Chapter 12: "The Aftermath"

by Bill K.

With speed born of desperation, Sailor Moon barreled for the office of Hoichi Otonashi, three pistol shots echoing in her brain. She reached the door and, in her haste, stopped as the wings of her costume caught in the frame of the door. Frantically she tugged and pulled at the wings until, finally with the aid of Mercury and Venus, she was able to bend the wings and free herself from the door frame. Sailor Moon plunged into the room, expecting the worst and praying for the best.

"Mars!" she gasped in tears.

"I'm all right," Mars said. She was holding a flaming arrow, her bow drawn and ready to fire directly at Noboru Kawakami. The man stood, glaring impotently at the flaming arrow, his hands up in the air. "The gun went off when my arrow knocked it out of his hand. It put three bullets in the wall over there."

"OH THANK GOODNESS!" Sailor Moon wailed, diving at Mars and hugging her as she cried. "When I heard those shots, I thought . . .!"

"Jumped to another conclusion, huh?" Mars chided her with a gentle smile.

"I think this should eliminate most of the problem," Shinjiro Hino said. He moved to Kawakami and cautiously removed the Universe Phone from the man's right ear. "This man isn't responsible. He was being influenced by this device."

"Yeah, we heard," Venus cut him off. "I'll call the Superintendent and tell her the situation is secured."

As she left the room, Mercury moved to the still huddled form of Hoichi Otonashi. Jupiter was watching Kawakami to make sure he didn't try anything, while Mars was trying to extricate herself from Sailor Moon's death grip. Mercury knelt down and put her hands on the man's shoulders, guiding him up from the floor.

"That's a bad blow to your face, Sir," Mercury told him. She could see he was also in shock and wading in some churning emotional waters. "Do you have any other injuries?" Otonashi didn't respond. "Some paramedics will be here to transport you to a hospital. I recommend you go with them. Can you get to your feet?"

With Mercury's gentle prodding, Otonashi got to his feet. The senshi began to guide him out of the room. But when he caught sight of Hino, Otonashi stopped and became more animated.

"It'll come out now," Otonashi said to Hino. "When it does - - that'll be it! The end of everything! Disgrace - - maybe prison! The company will be gone! Only you can help me now, Hino-San!"

Hino looked at him soberly. "Mind control? Tampering with people's thoughts just to sell product? I'm sorry, Otonashi-San. You crossed a line. There's nothing I can do for you now."

Otonashi looked down, defeated. He allowed Mercury to lead him out. Hino sank into a chair and allowed the exhaustion he felt to sweep over him. When he glanced up, he found Sailor Mars looking at him. She was reading him - - he could tell. He'd seen the look before, both from Sailor Mars and when she was in her Rei identity. Cynical as ever about him, she hadn't thought he'd meant what he'd said to Otonashi. Now she was finding out differently.

Hino looked deeper into the eyes of his estranged daughter. Was he actually seeing a hint of respect - - or was he just imagining it? Then the police team entered and the moment was lost.

"Look at this," Daichi Aino said. He was reading the morning paper with his breakfast, just has he had for over twenty years. His wife paused from washing her plate, as she always finished before him because she didn't allow herself to be "distracted" while she ate, and looked over her husband's shoulder.

"Scandal at Takamoto Telecom," she read. "Looks like it all came out."

"Subliminal messaging," Daichi repeated. "Thought control?"

"You see," Kimiko told him. "You should have said something."

"I know," sighed Daichi, "but it's easier to have courage after the battle is over."

"What do you think this will mean for the company?"

"It can't be good," Daichi scowled. "Between the negative publicity and the liability suits, Takamoto is probably not long for the world. Whoever they get to replace Otonashi-Sama may just throw up his hands and liquidate." Daichi folded his paper neatly. "Better dust off the old resume. No telling how much longer I'll have a job."

"Then why not take Minako's offer?" Kimiko asked.

"She won't want her old man looking over her shoulder," Daichi sighed.

"Then don't look over her shoulder," Kimiko replied with that incisive way of hers. "Just manage her business affairs like you're supposed to."

"Then how will I supply you with insider gossip about the entertainment industry?" Daichi needled his wife.

"I DO NOT GOSSIP," huffed Kimiko. "If you're smart, Daichi, you'll take this offer while it's there. There's no telling how this entire situation will settle itself out, but with the chief of the company under arrest for inciting mayhem, it can't be good. It could be the best decision you've ever made."

"Couldn't be," Daichi responded with a tired smirk. "Marrying you already claimed that title." He leaned over and kissed his wife. She flushed just like she did whenever she was flustered.

"Oh, honestly!" she clucked. "Go on, you'll be late for work. That's assuming you still have a job." Daichi complied, lifting himself out of his chair and heading for his briefcase. "And call Minako about that offer!"

"I'll have to wait until the sun is warm in the sky," Daichi called back as he headed for the door. "You know how our daughter is."

After the door closed behind him, Kimiko Aino leaned back in her chair. A misty, sentimental smile bloomed on her still pretty face.

"That man," she whispered to herself in good humor.

"She's in here," Rei heard Akira-Sensei say. Growing flustered, Rei searched for a moment for a way to hide what she was doing. Then she realized it was too big to hide. Sighing with frustration, she turned to find Usagi in the room.

"Hi, Rei, I," the woman began. Then she stopped and stared. "Is that a-a computer?"

"Ami gave me her old one," Rei admitted reluctantly. "Actually it comes in handy every so often. She found a program on the internet that can help with song composition . . ."

"You're on the 'net?" Usagi gaped.

"Why do you think I had to put the phone line in, Pea Brain?" grumbled the priest.

"What are you looking at? Pictures of guys?" Usagi asked, peering over Rei's shoulder.

"BACK OFF!" Rei howled. But it was too late.

"The news?" Usagi exclaimed, her disappointment deep. "Come on, Rei-Chan!"

"Some of us actually have minds to feed," Rei shot back. "Why are you here?"

"I wanted to see how you were doing," Usagi told her. She brought up a pastry box she was holding in her hand. "I brought more cookies."

"Trying to make me as fat as you?

"REI HINO . . . !"

"Sit down," chuckled Rei. "I'll get us some tea."

The priest came back and found Usagi reading the story she had brought up from the web.

"Reading about your father," Usagi smiled. "I knew you couldn't hate him THAT much."

"Think again," scowled Rei. "I was just reading up on this legislation he's pushing through the Diet, outlawing subliminal messaging in all communications devices. I can't believe it wasn't already illegal."

"I know. And the guy who actually made the program got away. Luna says Artemis is mad as a hornet about that," Usagi said, nibbling on a cookie. "Say, did you hear about Dietman Nogura? They say he was meeting with the man from Takamoto Telecom. They say he was trying to cover up what they were doing! I wonder how the news media found out."

"It wouldn't surprise me if my father leaked it," Rei replied cynically, glancing at the story over Usagi's shoulder. "His party is the one who'll benefit from this if the Democrats get caught up in the Takamoto scandal."

"Rei, you're so cynical about him. Can't you ever give him a break?"

"Oh, eat your cookie," Rei grumbled.

Ami arrived on the shore of Lake Biwa and found her father sitting before an easel, working on another landscape portrait of the lake itself. It was as she expected. Knowing her father, it wouldn't do her any good to try to talk to him until he was finished, so she softly came up near him and took a seat in the sand near him to watch.

As she watched her father, Ami focused on the painting itself. It was a picture of the lake and at first glance accurate but hardly remarkable. Then, as she knew to do from studying his work, Ami looked deeper. And she saw what she always saw when she looked critically at her father's work: how Koji Mizuno had managed to instill his love of this area into the painting itself. Rather than having photographic accuracy, his use of color and texture had added a level of drama and pageantry to what the eye saw. It was like a poet making a tree something more than a tree just from the descriptions the poet chose. Her father had a way of looking at life that her mother, and a lot of people, just didn't possess.

About twelve minutes later, he leaned back and looked the painting over. Ami watched a smile of intense satisfaction grow on his face. Knowing his moods, she smiled as well.

"Got this one right?" she asked. Her father looked over at her. By his startled expression, she knew it was the first inkling he had that she was sitting there.

"Ami!" he gasped. "Have you been there long? Did I forget about an appointment we'd arranged?"

"No, I just wanted to drop by and visit," Ami said, climbing back up to her feet. She walked over and kissed him on the cheek. "I've only been here about ten minutes."

"I'm sorry," he alibied. "I was involved in work."

"I could tell by the pile of dishes in your sink," Ami replied fondly. "Have you eaten?"

"Yes," Koji answered. Then he stopped and frowned. "Although, come to think of it, I'm not sure if it was today or yesterday." He mentally took stock. "Maybe it was yesterday. I seem pretty hungry, now that I think of it."

"Come on, then," Ami offered her hand. "I'll fix up something."

"All right," Koji nodded and gathered up his paints and tools. The pair headed for his cabin. "Do you like the painting?"

"I like all your work, Dad," Ami told him. "If you're pleased with this one, it must be special."

In the cabin, over a meal of rice and noodles because it was the only thing Koji had that wasn't past its use date, the two talked about life and recent events. It wasn't long until Ami's dispute with her mother came up.

"Yeah, that's Kanami," Koji sighed, massaging his eyes.

"Dad, why does she have to be like that?" Ami asked plaintively.

"Your mom is a wonderful woman," Koji explained. "Brilliant, beautiful, caring, and right most of the time. But one thing she doesn't seem to grasp is that she's not right ALL of the time. And if she decides something should be a certain way, you can't knock it out of her head with a mallet."

"You don't think she's right?" Ami asked. "You don't think I'm running away?"

"You seem to think you're running away," he replied. Ami seemed surprised. "You wouldn't have brought it up otherwise." Koji shifted on his seat. "Maybe you are running away. And maybe, in some cases, running away is a good thing. In your mom's world, you stand for what's right, you do your best and you triumph through force of will and hard work. That's not always the real world, Ami. Sometimes you come up against something that you can't handle and the best course of action is to back away until you can come up with a way to triumph, just to avoid being consumed by what you're up against."

"But what about the others who might be sacrificed in the process?" Ami asked.

"That's a judgment call, Ami. You have to survey the situation and make the best decision you can. In your case, what's better: Go to a situation where the need for your abilities isn't as critical, but where you're still aiding those who need you - - or stay where the need for you is more critical, but where the environment makes you so unhappy that your skills and desire erode, possibly to a point where you're no longer helping?"

"But if she's right - - if I'm not doing as much as I could do?"

"Ami, you help the sick," Koji smiled, "and you're Sailor Mercury besides. Isn't that as much as one person should be expected to do? Remember, you have to be responsible to yourself, too. Are you seeing anyone? Or do you just sit at home and read - - maybe write poetry that nobody else sees?"

Ami felt her cheeks flush.

"It's OK to take a little time away from 'using your skills for the betterment of the species' to cater to your needs," Koji reminded her. "Have some fun. See things. Meet people. Find yourself a good man and have kids." He leaned in. "You know, when your mom was your age, you were already seven years old. She juggled you, a career AND a worthless husband who only sat around and dreamed all day."

"Not very well, as I recall," Ami said nostalgically.

"Because she was trying too hard to do too much. Something you have the common sense to avoid. I think she realizes that now - - although I think you'd have to torture her to get her to admit it. Your mom is a little myopic in that she can't understand why everyone can't be as driven to succeed as she is. My opinion is that you've made a wonderful success out of your life. And if some day you feel that you can or should do more, the option is there. After all, nobody knows where this world is going to be in ten years. But if you never do anything more than be a general practitioner for the rest of your life, you've already made me proud of you."

"Thank you, Dad," Ami smiled gratefully.

Michiru Kaioh was on the sofa in her living room, nestled into her favorite spot in the whole world, namely Haruka's left shoulder. Whatever was wrong with the world, right now she didn't care.

Haruka had gotten home from Belgium late in the evening and the mileage was etched on her face. Michiru was going to let the incident with Sakiko Yakino go until Haruka had gotten some sleep. But the link they had was too perceptive and Haruka noticed immediately that something had happened. So, snuggled together on the sofa for both security and comfort, Michiru told her mate everything that had happened.

"So where's this girl now?" Haruka asked. Michiru could detect the undercurrent of unease in her mate's voice.

"In police custody," Michiru reported, "at least until the hearing. But she's been classified as a 'Universe Phone Victim', so I think they'll probably let her go."

"Maybe if you said something, they'd hang on to her," Haruka suggested.

"She wasn't responsible, Haruka," Michiru replied. "When you read up on this whole Universe Phone fiasco, you'll realize that."

"Michiru, she could have killed you," Haruka said.

"Haruka, that four-wheeled monstrosity you were driving in Belgium could have killed you," Michiru argued. "But it's no more responsible for its actions than she was for hers."

"It's not the same," rumbled Haruka.

"Maybe not," Michiru said, "but it's similar." She twisted up and looked at her love. "Haruka, I know you're just trying to protect me. I do appreciate it. But persecuting that girl won't accomplish anything except further ruin a life that's already been damaged because she trusted a device to work as advertised." Michiru smirked devilishly. "Besides, it's not her fault that you're irresistible."

"That's true," Haruka nodded.

"Oh, I really had to twist your arm to get you to agree to that one, huh?" Michiru raised an eyebrow. Haruka hugged her tighter.

"I'm just glad Setsuna was there," Haruka murmured. "We really need to do something for her to say 'thank you'."

"Agreed," Michiru responded. "But tomorrow. Tonight we need to do something for each other." She twisted back around and looked up at Haruka. "I've missed you."

"Same here," Haruka agreed.

She scooped Michiru up into her arms. Michiru cuddled close, her head draped on Haruka's shoulder. And together they headed for - - more intimate places.

In the days since the Universe Phone Fiasco came to a head, Minako had been busy. Between extended hours filming on her movie, two personal appearances to promote her television show and meeting with her record producer to plan her next album, there had been little time to be home. And when she did manage to make it home, Toshihiro was usually at the studio working on his show.

It was another one of those quiet, lonely nights that found Artemis walking into the living room. There Toshihiro was sitting on the sofa, absently munching on a snack food and watching the television. And it struck the little white cat that Toshihiro seemed to be such a solitary and forlorn character. Silently he padded up and leaped up onto the back of the sofa. Toshihiro barely acknowledged him.

"You and Minako still on the outs?" he asked.

"Who knows," Toshihiro mumbled. "She hasn't been here enough to find out." He sighed. "Wouldn't surprise me, though. I wish I hadn't gotten jealous. But it's so hard seeing her with another man, even when it's only a part in a movie. And Hitaro Tsuko being the other man is even worse."

"She's not playing around on you," Artemis assured her.

"I know."

"Maybe you should tell her that."

"I'm a director. Pictures are my strength, not words. Especially with her. When she glares at me and I know I've made her mad, or worse, hurt her, it's like I freeze up. I'm so scared of losing her."

"Toshihiro, I've been with Minako a long time, and I've got the bruises to prove it," Artemis began. "Minako may not like it when you unjustly accuse her of infidelity, but she does understand the emotion. Deep down, it's kind of a weird boost to her ego to think that she's got two men interested in her, even if it's just in your mind. But what she can't take is you pulling away from her. She's lost friends before - - people she thought were friends - - because they couldn't accept how take charge she is or how pretty she is or how driven, and withdrew. She's a wild ride, but she needs someone who's willing to share the ride, ups and downs. That's what's important to her." Artemis turned away because emotion was welling up in him. "I'd really like you two to patch this up. You're actually pretty good for her. I've never seen her this happy, and you're a big part of that. But you can't just sit here and hope everything goes back to being what it was."

Toshihiro nodded silently.

"If you can't work up the courage to apologize," Artemis suggested, "get her a present. Something nice, something romantic, something that says 'I'm sorry' if you can't put it in words. And make time to spend time with her. I guarantee you she wants to make this work. But you've got to meet her half way."

"You're right," Toshihiro nodded. He got up off the couch, bag of snacks still in his hand. "Thanks, Artemis. You're pretty smart about things like this. I'll go do it - - right now."

Heading for the door, Toshihiro opened it, then jumped back with a start. Minako was standing there, just about to insert her key. The couple stared at each other for a few seconds, not knowing how to proceed.

"Um," Toshihiro began nervously, then thrust the bag of snacks into Minako's hands. "Here. F-For you. I-I'm sorry, Minako, about everything. Please forgive me."

Incredulously Minako looked down at the half-consumed bag of snacks. Then a silly grin grew on her face and she gazed back at Toshihiro.

"Gee, you sure know the way to a girl's heart," Minako smirked. "What the Hell. The ring's already paid for. Come here, sexy."

The two kissed warmly, then hugged each other.

"Mmm, barbecue," quipped Minako as she licked her lips. "I hope you left me some."

Artemis watched everything with some confusion. "Or," he mumbled to himself, turning away, "you could always do that."

In the office of the President and CEO of Horizon Pictures, the studio where Minako was making her film, a man stood next to the President's desk. On the desk were written reports and photographs. The man sitting at the desk was examining them.

"All scenes with Minako Aino and Hitaro Tsuko have wrapped," the man standing reported. "No evidence of any relationship between the principals. Relations were strained between Aino and her husband, but recent evidence shows that those problems have been smoothed over."

"Well," Kaitou Ace, the President and CEO of Horizon Pictures, said to the picture of Minako more than to anyone else, "you seem to have matured some, Minako. Perhaps you really mean to make your proclamation come true." He turned to the man standing next to him. "Good work. You may go."

The man bowed and left. Ace continued to stare at the picture of Minako kissing Hitaro Tsuko.

"Setting you up in a steamy romantic picture with Hitaro Tsuko didn't tempt you. I'd say a stronger test is in order, just to see if your vision of the future is the accurate one, or if mine is."