(o)

28
Only the Lonely

There were many tears between us when I picked Usagi up on the way to school the next day. I said I was so glad to see her again, and she asked if I had been very worried, and I said I had always known she would be all right and I would have known at once if anything had happened to her. Though I was careful not to give any hint as to why I was so sure of that.

"Was your mother very upset?" I said at last.

"It was all right, in the end," said Usagi. "She cried a lot and I couldn't get much sense out of her. Then Father said we had all better go to bed. I think they're probably waiting until I get home from school today to give me the big grilling."

"Good luck," I said with a grimace.

"Oh, it won't be too bad," said Usagi. "Mother's always threatening me with heinous punishments like missing meals or having to go to cram school, but she's too soft-hearted to carry them out."

"I wish my mother was like that," I said. "Sometimes I think the only reason she doesn't punish me more is that she just doesn't care."

"She does care about you, Naru-chan," Usagi said tenderly. "She just doesn't know how to express it sometimes."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, you're such a secretive person – she just doesn't know how to talk to you about the things that really matter to you."

I couldn't help smiling as I thought about one secret I was keeping from Mother that even Usagi didn't know about.

"I suppose you're right," I said. "All the same, I wish she could find a better way of dealing with it than just withdrawing into her work."

"It's frustrating," Usagi agreed. "But you'll find she's there for you, when you need her."

Once we got to school, there were more tears as Usagi was reunited with Ami, while I fended off Umino, who was trying to find out whether they really had been abducted by aliens. It seemed that everyone now knew that we had been on the disappearing bus, and we were the centre of attention for most of the morning. While we dealt wth all the questions, Junko hovered at the back of our group, waiting for a chance to say quietly to Ami, "I'm glad you're safe."

It was not until lunch that we got a quiet moment by ourselves with our friends.

"Naru-chan, Usagi-chan!" said Yumiko. "I'm glad you're here, since I know you two are such big Aino Minako fans. Have you seen this?"

Usagi looked over the advertisement Yumiko handed to her. "This cruise?" she said. "Yes, I know about it, but it's all been sold out months ago – like I could afford to go on it anyway. Hey, what's that, free tickets?"

Her mouth fell open as she snatched the paper from Yumiko's hands. "Naru-chan, look at this!" she said. "Last chance to get a ticket, it says: they're giving away a ticket for two in a lottery at the Juban-cho shopping centre." She leant back and dreamily closed her eyes. "A romantic cruise under the stars, with Aino Minako's song in the background as you hold the hand of the person you love…."

"But, Usagi-chan, junior high school students like us shouldn't be out so late," said Umino.

"Oh, Umino-kun!" I said. "You're always trying to stop other people having fun."

"He has a point, though," Usagi said mournfully. "My parents would never let me go on something like this. Especially after what happened last night."

"Even to see Aino Minako? A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!"

Usagi sighed. "I wish I could go," she said. "I tell you what, why don't we go and have a look at this lottery anyway? Most likely we won't win anything, and then we won't have to think about what might have been."

I readily agreed to the plan. At one stage I had thought of using the cruise to stage Sailor Moon's next battle; but after everything that had happened, I realised that it was probably best to forget this idea. I would let Thetis go ahead with her plan and see what came of it; I would save Minako from the assassins and get that unwanted subplot out of the way; and as for Jadeite's monsters, for this once I could deal with them myself.

So after school we stopped at the shopping centre and mingled with the crowd attending the lottery. It seemed a simple enough affair: you could buy a number for 500 yen, one ball was drawn from a machine, and whoever had the matching number won the prize. The winning number was due to be drawn at four o'clock, so we decided to buy one each and wait; that wouldn't keep us long enough to get us into trouble.

"All right!" the machine operator called out, ringing a bell. "It's time! Would anyone like to volunteer to draw the winning number? Yes – how about this lovely young lady here?"

Usagi and I craned forward to see who had volunteered – and we were both astonished when we saw that it was Rei. She knelt next to the lottery machine and closed her eyes as she concentrated intently.

"She's so serious…," Usagi said in an awed whisper.

Rei turned the handle, a yellow ball rolled out of the machine, and the man picked it up.

"Eighty-three!" he roared out. "Who has number eighty-three?"

"Me!" Usagi screamed, waving a hand in the air.

"Usagi-chan," I said gently, "your number is thirty-eight."

"Oh, you're right," she said ruefully. "You know me, I'm no good with numbers. How about you, Naru-chan?"

"Mine is sixty-six, not even close," I said with a grimace. "Who's won?"

The initial commotion as everyone checked their numbers began to die down, and now Rei stepped forward serenely and presented her ticket to the operator. He gaped at it for a moment, and then rang his bell again.

"We have a winner!" he roared. "Everyone, give her a big hand!"

"Let's just go," I said to Usagi. I smiled; I was a little disappointed, but I remembered that I had never expected to win anyway, and it would certainly not have suited my plans for Usagi to get a ticket. But Usagi wasn't listening; her eyes scanned the crowd. I wasn't sure what she was looking for, but I felt vaguely uneasy, knowing she was planning something.

She made a sudden movement, pulling me sharply by the wrist; I cried out in pain and shook myself free. "What's got into you?" I said. Then I saw: Rei had emerged from the crowd and was walking rapidly away, and Usagi was trying to catch up with her.

"Rei-chan! Wait up!" she called out.

Rei stopped and glanced behind her. "Oh, it's you," she said.

Usagi wasn't one to be put off by such an unfriendly greeting. "Congratulations!" she said. "So, who are you going to go with?"

"That's none of your business."

"I was just going to say, if you don't have anyone to go with, we could go together, couldn't we?"

"No, we could not!" Rei snapped. "This is meant to be a romantic cruise you go on with your boyfriend!"

I hastened my step towards them, though really I had no idea how I was going to let Usagi know she was saying all the wrong things. Anything I said would just have made things worse.

"Aww, please," said Usagi. "I know you don't really have anyone."

"That's all you know! Maybe I do have one or two…." She smiled sweetly.

"Well, who are you going with, then?" She tugged on Rei's sleeve. "Come on, tell me!"

Rei rounded on her. "Why are you so keen to come on this cruise all of a sudden?"

"Well, there'll be lots of cute men there, won't there!"

"So, you've given up on Tuxedo Mask already?"

"No, I didn't say that!" Usagi said quickly.

"So what, then, are you going to cheat on him? If you really love him, you should be more loyal to him!"

"I do love him," Usagi said sadly. "I just don't know if he loves me…."

"Maybe it's just a one-sided crush, then!"

Usagi burst into tears. "How can you say that?" she said.

"Don't cry, Usagi-chan," I said, putting a hand on her shoulder. Rei was glaring at me, and I glared back; it made me feel a little better.

"I'll tell you what I think," Rei said softly. "If he wears a mask all the time, he must have some reason for wanting to deceive you. Honest men don't do that."

Usagi gazed up at her, with something like fear in her eyes; she could think of no reply to this. Rei turned smartly on her heels and strode away.


By the time Saturday came, I had a plan for how to handle Mother. After supper she complained of a headache, and I persuaded her to lie down, saying that I would take care of clearing and washing up. As soon as she lay down she fell into a deep sleep, and if by some extraordinary effort of willpower she had managed to fight off the enchantment and wake up, she would have been astonished when she came down to find the washing-up already done. But if she had called for me and asked for an explanation, I would not have answered; after making sure the door was locked, I used the Pen to transport myself to the docks at Yokohama.

There was no difficulty about finding the cruise ship: it was the only one with a large crowd of passengers waiting to embark. I crouched below a pile of crates some distance off and watched for a minute, curious as to whether I would see Rei; but there were so many people there, over five hundred, that it was hardly surprising I could not find her in the crowd.

The evening was growing dark, and in the distance the sky and sea became a single indigo blue curtain, with ripples of light that seemed to come through tears in its fabric. Behind me lay the last streets of the city; setting off would be going through the curtain into an unknown world. The ship sat proudly in the bay, the cool evening light gleaming on its white paintwork. Rows of soft lights hung around its decks in a sort of mystic circle, a shelter from which the spirits of the sea could be watched, but which they could not enter.

I was beginning to wonder when anything would happen, but then I saw a ramp come down from the ship, and a group of officials in uniform came down and parted the crowd. Once a way had been cleared, the crowd started cheering, and I could just catch sight of Minako's car making its slow way forward as flowers were thrown in its path.

I frowned. A thought had occurred to me, a disquieting one. Minako's chauffeur was one of the men in the plot to kill her, and the other man would probably not be openly among the cruise passengers, as that would make it possible for him to be traced. So it seemed most likely that he would be smuggled onto the ship in the car itself. After some thought, I made my mind up and transported myself into the ship's parking bay. After all, I couldn't do very much if I stayed outside. I slipped into the shadows behind a pillar and summoned Thetis.

"Is everything ready?" I asked her.

"Jadeite has energy-drained the captain and taken his place. I will be taking the place of the first mate."

"Good," I said. "You know what to do, then. I'll mingle with the guests and watch the action from a distance, in case anything goes wrong."

She bowed. "I take my leave, then."

"And watch out for Rei," I said. "I didn't see her in the crowd, but I know she has a ticket, so she'll probably be here."

"That is good."

"Good?" I said, raising an eyebrow.

"Good that one of the sailor warriors will be present as a witness. Usagi will find it easier to believe in Jadeite's change of heart."

I took a deep breath. "You're sure you know what you're doing?"

"As you yourself pointed out, Mistress," Thetis said, "Jadeite is a fictional character. His personality is not fixed for all time; he can be moulded and developed. I believe that's considered a sign of good writing."

I gave her a wan smile as she bowed low and then vanished.

Then I turned my attention to Minako's car, which had arrived in the parking bay while we had been talking. I crouched very still and crept a little way forward to get a better look. She was just getting out of the car, and I was face to face with her at last – the real Minako! She was everything I had imagined and more: waves of golden hair streaming down her back, scintillating blue eyes and a sweet carefree smile. From the way she waved goodbye to her chauffeur, it was clear that she at least had no suspicions of him. She bowed to the security men who had come to escort her to the auditorium, and they set off together, one man walking on each side of her.

I continued to wait. Once the security men had departed, the chauffeur climbed out and opened the boot. I had been right! A man was concealed inside, a man dressed in the black outfit of one of Minako's stage assistants, with a mask covering his face except for two small openings for his eyes. I took a deep breath and counted to ten to keep myself calm. It was going to be all right. Every eventuality had been taken care of; Minako was under a charm making her invulnerable, Usagi was not here, and I still didn't much care if Rei got hurt. Still, no matter how much I tried not to panic, there was still something shocking about being so close to a real assassin. I had always been good at creating villains for my stories, but only because I knew the stereotypes to work from. What it really felt like to be someone who could end another person's life, so casually, just for a handful of cash – I could never understand that, and I didn't really want to. It made me shiver, just to be so close to him, to be unable to hide from the knowledge that such people existed.

"Are you ready, Ueda-san?" the chauffeur said. "Do I need to show you where to go?"

I could not see whether the other man was smiling, but I certainly imagined it from the smooth way he drew the knife at his side. The metal gleamed in the dim light as though it was white-hot.

"I am prepared," he said. "If you do not see me, that is how you will know I am there."

He put the knife away and walked off without a backward glance.