Echoes of a Distant Demon

by Sailor Doc

~ Chapter Five ~

"How are you doing?" she asked the dark haired young woman who sat huddled beneath a blanket in her robe and slippers on the sunlit balcony.

Receiving a dark scowl in reply that said, 'you've got to be kidding!' she cringed slightly in sympathy as the other woman abruptly sneezed and said, "How do you think?"

"From the look of things, I'd say pretty crummy," she said. Receiving an affirmative sounding grunt, she came up behind her invalid and began to gently knead her sore neck and shoulder muscles. "Maybe next time you'll keep your mind on your own fight, and leave mine alone like I told you to," she teased softly.

The muscles under her hands stiffened. "I see," came the clipped response. "So, next time Jupiter decides to try sparring with a new, untested attack, I'm just supposed to stand there and watch you get zapped?" Brown eyes looked up at her sarcastically before turning to stare back out over the gardens.

"If it keeps you from being turned into a giant ice cube by Mercury, or worse, then yes," she answered with a wry grin as she continued her gentle ministrations. In a more serious tone, she said, "You know you're supposed to listen to me in battle situations, Rei. We've talked about this before. When we first became involved with each other, we both agreed not to let our personal feelings get in the way of our responsibilities to the Princess. And besides," she continued, wrapping her arms around the silent woman’s shoulders, and leaning in to place her warm cheek against her partner’s chilled one. "I couldn't bare it if anything happened to you. Especially if it was done to save me." Turning her face, she placed a gentle kiss on the now slightly flushed cheek. "Please, don't be so impulsive next time, okay?” she pleaded.

Turning her dark head, Rei looked into her eyes from close range, and with a flash of teeth and a teasing grin, said, "I thought you loved my impulsiveness?"

"That's not what I meant, and you know it,” she laughed, pulling her partner into a warm hug that was eagerly returned. "And yes, as a matter of fact, I do love it! I just want you to be more careful out there. Don't worry about me so much! Just concentrate on keeping yourself in one piece so you can come home with me when it’s all over!"

Pulling back slightly, the fire senshi looked at her a bit seriously and said, "I'm here now, aren't I?"

"Only because you were still able to 'defrost' yourself!" Minako retorted with a smirk.

Hrumpfing at that undignified response, even if it were true, Mars finally relented. To a degree. "Oh, all right," she grumped. "I'll try."

"Now, that's what I wanted to hear," she said, her eyes sparkling as she grinned at her lover.

"However," Mars continued, "if I see that you're in danger, and I can break free to help you, I can't say I won't, just because 'you say so.'"

"Rei..."

"No, I mean it, Mina!" she said. "I won't desert Princess Serenity and the others, but don't expect me to stand idly by and watch the woman I love die while I can still lift a finger to stop it!"

"Don't you think I am capable of taking care of myself?" she challenged. "I'm not an amateur, after all!"

"I never said you were," Rei replied. "I just know that despite our powers, we're all still vulnerable. Yes, even me!" she added in response to the slightly raised eyebrow. "We have to help each other out from time to time in order to survive. You taught us that, remember?"

"True," she conceded reluctantly. "Nice tactic, by the way. Using my own words against me. Did I teach you that too?"

"I came by that naturally." Rei grinned, pulling her blanket a little closer. Shivering, she tried to stifle another sneeze.

"Will you at least promise me one thing?” she asked, tucking the blanket in around Rei's shoulders more securely.

"What's that?" Rei asked, wary brown eyes looking up at her suspiciously.

"That you will make absolutely sure you've finished off your own opponent before you turn away from them to attack mine?"

"Of course! I'm not an idiot, Mina!" Rei said, sneezing violently into her fresh tissue.

Reluctantly, she let it go. "Okay," she said, her own better judgment still uneasy about this conversation with her hot-headed lover. "Is there anything I can do to help you feel better? Ami still feels really bad, and Makoto sent you some fresh, homemade chicken soup."

"I just need one thing," Rei said, clearing her throat a bit.

"What's that?" she asked.

"You," the dark haired senshi replied as she gently pulled her partner onto her lap, and cuddled closer to enjoy their shared body warmth.

_____________________________________________________

 

Home.

Closing the door behind her, Minako drove the dead bolt home and slid the safety chain into place with a firm snap. With a heavy sigh of relief, she leaned her head forward, resting it against the coolness of her front door. Eyes closed, she allowed herself to stand there for several moments, simply drinking in the peaceful, cool, dark comfort of her safe, secure and blissfully quiet home.

What a day. What a wonderful, horrible, hopeful, terrifying, sad, insane, incredible, unthinkable day.

Turning, she walked across the room toward the kitchen, absently dropping her purse on the kitchen counter as she passed by.

As Rei had been escorted from the parking garage by the police, Minako had found herself literally surrounded by reporters and photographers, all yelling and screaming questions at her. Questions she could not understand and had no answers for, feeling only an emotional overload she was afraid she was not going to be able to handle. Fortunately, Souma's rent-a-cops had come to her rescue, literally putting themselves between Minako and the new, if less deadly, menace she was confronted with. Trying to make up for allowing themselves to be infiltrated by Nakano's group, they had wasted no time in pushing the press back out of her face, then clearing a safe way for her to leave the facility. They provided an escort to her office where an EMT checked out her bumps and bruises, and the two small cuts on her neck. Then they insisted on posting guards outside her apartment until they knew she would be safe or could hire personal staff to fulfill those needs.

It had all been a blur to her.

All she could see was Hibiki's death. All she could hear was Souma's scream of agony, and all she could feel was a jumble of emotions that came back to lavender and violet flashes of flame in two very familiar dark brown eyes.

Taking a stemmed glass down from the rack, she reached into the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of chardonnay. Pouring herself a glass, she replaced the bottle and turned toward the living room. A glance at the clock told her it was 2am. Opening the curtains, she gazed out at her moonlit balcony, not seeing the furniture there or the beautiful quarter moon shining high over the building across the way.

Once she had gotten back to her office, she had set out to get some answers. What had gone wrong? How had this happened? Had anyone notified Hibiki's parents? Souma's wife? Was anyone else hurt? Where was Rei? Had she been arrested? She had put her staff to work, and soon the answers came rolling in.

The terrorist group had gotten two men inside the security company they had hired for the concert. They had allowed Nakano and the rest of his men to get inside undetected. First securing a short, easily secluded section of the backstage corridor they knew she would have to take to leave, they had then waited until the concert was almost over before robbing the box office, killing the two attendants still on duty there.

Taking a small sip of wine, Minako continued to stare sightlessly out the sliding glass doors.

Her manager had been an anchor through the whole ordeal that had followed. He alone had understood that Hibiki and Souma had been more like over-protective older brothers to her than just employees. He had taken the heavy burden upon himself and spoken personally with both Hibiki's parents and Souma's wife. Both parties had been understandably upset, and manager had patiently and with great compassion answered all their questions and fears. 'And, yes, ' he has assured them. 'Minako-san is okay. They didn't allow those animals to hurt her. She suffered only a few minor cuts and bruises. No, she will be okay. Yes, and she is most deeply grateful for the loyalty and sacrifice of her dear Hibiki and Souma.'

Unable to stop the slow trickle of the single tear that ran down the side of her face, Minako looked down at the still half-full glass in her hand. No longer feeling the need to hide the violent trembling she had kept strictly in check all day, she watched as her hands began to shake.

Souma had lost his leg. The joint had been shattered and they had been forced to take it above his knee. The good news was that he would live, and with rehab and a good prosthetic he would be able to return to a full and very active life. Minako had made sure the family knew that it would all be covered. All she wanted them to worry about was helping him do his best to recover and, if he still wanted it, his job would be waiting for him when he was ready.

Seeing movement in the corner of her right eye, she turned her head to see Artemis coming out of the shadows of the still darkened room to stand in the moonlight with her.

Rei.

Rei had not been arrested. That was about all the information she had been able to get. They had taken a statement from her, and then released her. That was it. She had tried to call the shrine, but no matter how hard she tried, the very polite if harried sounding young monk on the other end of the line had adamantly refused to let her speak to Rei. He wouldn't even verify that she was there.

She jumped when the phone suddenly came to life on the end table by the couch on her left. Turning back to the sliding glass doors, she took another calming sip. There was no way she was going to talk to anyone tonight! The answering machine could pick it up! And besides, who would be foolish enough to call her at this time of the night anyway?

"Minako-chan? Are you there? Minako-chan?"

Usagi. Looking at the red '23' on her voicemail, she couldn't help but smile a bit. She should have known the Princess would be concerned about her. No doubt at least 20 of the messages waiting there were from her. Reluctantly, she reached over and picked up the phone. "Hello," she said, only mildly surprised at the raspy sound of her own tired, overwrought voice.

"Oh, my god! Minako-chan! Are you all right?" Usagi asked, her relief at hearing her friend’s voice clearly evident. "We saw the news splashed all over the TV and radio stations!"

"I'm okay, Usagi-chan," Minako assured her. "Still a little shook up," she confided to her friend, "but, overall, I'm okay."

"I'm so glad!" Usagi said, breathing an audible sigh of relief. "We were really worried about you! And was that really Rei-chan? I tried to call her, but I can't get her to answer her cell phone, and the monks won't put me through to her when I call the shrine!"

Not really knowing what else to say, she told the truth. "Yes. That was Rei," she said quietly, not volunteering anymore information.

Usagi was uncharacteristically quiet for a moment. "She knew, didn't she?" she said simply. "She just knew you needed her, and she was there."

Minako hesitated for a moment, then said, " I don't really know if..."

"Don't feel funny about it, Minako-chan," Usagi reassured the idol. "This kind of thing happens all the time, especially if it's something big or it involves us. Or both," she added with a light chuckle.

"It always was one of her gifts," Minako whispered.

"You're absolutely sure?" she had asked, grimly looking across the wardroom table where Mars sat at her usual red chair.

"There's no doubt," Mars had answered, those serious brown eyes meeting hers. "Queen Beryl has ordered the beginning of their final assault on the Moon Kingdom." Rising from her chair, she had turned to address all the other assembled senshi. "There will be no turning back this time. They will fight to the death. Ours. Theirs. Or both. Regardless, they will not turn back." Pinning every one in that room with her fiery gaze she had ended her speech simply. "This is it."

A feeling of intense dread had swept across the room.

I'm sorry, what was that?" Usagi asked. "I didn't quite hear you."

Minako shook her head against the onslaught of that sudden memory. "I said, it was always one of her gifts. Being able to warn us in advance of trouble so we could be better prepared to deal with our enemies," Minako answered more clearly.

"Oh," Usagi said around a huge yawn. "Aren't you glad she didn't lose that part of her powers?"

Suddenly overwhelmed with her emotions and the days events, Minako sat down on the edge of the couch and stared at the floor before she answered very quietly. "Yes. I really am."

"You sound so tired, Minako-chan," Usagi observed compassionately. "Why don't you go to bed now? You'll feel much better in the morning. Really!"

"Yeah, you're right. I think I'll do just that," Minako said, knowing full well she would get little sleep during what remained of this night. The sound of a baby beginning to cry came through the line.

"Ugh! That's my cue to go!" Usagi said, suddenly more alert. "Give me a call when you get a chance, and let me know you're all right, okay? We'll worry about you unless you do!"

"I'll call. I promise," Minako said. "And Usagi?"

"Yes?"

"Thanks."

"For what?" the young mother asked, confused.

"For being there."

Usagi's smile was evident even through the phone line. "No problem, Minako-chan! Hang in there, okay? I've got to go... I swear, I don't know where that child got such an appetite. It must be Ikuko-mama! Bye!"

"Goodbye, Usagi-chan."

The line clicked as it went dead, and Minako felt a void left by the absence of her energetic Princess. Placing the receiver back on its cradle, she leaned back against the cushions of her couch, her face now hidden in the shadows of the moonlit room. Several minutes ticked by on the antique grandfather clock before she rasped out a single word.

"Why?"

"Excuse me?" Artemis said, addressing the haggard sounding voice from the direction of the couch.

"Why, Artemis? Why?" came the troubled question. "First Hibiki-kun, then Souma, and finally Mars. Why did they put their lives on the line for mine? What makes me so special?"

“Different reasons, I think," the white cat began after a thoughtful pause. "First, you need to remember that your safety and well-being were Hibiki and Souma's responsibility. It was their job to protect you, with their lives if necessary. They both knew exactly what they were doing, Minako," he assured her soothingly. "They were professionals. They knew the risks involved."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" she asked in a tired voice.

"No," he answered patiently. "But it is supposed to help you understand why they were willing to sacrifice so much for you."

"And Mars?" she asked, her tone flat and guarded.

"She did it because she loves you," he said simply.

"That's not true, Artemis!" she blurted out angrily. "Reiko loved me! She loved me, and I watched her die because of it! But this girl? This girl doesn't even like me! This girl..."

"Is still as much your Reiko as you are still eternally her Mina."

Caught off guard, Minako silently digested his statement a few moments before speaking again. "That can't be true, Artemis," she said bitterly. "She doesn't even remember who we were and what we meant to each other. How can you say she loves me?" she concluded in sad resignation.

Turning from his contemplation of the moonlit balcony, he fixed her with his serious teal green eyes. "Because I've seen it in her," he said.

He could feel her eyes on him, though her features were still hidden in the darkness. "You've spoken with her?"

"Yes," he answered.

"And she told you this?" she asked, skeptically.

He answered as honestly as he could, knowing just how important this was to his suddenly very fragile charge. "Not in so many words, no," he admitted. "But you didn't see her after you died that last time, did you?"

"No," she admitted quietly.

"Minako, she was devastated! She literally stumbled into another fight with Jedite and his youma right after I told her the news and nearly got herself killed before she was able to pull herself together enough to transform. Then, in a towering rage, she laid waste to every one of them she could see or reach, only to collapse in tears at the end of the battle, screaming out for you in the grip of a grief so deep she couldn't really understand it. Minako," he continued trying desperately to reach his silent charge, "she held the letter you left behind in case you didn't make it and wept. Not even the presence of the other senshi could console her. It took her days to pull herself together enough to carry on with her duties, and the main reasons she was able to do that was because she knew you would expect it of her. I'd say she still cares for you. A great deal. More than she would ever care to admit, and that causes her no small amount of confusion.”

Thoughtfully, Minako studied what she had just heard. She really hadn't known all this. No one had ever said a word to her. Artemis. Usagi. Ami. Makoto. And definitely not Rei! "But she still came to me," she whispered.

"Yes," the guardian cat said. "And put herself in harm's way to save you. Again." At her continued silence, he added, "I think that speaks volumes for just how much she does still care about you."

A quiet stillness descended around the two, until Artemis continued, his voice almost echoing in the quiet room. "I should never have asked you to stay away from them."

"It's not your fault," she said.

"No. I disagree, Minako," he replied, turning away from her to gaze back out across the balcony. "Maybe if I had allowed you to interact with them more freely back then, you would have found the encouragement you needed to have your surgery in time. And maybe, without all the stories we made up to keep them safe until they regained their full powers, you and Mars would have been able to reconnect in a less... antagonistic setting," he ended bitterly.

"I agreed with the plan," she said.

"But you were never happy with it," he added.

“No. Not really," she agreed simply. "How could I be?" she asked, flooded by memories of all the lonely days and nights she had spent. Living alone. Fighting alone. Facing death, alone. Without even the simple solace of her only friends, much less the comforting and warming arms of her only love. She closed her eyes, but couldn't swallow back the tears that began to rain down her cheeks unchecked.

"For what it's worth, I really am sorry, Minako," he said, able to feel her pain, yet wretchedly unable to do anything to ease it.

Taking a shaky breath, she tried her best to calm her emotions, and said, "It's all right, Artemis. Water under the bridge now, you know?" She shook her head and concluded in a tired voice that sounded surprisingly old, "What's done is done."

They lapsed once more into a silence that lingered until the grandfather clock struck 3am, nearly scaring Artemis out of one of his nine lives. Trying to calm his racing heart, he almost missed the disembodied voice of his mistress.

"I think she might be starting to remember. Maybe. I think. I'm not sure," she said, wistfully.

Startled, he turned to face the couch and asked, "What makes you think that?"

"There was something in her eyes," she said, leaning forward into the moonlight. "Right after that man collapsed. I looked into her eyes, and it was as if I were seeing my Reiko again. I could see the all the love, all that fierce protectiveness she always had for me laid bare. But then she just turned and walked away. Without a single word! She didn't even look back at me when I called her name," she concluded sadly.

Artemis took in this startling news and said, "If that's true, I'm sure she just needs time, Minako. Not only is she having to deal with the fact that she killed a man, she's now most likely having to handle a rush of memories and emotions I'm sure will be extremely difficult for her to deal with all at once. Remember, it wasn't all that easy for you either when it first hit."

Minako looked at him, her face an interesting mix of pain, hope and fatigue.

"Just give her some time, Minako," he soothed. "If it's not true, and you just imagined it, we won't have worked up a lot of false hope. If it is true, well," he smiled. "You'll have a lot to celebrate, right?"

"How much time do you think?" she asked, unable to keep just the faintest hint of hope and longing out of her voice.

"I think you should at least let her sleep on it," he teased, encouraged by the first bit of eagerness he'd heard in her voice in a long, long time. "You know, the press is probably hounding her for a statement too. I'd wait until maybe sometime tomorrow afternoon, or the next day, at least," he said, moving over to the couch.

"Okay," she said reluctantly as she reached down to lift him up into her lap. "I guess I can wait that long."

"I should hope so," he said, settling into a more comfortable position.

Feeling a little more relaxed, Artemis was just starting to drift off to sleep, when he heard her speak again, her voice much more relaxed and thoughtful.

"I guess I should call the doctor's office in the morning, shouldn't I?" she asked quietly.

Smiling, the little cat felt a tremendous weight lift off his small shoulders. Standing up, he placed his paws on her collarbone, and looking directly into her eyes, he said, "I think that would be a very wise idea." Stretching forward he closed his eyes and nuzzled her cheek affectionately.

Finding some peace, both souls finally drifted off to sleep. At last.

END PART FIVE