Echoes Of A Distant Demon

By: Sailor Doc

 

Chapter Ten

"Minako!"

The fall had been totally unexpected, but the abrupt stop at the end of it had been excruciating. Venus screamed in pain as she landed on a pile of jagged stones that tore at her flesh and left her right leg bent at an angle that was distinctly not natural.

She had totally underestimated the threat posed by the large, slow moving youma, and now she was in a really bad spot. Cut off and separated from Mars, her only backup on this supposedly simple scouting trip, she now found herself severely wounded and trapped at the bottom of a deep ravine she had no way of getting out of by herself. To add to her dilemma, the blob-like creature was still patrolling the ground above her, its long gray tentacles probing all the nooks and crannies it could not see into below it. She involuntarily shivered in revulsion as she watched the quivering tip of one slide over and under a nearby boulder.

This wasnít good.

Attempting a deep breath to calm her shaky nerves and aching body, she winced, barely biting down on the gasp of pain that sprang to her lips at the a sudden, sharp and very deep pain in her side.

That couldnít be good either.

Senshi healing was a wonderful thing, but even it wasnít going to be fast enough to help her right now.

Through the haze of her pain she heard her communicator come to life, the voice at the other end a welcome sound to her battered ears.

"Venus!"

Marsí tone was forceful, but controlled, the worry instantly apparent to her partner. "Venus, where are you?"

Feeling her aching muscles scream in protest, Minako raised the devise to her lips and responded. "Mars. Do you... do you see the edge of the ravine the youma is... hovering over?" she managed to get out, her pain coming through loud and clear.

"Yes," the impatience Martian responded.

"Well... Iím at... the bottom of it."

There was a moment of silence punctuated only by a gurgling moan from the hideous beast hanging over the edge of the drop off, still searching for itís downed foe.

"Iíll be right there," came the clipped reply.

"No Mars! No! Wait!" Venus ordered, failing miserably in her attempt to sit up. "We have to talk about this!"

"Weíll talk later," Marsí humorless voice came back, and Venus could tell the Martian was at a dead run.

"Mars! Stop!"

The next thing the Senshi leader saw was a flash of red and white as her second in command sailed headfirst over the edge of the precipice. Long, black hair flowed out behind her like an ebony cloak, and for a moment she seemed suspended there. Her fingers stretched out before her, reaching, straining for what the flabbergasted Venusian could only guess, because the only thing between Mars and a bed of rocks next to her was the open air and the youma itself!

What was she thinking?

Minako watched in horror as Mars began to fall. Faster and faster she hurdled toward the ground until her fingers found purchase on one of the long gray appendages dangling below the creature and she hung on for dear life. Even as the ugly beast began to realize what was happening, the Martian had started to scramble quickly toward the ground, which she hit running.

But not quite fast enough.

Before she could reach her objective, one of the gray tentacles twined itself around her ankle and she fell to the ground hard, just at Venusí feet. Undeterred, Mars sat up and kicked at the beast with her free leg, even as she tried to scoot back away from it and closer to her partner.

"Rei!" Minako cried out on shock and horror. "Are you in insane?"

"Stay back!" Mars ordered grimly, even as she once again jabbed her heel into the unforgiving flesh of the angry youma. "Iíve got this."

Venus stared at her incredulously. "Youíve got what?" she began, only to feel a bolt of pure fear as she watched the beast begin to slowly pull the Martian away from her.

"Venus Love Me Chain!"

Reaching deeply inside herself, Venus pushed past her pain and lashed out at the beast with the last of her remaining strength, wrapping the chain of light around the tentacle attached to Marsí ankle. The creature howled in pain and turned its attention to the previously unnoticed object of its original search. Beady, black eyes latched onto the wounded senshi and another tentacle shot forward, wrapping itself up the length of the uninjured leg braced in front of her, and then around her waist. As Venusí chain bit into the thick, gray flesh, the beast began to squeeze, starting a battle of wills the gravely injured Venusian was much too weakened to win. Teeth gritted against the pain and pressure, both of which seemed to increase by the second, she almost, almost missed the gentle hand that came to rest against the top of her shin, just next to one of the gray loops of constricting flesh that was cutting off the blood supply to her leg. Looking down the length of her tortured body she saw her partner, and her soul wept.

Mars was face down on the ground, one leg still held in the monstersí grip, but two more tentacles had entrapped her as well. The second one around her right arm, and the third totally encasing her torso like a cocoon. She had somehow managed to free her left arm and that was what had allowed her to stretch out enough to reach her partner.

"Mina..." Her voice was strained, but clear. Chocolate colored eyes gazed up at her and incredibly, Mars smiled.

"Trust me?"

Tears sprang to Minakoís eyes at the gentle comfort she could see in Reiís loving eyes. She nodded her head without the slightest hesitation and watched as Rei nodded in answer. Then, the smile that had just graced the Martianís face vanished, an angry, defiant sneer taking its place. The dark chocolate eyes turned pure violet and Venus saw the trembling hand that had been resting so gently against her leg raise just enough to wrap itís fingers around the offending appendage trying to crush her. Rei closed her eyes and took a labored breath.

"Fire... Soul!"

Violet eyes opened as those two words were uttered through gritted teeth, and Venus watched in fascination as a brilliant flame encased her partner, its heat so intense it seemed more a wavy mirage than a powerful element at work. Hazy flames shot out of Marsí fingertips and traveled with incredible speed up the creatureís tentacle and then began to spread out over its entire length and width. Even where it came in contact with her own flesh she could clearly see the flames surrounding and consuming the beast, and yet while it screamed and writhed in obvious agony, Minako felt no heat at all. Reiís control was such that not even the slightest hair on her head had been singed.

With a howl, the Youma released them both, and turned, trying to make a desperate bid for escape. But by then it was too late. Still held in place by Venusí chain, he continued to burn in the flames of Marsí fury until he turned to ash and was scattered away from them on the breath of a fitful breeze.

Breathing heavily, Mars looked over at her wounded leader. "Are you okay?"

As much as she wanted to lie, she knew she couldnít. Not now. Not when it was just them, and looking down at the ground she shook her head as tears began to roll down her cheeks. Scrambling across the ground, Rei slid in behind her and gathered the trembling Venusian up in her arms, holding her lover close against her chest as Minako let go of all the pain and fear. They stayed like that for several minutes until Minako finally raised her head and looked up into concerned dark brown orbs. "You! I should kick your butt for that stunt! What in the name of all that is holy were you thinking?"

As Mars started to answer, Venus cut her off. "Donít even bother trying to answer that, because itís clear you werenít thinking at all! Honestly, Mars! What kind of an idiot jumps headfirst off a cliff without any planning or forethought? If you would just st... ummm..."

The soft, warm lips against her own were the only answer she would ever get, or need for that matter, on the subject. Closing her eyes, she sighed contentedly, raising her hand to stroke a pale, ash streaked cheek as Rei continued to ardently plead her case.

Rei looked down at her and that rich and dangerous smile said it all. "Now that we better understand each other and the situation, may I please take you back to the palace?"

Smiling into laughing brown eyes, Minako managed a nod. "I give up! Please. Take me home, Reiko."

Nodding once, Mars grinned and gave her a gentle hug before raising the communicator to her lips. "Mars here, requesting pickup with medical assistance..."

____________________________________________

Wednesday Afternoon

The sky over the snowy mountain range was a beautiful clear and brilliant blue. Below it, the soft powdery white of ski trails could be seen snaking their way down the steep slopes. Twisting here and there between the towering growth of trees that peppered the scenery in shades of dark and mysterious green, they all eventually came to an end outside the lodge that rested at the end of the ski runs.

Rei took a deep, cleansing breath as she gazed out over the view from the private penthouse loft. Sheíd forgotten just how beautiful her birthplace was. The air was crisp and clean, and the overall feeling of the place was more laid back and relaxed than the normal hustle and bustle of the Tokyo rat race.

Raising her left hand, she rested it gently against the window frame, a wistful look in her slightly worried brown eyes. She really hoped Minako would like it here and share her sentiment.

That is, after the idol forgave her, she thought wryly...

The days following Dr. Akaiís phone call had been both hectic and challenging. They had spent the weekend coming to grips with the stark reality of Minakoís condition, both as individuals and as a team. While Minakoís initial bitter reaction had died the moment Rei had screamed out in her own pain and fear, the anger and underlying sense of disappointment she harbored were taking a bit longer.

For Rei, the moment she regained control of herself her mind had locked into strategic mode. She now had a clear-cut enemy, and in her single-minded way she would stop at nothing to defeat it. While she saw the tumor itself as the main culprit, she was not foolish enough to believe that the battle ended there.

Her most immediate concern was that Minako would fall victim to depression, boredom, and self-pity. The idol had a brilliant, creative mind, and without something to keep her occupied, her mind would begin to turn the problem that only Dr. Akai and all of ĎTeam Minakoí could solve, over and over again. She had always solved her own problems or dealt with the consequences. Control was a hard thing to let go of after all, and Rei was sure Minako wouldnít have an easy time of it.

So, as she and Minako had desperately clung to each other through that first sleepless night, she had decided to go ahead and push forward with the plan she had already set in motion with Saitou.

Rei blushed deeply. Although they had never discussed it, and no invitation had been given or accepted, they had not spent a night apart since. The second night, Saturday, Rei had attempted to return to her own room only to awaken in a sweat, her breathing labored, to see Minako standing in her doorway with tears streaming down her cheeks. Without a word she had opened her arms and Minako had hurried forward to wrap her arms around the priestess and bury her face in Reiís neck. After that, any thoughts of attempting to sleep separately had become unthinkable.

Rei continued to gaze out the window, and her fingers drummed lightly on its frame as her thoughts turned to Minakoís manager.

The call to Saitou Saturday morning had been harrowing all by itself. Minako had insisted that she needed to be the one to break the news to her old friend, and she had done so as gently and as matter-of-factly as she could. Still, she couldnít stop the tears that fell in answer to his distress at her announcement. Rei had gently held her from behind, her chin resting on the idolís shoulder in silent support as Minako shared her fear and grief with the only man she had ever known who had loved her with unconditional devotion.

Eventually he had asked to speak to Rei, and while Minako had stepped out to rinse her face, the priestess reassured him that she felt things would be okay this time around. Still, even as the words left her lips, something tickled at the back of her brain. What was it? Was it laughter? A dark presence? Whatever it was, it was there and gone so quickly, she couldnít really put her finger on it.

But it was definitely there.

She frowned, suddenly a bit more unsettled than she had been about everything up to this point. Filing those thoughts away until she could find the time to delve more deeply into them, she enlisted Saitouís membership in the all important support team that would be seeing Minako through this ordeal. With his assurance of help and also a promise to speak with Minakoís immediate staff, Rei had discreetly told him to be expecting a call from her concerning the matter she had already discussed with him earlier... Team Minako may have to step up operations, if he caught her drift.

"Really?" he drawled his voice intrigued by the possibilities.

"Really," Rei had answered in a soft voice, then signed off quickly with a promise to be in touch.

Later that same day they had met and interviewed Soumaís cousin, Watanabi Hiroshi. Normally, they would have postponed the appointment, but the gaping hole in Minakoís security could no longer be ignored. Fortunately, it had been a total success.

Tall, dark, cut and buff, the enigmatic man had arrived at Minakoís penthouse apartment at precisely the appointed time despite the last minute change in venue. Dressed totally in black, he still avoided the almost uniform-like appearance of most of his security brethren by wearing much more relaxed attire consisting of black slacks and shirt, with matching belt and bolo tie. A black leather jacket covered the shirt and concealed his armament. His long black hair was pulled back into a ponytail which was held in place with a black leather tieback that had a silver concho that matched both his tie and belt. Rei looked again and grinned. It also matched the single silver earring in his right ear. He had listened intently and then answered all their questions with responses that were short, honest, and showed a wily intelligence.

Both Minako and Rei had liked him instantly. His shortness of speech and Ďclose-to-the-vestí attitude something both of them, but especially Rei, had related to and appreciated. The dark priestess and the retired warrior had shared an almost instant understanding of each other, and the relationship that would develop between them in the next few days was almost uncanny.

He had accepted the job when it was offered on the spot, even with the knowledge that starting immediately he would basically be on 24-hour call for the foreseeable future. He had merely nodded his head and asked to see her itinerary for the coming week.

Minako had hesitated for several seconds, studying the hands resting in her lap before she had finally said, "I believe there will be major changes made to the schedule for next week as it stands right now. What will not change is the fact that I will have an appointment with Dr. Kenji Akai sometime on Monday, I hope. Tuesday at the latest. This will take place at Tokyo General Hospital. Other than that, I really donít know yet." She looked up at her new bodyguard. "Weíll need to get you into the office for you to meet the rest of my staff and to fill out the proper forms to make your employment official. Weíll do that first thing Monday morning. After that, Iím suppose to start shooting a music video..."

Rei frowned, an action Minako didnít notice. Hiroshi however did, his eyes not missing the tiny shake of her head as she met his eyes briefly.

"But, I think the video will have to wait for awhile." The idol looked up again at her new guard. "You see," she continued looking from him to Rei and back. "My illness from several years ago has returned, and Iím afraid Iíll have to handle that before I can proceed with my entertainment career."

Like a true professional, Hiroshi showed no outward sign of an emotional response to her words, for which she was grateful. He simply nodded his head to acknowledge her words and sat quietly waiting for her to finish what she had to say.

"Iím sure it goes without saying that anything you see or hear while in my employ is to remain strictly confidential?" she concluded.

"Yes, Aino-san, of course."

"Excellent," Minako said as she looked up at him and smiled in obvious relief. "Now that we have that all understood and out of the way, let me tell you more about what youíll need to know and what Iíll expect from you."

Rei had sat back and watched their interaction for awhile. The large man had an easy going way about him that wouldnít draw undue attention, yet he seemed to carry within himself a quiet inner strength that was rather deep and strong. His movements were gentle and seemed well thought out even as he flashed the barest hint of a soft grin at Minakoís mention of Reiís unofficial efforts at his new post.

"Iíve seen the videos and talked to Souma as well," he said, casting intelligent brown eyes on the silent priestess. "I have every bit of confidence that I will have excellent backup if I need it."

Rei had been a bit startled at his response, but as she had met his eyes an understanding had passed between them. It wasnít a joke to either one of them. They both knew their positions. A slow grin crossed her face and she had nodded in acknowledgment.

Together they would see to Minakoís safety and comfort.

"Hiroshi-san, now that you are a part of the crew, let me tell you about ĎTeam Minakoí."

Minako rolled her eyes. "Honestly, Rei! Canít that wait?"

Rei looked at her and stated bluntly. "No."

Minako just stared at her as Hiroshi leaned forward eagerly. "Okay, Iím intrigued. Tell me about this team."

Rei had recruited him right there, much to Minakoís chagrin.

The rest of the weekend had passed uneventfully.

Still, Rei had started to become mildly concerned as sheíd watched Minako. It was nothing overt that really caught her attention. It was just little warning signs that Rei was taking account of. The idol was uncharacteristically quiet and a bit listless. While you could chalk a good bit of it up to her overall fatigue, she seemed distracted. With good cause, honestly, but Rei didnít want to see things sink to a dangerously low level.

Plans needed to be made. Arrangements finalized.

She needed to talk to Saitou.

Sneaking off to the bathroom in the guest bedroom Sunday afternoon, she made a clandestine phone call to her partner in crime. Team Minako would meet Monday afternoon when the idol laid down for a nap after she returned home from the office. Rei would signal both him and Hiroshi with a text as soon as the coast was clear and Team Minako Ďblack opsí would gather for a tactical planning session. A quick call to a local grocer finished her immediate plans, and feeling much better about the fact that she was actually doing something, Rei returned to the balcony where she had volunteered to grill out for the idol singer. Minako had been intrigued at the idea, and had actually had a great time along with a really good meal.

Why should she be at all surprised that Mars was an excellent grillmaster?

Succulent shrimp kabobs, spicy Caribbean jerk chicken, fresh whole corn-on-the-cob, all appeared on the table before her, served with an excellent petite syrah. Not to mention a charming, dark wit and a seriously sexy grin.

Was she dreaming?

A flash of deep brown eyes and the presentation of a simple almond encrusted dark chocolate ice-cream treat were all the confirmation she needed. That and her quickening heart rate.

Minako went to bed with a smile on her face that night, and awoke with another as she found herself nestled comfortably in Reiís arms.

Monday presented itself with a bit of a return to routine. Minako rose at her usual time to exercise, but went at it a little easier than she had been of late, and had a decent breakfast, courtesy of Marika Toranaga. Rei worked out with her, and she was amused that the priestess had trouble keeping up with her light aerobic workout. After freshening up, she and Rei were met by both Toranaga and Hiroshi to escort them down to the car that would take them in to the office for what Minako felt might be a difficult day.

After a light rehearsal with her dance team, Minako returned to the office to introduce Hiroshi to her staff and begin the difficult process of making the endless calls necessary to postpone her video shoot. Before that though, she had spoken with both Emi and Yumi to thank them for their support and to ask for their help in whatever was to come. It had been another emotional few moments, but they had gotten through it together and moved forward as they knew Minako would expect them too.

Saitou had arrived around nine oíclock and pitched in with the effort to postpone the video indefinitely. He had placed the call to Ishida himself, reassuring the temperamental director that the change of plans had nothing to do with him, and that they would indeed be in touch with him when everything was a Ďgoí again.

Dr. Akaiís office had finally called shortly after lunch, but it was only to set up Minakoís appointment to see the doctor on Tuesday morning.

They would have to wait another day.

Minako was disappointed but at least she had a date now. They would deal with what happened next as it came to them.

Rei had taken the opportunity to return to the shrine for a few hours. It had been good to see all the familiar faces, and her ĎGrandfatherí had been very happy to see her as well. The plan Minako had presented to him was working beautifully and traffic to the shrine had been as it should: down as far as reporters were concerned, and up with many extra visitors who wished to see the home of the heroic young ĎPriestess of the Hikawaí. Rei blushed at the title, and the old monk had laughed in delight at her embarrassment.

"Donít be so self-conscious, Rei-chan," the older gentleman had soothed. "Consider it an honor, for we are truly honored to call you our own."

Rei couldnít help herself. She hugged him. Hard.

He held her for quite sometime before Rei released him and thanked him once again for all he had done for her.

"You donít have to thank me," he answered gently. "The day your father dropped you off here has become one of the greatest days of my life."

Rei left his office shortly afterwards and stopped to see some of her students. They were very excited to see her, and she remained long enough to observe a class with them and visit for a bit. Then she had gone back to her quarters to retrieve some things she would need in a few days...

If all went according to her roughly laid out plan.

Toranaga-san had returned her to Minakoís office just in time to pick her up and head home. The idol had put in a full day and was obviously very tired, and Rei had little trouble convincing her to take a nap.

Once Minako closed her eyes and drifted off, Rei sent out the Ďall clearí, and let Saitou and Hiroshi in the front door. Raising a finger to her lips, she led them into the livingroom where the TV played in the background. Once she had everyone settled the meeting began in earnest.

It was apparent to all of them, as they settled in with cool drinks and a few snacks, that Minako was in need of several things. However, if all those needs were broken down to their simplest form, the list became much easier to understand. Simply put, she needed to rest and to take her mind off things she couldnít control. All agreed a change of scenery would be a welcome solution. What the stressed and overworked idol needed was an adventure!

Fortunately, Rei already had one in mind.

The ski trip had been her brainchild. Iwate had been her mother and fatherís home prefecture, and her father still represented the region in the senate. Rei had spent a good bit of her early years prowling the shops and ski slopes of Appi Kogen with her mother before they had been forced to move to Tokyo. The beautiful young mother had taught her only daughter well, and Rei had become an excellent skier, easily able to keep up with her mother even at an early age. She had loved to ski.

Then her mother had become ill.

They had moved to Tokyo to be closer to the best hospitals as well as her father and his work. But, unfortunately they had been too late and the inflammatory carcinoma too aggressive and invasive. She had died within months. After that horrible day, Rei had been left with one nanny after another until her father had finally decided to wash his hands of the matter and dropped his strange and often unruly child off at a local shrine.

She had never again seen the place of her birth or the beautiful snow covered slopes that had meant so much to her. But, she had never lost her love of it.

Now, for reasons she wasnít entirely sure she was ready to acknowledge to herself, she wanted to share this most special of places with Minako.

The question that perplexed them as she laid out her basic plan was how to get her to go?

"You donít give her a choice," Rei finally said.

Saitou turned his head to study the dark priestess, his gaze direct as he took in her unflinching gaze. "Are you suggesting what I think you are?"

Rei met his eyes, her own as dark and serious as the grave. "Yes."

Rei saw the faintest glimmer of a smile touch the edge of Hiroshiís lips from the corner of her eye as the bodyguard easily read her mind.

A slow, delicious grin began to spread across the managerís face, and he leaned back as he daintily crossed his legs. "Oh, Mars Reiko-chan," he began, the hand holding his laced handkerchief resting easily along the back of the couch. "Iíd forgotten just how deviously your mind can work," he practically purred. "We do make an excellent team, donít we darling?"

Rei grinned in answer, not needing to say another word to her old partner in crime.

"So tell me, Reiko-chan," the manager said as he examined the perfect manicure on his left hand. "Just how do you suggest this abduction go down?"

And so, ĎOperation Snow Jobí had been born.

The details had quickly fallen into place after that. Team Minako, itís numbers seeming to swell daily, had mobilized and a plan of action put in motion.

The Idol had never had a clue what was coming.

Tuesday morning had found them seated in Dr. Akaiís office. The meeting had included not just Minako, Rei and Dr Akai, but also the very welcome sight of Ami as well. "Iím here to represent certain other members of Team Minako," she said. Neither Rei nor Minako could misunderstand her meaning. However, they had decided to hold off on telling Usagi and Makoto until they knew exactly what they were facing and how they were going to handle it.

Dr. Akai had been amazingly upbeat. Pulling up Minakoís films, he had shown them the small, dark speck on the MRI scan that wasnít suppose to be there. Rei had silently reached out and taken Minakoís hand in hers, not at all startled by the coldness or the tremor she felt there. Squeezing the delicate hand gently, she had continued to hold it within her own as the doctor had enthusiastically explained the two options for treatment that he thought would be most effective.

"...either gamma knife or transsphenoidal resection."

"Which do you suggest?" Minako asked, her voice amazingly calm and steady even as her hand tightened in Reiís.

"Well, both are excellent treatments," the doctor said, pushing his glasses back up on his face. "Gamma knife is relatively new, and is highly effective, but it takes a bit longer to prepare for. Thereís also a pretty long waiting list for it as the equipment is still extremely scarce."

Ami frowned. "How long of a wait would we be looking at, Kenji?"

"At least a year and a half," he said, sheepishly. At the startled looks he found staring back at him, he quickly added, "Itís still a great option." Looking back at Minako he continued. "Itís practically non-invasive and recovery time is almost non existent!"

"But a year and a half?" Minako questioned. She looked from Rei to Ami, then back to Dr. Akai. "In all that time, will this tumor not continue to grow?"

"Yes, it will, Minako-san. You are absolutely correct," the doctor responded. "The good news is that having caught this so early, we actually do have the option to wait, if thatís what youíd like to do."

"But the bad news is that Iíll probably start showing symptoms by then, right?" she asked.

He frowned and nodded. "Not necessarily but yes, there is that possibility."

"So," she said, her hand tightening on Reiís. "What about the other option? The transsphenoidal?"

"The transsphenoidal is still considered by many to be the best treatment option for pituitary tumors. Itís complicated, but itís highly effective and in about 98% of cases totally eliminates the problem."

Minako nodded. "How about chemo? How long will I have to take that afterwards," she asked, her stomach rolling at the thought.

He shook his head. "You wonít."

She looked at him a moment, not understanding what he was saying. "Excuse me?"

"No chemo," he repeated, smiling.

"Radiation?" she asked incredulously.

"Nope," he said, his grin widening. "No chemo, no radiation. I wonít even have to shave your head!"

"What?" Minako exclaimed. "But, I mean how is that possible? Surely youíll have to at least shave part of it to get inside!"

"Not for this procedure," the doctor assured her. "Because of the location of the pituitary itís practically impossible to approach it through any traditional craniotomy incision. No, for this one we go through here," he said, pointing to his top lip.

"Through my mouth?" Minako asked, confused. "Howís that possible? And wonít that affect my voice?"

"No, Minako-san, not your mouth! I canít speak for anesthesia, but as for myself, I can promise you I wonít touch your vocal cords!" he assured her. "Iíll be going through a small incision in your gums, just over your upper teeth on the right," he said, pointing again to the right side of his upper lip. "You see, with this approach itís a relatively short distance to the pituitary and with the use of x-ray and some special instruments designed just for this very procedure? Iíll have that tumor out in no time flat!"

"What about the hole in my mouth?" Minako asked, still a little dubious of the whole thing.

Dr. Akai shook his head. "Youíll never even know it was there," he promised. "It will be sore for a few days, but once it heals, youíll forget it was ever there."

Minako looked at Ami, who smiled encouragingly. "Itís an excellent option, Minako-chan. In addition, you wonít miss many days due to recovery, and you wonít have the added stress of knowing itís in there while you wait for a date with the gamma knife."

Minako nodded once, then swallowed heavily and turned desperate eyes to the silently watching priestess.

Turning to face the idol, Rei took both of Minakoís hands in hers, grounding her again before meeting her eyes.

"Get it out," she said firmly.

Looking down at their joined hands, she closed her eyes and nodded once.

"Transsphenoidal it is," she said quietly. "The sooner, the better."

The decision made, they had scheduled it for a week from Wednesday, which was Dr. Akaiís next available operating day. Tuesday she would report to the hospital for a preop interview and bloodwork. Then she would be allowed to return home for the night before reporting back the following morning for surgery.

Both young women were very quiet as they left the hospital. Buried deep in thought, their minds swirled with a multitude of doubts, fears and amazingly enough?

Hope.

Wednesday morning had dawned much the same as the last several had, except for just a few differences. Definite plans about her upcoming surgery as well as when it would occur had made for the most restful night of sleep sheíd had in weeks. Waking up, warm and secure, in Reiís arms hadnít hurt either. Unable to resist the temptation, she had snuggled closer to Reiís natural warmth and fallen back asleep with a gentle smile on her face as she felt the sleeping priestess pull her even closer.

Sheíd totally missed her morning workout.

Rushing through a quick shower, she had entered the kitchen expecting to see Rei already there, drinking her first cup of coffee. Instead, she was met by Marikaís smiling face.

The ĎSnow Jobí had begun.

Presenting her with a plate of warm muffins and a fresh cup of coffee, Marika had explained to her surprised employer that she had come in on her usual day off to get a head start on her Ďspring cleaningí. To herself she smiled. After all, there was really no need for the idol to know she was actually there to pack her needs for a skiing vacation, was there? Much less run interference for the absent Rei?

And where was Rei?

"Oh, Iím so sorry! I almost forget. Her Father called this morning and asked if she could join him for breakfast."

Well, it was mostly true. Rei really was meeting the senator for breakfast, but she had actually spoken with him earlier in the week and told him that, even if it wasnít the lunch he had originally requested, it was the only time she would be available this week to see him. She wasnít looking forward to it, but she had agreed to see him, and it had given her an excuse to get up and out of the apartment without Minako. It was critical that she, as team leader, arrive at their destination before the kidnapped idol.

Timing was everything.

Minako winced inwardly for Rei as she heard this. She had an idea of how much she was going to hate this meeting.

"She left you a note on the balcony," Marika added, and Minako, coffee in hand, headed outside, only to pause and stare in blushing surprise at her ínoteí.

On the table stood a crystal vase with three long stem red roses and a note written quickly on a single sheet of stationary.

Minako,

Sorry to have to leave so abruptly, but maybe this will at least make him happy and keep him out of my hair for awhile.

Forgive me.

Iíll catch up with you later,

Rei

Smiling at the priestessí thoughtfulness, Minako leaned forward to smell the blooms. She then picked the arrangement up and returned inside to rest it in a place of honor at the center of the table.

The happy feeling of both Reiís note and her beautiful roses stayed with her as went through the rest of her usual morning routine. Hiroshi had met her at the door and escorted her down to where Toranaga waited with the limo. A quick enquiry had confirmed that Reiís father had sent a car for her and Minako just assumed that Rei would join her for lunch, at the very latest.

Feeling happy and relaxed, Minako rehearsed briefly with her dance team and then spent the rest of the morning in the recording studio rehearsing some tracks for a new song. She had been having so much fun that sheíd almost lost track of time and was surprised when Saitou cut her short to remind her that Emi had her scheduled for lunch now. She would have to hurry if she wanted to meet Rei.

With a grin, the idol practically bolted out of the studio. Saitou smiled warmly as he watched her go. He honestly couldnít remember the last time heíd seen that look on her face. Then it had hit him.

Never.

Looking down at the large mixing board in front of him he had absently reached out a couple of idle fingers to play with a toggle switch as he sent a few thoughts of encouragement northward.

ĎGood luck, Reiko-chan! Itís up to you now.í

Ducking back into her office, Minako had quickly snatched her purse and jacket before heading back out the door. "Emi! Yumi! Iím off to lunch. Iíll see you later!" she sang out just before the door shut behind her, and she was practically already running toward the elevator.

"No, you wonít!" Emi chortled back with a saucy grin, knowing her boss was already too far away to hear her. Standing in the door to her small office, Yumi pushed her glasses back up her nose and laughed with her co-worker. They both were fully aware that "later" would actually be several days from now.

When the limo pulled up in front of her, Minako waited impatiently for Hiroshi to reach forward and open the door for her. As she entered the back, her eyes were immediately drawn to the vivid red of the single long-stemmed rose resting on the seat where Rei should have been. Taking her own seat, she reached over and picked it up, only then becoming aware of the folded note attached to it by a dark red silk ribbon. As curious as she was about the noteís contents, she was still unable to resist the urge to raise the lovely bloom to her nose, its rich fragrance a sirenís call she could not ignore. Eyes closed, she smiled as she thought of the person she was sure had left it for her.

Rose in hand, she finally reached down to open the folded note, and couldnít help but thrill at the first word she saw there:

Mina

She paused for several seconds, just thinking about that single word and what its use could imply and was unable to stop either the blush or the happy grin that lit up her face. Purposely ignoring the fact that she knew Hiroshi was watching her every move, she reached up unconsciously to touch one of her bright red cheeks and was not at all surprised to feel the sudden warmth that hadnít been there before she had entered the car. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she reached forward again to grasp the other side of the note and couldnít help but notice the slight tremor in her hand as she began to read:

Mina,

Youíre being abducted.

Rei

She stared at the note in silence for quite some time before she finally spoke, her voice steady and clear. The tone a distinct warning to all who knew her

"Hiroshi?" she asked, looking at the guard now seated across from her as she tapped the young bloom gently against her chin.

"Yes, Aino-san?" he said, his own demeanor relaxed as he leaned back against the leather seat opposite her.

"Do you know whatís in this note?" the idol asked, her eyes intently boring through the dark lens of the bodyguardís sunglasses.

"Yes and no, Aino-san."

"And just what is that suppose to mean?" she demanded sharply.

"Yes, I know youíre being abducted. No, I donít know exactly how she worded her note," he replied, seemingly unfazed at the rising temper of his new employer.

Minakoís eyes narrowed as she leaned in toward her guard. "Perhaps you donít understand just exactly who it is youíre working for, Watanabi-san! Iíll have you know..."

Her words trailed off as he reached into the black bag at his feet and pulled out another red rose with attached note, which he extended to her, straight-faced and solemn.

After a stunned pause, she took it into her left hand with the other rose and quickly read the attached card:

Donít pick on Hiroshi-san.

Her mouth dropped open in shock as she stared at the small card in disbelief before looking back up at the large man.

"From here on out I honestly donít have any idea what they say, Aino-san," he said apologetically. "Iím just suppose to deliver you safely to your destination and then continue to perform my duties as usual."

Shaking her head lightly, Minako finally collected herself and asked the obvious question. "My destination?"

"Yes, Aino-san," he answered.

"And you know where this place is?"

"Of course, Aino-san!" he answered matter-of-factly. "After all, arrangements have had to be made for your safety! Thatís my job!" He stated proudly.

"Your job?"

"Yes, Aino-san. Security." He replied simply. At her look of confusion he continued briefly. "Toranaga-san, transportation. His wife, wardrobe and luggage. Sacho, bookings and reservations. Emi-san, scheduling, and Yumi-san, smokescreen."

"Smokescreen?!?"

"The public will never even know youíve left town, Aino-san," he said with a confidant grin.

To her credit, Minakoís confusion only lasted a few seconds before the light came on, so to speak.

"Ah. Team Minako?" she asked, leaning her head to one side as she studied the big man.

He nodded briefly in the affirmative. "Black ops division."

Minako shook her head in disbelief, then looked down at the two flawless blooms in her hand, her face visibly softening. "And where, pray tell, is the team captain? She did organize all this, didnít she?"

"Iím sorry, boss. Iím afraid that information is classified, at least for the moment," he added apologetically. "I can tell you that she will be waiting for you when you get there," he said as a consolation.

"So. I see. All of you just expect me to go along quietly, without making any kind of fuss as you drag me off to only god knows where?" she asked softly, looking up at him through the gentle fall of hair over her serious eyes.

Reaching into his black bag, Hiroshi pulled out yet another rose, which he handed wordlessly to the silent idol. As she took this new rose, she hesitated, feeling an irrational apprehension before finally opening the attached note.

Trust me?

An image instantly appeared in the idolís minds eye of the solemn, dark chocolate colored eyes beseeching her for something that she use to give so freely to her, without the slightest hesitation. Why should this be so hard? She frowned. Control was hard for her to give up under normal circumstances. But this was not a normal circumstance.

This was Rei.

How could she possibly say no? To those eyes? To that heart?

"Trust me?"

Dropping her eyes to her lap, she allowed her shoulders to sag as she shook her head in mock defeat.

"I surrender," she groaned, as she leaned back against the seat. Eyes closed, she rested her head against the plush leather headrest. "Take me to you leader!"

From his place inside Minakoís bag, Artemis, tears streaming from his teal colored eyes, silently laughed in delight.

----

Wednesday Afternoon

Walking back over to the fireplace, Rei added another log to the flames and stepped back to admire its warmth and beauty. She had arrived at the hotel about mid morning and had been pleased to discover that all of Team Minakoís hard work had paid off. The staff were organized and excited to have them there. All the reservations were confirmed and the luggage unpacked.

Six more red roses were waiting to greet her on Minakoís pillow.

All was in place.

Returning to the window, she attempted to seek solace in the tranquil beauty of the view, and reassure herself that she had done everything she could to make this a perfect trip for Minako. Still, she couldnít control the butterflies in her stomach.

She really hoped the temperamental idol singer would forgive her for the extreme efforts she had gone through to get her here. She could be so... difficult... sometimes.

The sound of the front door being keyed behind her caught her attention and her heart skipped. This was it.

Hino Rei took a deep breath... and smiled, her eyes sparkling with delight as she continued to enjoy the breathtaking view.

She was home. And after all, it was good to be home.

Keenly aware of the presence coming up behind her, she said nothing, waiting instead for the opening salvo from the other woman before she decided how to proceed. She didnít have to wait long at all.

"You seem very pleased with yourself," Minako said lightly as she finally came up beside the priestess and likewise gazed out the large window.

"I am," Rei stated simply.

"It really is a beautiful view," Minako allowed, fully aware of the happy grin on the priestessí face.

"I always thought so."

"Oh, youíve been here before?" Minako asked, finding her curiosity tweaked as she turned to look at the young woman at her side.

"You could say that," Rei allowed, her grin widening into one of those rare, full on, high wattage expressions that caused the idolís heart to race whenever it was directed at her, as it was now. "This is my hometown."

Totally surprised at this revelation, Minakoís eyes widened. "Your hometown?" Funny, she had never really thought of Rei as anything other than a Tokyo girl.

Nodding, Rei turned her head back toward the large picture window, her hand raising to touch the glass. "I was born here, and spent my early childhood here."

Minako couldnít lie to herself. She was a bit thrown by this news, and knew she could possibly be treading in the dangerous waters of Reiís very painful past. The idea that Rei was willing to let her this close was astonishing to the idol, and Minako was smart enough to know better than to do anything that might jeopardize this gift.

Finding her voice again, Minako finally managed to ask a semi-serious question. "So, do you ski?" As she saw Reiís eyes actually begin to twinkle she hastily added, "I mean, isnít it like a prerequisite for being from here or something?"

Rei chuckled softly. "I did, a long time ago," she began. "My mother taught me when I was little. I really loved it then." A touch of sadness tempered her earlier smile. "That was before we had to move to Tokyo," she added softly.

"You mean you werenít able to keep it up?" Minako asked.

Rei shook her head. "Things happened," she said simply. "I havenít been back since I was six."

ĎThings happened.í

Again, Reiís incredible gift for understatement.

Her motherís death.

Her fatherís abandonment.

Minako wasnít fooled. Reaching up, she laid a gentle hand on Reiís back, softly caressing her shoulder blades as she moved the conversation on.

"Do you really think you can remember how, after all these years?" she asked.

"I hope so," Rei answered honestly. "I was told I was pretty good for a kid." She looked back at the idol with a shy, yet still excited smile. "I hope I can still do it though!"

Minako couldnít help but return that smile. Reiís enthusiasm was contagious, and she was fascinated by a side of the reclusive priestess she had never seen before. "I really hope you can too, Rei. But my reasons may be a bit more selfish."

"Howís that," Rei asked curiously.

"Well, as Iíve only ever been once in my life, and that was mostly for a photo shoot, Iím going to need some adult supervision if Iím ever going to hope to keep up with you."

Rei laughed at Minakoís statement. "Actually, itís a relief just to know youíve at least stood up on a pair of skiís before."

Minako laughed in return. "Honestly, Rei! What were you thinking?" she asked as she looked up at the other young woman. "This could really be quite an adventure, you know!" she managed, her eyes sparkling in delight.

Rei smiled. A rich warm smile that reached down into Minakoís heart and lodged there like a glowing ember. "That was the whole idea," she confessed, her arm coming up to rest around the idolís waist as the light of understanding came on. "Now, will you let me show you my hometown?"

***End pt. 10***