicing peeled potatoes, his good spirits even now untouched, as if he hadn't noticed the teenager's furious eruption with his vegetables in front of him. "It's obvious now he certainly doesn't know Usagi."

Rei scooped up the demolished onigiri and dropped it in the trash, before she went about picking off pieces of sticky rice from the fridge and cabinet doors. She laboured quietly, eventually squatting to gather the last chunks of rice from the ground. "...You should have told me he donated to the jinja," the girl brought up once she had thrown the remaining riceball bits in the garbage. She had composed herself, yet was still openly hurt that she hadn't been informed that the Hikawa Jinja's biggest benefactor was her father.

Her Grandpa sighed for the first time, putting down his knife. He looked at the miko. "Takashi wanted to. It was his way of looking after you."

"It's been going on this long? Since I first came to live here?"

Rei's Grandpa nodded.

Rei looked at him, unsure what to think. Was that why her grandfather had accepted her into his care? It was a lucrative deal, and Takashi Hino was all about those. How much did it cost to feed and clothe a growing girl into her teens? How much did you sell a daughter for? Whatever figure had accumulated over the years, the Hikawa Jinja was financially secure and then some for as long as Rei was a miko here. At least, it had been until last night.

"I know what you're thinking," the girl's Grandpa said, sincere all of sudden. "I didn't take you in because your father asked me to, or for the cheques that started to appear in the mail. I never asked for that. I would have taken you in anyway because *I* wanted to. Because you were-are-Risa's." He reached out from his perch, placing his hand over the raven-haired teenager's forearm. "I see my girl in you. Every day. You're my daughter's daughter. Just to have you near... it's more than enough for this old man."

Rei smiled softly at him, her eyes wet. She didn't have any words. She felt terrible for questioning his integrity for even that brief moment. Of course her Grandpa would never have traded her care for cash-he didn't have any Hino blood.

"I wouldn't count on that money anymore," Rei commented.

"You don't have to worry," her Grandpa grinned, blowing off the miko's concern. He patted her on the arm and returned to his chopping. "Your Dad loves you. You are his too, just as you are Risa's."

"That's the problem..." Rei muttered under her breath. "You shouldn't be accepting that money anyway," she objected more loudly. "It's not right. I don't like it. I'll get a job... a job outside of the jinja."

"No, Rei," her Grandpa swiftly dismissed. "When would you with school? I don't think a private academy would allow their students to have part-time jobs."

"I'll do it somehow," Rei insisted, though her lack of confidence was felt in her voice. She paused a second, deciding to test the waters. "Maybe I could drop out..." she added, flippancy as her escape in the more than likely event the waters were shark-infested, with her grandfather's reaction not outright glowing.

"*No*, Rei," her Grandpa immediately outlawed. He said it without rancour but firmly, making no mistake that ending her education would never be an option. "You will not be dropping out of High School." Rei guessed to him ditching was one thing, dropping out altogether quite the other. In that case Rei was going on one long ditch once her days at the T*A Private Girls' School ran out.

Grandpa carefully stepped down from his stool, bringing with him his cutting board laden with sliced vegetables, and shuffled over to the kamado. The old-fashioned stove was built low to the ground, forcing cooks to squat, however it turned out to be the perfect height for the miko's already squat grandfather. "No more of this talk." With the side of his knife, he pushed the vegetables from the board into the broth. "You'll see, Rei. Everything will be fine," he said, ever the optimist. "Takashi wasn't the same after Risa fell ill. But he is still your father in his heart."

"He *was* the same," Rei quietly countered. "He didn't change, and that... that's why..." She shook her head gently, the argument a useless effort. Her Grandpa, bless his soul, saw the best in everyone always, in good times and bad. Rei saw reality. Rei saw people as they truly were-especially in the bad times.

"Losing someone you love is difficult, Rei," the Fire Senshi's grandfather stated as he slipped the cutting board and the knife on top of the too-high kitchen counter, his short arms outstretched. She could almost hear a weary sigh in his voice. "Everyone faces it differently. Everyone bears a scar. I know you understand this better than most. You and I loved Risa in our own unique way; as a mother, as a daughter. Takashi had his way too. He *loved* her. When someone you love dies... you die with them." He smiled at her. "Lunch will be ready soon."

Rei nodded, retreating from the kitchen into the hallway. Grandpa wanted to believe his daughter hadn't misplaced her affection. He wanted to believe that Risa was loved at her end. He wanted to believe in Takashi Hino. Perhaps that was Rei's Grandpa's scar. That was what Risa's death had left in him, that hopeless faith in his daughter's husband; that hopeless hope that Risa's love in this world hadn't been wasted.

Rei had a different scar. Rei saw reality.


Makoto studied the shorter girl walking next to her out of the corner of one green eye. Ami's face said it all. She wondered if Ami had gotten any sleep last night... probably not, by the dark circles under her eyes and by how pasty white she was. The blue haired girl looked stressed to her limit. It was the sort of face Makoto had seen before only a few times; like when Ami thought she had forgotten to finish an important piece of homework or review a specific topic ahead of a big exam. There was that dread in the Water Senshi's dull blue eyes; a weight over her features. But... no, this was way worse than some make-believe foul up in a school test that was just in the other girl's head. The only real instance that came close was when Rei had... gone missing. It wasn't the here and now that beset Ami's visage; it was the future in her face, what came after. Makoto could see it, the consequences running through the Senshi of Wisdom's mind, playing out like a prophecy behind her gaze, the change rippling through her life yet to be lived.

Makoto imagined her own face didn't improve on Ami's much. She hadn't slept a lot either after talking to her last night over the phone. The brunette hadn't expected Ami to call so soon after they had parted, positive that she had lessened her girlfriend's fears over her mother's 'reinvigorated' social life. But the girl on the other line had sounded as if she hadn't talked to Makoto about it at all, what with her sudden and total about face on the subject of her mother's boyfriend, Takeru. The Senshi of Courage's surprise however had only lasted up until Ami had revealed the newest development in Saeko Mizuno's lovelife-that they were all moving far away to the proverbial sticks. 'Alarm' was the better word for what Makoto had felt after that. Makoto had been a neutral party to the whole dating affair with Ami's mother; an unbiased outsider, the impartial advice-giver; it was hard to be that now she had a personal stake in the proceedings. Ami... moving away? *Now*, when the two girls were just really beginning their exploration of each other, and their respective places in one another's lives? *Now*, when they had finally *discovered* each other, when they finally *understood* how the other felt? *Now*... that there was real... pure... storybook romance between them? It couldn't happen. Their love couldn't end like this.

Ami had naturally been crushed on the phone. Makoto had done her best to calm her, reassurances and pledges for the norm surviving flowing-in spite of having felt rather crushed herself. Makoto had to stay strong. She did have her own emotional investment in the situation, but it was Ami's life on the line first and foremost. Whatever the Senshi of Courage was experiencing, it was second to Ami's turmoil. It was *Ami's* mother leaving, *Ami's* home moving. It was not for Ami to see her fall apart when what the girl needed was a pillar of support; a trustworthy someone to talk to who would listen; someone who would hear out her anxieties and reservations and thoughts and feelings. Besides... Ami had to know Makoto didn't want her to go. She had to know Makoto's heart.

Ami was quiet now, in contrast to the distraught night spent with Makoto on the telephone, mired in her bleak contemplations. Makoto wasn't sure if it was a good change. The Senshi of Thunder believed she would have preferred tears, something obvious; something she was used to and could soothe; to this dark brooding. Ami was a smart girl, full of thought. Too smart for her own good now, with too many thoughts. Ami was in a cerebral frenzy to solve this puzzle that was her changing world, obsessed with the result an incorrect answer would lead to.

The plastic bags in Makoto's hands rustled with her stride, loaded down with groceries from the supermarket near her apartment. Lunch and dinner was in those bags-Ami was staying over. Whether she would spend the night was still up in the air, but Makoto suspected she would. Maybe she would stay more than one night. It had been left unsaid, however Ami predictably couldn't stomach hanging around her own apartment, choosing to shun it and the people-turned-strangers inside, at least until she got her thoughts in order... Or maybe the Senshi of Wisdom was trying to make the most of the time she had left here in Tokyo; the time with Makoto. That was a depressing thought. Having Ami over was never an unhappy occurrence normally, yet Makoto wished the circumstances weren't forcing it to occur now, tainting the enjoyment. The brunette wondered how many nights they had left together. And... she wondered... if their nights in each other's arms really had to be numbered.

Makoto had a solution to her girlfriend's puzzle. It had come to her almost immediately upon hearing Ami's troubles. Saeko Mizuno might be moving away... however her daughter didn't *have* to follow her. Ami wasn't a child; she was the same age as Makoto; a young adult who lived independently, and had done without incident for several years. Ami could do the same-and she didn't even have to do it alone. Ami could live with her. Makoto had the room at her place. Ami already spent more of her time in the brunette's apartment than in her own; if her mother didn't expect her home in her bed every so often Ami would probably be living there proper. It wouldn't be such a big change. It was the perfect answer. Saeko Mizuno got to live out her lovelife however she wanted, while Ami got to keep her life the way it was.

As perfect as it was, Makoto had kept this idea to herself. Separating Ami from her mother would be rough on her-goodbyes among family always were. Moreover, it wasn't exactly a selfless solution. Makoto had a lot to gain from the arrangement. Cohabiting with Ami twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, as a loving couple would... It was her dream of sorts, her idle fantasy suddenly within reach. But Makoto couldn't reach out for it herself. It wasn't hers to take. Ami had to arrive at this answer by herself. Makoto mused whether the Senshi of Wisdom had considered it already. Surely she must have. Surely...

The pair arrived back at Makoto's apartment building; at what could be home for them both; entering the lobby and making for the stairs. One flight in and the brunette heard Ami speak behind her. It was starting again.

"Something is off about Takeru."

Makoto didn't say anything, choosing to wait until they reached her apartment's level. It gave her a chance to carefully devise what to say. Ami blamed Takeru for everything. Not unusual, considering, though pretty uncharacteristic for a girl who normally had a head for logic and sense. It was obviously too personal; too much in her heart than in her head. The only thing off about Takeru according to Ami was his interest in her mother. That was the bottom line, and the root of every misgiving she could ever come up with to stick on the young man. That was how Makoto saw it. That was how Ami would have seen it too, if she was really thinking.

"What have you noticed?" the Senshi of Courage coaxed, clearing the final step to her floor. She wasn't patronising. No matter Makoto's own opinion, this was Ami's worry. Belittling her suffering girlfriend's beliefs wouldn't help anything, and would only close off Ami to her. Makoto wanted to be supportive, she wanted to take the blue haired girl's opinion seriously, as if it *was* her own, and feed her as much clarity as she could on the subject. Makoto wasn't indulging her-she was believing her.

"I don't know..." Ami breathed, virtually a sigh. "Small things... I can't explain it... The way he stares sometimes..."

It was a rehash of last night's telephone exchange, vague uneasiness and unsubstantiated notions. Makoto, patience inexhaustible for her love, was more than willing to reprise her role in the old conversation.

"You should talk to your mother about how you feel. Maybe she's noticed some things too."

"I can't..." Ami said, staring at the floor as she walked a little behind the other Senshi down the hall, "she's so different now..."

Standing in front of her door, Makoto arranged the shopping bags all together in her left hand and pulled out her keys. "Try anyway," she said as she unlocked her apartment. "She's still your mother. Takeru doesn't take that away." Makoto stopped with her door half open when she realised Ami wasn't next to her. She looked down the hall, spotting the other girl a few feet away standing in front of another apartment door. "What are you doing?"

Ami didn't respond, instead gingerly taking the other door's handle in her grasp. She tried to open it, but unsurprisingly a locked door wouldn't budge.

"Um, I live in this one," Makoto said, nonplussed. She was really beginning to worry for Ami now.

"This is his apartment."

Makoto blinked, recalling that Takeru apparently lived a few doors down from her in the same complex. Inside, the Senshi of Thunder cursed at herself for bringing Ami up to her place in this direction, past that door. Of course Ami would remember that detail.

Ami's head turned to Makoto. "Can you pick the lock?"

Makoto squinted in incredulity, her brow scrunching. 'Pick the lock'? Sometimes Makoto wondered what picture Ami had of her in her mind. Get into a couple of fights at school and another dozen in rumour and all of a sudden you were labelled a yankee straight out of a manga. The past never let you go.

"No," Makoto said, keeping to a rather lenient response. Ami was under a lot of stress after all. "And what if he is in there?"

Ami turned back to the door, staring at it. "He's not..." she said at length. "He's with my mother."

Makoto didn't know how the Senshi of Wisdom could be so sure-Ami had been with the brunette most of the day to *avoid* seeing if her mother was in Takeru's company. "I guess you could ring the buzzer to find out..." What were they doing even talking about this still? "Ami, come on. Let's go inside and you can help me cook." She raised and shook the grocery bags as if they were a bell to snap Ami out of her psychosis and summon the other teen to her.

Ignoring Makoto, Ami hesitantly lifted her index finger towards the apartment's buzzer.

"Ami!" Makoto hissed across the hall, her voice dropping to a guilty whisper. What if Takeru *was* in there? "I wasn't serious!" With mention of picking locks, somehow Makoto didn't believe Ami intended to talk out her difficulties with Takeru if he did answer the door. "Think about this! Do you want to face Takeru if he's inside?"

Ami jerked away from the buzzer's button at the last moment, batting her eyes as she remembered good sense.

Makoto breathed a sigh of relief. She was all for Ami working out her concerns with her mother's boyfriend, but the blue haired girl obviously wasn't nearly ready for that yet. A fresh encounter with Takeru was drama the Water Senshi did not need right now. "Come on."

Ami breathed a sigh as well and mercifully left Takeru's door in favour of Makoto's.

Once inside her apartment, Makoto closed the door after them both with some haste. Deciding to shake off Ami's weird behaviour, the taller girl went into the kitchen and began unpacking the groceries. "What are you in the mood for?" she said while Ami sat herself lifelessly on the living room's couch. "The hamachi looks great."

"There's got to be something wrong with him, Makoto," Ami said, making Makoto's heart sink into her stomach. "I thought there might be proof in his apartment. I don't know, some sort of clue to a terrible agenda involving my mother. Unpaid bills, evidence of debt only marriage to a prosperous woman could stymie; photos of other women he's doing this to, a secret girlfriend... or girlfriends." Ami lifted her dejected gaze from the floor to her fellow Sailor Senshi. "As horrible as it sounds, I would be overjoyed to unearth a creepy shrine dedicated to my mother in his closet."

"So... no to the hamachi?" Makoto lamely responded; fish awkwardly perched aloft in one hand.

"You think I'm crazy, don't you," Ami said, shaking her head and lowering her eyes again.

"No, no," Makoto quickly rectified, putting down the fish on the counter.

"It's alright," Ami said. She looked up and smiled, but it wasn't the smile Makoto knew and loved. "I feel crazy. It's just that his apartment is my only lead. It's my only lifeline. If there's anything to find, it has to be there. It *has* to be."

Makoto, full of compassion and pity, left the kitchen and joined Ami on the couch. She put an arm around the other girl, and the grateful Water Senshi leaned into her. "I'm sorry you have to go through this," the Senshi of Courage said softly, her lips brushing against her love's temple. "Parents... they never do what you want, do they."

Ami smiled ruefully, but at least it was genuine this time.

"It's going to be okay," Makoto continued. The comforting words she wished to utter bunched up on her tongue; that her home could be a home to Ami; however she swallowed them back. "It's... going to be okay."

Ami retreated a little from her girlfriend's embrace and raised her head from the other girl's chest. "Thank you, Makoto," she said, yet it sounded as equally convincing as the Senshi of Thunder's reassurance-weak at best.

Makoto closed her green eyes and took a long breath. When she opened them again, all they could see was Ami's face. "I don't know how to pick a lock. But I think I can break one."

Ami's breath caught and her gaze widened. "Are you...?" she began, before she pulled away, wincing. "No. You were right. It would be breaking and entering. I can't have you do this for-"

"It's done," Makoto declared, rising to her feet. "My decision's been made." She grinned down at her love, reaching her hand out. "You can come and be my lookout if you want."

Ami smiled tremulously back, her blue eyes more water than usual. She grasped the Senshi of Courage's hand, letting herself be lifted from the couch.

A handful of minutes later Makoto found herself facing Takeru's apartment door. She glanced down the hall back to her own apartment. Ami was safely tucked away in the doorway, spying on the proceedings from her hidden vantage. They had thought out a quick plan together-Makoto would ring the doorbell. It seemed grossly insufficient now that the brunette was standing here, face-to-face with the 'plan'-however the Senshi of Thunder *was* armed with an excuse for bothering Takeru if he was inside. In that event, Makoto was supposed to say she needed to borrow a cup of milk... or was it a cup of sugar? She needed to borrow something anyway. And if Takeru wasn't inside...?

Makoto cracked her knuckles. Was she really going through with this? It was pretty nuts. Breaking and entering was a whole new level for her. The Senshi of Courage wondered what wild rumours this adventure might spawn. But if anyone saw this she was getting booted out of this apartment complex for sure. Makoto looked back at Ami once more. The blue haired teenager smiled nervously at her. Makoto smiled slightly in return before nodding determinedly. She could count on Ami to watch her back. What Makoto intended to do *was* nuts. But it was for Ami.

Makoto pressed the buzzer and waited. And waited. She pressed it again. The tall girl let herself relax a little bit... before she tensed up again. Takeru wasn't in there. It was on.

The Senshi of Thunder checked both ends of the hallway for anyone happening by. Ami's head swung back and forth too in her door, doing the same. The coast clear, the girls nodded to one another. Makoto grabbed the door handle with one hand, pulling hard. She added her other hand, and more force. She ground her teeth, the muscles in her arms standing out. She brought her leg up, bracing it against the wall next to the doorframe, flexing the extra limb with as much strength as she could muster. Sweat began to bead on her forehead. Her fingers started to hurt, the metal handle's edges biting into the flesh. Her muscles bulged bigger, like thick ropes beneath her skin pulled firm. Plaster flaked off the wall underneath her foot. Her lips peeled back over her clenched teeth, her eyes glared and her brow creased. She could feel the blood madly pump through her, in her arms and legs, in her head, charging her, power in every beat.

All of a sudden Makoto was flying backwards, a loud crack in her ears. She banged her back against the opposite wall, losing her footing and sliding down it onto her behind. Her muscles burned. Her hands stung. The Senshi of Thunder didn't care-Takeru's door was off its frame. Makoto grinned-part relief, part pride.

Makoto was climbing to her feet when Ami rushed to her side. "Are you alright?" the Water Senshi exclaimed, taking the other girl under the arm and helping her the rest of the way upright.

"There was nothing to it," Makoto said with her grin and a pant, out of breath from her feat. "The locks in this building are really shoddy."

Ami stepped up on her tiptoes and kissed her on the cheek. "You're amazing."

At that moment, Makoto felt like she really was.

They walked inside Takeru's place together, Makoto holding the door open for her awed girlfriend. The apartment was a carbon copy of Makoto's; a mirror image that was peculiar to walk in-so familiar, yet so different. Plus it was completely empty.

"No..." Ami breathed, walking dumbfounded into what was, in Makoto's place, the middle of the living room. "No... no..." From room to room she staggered, opening doors and closets and drawers, finding what had greeted the girls at the start-nothing.

The living room didn't have a couch, nor did it have a coffee table or a television. It didn't have anything. The kitchen counters were bare, the cupboards barren, the fridge cleared out. The bedroom, the bathroom-it was the same scene in every room. Just blank walls and too much vacant floorspace; only the broken doorlock lying by itself on the carpet.

"We're too late," Ami lamented, returning to the living room to stare at Makoto, as if the other girl could somehow make it better. Makoto wished she had that power.

"He must have already moved out ahead of the... you know..." the brunette trailed off. Takeru wasn't wasting any time. He was apparently dead set on relocating to his village in Hokkaido, his new girlfriend in tow. Makoto bowed her head. "I'm sorry, Ami."

"This... this doesn't mean anything," Ami said, storming back into what was the bedroom. "There might still be something to be found here!"

"Ami..." Makoto sighed, half in sympathy, half urging her distraught love to give it up. "He doesn't live here anymore."

"But he might have left something behind! Uncollected mail, trash-"

Makoto walked into the bedroom behind Ami, enveloping the smaller girl in her arms, quietening her. "It's time to talk to your mother," the Senshi of Courage said softly into Ami's hair, nuzzling the blue locks.

Ami's rigid body went slack in Makoto's embrace. "I know," she said, her voice small in the empty, cavernous room. "I wanted it not to really be her. I wanted it to not be her choice. It was... my h-hope that it..."

Makoto closed her eyes, holding her love tighter, feeling the other girl's body shudder against her own. "This isn't the end for us," she whispered. This was more than love; they were Sailor Senshi, joined by fate, by their past, by their very souls. "We can be together. We..." It had to be said aloud. Makoto hadn't wanted to presume or pressure, but... it just had to be said. "We can be together always. You can stay with me. Live with me. You don't have to go."

Ami turned; Makoto's encircling arms adjusting with her. The Water Senshi's eyes and cheeks were damp with her namesake, an ocean in her gaze, but a calm one. "Of course, Makoto. I've always known that." Ami smiled, touching her lover's surprised face. "It isn't about me. It's about my mother. She loves... loved... what she does. Next to myself her career was everything to her. She was... my *ideal*. My role model. Who *I* wanted to be. This isn't what I'd imagined her ever doing. This isn't what I'd do in her place."

"You're different people. Different lives," Makoto rationalised. She stroked her fingers through the back of Ami's short hair. "But maybe not so different. I remember a girl who used to study every day, during every free hour. Her homework was done straight away and it was unthinkable for cram school to be blown off. I know a girl now who has changed priorities."

Ami rested her head against the Senshi of Thunder's chest. "That was my-"

"Your choice," Makoto finished for her. "And because of me. Because of us."

Ami was quiet, breathing softly over her love's heartbeat. "I'm going to miss her, when she's gone," the teenager finally whispered.

"I know," Makoto whispered back, memories in her faraway gaze. "I know."


"This is where you work?" Hotaru asked doubtfully, shying away from a leaning stack of dusty boxes and ancient advertisement catalogues.

Ahead of her, Minako spun around on her heel to face the younger girl. "Yeah, this is what all the good talent agencies do. Like, to keep it on the down low. If their offices were in broad daylight crazy fans would be staked out outside twenty-four seven!"

"M-Mm..." Hotaru nodded, still seeming pretty dubious.

Minako grinned and walked back to the cute Outer Senshi, taking her by one thin arm. "It's not much further. Uh, try not to breathe in the air here, okay? I think there's still asbestos."

Hotaru bit her lower lip and emitted a little peep as Minako yanked her onwards deeper into the decrepit building, the blonde dodging through the garbage gauntlet with confidence only familiarity could bring towards Starlight Talent's door. The Senshi of Rebirth wasn't the Senshi of Time, but she was all Minako had encountered at the Outer Senshis' Victorian mansion this morning. One Outer Senshi was better than none, the blonde had accepted at the time. And Hotaru was cool... sort of, in her own special way. Minako had wanted to drag Setsuna out of the house to see her new agent and workplace; a puny pretence to just touch base with the distant woman given that it was Time's Keeper who had set up the whole management arrangement with Mr. Kats-Hotaru had been dragged out as her stand-in. With the Singles Club hangouts having fallen on the wayside for Minako recently in favour of her nights *under* the town rather than on it, the girl was starting to think her casual affair with the eldest Sailor Senshi had been something pulled out of her typically overactive imagination-she just never saw Setsuna anymore. Was this how it ended? Was her and Setsuna's... whatever it was... going to simply die the slow death of neglect, like it had never been? If Minako didn't know better she'd think Setsuna was making herself hard to find on purpose. Was this how Setsuna did breakups? Minako was aware they didn't have much, but she felt whatever it was they did have between them deserved a proper burial if it really was done and dusted.

The Senshi of Beauty rapped her knuckles against the shabby office door and let herself inside, her sunny visage betraying no hint of her broiling thoughts to Hotaru. "Yo, I'm here for my one o'clock!" Minako announced, feeling very professional.

"Minako," Akari stated in her customary despondent tone, the dreary girl lounging in a chair with her feet up on a messy desk, staring vacantly at the office's buzzing television. "You're on time." She picked up a mandu from the box of them in her lap, stuffing half of the dumpling into her mouth before sinking her teeth in.

"That's right! Your top client is *always* punctual!" Minako beamed. She was scheduled for a shoot this afternoon. And she didn't even have to don bikinis for this one-it was underwear. It would be nice to have a change of pace.

"What?" Akari said, her blunt incredulity muffled by her mouthful of mandu. "No you're not." She banged the television's remote loudly on the edge of the desk, all too aware of how finicky it was, and after the violent persuasion began flipping through channels.

"Er, I'm not your top client or I'm not always punctual?"

"Both. Wait. You are our only client, so technically you are the top."

"See Hotaru?" Minako smiled, nudging the other girl with her elbow. "I'm Starlight Talent's *top* client!"

"It looks the same as outside," Hotaru said, intently appraising from floor to ceiling her new surroundings and the similar, if a tiny bit more orderly, piles of papers and miscellaneous junk.

"Oh, who's this?" Akari perked up, dropping the other half of her mandu back in the box and tossing it and the remote on the desk. She twirled her chair around and got up to greet Hotaru. She bent down to the young girl's level, offering her a slight smile. "Aren't you adorable. What's your name?"

"Hotaru Tomoe," the soft-spoken Senshi of Rebirth said, inclining her head bashfully. "It's nice to meet you."

"It's nice to meet you too. I'm Akari. I'm in charge of..." She frowned and stood upright, surveying the office herself as Hotaru had. "...Practically everything in this place. I'm meant to be part-time. I was supposed to be in college by now. My parents think I'm an OL in a big-"

"That's great! So Hotaru is on a 'ride-along' with me today," Minako broke in, before Akari's dirge crushed all their spirits. "She's going to see what it takes to be a high-level talent!"

"I'm pretty sure this shoot isn't select enough to attract the elite models."

"I meant *me*, Akari, okay? *Me*," Minako deadpanned. "*I'm* the high-level talent."

"Oh. Right." Akari smiled at Hotaru again. "She's the best," she said unconvincingly, gesturing to the Senshi of Beauty with her thumb. "Are you interested in the biz?"

"Umm... Minako said it would be fun," the Outer Senshi recited in a voice that made it sound very not fun.

"It *will* be fun!" the blonde declared, patting Hotaru on the shoulder. "Trust me, okay? It'll be a blast. You'll get to ogle pretty people in their underwear and everything."

"I will?" Hotaru breathed nervously. "Will people see me in my underwear?"

"No, Hotaru. Just sit over there. There's mandu," Minako said, ushering the difficult girl onwards. "Where's Mr. Kats?" she asked Akari once Hotaru had wandered off.

Akari shifted uneasily, dragging her feet along the floor. "I'm not sure when or if he'll make it into the office. He called me early this morning and told me the police contacted him, said he should come in. It's... probably about Eiji."

"Yeah..." Minako murmured, looking aside. "Probably..." The Inner Senshi already knew that it was. Tuxedo Kamen's, her and the other Sailor Senshi's findings in Tokyo's deepest sewers had finally trickled down the city's channels to the media. Not the truth of them of course; nothing that could shift the status quo and panic the public. The report hadn't been much more than a blurb; a small article buried in the back of her father's morning paper-which the girl had 'appropriated' when he hadn't been paying attention at the breakfast table. It pretty much boiled down to the destitute foolishly seeking shelter in the sewer tunnels; condemned tunnels that were prone to 'cave-ins'... anybody could write the rest. Society's lowest had brought their horrible end on themselves, it was not the city's fault, blah-blah-blah. Minako supposed she should be grateful for any media commentary-Rei's angle on the whole thing hadn't even been remarked upon; how the missing clubbers out of Roppongi were tied to the vanishing homeless, that the disappearances were not separate occurrences but a collective incident. Minako questioned, though with little wondering, if the abducted clubbers would ever get a mention in the headlines again, or if, with this result, they would fade from the public eye and in turn from the public's mind, another casualty of the status quo. She knew which she'd put money on.

Nonetheless, to Minako, what had been said-what would be done-was enough. Recognition for the youmas' victims, for the victims' families, is what mattered. Closure for everyone. Natsuna had come through, as the Senshi of Love had counted on. The Superintendent-General would tend to the tragic affair properly; she would do the right thing by the dead regardless of what was reported and see to it that their remains made a final journey to their loved ones. In the end, there wasn't much else Minako could hope for.

"I pray they found him safe and well."

"Me too," Minako said, haunted by visions from the sewers. She shifted her gaze back to Akari and smiled hopefully, though it never touched her eyes.

The office door shot open behind the pair, Souda almost walking into the girls. "Ah, Minako! I'm taking you in for today's shoot!"

Untouched by his enthusiasm, Akari jerked her head in the young man's direction. "Souda's acting manager while Mr. Katsuyori is absent. Not me of course. Not me, who has worked in this agency for-"

"Dogs biting you again? I think I see a bruise," Souda teased, waving a pointed finger at Minako's neck. "Maybe they are punching you now! Airbrushing will never go out of style as long as you're around."

"I do... a lot of... um, *sports*," Minako gracelessly justified.

"Cool. What are you into?"

"Um, running... and sometimes jumping..."

"...Right," a bemused Souda said, flicking his floppy brown hair out of his eyes with a snap of his head. He was so dreamy. It was not easy for Minako to keep her thoughts straight near him. Why was he employed by Starlight Talent, when the agency could totally be *representing* him with a face and body like that? Didn't Mr. Kats see untapped talent when it was right in front of him?

The blonde's mobile phone chirped and the girl rushed to pull it from her pocket, thankful for the interruption and the breathing space it afforded. There was a text message from Natsuna waiting for her on the screen. "The tip was good. Kisses!" it read. Minako grinned down at her phone, her thumb hovering over the keypad, rapidly composing a perky response. She and Big Sis had to get together again soon. It would be a shame if the end of the missing persons' case was also an end to their reunion.

"A good luck message from your boyfriend?"

Minako looked up to see Souda watching with interest. She shook her head, returning her attention to her phone to fire off the reply text. "No, just... I don't have a boyfriend."

"Ah..."

Akari suddenly sucked on her teeth and briskly walked away from the pair, shaking her own head herself. She could be so moody.

"So..." Souda said, looking away to pick at the flaking wall paint beside the office's door, "Minako... after the shoot, I can take you to lunch."

"That's okay, you don't have to do that," Minako said, anxiously waving off the idea with a hand and a nervous smile. She glanced over her shoulder at the desks where Hotaru was tentatively testing a mandu's flavour with tiny bites, Akari observing the experimentation with amusement. "Hotaru and I will-"

"No, please. It's more than alright," Souda insisted, turning from the peeling paint to look at the blonde. "We can hang out and stuff. You're new and we should get to know each other better."

"You are aware you're hitting on a *High* *Schooler*...?" Akari yelled from her roost on the edge of a desk.

"I'm not hitting on anybody!" Souda immediately yelled back in frustration, with such alacrity it was as if he had been anticipating his colleague's intrusion. "Mr. Katsuyori would do the same! I'm just doing what he would do if he was here right now!"

"Akari, you can come too," Minako called, hoping to placate the snarky girl.

"She has to stay here and man the office," Souda quickly explained with a hard glare across the room to his co-worker.

"Didn't our last talent quit because of exactly this?" Akari retorted.

"That's a lie and you know it! Hanako was emotionally disturbed! Who gets a restraining order just to get out of a date?" Souda squealed.

"This is a date?" Minako cut in a little breathlessly, catching the last of the rant.

"Um..." the young man dithered timidly, glancing at the crumbling paint again. Did he have ADD or OCD or some other acronym? The Senshi of Love's parents once thought she'd had one of those. Maybe Souda just had the energy of youth, like she did. "Do you... want it to be...?"

Minako blinked, seriously weighing the question. Did she? Souda was hot, that was for sure. Just her type of guy. Just her type... Or what *had* been her type. Where did mature, beautiful, sophisticated women fit alongside young, pretty, athletic studs? Where did Setsuna fit?

The Senshi of Love looked behind her again at Hotaru. The Outer Senshi was watching her, along with Akari. Everyone was waiting for her. Everyone wondered. Not only here, but her other friends too; every Senshi, Inner and Outer. Everyone waiting and wondering to see what Minako would do... to see who the Love Goddess's heart would choose. Saijou Ace's last words clung to her in these moments. Whenever there was the chance of falling in love, Minako's thoughts conjured the image of her first love. Kaitou Ace, Danburite, Adonis-he had held many identities, but he would always be Saijou Ace to the Senshi of Love, the man who had tried to change one wheel of fate for himself, for a Princess, for love, for *her*. The girl's first love was long dead and gone, dust together with the Dark Agency, both destroyed by the hand of Sailor V-her own hand. Before he had passed, with his remaining breath, with affection instead of bitterness, Saijou Ace had prophesised her dilemma; that riddle between love and duty... and he had solved it for her. 'Your love will be hopeless for all eternity.' There wouldn't be any storybook romance for the Senshi of Love and Beauty, only unflinching duty to that one precious person-the Moon Princess. Saijou Ace had believed he had relieved Minako of a burden, and in that space and time long ago in her past the leader of the Guardian Senshi had thought so too... yet now... with every new lonely year gone by, with almost every friend knowing affection she never had... Had it been a final fortune uttered, or a lasting curse?

Minako was always falling in love but was never in love. She was always wise to the ways of the heart but never wise to her own. Was her heart incapable of real, true love like everyone around her? Was that the irony of the Senshi of Love? Was that what Saijou Ace had seen? Or was she forever blind to finding the right person, blind to seeing the Adonis and his wealth of feeling before the Kunzite and his dearth?

Everyone was waiting and wondering. Minako was too.

"Minako?"

"Sorry," Minako said to Souda with a forced grin, "I zoned out there. I was a world away."

"Our...?"

"Date?" the blonde finished for him. "Yeah. Sure. Why not." The Inner Senshi glanced over her shoulder yet again to her young companion, face a mask. Hotaru was looking back at her. Would she say anything to Setsuna? Did the Keeper of Time already know of this... disloyalty?

"That's great!" Souda exclaimed, clapping his hands together briefly, positively overjoyed.

"My pal Hotaru and I can't wait," Minako said with a somewhat sly smirk. It wasn't like she was going to ditch a friend for the sake of a date, even if it was with a hunky hunk. Plus it would be funny to see how he would handle the extra, underaged company.

"Right..." a sedate Souda said, brought crashing a hundred miles to the ground, "Hotaru..." With a queasy expression he looked over to the young girl who had finally decided she didn't much like mandu, pushing the heavily nibbled dumpling back into the box.

Guilt crept into Minako. It was Setsuna in her thoughts now. But it was okay to play the field. It was what the Senshi of Love did. It was what her heart did. Always seeking someone to fill it, always wanting more. Always left empty.


Rei pulled open a shoji screen door, the Hikawa Jinja's courtyard stretching out before her. Cool fresh air and the cawing of a pair of ravens welcomed her-as well as the yelp of an ambushed man. The sharp crack of the door hitting the wall behind him startled Yuuichirou, who was sitting on the stone steps that climbed up to the main building's veranda. He flailed wildly for a second, knocking over the broom propped next to him and almost sending himself tumbling from his roost.

"Lunch is about ready," Rei notified him, unmoved by his clowning around. They had lived together too long for his behaviour to surprise her now.

The flustered Yuuichirou scrambled to pick up his broom from the courtyard's paving stones, clasping it to his chest as if it were a shield instead. "I was just taking a-! I mean I was going to get back to-!" he guiltily stammered.

Rei smirked faintly and walked across the veranda, taking a seat next to the shaggy man. Yuuichirou leaned away from the miko, as if fearing some sort of assault, verbal or otherwise. Likewise, he had lived with Rei a long time. "The grounds look good," Rei remarked favourably instead, her amethyst gaze moving over the clean courtyard.

Yuuichirou started to relax, albeit tentatively, slow to right himself on the steps or close the distance between them. He initially still kept the broom, but a few seconds later returned it to its former perch. "I thought you'd be hanging out with Usagi."

"She'll be over. She's supposed to be seeing me for more training to become a miko... but she'll probably become just an extra plate at lunch." Rei smiled wistfully, but also indulgently, bringing her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. It wasn't like she'd never saw it coming. "I think she's bored with it now. Being a miko like I am was just Usagi's latest flavour of the month. She probably felt like she was at the beginning, but I knew she wasn't really serious about it." She turned to grin at Yuuichirou. "She doesn't have the passion for this stuff like you."

Yuuichirou hesitantly grinned back, scratching at one stubbly cheek with a finger. "Eh, I don't think I'm much better than Usagi." He glanced down at himself, at his traditional garb. "I was just working here to impress a girl too."

Rei laughed, looking back out across the courtyard. "It's more than that for you now though."

"R-Right..." Yuuichirou said, looking away towards the jinja's grounds as well.

"You've really taken to it. It's become your life. I'm proud of you, Yuuichirou. I know my Grandpa is too."

It took him a moment of gawking at Rei in something close to disbelief, a long moment that nearly had the Fire Senshi take offense, but eventually the young man genuinely smiled. "Thanks, Rei. Even my parents are happy with me for once. It's like I've finally done something right with my life." Yuuichirou looked over his shoulder, up at the Hikawa Jinja's main building. "Like I've found where I belong."

"Yeah," Rei replied. "I know what you mean."

They sat there in the peace and quiet for several minutes, simply enjoying where they were.

"I've always liked Usagi," Yuuichirou admitted out of the blue, breaking the silence.

Rei frowned at him.

"Not in that way!" Yuuichirou quickly made clear. "I just mean, she's a nice person. Easygoing."

"Mm..." Rei hummed absently in agreement.

"I... never thought Usagi would... you know... be the one for you," Yuuichirou awkwardly continued. "N-Not because she's a... a sh-she. I mean, that was a shock, but..." He snuck an uncomfortable look at Rei, shuffling his behind on the steps. "What I mean is you and Usagi fought-fight-all the time."

Rei smirked. "I've heard people mention that before." She shrugged, and then suddenly smirked wider. "Where there's friction there's heat."

"It's just... w-we fight all the time..."

Rei's face slowly fell under Yuuichirou's words, the raven-haired girl realising what he was really trying to say. Why not him. Why not him, he who had stayed by her side all this time, all these years, under the same roof, sharing the same home; loyal, dedicated, Yuuichirou? Why not the man who was always there in front of her eyes, forever her sworn friend, her willing foil, her unshakable rock? Why had their friction not created heat? Why the passion for Usagi and not for Yuuichirou?

Rei could have opted for the easy excuse-Usagi was a girl and Yuuichirou wasn't. It would be a lie, but a convenient, comfortable lie for both of them. She could say that Usagi was her best friend, while Yuuichirou was... still a friend, yet simply something less than Usagi, and never anything more. She could crush him, coldly explaining there was just nothing between them and there had never been any hope, that she could never feel for him what he felt for her. She could say more than she should; confess to a history between her and a Princess from long ago, to a destiny changed and a love fought for. She could narrate the saga, making him understand the depth of feeling she had for her Princess, that it wasn't a random attachment in the least but something greater, something monumental, something magical and worth believing in. Or selfishly or selflessly Rei could say nothing at all, leaving Yuuichirou his dream, leaving hope however small and false-leaving the man at her side, still loyal, still dedicated, still her Yuuichirou.

"In another life, Yuuichirou."

Yuuichirou smiled softly, understanding, and Rei knew it had been the right thing to say. No hope and yet hope. Nevertheless, it was exactly what a hurt man had needed to hear.

"When I first heard, about you and... I thought it was your other friend, Minako," Yuuichirou commented a minute later. He turned his head to look at Rei's incredulous face when he was answered with only silence. "You guys are like sisters or something, you know?"

The Fire Senshi's grimace remained unconvinced. "You're kidding, aren't you? Usagi and Minako are the sisters; we're nothing alike."

Yuuichirou squirmed under the girl's brash skepticism. "I don't know. That's just what I thought back then."

Rei shook her head, ridding herself of the man's strange view. He just didn't know Minako.

The miko sighed, remembering the real news that had brought her out here besides lunch. Yuuichirou needed to be told. "It's going to get tight around the jinja from now on."

"What?"

Rei sighed again, more heavily. Dwelling on it over and over was not great for her mood. "Donations are the Hikawa Jinja's lifeblood," she said, trying to explain it in a manner airheaded Yuuichirou would easily comprehend, "and we lost our biggest supporter last night."

"It's... just one dude, right? There's lots of other donations... right?"

Rei shifted her gaze away from Yuuichirou. It was hard to keep looking him in that scruffy puppy dog face of his. She felt guilty for some reason, as if she was revealing to him that there was no Santa Claus. "My Grandpa won't admit it, but this place needed that money. We depend on charity-in this world, that's a set up doomed from the start."

"But we get lots of visitors! I see them every day! It's got to add up!" Yuuichirou avidly tried to assure her, or perhaps reassure himself.

"How many really, Yuuichirou? And how many give? It's hard enough for people out there without them giving up parts of their salary to us," a grim-faced Rei rationalised. She remembered the bodies in the sewers. Homeless men and women, driven from their once cosy lives to die alone and unsung.

"How did we lose this guy?' Yuuichirou jumped on instead. "We could talk to him, you and I, try to get back his-!"

"It's not going to happen!" Rei barked over the young man, loudly and firmly, squashing his words and his hopes. She needed to tell him the whole story. "My father... he was the supporter. I didn't know before last night. We... got into an argument. We..." The Senshi of Fire shook her head roughly-she was not going through all this again. "My father is... not a good person. Unlike you, my parent is not happy with me and never will be. The money is gone and it's not coming back. But we don't need it, alright? I never thought about it before, how the jinja ran, how we stayed afloat, but I'll figure something out. I promise."

"Rei..." Yuuichirou breathed, staring down at the steps, the cogs in his mind turning. "Your father... That's why your Grandpa was so worried about you going out last night."

"Yeah... It gets worse. But just for me, not for the Hikawa Jinja. It will survive. I'll make sure of it."

"'Worse'? What? What is it?" Yuuichirou fearfully asked, grabbing one of the miko's arms.

Rei closed her eyes for an instant. Her grandfather couldn't know... but Yuuichirou? He was practically family too. He *was* family. But he was also a friend, her rock. If the miko could tell anyone, she could tell Yuuichirou, and trust him with it.

"My father... he didn't just cut off the Hikawa Jinja. He cut me off too. He stopped paying for my school tuition. I have to leave High School."

"What...?" Yuuichirou gasped again. "No, Rei... you can't..." he moaned, shaking the girl by the arm a little. "You can't leave! I dropped out, and believe me; no corporation wants you after that. I was a freeter most of my life and it sucked... *hard*! I did have a ton of free time for my music, and that was sweet, but..." He trailed off to scratch at his tatty beard, like he had forgotten why his period as a freeter had been a bad thing.

Rei on the other hand, recalling the state of Yuuichirou's 'music', didn't have to be persuaded becoming a freeter sucked. But until slaying monsters paid the bills, she saw little other option.

"It's okay. It's for the best, anyway," the Senshi of Fire said, almost believing it herself. "Grandpa and the jinja will need money. I need to find work and school would just get in the way." Maybe Setsuna or Minako could hook Rei up with something worthwhile. Doing some modelling jobs had to be better than busting her butt in a convenience store seven days a week for a pittance. She began to wonder if Setsuna's offer still stood... before expecting it would only expire for her when time itself did.

"I can't believe your own father would turf you like that... That is so wrong!" Yuuichirou said, as indignant as a laidback guy like him could be. "I didn't even know you *had* a father. I thought it was just your Grandpa who looked after you."

"It is," Rei was quick to remark. "My father... he might as well be dead." She smiled bitterly. "It doesn't stop him haunting me though."

"I gotta do something too... I'll get a job too!" Yuuichirou passionately vowed.

"No. We still need someone here to lend Grandpa a hand running the jinja. Just promise me you'll keep your mouth shut around him. He doesn't know a lot of what I've told you-and he doesn't need to."

"Right... Sure," Yuuichirou swore, nodding. "Say no more. But... I need to do something *more*. I'll talk to my parents! I know I can get them to help!"

Rei looked at him, surprised that she hadn't thought of that... then remorseful to have considered relying on Yuuichirou's family. His family were wealthy-vacation-home-in-the-mountains-kind of wealthy, perhaps even compete-with-her-father kind of wealthy. It could work. It could be the answer. Yet she couldn't ask it. She just couldn't. It didn't sit right with her. She couldn't use her relationship with Yuuichirou like that... But she really wanted to.

"No, Yuuichirou," the miko sighed wearily, feeling as if she had been teased with a hope just to have it dashed. "It's nice of you, but-"

"You said it yourself," the young man excitedly argued, "this place depends on charity! My folks can be pretty damn charitable!"

Rei was sure they could be, having put up with Yuuichirou's drifting for so long. Any other freeter of his calibre would have starved to death long ago. "Yuuichirou..." she started.

"Rei, please!" Yuuichirou exclaimed, seizing the girl with both her arms to face him. "Let me do this. This... This is my home too."

Through his dishevelled bangs, Rei looked into his earnest eyes. In them she saw his conviction. She saw his fire. He would not be talked down. The Senshi of Fire and Passion couldn't prevent a resigned smirk spreading across her visage-resigned, and grateful. "Thank you, Yuuichirou. Without you, I... I'm indebted to you. I'll never forget this."

"You don't need to talk like that, Rei," Yuuichirou said, grinning. "As long as I'm here I'll never let the Hikawa Jinja crash and burn! I can ask about paying for your school tuition too!"

"No," Rei shook her head. "No, you've done enough," she continued, seeing Yuuichirou about to launch into protest. "More than enough." She leaned in, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, giving him the warmest hug she could. "Thank you."

"I'll never let you down, Rei," Yuuichirou said softly, gingerly holding her around her waist.

"Come on," the miko prompted, pulling away. "Grandpa is probably wondering where..."

Something was wrong.

"Rei? Are you okay?"

There was something... something off. It skittered over her senses, taunting her memory. It was close by. Closer now. Within the Hikawa Jinja grounds. Something Rei hadn't felt for... It couldn't be. It *couldn't*...!


Faced with her apartment's door, Ami paused a second. She was ready for this. She was finally ready. It wasn't what she wanted; her mother effectively giving up a career in surgery, moving to another island-to a sleepy village to tend to children with the sniffles and elderly folk who had taken a tumble off their front step. It was not Ami's idea of paradise. But everyone's paradise was different. Everyone's ideal was their own... even when that person was an ideal herself. Ami would always look up to her mother-nothing would change that, not a change in career direction, not a change in living arrangements, not even a change of heart. Her mother would always be the doctor Ami aspired to become, and the woman she hoped to grow into. Saeko Mizuno would always be her mother. It was with that conviction that Ami opened the apartment door-no longer her apartment, no longer her home or her mother's. But the girl was okay with that.

The Senshi of Water walked inside, taking off her shoes for her slippers. The apartment was still and quiet, and for a moment Ami thought it empty-it came with a jerk of surprise when she saw Takeru lounging on the breakfast bar in the kitchen, as still and quiet as the rest of the apartment. He watched her come in and smiled; one knee against his chest and his other leg sprawled over the counter. Ami's mother would never approve of that treatment of her furniture. At least, not the mother Ami had known. He even had his shoes on.

Ami reminded herself that she didn't have to like him. Only for her mother's sake, she had to be at peace with him.

"Where's my-"

"Your mother?" Takeru finished for her, his crisp voice snapping into hers. "Gone. The hospital called her in. They hold her on a tight leash." Ami noticed there was a red apple in his hand, the forearm propped over his lifted knee. He brought it to his mouth, tearing a big bite loose with a crack that shot through the room. "Tighter than mine," he added through his chews and with a smirk, a comment no doubt supposed to be humorous. "I wanted to keep Saeko here. Her sense of duty to her job is strong."

"Oh. How long ago was she paged?" Ami asked, feeling wrong-footed, as if she had stepped into someone else's apartment. True, it wasn't her home anymore, yet it felt no longer familiar at all.

"Not long," Takeru said, taking another crackling bite of his apple. "No matter. I've been looking forward to spending some time with you, just us by ourselves."

"M-Me too," Ami went with, albeit hesitantly. "I don't believe we have really talked, or gotten to know and understand one another yet."

"I doubt you could," Takeru quickly remarked, twisting his apple in his hand to a more fleshy part. "Understand one another, I mean."

The Senshi of Wisdom blinked, puzzled by the man's response. "I... We haven't tried... If given the chance, I'm confident-"

"You didn't then. You won't now," Takeru said, crunching into the apple again. He stared at the fruit afterwards. "I'd forgotten this. Simple pleasures..."

"I-I'm sorry if I gave the impression that I... that I was less than welcome to you before," the blue haired girl pressed on, struggling to keep a hold on the conversion. "It was only my concern for my mother coming out. She's the only family I have."

Takeru turned his head to her; a minute tick of the neck. He smiled. "I know."

A chill ran through Ami. That smile. She'd seen it before, many occasions before, every day Takeru had been over. It wasn't a friendly smile. It wasn't her imagination. There was something beneath the surface. Only just below, wanting to come out. For the first time Ami felt fear being under that smile. She felt fear in her own home. This *was* still her home, or had been until *he* had entered her and her mother's lives.

"I... I'll wait for her in my room," Ami said, her voice almost hushed. "I have... schoolwork."

She went to her sanctuary, shutting her bedroom door behind her, feeling she had left Makoto too soon. But Ami had to wait for her mother, especially with Takeru there waiting for her too. Her mother could be back at any time after answering a call page. The Senshi of Wisdom didn't trust to leave her alone with Takeru, not any longer. She had to be here. She *should* have been here every moment *he* had been here.

Ami fumbled for her mobile phone, needing to hear Makoto's voice, needing to hear reason-that it was all in her head; that everything wasn't as it seemed; that there was nothing amiss. Because right now, Ami was in another universe.

"Calling the girlfriend?"

Ami fumbled her phone out of her hands and onto her bedroom floor. She spun around and took an involuntary step back, Takeru standing in her room's doorway, the door open to the young man and his intruding whim.

"What are you doing in here?" Ami demanded, although it sounded less a demand and more a wheeze.

"It's our alone time," Takeru reminded her. He knelt down and picked up the girl's phone, that smile on his lips.

"That's-" Ami began, reaching out to take it from him.

"Your mother doesn't know about you yet," Takeru spoke over her, looking down at her shiny blue mobile phone in his hand. "What you are."

Ami just stared at him. For an instant she thought he was referring to her Sailor Senshi calling, but, mind scrambling, she quickly heard his opening remark again. He had figured out that her relationship with Makoto... was a *relationship*. The Water Senshi almost wished he had discovered her other secret instead.

"Too wrapped up in her own life to notice, isn't she," the redhead continued, tossing the phone up and down in his hand slightly. "It wasn't hard to see it. You are disciplined around her, and me, but anyone who is really looking can see the signs. You don't have to hug and kiss to look in love."

"I..." Ami breathed-or tried to. Air seemed difficult to force down her throat all of a sudden. "Are you-?"

"Am I going to tell your mother that you're gay? I have to. Perhaps she will be proud of you. Makoto does have some looks. For a mousy wallflower, you have some pull. Makoto is a little manly for my tastes, however you probably like that. You probably need it. To be dominated. To be told what to do. So you don't have to make the tough choices. So you don't have to be brave. So the mouse doesn't ever have to find her voice."

Ami gaped at Takeru, stunned at what was pouring from his mouth. She saw that his hand had become a fist, cracking her phone's plastic.

"Saeko will be so devastated to hear it all. Her only daughter, lost forever. Or she would be if she cared about you anymore." The smile swelled. "She's not your mother anymore. She's a woman, *my* woman. She belongs to me now. She loves me more than you. She wishes you could understand that and stop being such a selfish little bitch about it."

"G-Get out of my room," Ami ordered, still half in shock, but the other half of her outraged at what was being said to her.

"The mouse squeaks!" Takeru sneered, tossing her broken phone aside.

"Get out!" Ami yelled, stepping forward to stand as tall as she could in front of him, even ready to push him out if need be. The Senshi of Wisdom had been right all along about him. She had to warn her mother, she had to-

Ami choked, her body struck stiff. She looked down from Takeru's smiling face at her stomach. There was something sticking out of it. It was dark and jagged, like a roughly hewed crystal shaft-like a blade. Circles of blood soaked through her blouse. She could feel it slick on her skin, running down her leg. And then there was the pain, as sharp as the crystal dagger embedded inside her.

Ami looked back up into the face of a different man, with blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, the hate behind them at last unmasked. His clothes had changed with his face, a grey military uniform fastened across his chest. The Inner Senshi had seen everything before; the face, the uniform. She had believed they had survived only in her distant memory. She had believed this foe beaten. She had believed a lot of things about 'Takeru Sakai', about the man before her-but the truth was far, far worse.

Jadeite violently twisted the crystal dagger in Ami's gut, and with a final jerk of his fist broke off the brittle blade inside of the girl.

The pain. Oh, the *pain*! Ami had never felt its like before. She staggered backwards, her legs feeling as if they were barely there underneath her. Her hands went for the oozing wound, instinct commanding her to apply pressure, to stem the blood loss. The serrated shard buried in her flesh wouldn't let her near for long, the pain becoming intolerable agony as every corner of the weapon shifted inside her with her touch, when she moved, with every hitching breath. Her bedroom spun under the torture, her head feeling as if it were flying from her shoulders, the shred of reason still alive in her fevered mind shrieking at her not to pass out. The Water Senshi fell back against her desk, one hand sweeping over it as she fell further, sliding off its edge and landing on the floor as pens and papers rained around her.

Ami, lying on her side, head against the carpet, watched as Jadeite's feet came closer. The toe of his boot pressed ever so slightly against her stomach, pushing on the tip of the crystal-Ami saw stars. An eternity later, her ears ringing from her own scream, she came back to her bedroom floor and the Shitennou standing over her.

"You might feel as if you're close to death," Jadeite spoke, vehemence dripping from every word, "but you don't know that place. You haven't stood on the precipice as I have." He pressed down on Ami's wound once more, the teenager's body shutting down in that moment while all she could do was howl. "The pain will keep you here, with me. I want you alert and listening. I don't want your life... not yet. I just want your *pain*."

Again the boot came down; again Ami wailed her voice hoarse. She had to transform, had to stand, had to fight-however they were distant battle cries, muted by the hot coal in her abdomen. Her vision was all but blinded by her tears, her throat choked with drool, her body curled up atop a pool of her own blood. There was no fight in her. She couldn't even be scared; she could barely string a thought together over the pain.

"How does it feel, to be trapped? Suffering your only companion? It's not even been a minute for you. Try *years*!"

Jadeite kicked the Senshi of Wisdom in her belly, once, twice-over and over. It could have been a dozen. It could have been a hundred times. Ami couldn't count, couldn't exist beyond what was wracking her body, contorting her senses. She only knew it was over when she heard panting above her, and saw the Shitennou's bloody boot in front of her face again.

"What will it be... *Mercury*?" Jadeite said, relishing it as he revealed her alter ego. "You're only female. And the weakest of the Guardians. A mind so sharp, so gifted-and so easily broken." He squatted beside her, his grinning face entering Ami's blurred view. "I often wondered what you'd do, if I gave you the choice I never had. Would you choose to end it if you could? Would you prefer to die than live on like this?" His voice dropped to a whisper. "I think we both know your answer."

Jadeite stood up, a triumphant figure over the Sailor Senshi. "It *can* be your choice. The wound... it will only grow worse. While I would rather you live and suffer-as I have lived and suffered!-you are a passing distraction. I have somewhere else to be. But I leave you with another decision to make. Your mother. Your 'girlfriend'. Which do you love more? A decision of the heart for the Senshi of the mind."

The Shitennou vanished in streaks of black shooting upwards towards the ceiling, erasing the man from Ami's bedroom.

Ami laid there. Seconds, minutes, hours-it could have been anything. She wanted to keep lying there. She wanted to sleep. She wanted to...

Ami gritted her teeth, flopping over onto her back. Her feet against the floor, she pushed with her legs. The carpet slid underneath her as she thrust herself towards the open door. Blood-matted shag mapped her agony-ridden journey, her room a grisly scene, never to be the same. It didn't matter. All that mattered right now was making it to the door.

She reached the doorframe. Panting, calling on every morsel of determination she had, Ami dragged her tortured form up the wooden frame. On her feet she leaned against it, virtually collapsing into it, needing a moment but knowing she didn't have one. Ami understood what Jadeite had meant. She understood his threat. Her mother and Makoto-someone or *somethings* were going to kill them, maybe Jadeite himself. Ami could reach one. Only one. Her mind was frantic and her heart was racing, but she had to think, she had to decide. No, not decide. The Senshi of Wisdom had to *think*. If... if Ami could get them *together*, in the same place...

The teenager went for her watch communicator, the device crackling to life. "This is... this is..." Ami could hardly speak. "Anyone... *everyone*... please listen... Makoto, you have to... get to my mother... at the hospital... Makoto, you have to...! It's... Jadeite he's...!"

Ami blinked down at her wrist through damp eyes. Her communicator squealed, the screen a tempest of static-then the picture faded away into black. Jadeite was jamming the signal!

"No..." Ami sobbed, unaware if any of what she had broadcast had weathered the interference. She feared the worst case. "No...!"

Ami stumbled out of her bedroom, scrambling for the apartment foyer, using the walls to keep her standing. She had to make it to her. If no one else, *Ami* had to make it to her!


"I wanted to see you as soon as I... woke up. I wanted to look upon you with my *own* eyes. But I knew you'd know. You didn't have that before. It's new in this life, just as you are new. But it's the same life for me. The memories belong to *me*. The emotions to *me*. The betrayal *mine*!

It took patience I didn't think I had, but everything is in place now. I wanted to see your face... one final time."

"Rei, who is this nutter? Listen pal, I don't know where you suddenly popped out of, but this is like, private property... Well it's actually open-to-the-public property, but it's barred to-"

"Yuuichirou," Rei spoke sharply, shutting the man up. She kept her eyes locked to Jadeite's intense stare. *Jadeite*! She had thought him gone with Beryl, a footnote casualty with the Queen's and Metalia's destruction. The Fire Senshi hadn't witnessed his last moments, merely assumed he had had them after his long absence. But absence didn't mean death-Rei should have known that better than most.

"Your face is how I remember it," Jadeite said, standing at the foot of the veranda's steps. He still wore the trademark grey uniform of the Shitennou. There was the disconcerting sight of blood on the right cuff. "*You* are how I remember. Still a woman who can never be at peace. Still chasing what she can't have and forsaking everything she *could* have. Always the absolute with you and nothing as the substitute." He grinned, full of bitterness, showing only a little teeth. He seldom blinked, his blue eyes a storm. "This man here, another sap deluded by you in a long running list."

"Hey!"

"But this life has been lived differently, hasn't it? You have your absolute. I didn't believe it when I saw it. Your disregard of all other suitors, your vow of chastity, your pledge to your 'duty' over everything else. Now I get it. I see it now; now it all makes sense to me. It wasn't honour-your duty was your *love*! That's where the dedication came from! That's where the vows were rooted! Easy words, when spoken by a lovesick heart! If you couldn't have her you'd have no one-the belligerent sentiment of a brat who didn't get her way! You weren't loyal-you were just a lapdog!" Jadeite's hands had become fists, his arms jerking at his sides with his ranting. "I bet you loved playing the martyr. I bet you still revel in that 'loyalty', parading it about as she and everyone around you marvels at your capacity for self-sacrifice. How brave you are. How admirable. How... *romantic* it is. Fools! I bet she drinks the act right up, doesn't she. She fawns all over you and your bravado... like she did for her 'Prince'. The biggest fool of all. After *everything* that happened between our worlds...! How did Endymion take it? How did he take *his* betrayal? Or was he a victim of your act as well, touched by your 'selfless devotion'?" The Shitennou scoffed, shaking his head angrily. His eyes still glared, still burned into the Senshi of Fire and Passion's own. "You'll be cast aside just as he was. Mark my words. That Princess, that *bitch*, is *cursed*! She is the downfall of us all! That you would choose-! That it was-! Perhaps it is *you* who are the biggest fool! She can't love you! She may think she does, but the Moon Princess's love is fickle, and corrosive, and it will ruin you as it did Endymion!"

Rei couldn't grasp even half the craziness Jadeite was spouting. She watched him, stony-faced, as spittle flew past his curled and twisted lips alongside his rage, grasping at least that before her, ghost or not, was a dangerous adversary on the brink of an explosion. And Rei understood the vicious insults against her character and against Usagi's. Jadeite's eyes were a tempest-but Rei's were answering infernos.

A bead of sweat ran down the side of the raven-haired girl's face. Rei was fighting her temper. She was fighting every urge to launch herself at the resurrected Shitennou and rain attack after attack down upon him with everything she had. Why Jadeite was here, *how* he was standing in front of her, years after the fall of the Dark Kingdom-these questions didn't cross her mind. The Senshi of Fire just saw an old enemy needing to be put back into the dirt.

Rei couldn't give into her temper. Everything could go very wrong. This was her home. Yuuichirou was next to her. Her Grandpa was somewhere in the building behind her. One clumsy word, one off move, and Rei might regret it for the rest of her days. A clear, thinking, head was needed. The anger had to be leashed... until it didn't have to be anymore. The Senshi of Fire had put Jadeite down before. She would do it again, just like old times-but *after* she got the people she cared about out of this.

"Like anything you have to say matters to me," Rei said, her amethyst gaze challenging. She had to keep the focus on her. Not a tough task she suspected, from witnessing Jadeite's fixated demeanour. The girl would use *his* anger, *his* loss of control, against him. "Like *you* matter. The world's moved on. *We've* moved on. No one says your name. No one cares to. Your time is long over. You're a relic, trivial history that should have stayed buried."

"Still full of that fire..." Jadeite sneered with a patronising grin. "Still a little girl who wields it."

"You didn't know me then. You *really* don't know me now. Or any of my friends," Rei retorted, almost snarling before she caught herself. Her mind furiously worked, wading through the fog of her rising temper. The miko couldn't sense anything abnormal in the Hikawa Jinja except the Shitennou's presence. His... aura... was not like a youma's; it wasn't a glaring blotch on the psyche. It wasn't right, not the flatline an everyday human being's was, yet it wasn't specifically wrong either. It even felt... familiar. It wasn't the familiarity of having sensed Shitennou before when Rei was younger either; it was a familiarity in her soul, as though the aura was fitting for the man facing her. At any rate, Jadeite had come alone-he remained the egotistical screw up he had always been. "I'm not the girl in the past. I'm the girl *from* the past. I'm older. I'm stronger. We all are. *Her* most of all." Rei's eyes narrowed just a bit. "It was a mistake coming alone. You should have brought an army with you. You still haven't learned."

"I have learned. I thought it would be you," Jadeite said, and Rei believed she saw something other than rage and resentment in the Shitennou for once. They were still there of course, fierce and nasty; however emotion ran deeper in the man, touching something else she couldn't quite put her finger on. "I thought you, at least... But you're the same as everyone else. The same as Endymion. You didn't care to... to remember." Suddenly Jadeite's features warped into another face of abject hate. "I was just another one of your *saps*. You've moved on. You have a life. You have a family. *You*. *Have*. *Everything*!"

Rei's eyes bolted open. Usagi was in trouble. She could feel it, feel *her*; feel her Princess's fear. It wasn't part of her sixth sense, it wasn't a honed instinct, it wasn't a gut feeling-it touched deeper than everything, arrived with no explanation, had origins nowhere. She just *knew*.

Rei looked to where she felt herself being pulled, powerless to resist, her head turning and her body aching to follow suit. She broke Jadeite's stare, instead staring into the trees towards some unknown destination, every second she failed to close the distance wrenching her insides a little further. Usagi needed her. The *Moon* *Princess* needed her.

"This is... this is... Anyone... *everyone*... please listen..."

"Do you... Do you hear Ami?" Yuuichirou said, flailing his head from side-to-side, mystified. "I swear I hear her voice."

"Makoto, you have to... get to my mother... at the hospi-"

Rei's watch communicator emitted a high-pitched screech before shutting down prematurely. The girl unconsciously laid her hand over its face and tore her gaze away from the trees and her Princess and the calling. It hadn't been much, but Ami's garbled, dying message effectively announced a call to arms. Rei and Usagi weren't the only Senshi in Jadeite's shadow-nor was it only Senshi.

Jadeite slowly smirked at Rei as she met his eyes once more, the Shitennou picking up on the Sailor Senshi's grisly insight. It was cold, and malicious, and full of satisfaction. "...Where's your 'grandfather'?" he said through his smile.

Rei sat still for a moment longer, then in a burst of motion reached across Yuuichirou, snatching up his broom. "Yuuichirou-!" She twisted her hips back around, swinging the bamboo broom ahead of her, piling every scrap of momentum she could behind it. "*Run*!"

Jadeite lifted his arm to his head, the broom snapping in half over the limb, pieces flying across the courtyard. His other hand seized a fistful of Rei's hoodie, yanking the girl's face up to his. His rage and hate were fully unmasked in burning eyes and bared, gnashing teeth; his features more monster than man, vengeance everything he was. Rei had a face as well, with fiery eyes and clenched jaw; determination meeting vengeance.

The Shitennou hurled the Senshi of Fire away, the teenager crashing through the shoji screen door and into a Spartan antechamber inside the Hikawa Jinja's main building. Rei tumbled wildly, rolling and sliding over the polished wooden floorboards before settling on her stomach. She looked up and through the ragged hole in the door to witness a panicked Yuuichirou being casually backhanded across the face as Jadeite stormed up the veranda's steps, the resurrected Shitennou not deigning to even glance his way as the other man fell.

Jadeite lashed out at the remnants of the shoji screen, smashing more paper and wood aside as he stepped through the tear. He paused a second to look around the room at its few trappings; old wall scrolls of calligraphy and ink wash paintings. "I always thought it strange that you would find religion," he said, "that you could be devoted to anything more than yourself!"

Rei got to her feet, her right hand open and her Henshin Stick spinning into existence above her palm. "MARS CRYST-!"

The miko felt it first. It was an eruption in her psyche, a splash in a calm lake, a corruption in nature. Rei had a talent for sensing the paranormal, for sensing wrongness... and evil. And this was evil. It wasn't a restless spirit, it wasn't a youma abomination-this was wicked, otherworldly malevolence, evil in a pure form. It's only form. Rei knew what it was. She had felt it before, long ago... and longer still, in another life.

Rei threw herself out of the way as dark energy arced towards where she had stood, electric-like tendrils shooting over the wall like crawling spider-webs. Wherever the wood was touched it seemed to decay, wasting away as if infected with rot, becoming dry and crumbly and flaking onto the floor-the life drained from it.

The energy emanated from Jadeite. A crystal hovered above his hand, narrow and pointed on top and bottom, carved with many smooth faces. There were more. Crystal shards of all shapes and sizes surrounded the Shitennou, caught in orbit around him, some cut like gems, others no more than sharp slivers, but every single one the same colour and clarity. They were almost black, but glowed inside, a dark purplish glow and waxed and waned yet was forever present. The same dark energy that was fired at Rei occasionally sparked between the crystal fragments, little bursts of purple lightning, like static between clouds before the storm.

"Still reliant on trinkets for focus!" Jadeite yelled as he swung his fist at the Senshi of Fire. The crystals moved with him, collecting, overlapping, becoming an extension of his arm; the jagged fragments a blade as they slashed at Rei ahead of his swing.

Rei ducked as the crystals scored the wood over her head-and immediately rolled to the side as another series of shards commanded by Jadeite's other arm ripped across the floor to get her, dislodging splinters from the floorboards. Her senses were afire, the dark energy within the crystals assailing not only her body but her mind-the unearthly power screaming its supernatural and sinister origins inside every synapse. It was a power that wasn't supposed to be; not here, not now, not in this world. Moreover, it went deeper than that-it should no longer have *existed*. It was the energy signature of the Dark Kingdom. It was the essence of Queen Metalia. Sailor Moon had sealed that being-destroyed her. Yet there was no mistaking that dark power alongside Jadeite, the man evidently the last surviving residue of the ancient evil.

The crystals broke off from each other as Jadeite threw his arms out wide, the lumps and shards returning to orbit around the Shitennou-an orbit that grew larger and faster. The crystals spread out, spinning in blur, a lethal whirlwind filling the room. The floor and ceiling was torn, the few vases and ornaments shattered, and wall scrolls and shoji screens were gouged as the tornado raged-with Rei inside it.

Rei dashed through the storm; weaving, ducking, her every reflex firing under the deluge of attacks. But wherever she weaved past one spiked shard another cut into her; wherever she ducked a knot of crystal there was another that beat upon her back. The girl's blood spotted the floorboards, marking her painful route towards the shelter of an adjoining hallway, the Senshi feeling the stings of more and more injuries all over her body. She gritted her teeth as another crystalline hunk glanced off her head, her hair already matted with blood from a clubbing before. The blow staggered her for a moment, just as a stiletto of crystal stabbed into her hand. Rei shrieked, her hand wracked by an involuntary spasm, and she watched in horror as her Henshin Stick fell from her grasp.

The artefact spun across the polished floor almost lost amid the dark energy tempest, but Rei dived after it, instantly abandoning thoughts of seeking refuge. She slid over the floor, body and arm straining, reaching, her fingers of her good hand inches behind the Martian Stick.

Lightning burst into Rei's view and she pulled her hand back as the tendrils consumed her Henshin Stick, sending it on a second spiralling course down the hallway. The miko put her hand in spongy, dead wood where the Stick had been as she leapt up, snatching an ofuda from inside her hoodie. She twirled in midair, a horizontal somersault, her outstretched left arm flinging the ward at Jadeite partway into her three-hundred-and-sixty degree spin. "Akuryou Taisan!"

"Your trick won't work a second time!" Jadeite scoffed as the ofuda began its voyage through his roiling crystal sea. It was hit again and again by the razor sharp shavings, the ward showing its true colours as a mere piece of paper, becoming tattered with every fresh strike. Finally Jadeite commanded a crystal dagger to spear the ofuda from the air, impaling it and altering its path into a wall. Slowly, starting where the crystal pinned the ward, the paper began to yellow and crack, disintegrating to rot.

"It doesn't have to," Rei spat under her breath as she landed on her feet near the hallway. Her Henshin Stick lay within it, at its centre. She raced down it, free of the Jadeite's dark energy storm, not looking back. Crystals still followed her, one after the other, embedding at her heels and into the surrounding walls and ceiling, the Senshi of Fire relying on instinct and blind luck to dodge between them. Rei had to make it. She had to reach her Henshin Stick. She couldn't keep up the fight without it. She couldn't hope to defend the Hikawa Jinja and her family by herself alone.

Rei screamed as a terrible agony twisted her left calf muscle, dropping her hard onto her knees. The teen scrambled on her hands for a few seconds more before collapsing outright under the pain and the wound, reduced to elbows to move, her shining Henshin Stick a beacon she would not give up on. She knew a crystal blade was in her leg just as one was in her right hand, sapping her strength. But Rei could make it. She *had* to make it! The Henshin Stick was so close. If she could just transform, if she could just set free the fire-!

"What's all th- Rei! What has happened?"

"No..." Rei breathed as her Grandpa's slippers appeared by her head. He knelt down to her battered and bleeding form, shock and concern written in the lines all over his normally jolly face. "Get out... Run!"

Rei's Grandpa looked away from her and down towards the other end of the hall, where Jadeite was. He was already gloating, his arrogance at its peak, his stance triumphant and his features smug. "Die... old man."

Rei wanted to pull herself up, she wanted to take Jadeite's hatred and all it entailed herself; be the shield for the only real family she had left. But her body failed her, her stamina depleted. Dark energy bolts snapped overhead, the smell of ozone reaching the girl's nostrils, and her head snapped with them towards their intended target. If she screamed she couldn't tell-in this moment there was only one person that mattered.

The teenager's grandfather let out a yell and nimbly leapt aside, pressing flat up against the corridor's wall as the lightning passed. "Demon!" he bellowed, hopping back into the middle of the hallway over Rei's body.

Jadeite roared, channelling another blast, the crystals around him glowing, *burning* with garish intensity and sparking chaotically with the Dark Kingdom's power. The energy travelled through the Shitennou's body and down his arms, which he flung out violently, as if the limbs were attached to puppet strings tugged too harshly by their master. The lightning filled the hallway, destroying the walls, cracking them wide open before they decayed under the vile forces unleashed.

"AKURYOU TAISAN!"

The energy struck the ofuda the Senshi's Grandpa swiftly brandished before him, the collision of mystic might emitting an almost blinding light. When Rei looked again she saw the ward held, its own energy, shining with all the innocence of sunlight and with all the strength sunlight could contain, keeping Jadeite's attack scant inches from devouring the priest who wielded it. The Dark Kingdom's power was devoured instead against the light, swallowed into the small ward's radiance.

Jadeite did not stop. More and more energy was drawn from the crystals and along his arms, a seemingly unlimited battery. Rei's Grandpa grimaced, the ofuda beginning to crumble at its edges and tiny tears opening in the middle of the paper. His ward was giving Rei the chance her own had not. But it wouldn't be for long.

With a cry Rei seized the crystal sliver stuck in her hand and tore it out, throwing it down. It rattled on the floor, vibrating, and all of sudden flew down the hallway to join the other shards hovering near Jadeite. The Fire Senshi made a fist-already her hand felt stronger. She rolled onto her back, her vision awash with the energy war above her, and brought her left leg up, the limb feeling as if it no longer belonged to her, weighing a ton. Nevertheless she grabbed the shaft in her calf-a dagger's length of crystal-and growled as she pulled on it. The crystal's edge cut her palm and fingers as she pulled, her growl turning into a defiant shout. It came loose, but not without its price in blood and flesh. Covered in her blood, the shaft flew back to its fellows.

Rei gasped, refocusing her hazy gaze on her Henshin Stick. Her Grandpa's ofuda seemed to be an ancient parchment now, the ink faded and the paper sallow; it looked as if a strong breeze could blow it apart. With red-slick hands Rei crawled, every inch a battle, but a battle won. Three inches left, two-one.

"Rei..." her grandfather said softly.

The girl looked up at him. He had nothing left. The Senshi of Fire and Passion grabbed her Henshin Stick.

The dark energy ceased; the sudden dearth abrupt. Rei's looked back towards her enemy-and saw her friend.

Yuuichirou had jumped on Jadeite's back, making himself a nuisance as only he could. He had locked an arm around the other man's neck, choking him from behind while the Shitennou struggled to get him off, banging against the corridor's walls.

"YUUICHIROU! *STOP*!" Rei screamed, her heart in her throat. It would only take a moment for Jadeite. Just a moment for him to-

The crystals orbiting the Shitennou froze-then fell upon Yuuichirou. Again and again they came down, hitting and stabbing, hurling sprays of blood against the ceiling.

"No! *NO*~!"

Jadeite grabbed Yuuichirou by the neck of his gi, dragging the limp figure off his back and over his head, before slamming him onto the floor of the Hikawa Jinja. Floorboards broke with the impact, creating a pit to cradle Yuuichirou as he bled out over the polished wood. Meanwhile the crystals gathered, overlapping once more to fashion a crude sword for Jadeite's hand, for the coup de grace.

Through one of the many holes in the jinja's walls two black shapes burst in, fluttering around Jadeite's face. He cried out, beaks pecking relentlessly as feathered wings battered against his head. The sword shattered into its parts, individual shards attempting to pierce the pair of creatures from the air. "Raargh!" Jadeite screamed in frustration, shooting glares between the agile Phobos and Deimos, Rei's Grandpa still on his feet, and the Fire Senshi herself with her retrieved Henshin Stick, blood streaking his angry features like tears. "The old man isn't your only family!"

With that, Jadeite vanished into shadow.

Rei's Grandpa released a heavy breath and dropped to one knee, one hand against what was left of the wall for support. The ofuda in his other hand seemed to take a moment itself; a final moment; drooping half over itself before bit by bit it flaked away, crumbling, until the tiniest scrap remained between the priest's fingertips.

"Yuuichirou...!"

Rei scrambled over to the young man's side as quickly as she could, mostly dragging herself along the floor. Her blood mixed with Yuuichirou's, a puddle surrounding his body. "Yuuichirou... you..." Rei wanted to hit him. She wanted to yell at him. But both behaviours seemed petty now. Instead the girl gingerly brushed the shaggy hair out of his eyes, his dark brown eyes that looked up at her.

"It's okay, Rei..." Yuuichirou spoke softly, solemnly, more solemnly than Rei had ever heard from him before. "This is my home too. You have to... defend your home. I wanted this." He smiled, and Rei began to think his eyes didn't really see her. "I'm... exactly where I should be."

"N-No... You shouldn't have... I-" Rei began, her voice thick. She was crying. She ran her hand down Yuuichirou's face, over the rough stubble on his jaw. "I didn't want this for you."

"*This* wasn't exactly my plan either," Yuuichirou joked, chuckling feebly. "But it was my choice. I wanted... I needed to help."

"You did," Rei hurried to agree, holding her hand to his cheek, "you did."

Yuuichirou smiled again, and his body noticeably relaxed. "In another life, Rei?"

"In another life... Yuuichirou."

"It doesn't even hurt, you know," the smiling young man whispered. "I can't feel anything."

Yuuichirou closed his eyes, the smile remaining.

"Call an ambulance!" Rei screamed at her Grandpa, as the elderly man stumbled over to join the miko at their friend's side. Her Grandpa looked his age, moving slowly and carefully, heavier creases all over a leathery face; the portrait of a tired and frail old man.

"I will, I will," her grandfather vowed, before he broke out into a fit of coughs.

On her knees, beside her dying friend, the Senshi of Fire could still feel it. Her Princess still called her. It was desperate and demanding. Rei needed to go.

"I... I have to..." How could she explain it?

"Go," her Grandpa said; nothing more from his granddaughter sought.

Rei gave him and Yuuichirou one last look each, and then ran from the Hikawa Jinja. She sprinted across the courtyard and through the torii, and raced down the jinja's steps two at a time, very nearly losing her footing on several occasions. There were no more government officials from her father waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs, no one to aid her. Rei was on her own. *Usagi* was on her own.

In Rei's hand was her Henshin Stick still, coated in blood, her own and Yuuichirou's all over her. She knew where Jadeite's parting threat was directed. He *knew* about *her*. *Rei* *Hino*. Perhaps he knew about every Sailor Senshi. The last Shitennou wanted to hurt them, hurt them *deeply*. Jadeite had struck at her heart in the Hikawa Jinja. There was only one place he was heading now. There was only one person in her family Rei had left. And there was only one choice she could make.

The Fire Senshi dashed down the street, her every stride stronger than the last. Passersby looked at her. No doubt she was a sight to behold. But none of that mattered. She *had* to be there.

Rei grabbed for her mobile phone while she ran. The red casing was scored, probably having taken some hits during the fight, but it still had power. Jadeite was gone and had taken his signal jamming with him; however the watch communicators shared between Senshi were likely still non-functional wherever the other girls were, if Rei's instincts were right about what was going down today. Who she needed couldn't be reached by the watch communicator anyhow. Rei was on her own, but Usagi would *not* be. If there was anybody to help, there was only one person Rei could rely on, to go where she simply could not. For her Princess. For her father. For her.


"...But what I really want to do is *act*! Mr. Katsuyori has represented me off and on, but I haven't landed anything besides 'bystander number two', if you get me."

Minako peered up at Souda as if he was a peculiar, though cute, little creature while he waffled; her head low and askance as she continually sipped her juice through its straw on the table. Now that Hotaru had been fed and had come up with her excuses to run off to fresh, pink-haired, company, Souda was doing his best to make up for lost 'date' one-on-one time. There had been scarce moments for that during his chaperoning of the photoshoot-dolls weren't supposed to speak after all, just know their place. But the underwear job had gone sans drama, with Hotaru appearing to have liked it from how much staring she had done, and the subsequent lunch had been nice-Souda had taken the girls to a favourite alfresco cafe of his that he insisted had great toasted paninis. So far everything was going his way; the crumbs on Minako's plate were a tribute to that. And while the conversation wasn't exactly stirring, it wasn't banal either. It was just... normal. The Senshi of Love sometimes forgot what normal was like.

"Do you think I have a shot?"

"Hmm? The acting thing? You never know. I only imagined myself in magazines before; now I really am," Minako said around her straw. "I guess it's all about having hope."

"Yeah..." Souda replied, picking up his glass to take a thoughtful sip of his own juice. "You should try it too. Acting isn't so hard. It's just like playing pretend when you were a-" His words stuck in his throat suddenly, the blonde's remembered age giving him hiccups, "-you know, younger," he finished a bit guiltily.

"I bet I'd be a natural," Minako said with a smile.

Souda returned her smile somewhat giddily. Underneath his pretty looks that he was well aware of and his typical guy bluster, he was kind of shy and awkward; the sort of shy and awkward that was adorable. He wasn't anything special, but maybe that was to his gain. Minako had been holding out for someone 'special' for so long. For an ideal that was long gone. Maybe normal was fine. Maybe normal was what she needed.

"This is... this is... Anyone... *everyone*... please listen... Makoto, you have to... get to my mother... at the hospi-"

Souda eyebrows rose.

"Ah, m-my phone," Minako said quickly, dropping her arm under the cafe table and covering her watch communicator with her hand. "I must have sat on some buttons or something!"

Souda nodded, sipping at his juice again.

Something was happening. So much for a normal date. The Guardian Senshi tried to work her communicator; however it had become a dead hunk of metal. Should Minako go to Ms. Mizuno's hospital herself? Adrenaline was already pumping through her, making her anxious. The Senshi of Love and Beauty felt she should be doing *something*, going *somewhere* to *someone*. Maybe her phone was still okay? She could try to get in touch with Ami, see if-

"Minako, you are needed."

Minako jumped in her chair, the presence of Setsuna by the table certainly not something she had expected. "S-Setsuna! This is-! Uh, we were just having lunch, that's all!" The blonde felt as though she had been caught with her pants down, though not literally thank goodness. The guilt welling up rapidly within her still made it seem like she was in an uncomfortable place not far from that scene however. "We just finished a shoot!"

"Um... Hi, I'm Souda Tamaki," Souda greeted, giving a tiny wave.

Time's Keeper ignored everything but the Sailor Senshi inside Minako, her ageless eyes staring. "You have to be somewhere."

Minako got over her shock fast. "Right! That... that shoot!" She turned to Souda. "This is Setsuna Meioh. I still work for her and her Timeless brand now and then." The blonde turned her attention back to the older woman, getting up from the table to talk to her a couple of steps aside. "What's going on?" she hissed under her breath.

"An old..." Setsuna glanced at Souda watching nearby for a second," ...acquaintance."

"Should I go to Ami? She sounded-"

"No, I have-no," the Outer Senshi said. "You are one of the few who are unknown to him, as I am. What we choose... I have somewhere I want to go, and somewhere I'm *needed*. You must decide for yourself who to go to. We cannot be everywhere. Today will be day no one will forget no matter what paths we take. Such is fate."

"Then there's only one choice," The Senshi of Love and Beauty declared. There was always only one choice for her. "I need to go to Usagi." *Duty*.

Setsuna bowed her head in acknowledgement. Her eyes, always somewhat haunted by what she knew, seemed more so when Minako looked into them now.


To be continued...

Author's ramblings:

I'm always tempted to kill characters... though the price is altering the world permanently.

Freeter = Someone who goes from part-time job to part-time job.