Echoes of a Distant Demon

by Sailor Doc

 

~ Chapter Eight, Part 2 ~

 

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Author's Note: Thank You, Thank You, to all of you who have supported, cajoled and suggested cures and ideas! You are all the very best of the best! Without your efforts, this chapter may well have taken another year to complete! Blessings on you all!

Now, without further ado...

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Thursday, Early Morning

Despite the new environment, she slept surprisingly well. Waking the next morning in the extremely comfortable western-style bed, she felt very well rested and uncharacteristically optimistic.

They would make progress on all fronts. It would start today.

Rising, she entered the private bath attached to her room to begin her early morning routine. After a brisk, refreshing shower, she dried and styled her hair, and then dressed for the day before leaving the room in search of the other inhabitants of the apartment.

The smell of freshly brewed coffee assaulted her senses as she stepped out into the short hallway, triggering her stomach which automatically growled its own 'hello'. Making her way up the hall, she turned into the kitchen area and headed straight toward the coffeemaker, already reaching towards it and the cup that was sitting next to it, hopefully for her. Taking her first sip, her eyes closed in delight and her optimism grew. It was going to be a good day. A challenge maybe in parts, she thought grimly, remembering the press conference that loomed ahead, but a good day overall nonetheless, she was sure. Nodding her head firmly to emphasize the truth of it, she took another confirming sip before putting the cup down to look for something to eat.

The countertop was spotless except for a single breakfast plate which contained the remains of half a grapefruit and the crumpled wrapper from a granola bar. Frowning, Rei wondered how any active individual could possibly exist on such a skimpy breakfast, especially anyone as active as Minako. With those thoughts still tumbling around the back of her mind, she turned and started digging through the refrigerator to see what she might have to work with to produce a decent breakfast for herself.

Twenty minutes later, with breakfast plate and refreshed coffee mug in hand, she answered the invitation of the open doors and walked out onto the balcony. There, she found Minako sitting at the table, a leather notebook open in front of her as she dictated correspondence into a dictaphone, and Artemis, who was snoozing on the table in front of her. Offering Rei a brief smile, she reached for a coffee cup that looked more like a cereal bowl to Rei, and continued to speak into the machine, barely pausing to swallow.

Both fascinated and disturbed by what she was seeing, Rei sat down across from the idol, plopping her heaping plate down in front of herself and diving into the large ham and cheese omelet with gusto. Two slices of wheat toast completed the meal, and Rei grinned to herself as she heard Minako's stomach growl in jealous protest.

Ignoring the look she knew she was getting, she took the time to study the balcony itself, which was beautifully furnished with wicker furniture in natural colors. Lots of lush, green plants added a serene element to the overall ambiance of the place, and the gentle breeze that blew over the brick railing was refreshing. A modest gas grill sat off to one side, and from the look of it, hadn’t been used more than once or twice, if at all. The view was spectacular, though to be quite honest, the sky looked like it was still undecided as to what face it wanted to show today.

Hearing the click of the receiver being replaced on its cradle, Rei turned her attention back to the other occupant of the table.

"Sorry about that," Minako said with a self conscious smile. "I just needed to clear up a little correspondence."

"Don't worry about it," Rei answered as she finished up her breakfast and settled back into the comfortable chair with her cup. "It's nice out here."

"I really like it," Minako replied, looking around at the peaceful space. "I usually try to start my days out here. I think it helps to clear my head before I have to deal with all the madness," she said wryly.

Rei watched her carefully as she turned her head to look at the beautiful ferns and plants that added so much to the serenity of the balcony. Even in profile, Rei had easily seen the exhaustion in her features. Her eyes were puffy, and the slight downward turn at the corner of her lips betrayed another sleepless night. So intent was her study of the young idol that Rei didn't even realize she was staring at her until she spoke.

"How was the bed?" Minako asked, turning back to her with a slight smile. "Did you sleep well?"

Eyes wide, Rei snapped her mouth shut and covered quickly, hoping Minako hadn't actually caught her staring. "It was excellent, thank you!" Rei answered. "I slept very well."

"Good," Minako said, cradling the large coffee mug in both hands as if seeking to warm them with it. "I was really hoping it wouldn't be too strange for you. I know you're accustomed to much more traditional arrangements."

"No, really. It was very comfortable." Rei assured her. "As a matter of fact..."

The insistent ringing of the phone in the living room chose that moment to rudely interrupt their conversation, and Minako frowned before offering Rei an apologetic smile and standing to go back inside.

"I shouldn't be but a few minutes," she said as she vanished through the doors, and Rei continued to look at the empty doorway with a feeling of unease she couldn't readily explain.

"Artemis?" she said, addressing the white plushy, who looked up at her with questioning teal eyes. "Does she always look this rough in the mornings?"

Casting his eyes down, he silently studied his outstretched paws as she continued.

"I know my memories are still sketchy, but to me she was always…" she paused, frustrated with herself as she searched for an adequate word to describe the Minako of her memories.

A vision of Venus flashed through her mind, sitting up on their bed and smiling as she leaned down over her with sleepy eyes, the early morning light streaming through their windows and illuminating her flawless skin and sparkling eyes. 'Good morning, my love...'

"Radiant," she finished in a dry whisper. Shaking her head, she continued, "She looks like she never even went to bed."

Never taking his eyes off his paws he said, "She didn't."

"What?" Rei said, turning sharply to look at the guardian cat, her voice dropping an octave as she demanded an explanation.

Cutting his eyes nervously toward the still open door, Artemis said, "She'd kill me if I told you the truth!"

Leaning forward so that her face was inches away from his, Rei solemnly promised, "I'll kill you if you don't."

Seeing absolutely no spark of jest in those humorless brown eyes boring into his, Artemis relented. "Okay," he agreed, reluctantly. "But I'm only agreeing to this because I think it's for her own good!"

"What do you mean?"

"She's so stubborn! She won't listen to me. Maybe you can get through to her!"

"About what?” Rei asked, her patience wearing thin.

"Well," he began, "she just won't take care of herself anymore. Not like she used to," he said with great frustration. "She's always been very conscientious of her diet and her health, maintaining that a well fed body, mind and spirit were the cornerstones of a happy and successful life. You already know about her issues with eating lately. I mean, did you happen to see what she had for breakfast this morning? I think I can honestly say that the take-out you had delivered to the office last night was the closest she's come to a decent meal in over a month."

"I kinda figured that out after our conversation in the car yesterday evening. What I need to know is what else is going on."

"She's not sleeping," Artemis confessed, "not more than two or three hours a night anyway, and that's usually wherever she happens to be at the time. The couch. A chair. It doesn't matter! Just wherever she happens to be when the exhaustion hits her. After you went to bed last night, she decided to work on a new song, so it was the desk."

"Are you telling me Minako fell asleep on her desk last night?"

"Yes."

"And stayed there all night?"

"Until she woke up again at 4 am, yes."

"Why?" Rei asked. "And how long has this been happening?"

"I believe the answer to 'why' is directly tied to 'how long,'" he said, "and it all started the day you told her about the tumor." Rei started and stared at the white cat as he continued. "Since that day, she just went into 'hypermode'. Well, you know what her schedule's been like. We talked about this last week!"

Had it only been a week ago? It felt much longer somehow.

"I see," Rei said, looking down at the worried guardian cat. "I didn't realize it was this bad."

"Oh, that's just part of it!" Artemis continued, relieved that he'd finally found an ally. "She's always insisted on maintaining a vigorous exercise regime to keep in shape in addition to all the dancing her position demands. That's never changed. She still insists on getting up every morning at 4am to work out for at least 30 minutes, sometimes an hour."

"That's really not too bad," Rei began hesitantly, "but..."

"It will wear you down if you're not physically ready for it by getting the proper rest and nutrition," he finished for her forcefully. "Mars, she just..."

Rei looked up abruptly as Artemis' voice trailed off, already knowing what she was going to see.

Minako was standing just outside of the open balcony doors, and from the look on her face, she was not happy. Drawn up to her full height, she looked every inch the planetary princess she was as she viewed them both with stern disapproval.

"Are you quite through revealing the private details of my life to someone else?" she asked her guardian cat with barely concealed anger.

"Minako," he began nervously. Rei was sure that if he wasn't already white, he would have been by the time she got through with him. "Mars and I are just concerned..."

"Enough!" she snapped, her voice never rising above a normal speaking level, yet still able to cut like a knife. The white cat visibly flinched. "I think you've said more than enough for one morning, don't you?" At his silence, she turned to Rei, "And as for you..."

"Artemis," Rei said, quickly cutting the incensed idol off as her eyes locked on Minako's. "I left some milk out for you. Go."

Without looking up, Artemis gratefully bolted toward the door and the safe distance of the kitchen.

A brittle silence descended on the former tranquility of the balcony, and the two young women faced each other unwaveringly across its space. Into that silence, Minako spoke first.

"I think I may have been remiss in not making one thing abundantly clear to you before you agreed to move here," she started, her voice controlled, yet proud and defiant. "I have been doing a very good job of taking care of myself, alone, for most of my life, and yes that includes the time before Artemis appeared in it!"

"Is that so?" Rei countered.

"As a matter of fact it is!" the idol bit out sharply, her voice rising as her anger grew. "Until now, I have never had to ask for anybody's help or opinion on anything I have ever done or any decision I have ever made, and I have no intention of starting to now! So," she continued, her eyes narrowing as they bore into Rei's, "contrary to what you are apparently thinking, I did not ask you here to be my babysitter!" she raged.

"Then stop acting like a child."

Rei dropped that one stark sentence into the middle of Minako's tirade like a bomb. The impact of it struck her with the force of a blunt object to the back of her head, and she was been absolutely stunned into silence.

"I came here with the idea that you wanted me to help you beat this. To stand by your side and help you fight it. That is why I am here! If I had known that I would have to take you by the hand and tell you when to eat, and when to sleep, and argue with you to get you to see reason in the obvious, I would have never agreed to come!" Rei spat out forcefully, her eyes burning into the idols like hot coals. "Wake up, Minako!" she snapped, taking a step toward the other girl, who stood frozen in front of her. "And while I'm at it, let me make something abundantly clear to you. You are NOT indestructible! You can wither and die! Do you, of all people, just not understand that yet?"

Shaken by the force of Rei's unexpected verbal assault, and knowing in her heart that she was right, Minako wavered slightly. "I... I do know that," she said quietly, a touch of defiance still lingering in her tone.

"Then why are you doing this?" Rei demanded.

"I don't know," Minako whispered. "I just... I don't know." Sinking into a chair, she continued quietly. "It's like I suddenly feel the clock ticking away my life again, and if I don't hurry and get as much done as I can before it stops, I'll have failed everyone somehow," she answered softly.

"Minako," Rei said gently, taking two more steps toward the other girl. She looked so lost as she sat there, and Rei's every instinct screamed at her, wanting nothing more than to sweep her up into her arms and swear to her that everything would be okay. She would make it okay! Taking a deep breath, she knelt down in front of her instead, and reached forward to capture the still hands resting quietly in her lap. Looking up into those caramel colored orbs she spoke softly. "It's a lie, Minako. A self-destructive lie. You're not alone anymore," she reminded her, gently squeezing the cold fingers grasped in her own warm hands and thrilling as she felt the responding pressure. "I'm here with you," she promised firmly. "And Artemis too! Together, we can beat this! But you'll need all your strength. That's why you need to do a better job of taking care of yourself."

Embarrassed by her own weakness, yet relishing the warm comfort of Rei's caring touch, Minako was only able to manage a short nod.

"Will you let me help?" Rei asked, her eyes still looking deeply into Minako's.

After a moment's hesitation, Minako nodded once again, and dropped her eyes to their joined hands as Rei interlaced their fingers.

"I guess you're right," she said self-consciously. "As much as it pains me to admit it. I just couldn't see it before."

"Or wouldn't," Rei gently teased.

"Well, there's that too, I guess," she admitted with a tiny smile. "Poor Artemis," she whispered. "He's tried so hard, but..."

"You're so stubborn, I know," Rei smirked, her thumbs softly stroking Minako's.

"And here I thought that was one of my more endearing traits," the idol gently teased. "I'll have to find a way to make it up to him," she admitted, shyly returning Rei's caress.

Suddenly self conscious, Rei blushed and stood, reluctantly releasing Minako's hands with a light squeeze, as she cleared her throat.

"I think he'd be happy if you'd just agree to a nap this afternoon, and the promise of a good night's sleep."

"But..." Minako started, looking up at her in protest.

"You do have your appointment with Dr. Yamato in the morning," Rei reminded her.

After just the slightest pause, Minako gritted her teeth and agreed, knowing that it was for the best.

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Friday, Early Morning

Looking out the window as they passed a transit bus that seemed to be throwing water all over the place, Rei grimaced a bit as she remembered how hard she had tried to convince Minako that they should cancel the press conference that morning. So she could rest, of course!

But, to no avail.

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Thursday, Late Morning

Promptly at 10:30 am they both walked out on stage in a conference room at Minako's office building and sat down together behind a table set up with microphones. The furious clicking and flashing of all the cameras and lights reminded her of the parking garage, and she felt again the coldness of that place she had gone to in her spirit.

Or maybe it was nerves.

Whatever it was, she looked over to see how Minako was holding up, and to her surprise, it looked like she was holding up very well indeed. Gone was the tired listless exhaustion that had drained the color from her cheeks and the spirit from her eyes. Suddenly, she was seated next to Aino Minako, superstar. As she watched in amazement, Minako smiled and waved with enthusiasm to several of the reporters and photographers in the room, laughing at a few comments thrown her way, and giving off a general feeling of lightness and happiness to every person in the room. It was amazing! Had Rei not known the truth, she would never have been able to tell from looking at her that she was teetering on the verge of collapse after a morning that had already included two hours rehearsing in a dance studio and another in a recording booth.

A spokesperson from Minako's talent agency got up first and addressed the room full of journalists, both settling the room down and laying out the ground rules for the conference. After he finished his speech he opened the floor to questions, and the part she had been dreading most began.

"Hino-san!"

"Hino-san!"

"Is it true your father is Senator Hino Ryoji?"

"Yes."

"What did he think of your daring rescue of Aino Minako?"

"I wouldn't know."

"Word is that you don't get along with him. Is that true?"

Rei looked at the woman who had asked the question with a dispassionate expression in her dark eyes. "No comment."

"Hino-san!"

"Hino-san!"

"Are you really a miko?"

"No."

"No?"

There was a sudden excited rustling amongst the assembled mob.

"Then exactly what is your position at the shrine?"

"I'm a priestess."

"Ah!" A murmur of approval swept over the crowd and more cameras popped and snapped at her.

"Hino-san!'

"Hino-san!"

"How long have you been at the shrine?"

"Since I was six."

"Hino-san!"

"Hino-san!"

"That was a truly amazing shot you made the other day! How long have you studied archery?"

"Five years."

"Do you regret killing Nakono Tohma?"

"No."

"Hino-san!'

"Hino-san!"

Rei was mildly astonished to observe that the more monosyllabic and deadpan her answers, this more frenzied the reporters seemed to get.

"Oy!"

"Hey, Hino-san!"

"Over here!"

"How long have you known Aino Minako?"

"Six years."

"Six years? Is that true, Aino-san?"

Leaning forward eagerly, Minako placed one delicate hand around her mike and smiled. "Yes actually, it is! Rei-chan has been one of my closest and dearest friends since we were in junior high."

"Did you go to school together?"

Minako turned and grinned as she looked at the somewhat frozen smile on Rei's face and said, "No, we went to different schools, but we hung out together in the same group after school."

Rei cut her eyes toward Minako at that, and then nodded her head briefly in agreement as she looked back out at the crowded room. Despite herself, she couldn't help but wonder just how much enjoyment Minako was really getting out of watching her squirm.

"Aino-san!"

"Hino-san!"

"Didn't you model, and even cut a record before?"

Glaring at the handsome young man who was responsible for that, Rei managed to bite out, "Yes."

Laughing lightly, Minako stepped in at that point to cut off a situation that, from the look on Rei's face, was about to turn ugly. "That was my fault, really!" she replied. "Rei-chan has such a big heart, and is really multi-talented," she enthused. "When I was so desperately ill several years ago, she graciously stepped in and covered a couple of commitments I had and was just too weak to complete." Smiling disarmingly Minako added, "She did a beautiful job with both assignments, and though I was a bit jealous of her talent at the time, I will always be indebted to 'Mars Reiko'! You see, that was really just the first instance in which she saved my life," she concluded, offering a warm, honest smile to the uncomfortable young woman at her side, which Rei nervously returned.

"You're a beautiful woman, Hino-san! Why didn't you pursue stardom? Most young women would have jumped at the chance."

"It didn't suit me."

"Hino-san!"

"Hino-san!"

"Over here!"

"Hey, Hino-san!"

"Are you the same young priestess that is widely known for her ability to see the future in the sacred fire?"

The room quieted a degree, except for the clicking of the cameras, and even Minako turned to look at her with an air of expectation. Rei could feel the sweat starting to trickle down her back.

Nodding curtly, Rei said, "Yes."

An electric charge seemed to energize the assembled reporters, and more questions began to fly.

"Hino-san!"

"Hey! Hino-san!"

"Did you see the danger in the flames?"

"Yes."

"Did it show you where to go?"

"Yes."

"Had you ever heard of 'The Peoples Coalition To Restore Traditional Family Values' before?"

"No."

"Did the flames tell you he planned to harm Aino-san?"

"Yes."

"Did you really intend to kill him?"

"To protect her, yes." More sweat started to drizzle down the side of her face, and she wondered why it was so damn hot in there.

"Hino-san!"

"Hino-san!"

"Have the flames shown you anything else, Hino-san?"

Rei looked across the room at the earnest young reporter who had asked that insightful question, and paused. Beside her she felt Minako tense, and frowned. Surely Minako knew by now she would never betray her trust? It was then she felt the small hand reach out under the table and grasp hers in quiet reassurance. Mildly astonished, she realized Minako was trying to comfort her! To let her know that whatever she said, it would be okay and soon this would all be over.

Taking a deep breath she replied evenly, in a clear voice, "The fire has shown me many things, but nothing that I feel the need to share with you today."

Minako smiled at her then, and with a light squeeze released her hand.

"Hey, has the fire shown you which horse I should put my money on in the fourth race at Tokyo Park?"

Laughter erupted briefly at the lighthearted jest of the reporter from 'The Sun', but it ended abruptly as Rei sprang to her feet. By god, she'd had enough! Placing her hands flat on the table in front of her, she leaned forward and made direct eye contact with the jokester, who swallowed convulsively and took an involuntarily step back.

"This is over. I have nothing more to say."

Turning away from the table, Rei quickly went back out the same way they had come in, and stood waiting outside the room for Minako to join her when she could. That took several minutes as Minako lingered for awhile, answering a few more questions directed to her, and generally ending the press conference on a more positive note. She emerged from the room with the sound of several more questions being fired at her in hopes of a last minute response, but she merely ignored them all, while still stopping to turn back again in the doorway for one last friendly wave.

"Well, that went fairly well, don't you think?" she asked with a heavy sigh as they headed back down the corridor toward the bank of elevators that would take them back upstairs to Minako's office. The usual entourage fell quickly in behind them as they approached the mirrored doors.

"I stormed out of the room, and you call that 'fairly well'?" Rei asked incredulously.

"Oh, they loved it, Rei!" she said with a weary grin as they entered the elevator. "Don't you know they eat that temperamental stuff up? If I didn't know you as well as I do, I'd suspect you'd done it on purpose," she added as she leaned against the back corner and closed her eyes.

"Hrmpft," Rei huffed. "I don't think so," she said, even as her sharp eyes focused in on what to her was becoming more and more obvious.

To the casual observer Minako would have looked a bit tired perhaps, but okay. To Rei's more observant eye, things had gotten way out of hand. Since the two hour dance rehearsal that morning, Minako's usually springy dancer's-walk had slowed and her balance seemed a bit off. Her shoulders were slightly slumped, and her hands - her beautiful hands - were hanging limply at her sides, the elegant fingers, usually so active and playful as they helped her illustrate her comments, listless. At that moment Rei just knew. Minako had reached the end of even her considerable limit.

Rei needed to get her home. Immediately.

As the elevator came to a stop on their floor, Rei watched while everyone else piled out and headed to the office. Minako opened her eyes, startled out of her quick doze by the sudden stop of the elevator, and began to shuffle out herself. Rei moved up next to her as they began walking down the corridor, and nonchalantly reached over, taking her elbow in a friendly looking gesture. Minako smiled slightly at that, but didn't even turn to look at her, and Rei leaned over, whispering softly so the others wouldn't hear her. "Minako?"

"Hmm?" the idol murmured in response.

"Do you trust me?"

Minako stopped and turned to look at her. "What kind of question is that?" she asked in mild confusion. "Of course I trust you!"

"Will you trust me when I say you need to go home? Now?" Rei asked, looking briefly over Minako's shoulder as the others filed into her office at the end of the hall.

Minako started to protest, but something in Rei's expression made her hesitate. Was this a joke? A test of some type? Looking at that earnest face, the serious brown eyes waiting for her answer, she knew it was neither and nodded once in grudging acceptance. "Yes," she said grimly, "but could you at least tell me why?"

"Because if you don't lay down, and I mean soon, you'll fall down," the priestess stated simply.

Minako rolled her eyes. "Rei," she started, but stopped again as Rei reached out and placed both hands firmly, yet gently on her forearms.

"I'm serious, Minako. This isn't a joke."

Minako studied her face for several seconds before her own suddenly blanched white. "It's not the..." she started, before Rei quickly reached up and placed a single finger gently over her lips.

"No, I don't think so," she reassured her softly. "I just think your schedule for the last month or so has finally caught up with you." Removing her finger, she added firmly, "All I'm really sure of right now is that you need to go home."

Minako looked down and swallowed heavily, then nodded. "Okay. If you're that sure about it, I'll announce it to the others," she said, turning slowly and heading toward the still open door of her office.

Rei visibly relaxed as she watched to idol move reluctantly down the hallway. "Make sure they understand that now means now. Not 'two hours' from now, like last night." she grumped, as she started to follow.

Minako stopped and turned back abruptly, frowning. "I said I would handle it, Rei." she snapped. "Just let me do it in my own way, okay?"

Stung by Minako's tone, Rei stopped and stared at her in surprise before crossing her arms over her chest and leaning back against the nearest wall. "Fine," she said, not bothering to look at her. "I'll wait here."

Minako stood there for several seconds as if she wanted to say something else before she finally turned and headed through the open doorway into the outer office of her suite. A few minutes later when she returned, Rei was still in the same position as before, slumped against one wall as she glared at the opposite one.

"I'm ready," Minako said, coming up to her.

Pushing away from the wall, Rei turned toward the office and grunted, "Fine. I'll be just a minute," as she headed toward the still open doorway without even once bothering to look at her.

Surprised, Minako watched as Rei stuck her head just inside the door and called.

"Yumi-san?"

Minako continued to watch, her curiosity peaking as her young assistant appeared quickly in the doorway.

"Yes, Hino-sama?"

Embarrassed, Rei shot a quick look over at Minako before smiling stiffly and saying, "I told you, please! Just call me Rei."

"Of course, Rei-sama," the girl replied, unable to hide the blush that quickly covered her cheeks as she pushed her glasses up on her nose. Quickly juggling her purse and notebook, she smiled brightly and asked, "What can I do for you?"

Clearing her throat, she ignored the slightly irritated eyes she could feel on her back, and turned her full attention to the eager young assistant.

"I would like you to accompany Minako and I back to her apartment for a few hours this afternoon. Would that be a problem?"

"No! Of course not, Rei-sama," she exclaimed happily. "What would you like for me to do?"

"Nothing more than your job, Yumi-san," Rei answered with a smile, looking briefly at Minako as she guided the young girl down the hall toward the elevator. "Aino-san will not be taking any calls this afternoon, and those that do make it past her office to either her home phone or her cell phone will be handled by you. Do you understand?" she asked as the elevator door shut behind them.

"Yes, of course Rei-sama, but what about..."

"No 'buts', Yumi-san," Rei interrupted sternly, speaking to Yumi, but again looking at Minako. "You must handle them all. If you can not, then refer the caller back to Emi-san or Saitou-san. Aino-san is not to be disturbed for any reason that I do not approve."

"Rei!" Minako protested in outrage. "That's really not necessary."

"I think it is," Rei replied firmly, turning to look directly at her.

Glaring at each other intently, their war of wills continued until the elevator reached the garage level and bumped to a stop.

"Fine," Minako said abruptly, as she turned toward the door. Fueled by pure annoyed frustration, she marched out onto the parking deck and headed straight to her car without so much as a backward glance.

Rei looked down at Yumi, who had observed the whole scene with wide-eyed fascination, and rolled her eyes before following.

"Let's go," she threw over her shoulder as she walked toward the black car, and was vaguely aware of the assistant scrambling to catch up to her.

The ride back to the apartment was accomplished in complete silence, except for the usual sounds of traffic. Rei really couldn't tell if it was because Minako was still ticked off at her, or was really just too tired to care. She finally came to the conclusion that it was probably a little of both.

When they reached the building, Rei noticed that Minako stumbled a bit as she exited the door the chauffeur held open for her. Embarrassed, she gratefully accepted his hand and allowed him to steady her a bit. "Thank you, Toranaga-san," she murmured softly.

"Are you okay, miss?" the older gentleman asked concerned. "Should I help you upstairs?"

"No, thank you," she smiled. "I'll be all right."

"Will that be all for today?"

Not even looking at the dark priestess now standing and watching her from the other side of the vehicle, she answered, "Yes, I won't be going back out."

"Very good, miss. Have a pleasant evening."

"And you as well," she answered politely, then turned and headed toward the private elevator, never once looking back at the other two.

Her concern growing, Rei followed quickly after the stubborn idol, with Yumi scurrying along behind her as they entered the elevator and punched the penthouse level.

"Not one word, Rei," was all Minako uttered as she leaned back against the wall, closed her eyes...

And slowly began to slide down the wall.

Totally unaware of Yumi's sharp intake of breath, Rei bolted forward, quickly wrapping her hands around Minako's upper arms and pressing her shoulders back against the wall to slow her descent. Shifting her weight to get under Minako's, she carefully eased her to the floor.

"Minako!" she rasped out. Ignoring the pounding of her own heart, she reached forward to gently pat the idol's suddenly pale cheek. "Can you hear me? Minako!"

Obviously very groggy, Minako slowly opened her eyes and tried to focus on the priestess. "Rei? What? What happened? Why am I..."

Swallowing hard, Rei smiled and tried to ease her confusion. "It's okay, Mina," she said softly, taking the restless hand that reached out convulsively for her. "You just passed out for a second or two."

"Passed out?" the idol asked, still not grasping all the facts. "What... why?"

"You're really tired and you need to eat," Rei soothed. "We're almost home."

Nodding weakly, Minako looked up, startled as the elevator stopped and the doors opened to reveal the corridor and the shocked looking guard staring at them from outside her door. Suddenly more aware of her position, she noticed Yumi staring down at her, a look verging on panic in her eyes, even as the guard began to move quickly toward them.

"Help me up," she said quietly as she began to gather her strength for the attempt.

"Minako," Rei began cautiously, "do you really think...?"

Minako glanced over Rei's shoulder at that point, and Rei could sense the rent-a-cop's approach. Minako's hand tightened in her own. "I think I'll be okay. Just help me get inside, okay?" she whispered.

Nodding, Rei stood, keeping a firm grip on Minako's hand. Moving up closely against her side, she placed her other arm around her shoulders, and Minako began the struggle to regain her feet. By sheer grit and determination she almost made it. But then her rebellious knees buckled, and she began to fall again as Yumi screamed in horror, her hand clutched to her mouth.

Fortunately, Rei had been ready. Even as she felt Minako's knees give way, she again shifted her weight. Releasing the hand still gripped in her own, she reached out to catch her under the knees instead, and then stood to her full height, easily cradling the stricken idol in her arms.

________________________________

Friday, Early Morning

Rei shivered as she remembered just how much Minako's collapse had really frightened her. With a heavy sigh, she stared out the window, totally oblivious to the passing shops along the way.

Where she had gotten the strength she still didn't know.

Maybe it had been that fear, or the adrenalin rush that had accompanied it. Maybe it had been some residual powers left to her as Sailormars. Or maybe it had simply been that Minako had just lost that much weight since this whole ordeal had begun, and Rei had been able to handle it. Whatever the reason had been, to Rei it had felt as if she had weighed next to nothing at all.

As for the guard, well…

Her eyes grew dark. She'd known he only wanted to help, but something deep inside of her had flared to life as she watched him approach, and she had made up her mind that she was not going to let anyone else touch Minako or attempt to separate them. Protectiveness? Possessiveness? Both? In retrospect, she could admit it was both, but at the time, all she had been sure of was that Minako's defenses had completely collapsed, and the only person she trusted to keep her safe was Mars.

Her Mars.

Rei had been determined to uphold that trust.

________________________________

Thursday, Late Morning

"Back off," she ordered sternly as the guard rushed forward to relieve her of her burden. One look at her face, and he stopped in his tracks. "Hold the door open," she bit out as she moved out of the elevator and started quickly down the hall. "Yumi, get the keys out of her purse," she demanded sharply, and the young assistant snapped out of her trance and sprang into action.

Snatching Minako's purse from where it had fallen, Yumi rifled through the bag until she found the keys, then moved swiftly down the hall to where the dark priestess stood waiting. Unlocking the door, she pushed it open for Rei, who powered through it so forcefully it hit the wall of the narrow entryway behind it with a loud bang. Startled, the older lady that was dusting in the open living room looked up into Rei's equally startled face.

"Who are you?" Rei demanded.

"The housekeeper, Toranaga Marika," the woman replied simply, though she would have been well within her rights to have demanded the same question of Rei.

Rei studied her for several seconds before turning in the direction she dimly remembered Minako indicating her bedroom was the night before.

"Turn down her covers, please," she asked as she entered the short hallway.

Without hesitation, the older woman moved swiftly down the corridor and opened the door to a large room, brightly lit with warm sunlight that poured through the open windows.

"Close the blinds," Rei ordered. "And get him out of here!" she said sternly as she glared at the guard gawking at them from the doorway.

Yumi hurried the young man out of the room and shut the door behind herself.

Following the housekeeper to the bed, Rei waited as she turned down the crisp, clean sheets.

"Mars..."

Minako began to stir, weakly raising her head from where it was resting against her shoulder.

"I'm here, Mina," Rei assured her softly. "Try to relax. We're home now."

"Mmm..." Minako murmured. "Sleep?"

"Yes," Rei answered gently. "Then something good to eat."

"Good," the exhausted idol whispered without protest. Laying her head back down on Rei's shoulder, she unconsciously reached up and placed her hand gently over Rei's heart. The usually stoic priestess swallowed convulsively at the intimacy of that one, simple act.

As the housekeeper completed her task, Rei stepped forward and gently placed Minako down against her pillows. Reaching up, she caught the idol's hand and held it firmly in her own as she stood for several moments with her eyes closed, waiting for her heart to stop pounding and her nerves to still.

That had been too close.

Taking a deep, steadying breath, she looked up into the eyes of the housekeeper and blanched.

"I'll take it from here, Miss...?" the older lady asked pointedly.

"Hino," the priestess said, quickly coming out of her initial panic and placing Minako's hand back by her side on the bed. "Hino Rei."

"Ah, you're the houseguest she made mention of in the note she left for me today, as well as her timely savior from the other day," she said. "Welcome," she added with a formal bow which Rei returned. "You must be hungry. I will see to your lunch as soon as I finish here."

Embarrassed, Rei said quickly, “No, please, Toranaga-san! Don't worry about me, I can take care of myself," she reassured the older lady. "I'm more concerned about Minako's lunch," she said. "Do you have any broth, or maybe some soup that she can have and go back to sleep?"

Touched by Rei's selfless concern for her friend, Marika's formal demeanor thawed a bit and she smiled. "I believe I can handle that," she said, with just a touch of humor in her dark eyes, and Rei smiled shyly in return.

"Thanks," Rei added. "She may be too stubborn to admit it, but I know she'll appreciate it too."

Moving toward the bed, Marika began to remove the idols shoes. "I take it her activities have finally caught up to her," she said, more a statement of fact than a question.

"So it would seem," Rei answered briefly as the housekeeper moved across the room and removed a comfortable gown from the chest of drawers.

The sound of Minako's cellphone ringing in the other room interrupted them. At first, Rei wondered where Yumi was and why she didn't answer the thing, but then she realized she must still be dealing with the guard. Marika shook her head, then nodded toward the door. "Let me worry about lunch," she said. "It sounds like you're about to have your hands full out there."

With a grim frown, Rei nodded and then turned, headed for the door with determined steps.

________________________________

Friday, Early Morning

Rei shifted restlessly against the soft leather seat and crossed her legs in a futile attempt to get comfortable in the damp and stillness of the quiet car. The rain outside had gotten steadily harder, and Minako had still not uttered a word since the trip began. Her continued silence was a painfully loud reminder of her emotional discomfort, and Rei was at a total loss as to what she could say or do to ease her pain.

Crossing her arms, Rei consoled herself with the fact that she had definitely tried her best to run interference for her.

'But was it enough?' she frowned.

________________________________

Thursday, Late Morning

Entering the living room again, Rei took in the situation with one look. Yumi stood arguing with the guard by the door, while the cell phone continued its insistent ringing from where it had fallen from the bag resting haphazardly on the couch.

Rei snapped.

Snatching the phone up from the couch, the incensed priestess stormed toward the door.

"You," she said firmly, her eyes boring into the guard. "Out! Now! Yumi," she said, tossing the phone at the flustered assistant as she continued to glare at the guard's now retreating back. "Take care of that before it wakes up Minako."

"Yes, Rei-sama," the young girl said gratefully, "and thank you! He was being very difficult. I think I will call the company about him later," she added as she opened the cell phone. "Hello, Yumi speaking," she said. "Yes Saitou-san, this is Minako's phone, you didn't call me by mistake... no, I'm afraid she can't come to the phone right now, would you care to leave a message for her?... I'm sorry Saitou-san, I'm afraid I can't do that... no, I'm not trying to be difficult, but... no... no... no, I really can't. Rei-sama said..." After listening a few moments, she pulled the phone away from her ear and looked at Rei apologetically. "He wants to speak to you."

Nodding once, Rei snatched the phone.

"Hino," she grunted abruptly, nodding in understanding as Yumi pointed down the hall toward the bathroom.

"Reiko-chan! Saitou here. Look, I know Minako-chan is taking a little time off today, and she certainly deserves it, but I really, really need to talk to her right now. Could you..."

"No."

"But I promise it will only take a few minutes, and..."

"No."

"Now darling, don't be that way!" Saitou pouted into the phone. "I know you two really want to spend some time together, but..."

"No."

"Now look," he said firmly, all kidding aside. "I must speak with her on a very important matter. You just can't possibly understand how..."

"No!" Rei barely refrained from shouting into the phone. "You are the one who does not understand! She has overdone it Saitou-san, she has exceeded her physical limit! That is why she left the office today! Not to spend time with me!" Rei felt her body start to shake a bit in reaction to the adrenalin she had been running on for the last several minutes, and she seemed to lose some stream. "I was finally able to convince her to come home and rest but... I... I was too late," she said, her voice trailing off in deep regret.

"What do you mean?" Saitou asked, now concerned both by Rei's words and the tone of her voice. "Reiko? Is something wrong with Minako-chan?" At her continued silence, he tried again. "Reiko-chan? Talk to me. Please. If there's a problem, I need to know."

Deeply torn, Rei was reluctant to share anything so personal. Still, she reasoned, the idol singer’s oldest and most trusted friend deserved the truth. He really did care for his client, and had proven his loyalty and love for her to Rei that day long ago, when they had worked so well together to save her career.

With a deep breath, she told him the truth. "She collapsed in the elevator before I could get her home."

"What?" he shouted in horror, panic in his voice.

"Calm down," Rei said in a now tired and resigned voice. "I was able to carry her the rest of the way, and we've gotten her settled now." With a heavy sigh, she added, "She's finally asleep now, and I'm not going to wake her up unless it's life or death. Do you understand?"

"Rei," he said firmly. "What's going on? Will she be okay? Shouldn't we call a doctor? I mean, if she's passing out again..."

"No," Rei cut in. "I don't think it's anything like that. She's just pushed herself too hard lately, that's all. She hasn't been sleeping or eating right, either, and that hasn't helped, but..."

"But what?" Saitou insisted into the void Rei had left behind. At Rei's continued silence he had practically begged. "Reiko, don't play with me here. This is serious and she means all the world to me. God knows, she's the closest I will ever come to having a daughter of my own." As Rei continued to hesitate, he had spoken again. "Talk to me Rei. You know whatever you say will stay between us."

Making her decision, Rei nodded to herself. She may need reinforcements in the weeks ahead, and she knew no one beside herself was more fully committed to Minako's well-being than this man. Well, perhaps the rest of the senshi, she'd mused, but she really couldn't cope with that right now. It was comfort enough to know that they were there if she needed them... and she very well may before this was over. Closing her eyes, she reached up to grasp the phone with her other hand and lowered her voice.

"She has a doctor's appointment in the morning."

Saitou felt his blood run cold. "So," he asked, the words feeling like cotton-wool in his mouth. "Is she out of remission?"

"We don't know," Rei said heavily. "We hope the doctor can maybe run some tests and give us some answers."

"You are going to be staying with her now, aren't you?" he asked pointedly.

"Yes," Rei answered firmly. "I won't leave her," she promised the man.

Sighing, he said, "Good," relieved to know she wouldn't be alone this time. Then the thought struck him, and he had to know.

"You saw this in your fire, didn't you?" he asked.

Rei paused, then said flatly, "Yes."

"God," he said, his voice a bare whisper as the gravity of her answer hit him like a ton of bricks. With a heavy swallow he said, "Look. I want you to listen to me very carefully, Reiko. If either you or her need anything, and I mean anything, you call me. Do you hear me? If I have it, it's yours. If I don't have it, I'll make it happen. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Saitou-san. I understand," Rei answered sincerely, grateful to have such a friend to share this burden with. "Thank you."

"Is there anything I can do for you now? I mean, besides clearing some of her schedule for the next couple of weeks. Discreetly!" he added slyly. "Yes, I know how she is! Trust me, darling! I have my little ways."

Rei could almost see the sneaky little wink that accompanied that last, and a tiny smile crossed her lips. She almost said no, but then a thought flitted briefly through her mind, and her smile widened as an idea began to take root. "Can I get back to you on that?"

"Yeah, sure thing," Saitou said slowly. "Something in particular on your mind, sweetie?"

"Maybe," Rei answered, the idea beginning to take on more substance.

He smiled to himself. "Just take your time," he assured her. “I'll be here when you're ready."

"Thanks, I'll be in touch," Rei said. Then she added quickly, "And Saitou-san?" She paused until she was positive he was listening. "She must never find out that I've..."

"Did she find out last time? I think not!" Rei could hear the warm smile in his voice. "Don't worry, darling. I've got it all under control now. You just take care of our girl, okay?"

"Yeah, I've got it," Rei assured him.

"Later?" he asked in closing.

"Okay," she answered wearily.

"Bye."

Closing the cellphone, Rei placed in on the end table next to the apartment phone and then slowly turned toward the couch, where she could hear a distinct, "phsst, phsst!" There, with his head sticking out the top of Minako's discarded bag, was Artemis. Taking a cautious look around to assure both of them that they were alone for the moment, Rei moved forward and sat next to the bag, lifting the white plushy into her lap.

"You're sure she's okay?" he asked, worry clouding his eyes.

"I'm sure," Rei answered, trying her best to reassure him. "She should take a few days off, but she'll be okay."

He swallowed heavily, his eyes dropping to his paws as he whispered, "Do you think I can see her?" Looking back up at her he added, "There's been too many people running around here for me to attempt to make it that far, and..."

Grinning warmly Rei rose to her feet and carried the worried guardian cat down the hall toward his mistress. "I'll feel better knowing you're in there," she confided.

"Thanks, Mars," he said softly.

Knocking lightly on the door, Rei tentatively pushed it open and looked inside. Marika looked up at her in question, and then smiled.

"Come in," she said softly. "I've finally gotten her settled." Smiling she added, "I don't believe she even batted an eyelash when I changed her clothes."

Moving cautiously forward, Rei looked down at the sleeping idol and noticed that she seemed much more relaxed now, her sleep more restful than restless. Leaning forward, she placed Artemis on the second pillow next to Minako's head. With a sheepish grin for the housekeeper she said, "I thought she might like the company of an old friend."

Marika smiled at the gentleness in the young woman's movements. "You really care for her, don't you?" she asked softly.

Self-consciously, Rei stepped back slowly and dropped her eyes. Nodding her head once sharply, she acknowledged the other woman's statement, then stuffed her hands deeply in her pockets.

Marika's eyes twinkled and she smiled. "It's about time somebody did," she said. "You know, she's never asked anybody to this apartment?"

Rei hesitated, and then shook her head, still looking down at the lovely floral design of the bedspread.

"It's true," the other woman confided. "As lovely and as popular as she is. As desirable as the tabloids paint her to be, she has never once, to my knowledge, invited another living soul into her home."

"No one?" Rei asked, her voice barely audible as she looked up briefly from the corner of her eye.

"No one,” the housekeeper confirmed as she gently tucked the covers under Minako's chin. "No friends for popcorn and movie night. No boyfriends for, well, whatever." She smiled down at the sleeping idol and added, the tiniest bit of reproach mixed in amongst the admiration in her voice, “I've worked for her for four years, and she has never taken a vacation. She's rarely even taken a day off."

"Why?" Rei blurted out, her concern evident. "It's not like she can't afford it, and she obviously needs it." Looking back at Minako again she shook her head. "I don't understand."

"Me either," Marika confessed. "But, I do have my own theory." At Rei's questioning look she continued. "I just think she's been waiting for that one special someone to share it with."

With a conspiratorial smile, she nodded firmly toward Minako's nightstand and then turned to leave. "I'll go make that broth for her now. Would you care for some with a sandwich maybe?" At Rei's distracted nod she added, "I'll have it in the dining room for you shortly." Leaving the room, she shut the door quietly behind her.

Alone in the darkened room with the peacefully sleeping idol, Rei turned in the direction the housekeeper had so clearly indicated. Bending down to look at the double picture frame standing on the nightstand, she felt her mouth drop open in shocked surprise. On impulse, she reached forward and snatched the set of photographs up to get a closer look at them.

The first photo was a professionally done portrait of her taken the day Saitou and she had concocted their plan to keep Minako from retiring too early. It was a gorgeous picture. She was beautifully dressed in a fashion which combined elements of both traditional and modern styles, a sort of nuevo-geisha look. Her hair was pulled up under a very short wig, done in an oriental style bob, and her makeup was flawless. Rei stared. She had never seen any of the photos from that shoot, and she was astonished. The lighting was dark, seductive and she looked, well, for lack of a better term, seriously sexy.

The second photo had been taken later that same day, when all the girls had gathered on the set of a local game show to do mock battle with each other. Of course, the whole thing had disintegrated into mayhem, and they'd had a rollicking good time, just laughing and enjoying one another's company. This particular photo was of just Minako and her. For once, the serious young idol had dropped her cares and was laughing with uncontrolled abandon. As she shared a look with Rei, one of her hands rested delicately on the miko's arm, and Rei's own face was split by one of her very rare full-on grins. It was a beautiful moment.

In wonder, she slowly shook her head and set double frame back down in its place of honor. Turning toward the bed, she gazed with deepening understanding at the young woman resting so quietly there. Reaching out with gentle fingers, she let their backs graze ever-so softly against the smoothness of the idol's cheek.

"Minako," she whispered softly, not really surprised to feel her own heart answer to the name.

________________________________

Friday Morning

Slowly rubbing her hands up and down her chilled upper arms, Rei cut her eyes quickly over toward Minako and back. The idol was still looking out the slightly fogged window at the passing shops with sightless eyes, a tiny pained frown upon her lips.

'Why?' Rei wondered, irritated with herself for her inability to figure out what was wrong with the girl. Frowning, she briefly pondered the fact that not being able to read her former partner was really inconvenient at times.

Turning to look back out her own window, Rei began turning the situation over and over in her mind. Minako was obviously upset, but there was something else going on that disturbed the priestess even more. The idol seemed depressed, and Rei just got the feeling there was more going on here than her apprehension about this Doctor's appointment. Rei knew Minako had been upset with herself about her collapse the day before, but instead of the aloof dismissal of the incident she would have normally expected from the proud young woman, she seemed to be drawing even deeper into herself.

Feeling her molars beginning to grind together as she clenched her jaw in frustration, Rei asked herself again: What in the name of all she held holy had set Minako off? Her mind wandered back again to the last evening, and she continued her review of its events until she locked on...

No.

'Surely it couldn't have been... that?'

'Could it?' she wondered, earnestly hoping her latest train of thought was running down the entirely wrong track.

________________________________

Thursday Night

The rest of the afternoon and evening had been pretty uneventful, for the most part.

Mariko had continued her normal routine of housework and meal preparation, occasionally tiptoeing down the hall to peek in on Minako. About 4:30 she had carried a tray containing soup, crackers and a cold drink down the hall. She had returned about thirty minutes later with a smile on her face and assured Rei that while Minako was still tired, she had eaten well and then gone right back to sleep. Rei expressed her thanks, which the older woman modestly shrugged off. She then pointed out that while it was time for her to go, Rei would find more of the soup and a little extra something for herself in the kitchen. With a reassuring smile, she gathered her things and moved to the front door to meet her husband. That was when Rei finally made the connection.

Toranaga,’ she said to herself as Minako's chauffer appeared in the doorway.

"Good evening, miss," the older gentleman replied respectfully. "Will Aino-san still be requiring her car in the morning?"

"Yes," Rei answered politely. "7:00?"

"Yes, miss. I'll have the car downstairs when she's ready."

"Thank you," Rei said, and watched as the older couple moved toward the elevator.

"Oh," Marika said, as she stopped and turned back to Rei. "I usually only work on Tuesday and Thursday, but if it's okay, I'd like to come back tomorrow and finish a few things I wasn't able to get to today."

"No problem," Rei said, knowing full well the woman was more concerned with Minako than any work her already spotless apartment may need. "I'm sure Minako will appreciate it."

Smiling, the woman nodded. "I'll be here at 7:00 as well," she said, and then turning back to her husband, continued her journey with him toward the waiting bank of elevators.

As Rei shut the door, she closed her eyes and sighed in exhausted relief. Yumi had already left for the day, and she basked a moment in the stillness of the now silent apartment. Grinning, she spared a moment or two to think about Minako's young assistant.

Yumi, God bless her, had turned into a young tigress, manning not only her own busy phone, but both of Minako's as well. When she had seen how serious the situation really was, she had dug in her heels and shown a side of her make-up no one had ever seen before.

Rei had been greatly amused by part of the conversation she'd overheard as Yumi had attacked the manager of the rent-a-cop agency...

"...totally inadequate and unprofessional! I was utterly appalled by his rude and inappropriate behavior! I find it hard to believe that a company with your reputation could allow such a person on its payroll, and I..."

Rei had continued on into the dining room with a huge grin on her face. It looked like Yumi may finally be coming into her own.

Moving back into the living room, Rei flopped down on the couch, thinking to relax for awhile before getting ready for bed. Propping her feet up on the coffee table, she grabbed the remote and started cruising the channels, looking for anything of interest. A familiar scene from a well-loved movie caught her eye, and she settled in with its comfortable angst and mushiness. An hour or so later, she started to cruise again, only this time what grabbed her attention was something a bit less comfortable.

"...You're a beautiful woman, Hino-san! Why didn't you pursue stardom? Most young women would have jumped at the chance."

"It didn't suit me."

'Ugh!' Rei thought, clicking the TV off in disgust. 'I sound like a total bitch! That was awful!'

Deciding to give it up for the evening, she retired to her own room for a well deserved and relaxing bath. Then, feeling much better and dressed for bed in her favorite old cut-off tee shirt and baggy boxers, she crossed the darkened apartment to check on Minako one last time before going to bed herself.

"How is she?" she asked Artemis in a soft voice when she spotted the white cat by the balcony doors.

"Still resting," he answered, turning to look at her. "She was understandably embarrassed by this whole ordeal, but she seemed to be feeling okay when she ate her dinner. She's sleeping again now, I think."

"Good," Rei said. "I just want to check in on her."

"Okay," the plush cat replied. "Goodnight, Mars. And thanks again," he added softly.

"Goodnight, Artemis," she replied with a gentle smile. "Sleep well."

Tiptoeing softly down the short hallway, Rei carefully opened the door to Minako's room and peeked inside. A rush of cold air hit her, and she shivered as she felt her skin react to it’s frigidness. With the lights off, it took a moment for her eyes to adjust, but soon, with the help of the faint light coming in through the blinds and curtained balcony doors, she had been able to make out the slight figure bundled under the covers of the queen sized bed.

Her arms wrapped tightly around her to help ward of the cold, Rei did her best not to make any unnecessary noise as she moved closer to the bed. Minako was laying on her side facing the outside windows, and appeared to be sound asleep. Rei watched over her in silent contemplation, finding a bit of personal comfort and peace in these few, stolen moments with her friend.

'Friend?' she thought, the word seeming somehow not quite adequate to describe her relationship with this complex young woman.

'Cohort?' No, that wasn't right either. She frowned.

'Lover?' A quiet little voice whispered from the back of her mind.

'No!' Rei mentally blurted out to the little voice. 'Ah, no. That is... I mean... well... I... not yet,' she ended weakly, as she felt her teasing sub-conscious laugh merrily at her discomfort.

'Partner?' Rei thought about that one as she moved her hands rather distractedly up and down her arms. It felt close, but still... she wasn't sure it was really right yet either.

But, on the other hand she reasoned, they were partners of a sort. Partners in defeating this present danger, for sure. As for the future?

Rei sighed. Well, she could dream, couldn't she?

On impulse she reached over and gently stroked the hair away from Minako's eyes. "Goodnight, Minako," she whispered softly. Then straightening up, she turned and started to move toward the bedroom door.

"Please..."

Hearing the single word coming from the shadowed darkness, Rei paused and turned back, whispering, "Minako?"

The young woman appeared not to have moved at all and was still turned away from her, huddled deeply beneath the quilted comforter of her large bed.

Rei moved swiftly back to the side of the bed. "Minako? Are you alright? What's wrong?"

In a voice that sounded strained, Rei heard her whisper roughly, "Don't go."

Confused, Rei stared down at the huddled form, not exactly sure what she was suppose to do. Two things were clear though. Minako was upset, and she wanted her to stay.

What else could she do?

"Would you feel better if I stay with you until you go back to sleep?" she asked gently.

Seeing the brief nod of her dark head against the lightness of her pillowcase, Rei nodded in answer, even though she knew Minako wouldn't be able to see it.

"Okay then, but would you mind if I get under the covers?" she asked, embarrassed as her teeth chattered in the cold. "It's freezing out here!"

Barely waiting for Minako's second brief nod of approval, Rei reached out and pulled up the corner of the bed sheets, slipping swiftly and gratefully under the warm protection of the covers.

"Ah, so much better!" she enthused, moving her feet rapidly back and forth to generate a little extra heat. Finally settling down into her newly found warmth, she asked a bit nervously, "You're sure this is okay?"

"Mmhmm," Minako answered softly. "And... thank you."

"It's okay," Rei said awkwardly. "Just see if you can go back to sleep. I'll try not to make too much noise when I get up."

"Mmkay."

"Goodnight, Minako," she said quietly.

"G'night," the idol murmured softly.

Closing her eyes, Rei took a deep breath and concentrated on trying to relax, telling herself she'd just wait until she heard Minako's breathing slow and even out. Then, she'd head for her own room and some well-earned rest of her own...

The next thing Rei became aware of was warmth. She seemed to be wrapped in a living cocoon of it, and the sensation was heavenly. Slowly coming back to wakefulness, she next became aware of the light that appeared to be present on the other side of her still comfortably closed eyelids. Reluctantly answering the call to open them, Rei blinked sleepily, tightening her arms firmly around...

'Minako!'

Heart pounding, Rei clamped down on her first reaction, which was to panic, and stared in shock at the sleeping beauty she could now see resting peacefully in the protective circle of her arms. Minako was curled up against her side, her head pressed sweetly against Rei's shoulder. One leg was resting on top of the priestess' thighs, and her left hand was laying under Rei's cropped tee shirt along her side, its fingers splayed open along the soft skin of her ribcage.

'Oh... god...' Rei thought in desperation, afraid to breath for fear she would break the spell, and fearing what the consequences would bring. When her heart finally started to slow to nearly normal limits, she took in her current predicament.

What the hell had happened?

'You fell asleep baka, that's what happened!' she berated herself. ‘Now how do you get out of this?'

But did she really want to?

Slowly starting to get use to the position she now found herself in, Rei couldn't help but marvel at how absolutely natural the situation felt.

Gone was the frigid chill from the night before, and outside dawn must just be breaking as the room was filled with a soft, golden-orange glow. Looking down at Minako's face, Rei noticed the tiny smile that graced her lips, and was amazed at the soft, golden perfection of her skin. It seemed almost to glow in the faint light of the morning...

Suddenly, Rei sucked in an involuntary breath, as without warning, memory after memory began to wash over her mind in happy, blissful abandon.

Minako smiling at her. Minako laughing at some silly something she had said. Minako pouting, her eyes beseeching her for some small favor or other. Minako's eyes raking over her in longing. Minako's head thrown back, her body arching into her own at the very height of passion. Minako's face, showing all the love and devotion she would ever need in this life or any other...

The next thing Rei became aware of was fingers beginning to softly caress her side, just before they moved up onto her tummy. Shaking her head to help clear it, Rei looked down to see the well remembered signs of her partner’s rise to wakefulness.

First, there was the gentle frown, followed in short order by the tiny crease that appeared between her delicate eyebrows and the baby yawn that always ended in a squeak. Next came the flexing and unflexing of her fingers, which would be followed by the opening of her eyes.

And there they were. Smiling up at her.

'Gods... she is so beautiful!' the priestess thought, totally enraptured by the vision in her arms.

To be honest, Rei lost all track of time as they lay together, lost as she was in the depths of Minako's eyes. Basking in the glow of each other's presence, the world outside their room just fell away, their own private world becoming all either of them needed or wanted.

And then suddenly, it ended.

Rei watched in confusion as Minako's gentle smile vanished, and her eyes clouded over in pain. The next thing she knew, the idol was gone, leaving a painfully hollow void in Rei’s arms which had been so pleasantly filled with her presence mere seconds before. Rei looked at Minako in stunned surprise as she stood next to the bed, her eyes on the floor, and politely excused herself, then turned and disappeared into the privacy of her bathroom, the door closing swiftly behind her with a resounding 'click'.

And that, as they say, had been that.

Slowly, Rei had risen from the empty bed and left the room, her mind still struggling to grasp just what had happened. Finally deciding a shower and a hot meal would help to clear the air, she headed off in search of both, convinced that she would see Minako at breakfast and they would sort out what had happened this morning then.

But that was not how things had worked out.

________________________________

Friday Morning

Rei grimaced and then scowled darkly. Minako had never joined her for breakfast. Instead, she had eaten in her room, grabbing a bowl of cereal and some coffee while Rei was still in the shower. Rei had not seen her again until they were ready to leave for her doctor's appointment. By then, her mood had seemed to deteriorate, and she barely got any kind of response from the girl at all to her own 'good morning.’ It had all seemed to go down hill from there. Minako would neither look at nor speak to her at all.

It was driving her crazy!

The thought that she was that upset about the events of last night and this morning was just too far away from reality as Rei perceived it to really continence serious thought. But as much as Rei tried to convince herself that this had to be about Minako's dread of the doctor’s appointment, the more she knew it had to be something else entirely.

Surely fear for her life was more important to her than... Rei frowned.

Maybe she should just ask.

The problem with that approach was that for as long as she had known Minako, the idol had rarely ever given her a direct answer to a direct question, a fact that had always infuriated her, and still did!

Closing her bewildered eyes, Rei tried to calm and center herself by listening to the rhythmic sweep of the windshield wipers. Feeling her fists as they continued to clinch and unclinch, she began to breathe in deep, calming counterpoint to the pounding in her aching temples until she heard a thin, quiet voice break the silence.

"I'm sorry."

Startled, Rei's eye's popped open, and she looked over at the idol in total confusion.

"Eh?" she blurted inarticulately as her mind tried to wrap itself around the fact that Aino Minako had just apologized to her for something. Anything!

"I said, 'I'm sorry,’ Rei," she answered. Still unable to look at the priestess, Minako's eyes wandered downward to her feet, and Rei was compelled to ask the obvious.

"For what?" she said bluntly. "I don't remember thinking there was anything in particular I felt you should apologize for."

"I came to you seeking your help, which you have given me so unselfishly," Minako stated in deep embarrassment, "and I've been nothing but a burden and a nuisance to you ever since."

Incredulous, Rei stared at Minako a moment. Was this what was bothering the girl? Rei could see where Minako's actions for the past day and a half or so might be wearing on her conscious a bit, but to have elicited the reaction she had been subjected to this morning? Crossing her arms she turned her head and grunted in disbelief.

"Ridiculous."

"Rei?" the idol singer began.

"Don't be silly, Minako," the dark priestess mocked. "I think you've seriously overestimated your ability to annoy me."

"Don't make light of this, Rei!" Minako demanded, starting to feel as if her deeply sincere apology was being taken lightly.

"I'm not," Rei retorted, turning to face the idol again. "But there's something else bothering you, and I want to know what it is!"

At a momentary loss, Minako stared blankly at her.

"Talk to me, Minako," Rei asked, her voice now gentle and serious. "We can work this out, whatever it is."

At first, Rei thought she would refuse to answer. But then, a look of shame washed over Minako's face, and she looked away from the priestess, no longer able to handle the honest concern she could see in Rei's eyes.

"I broke my promise," Minako whispered, her voice so low Rei almost missed it.

Confused, Rei asked, "What do you mean? What promise?"

Looking up at her with desperate eyes, Minako said, "Don't you remember? I promised you only the day before yesterday that I wouldn't rush you! That I would give you all the time you needed to see if maybe you could one day to love me again the same way I love you! Now look at what I've done! I'm so sorry, Rei! I swear, I didn't mean to force you or put you in the awkward position I did last night!"

The light went on.

'So, that was it,' Rei thought, now able to see the full picture.

"It's okay, Minako," she said, trying to calm the obviously upset young woman. "I really didn't mind, and…"

"No, it's not okay!" Minako insisted. "First, I begged you to stay with me, and then I assaulted you while you were unable to defend yourself!"

"It wasn't like that!" Rei said, a bit miffed at the implication that she had been such a defenseless victim. "I'm the one that decided to stay, after all. Nobody forced me to!"

"That's true," Minako conceded. "You stayed out of the kindness of your heart, and then I just... I..."

"You just... what?" Rei asked, burning with curiosity despite herself.

"Well, I… that is, I just…" Minako stuttered, trying the get beyond her own embarrassment. "Well, you know," she finally blurted out. "You were there too!"

Mildly amused, Rei said, "Minako, unless you remember something I don't, nothing happened."

Outraged, Minako exclaimed, "What do you mean, 'nothing happened?’ I woke up in your arms this morning, didn't I? My hand was under your shirt, and... and..."

"And nothing happened," Rei assured her with a dark grin.

"How can you be so sure!" the idol demanded.

"Think about it, Minako," the priestess insisted. "Do you actually remember anything happening beyond that?" Rei watched as Minako paused and reviewed what had happened, adding, "If it helps, the next thing I remember is you opening your eyes and smiling at me."

Slowly, Minako nodded her head. "That's the last I remember too," she confirmed. "But are you sure nothing happened before that?" she asked, still concerned.

"Yes, Minako," she promised, nodding her head firmly. "I'm positive. Nothing happened. Would you like to know why I'm so sure?" she asked solemnly.

"Yes," Minako said, needing to believe the truth of Rei's words.

"Because I'm absolutely certain there is no way in heaven or on earth that I could have made love with you last night and not remembered every single moment of it," she stated simply, reaching across the seat to take Minako's hand in hers.

Minako exhaled slowly, not even aware until that moment that she had been holding her breath as she waited for Rei's answer. "I'm glad," she finished in relief.

"Are you really?" Rei asked, looking up at her a bit sadly. She was glad they hadn't rushed into something she wasn't really ready for, but still...

"Of course!" Minako exclaimed. "I really want to be with you Rei, but until we're both ready for it?" She shook her head. "I'd rather not. I can wait." Smiling with a touch of her old mischievousness, she continued, "But if I can wake up every once in awhile like we did this morning, that would be great!"

Rei smiled wistfully. "That was special," she agreed. "We'll see," she added noncommittally.

A now comfortable silence settled over the car as it began to slow for the turn into the parking garage. But there was still one more thing Rei had to know.

"Minako?"

"Hmm?" the idol said, turning her head to look at Rei.

"When you first woke up this morning, what did you feel?"

Caught off-guard, Minako hesitated. "I... I felt," she began, struggling a bit with her thoughts and emotions.

"What?" Rei asked again, curiously. Needing to know the answer.

"Complete," Minako whispered softly.

The rain that had been pounding the car stopped abruptly as they entered the parking garage, leaving an almost solid silence in its wake as the force of Minako's single word impacted on both of them.

Turning to Rei, Minako's eyes begged for answers of their own. "Did you feel anything, Rei? Anything at all?" she asked.

Faltering at the not completely unexpected question, Rei frowned and honestly thought about it.

What had she felt?

Even as she started to contemplate the jumble of emotions she had experienced when she'd first realized the situation she was in, the answer came to her without hesitation, and she felt the truth of it in her heart.

"Loved," she said simply, looking up at Minako. "For the first time since my mother died," she added. "Truly loved."

Entwining their fingers, Minako smiled as she felt the warm strength of Rei's hand holding her own in firm, yet gentle comfort. She would be alright. It no longer seemed to matter quite so much what the doctor might say or do, or what tests she may have to endure.

As long as they faced it together, she knew, in the end, she would be alright.

END PART EIGHT, PART 2