Echoes of a Distant Demon

by Sailor Doc

 

~ Chapter Eight, Part 1 ~

Radiant.

No other word that came to mind could better describe the beauty that lay beside her now.

And Mars was awed by the magnitude of the blessing that was her Venus.

Here, in the dimly lit stillness of their private chambers, she seemed to glow from within, a warm golden light that bathed her form in waves of light that gently washed over her, and illuminated the very texture of her skin, her hair and eyes.

In silent reverence, Mars watched over her as she slowly began to awaken. First, the gentle frown that signified her reluctant rise to consciousness, and then the eyes, which opened slowly, as if under protest, until they finally focused on her.

And then she smiled, and the early morning light paled in comparison.

Rising from her pillows, she allowed the covers to pool around her waist as she sat up and turned to look down at Mars with sleepy eyes. One delicate hand rose to sweep her glorious hair behind her ear, before falling back down to gently caress Mars' all too unworthy cheek.

"Good morning, my love," she whispered, smiling down at her with adoring eyes.

To Mars it seemed that every particle of light in the room was gathered, magnified and then reflected in her and her alone.

She was the personification of love and beauty, descended here to enrapture Mars with the benediction of her love.

Reaching upward, toward that glorious light, she placed a reverent hand behind her lover's head and gently guided her down to meet her eager lips, the more to worship at this, her most holy of all shrines.

Her Goddess.

Her love.

Her Mina.

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Friday, Early Morning

Gray clouds hung low against the Tokyo skyline and Rei's view of them was rather blotchy as she looked past the droplets that clung tenaciously to the windows of the long, black limo. Funny, how their oppressive dreariness so neatly matched the atmosphere inside the car as well, she mused as she cut her eyes to her immediate left to check out the other occupant of the back seat.

Seated against the opposite door, Aino Minako gazed out her own window, seemingly oblivious to anything and everyone around her. Even Artemis, offering what comfort he could by resting gently in her lap, was somewhat rejected. The hand that would normally be stroking his soft, furry back instead lay limply against the seat at her side.

Rei would have been lying to herself if she didn't admit she was worried. She knew that Minako was extremely concerned about the doctor's appointment that lay ahead of them this morning, but this seemed to go far beyond that. Rei frowned. What had set her off? What could have prompted this depressed, almost self loathing she could sense coming off her in waves?

Grimly, Rei looked up toward the front of the car, past the back of Toranaga-san's head and out into the heavy morning traffic. Blocking out the faint street noise that filtered through the thick glass of the limo, Rei turned her thoughts to the problem at hand. It had to be something else. She had been living with Minako for the past 36 hours. A mere day and a half. She blushed lightly.

But what a day and a half it had been!

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Wednesday, Late Afternoon

Leaving the shrine took longer than she thought it would.

As she led Minako out of the formal gardens, she began looking for the head of the shrine. She eventually found the older gentleman in his office, pouring over accounts, and politely asked for a word. He smiled at the young woman he'd known for so many years and invited them both in, asking if they would care to take tea. Knowing it was rude to rush these things and turn down his offer of hospitality, she smiled and accepted for both of them. Pleased with her excellent manners, he asked who her young friend was, and Rei introduced him to Minako.

"Ah! This is the young woman whose life you saved, yes?" he asked as they sat around a modest table. The beautifully appointed room had a wonderful view of the grounds.

"Yes, Grandfather," Rei answered respectfully.

Looking at the young idol, the ancient priest seemed to take the measure of her. Minako lowered her eyes and withstood his scrutiny in silence.

"You have a good heart," he finally said, with a knowing smile, "like our Rei-chan's. You have already done great things, and yet it is within you to do so much more."

Blushing, Minako cleared her throat and said, "Thank you. It gives me great joy to be able to help others."

The old priest nodded his head in approval as he sipped his tea. They sat together in companionable silence for several minutes, enjoying his excellent tea before he spoke again. "So, tell me, what brings you to my office today."

Looking quickly at Minako, Rei sat up a bit and said, "Minako has a plan that we think may relieve some of the outside pressure on the shrine."

His interest perked, the priest sat and listened as they both laid out Minako's plan. When they were finished, he asked several questions, and with Minako's help, they both were able to quell any fears he had for Rei's safety. Minako assured him that she would take good care of her, and Rei formally asked him to assign her duties to one of the others until such time as she would be able to resume them.

"The children will miss you," he said with a delightful twinkle in his eye, and Rei smiled widely as she told him to remind them she would be back soon, and that they should not slack off in their lessons! She was aware of Minako watching this exchange in rapt fascination, and she knew it was because the idol was getting a small peek into her life that she had probably never really imagined before. This, after all, was her life. Not the life of Sailormars, but that of Hino Rei, Shinto priestess.

After tea, they were free to go, and Rei led them back to her living quarters. As they entered the neatly kept rooms, Rei headed directly to a screened off area and began changing out of her robes for something a bit less conspicuous. On the other side of the partition, she could hear Minako roaming around the room, stopping now and then to look at whatever seemed to catch her eye.

"Is he really your grandfather?" Minako suddenly asked, out of the blue.

"No," Rei answered shortly.

"So why did you call him that?" she asked curiously.

Rei hesitated before answering the simple question. She knew Minako was only being inquisitive, but this had never been an easy subject for her to discuss. Finally, she reluctantly said, "After mother died, father dumped me here so he wouldn't have to deal with either my grief or my strange 'gifts'. Since then, he has been the closest I have ever come to having a real family."

"So, you call him that out of affection?" Minako asked.

Rei thought about that before answering simply. "Yes. Respect as well."

"I see," Minako said thoughtfully, as she returned to her inspection. "This is a really nice room," she added as Rei continued to change clothes. "The view from these windows is beautiful. Has it always been yours?"

Rei frowned. She truly hated answering personal questions! But, she schooled herself firmly, Minako was just trying to make conversation and get to know her better. So after a moment, she answered, "Since I first came here, yes."

"It's really light and open," she exclaimed. "Oh! Are these your parents?" Through the gap in the wooden screen caused by the hinges she could see the other girl leaning over to get a closer look at the old snapshot she had framed and kept on her desk.

Feeling her jaw cinch, she mumbled, "yes," as she roughly pulled the short sleeved henley over her head.

"You were so cute!" Minako exclaimed, picking up the photo to get a closer look. "How old were you here?"

"Five."

"Only five," she whispered, almost to herself. "You look like your mother," she said to Rei.

"Hrmpft," Rei groused, coming from behind the partition, now dressed in similar fashion to Minako. "I thought you'd say I looked more like him."

"Well, you do favor him, now that you mention it," Minako returned. "But only when you scowl. Like you're doing right now," she added with a smirk as the afore mentioned scowl deepened even more.

"We don't have time for this," Rei grumped. Grabbing a backpack and a large duffle bag from the top shelf of her closet she began to sort through her clothes and shoes.

"Anything I can do to help?" Minako asked from across the room.

"No," Rei answered, digging through her chest of drawers. "This shouldn't take long."

"Okay," Minako said, her eyes wandering to another part of the room where they landed on a floor to ceiling bookshelf and widened in surprise. There, in neatly kept rows, was a modest but impressive collection of manga and gashapon figures. "I would have never guessed," she whispered to herself as she moved closer and began to read a few of the titles. "Chirality, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Gunsmith Cats, Plastic Little, The Secret Garden." There were several artbooks as well, including one titled Venus, by Urushihara Satoshi which she was compelled to pull off the shelf and open. As the first full-page, lushly illustrated portrait came into view, she felt the immediate flush of a violent blush and quickly closed the book, placing it back on the shelf with a backward glance to see if Rei had seen her looking at it. To her relief, Rei was busily trying to arrange her clothes and things between the two bags and totally oblivious to anything else. With a sigh of relief, she said, "I never would have taken you for such an otaku, Rei."

Looking up, Rei saw her by the bookshelf and shrugged. "I've been collecting for years," she said, returning her attention to her work. "It's relaxing."

Nodding in acknowledgement, Minako's eyes were next drawn to five small, yet very familiar figures resting on the center shelf. Narrowing her eyes, she moved in for a closer look. Sure enough, it was Sailormoon and four of her planetary guardians. The attention to detail in their features and fukus was pretty impressive. But, it was the placement of two of the figures that caused her brows to vanish beneath of bangs. Venus was seated on a small white block, and leaning back against the hip of Mars, who was standing over her, resting one elbow on her shoulder. They looked very, very cozy indeed!

"Hino Rei! Where did you get these?" She asked, turning to look at Rei, who was just closing up her last bag.

"Oh, that?" Rei said nonchalantly. "They were in nearly every bubblegum machine in Japan for about two years or so. You mean you've never seen them before?"

"Yes! I mean no! That is, of course, I've seen them!" Minako said. "I just never would have thought that you..." her voice trailed off.

"Would bother to collect them?" Rei finished for her. A half grin flashed across her face. "Maybe you don't know me as well as you think you do," she added as she turned and headed for the door.

"Maybe I don't," the idol singer murmured as the priestess walked by, but Rei heard her anyway.

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Friday, Early Morning

Reflecting back on that conversation, Rei had to admit that on some level, she had really enjoyed it. Minako had gotten her to open up, albeit a bit reluctantly, and she had also gotten a look at what it was really like to live in Rei's world. Grinning as she remembered the look of outrage on Minako's face when she had questioned her about the figurines, Rei couldn't help but be amused. And if Minako didn't think that she had seen her pick up that copy of Venus? The dark brown eyes twinkled merrily. She had another think coming, indeed!

_________________________________________________

Wednesday, Later Afternoon

The trip back to Minako's car had been surprisingly easy. It became apparent quickly that Minako believed in a strategy of 'hide in plain sight'. If you dressed like the crowd you were most likely to be in, did nothing to draw attention to yourself, and moved as if you had somewhere to go, most people never even gave you a passing glance. Rei was amazed. In front of the shrine, a media frenzy was in full force with reporters and cameramen, trucks, and even a satellite dish or two, but after walking down a drainage ditch out the back of the formal gardens, they entered the street and walked boldly down the opposite side, right past all the hoopla focused on the front of the shrine. Rei glanced over at Minako, who flashed her a quick wink, and Rei could almost feel the delight Minako got out of pulling a fast one on the whole media world. Down two blocks and over one, they finally reached the black Mercedes, threw her bags in the trunk and than sank safely into the plush, leather seats in back. The soundproof window between the front and rear seats lowered, and the driver said, "Where to, miss?"

"Home, Toranaga-san! Take us home!"

"Very good, miss," the chauffeur said respectfully. Raising the window back into place, he started the car and pulled carefully out into traffic.

"It's about time you got back!" Artemis said as soon as the barrier closed. "Your cellphone has been going off every ten minutes. You must have 20 messages on that thing by now!"

"Hello, Artemis," Rei said as he wound down.

"Good afternoon, Mars," the white guardian cat answered after catching his breath. "I see she was able to convince you to join us."

"For awhile," Rei said, seeming to ignore the quickly hidden look of alarm from the other side of the seat. "Seeing as she asked me so nicely," she added, cutting slightly amused eyes in mock challenge toward the other girl.

"Whatever," Minako said disdainfully. Deliberately focusing on the large bag at her feet, she made a huge show of digging out her cellphone as she ignored the teasing of the dark priestess. Finally retrieving the thing, she looked at the number of messages and shook her head. "Twenty three? Do I even need to look and see who most of these are from?"

"No, not really," Artemis replied.

"Saitou-san?"

"Saitou-san."

"I remember him!" Rei said. "Is he still your manager?"

"Unfortunately yes," Minako answered, punching the buttons on her phone that would identify the caller for each message. "Saitou... Saitou... Saitou... Saitou." Exasperated, Minako finally said, "Does he just not understand the meaning of the words, 'I'm taking the rest of the day off?’"

"He probably didn't think you were serious. I mean, after all, it's something you've never really done before," Artemis replied.

Frowning at the cellphone, Minako considered whether or not she should just ignore it or not. "Twenty three messages? I've only been gone a couple of hours! What could have possibly made him try to call me that many times?" Worry flashed across her features and she said, "I'll just give him a quick call. It shouldn't take long." Turning to Rei, she said, "Are you hungry? I'm starving!"

"I could eat," Rei confirmed, watching as Minako hit the speed dial for Saitou's office.

"Let's order delivery when we get to the apartment," she said eagerly. "What do you like? Chinese? Italian? Mexican? It's Aino," she said into the phone, still looking at Rei.

"Chinese sounds good," Rei answered.

"Oooh, I love Chinese!" Minako exclaimed. "Maybe some happy family and shrimp-fried rice," she enthused. "Do you like 'The Orient?’ They have the best egg rolls, and... hello?" she said, abruptly ending their conversation as her manager came on line. Rei could hear the frantic note in his voice from across the car.

"Here we go again. This isn't good," Artemis whispered into Rei’s ear from his perch in the rear window behind her seat.

Rei turned her head to look back at him. "What do you mean?" she asked softly, mirroring his hushed tone.

"Just that this kind of disruption isn't unusual," he answered sadly. "When she should be finishing up for the day and going home for a well deserved rest and a hot meal, someone always seems to come up with one more catastrophe that only she can handle. For example, she totally missed lunch today, and what she had for breakfast just wasn't nearly sufficient to keep her going at her current pace. Just watch," he added, nodding his head in her direction. "My guess is we won't be going home or ordering Chinese anytime soon."

As the one sided conversation progressed, Rei watched the play of emotions across Minako's face in fascination.

"Where have I been? Taking care of some personal matters, if it's any of your business... No, I didn't take my cellphone with me! As I had said I was taking the rest of the day off, I really didn't think it was necessary... None of your business! I would have told you if it concerned you... I don't think so!... What do you want?... No! I will not come back in! I have plans for this evening and a houseguest... I don't care what the director said! I will not let my life revolve around this music video!... I mean it!... What?... No... No... I'm all right, really... I'm just tired, okay?... I'm really tired. I just need to rest a little and... Yes, I know you care, I just... Yes... Yes, you're right, he is an idiot, and she's no help at all...Two hours?... No, I... But... Well... Just two hours?... You promise?... Yes...Yes... Okay, I'll be there in about twenty minutes, but you tell them two hours is all they're getting... and yes, you do owe me for this! Bye."

Closing the cellphone, she continued to look at it folded neatly in the hands resting in her lap.

"I have to go into the office for a couple of hours. Do you mind?" she finally said, still not looking up at her.

Rei was struck again by how very tired she looked. Almost fragile.

"No, not at all," she answered.

"Thanks," Minako replied. Reaching out to touch the intercom button on the panel by her side, she reluctantly gave the driver the order that would take them to her office suite. "The director of this new video we're supposed to shoot next week is an idiot, and my so-called assistant can't seem to appease him at all," She offered in explanation, then she shook her head. "No, that's not fair. Yumi-san only started with us two weeks ago, and she just hasn't found her footing yet. It's just so hard to be patient sometimes though," she added, looking down again tiredly. All the previous sparkle she had shown at the idea of a quiet meal with Rei, and an early evening had vanished as the crushing weight of her professional responsibilities came crashing back down on her narrow shoulders.

"It's okay, Minako," Rei said gently. "We'll go, you'll answer all their stupid and annoying questions, and then we'll go home, just like we planned."

Minako smiled at her softly. "That reminds me. I need to set up your press conference so you can answer your own stupid and annoying questions."

Rei bit her lip and frowned before she said, "I knew I should have kept my mouth shut!"

Minako grinned widely. "The sooner we do it, the sooner it will be over with," she teased.

Rei flounced back against the seat. "Okay, fine. Whenever you think is best will be fine with me," she huffed.

With a slight smirk not at all dimmed by her tired eyes, Minako opened her cellphone once again, only this time she called her own office. "Emi? It's Minako. Let me speak to Yumi, please. Yes, I know, I'm on my way now, I just need her to take care of something for me before we all get caught up in this video hoopla. Okay, I'll wait." Looking over at Rei, who was pretending to ignore her by looking out the window, she smiled again. Happy, it seemed just to be able to spend even this small amount of time with her. "Yumi? Yeah, it's me. Listen, I need you to schedule a press conference... No, it's not for me, it's for my friend, Hino Rei... Yes, THAT Hino Rei... I'll be appearing with her... Tomorrow would be good... It doesn't matter, clear a spot... Okay, that sounds good... No, don't announce a time limit. I want Rei to feel she can leave whenever she's ready to... Sure... That's good! 10:30 am would be perfect!" Rei turned to look at her in horror and Minako's grin widened. "Okay, conference room A is good. Make sure Facilities knows so they can prepare the room in time, and that should do it. Anything else I should know before I get there?... No, Yumi... No, it's okay. You didn't know... I understand. You'll do better next time, don't worry about it... Okay... Okay... See you shortly. Bye."

"Okay, you're all set up. Tomorrow morning at 10:30," she said, snapping the phone shut.

"I heard," Rei grumbled. "Conference room A."

Minako grinned again as the car came to a halt and they exited it, heading toward the wide bank of elevators that would take them directly up to her office.

_________________________________________________

Friday, Early Morning

Frowning, Rei couldn't help but think wryly that turnabout was, after all, fair play.

Taking a deep breath of the slightly over air-conditioned air in the damp car, she scowled darkly. She had only just begun to get a look at the reality that was Minako's world that first evening.

She hadn't liked what she'd seen one bit either. It smelled all too much like her father's counterfeit world of deals and dealers. Of liars and lies.

_________________________________________________

Wednesday, Early to Late Evening

The elevator came to a stop on Minako's floor, and together they moved down the short corridor to the door that would open into her office. The word 'office,' however, was probably a bit inadequate to describe the idol's home-away-from-home. It was really more of a suite of offices comprised of three main rooms. A reception area presided over by her secretary, a small office occupied by her assistant, and a much larger room that served as Minako's private office, with its own washroom, sidebar and conference area.

Entering the reception area, they were greeted by Minako's long-suffering secretary, the formidable Aki Emi. The middle-aged woman glanced up at her employer from over the top of her glasses with a knowing look. "I thought you were taking the rest of the day off," she stated with a touch of wry humor in her voice.

"So did I," Minako countered wearily. "They're all in there, I take it?" she asked, looking toward her office door.

"Yes," Emi answered, rolling her eyes. "The cat, the mouse, and the village idiot," she added, referring to her manager, her assistant, and the director, in that order. "They got here about five minutes ago."

Minako nodded in understanding. "Did anyone else just happen to show up with them?" she inquired in a wary voice.

"You have to ask?" Emi said, looking at her boss as if she'd lost her mind. "Ishida brought his assistant director and that fruit-loop he wants to design the costumes with him."

Minako closed her eyes in frustration. "I can't believe they made me come in for this!" she said. Opening her eyes, she looked at Emi once again. "I've told him we already have someone to handle all the choreography and the costumes. Why do we have to go over this again and again?"

Emi shrugged her shoulders and offered a sympathetic smile. "I'm sorry, Minako-san. I know you really didn't want to deal with this right now."

"It's okay, Emi-san," Minako said with weary patience. "I suppose it can't be helped now."

"They're going to just adore your lovely ensemble this evening, " The secretary quipped.

Minako grinned at Emi's twisted sense of humor. "Well, if they insist on disturbing me on my afternoon off, then they'll just have to live with what they get, won't they?" she said, sharing a brief laugh with her employee. "Anyway," she continued, "I want you to meet someone very special to me." Pulling Rei forward she said proudly, "Emi-san, this is Rei."

Rei immediately blushed a bright red. Minako had not bothered to use any honorific with her name, and Emi had a very knowing smile on her face as she looked her over.

"Ah! So this is 'Rei,’ is it?' she said softly, reaching forward to grasp her hand. "Well, Rei-san. Let me be the first to say 'thank you'." Glancing over at Minako, she added sincerely, "I don't know what I would have done if that man had taken her from this world. Thank you," she repeated, tears forming in the corner of her eyes.

Embarrassed, Rei acknowledged the secretary's heartfelt thanks, and then mercifully, Minako turned for the door to the main office.

"No calls, Emi-san," she tossed over her shoulder. Pausing at the doorway, she turned back once again to add, "And no more additions to this party. Understand?"

"Yes, Aino-san," the secretary replied, all business once again. "No calls. No disturbances."

"Perfect."

Entering Minako's office this time was considerably different from the first time she'd come here. Before, it had been early morning, and just the two of them. This time it was early evening and the cacophony coming from the conference table in the corner clearly indicated that they were not alone.

In the receding light of the late afternoon sun that shone through the wide bank of windows along the outside wall, Rei could make out five people clustered around one end of it. She recognized only one.

Steadily shaking his head 'no', Saitou Sugao was standing next to a rather large and loud man of indeterminate age who was waving his hand toward both a whiteboard that was covered with x's and o's and an artist's sketch pad lying on the table in front of them. Next to him stood another man, who kept nodding his head as he held a clipboard with a large sheaf of paper attached to it. The fourth man, this one much smaller, and with a rather condescending expression on his clean-shaven, almost baby-smooth face, sat primly at the table next to the artist's pad. Rei disliked all three of these unknowns on sight, easily recognizing a blowhard and two cling-ons when she saw them. The fifth person was a small, rather thin young woman with large glasses and a 'deer-caught-in-the-headlights' look on her face as her head bobbled back and forth between Saitou and the large man Rei now knew must be the director, Ishida. The girl just had to be Yumi.

Still shaking his head, Saitou was insistent. "No, no, no, no!" he stated. "Minako-chan has already seen and approved all the costume designs for this shoot! You already know this, Ishida-san!" he accused firmly. "Why you are insisting on yet another large style change at this late date is beyond me."

"You obviously don't see my vision!" Ishida bellowed. Reaching toward the light switch, he flicked the lights over the table on, throwing the rest of the room into deeper shadow as he continued. "Mitsumoto has beautifully illustrated the overall meaning behind this song!" he insisted, indicating the wormy little man at the table, who simpered in false modesty. "I'm sure SHE will see the true artistry of his genius!"

Looking down at the sketch book disdainfully, Saitou's face clearly showed his opinion of the sketches. Flipping to the second page, he grimaced painfully. "Artistry, you say?" Dropping the page, he sniffed as if he had smelled something distasteful. "I wouldn't dress my cat in these rags to frighten off mice," he stated.

Outraged Mitsumoto sputtered, "Well! I never!"

Looking the little man up and down, Saitou shook his head and said slyly, a knowing look in his eye, "No, I bet you haven't."

Rei looked over at Minako who was just turning to catch her eye. In silent amusement they grinned at each other, sharing the humor in Saitou's wicked cut and laughing softly. None of the other people in the room had even noticed their arrival yet, and Rei was starting to wonder just how long Minako intended to listen in on this discussion when the idol turned and leaned toward her.

"Those three men, Mars," she said softly, in a conspiratorial voice. "Ishida and his crew. What do you think?"

"Seriously?" Rei asked as she looked at her companion, one eyebrow arching upward in question.

At Minako's nod, Rei turned and took a much more serious look at the three. With a deep breath, she centered herself, a distant look slowly coming into her dark eyes.

"He's very talented," she said after a few moments.

"The director?" Minako asked.

"Yes..."

"But?" she prompted.

"He's not as talented as he thinks he is," Rei finished with a frown. "The assistant's not a bad sort," she added. "He's a hard worker, he's just fallen into unfortunate circumstances."

"And the designer?"

Rei was silent for several seconds, and then a huge grin crossed her features.

"He's Ishida's brother-in-law."

"What?" Minako gasped, quickly raising her hand to her lips, her eyes widening in shock as she stared at the priestess.

"His wife's younger brother," she added. "He's been freeloading off them for years, and Ishida can't stand him."

"No way!" Minako whispered in surprised glee. "Then, why on earth would he bring him here?" she asked, leaning in closer and lowering her voice.

Rei's teeth flashed and her dark eyes twinkled. "His wife made him! She must want him out of the house as much as Ishida does."

Ginning like a couple of teenaged schoolgirls, the two young women shared a good, if very quiet laugh at the hapless director’s expense. Finally, Minako wiped the moisture from her eyes and smiled at her companion.

"You're not joking, are you? You really can see all that," she said. It was more a statement of fact than a question.

"Yeah," Rei answered softly. "Some people are harder to read than others," she confided, "but these guys were pretty easy."

"Can you read me?" Minako asked quietly, and the very atmosphere around them seemed to still.

Feeling her face redden once again under the beautiful young woman's scrutiny, Rei looked away from her and cleared her suddenly dry throat. "No," she stated simply. "Even in the Silver Millennium, you always eluded me."

"But only in this one regard," Minako reminded her softly.

"True," Rei nodded slowly in thoughtful agreement. "But, I still think that some things are best left a mystery, don't you?"

The silence around them deepened, even the sound of raised voices across the room unable to penetrate it as they shared a secret smile.

Minako finally broke the silence. "I'm really glad to see that you've retained some of your powers, Rei," she said with a smile. "Now, let's see if I still have some of mine."

Still making no direct move to hide her motion, she headed toward her desk and took her seat behind it. With a sigh of relief, Rei followed and took a seat of her own nearby. Together, they continued to listen to the argument that was raging across the room.

"Really," Ishida fumed. "It's inconceivable to me why I should have to explain my plans to mere lackeys! The very idea that I should have to deal with anyone except Aino-san herself is beyond me!"

"Um..." Yumi murmured.

"What?" The arrogant man snarled. "Do you really have anything of importance to add, or are you just going to stand there and displace air?"

Recoiling from the spray of spittle that had escaped Ishida's mouth along with his rude comment, the timid young woman had gamely struggled forward.

"I'm just telling you, sir," Yumi said, her voice trembling slightly. "Aino-san was quite clear about her arrangements for this video. I really don't think she's going to appreciate your interference."

"I really couldn't care less what you think!" the man roared. "See, this is what I mean," he said to the two other men with him. "Aino-san should be here! She is a TRUE artist!' he intoned dramatically. "SHE would understand what I'm trying to say!"

Saitou frowned. "Actually, I think you've said more than enough." As the other man glared at him, he continued, unfazed. "You're still relatively new to music videos, aren't you?" he asked pointedly. "Minako-chan, on the other hand, is an experienced, internationally known and respected entertainer with a wealth of knowledge in all areas of musical entertainment. Her recordings have sold in the multi-billions, and each new release is awaited by endless lines of adoring fans."

"Yes, I know all that," Ishida said impatiently. "What's your point?

"The point is, just who are you?" he asked, bluntly. "This young woman has an uncanny ability to place her finger on the pulse of what touches her audience," Saitou continued. "Part of that comes from her 'hands on' approach to her own productions. This has been her strict policy since she was sixteen years old, and she has never looked back. It's gotten her where she is today," he concluded.

"But I have a new vision for her!" Ishida announced. "A vision that will change the world's perception of her, and rocket her into the very stratosphere of universal super stardom!"

Crossing his arms over his chest, Saitou turned to address Yumi, and spotted the still silent idol across the room. Smiling to himself, he continued with his statement to the assistant, who looked up at him from the glasses she was still trying to clean. "Funny. I thought that's where she had already been for the last five years or so."

Unable to really argue with that statement of fact, Ishida had blustered. "Well... of course she is! We all know that!" he said, nodding to the other two, who nodded vigorously in return. "I just want to help cement her into that position, so that her legend will continue to shine long after her star has dimmed in the firmament."

"I see," Saitou said, raising one finger to place against his mouth as if in deep thought. "So, you think this vision of yours," he continued, indicating the whiteboard and the sketch pad, "are going to accomplish that?" he asked doubtfully.

"Absolutely," Ishida stated firmly.

"Better than Minako's own original concept?"

"I guarantee it," the director smirked.

Saitou looked across the room to the impassive face of his client and then back again, an almost sympathetic look on his face. "Then I believe you really are an idiot," he concluded.

As Ishida opened his mouth to retort in outrage to this latest insult, a clear, firm voice cut through the room.

"Ishida-san. Saitou-san. That's enough."

As one, every eye turned in the direction of Minako's desk, and a dead silence instantly pervaded the room as everyone suddenly realized who was sitting at it.

Once she had their undivided attention, Minako immediately took charge.

"Yumi-san."

"Yes!" the young woman said, jumping forward eagerly.

"Turn on the overhead's please. Let's put some light on this situation."

"Yes, ma'am," the assistant said respectfully as she hurried over to a nearby switch and turned on the bright florescent overhead bulbs.

"Much better," Minako said, smiling encouragingly at the young woman, before turning to the others. "First off, let me introduce my very dear friend, Hino Rei."

"Reiko-chan, darling!” Saitou exclaimed in delight as he crossed the room and bent down to give the startled girl a huge hug. Rei was barely able to turn her face in time to avoid the tightly puckered lips zeroing in on her own. Catching the affectionate kiss on her left cheek instead, she grinned up at Minako's long-time manager with true delight.

"It's good to see you again, Saitou-san."

"Not as good as it was to see you the other day!" he returned. Placing a warm hand on her shoulder, he added seriously, "You always did have impeccable timing, darling. I'm glad that hasn't changed."

Nodding in agreement, Rei caught a slight gasp off to her left, and turned to look in that direction. "You must be Yumi-san," she said, smiling politely.

"Hi... Hino-sama!"

Yumi was spellbound, her awestruck eyes riveted to the dark priestess as if seeing the true meaning of life, the Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus, all rolled into one.

"No, please!" Rei insisted, more than a bit embarrassed. "Rei will be just fine."

The girl blushed a bright red, and then said shyly, "O... okay, Rei-sama!"

Rei offered her an awkward smile, and then looked rather uncomfortably toward Minako, who took in the whole scene with only slightly irritated amusement, before continuing by introducing both Ishida and his assistant. She concluded the formalities by saying, "I know each and everyone of you will offer her your sincere apologies at the conclusion of this meeting for ruining her evening, as well as mine. Now," she started.

"Aino-san!" the director said, interrupting the idol, and totally oblivious to the look he was receiving for his rudeness. "I think you have forgotten Mitsumoto," he added, indicating the little man beside him.

"No, I haven't," Minako stated bluntly as she looked at the large man. Turning her eyes to the designer, she addressed him directly. "Do I know you?"

Squirming uncomfortably under the gaze of the well-known and powerful idol, the man answered, "Uh... no, Aino-san."

"Have we ever met before?"

"N... no, Aino-san," he said nervously.

"Have I ever hired you for anything?" she demanded.

"No. No, Aino-san," he squeaked.

"Then you have no business here. You may leave," she said, ending the conversation.

"Yes! Thank you, Aino-san!" he answered in relief as he bowed and turned to leave. On shaky legs, he hurried out the office door, glad to be getting away from a situation that was rapidly turning awkward.

"Let's move on then, shall we?" Minako started again. "I heard enough of your..."

"Just a minute!" Ishida interrupted once again, his face turning an angry red. "I asked Mits..."

"Be silent!" Minako said. Her voice never rose anywhere near a level that could be called a shout, but it still cleaved the air like a whip.

"I overlooked your rudeness the first time you interrupted me," she informed the man. "Do not be so foolish as to think I will do so again."

Taken aback, the man's blustering confidence began to waiver. "My... my most sincere apologies, Aino-san," he said. "I never meant to offend! I merely wanted to introduce this man and his costume designs to you."

Rei and Saitou exchanged a look, each knowing what this unwitting idiot had just wrought upon himself.

Minako nodded her head. "I see," she said. "So. Tell me. Were you asleep in all of the pre-production meetings, or did you only doze through the parts where we finalized the designs for the costumes?"

"No, Aino-san," he began in protest. "I..."

"Did you forget about those designs?"

"N... no..."

“Did you forget the reasons those particular designs were chosen?"

"No! The choreographer..."

"Did you forget when we signed off on the order to have them made?"

"No, Aino-san! I just..."

"Surely, it's not that you think your brother-in-law could possibly have a better grasp of my song than I do?"

"No!" He bellowed, eyes wide and shocked out of his mind that she could have known that. "No, Aino-san! I was... I mean... it just..."

"Who am I?"

The question brought his babbling to an abrupt stop. And he stared at her in confusion.

"It's a simple question, Ishida-san," Minako said patiently. "Who. Am. I?"

Blinking at her dumbly for several seconds, the director was at a total loss as to how to answer her.

Minako leaned forward in her desk, both arms resting comfortably on top of it as she looked at the man in front of her.

"Let me make it simpler for you," she said, as if explaining it to a child. "Whose office is this?"

"Yo... you..."

"Who wrote this song?"

He swallowed heavily. "Y.. yo.."

"Who performed it?"

"A...Ai...Ain..."

"Who produced it?"

"A... yo..."

"And who hired you to direct it?"

"...y..."

"Can you answer any of these questions, Ishida-san?" she asked pointedly, "or are you just going to stand there and displace air?"

Rei caught the sudden, bright grin that crossed Yumi's face at that, and turned to see pure, unadulterated hero worship on the girl’s face as she looked at her boss.

Ishida looked down at her helplessly stunned, his mouth working desperately to get something, anything, intelligent to come out.

Minako studied the broken man standing in front of her briefly. "The truth of the matter is that I hired you on the recommendation of my usual director. As he is celebrating the birth of his first child, he is currently unable to get his schedule to work with ours. He explained though, that while you were still new to all this, you showed potential and he felt you were worthy of a shot."

Ishida cringed as he realized how badly he had just screwed up. Closing his eyes, he waited for the ax to fall.

"As I hold him in such high regard, I reviewed all the tapes he sent me of your work," she continued, "and while it was rough around the edges, I did like what I saw."

He looked up slowly, almost afraid to hope.

"You are somehow able to project an energy I find appealing," she said, smiling briefly. "I think my friends out there will like it, too," she confided with a nod toward the wide bank of outside windows.

"Aino-san?" he asked, confused, yet hopeful that he wasn't fired.

"You have a tremendous raw talent," Minako told him, her demeanor straight-forward and honest. "You should use this opportunity to learn and to nurture that talent."

A wide smile of relief broke across the big man's face. "Yes, Aino-san! Of course, you are absolutely right!" he said, as he reached across the desk to grasp her hand in gratitude.

"Three other things you need to know, and always remember," Minako said, pulling her hand away from his damp grip. The man calmed instantly to listen to her words.

"Yes, Aino-san?"

"Never again try to foist your relatives off on me."

"Yes, Aino-san," he answered in embarrassment.

"Never again attempt to change the details of my shoots a week before they begin."

"Of course, Aino-san! I swear it!"

"And never, and I mean never, speak to my staff members in the way I heard when I came into this room!" The man had the decency to cringe. "Let me make it very clear to you that I will not tolerate that kind of behavior, and in the future you will be fired on the spot without reference. Do you understand?" Minako demanded sternly.

"Yes, Aino-san. I'm truly sorry, everyone," he said in sincerity as he turned to the others in the room. "I hope you will be able to forgive my rudeness."

Rei watched as Minako smiled, and shook her head in wonder. This was the Venus of old. She would defend her own with the fierceness of a lioness protecting her cubs, but she would also rip you wide open and pour salt in your wounds, only to build you back up, so much stronger and better than you had ever been before.

Looking around the room, she could see it in their eyes. Minako was their leader. They would gladly follow her anywhere she cared to go. Rei grinned. No, she wasn't the only one who had retained some of her skills.

Shortly afterward, the meeting had descended into plans and charts, and Rei had been left to wander the room. Looking at the wall covered in awards, she had easily spotted the homemade frame with the two long-stemmed roses in the center of the wall. Walking over to it, she had smiled as she re-read her brief note, surprised, yet flattered that Minako had kept it all these years.

Feeling her stomach rumble, Rei frowned and looked down at her watch, which confirmed what she suspected. It was well past the 'two hour' limit that had been set for this meeting, and a glance at the conference table indicated it was still going full swing. Rei was more than a little irked as she looked over to where Artemis lay on Minako's unoccupied desk.

"I told you so," he said with a shrug.

"I don't think so," Rei said grimly. Whipping out her cellphone, she walked toward Emi's office.

Thirty minutes later, Emi led a delivery boy into the room with two large bags. "Put it on the sidebar," she told the young man.

Looking up in annoyance, Minako said, "Emi-san! What is this? I don't remember ordering anything."

"I did," Rei said, crossing the room. "If you won't stop to eat, then you can eat while you work."

"Great idea!" Saitou chimed in as he headed to the sidebar. "Why haven't we done this before?"

Minako watched in amazement as her group loaded up plates and headed back to the conference table as if they had never been interrupted at all. A plate suddenly appeared in front of her face, and her mouth began to water in involuntary anticipation.

"Happy family and Shrimp-fried rice, one eggroll on the side. Bon appetite."

Gazing up at the smiling face of the one who held the plate, Minako felt her heart constrict as she gently smiled in return. "Thank you, Rei," she whispered.

"I said I'd take care of you," Rei reminded her. "I meant it." Smiling briefly once more, Rei returned to the sideboard to get her own dinner.

As the two hour meeting stretched first to five, and then to six, Rei fell asleep on the couch, with Artemis resting by her side. At eleven o'clock, Minako woke her and she sat up, startled.

"What time is it?" she demanded, suddenly alert.

"Eleven," Minako said quietly. Re could feel the exhaustion coming off the other girl in waves.

"Are you ready to go home now?" Rei asked, concerned.

"Oh, yes!" Minako assured her. "The car is out front."

"Okay," Rei said, as she rose and stretched. "Let's get out of here."

"Only to be back at 8am," Minako informed her as they walked out the door.

The ride to the apartment was completely silent as Rei dozed in and out, and Minako stared out the window in thought.

When they arrived, Minako escorted Rei straight to the guestroom, where the sleepy priestess dropped her bags on the dresser and the floor. Minako pointed out the private bath area, and the linen closet. Then, seeing the droopy eyed nod of acknowledgement, bid Rei a goodnight, and with a soft grin, shut the door quietly behind her as she left.

Nodding once again toward the closed door, Rei barely managed to change clothes and turn down the sheets, before she was out again.

It had been a long, long day.

______________________________________________________

Friday, Early Morning

That was an understatement, Rei thought wryly as she rubbed her hands against the chill. The day had started on an emotional rollercoaster ride, and then Minako had shown up. Rei grinned. Somehow, the ride attendant had forgotten to stop the thing, and let her off! Looking over at the pale, silent girl beside her, the grin vanished, and she knew. She was still a prisoner, held captive to the challenge of the ride.

She could not fail.

 

END PART EIGHT, PART 1