Chapter 12: "Three Lemons"
A Sailor Moon fanfic

By Bill K.

Toshihiro entered the studio knowing what would be the focus of everybody's attention that morning - - and it wouldn't be the show. The fact that it was the last day of production for the season and they were still sweating renewal had the cast and crew distracted enough. Then there was the breaking news from overnight. Immediately his cinematographer hurried over.

"Manabe, you hear?" Hitaro Kobe asked breathlessly. Several of the crew stole glances at them to gauge Toshihiro's mood.

"About Saijou Takeda being arrested? Yes, I heard," Toshihiro replied calmly. He almost seemed disappointed. "Poor Mina's going to be devastated by this."

"Maybe you should go over and 'comfort' her," his friend suggested, "you know?"

"I don't think that would be a good idea," the shy director grimaced.

"Why not? Takeda's out of the way now."

"Mina made her choice. Me trying to get back into her life would be a complication neither of us would need right now."

"Manabe, you're still hung up on her. Go for it. Think about yourself for a change."

"Suppose we did get back together?" Toshihiro reasoned. "What kind of life would it be, wondering whether Takeda-San might swoop in at any moment and steal her away from me again?" He shook his head. "No, it's better this way."

"You're just scared you'll get hurt again," his friend said.

"Maybe," Toshihiro frowned. "But you don't touch a hot stove a second time, either. Sometimes being scared is a good thing."

Cutting off further discussion, Toshihiro got to his feet and raised his clipboard above his head. Eventually the crew realized he wanted their attention and quieted.

"All right, I know everyone is distracted by - - outside matters," Toshihiro told them. "Let's put that aside and get this show in the can like the professionals I know you are." He paused for a moment to let an emotion pass. "There's still no word on the renewal, so let's give this episode everything we've got, just in case it's our send-off. And if this proves to be our last show together, I want to tell you that I've been honored to work with all of you, and that I hope I'll have the chance to work with all of you again some time in the future."

The crew burst out in applause. Toshihiro shyly averted his gaze.

"Arrested?" Minako whispered in shock. And yet, at the same time part of her brain was asking her why she was even surprised.

"I figured you would want to be with him, given your," Kida began as diplomatically as possible, "relationship with him. We'll suspend work on this episode . . ."

Minako turned and sprinted toward the door at full speed.

". . . so you can," Kida sighed, "sort this out." Pulling out his cell phone, Kida called the studio car pool to get Minako some transportation. As he did, his temple began to throb. This on top of Minako's earlier absence was not going to help the show's budget one bit.

Bursting out of the elevator, Minako only then realized that she didn't have any transportation handy.

"Hang it, I'll take a bus!" she thought, turning for the ramp to the street level. "I'll run if I have to! Why this? Why now? Oh, the gods must hate me!"

Just then, her limousine pulled up and the driver she'd promised a picture to earlier peeked out the window. Before he could speak, Minako was in the back seat.

"Where to, Aino-San?" he asked.

"Central Police Headquarters, Juuban Division!" she blurted out.

As the car headed for the ramp to street level, Minako went fishing through her purse to get her black short-hair wig and sunglasses. As she worked, her cell phone went off.

"Hello?" Minako queried. "Yeah, I just heard, Makoto. I'm on the way to the station now." She paused to listen. "Tell Ami and Rei that I'll call them when I find out anything. And let Usagi know, assuming she's up." Minako listened to Makoto's response. "No. I'll let you know. But if they don't let me put bail on my credit card, you may have to run to the bank for me."

Minako closed her cell phone. She caught her expression in the rear view mirror of the limousine. The eyes that looked back were nervous and fearful.

"It's just a bump in the road, Minako," she whispered to herself. "Don't assume the worst until you actually see it." But the words didn't assuage her fears. She knew how much Ace despised cages. Minako began pinning her blonde hair up so she could don the black wig. "Ace, you're going to owe me a diamond ring for this one."

Superintendent Natsuna Sakurada looked up when she heard insistent rapping at her office door. Before she could get up to open the door, Minako burst in wearing her black wig disguise.

"Superintendent?" Minako asked. It was almost like a demand.

"I was expecting you sooner," Sakurada said with little levity. "You must not listen to the morning news."

"Why did you arrest him?" Minako gasped.

"Because he's Kaitou Ace," Sakurada replied, somewhat incredulously. "You said so yourself, V-Chan."

"And you believed me?"

"V-Chan," Sakurada said sternly.

"I told you that almost two months ago!" Minako cried. "And NOW you're arresting him?"

"It takes time to get enough evidence against a slick operator like Kaitou Ace, particularly one with the connections he's developed over the last few years," explained Sakurada. "Recently we got a break. We picked up a stolen goods fence. He's a pretty high-ticket operator and in exchange for - - certain considerations - - he gave us information on Kaitou Ace's last burglary. He fenced the merchandise for Takeda-San. They were some very expensive gold pieces and Krugerrands stolen from a leading investment banker and Takeda turned a handsome profit from them. We believe that was the seed money he used seven years ago to build his current fortune."

Minako waved off the rest of the story. "Why now?" she begged.

Sakurada exhaled. "Because the statute of limitations expires on this case in two weeks, V-Chan. Because we finally have enough evidence to make something stick against Takeda, thanks in part to your identification of him." The police woman's expression grew sympathetic. "And because my job is to enforce the law, V-Chan, no matter how it might adversely affect the personal life of someone who I do truly respect and care for. And I thought it was your job, too."

Minako turned away, her arms folded across her chest. She wanted to say and do so many things right now, but she knew all of them would be hopeless, futile gestures. She thought of Rei, because Rei would say that it was Ace's karma finally catching up with him. And it was finally catching up with her, too. But all of that was secondary right now to the agonizing thought of not feeling his hand caressing her stomach on a cool night in a soft bed.

"How much time is he looking at?" Minako croaked out.

"That's for a court to decide," Sakurada told her. "V-Chan, I'm sorry I have to put you through this."

"S'OK," Minako mumbled. "You were just doing what you're supposed to. I'm the one who was just being my old delusional self again." Timidly she turned to the police superintendent. "Can I visit him?"

The pair headed down to central holding. Ace was being held there until his preliminary hearing, after which he would be remanded over to the Tokyo City Jail if the judge ordered and if he didn't post bail, assuming someone with the legend of Kaitou Ace even got bail. Minako barely noticed the surroundings, barely noticed the whistles and leers from some of the prisoners. She was too numb. She needed to hear Ace tell her that everything was going to be all right, that this wasn't one more low blow he was about to give her. She needed to hear him tell her that she hadn't been a fool for believing in him - - even if it was another of his beautiful lies.

"Prisoner," Sakurada said, standing at the face of his cell, "stand at attention." Minako looked in and saw Ace sitting on the bunk at the far wall, curled up in the corner of the cell. He didn't move. He didn't acknowledge them. "Prisoner!"

"Give me your pen," Minako asked Sakurada, her years of experience shouting warnings to her. Sakurada complied. Minako tossed the pen at Ace. It went through him, actually a holographic projection of him, and bounced off the far wall.

"Desk, this is Sakurada in Central Holding!" Sakurada bellowed into her cell phone. "Escaped prisoner possibly loose in the building! I want all security teams mobilized! Sweep the entire building and grounds for Saijou Takeda! APB to all mobile units!"

And as Sakurada barked orders, Minako rested her head against the bars and closed her eyes. "Here we go again," she whispered.

When he heard the door open, Artemis turned to it anxiously. He prayed it was Minako. He'd been calling her all morning, ever since he heard the news that Saijou Takeda had been arrested. Finally Ami had called, telling him Minako was en route to the police station. Her senshi tracker confirmed it. But that had been hours ago. For a fleeting moment, the cat had worried that the police would arrest her as an accessory, but he dismissed the notion.

He also worried about Minako's state of mind. After having finally given in to her desire for Ace, to possibly lose him now was a blow that Artemis was concerned she might have difficulty recovering from. Minako was the most never-say-die person he'd ever known, but even that personality type had its limits. Artemis watched the door open. Minako entered. She spotted him.

"Hi, Fuzzy," she said. She sounded depressed again. "Want to hear a funny joke?"

"I heard about Ace," Artemis told her. "What did he have to say for himself?"

"That's the punch line," Minako replied. It almost sounded like a sob. "He wasn't there. He broke out of holding." She sighed. "He's probably gone with the wind now. And I'm Scarlett O'Hara." She thought a moment. "That makes Toshi Ashley Wilkes. I wouldn't wish that on anybody."

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised," Artemis sympathized.

"And the ironic thing," Minako continued, tossing her coat haphazardly onto the sofa, "aside from the fact that I'M the one who put the cops on Ace's tail in the first place, was that they busted him for something he did seven years ago. He wasn't lying when he said he'd cleaned up his act."

"If you call that 'clean'," muttered Artemis. "So how are you doing?"

"I feel like I've been punched in the gut," Minako shrugged. "But like you said, Fuzzy, I guess I shouldn't be surprised." She thought a moment. "One good thing did come out of this whole mess."

"What's that?"

"I proved Ace wrong," Minako replied. Tears were welling in her eyes. "He said I'd never know true love." She got up and turned. "I'm going to go lie down."

"You take all the time you need," Artemis told her.

He turned away, wondering if he should try to track Ace down. It wouldn't be easy. Was it even possible? Ace seemed to appear and disappear like the wind. And did he really want to do that? Minako was depressed now, but maybe she'd get over it. The white cat preferred that scenario to Minako and Ace cuddling. But what if she didn't recover?

Suddenly Minako burst back into the room. She was holding a gift-wrapped box.

"Artemis, I'm going to take a wild guess and say this isn't from you," she said.

"No. Where did you find that?"

"Sitting on my pillow."

"How? I haven't left this apartment all day and nobody has been in here!" Artemis declared. Immediately they both knew the answer to who.

"Isn't ticking," Minako said, holding the box to her ear. Then she tore the paper and ribbon off the box. Inside the box was a jewelry box. Minako opened it.

"What is it?" Artemis demanded.

"A diamond ring," Minako whispered. "And the absolute coolest diamond ring I've ever seen! Wait, there's a card." She opened it and scanned the message. "I will be back, to place this on your third finger." Minako scowled and flipped the card away. "What, I'm just supposed to wait for you? Sit in the window and pine until you return? Fat chance!"

"Good for you," Artemis nodded. Minako turned and headed for the balcony. "What are you going to do, throw it?"

"A DIAMOND RING LIKE THIS? ARE YOU NUTS, CAT?" Minako howled. Then she sighed. "I'm going to sit on the balcony and pine until he returns. The view's better."

Usagi stood at the door to Minako's swanky apartment. She still couldn't get over how much better it was than anything she'd ever been in.

"Of course Mina-Chan is a big star now," Usagi mused. "Naturally she'd live like this - - even if Ace did get it for her."

She heard the lock turn in the door and stood hopefully. But she was disappointed when Artemis was on the other side.

"Is it OK if I visit?" Usagi asked.

"Sure. Come on in," Artemis nodded. Usagi entered the apartment and closed the door behind her. "She's out on the balcony."

"How's she doing?"

"Up and down," Artemis replied. "The series being on hiatus doesn't help. She's got too much free time to sit around and mope."

Usagi nodded, knowing exactly what she had to do. Artemis left her to her own devices, knowing that being a strong shoulder was one of Usagi's specialties.

"Hi," Usagi said tentatively, entering the balcony. "I'm sorry I wasn't here sooner, but I was so far behind on my deadlines that I had to pull three all-nighters." She noticed the cool air. It was in the low fifties in Tokyo. "Aren't you cold? It is December."

"Hadn't noticed," Minako shrugged. She pointed to a space heater next to her. She was sitting on a deck chair, spooning chocolate ice cream out of a pint container. Her face was unadorned, with only her signature red hair ribbon in its normal place. "I've been too busy thinking about how badly I've screwed my life up." There was a mini-fridge on the balcony. Minako gestured to it. "Pull up a chair. Grab a pint for yourself."

"I shouldn't," Usagi replied. "Luna says I'm too fat now."

"I got 'Cookie Dough'."

Usagi grimaced, stood indecisively for a moment, then retrieved the pint and a spoon.

"You know, I really like this apartment," Minako commented. "And I love the view from this balcony. You can see all the way to Tokyo Bay from here. I think that's one of the points that sold Ace on it." She dabbed at her ice cream. "The fact that it was close enough to his office to be his personal 'Nookie Parlor' was probably a selling factor, too."

"Nookie Parlor?" Usagi asked.

"Picked that up from Makoto," Minako smirked.

"Mina-Chan, I think Ace really did love you," offered Usagi.

"So what if he did? I'm still looking at seven years without him, Usagi," Minako replied soberly.

"But I thought that statue-thing expired," asked Usagi.

"On the burglary? Yeah," Minako said. "But now he's wanted on breaking jail and flight to avoid prosecution. And the clock just started ticking on that. And he and I both knew that I wasn't going to live life on the lam with him. Just like I should have known that he wasn't going to do time quietly. You know, he probably would have only done a year or two on the burglary charge. He's going to be on the run for seven for breaking jail! But not him! You don't put Kaitou Ace in a cage!" Minako took a spoonful of ice cream, silently ruminating on the multiple implications of that statement, implications that had apparently eluded Usagi. "So he's gone. Just like I knew he would be, deep down. But dopey old me, I had to talk myself into believing him. You know, Artemis always says I can talk myself into believing anything." She spooned out more ice cream. "Wish he wasn't so damn smart all the time."

Usagi looked on sympathetically.

"Thankfully I had my period," Minako mumbled as Usagi colored. "It would have served me right for Ace to skip town after putting one in my oven."

"Maybe it's not too late for you to go back to Toshihiro," Usagi offered, as much to change the subject as anything.

"It's too late," Minako replied. "After what I did to him, I'd be too embarrassed to go back to him - - assuming he'd even take me back, which he won't. And even if he did, the ghost of Ace would always be between us. Hell, it always was between us - - it would be even worse now."

The pair spooned out ice cream and ate them.

"And if that's not bad enough, Horizon Pictures is now in chaos," Minako added. "That guy Ace burglarized is suing to claim part of the studio as compensation. Nobody's around who has the authority to run the place and the courts have frozen the company assets - - which means 'The Handmaiden' is in limbo until they straighten out the legal issues."

"You can make another movie," Usagi said.

"Uh, no," Minako replied. "I can't make a picture with anyone else because I'm under contract with Horizon, and I can't make a picture with Horizon because they're not making pictures at the moment." She snatched another spoonful of ice cream. "I've got really freaking expensive lawyers trying to get me out of the contract, but until they do, I'm stuck. It's a good thing I've still got my TV show and my recording career - - and my senshi licensing money. Otherwise I couldn't make the rent on this place and I'd have to move back in with Mom and Dad."

"Mina-Chan, it'll work out," Usagi insisted in between bites of ice cream.

"It'll work out, it'll work out," Minako muttered. "I thought predicting the future was Rei's gig."

"I'm not predicting anything. I just know it'll work out because I know you. Nothing stops you for long."

"Yeah?" Minako asked skeptically.

"You faced a lot worse than this as Sailor V. You can get through this. And one day Ace will come back. Or else you'll find someone else who can make you feel the way Ace did. Or you and Toshihiro can manage to forgive each other. And I'll do anything I can to help. You know that. And so will Artemis, and Luna, and Ami-Chan and Rei-Chan and Mako-Chan. So don't look back on what didn't happen. Look ahead," she beamed in that unique way Usagi had, "at how much good is going to happen."

Minako looked at her incredulously. Then a small laugh escaped her.

"How does Mamoru stand a chance against you?" Minako asked, the corners of her mouth turning up in spite of her most fervent wishes.

"It doesn't work on him as often as I'd like," pouted Usagi. Then she became very agitated. "Oh, I finished the whole pint!"

"I've got you beat. This is my second one," Minako smirked. "It's a good thing I'm on hiatus, so I've got time to work this off." She got up off the deck chair and extended a hand to Usagi. "Come on, it's cold out here. Let's go inside."

"Sure," Usagi smiled. "So what were you going to do tonight?"

"Well, there's no scripts to study and no music to learn," Minako replied, "and staring at Ace's picture just makes me feel down, so I was going to watch some anime."

"Which one?"

"I just picked up 'Evangelion 1.01'."

"That show always confused me," Usagi grimaced.

"Well, I figured seeing some folks worse off than me might cheer me up. You wanna?" Minako asked. She was beginning to sound like herself again. "I can pop some popcorn."

"Sure," Usagi said. Then she burped. "But - - let's skip the popcorn, OK?"

Minako smiled warmly. "Anything for you, Usagi. At least you're still here."