Echoes of a Distant Demon

                   By:  Sailor Doc

 

Chapter Nine

 

'Where is she?'

 

Hurrying down the darkened path, Venus raised a hand to brush an errant branch away from her face.  The other held up the hem of her golden, evening length ball gown as her matching slippers carried her deeper into the royal gardens.

 

"Mars!" she called softly.  "Where are you?"

 

Receiving no answer, she continued down the same path, almost certain where she would find her temperamental partner.  Finally breaking into a secluded opening, she spotted the other woman standing at the clearing’s opposite edge.  Sheathed in an elegant burgundy colored gown of silk and lace, the Martian Princess was a vision of beauty as she stood in brooding silence, never even turning to look at the uninvited interloper on her self imposed seclusion.

 

She didn't have to.

 

"What do you want?" she asked, continuing to stare off into the darkness.

 

"I want to know why you stormed off like that," Venus demanded.  "We have very important guests this evening, and the Queen expects us to be in attendance."

 

"Make my apologies," Mars answered sarcastically.

 

Venus felt her temper start to rise.

 

"I most certainly will not!" she retorted angrily.  "Mars, what is wrong with you?  Why are you being so unreasonable?" she demanded.

 

Mars paused and then answered truthfully.  "I don't trust them."

 

Venus frowned.  "I don't see what the problem is.  They're very nice, very well mannered young men, and I think they are utterly charming."

 

"I never said they weren't," Mars returned with a dark scowl.  "All I'm saying is there's something else going on here.  Something dark and evil.  It's surrounding their souls somehow."  She shook her head, frustrated with herself.  "I just can't quite make out what it is."

 

Venus' frown deepened.  "I just think you're jealous because that one General, what was his name?  Oh yes, Zoecite!  Because General Zoecite asked me to dance!"

 

Rounding on her leader, Mars erupted in fury.  "This had nothing to do with that!" she stormed angrily.  "That man, and the other three as well, are falling into a web of darkness they will never be strong enough to overcome!  Mark my words, Venus.  I'm warning you!" she growled.  "This has the potential to cause us great harm!"

 

"How can you be so sure?"  Venus demanded.  "They have only been at court two days with their Prince.  In that time I have seen no threat and felt no potential danger to the Princess or the court.  They seem like wonderful men!" she argued.

 

Mars merely glared at her in stoic silence, her eyes a variable cauldron of emotions.

 

Venus sighed and wisely decided to let the leader of the senshi take a break.  Mars needed her partner right now, not her superior officer.  Moving forward toward the angry young woman, she placed her hand gently on one of the other girl’s defiantly crossed arms.

 

"Why are you being so stubborn, Reiko?" she asked, deeply concerned.  "These men are nothing to us!  Mere visitors from another realm," she soothed, her hand now caressing her lovers arm. "In five more days they will be gone, and we will see them only infrequently after that."

 

Despite her emotional upheaval, Mars couldn't help but begin to relax under her partner’s care and obvious concern.  Uncrossing her arms, she placed a warm hand possessively over Venus'.

 

"I know you're right, Mina," she conceded.  "My head knows these things, but my heart?  My soul?"  She shook her head in a negative fashion, and Venus finally began to understand.

 

"You saw this in a vision, didn't you?" she whispered.  "Is that why I woke up alone in the middle of the night twice this week?" she asked softly.

 

At Mars’ short nod of acknowledgement she frowned.  "Are you saying we should end this summit now, and send the Prince and his emissaries away?"

 

Mars shook her head.  "No, I don't think we need to be that abrupt, but..."

 

"But what, love?"  Venus questioned.

 

"I don't think we should encourage too close of a relationship with them," she ended.

 

"Well, that shouldn't be too big a problem," Venus answered. "But, we may have a smaller one to deal with after that," she said with a slight smile as she reached up to caress Mars shoulder.

 

"What's that?"

 

"Their Prince is falling in love with our Princess," she stated matter-of-factly.

 

Startled, Mars stiffened.  "How do you know this?" she demanded.

 

Venus merely smirked.

 

"No!  This is bad," the Martian Princess began.  "I mean, he has a kind heart and he's an exceptional young man, but under the circumstances...," she stopped abruptly as a single delicate finger was placed over her lips, and she looked up into calm, slightly amused eyes.

 

"You have nothing to worry about on that front, my love," Venus assured her softly.  "That's one alliance neither our Queen nor the boy’s father will ever allow," she said as she slipped forward into her partners willing embrace. 

 

They stood together like that for quite sometime in the calm, romantic peace of the quiet clearing. Until Venus felt compelled to softly break the silence.

 

"You know, Reiko.  About that General," she began.  "I shouldn't have to tell you..."

 

"You don't," Mars assured her, tightening her hold ever so slightly.  "I was never really worried about it.  Still," she added firmly, "if he had dropped his hand one more inch..."

 

Mars reached out one hand into which an intense ball of fire ignited, sparking a dark grin on her face.

 

Venus quickly reclaimed the hand, closing it tightly and pulling it close to her heart.

 

"She-h-h," she chastised lightly as she cuddled against her partner.  "Stop being silly," she teased, allowing Mars to pull her back into her embrace.

 

Held in the comfortable safety of her lover’s arms, Venus sighed.  She really hoped her partner was wrong this time.  She had honestly liked the energetic young men from earth, and felt that the Moon Kingdom could form a strong and mutually beneficial alliance with their much larger neighbor.  Still, now she knew it could never be.  She hated it, and it was unfortunate.   But, as much as it pained her sometimes to admit...

 

Mars and her visions were never wrong.

__________________________________________________________

 

Friday Morning

 

The relentless 'tick-tock' of the elaborate wall clock seemed obscenely loud in the air conditioned quiet of the V.I.P. waiting room.  Though the room was safe and well appointed, the elegant hardwood paneling and thick leather upholstery did nothing to ease the tension of waiting to do something potentially unpleasant.

 

It was starting out to be a bad morning.

 

Minako, who was never late for anything, had shown up not just on time but actually early for her scheduled appointment.  Not being totally unfamiliar with the idol’s habits, a representative from both the hospital and Dr. Yamato's office had been waiting to escort them inside, but they had brought bad news. Due to an unexpected emergency, there would be a bit of a wait as the doctor had been called to consult on an urgently critical case. Taking it all in stride, Minako had nodded and allowed the executive and the administrative assistant to escort them into this area for what they were assured would be a 'brief wait'.

 

That had been over an hour ago.

 

Now, sitting side-by-side on the overstuffed leather loveseat, the two young women presented a study in contrasts: Rei, her head propped on one hand, seemed very much at ease as she quietly flipped through the channels of the large, flat screen television with the other. Minako, on the other hand, was fidgeting.  Badly.  She had already thumbed through every magazine in the room, studied every picture and piece of bric-a-brac in detail, and pulled apart the blinds on the window to stare at the lovely view of the employee parking lot. Finally turning back to Rei, she had come back across the room only to flop down next to her with an uncharacteristic lack of grace.

 

"You should calm down," Rei said, matter-of-factly as she continued to cruise through the never-ending barrage of morning news shows and kiddy programming.

 

"I hate this!" Minako stated grimly, picking up a magazine she had already gone through.  Frowning, she tossed it back on the coffee table in disgust and leaned back against the couch.  Crossing her arms over her chest, she turned her head to study Rei, her foot tapping the floor restlessly.

 

"No-o-o?" Rei said in mock disbelief.  "You know it can't be helped," she added, never turning her calm attention from the television.

 

"I know that," Minako groaned.  "I'm just so frustrated.

 

Rei nodded in understanding. "Why don't you try to think about something else?" she suggested practically.

 

"Like what? Hello Kitty?" Minako demanded, waving her hand at the TV.

 

Still looking at the screen, Rei quirked her lips slightly, a single eyebrow arching up under her bangs in amusement.  "Why not?" she said.  "It would keep you from picking up that magazine again."

 

Minako frowned as she caught herself reaching toward the magazines and cut her eyes over toward the amused priestess.  Rei's smirk and pointed refusal to look back at her as she continued to cycle through the channels was annoying the idol to no end.  So, it was with confused fascination that she watched Rei's smirk turn slowly into absolute open-mouthed horror, her eyes widening in shock.

 

Turning quickly toward the widescreen television, Minako saw the cause and immediately burst out laughing before she could stop herself.

 

It was Rei's press conference.

 

"It didn't suit me," came the low voice of the mysterious priestess as she glared at the assembled reporters in solemn majesty.

 

Jolted out of her shock by Minako's amusement, Rei quickly changed the channel.

 

"Oh, no you don't!"  Minako laughed, lunging for the remote.  "I want to see that!  Gimme!"

 

"Uh-uh," Rei grunted, turning her back and shoulders toward the idol.  Doing her best to hide the remote down the side of the couch she spat out, "forget it!"

 

Undeterred by either Rei's actions or words, Minako tried to crawl over her, her hands reaching for the space between the seat and the armrest as Rei tried to bat them off.

 

"Rei, come on!"

 

"Uh-uh," Rei ground out through clinched teeth as Minako's weight started to drive her face down into the seat of the couch.  "No way!" Giving up on the side of the couch and the laws of gravity, Rei stuck the remote under her stomach and held on with both hands as she allowed herself to be pressed down against the leatherwork.

 

"Give it up!"  Minako insisted as she found herself straddling Rei's behind.  Without hesitation she drove her fingers into the priestess' sides, showing absolutely no remorse in using her memory of Rei's ticklish ribcage.

 

"GAH!"  Rei gasped as the unexpected and unwelcome attack caused spasms to jolt her into a more defensive posture and uncontrollable giggles to burst from her mouth.  Seizing the opportunity afforded by Rei's reflexively raised hip, Minako darted her agile fingers into the breach and grabbed for the remote, encountering only Rei's hands wrapped firmly around it.  Rei gritted her teeth and turned more firmly back into the couch seat.

 

"Give it here!"

 

"Uh-uh!"

 

"Rei!  I mean it!"

 

"Uh-uh!"

 

Using her free hand, Minako began her tickle tactic again.  She hadn't been leader of the senshi without knowing how to press an advantage when she'd found one. 

 

"GAH!  MINAKO!"  Rei bellowed in outrage as she tried to twist away from the idols relentless attack.  "Stop it!" she demanded, though the effect was somewhat lost as she couldn't seem to stop laughing to save her life.

 

Finally getting a good grip on one of Rei's hands, Minako jerked for all she was worth, pulling the priestess onto her side.  From there, necessity demanded Rei complete the turn onto her back as Minako now had both hands working on any opening she could find between Rei's fingers.

 

"Give it up!" the idol demanded, her eyes dancing with delight.

 

"You wish," Rei countered, laughing up into Minako's smiling face.

 

"So very true," Minako purred and with a wink, triumphantly tugged the remote out of Rei's grasp.

 

Rei valiantly tried to snatch the elusive bit of hardware back, but it was kind of hard to do with Minako still planted firmly on top of her.  The idol held her position as she pointed the devise at the screen and flipped back down to the station that had been showing the clip, but it was too late.  The well known entertainment reporter had already moved on to the latest scandal-of-the-day. Rei's moment in the spotlight was gone. Flouncing down on Rei's tummy, Minako dropped her hand and allowed the other girl to reclaim the remote.

 

"Ha," Rei said.  "Serves you right for being so mean. Now get off me."

 

It was the wrong thing to say.

 

"Or what?" the idol singer asked in a deceptively calm voice, looking down at the Rei with an unreadable expression.

 

Rei felt a slight chill run down her spine.  "I'll make you," she answered, meeting Minako's look with one of her own.

 

Leaning forward, Minako pressed Rei's shoulders back against the couch and their eyes locked. "You can try, you know," she whispered, a challenging smile on her lips.  To Rei it seemed the air was suddenly charged with possibilities.

 

"Aino-san?  It will be a bit longer than we had thought.  Is there... anything... else... you'd like to..." The administrative assistant's speech slowly tapered off as she tried to make sense of what she had just walked in on.  There sat one of the world's most well known and beloved entertainers, pressing her attractive friend back against the seat cushions in a very intimate looking pose.  She didn't know what to think.

 

Minako, unfazed, handled it like a pro.

 

Without moving a muscle she looking the older woman in the eye and gave her a charming smile.  "Yes, as a matter of fact there is. Would it be possible for me to visit my bodyguard? Things have been so hectic since the shooting that I haven't been able to come check on him."

 

The woman couldn't help but return her smile in the face of Minako's obvious concern.  "Of course, Aino-san.  We'll arrange it immediately."

 

"Will Dr Yamato be very much longer?" she asked as she climbed off a very relieved Rei and helped her to her feet. 

 

"I'm afraid I'm not really sure," the woman answered truthfully.  "I don't think so, but you can never really tell for sure with these kinds of things." Minako nodded sagely as the woman moved toward the door. "If you'll just wait here a moment or two longer, I will arrange for you to see your guard."

 

"Thank you," Minako said politely, and the woman smiled as she left.  The room was very quiet as the door clicked shut.  Several seconds ticked off the clock before both young women chose the same moment to cut their eyes at each other and then broke out in laughter. 

 

"Oh, that was too funny," Minako cried.

 

"Were you just trying to get us in trouble?" Rei asked, wiping her own tears.

 

"Of course not!"  Minako insisted.  "How was I supposed to know she was going to walk in?"

 

 

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

As they walked down the corridor a few minutes later, Rei was still smiling over Minako's last comment as she reached down to answer the insistent ringing of her cell phone.  One look at the caller ID though, and she frowned, returning it to her pocket.

 

Intrigued by Rei's unexpected reaction, Minako had to ask.  "Who was that?  Aren't you going to answer it?"

 

"No," Rei answered briefly.

 

Keenly aware of Minako's dissatisfaction with her cryptic response, Rei finally sighed, reluctantly adding, "It was Nishizaki Shoushi, my father's personal secretary."

 

Minako looked at her in surprise.  "That sounds like it could be important."

 

Rei shook her head.  "I seriously doubt it.  He just calls from time to time so he can give my father an 'official report' on my well being."

 

"You must not care much for Nishizaki-san," Minako said as the administrative official brought them to a stop in front of room 334.

 

"It's not that," Rei said, turning to look at her.  "I really don't know the man.  The point is that if my father really wants to know how I'm doing, he should ask me himself."

 

Minako studied her serious face.  "He never personally calls you?" she asked.

 

"Sure he does," Rei said, unable to keep the resentment from her voice.  "If you count three minutes on my birthday once a year!"

Minako frowned, her hand resting on the door to Souma's room.

 

"That's it?" she said.

 

Rei nodded shortly.  "Look," she said reassuringly to the obvious concern on Minako's face. "This isn't important.  We are not here to talk about my father and me.  Let's do what we came here to do," she added, indicating the room they were about to enter.  "I'll handle this thing with my father in my own way, okay?" 

 

At Minako's reluctant nod, Rei smiled and pushed the door open.

 

Sitting up in his bed, Souma smiled broadly when he saw Minako standing in the doorway.

 

"Aino-san!" he said. "Please, come in," he beckoned, his voice still scratchy and a bit weaker than she was use to.  "Is this you friend?"  At his boss' quiet nod, he turned to the young priestess. "I've heard so much about you," he continued as they slowly walked into the room.

 

A quick glance at Minako was all Rei needed to see she was unable to speak, this first sight of her dear friend too much for her to bear.  Realizing she needed a moment to compose herself, Rei moved easily in front of her.

 

"I hope it was all good," she commented with a warm, genuine smile.

 

"It was all excellent actually," the older man replied.  "I'm so glad you were able to come by. I wanted to thank you."

 

"For what?" Rei asked, confused.

 

"For doing what I wasn't able to."    

 

The sincerity in his voice as he looked at her was echoed in his face, and Rei blushed in embarrassment.

 

"Don't you dare say it was nothing, either," Souma said as Rei opened her mouth.  Catching the priestess' eyes he waited, and after a brief pause she gave a slight nod.  Instantly understanding each other, both guardian souls mercifully let it drop.  In their world, some things were best left that way.

 

Composed, Minako finally stepped forward and took his hand, holding it tightly between her own.  "Souma-kun," she said with obvious concern.  "How are you feeling? Are they treating you well?" she asked.  "What does the doctor say?  Will you start rehab soon?  Will you..."

 

"Whoa!" the amused bodyguard said, lifting his hands as if to slow down the torrent of questions being fired at him in rapid succession.  "One at a time, please!"

 

"I'm sorry," Minako said with a rueful smile.  "I guess I'm just anxious for you to be well, you know?" she added wistfully.

 

"I think that means she misses you," Rei added with a smirk.

 

The big man grinned.  "I'm already working on it," he said.  "I'm feeling much better everyday and the staff here has been great. The doctor says I should have my new prosthetic leg in no time and I've already begun rehab..."

 

"So soon?"  Minako asked, surprised. 

 

"Well, they really don't let me do too much yet," he admitted a bit sheepishly.  "But at least it's a start, you know?"

 

"That's wonderful!" Minako enthused, relieved by his obvious good mood and high spirits.

 

"Yeah, they promise I'll be getting around just like before in no time," he said.  He paused, his eyes darting away from hers and he swallowed heavily.  "So, um... are you sure?  I mean, will I..."

 

"Of course!" Minako blurted out, cutting him off in her haste to reassure him. "Was that not made clear?" she asked in honest confusion.  "If you're still sure you want it, your job will be waiting for you."  As the relieved look passed over his face, she added, "I was actually hoping you would accept a position as head of my security team when you return to work." 

 

"Aino-san!" 

 

"Well, you've pretty much been that for sometime already," Minako said as the big man looked at her in shocked surprise.  "I think it's past time we made it official, don't you?" the idol added.

 

"Who's handling your security now?" Souma asked seriously, already falling naturally back into his old role.

 

"For the time being we're still using the security firm you hired as backup for the concert," she answered.

 

"No way!" he said, incredulously.  "Those guys are ok for simple little details like concerts and mall work, but a 24 hour gig with surveillance and unlimited venues?"  He scoffed.  "You're kidding me, right?"

 

"I'm afraid she's not," Rei spoke up, her disapproval pretty clear from the look on her face.

 

Minako smiled as she watched the dark priestess.  "Actually, Rei has been handling most of that responsibility all by herself," she threw in with a mischievous grin.

 

"That's not true!" Rei protested fiercely.

 

"Oh, yes it is!" Minako argued right back.  With a twinkle in her eye she turned to the confused Souma and said, "Even the rent-a-cops tremble in fear and awe as she walks by."

 

Rei blushed a fiery red and Souma couldn't help but grin at the dark scowl she gave Minako.  "I believe it," he said.  "Not having too much else to do but sit here and flip through the channels I couldn't help but see all the news and entertainment clips."  He looked at Rei with professional respect.  "That was an incredible shot."

 

Embarrassed yet again, Rei looked away and said simply, "Thank you."

 

"I also enjoyed your press conference," he added.

 

"You saw that too?" Rei asked as she turned back to him in horror.

 

"How could I miss it?" the bodyguard said.  "It's been all over the channels since yesterday morning."

 

"And I haven't even had a chance to see it yet," Minako lamented.

 

"Good," Rei said flatly.

 

"Don't worry, boss," Souma reassured her.  "All you have to do is turn on your TV.  You'll see it."

 

"Can we change the subject now?"  Rei asked plaintively, much to Minako's amusement.  "She really does need a professional bodyguard."

 

"Well, I do know a good man who's available," Souma said.

 

"Could he start immediately?" Minako asked.  "We need somebody quickly.  Is he trustworthy?"

 

"Absolutely.  I'd trust him with my life," Souma said.  "He's my cousin, Watanebe Hiroshi."

 

"Your cousin?"  Minako replied in a serious tone.  "Does he have any experience in this type of work?"

 

"Some," Souma replied.  "He was in Special Forces with the Japanese Defense Force, and since he retired from there, he's been freelancing as a bodyguard.  What he really needs is a good, steady job though."

 

"Can you see if he's interested in a full time position with us?" she asked.  "If he works out well for the first couple of months, we would be willing to discuss making the position a permanent one."

 

"Wouldn't you like to at least interview him first?" Rei asked.

 

"Sure," Minako answered.  "If you're willing to spend another week with the rent-a-cops."  Rei frowned.  "No?  I didn't think so either."  Minako said.  Smiling, she turned back to Souma.  "Call him, and if he's interested give him Emi's number at the office.  We'll take it from there."

 

"Okay," Souma said.  "Are you sure you want to take him on sight unseen, Aino-san?" he questioned one last time.

 

"Based strictly on your recommendation, yes," Minako replied.  "Besides, he still has to get past an obstacle far greater than just the interview."

 

Confused, Souma looked at her blankly for several seconds before asking, "What would that be?"

 

"Why, Rei of course!" she answered, as if that should be obvious by now.

 

Catching Rei's eye as the priestess turned to look at her, Minako held her attention for a moment before Rei nodded in understanding, an enigmatic smile on her lips.

 

Not fully understanding the exchange that had just taken place between the two young women, Souma just shook his head.

 

"Okay boss, whatever you say.  I'll call him today."

 

"That's settled then," Minako said with a sigh of relief.  "Now, where is Touku-san? Has she made it in yet today?" she asked, changing the subject away from business matters.

 

"No, not yet," he answered.  "It's still too early.  She has to drop the boys off by day care first."

 

Rei smiled as the conversation turned to things less serious and Minako seemed to relax even more.  After the rocky start to their morning she had been afraid the idol wouldn’t be able to let her dark mood completely go.  But, after the 'Battle for the Remote' and seeing her old friend doing so well, she seemed much happier. 

 

Rei knew it was more than that though.

 

Something had changed between them after their conversation in the car that morning. She could feel it.  And what was more, she knew Minako could feel it as well.

 

Rei took a moment to admire the other woman.  Always stylishly dressed, today she wore a light day dress, the violet of the floral design brought out by her matching pumps and clutch.  It was a bit different form her usual more 'hip' attire, but still, she looked vibrant and fresh, almost as if she should be going on a nice outing instead of to a doctor’s appointment the priestess mused.

 

So impractical on such a nasty day...

 

But oh, so lovely...

 

And she'd always been rather partial to that particular shade... really more of a dark lavender...

 

'Which reminds me,' she said to herself with a private grin as she came out of her silent reverie. Casting a quick look in the direction of the other two, Rei reached for her cell phone, only to frown when it rang before she could make her own call.  A look at the caller ID and she rolled her dark eyes in irritation and returned it unused to her pocket.

 

"Nishizaki?" Minako asked, turning to look at her.

 

One short nod was all the answer the idol needed and she turned back to Souma.  Rei decided her 'secret mission' could wait a little longer.

 

All too soon the hospital administrator returned to collect them and, amidst well wishes and promises to be in touch soon, the girls moved on to the austerity of the receptionist’s area at Dr. Yamato's office.  Stark, white and very sterile, the small area was way too quiet.  Rei and Minako sat and smiled nervously at the receptionist, who returned their smiles from behind her desk and politely nodded in return.

 

And time ticked by.

 

About the time Rei felt she couldn't stand it any longer, the inner door finally opened.

 

"Minako-chan!  Don't you look wonderful, my dear," Dr. Yamato exclaimed, beckoning the young women into his office. 

 

Yamato was a large handsome man, with a confidant air and a big winning smile. Impeccably dressed in a dark tailored suit, his salt and pepper hair gave the instant impression of wisdom and experience. Moving forward to meet Minako as she crossed the threshold into his office, he wrapped her up in a large welcoming hug that she happily returned.

 

Rei felt her molars start to grind.

 

Moving toward the desk, his arm still wrapped around Minako's shoulders, he threw back over his shoulder, "You must be Hino Rei."

 

"Yes."

 

Rei frowned as she caught herself starting to respond to this man in monosyllables.  She needed to get a grip on herself!  He had known Minako for years after all, and was her trusted neurosurgeon. 

 

But still. There was just something...

 

"The young archeress from the other day," he stated as they settled into the two wingback chairs in front of his large desk.  "You wouldn't be any relation to Senator Hino, would you?"

 

"My father," she replied.

 

"Fine man, fine man indeed," the doctor said, nodding his head in confirmation as he settled his large form into the oversized leather chair behind his desk. "A shame about your mother though." 

 

Rei stiffened visibly, her eyes riveted to the man as Minako looked at her with alarm.

 

"I was just establishing my practice here, but I remember it all very clearly," he said, nodding his head knowingly, totally oblivious to the emotions raging beneath the calm exterior of the young woman watching him from across the desk. He shook his head. "A terrible tragedy, really."

 

Rei felt a cold shiver work its way slowly down her spine.

 

"Ah, but we shouldn't sit here and dwell on the unpleasant things of the past," he said, dismissing the priestess and her private turmoil.  "Now Minako-chan," he said, his eyes lighting up as he turned his full attention to the idol instead. "I finally saw your latest video the other day.  What were you thinking, young lady?  Were you trying to give your old doctor a heart attack!"

 

As Dr. Yamato continued his inane conversation with Minako, Rei took a few moments to collect herself and really study his office.  Dark and oppressive, the room was designed to overwhelm visitors with its richness.  The furniture was heavy and overstuffed, the walls stained and paneled with dark wood.  The end tables were richly appointed and held an impressive collection of bronze and marble bric-a-brac, which the ridiculously expensive deck set matched perfectly.  His 'brag wall', considerably smaller than Minako's, was covered more in photographs than the myriad collection of diplomas, shingles and certificates she had expected to see.  Looking a bit more closely, she saw not family members, but pictures of himself, usually with some well known personality, smiling and shaking hands.  There were several shots of him with a very young, and to Rei's eyes, very frightened looking Minako.

 

It was clear that her miraculous recovery had made his reputation as well as his whole very successful career.  The Priestess couldn't help but frown, knowing full well that this man had really had very little, if nothing to do with it. That miracle had been due entirely to Usagi's boundless and undying love.

 

Rei centered herself and studied the man.  'Capable, but not brilliant.  Knowledgeable, but not actually up-to-date.  Confidant... even to the point of arrogance but not concerned.  Energetic, but not...' she closed her eyes and concentrated on the next elusive piece of the puzzle.

 

"Not compassionate..." she exhaled the words softly.

 

"I'm sorry, Rei, did you say something?"  Minako asked.

 

Rei was suddenly aware of both sets of eyes watching her.

 

"No, it was nothing," she said, clearing her throat, a brief embarrassed smile on her lips.  Shifting nervously, she recrossed her legs and looked with feigned interest at the small bronze statue of Eros sitting on the corner of his desk.

 

"Do you like my favorite paperweight, Hino-san?" the doctor asked with an indulgent smile.  "It was a very special gift."

 

"From a very special little girl named Minako?" she asked, secretly gratified to see his disappointment at her 'lucky guess'.

 

"Why, yes!  How did you…" he started, before answering his own question.  "Well, of course," he rumbled.  "How could I forget?  Everyone knows you're clairvoyant!" he said, winking broadly as if to share in the joke.

 

Catching his eye, Rei just nodded once without an answering smile.

 

She had not needed to be 'clairvoyant' to recognize this particular 'Touch of Venus'.  Any super-secret, sailor-suited heroine who had written and released an entire CD titled 'Venus', much less included songs with names like, 'Venus Over My Shoulder', and 'C'est la Vie' would have undoubtedly been amused by bestowing a small cupid as a thank you gift on her physician.

 

Feeling a bit un-nerved by the serious young woman facing him across his desk, he laughed nervously and turned back to Minako.  "Is she always this serious, Minako-chan?"

 

"No, not really," Minako answered honestly.  "Only when she feels she needs to be," she said, turning to smile warmly at Rei.

 

Rei answered her with a slight smile and a tiny nod, relaxing just a bit under the warmth of Minako's obvious affection.

 

"So-o-o," the doctor said, trying to ease the conversation back to a more comfortable place for himself.  "What brings you to my office today?  I know it can't be because you've missed my charming company, Minako-chan."

 

"No, you're right doctor."  Taking a deep breath she said, "I have reason to believe my old problem may be returning to me."

 

"What?" he said, startled and suddenly alert.  "When did this start?" he asked, rising to his feet to come around the desk.

 

"Well, about a month ago..."

 

"What were your symptoms," he asked, taking that as her answer.  He began to examine her skin tone and the density of the tissue around her neck.  "Any weight gain?"

 

"No..."

 

"Vision problems?  Blurriness?  Tunnel vision?" he continued, checking out her eyes with a small penlight.

 

"No..."

 

"Change in menstrual pattern?"

 

"No..."

 

"Loss of sex drive?"

 

"Uh, no..." she said, casting her eyes downward, a blush flashing over her high cheekbones.

 

"Weakness?" he asked, taking her hands which she automatically used to equally squeeze his fingers.

 

"No..."

 

"Depression?  Anxiety?  Anger?"

 

"Well yes, I've had a good bit of all that to be honest, but that was after..."

 

"After what?" he demanded.  "Did you fall?"

 

"No." 

 

"Pass out?"

 

"No."

 

"Have a seizure?"

 

"No... I..."

 

"For god’s sake, Minako-chan, you look perfectly fine to me!  What brought all this about?"

 

As she struggled for the right words to begin her response, she was startled to hear the answer given for her.

 

"I did."

 

Minako and Yamato both turned to look at the solemn young woman sitting in the other chair.

 

"What do you mean?" the doctor demanded.

 

"About a month ago, while at meditation in front of the sacred fire, I saw a vision..." Rei began in a serious manner.

 

"Excuse me?" the doctor interrupted.  "Are you telling me that you 'dreamed' all this up?"

 

Keeping an outward calm, Rei couldn't help but bristle inwardly.  Still, she had dealt with skeptics all her life.  This time, however, there was much more at stake.  Meeting his arrogant glare, she spoke calmly and with great authority.

 

"No, I'm telling you that the Fire Kami has granted us a tremendous gift by allowing us to see this in time to treat it before it becomes too late."

 

He looked at her incredulously.  "You are telling me you dreamed this up!"  Turning to Minako, he said, "Surely you don't believe her?"  As Minako hesitated he said, "Why, this is all just so much drivel!"

 

As Minako began to answer him, he cut her off, already able to see clearly that the idol did indeed believe her.

 

"Minako-chan," he scolded softly as he knelt down next to her chair.  "You're so much smarter than this!  Think about it a minute," he reasoned.  "You remember what the warning signs were, don't you?"

 

She nodded her head affirmatively.

 

"Be honest with me now, okay?  It's really important," he asked, and waited for her to nod at him again. "Before she came to you with this... story, had you been experiencing any of them?"

 

"No, not really."

 

"None at all?" he encouraged

 

"No," she confirmed.

 

"And all that depression, and anger, and anxiety?  That came after she spoke to you, didn't it?" he insisted.

 

"Well yes, but..."

 

"Minako-chan," he said gently, as if trying to reason with a stubborn child.  "Don't you think this is just the tiniest bit absurd?  I mean really, 'the bogeyman told me'?" he chuckled, then cut his eyes over to the dark priestess who sat watching them in stoic silence. Lowering his voice, though he knew Rei could still hear him, he leaned over to Minako and whispered.  "How well do you really know this person anyway?  I mean, you know how these shrines can be.  Always trying to scare the people into dropping just a little more in the prayer box."

 

Rei's eyes flashed in anger, but before she could voice her outrage she was interrupted by the light peal of Minako's laughter.

 

"Oh, Dr. Yamato," she said, shaking her head in amusement.  "You obviously know nothing at all about this particular priestess!"

 

"Well," he sniffed, as if he had smelled something unexpectedly nasty, "I imagine they're all pretty much alike," he said, eyeing Rei with obvious distaste.

 

"Why, Dr. Yamato," Minako said, gazing at him in surprise.  "I never knew you were such a cynic."

 

"It's not that," the doctor said, defensively.  "It's not that at all!  I just feel that everything has its proper place, and there is no place whatsoever in modern medicine for 'ghost stories' and 'old-wives-tales'."  He shook his head firmly and looked at Rei.  "No, they should confine themselves to their prayers and their charitable works, and leave the business of healthcare to those of us who have dedicated our lives and careers to it!"

 

"That's rather cold-hearted, don't you think," Minako asked, her tone now much more serious as she studied this man she had thought she knew.

 

"It has been my experience that when these people interfere in matters that should not concern them, they just get in the way and do more to hamper than help the recovery process," he concluded, looking at Rei with undisguised contempt.

 

Minako didn't need to look at the young woman sitting next to her to know that she was seething.  She could almost feel the heat radiating from the dark priestess and she knew that all it would take was one more wrong word, and Rei would be at Yamato's throat.

 

"You know, there is often a lot of truth in the words of wisdom we receive from those who have a higher understanding of the spiritual matters of life.  I feel it would be unwise to disregard those words out of hand," she replied.

 

"Well, you have to do what you feel is right," he said with a shrug.  "We can put you through that same battery of tests, just as we did before Minako-chan, if that's what you really want.  You remember what that was like," he added with a sad shake of his head, and she couldn't help but shiver as the memories flooded back through her mind.  "I really wish you would think about this some more though," he said.  "Just promise me you'll take some time, and consider this move thoroughly before making such an important decision based on... well... 'smoke and mirrors'," he finished, casting his disapproving eyes again in Rei's direction.

 

Without even having to look, Minako automatically reached out and placed her hand firmly on Rei's forearm, instantly squelching the violent surge upward before in could begin.  Under her hand, she could feel the energy coming from Rei and it was overpowering, a solid wave of righteous anger.

 

"Yes, I think you may be right, Dr. Yamato," Minako said, tightening her fingers as she sensed Rei turn to look at her in shocked disbelief.  "Maybe I should take some extra time to think before I make this step," she said, never losing her grip as she rose to her feet, bringing a speechless Rei with her.

 

"Excellent," the older man said, with relieved approval.  "There really is no sense to rushing into such things," he added.  With a self satisfied smile, he pompously stated, "I'm sure you'll make the right decision," as he walked them to the door.

 

"Yes, I'm sure I shall," Minako said with a lovely smile, never releasing her stranglehold on Rei's forearm.  "Good day, doctor."

 

"And a good day to you as well," he beamed, as he shut the door softly behind them.

 

With deliberate slowness, Minako turned and smiled at the receptionist as she walked quietly across the office, dragging a nearly spitting Rei through the outer door as she went.

 

As soon as the door closed, Rei threw off Minako's offending hand in outrage. 

 

"What were you thinking!" she erupted.  "That pompous windbag basically blew us off, and you just sat there and smiled!  'Yes, Dr. Yamato!  You may be right, Dr. Yamato'!" Rei mocked in fury, as a seemingly unmoved Minako pulled out her cell phone.  "'I promise, I'll think about it some more before I listen to the insane ravings of my silly little friend, that odd priestess from the Hikawa Shrine,'" she spat as Minako punched in a speed dial number and raised the phone to her ear.  "And just what in the seven hells is so important that you have to make a phone call right now!  I thought you were going to go 'think about this' some more," she raved.

 

"I did," Minako stated in all seriousness, as Rei glared at her in disbelief.

 

"Hello?  Ami-chan?  This is Minako..."

 

_______________________________________________________

 

The trip to Ami's office was strained, tense and traversed mostly in silence. The administrative assistant seemed to sense that something was off, and wisely decided to confine her attention to the sudden change in itinerary and not the obviously incensed priestess.  Rei had not uttered a word since her initial outburst outside Yamato's office, and Minako couldn't help but wonder if the usually word frugal priestess had just overshot her quota for the day. 

 

The muffled ringing of a cell phone issued forth from the depths of the leather blazer she was wearing, but without even bothering to look, Rei just dropped her hand inside her pocket and silenced it.

 

"Nishizaki?" Minako asked, suddenly feeling the need to hear Rei say something.  Anything.

 

A short affirmative nod from a head that still refused to turn and look at her was at least some response, but Minako suddenly found it inadequate.

 

"Are you so sure?" she challenged.  "It could have been anyone, couldn't it?"

 

Rei shrugged and continued down the hallway, the only sign of her irritation her darkening skin tone.

 

"What if it...," Minako began stubbornly, only to find herself addressing the air.

 

Without a single word of warning, Rei turned into a side door marked 'staff restroom' and locked it behind her with a loud "snap", leaving a vacuum of silence in her wake, as well as Minako and their confused looking guide.  Minako looked at the door a moment and then frowned.

 

'Oh, no you don't,' she thought to herself.  Digging through the contents of her purse, she came up with an old backstage pass and clicked the bag shut.  Turning to their confused guide, Minako graced her with a charming smile. "We'll be just a minute," she confided, then turned and easily jimmied the lock with a practiced hand, slipping inside the small room and relocking the door behind her.

 

"What are you doing?" she hissed as she turned and flipped on the lightswitch Rei hadn't even bothered to touch.

 

"Getting some space," Rei gritted out. Minako watched as her jaw clinched, a clear indication of just how pissed she really was.  "You can't take a hint?"

"We don't have time for this," Minako said sternly.  "Ami is waiting."

 

"Then go," Rei responded tightly.

 

"What is your problem?" Minako demanded in anger.

 

"You mean you can't figure it out?" Rei spat, in a furious voice.  "Maybe you should take some extra time and go think about it."

 

Minako's frown deepened.

 

"Is that what this is about?" she asked, incredulous.  "Surely you know that was just a feint to get us out of his office without bloodshed."

 

"Oh, is that all it was?"  Rei challenged sarcastically.  "Well, I guess maybe that is a good enough reason to leave me hanging in the breeze!"

 

"Don't be ridiculous! You know I would never..."

 

"Then what would you call it?" Rei demanded, cutting her off in fury.

 

"Protecting one of my own," Minako retorted angrily, meeting Rei's flashing eyes with her own. "I know you! You were a split second away from grabbing that man by the throat.  Don't deny it!  You know it's true," she said firmly as the priestess opened her mouth in protest.  "I could already see the headlines: ‘Mysterious Local Heroine Attacks Prominent Tokyo Neurosurgeon--Film at Eleven!’" 

 

Rei continued to glare at the idol, but Minako could sense that she had scored her point.  Rei was listening. So Minako pressed on, confidant in her knowledge of the temperamental priestess.

 

"Can you even begin to imagine the feeding frenzy the press would have had when the police hauled you out of here?  Because I can assure you, Dr. Yamato would have pressed charges!"

 

Minako watched intently as Rei's fingers started to relax their white knuckled grip on the restroom vanity. With a secret sigh of relief, she allowed herself to relax a bit as well, and her caramel colored eyes softened as she studied her partner thoughtfully.

 

"Rei," she continued softly. "You've always had my back.  Sometimes I've been hurt by your words, but my heart has always known that.  Believe that I have yours, too.  Trust me."

 

Rei quickly looked up into the deep caramel of her eyes, the words of reassurance trembling on the tip of her tongue. 

 

Then she hesitated.  Just a second...

 

But it was enough.

 

Minako looked away, but not quite fast enough to hide the hurt as it flashed through those beautiful eyes.

 

"I see," she said softly. Turning toward the door, she reached out, resting her hand gently on the knob, her back to the quiet priestess.  "Take all the time you need, then.  I'll be with Ami-chan." 

 

And before Rei could summon up the words to respond, she was gone, leaving the room and the priestess in a space made suddenly darker for want of her natural warmth and light.

_____________________________________________________________  

 

Ami's office was situated a bit differently from Dr. Yamato's.  Being a member of the younger staff, she shared a suite with several of the other young doctors on the medical center staff.  Neat and compact, the four private offices opened into a central work area occupied by two secretaries who toiled away for all four of the over-worked 'up-and-comers'.  The older of the two women spotted Minako and her administrative guide as soon as they entered, and spoke first.

 

"Good morning. May I help you?" she asked, studying them over the top of her reading glasses.

 

"Yes," Minako's escort said politely.  "Aino-san is here to see Dr. Mizuno.  I believe she is expected."

 

"Yes, of course," the secretary smiled warmly.  "I'll buzz you right in.  It's door #1," she added, pointing the way, even as she leaned toward her interoffice intercom.  "Dr. Mizuno?  Your 10:00 has arrived."

 

With a nod to the older woman, Minako turned toward Ami's door just as it began to open.

 

And there she was.

 

It had been awhile since she'd last seen the young genius, but she would have known her old teammate anywhere.  Some things had changed, but she knew others never would.  The younger woman looked closer to her age now, and the long hair that had always been pulled back into a neat, no-nonsense style was now much shorter, framing her face in a flattering and yet still no-nonsense manner. Her eyes reflected a warmth and intelligence that seemed much deeper than Minako remembered, and yet her welcoming smile was unmistakable.

 

The shy genius-girl had grown up.

 

"Minako-chan!  It's so good to see you again!  Please, come in," Ami said, stepping back to hold the door open for her guest. 

 

With a nod to her guide, Minako stepped forward into Ami's office and the quick, friendly hug waiting for her just inside the door.

 

"Hey, Ami-chan!  Thanks for seeing me on such short notice.  I hope I didn't disrupt anything important for you?"

 

"No, not at all," Ami answered with a smile.  "It's actually my day off.  I was just here going over some patient charts for tomorrow.  Where's Rei-chan?" she asked, looking back into the work area curiously.  "I thought she was with you today."

 

"She is," Minako replied, just managing to keep any hint of her personal feelings out of her answer. "She’s been waylaid.  I'm sure she'll join us whenever she..."

 

The sound of an abruptly opened door and hurried footsteps interrupted her explanation, and she didn't have to turn to know who was now standing right behind her.  The soft scent of violets and old incense, mixed with just a touch of the leather from her jacket would have been more than enough, but the sudden warmth around her heart was all she really needed for confirmation.

 

"Rei-chan!" Ami exclaimed.  Greeting her old friend with obvious delight, she stepped eagerly into Rei's friendly hug.

 

"Hey, Ami-chan," Rei answered warmly.

 

As she watched them, Minako could see the priestess returning Ami's affectionate hug in kind.  The small pang of jealousy startled her at first, even though logically she knew she had nothing to fear from either one of them.  Still, it was hard. There was a closeness there.  A camaraderie that she had never totally felt a part of.  She closed her eyes and looked away.  Today was proving to be even more trying than she had feared, and it wasn't even half over yet.

 

The touch of Ami's hand on her arm brought her attention back from the uncomfortable place it was headed to, and she looked down to see the young woman smiling at her with pure happiness.

 

"Now that you're both here, let's get settled," Ami coaxed as she pulled them both further into her office. 

 

As they crossed the room together, Minako was keenly aware of Rei's presence.  She knew the priestess was trying to catch her eye, but she just couldn't bring herself to meet the dark chocolate reality of Rei's concern staring her in the face.  The painful knowledge of Rei's distrust was still too fresh and she just needed to deal with one crisis at a time.  Right now, it was Ami's turn.

 

After the young doctor settled her guests into comfortable chairs in front of her tidy desk, she rounded it and dropped into a well used leather computer chair. "So, what can I help you with today?" she asked, her intelligent eyes studying them through the clear lenses of her square, wire-rimmed frames.  "Is there a new problem for us to address?"

 

"No, nothing like that," Minako began, suddenly self conscious as her eyes dropped to study her hands.  "To be honest, it's really more of an old problem."

 

"What do you mean?" Ami asked confused.  Sensing the discomfort Minako was trying to hide, Ami looked questioningly at Rei, then back in time to watch as the idol's fingers gripped and ungripped her handbag convulsively. With a tiny frown and subtle change of voice, the doctor probed a bit more gently.  "What's going on, Minako-chan?"

 

"It seems my previous condition has returned," she answered, her voice soft, but unbelievably clear in its quiet announcement. Though her face remained hidden, Ami could easily pick up the slight undertone of fear.

 

The doctor stared at her in silence for several seconds, stunned by a piece of news she would never have expected to hear.

 

"How do you know this?  I mean, are you sure you're not mistaken?" Ami finally asked with serious intensity.  "I thought Usagi reset everything!  Why should this come back at all, much less now?"

 

With a slight shrug of her slim shoulders and an expression that looked more like a grimace than a frown, Minako looked up and shook her head. "I don't know, Ami-chan.  I really don't know."    

 

Ami’s brows knit together in confusion.  "This makes no sense," she announced. "No sense at all."  The small furrow between her eyes deepened.  "Have you been having any symptoms?"

 

Minako sighed as the barrage of questions began again. "No."

 

"No discomfort?"

 

"No."

 

"No dizziness or loss of vision?"

 

"No."

 

"Then what makes you so su..." the doctor began, only to stop as abruptly as she had started.  Eyes widening, she turned suddenly to Rei, who met her gaze squarely, but swallowed heavily.  "Rei?  You didn't..." she began, her voice trailing off, not wanting to even complete such a thought.

 

Rei could only nod shortly, her own distress overwhelmingly apparent to her old comrade.

 

Suddenly the atmosphere in the whole room changed.

 

Sitting up straighter in her chair, Ami pulled forward a yellow legal pad and reached for her pen, her attitude now all business.

 

"How long ago did you first have this vision?" she asked, already beginning to make notes, the pen moving swiftly over the yellow sheet.

 

"A little over a month ago," Rei responded, a little surprised that she should be the one being questioned.

 

"Are you absolutely sure it wasn't just a random nightmare?  A bad dream arising from an old fear?"

 

Rei frowned.  "Oh course not!" she protested.  "There's a distinct difference.  Besides, I was at meditation at the time."

 

"Hm," Ami murmured by way of acknowledgment as she reached for her mouse and pulled up a fresh screen on her computer.  "You had Cushing's Disease, didn't you?" she asked Minako as she clicked through several windows before stopping on the one she was looking for.

 

"Yes," Minako answered, a bit surprised.  "How did you know?"

 

Ami looked up at them from the computer screen she'd been scanning.  "I have to admit, I often wondered about what it might have been.  Then one day, as I was going through my neuro rotation it hit me."  She smiled shyly.  "There was nothing else that truly fit the symptoms as I remembered them."

 

Minako shook her head, a tiny smile creasing her lips in quiet admiration.  "I don't know why that surprises me."

 

Ami blushed and self-consciously reached up to adjust her glasses.  Turning back to her computer screen, she cleared her throat and returned to the business at hand.  "Knowing what we do about the disease process, as well as Rei's ability to warn us in advance of impending danger, I think we're probably in very good shape.  A few simple tests should settle the matter and show us just how quickly we've caught this.  Who is your neurosurgeon, Minako-chan?" Ami asked, turning to look back at her.  "Have you talked with them about this yet?"

 

Without having to look at Rei to see the scowl she already knew was there, she answered.  "Yes, we had just gotten through speaking with him when we called you."

 

"And?"  Ami asked expectantly.

"It didn't go very well," Minako replied.  "It appears our good Dr. Yamato doesn't care very much for the spiritual arts."

 

Ami looked from Minako to Rei, who sat stoically next to the idol singer.  The priestess said not a word, but she didn't have to.  Her face spoke volumes, and Ami was well versed in this particular author's style of narrative.

 

"So-o-o," the young doctor intoned slowly as she processed this information thoughtfully.  "He was unwilling to test you, then?"

 

"He didn't seem to feel it was really needed at this time.  Then he suggested I give it some more thought before I leap back into all that exhaustive testing again," Minako answered.

 

Ami looked confused.  "What do you mean, 'exhaustive testing'?"

 

Minako frowned.  "Well, you know!  Last time it took over three weeks of lab work, x-rays and several different kinds of studies for them to finally get a diagnosis."  Rei watched as Minako shivered, a combination of room temperature and bad memories.  "It was a horrible experience," she said, her haunted eyes dropping to her lap again as she rubbed her hands slowly up and down her chilled arms.

 

Ami nodded her head in understanding.  "I can see where it would seem like torture to a child," she said gently.  "Back then Cushings was extremely hard to diagnose, and even harder to treat once recognized."  She shook her head in wonder.  "How you were able to maintain a passing average, a growing professional career and a group of young magical girls while going through all you did is beyond me."

 

"It had to be done," the idol said simply.

 

"Well," Ami replied, with a reassuring smile.  "You'll be happy to know that times have changed."

 

"What do you mean?"  Minako asked.

 

"Great leaps have been made in both diagnostic testing as well as treatment options."  She shook her head.  "While this is not my area of expertise, I have a good friend that I graduated from medical school with.  Dr. Akai Kenji. I trust him implicitly!  He's a brilliant neurosurgeon and totally up-to-date on all the latest techniques and procedures. While Dr.Yamato is excellent in his field, I've found that he tends to be a little too 'old school' in his thinking sometimes."  Ami smiled gently at Minako.  "Would you let me speak to Dr. Akai on your behalf?" she asked softly.

 

"If you think that's what's best," Minako said, afraid to admit to a slight feeling of relief at Ami's obvious confidence in her friend and colleague. "Of course." 

 

Ami's smile broadened. "Then I'll take care of it," she said. "If it helps, I think you'll actually like him, too," she added, reaching for her phone. "I'll just see if he's in... Himiko?  Could you see if Dr. Akai is in his office and available?  I'd like to speak with him there a few minutes if possible...Yes, I can hold," she said, then turned to grin at the girls.  "I'd better prepare him before he sees you," she confided.  "He's a huge fanboy when it comes to you, and if I don't give him fair warning about who he's going to be seeing, he may pass out when her walks through the door."  Eyes twinkling as she confided that tidbit of information with them, Ami's attention was pulled back to the phone by a voice on the other end of the line.  "Kenji-kun?  Hi, it's Ami-chan.  Are you going to be in your office a few minutes?...Good!  Look, I have a patient I need you to see, today if possible...No...No...She's sitting in my office right now...No, I'd rather come over there first...I know that, but I think it would be better if we discuss this particular case before you see the patient...OK, I'll be there in just a sec. Bye."

 

Ami hung up the phone and rose from her chair with a happy grin.  "He's going to be so excited," she said as she headed to the door. "We shouldn't be too long so please, just make yourselves comfortable.  We'll be right back." With a quick wave she was gone, closing the door behind her.

 

Now, alone with Rei, Minako felt as if the room had suddenly become much smaller. The silence around them was disconcerting, and to make matters worse, she felt as if she were going to freeze to death. Ami seemed to have developed a deep appreciation for a cold environment and the only sounds in the room came from the wall register and the dull whine of the computer somewhere beneath the large desk.

 

She knew Rei wanted to speak with her, but she also knew the priestess wasn't sure of how to start. For the life of her she didn't know how to help her this time. Closing her eyes, she hugged her arms against her chest, searching for any kind of warmth she could find to combat the cold in both her body and her spirit.

 

The feel of warm brown leather startled her.  Spinning in her chair only gave the priestess standing behind her an even better opportunity to wrap the jacket more snuggly around her chilled frame.  As she looked up in surprise, all it took was one glance at those warm brown eyes, and Minako quickly turned back toward the front, her heart racing as Rei's hands came to rest gently on her slight shoulders.

 

"Why you would wear such a dress on a day like today is beyond my ability to understand," the priestess groused softly.

 

Minako hesitated a moment before allowing her voice to break the stillness of the room.  "You don't think it's attractive?"

 

Rei frowned. "Of course I do! That's beside the point," she said, though her tone seemed more concerned than argumentative.

 

Minako's lips formed a bittersweet smile.  "Actually, that was the point."

 

Rei went still behind her, and Minako heard her swallow heavily before her voice began again, this time with a marked reluctance.

 

"I'm... I'm not worth catching pneumonia over," she chastised gruffly.

 

"I think I can be the judge of that," Minako answered softly, somewhat comforted by the normal give and take of this awkward conversation.  "Wouldn't you take care of me if I did?"

 

"Of course," Rei replied, as if that were the stupidest question in the world.

 

"So you'd feed me chicken soup, wipe my fevered brow and read the tabloids to me?"

 

"Yes, if that's what you wanted."

 

"And you'd tuck me in every night?"

 

"Yes!"

 

"Then it's worth it," Minako concluded, raising her right hand to place it warmly over Rei's left as it rested on her shoulder.

 

Rei stared at the top of Minako's head a full thirty seconds before she could close her mouth and offer any kind of response.

 

"Ri... ridiculous!"

 

Minako smirked as she felt Rei fuming behind her. 

 

Several seconds ticked by, and Minako could tell that Rei was searching for a way to attack the wall that still loomed unseen between them.  Eventually, the priestess opted for her usual full frontal assault.

 

"Minako?" she began.

 

"Hmm?"

 

"About that conversation ..."

 

"The one we had in the restroom?"  Minako prompted, knowing full well that's what she meant, but trying to be helpful.

 

"Um," Rei acknowledge. "I ...uh...I think it's important that you know..."

 

"Know what, Rei?"  Minako asked.

 

Minako could feel the struggle going on behind her.  It was one she knew very well, and she waited, knowing this was something only Rei herself could overcome.  Eventually, the priestess spoke again, her voice low and regretful.

 

"I do trust you, Minako.  Don't ever doubt that!"

 

Minako felt her jaw clinch tightly.  "Then, why?"

 

"I just felt so stupid for allowing myself to get caught in that situation!"  Rei blurted out in frustration.

 

The band that had felt as if it were constricting the idol singer’s chest suddenly released, and a tiny smile of relief creased her lips.  Minako could feel the energy from Rei's anger with herself through the young priestess' fingers as they tightened, trembling ever so slightly on her shoulders, and she gently squeezed the hand under hers.

 

"That temper of yours, and your damnable pride were always your two biggest obstacles," she commented wryly.

 

"I know," Rei conceded.

 

"But, they were also part of your unique charm."

 

Rei leaned over gingerly to see if she could tell whether Minako was being serious or not, and found herself looking into the amused eyes of someone who seemed to mean more to her with each passing hour.  With a self-conscious grin she insisted, "I have been working on that you know."

 

"I can tell," Minako admitted.

 

Rei seemed pleasantly surprised.  "Really?"

 

"Sure, you're not in prison." 

 

As Rei scowled, Minako's face lit up in a 100 watt smile.  "Now, that's more like it!" she insisted warmly.

 

As the tension between them shattered, Minako realized that the room wasn't as small and cold as she had originally thought it was.  It was actually a rather comfortable, if well-worn sanctuary, and Ami had made it uniquely her own.  Besides the unusually large number of diplomas, shingles, awards and certificates, there was also a huge selection of photographs of friends, family and co-workers.  It wasn't hard to find their group.  The portrait shot had been taken at Makoto's wedding and showed them all looking happy and healthy.  Makoto was radiant in white lace, while Motoki managed to look both proud and embarrassed at the same time: A phenomena not uncommon to most grooms. A very pregnant Usagi clung to her long-suffering husband’s arm like a remora and Ami herself was grinning like a Cheshire cat beside the Prince, another unidentified yet oddly familiar young woman standing next to her.  On Makoto's other side stood Rei and herself.  Next to each other as always, but not touching.

 

Ah, the good old days.

 

Minako's eyes returned to Ami's desk.  "Who's that?" she asked indicating the framed portrait of Ami and that same young woman from Makoto's wedding picture.

 

Rei looked at it briefly and said, "That's Naru."  At Minako's blank look, she continued.  "She was Usagi's best friend in school.  Now she's Ami's partner."

 

Minako's eyes widened in shocked amusement.  "She's Ami-chan's what?"

 

"Her life partner," Rei stated, as a matter of course.  "They've been together for years."

 

Minako looked back at the happy couple on Ami's desk.  The girl looked vaguely familiar, and Minako couldn't help wondering if they had somehow met before.

 

"She's cute," the idol observed.

 

As the door opened behind them, Minako was surprised but very comforted by the fact that Rei made no attempt to move away from her.  Instead, the priestess remained as she had been, her hands continuing to rest gently on the idol singer’s shoulders. As Minako rose to her feet to greet Ami and her friend, Rei moved up next to her and Minako smiled as she felt the warm pressure of Rei's hand against the small of her back.  A bit of her nervousness slipped away as if banished by one of the priestess' ofuda.

 

"Aino Minako.  Hino Rei.  I'd like you to meet Dr. Akai Kenji."

 

Minako regarded the serious looking young man standing stiffly at Ami's side.  Of average build and height, he was totally clean shaven, his observant eyes studying her from behind dark rimmed glasses.  A matching pen and pencil set was visible in the left breast pocket of his spotlessly clean white lab coat, and a stethoscope was slung loosely around the back of his neck.  From his starched white dress shirt to his highly polished black oxfords, he was the picture of medical professionalism.  However...

 

Minako made two crucial observations that instantly endeared the man to her. First, as calm and controlled as he looked as he offered her a formal bow, she could clearly see the tops of his ears were a flaming red, the only outward sign of his nervousness.  Second, and most important to her was the small, brightly colored tietac that adorned his rather conservative looking tie.

 

It was Nako-Nako.

 

Minako couldn't help but wonder if he were secretly wearing the matching Nako-Nako boxers.

 

A smile of absolute delight lit her features, and she stepped forward to meet her new doctor warmly.  "Dr. Akai!  I'm so happy you were able to see me today."

 

The young man stared at her, totally frozen in place for a couple of seconds, his eyes large and awestruck.  Finally getting a grip on himself and responding to her question, he was relieved that his voice only cracked once. "I'm always happy to help Dr. Mizuno and her patients whenever I can," he said with a shy smile.

 

"Well, I'm grateful for whatever time you can spare for me," Minako confided.  "Dr. Mizuno has spoken with you about my case then?" she asked.

 

"Yes, she has," Dr. Akai replied, "and I think we should be able to clear up any questions you may have about a possible recurrence pretty quickly."

 

"Really?"  Minako questioned, surprised.  "How soon would we know something?"

 

"Possibly as soon as this evening."

 

Minako was shocked.  "That soon?"  She looked at Ami, who nodded her confirmation with an encouraging smile.

 

"Sure," Dr. Akai said, matter-of-factly.  "It's really only a matter of getting some blood work and an MRI scan.  If you're up for it, I can draw your blood now, and then set you up for an MRI after lunch."

 

"You can't be serious!  It's really that simple?" she asked, confused, looking quickly to Rei and then back to Dr. Akai.  All her memories revolved around needles and drips and scans and hours of tests, followed by days and weeks of waiting, and more needles and tests and x-rays that seemed to go on and on and on.

 

'No, I'm really telling you the truth, Aino-san," Dr. Akai assured her earnestly.  "I promise, I would never mislead you about something like that!  Ami-ch... I mean, Dr. Mizuno explained to me all you went through before, but I promise, I'll never put you through anything I'm not totally sure is in your best interests!"  Taking a deep breath, Dr. Akai closed his eyes and collected himself before continuing.  "Aino-san.  I know how important this is to you.  It has to be upsetting to think that after all you've already been through, that this situation could possibly be back, threatening to harm you or even take you life.  But, I don't want you to think about it that way right now!  If you allow me to take your case, I want you to look upon this as a team effort."

 

Minako looked up at him, startled.

 

"What's happening to you will affect all the members of your team, so everyone will have to do their part for 'Team Minako' to win through.  Does that make sense?"

 

"Yes!" Rei blurted out, speaking for the first time since Ami and Akai had gotten there.

 

Dr. Akai smiled with gratitude towards his newest ally.  "See?  Your team is already assembled and ready to begin," he said.

 

"Me too!" Ami chimed in, answering Rei's grin with one of her own.

 

"Your legion grows!"  Akai quipped, getting into the spirit with a cheesy grin of his own.  "Seriously though, it's important to keep in mind that you are not alone.  There are people here to help you and support you through whatever 'Team Minako' must face.  That's their job.  My job is to get in there, find out what's going on and then lead the charge against it.  Your job is to do what I ask of you and to fight like hell for a victory."

 

"And let us do our jobs," Rei added firmly.  "She had a problem with that last time," she added by way of explanation to Akai's questioning look.

 

"Ah yes.  It's important that all team members be allowed to do their best," Dr. Akai confirmed. "So, Aino-san, what do you think?  Is 'Team  Minako' ready to accept the challenge?"  He watched her a moment, then added softly, "Are you?"

 

Minako looked around her. All the hopeful faces, looking to her to start the process, and she smiled.

 

"Let the games begin."

 

 

_____________________________________________________________

 

 

 

Friday Evening

 

"I can't believe they're still showing this," Rei grumped as she continued to glare at the television across the room.  "This was yesterday!  Can't they find anything more interesting to broadcast?"

 

Clips of Rei's press conference flashed across the screen, and Minako laughed roundly as they once again watched the priestess lunge to her feet and back the cheeky reporter from the Sun away from the conference table.

 

"This is over," idol singer intoned grimly, in perfect sync with the words coming from Rei's recorded visage.  "I have nothing more to say!"

 

Tossing a pillow at the other young woman, Rei said "Come on, Minako!  We've seen this six times on four different stations!  Can't you just change the channel already?"

 

Clutching the remote to her chest, Minako refused.  "Oh no, Miss 'it doesn't suit me'!  I intend to enjoy every single moment of this I can possibly catch!"

 

At Rei's ever darkening scowl, she grinned. "I told you they love all that temperamental stuff!  I wouldn't be surprised to see this aired somewhere, at least once a week, for the next eight months."

 

Crossing her arms over her chest, Rei leaned back on the couch and propped her feet up on the coffee table with a grunt, totally prepared to ignore Minako for the rest of the evening.  Or at least as long as she wanted to play this game.  She had been in amazingly good spirits ever since they returned from the hospital, and Rei was hopeful of keeping her that way as they both waited anxiously for the call from Dr. Akai.

 

The rest of the day following their ‘Team Meeting' in Ami's office had gone off without a hitch.  Dr. Akai had drawn Minako's bloodwork himself and taken it down to the lab to personally oversee the tests to be run on it.  Ami had gotten her an appointment for an MRI at 2:00pm and they'd had plenty of time for a leisurely lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant before hand. Rei smirked.  And she'd had plenty of time to conspire with Saitou on a secret little project of her own while Minako was in the scanner.

 

They had gotten back to the penthouse a little after 4:00, at which time Rei had insisted that they both needed a nap. Marika had left a wonderful dinner for them, and now tired and well-fed, they had resorted to the TV to keep them distracted.  Unfortunately, Minako had claimed control of the remote and Rei was now at her mercy for the rest of the evening, which was bad because Rei knew she didn't have any.  Looking away from the television, Rei pretended to be more irritated than she really was, and was actually gratified to see the idol smiling as she started to channel surf in hopes of finding the press conference yet again.

 

The abrupt ringing of a nearby phone startled both of them until Rei recognized the ringtone of her own cellphone once again.  Rolling her eyes toward Minako, she said in a sarcastic tone, "Gee, I wonder who that could be?"  As Minako grinned at her, she added, "You’d think that after having his calls ignored all day he'd buy a clue."

 

"Why would you think that?"  Minako asked.  "Saitou never does."  After a thoughtful pause, she added, "You don't think they could be related, do you?"

 

That caused Rei to pause a moment and actually consider the possibility.  The similarities were a bit frightening.

 

"Let's not go there," Rei said wisely, picking up her phone nonetheless to check the caller ID.  The name that appeared in the window however, was not the one she was expecting and her eyebrows shot straight up.

 

"I take it it's not your father's secretary this time," Minako said.

 

Shaking her head no, Rei actually answered it.

 

"Good evening, papa."

 

Feeling her own brows rise in surprise, Minako stood and gestured that she would be back in a few minutes.  Rei nodded in understanding and continued talking to the senator, hoping that it wouldn't take too long.

 

"Yes, I'm doing very well, thank you, papa ... yes ... yes, I got the messages from him ... no, I didn't feel a need to talk to him ... sometimes you're busy?  And I'm not? ... No.  I will not play that game.  If you want to speak to me, you make the call. I will answer ... Oh.  You saw that ... well, yes.  I did what I had to do ... yes ... yes, I really am fine ... you saw the press conference too? ... Oh!  Well, I'm glad you approve ..."

 

Minako's home phone began to ring, and Rei watched helplessly as the idol re-entered the living room and looked down at her own caller ID.  Closing her eyes briefly, she looked back up and nodded to Rei before picking up the portable unit. 

 

"Hello?"

 

Frustrated, Rei could only watch as Minako took the call they had been dreading all evening, and try to find a way to end this chat with her mostly absent father.  She grimaced.  He had picked a really rotten time to call and play catch-up.

 

"What was that?" she asked, having totally missed his question as she strained to hear what Minako was saying across the room.  Minako nodded her head a few times and asked a question. 

 

Rei frowned. "You want to have lunch sometime next week?  I don't know, papa.  Things are a bit hectic right now, and I ..." 

 

Eyes riveted to Minako, Rei felt her stomach clinch as the other young woman's face blanched white and the hand holding the receiver began to shake.

 

"Just a quick business dinner so the press can see us together?"

 

After a few more whispered words, Minako turned off the handset and Rei watched in silence as it fell from her suddenly numb fingers and bounced mutely against the carpeted floor.

 

"Uh ... maybe.  Um.  I'll have to get back to you on that."

 

Without a sound, and without once looking in Rei's direction, Minako moved slowly toward the balcony door.  As Artemis rose to follow her, she simply raised one hand in his direction, and he sank dejectedly back onto the chair he had been resting on.  His eyes lowered in pained sadness as Minako vanished onto the darkened balcony.

 

"Papa," Rei said firmly.  "I have to go now ... no ... no, I have a commitment ... sorry, but I'm already late ... yes, that will be fine ... Call me next week then ... okay, papa. Bye."

 

Quickly dropping the phone on the coffee table, Rei moved purposefully toward the door Minako had just gone through.  It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the sudden lose of light as she stepped through the doors, but after only a brief pause to orient herself she saw her.  Standing against the brick railing, Minako was looking out over the twinkling lights of the city stretched out as far as the eye could see, her hands resting gently on top of it as if for lack of something else to hold on to.

 

"Minako," Rei called to her softly, her voice urgent.

 

Silence hung heavily in the air, until Minako swallowed and said stiffly, "Mars."

 

Ignoring the more formal use of her senshi name, Rei moved forward several more steps.  "Wasn't that the doctor?  Did he ..." she took a deep breath.  "What did he say?" she demanded.

 

Minako shook her head and the sound that left her lips was too bitter to be called laughter.

 

"You were right.  I should have known, you were so right."

 

"Minako," Rei said, her voice a bare whisper.

 

"They found it this afternoon on the MRI scans.  It's deep inside my brain, buried in the pituitary but, oh!  I shouldn't worry about it right now!  They're going to study my options, and we'll talk about it sometime next week."

 

She shook her head again, and Rei could see the moonlight reflecting off the angry tears streaming down her cheeks as she finally turned to face her.

 

"Well then.  You should be quite pleased.  He finally showed his face, didn't he?  That distant demon you were so sure was there all along."  Choking back her tears, she said, "You must be feeling pretty justified right about..."

 

"NO!" Rei screamed, and Minako felt the other woman's arms wrap around her convulsively as Rei buried her face against the side of her neck.  "Don't say it!  Please, don't say it!" she pleaded. Startled, Minako felt the sting of hot tears against her cheek that were not her own, and she was suddenly aware of the violent trembling of the body pressed so tightly against her own.

 

"How could you ever think I would find any joy in this?  Any satisfaction?"  Rei demanded in a choked voice.  Tightening her arms around Minako, Rei whispered against the side of her neck.  "I can't lose you again, Mina!  I swear it!  I...just...c...can't..."

 

Enfolding the emotionally shattered priestess into her arms, Minako closed her eyes and returned her hug with every bit of strength she could muster.

 

They clung to each other desperately, their tears intermingling in the quiet of the darkness that surrounded them.  Rei, determined to hold onto Minako with everything she had, and Minako, grateful at least, to finally have her Reiko to hold on to. 

 

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

END PART NINE