A.N.:Yes, I've finally updated. My apologies for taking so long. I just had some major writer's block, and it's taken me months to get over it. I couldn't seem to write an ending that didn't absolutely suck, and while I'm still not happy with this one, I don't think I care anymore.

Um, not that I'm trying to pimp my own stories, but I've been working on an original piece (under Venus Smurf1, NOT Venus Smurf) on fictionpress. Check it out if y'all get the time, because while it's fluff, it's much better than this one anyway.

Chapter Four: Jackie vs. Jet Li

She was watching him again. Those blue eyes were locked on him, on his face, on his body, and had been for several days. She'd been staring at him since the night of their almost-conversation on the balcony, and it was starting to unnerve him. He kept his face turned away, pretended not to notice, but it was impossible to really ignore a gaze that intense.

And it was equally impossible to ignore the identity of the woman to whom the gaze belonged.

Why was she staring at him? Malachite wasn't naïve enough to think it was out of something as simple as attraction. The woman was the heir to Venus, after all—even if she weren't this beautiful, she had wealth and power few could match, and she could have any man she wanted. Why would she choose someone so completely different from herself? And no matter how infamous the Venusians were for their lack of self-control—even assuming she did want him, which he wasn't—he didn't think she'd risk so much over a man she'd barely even knew.

For risk it would be. She was royalty; he was a glorified soldier from an enemy world. There could be no formal alliance between them—no marriage—and anything less would be an insult to her position. Even if they could overlook their ranks, what if the relationship ended badly? She was the High Queen's niece, as well as the future ruler of Venus, and the repercussions could be disastrous.

Now there's something to remember, he thought as he kept his face resolutely turned away from those searching blue eyes. The woman was Selenity's niece, which meant she was also a spy for the moon. And even if she hadn't been so closely tied to the Silver Queen, the woman was still a Venusian, which made her a spy anyway. All Venusians were. Even on Earth, they'd known that, and the princess would be even worse than the rest of her kind.

He couldn't trust her.

He didn't.

He wished she'd stop staring.

Malachite grimaced as he abruptly jerked awake, brushing sleep from his eyes and only then realizing that he'd slept in his clothes. True, he'd been out most of the night—the cops hadn't let any of them go until nearly dawn, and he'd been dead on his feet by the time he'd returned to his apartment—but he still should have changed. He might have slept better if he had.

Then again, he somehow doubted that his clothing had been the only thing disturbing his sleep. While he could never remember more than snatches of his dreams come morning, those dreams always left him unsettled, even irritated…

Maybe one day he'd know why that was.

He remembered part of this dream, at least. Only part, but it was more than he usually had. Mina had been in it, and while he would have thought that explained the irritation, he'd been more…disquieted by her presence than annoyed. Perhaps he simply didn't like the idea of having her haunt his sleep as she did his waking hours—he really would go insane if he had to deal with her so often—and perhaps it was more that the Mina tormenting his sleeping self hadn't been Mina at all.

He hadn't spent much time around Mina in the weeks since he'd moved in with her, but he already knew she was an uncomplicated girl, easy to understand. His roommate was innocent, a little flighty and obnoxious, perhaps, but still innocent. The Mina of the dream, though...

That Mina hadn't ever been innocent. Far from it—the Mina of his dreams had been watchful, even calculating, and certainly far too intense. She'd been…disturbing, if only because she'd been so different from his careless, ditzy roommate.

And she'd been even more disturbing because she wasn't as different as she should have been. More than once, last night, he'd caught a glimpse of the same calculation in his roommate that he'd seen in the dream girl. It didn't matter that the glimpses had been so fleeting, not when she'd become so different so quickly, not when the innocence had dropped from the real Mina's features like a mask removed.

It still never occurred to him to wonder if the innocence was only an act. After all, what reason would Mina have to pretend to be something she wasn't? The change in her might have been nothing more than the shock of all that had happened, or at least a sign that his Mina was a little more mature than he'd believed. And of course the Mina in his dreams was nothing more than that—a dream, the product of an overactive mind. None of it meant anything.


Malachite sighed, rubbed at tired eyes with an equally tired hand, told himself that he was obsessing over nothing. He slid his long legs over the side of the bed, pushed himself to his feet. He could hear movement in the rooms beyond his, and he thought Mina must finally be up...or back, he supposed, since he didn't know if or when she'd even come home.

He'd offered her a ride back to their apartment last night, but she'd chosen to slip off with one of her friends—the scary one with the black hair…Rita? Raina? Ah, Raye—instead. He hadn't asked where she was going or why, but since she hadn't returned before he'd finally gone to bed, he was…worried for her. He still didn't know if he liked her, but she was his housemate, and didn't that mean he was obligated to look after her?

No, it didn't. He wasn't her father or her boyfriend or, gods forbid, her babysitter…but she'd been through something horrible last night, and he'd be less than human if he didn't try to help her through it.

It wouldn't kill him to play nursemaid for a little while, would it?

He found her in the kitchen, her slender, pajama-clad body slumped over the table. Her head was pillowed in her arms, her golden hair shielding her face. A half-empty coffee mug sat on the table in front of her, but she seemed to be ignoring it for the moment.


She didn't jump at the suddenness of his voice. He'd noticed that she never seemed startled by anything, though he tended to move rather soundlessly for someone as big as he was, and anyone else would have been.

She was so oblivious

Mina didn't bother to lift her head. She stayed as she had been, and if he hadn't been watching her so carefully, he might almost have believed she wasn't breathing. "Morning," she mumbled.

Her voice was too soft, too emotionless, and it didn't seem right coming from someone as bubbly as Mina usually was. Her constant enthusiasm may have irritated him most of the time, but he found that he didn't like this sudden change, even if he understood it.

Malachite sighed, moved around the table to take the chair across from hers. "Are you all right?"

He cursed the question even as he made it, because of course he knew she couldn't be. She'd killed a man, and how could she not be traumatized, after that?

Still, the question had been deliberately made. He would never claim to be in touch with his own emotions, but he knew how unhealthy it would be for Mina not to acknowledge hers. Better that she talk about it now than hold it in, right?

And if his curiosity was satisfied in the process…well, that was just a bonus, really.

She didn't seem to have heard the question, or she was ignoring it. He repeated it anyway, his tone a little sterner this time.

It was enough to get a response.

She groaned.

All right, so it's not quite the response I was looking for.

He sighed. "Talk to me, Mina."

Another groan. Then a sigh, then a shrug. Her head came up, and she slowly pushed her hair out of her face. "Please tell me it was all a nightmare."

She looked tired. Tense, maybe even miserable. He almost wished he could lie to her. "No."

And just like that, her face closed up. Even the misery was gone, leaving nothing but that emotionless, hardened mask in its place. "Damn," she muttered. "Way to kill my last shred of hope, Mal."

He just looked at her. "Do you want to talk about it?"

He sounded like a shrink. A bad shrink. The ink blot and "How do you feel about that?" kind.

Gods, what his life had come to.

She only shook her head. "About as much as I want to strand myself on a desert island with only a volley ball for company." She grimaced, pushed herself into a sitting position, then leaned back in her chair. "I suppose you want to talk about it, though."

It wasn't a question, though her voice had been slightly bitter, and he only waited. His response would be so obvious that it just wasn't necessary.

She sighed again. "The girls and I used to take a lot of self-defense classes," she finally said. "As dangerous as this city can be…well, it was just common sense, really. We're nothing special, but what skills we do have came in handy last night, if only because those men weren't expecting anything from us." She looked up at him, and he thought he could see a spark of challenge in her eyes. "That's all there is to it."

One single, silver brow rose, but he didn't question her. "All right."

He'd decide, later, if he actually believed her.

"What did you tell him?"

Mina grimaced, refused to meet the eyes of her two companions, stared down at the contents of her cup instead. "That we're Jet Li wannabes. What else could I say?"

Raye sighed, ignoring a question they'd asked each other too often over the years. "Did he buy it?"

Mina only shrugged. Whether he had or not, she was simply grateful that the senshi were focusing on what Malachite had seen rather than on what she'd done. They weren't pretending that she hadn't killed that thief, but for her sake, they weren't making it their priority, either.

"Jet Li is hot," Lita suddenly observed, breaking the sudden silence. "Much better than Jackie Chan."

Not even Raye bothered to acknowledge the randomness of that, though she couldn't quite decide if the comment was simply Lita's way of relieving the tension in the room. Still, the priestess only rolled her eyes as Mina began nodding her head a little too enthusiastically in agreement. "You look like a bobble-head," Raye informed her blonde friend, voice positively acerbic. She tossed her black hair over her shoulder, abruptly choosing to go along with Lita's ploy, if only for a moment. "And I like Jackie Chan. He's got a better sense of humor."

Does a good sense of humor really matter to a man-hater? Mina grinned, genuinely amused, though of course she knew exactly what Lita and Raye were trying to do. "Lita's right, though," the blonde said, lips still curved upwards. "Jackie Chan may be funny, but he can't joke around all the time…and Jet Li doesn't have to talk to stay hot. He doesn't have to do anything but sit there and let me stare at him."

Raye groaned. "And what a perfect relationship that'll be." She shook her head at her friend. "You can't stare at each other all day, Mina. You'd get bored."

Mina's smile arched, because that was just too good an opening to pass up, no matter what had happened. "Who says that's all we'd be doing?"

Lita pretended to shudder. "Too much information, Meens."

Raye decided she'd had enough inanity for one day. She understood that her fellow senshi were simply distracting themselves, but even if they didn't talk of that human's death, they still had issues to resolve. "Can you two focus, just for a minute?" She waited until she had their attention again, though her glare was still a little fiercer than it probably needed to be. "Hasn't it occurred to you, Mina, that Malachite might not have bought your story?"

Something darkened in Mina's eyes at that, but the easy smile remained on her lips. "Why wouldn't he? He doesn't have any reason to question me." The smile widened into yet another grin, and the casual air with which she swirled her soda around in the cup did nothing to lessen the fire senshi's irritation. "You worry too much, Raye."

"And you don't worry enough."

Mina only continued smiling. Not true, she thought in spite of the smile. I think I worry enough for all of us.

"How is she?"

Lita only shrugged in response to Michelle's question, though any trace of her earlier lightheartedness had vanished long ago. Her expression had become unusually grave during the last few hours spent with Mina, though of course Mina herself didn't seem to have noticed. Their blonde leader was perched on Raye's bed, talking animatedly with Serena, her words punctuated by the occasional burst of laughter, her grin wide and untroubled. She looked as though she hadn't a care in the world.

The senshi weren't fooled. They'd known Mina far too long and too well not to see the shadow behind that smile…though perhaps they weren't as perceptive as they'd always thought, because it was only now, as they watched her so closely, that they realized the shadow wasn't a new thing, or even just the product of last night's death. Mina had been…off for days, maybe even weeks, though even they couldn't think of a reason for it.

Lita sighed and glanced again at the aqua-haired senshi beside her. "She's hiding something from us again," she muttered, the irritation in her voice not quite strong enough to disguise the concern. "Has Artemis said anything to you?"

The question was probably a futile one, because as enigmatic as Mina often was, Artemis was almost worse. He was too protective of the blonde, and asking him to share her secrets was as pointless as…well, as asking Serena to stay away from the cookies. It simply wasn't even a possibility. Still…

Michelle only shook her head. "No, but then I haven't really spoken to him in…too long, I suppose. I've been busy, and without an enemy to bring us together…" She trailed off, tore her eyes away from Mina just long enough to look at Lita. "Why? Has he told you anything?"

Does he ever? "No. When he does come by, it's only for a moment or two, and he never seems willing to talk anyway. Luna is getting worried."

They all were. It just wasn't like the cat to disappear for so long, though perhaps this would explain that shadow in Mina's eyes. Maybe she was just missing Artemis.

Then again, that only raised more questions, didn't it? Mina and Artemis hadn't really been apart since she was twelve, so what could possibly make him leave her now?

The taller senshi's brow suddenly creased. "Do you think they're fighting?"

"Luna and Artemis?"

Lita shook her head. "Artemis and Mina."

Genuine surprise crossed Michelle's face, because while Mina and Artemis argued constantly, they never really fought. "Why would you think they were?"

Because those two have always been the senshi equivalent of peanut butter and jelly, but I haven't seen them together in weeks. Because even when he is around, Artemis only talks to Luna, and he's always gone by the time Mina arrives. Because he's been every bit as distracted as Mina, and I can't think of anything else that would make them this unhappy.

Lita didn't try to voice her thoughts. She only bit her lip, turned worried eyes back to their blonde leader. "When was the last time you saw them together?"

"When were you going to tell us that Artemis had left you?"

Mina sighed, hearing the guilt behind Lita's words, hearing the concern and seeing both mirrored on the faces of all the senshi, but she only shrugged. "When you noticed," she replied, voice soft as she threw herself onto Raye's bed.

She hadn't meant for it to be an accusation, but of course they flinched. It'd been weeks since any of them had seen Artemis at Mina's side, and no matter how busy they'd been with their own lives, they shouldn't have needed a man's death to realize something was wrong.

Mina sighed yet again, finally glanced up and met their eyes. "There wasn't any reason to tell you," she muttered almost defensively. "He's not hurt or in any danger. He's just…not here."

None of them bothered to ask how she knew Artemis was safe—Pluto was less than a phone call away, after all. Still, one of Raye's perfectly manicured eyebrows shot up into her hairline. "Where is he, then?"

Mina shrugged, briefly considered her words before trying to answer. "I don't know," she finally admitted. "Setsuna won't tell me what he's doing or when he'll come back—only that he will."

Lita mulled that over, then grimaced. "I don't get it," she muttered. "You say it's been weeks since Artemis left you, but I saw him with Luna just the other day."

Their eyes automatically turned to Serena's guardian, but the cat only shook her dark head. "I've seen him, yes," she told them in her quiet, crisp accent, "but he never mentioned any of this." She paused, worry clear twisting her features in a way that should have been impossible for a feline. "I knew something was bothering him," she added softly, "but I never thought…"

None of them liked what they could read in Mina's expression. Their leader had fallen silent again at Luna's admission, but now she bit her lip and looked down at her hands. "We fought the day he left," she muttered, her voice so distant that she might have been speaking to herself. "I don't even know why he was angry, but he ran out on me and didn't come back. I keep thinking that if I can just find him, I'll get him to talk to me, tell me why he left. Tell me what he's dealing with." Her voice dropped again. "I've looked everywhere, but…"

She didn't need to finish. A normal cat would have been hard enough to find in this city, but a cat with the intelligence of a human and the skill to hide himself from even the senshi? Impossible. Not even Mina, who knew him better than anyone, stood a chance of locating him if he didn't want to be found.

"Do you think it could be an enemy?"

Mina didn't look surprised by Michelle's question, but she also didn't hesitate. "No. Raye hasn't sensed anything, but even if this was some sort of attack, why wouldn't Artemis tell us? It's not like he would fight alone, or that he even could."

The blonde's expression suddenly tightened, her lips curving upward in a smile that was just a little too bitter. "For his sake," she muttered, "I almost hope he is off fighting. At this point, it's the only excuse he can give that will keep me from skinning him alive."

The senshi didn't have an answer for that.

Hundreds of miles from the place where eight young women discussed their missing guardian, a small, private plane was flying over the ocean towards Japan. The craft was completely white, absurdly expensive, and, much like its occupants, just this side of flashy.

In one corner of the plane, comfortably ensconced in the airline's equivalent of a Laz-E-Boy, a slender blonde woman was laughing almost hysterically at something her companion had said. The woman's voice was slightly shrill as she reached out and lightly touched the man's arm, but if he noticed, he somehow managed not to react. He simply smirked back at her, leaned over and continued to whisper in her ear.

And across the plane's cabin, silently watching as his wife flirted rather shamelessly with another man, Samuel Loveless couldn't quite keep the irritation from his expression. She's being too obvious. At this rate, it's only a matter of time before she embarrasses me in public…and adultery is bad for business. He frowned, though he never seriously thought of interfering. He hardly cared if his wife had an affair, after all—they'd been separated for too many years for that—but he wished she'd be more…discrete, if only for the sake of the company.

And if he wanted to be honest with himself, Sam could admit that his wife's lover unnerved him. The man was too cold, too calculating, and his smile often made Sam think of sociopaths and serial killers. He doesn't have a conscience, Sam thought, not for the first time. Rachel is playing with fire, and we're both going to be burned.

Not that Sam had ever considered firing the man. Sean was undoubtedly the best assistant Sam had ever had, and affair or not, he was too great an asset. And he knows it, damn him.

Sam glanced out the window at the clouds, trying not to brood and looking back only when his wife called his name. "Yes?"

They were smiling at him—smirking at him—and Sam didn't like the amusement glittering in Sean's eyes. "I asked," Rachel began again, rolling her eyes a little too dramatically, "if Mina will be meeting us at the airport."

He knew Rachel wasn't the one asking. Most of the time, she barely remembered she even had a daughter, and her sudden urge to visit could only have come from Sean. Why would Sean be interested in Mina? She hasn't had anything to do with us for years, and she's not in a position to grant any favors. Whatever game Sean is playing, surely he knows that Rachel is the better pawn. "Probably not. I didn't tell her we were coming."

Rachel blinked at him, too surprised that he hadn't done as she asked to be angry. "What?"

Sam lifted one shoulder in a deliberate shrug, but before he could say anything more, Sean placed a needlessly soothing hand on Rachel's arm. "It doesn't matter, Mrs. Loveless," he told her, his smile hard as diamonds and directed more towards Sam than the oblivious Rachel. "I'll meet her soon enough anyway."

Sam didn't bother to address that. He simply looked back out the window, suppressed a tiny shudder and tried not to think of either his wife's lover or the strange daughter he hadn't seen in years.

Venus Smurf's Thoughts of the Day: Christmas is coming up, and since I probably won't post anything until next year (hoping I'll do better than that, but this is me we're talking about)...well, Merry Christmas, everyone.

Mail your packages early so the post office can lose them in time for Christmas.

Oh look, yet another Christmas TV special! How touching to have the meaning of Christmas brought to us by cola, fast food, and beer... Who'd have ever guessed that product consumption, popular entertainment, and spirituality would mix so harmoniously?

The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.

In the old days, it was not called the Holiday Season; the Christians called it 'Christmas' and went to church; the Jews called it 'Hanukkah' and went to synagogue; the atheists went to parties and drank. People passing each other on the street would say 'Merry Christmas!' or 'Happy Hanukkah!' or (to the atheists) 'Look out for the wall!'

Barbie's Christmas Letter:

c/o Mattel, Inc.
El Segundo, CA 90245

Santa Claus
North Pole, North Pole
December 23, 1996

Dear Santa:

Listen you ugly little troll, I've been helping you out every year, playing at being the perfect Christmas present, wearing skimpy bathing suits in frigid weather, and drowning in fake tea from one too many tea parties, and I hate to break it to ya, Santa, but IT'S DEFINITELY PAYBACK TIME! There had better be some changes around here this Christmas, or I'm gonna call for a nationwide meltdown (and trust me, you won't wanna be around to smell it). So, here's my holiday wish list for 1998:

1. A nice, comfy pair of sweat pants and a frumpy, oversized sweatshirt. I'm sick of looking like a hooker. And how much smaller are these bathing suits gonna get? Do you have any idea what it feels like to have nylon and velcro crawling up your butt?

2. Real underwear that can be pulled on and off. Preferably white. What bonehead at Mattel decided to cheap out and MOLD imitation underwear to my skin?!? It looks like cellulite!

3. A REAL man...maybe GI Joe. Hell, I'd take Tickle-Me Elmo over that wimped-out excuse for a boytoy Ken. And what's with that earring, anyway? If I'm gonna have to suffer with him, at least make him (and me) anatomically correct.

4. Arms that actually bend so I can push the aforementioned Ken-wimp away once he is anatomically correct.

5. Breast reduction surgery. I don't care whose arm you have to twist, get it done.

6. A jogbra. To wear until I get the surgery.

7. A new career. Pet doctor and school teacher just don't cut it. How about a systems analyst? Or better yet, a public relations senior account exec!

8. A new, more 90s persona. Maybe "PMS Barbie," complete with a miniature container of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream and a bag of chips; "Animal Rights Barbie," with my very own paint gun, outfitted with a fake fur coat, bottle of spray on blood and handcuffs; or "Stop Smoking Barbie," sporting a removable Nicotrol patch and equipped with several packs of gum.

9. No more McDonald's endorsements. The grease is wrecking my vinyl.

10. Mattel stock options. It's been 37 years--I think I deserve it.

Ok, Santa, that's it. Considering my valuable contribution to society, I don't think these requests are out of line. If you disagree, then you can find yourself a new [censored for next Christmas.

It's that simple.

Yours truly,