“The Ghosts of Dreams We Left Behind”

by

Crawlspace

 

Chapter 2: Traveling Blind

 

            Setsuna had pulled the music box out with the intention of using it as means to help her illustrate a point.  Now, though, as she sat on the end of her bed with the small wooden box in her hands, she began to think better of the idea.  Perhaps there was another, less personal way to say, “We’re different.”

 

            Lightly she traced a finger over the intricate geometric patterns carved into the top of the box.  She could still see her baby sister’s face the day the box had been given as a good-bye gift, those beautiful little eyes red from crying but a proud smile on her face because all on her own she had gotten Setsuna something special to remind her of home.  So she wouldn’t be so lonely while she was away serving the Moon’s queen.  A melancholy smile touched Setsuna’s lips as she gently lifted the lid.  Her memories heard the tinny waltz even though the music had long ago ceased to play.  She remembered how bitterly she had cried when the first tine on the gears had broken away, as if she were losing Inara all over again.  And when the studded drum finally turned for the last time, the quiet sense of acceptance someone two thousand years later would term as defeat.

 

            From atop the silk lining in the box, she lifted a photograph that was bent at the edges but otherwise lovingly and painstakingly preserved.  A grown Inara smiled at her looking more like a happy child than a newly crowned queen as she cuddled the kitten that had been a coronation gift from Serenity.  Their brother stood beside her in his military uniform obviously far less pleased with a gift he saw more as a fuzzy rodent than a royal companion.  Driden never did share Inara’s fascination with the Moon’s creatures.  He had always been much more interested in Venus.  Setsuna laughed softly as she lay the picture aside to continue her original search.  She ignored the glimmer of a silver band and the delicacy of a blond curl tied in a lacy pink ribbon, instead reaching for the two pendants twined together against the side of the box.

 

            The silver chains were tangled a bit more than they should have been and bore just a bit of tarnish, but the pendants were just as bright and polished as they had been the day they were put around their recipients’ necks.  Setsuna held them up and watched them slowly untangle from each other.  The bedside light glinted off of them, the raised image of the Goddess alternating with the symbols for Pluto and Saturn.

 

            “My dearest Setsuna… I don’t know what else to do, and I know Serenity won’t overlook this, but remember no matter what happens that I love you…”

 

            Tears pricked at her eyes without manifesting as she watched Saturn’s pendant turn, trying to find its way free of hers.  She had forgiven Hotaru, had obeyed her queen and gone on, because she had no other choice…

 

            “You can’t!  She did it for you!  If she’s still alive… Let her come back!”

 

            The defiant girl who had risked her own banishment had disappeared long ago…

 

            Pluto stood on the precipice, her face to the wind.  The storm roiled overhead as she held her staff to the bruised and violent sky, the voice of Chronos answering back with a thunderous force, a kinder warning than her Goddess would give…

 

            The pendants were practically thrown back into the box and quickly covered with the photo, the lid coming down harder than she’d intended.  There was a better way to make her point.

 

            A knock at the door distracted her from trying to find that better way, and she looked up seeming somewhat confused.  Before she could collect her thoughts to answer, another knock sounded, followed by, “Setsuna-mama!  I know I took a long time to brush my teeth, but you should still be awake!”

 

            Setsuna let out a long breath and let a small smile touch her lips.  This was the Hotaru she was most comfortable with.  “Come in,” she called, sounding just a touch raspy.

 

            The door opened and Hotaru poked her head into the room, the mint green strap from her pajama top falling down her shoulder.  “I knew you didn’t go to bed this early, but Haruka-papa called you old,” she snitched with a grin.  Then a wide smile lit up her face as she saw what Setsuna was holding.  “Inara’s music box!  You still have it!”

 

            With no time to react as Hotaru ran over to her, Setsuna could only watch as the child quickly raised the lid.

 

            “It doesn’t play anymore,” lamented Hotaru, her excitement dimming.

 

            “No,” answered Setsuna as she reclosed the lid and moved to put the box away before its contents could be questioned.  “Even the best of Plutonian mechanisms eventually stops working.  But it still serves its purpose.”  She tucked the box away behind a folded blanket on her closet shelf, then turned back to Hotaru.  “I was beginning to think you were avoiding me because you were taking so long.  Those teeth better be pearly white and minty fresh.”

 

            Hotaru gave her a toothy grin to prove her efforts, then giggled.  “My teeth fear no one.”  The she took a deep breath and stood straighter, more serious than she had been.  “But I’m ready to talk now, Setsuna.”

 

            “Good,” replied Setsuna, either ignoring or not noticing the way she’d been addressed.  She moved back over to the bed and patted the spot beside her.  “Because I want to discuss something about tomorrow.”

 

            Hotaru’s shoulders slumped and she frowned.  “Tomorrow?  But I thought…”  Then she shook her head and scooted up on the bed beside Setsuna.  Her mother.  “Are we still going to see Ami’s mom?”

 

            Setsuna nodded.  “We can’t back out now, I’m afraid.  But there was some concern for the two of us from Minako.”

 

            “Is that why the two of you disappeared together when she and Usagi came over last week?”

 

            “Yes.  Ami found out something about us that she had to tell Minako,” went on Setsuna.  She stroked a hand over Hotaru’s hair, then took her chin in her fingers and grinned at the girl, as if she were about to share an interesting secret.  “You and I are different, you know.  We don’t belong to this world.”

 

            Hotaru nodded, and Setsuna’s fingers slipped away.  “I know I’m not human anymore, because of what happened with the professor.  I don’t really think about it all that much, though.”  She held her hands up in front of her eyes and stared at them.  “Not that it really matters, but I liked getting away from all of that.  Or at least pretending that I had.”

 

            “All of that has been left far behind you,” said Setsuna firmly.  She pulled the child into a loose hug.  “But I’m sorry to have to take the idea of humanity away from you.”

 

            “Why are we talking about this, though?” asked Hotaru.  She pulled away and looked pointedly at Setsuna.  “Minako said we were getting check-ups, and you nodded and said the same thing.  If you’re telling me this now because of tomorrow, then someone isn’t telling the whole truth about what’s really going on.  Is Makoto right?  Is Ami’s mom really a mad scientist?”

 

            “She is not a mad scientist,” answered Setsuna.  She smiled reassuringly, finding the idea that Makoto so seriously put forth amusing, regardless of the seed of truth it held.  “There’s the possibility for concern, but Minako did tell us the truth.  Or as least the truth as she knows it.”

 

            “And we’re going?”

 

            “Yes.”  Setsuna sighed.  “You know they come to me with these concerns looking for concrete answers and reassurance.  They think I know more than I do, and none of them realize either my limits or just how fickle and fluid the flow of time really is.  I honestly don’t know if tomorrow is the next step, a boulder falling into the middle of the road, or a breeze over the open ocean that will never reach the shore.  But you and I will be ready, one way or the other.”

 

            Hotaru looked doubtful.  She hadn’t wanted to go do this to begin with, because in spite of the need she felt to help and heal others, she hated being the patient.  Now this.  But Usagi said they were going for Ami, and Setsuna had backed her up.  She sighed, resigning herself to the matter.  But, she thought to herself, in spite of how insignificant it really was, she was going to miss her humanity.

 

……………………….

 

Despite a promise of sun, the morning sky couldn’t seem to make up its mind what it wanted to do.  Kaya spared a moment to stare out the window and watch the sun skirt in and out of the clouds.  The shadows it created where an interesting pattern, and if she’d been of a more creative bent she may have found herself enthralled with the actual beauty of the day.  Her mind was on other things, though, and one brightly colored bird was all she needed to see before her scientific bent pulled her back to her task.

 

She hated the waiting, but the girls would be here soon and they could get all of this over with.  She had decided the house would be the best choice for the job.  If they had gone to her office at the hospital or tried to transport the samples from there too many questions could be asked.  Here, all of them – including Fredrick – could come and go without it seeming odd.

 

Kaya futzed with a stand of vials, all of them numbered and color coded to match the file folders stacked on her desk.  Fredrick wasn’t scheduled to arrive until late this evening, provided he hadn’t spontaneously changed his flight plans.  And Ken… he was already worried about her and being just a little paranoid about her sudden distance.  She couldn’t blame him, and though she would love him for it, the last thing she actually wanted was for him to show up in the middle of all of this on some misguided mission to make her happy.  She didn’t think she could explain well enough to make any of them understand.

 

A glass tube with a black and white checkered label slipped from her fingers, shattering as it hit the floor.  A rare curse passed her lips as she pulled a dust pan from the closet and bent to sweep up the remains of the vial she’d labeled for herself.  She’d need to find another quickly.

 

……………………..

 

            Ami bounced Miki on her lap and ignored the tense, empty space that had formed around them on the crowded bus.  Makoto’s unhappy scowl and the way she sat with one leg crossed over her knee and her arms tightly folded had the other passengers preferring to stand rather than sit near them.  Not that Ami really minded.  Today she just wasn’t in the mood to be polite to strangers.

 

            The bus came to their stop and Makoto reached for the baby as they stood.  It was a bit awkward moving with the umbrella stroller through the crowd, but again people seemed to make an effort to get out of their way.  Ami sighed to herself.  She was tired.  Just very simply tired.

 

            Her mother had told her to have them meet at the house.  It would be considerably more private than the hospital and in the middle of the week people traffic would be at a minimum.  So here they were, on a cloudy and humid Wednesday morning, bad tempers showing, and about to crowd into a make-shift clinic in her mother’s home office.

 

            “Hey, guys.”

 

            The call lacked enthusiasm, and they turned around to see Rei and Minako trudging up the block behind them. 

 

            “Hey,” called back Makoto, their steps slowing to allow their friends to catch up.

 

            Luna and Artemis followed at their heels, and Ami bent to pick up the black cat.

 

            “I think we’re best equipped to answer any questions your mother might pose,” said Luna when Ami showed some surprise at their presence.

 

            “Unless you completely freak her out,” returned Rei.  “You know, I have to give her some credit.  A weaker person would have cracked under all this.  Ow!” she yelped loudly as Minako’s elbow landed in her ribs.  “Well it’s true!”

 

            Makoto huffed.  “I think she’s already cracked and these are just the symptoms.  Sorry, babe,” she added apologetically as she glanced at Ami.

 

            “No, it’s okay,” returned Ami.  “But she hasn’t ‘cracked.’  This is normal for her.  It’s just how she is.”

 

            “Well, whoever and whatever,” piped in Minako as she moved so she was walking a step ahead of them, “we’re getting this over with and this weekend, we are going to have fun.  This is our last real summer, and as our youth is fleeting, I’m not going to let us all waste it on being depressed.”

 

            “Feeling optimistic, are we?” jabbed Makoto with a smirk.

 

            “Maybe,” answered Minako with a wide smile.

 

            Rei chuckled.  “Let’s see how optimistic she’s feeling when I remind her we saw Haruka’s car parked outside the house in the only free parking spot on the block.”

 

            Ami sucked in a breath as her pace unintentionally quickened.

 

………………………..

 

            The tension in the room was so thick she could have cut out little strips of it with a scalpel.  But Kaya pretended not to notice as she set out the tea service and handed out delicate china teacups to her guests.  She faltered momentarily, though, at having to make a decision on where to direct conversation.

 

            Her first option was a definite no.  Haruka was very obviously not in the mood to make small talk.

 

            Her second option – Michiru.  Obviously the better choice in this situation, and she was probably well versed in how to conduct a civil conversation during awkward moments.  However, she seemed to have her hands full at the moment acting as her partner’s calm center.

 

            Then there was Hotaru.  Under other circumstances she would have enjoyed speaking to the child.  This time, though, her mind conjured the conversation going along the lines of:

“So, Ami tells me you want to be a nurse.”

           

“Oh, yes.  You see, I can heal people and bring them back from the brink of death just by touching them due to a secret magical power I inherited from a millennias dead alien queen.  I think it’d be the perfect profession for me!”

 

            Kaya groaned internally.  Where was Ami and what was taking her so long?

 

            With Setsuna her only real viable choice, Kaya settled into the last free chair in the living room and forced a smile.

 

            “Mom!”

 

            Thank you, dear sweet lord!

 

            Kaya practically shot from the chair and hurried into the hallway to greet her daughter.

 

…………………………

 

            Ami dispensed with the usual pleasantries and politeness of returning home, instead throwing open the door, toeing off her shoes, and calling for her mother all in the span of one breath.  Her mother was almost as quick, grabbing her into a tight, tense hug before her shouted “Mom!” had finished echoing in the foyer.

 

            “I am so glad you’re here,” Kaya whispered against Ami’s ear, noticeably relieved until she saw Makoto and the girls behind her.  The tension returned as she offered a tight smile to the young women.  “Good morning, girls.”

 

            Rei and Minako offered a polite nod and murmured hellos around Makoto’s terse, “Hi.”  The white-knuckled grip Makoto kept on the stroller made Kaya take a nervous step back.

 

            Luna and Artemis wound their way out from around everyone’s feet to make an attempt at a polite greeting.  “Good morning,” said Luna pleasantly as she sat in front of Ami’s feet.

 

            Kaya blinked.  “Um… hello.  How… how are you?”

 

            “Very well, thank you,” answered Artemis.

 

            “Usagi shouldn’t be much longer,” added Luna.  “Mamoru was coming to pick her and Chibi-usa up.  He should see to it that they’re more or less on time.”

 

            “Oh.  Well, good,” returned Kaya, still not fully believing that she was discoursing with a pair of cats and hating that she couldn’t come up with anything better to say to them.  She paused a moment, waiting to see if they would offer anything else she could give a completely unintelligent response to.  When they didn’t, she turned her attention back to Ami.  “Everyone else is here.  Would you like to get started or should we wait for Usagi’s group?”

 

            Makoto bit back a rude response about actually being given a choice in the matter.  Instead, she silently followed Ami’s lead and lifted the baby from the stroller.  Apparently, Ami thought it best if they go ahead and start.

 

            “Ami, you can go first,” began Kaya.  “Then we’ll move onto the children, so they don’t have to wait.”  She moved toward her office, the unhappy group moving slowly behind her to line up outside the door.

 

            Ami was sitting in her mother’s desk chair with a thermometer in her mouth and a blood pressure cuff around her arm when the doorbell rang.  “I’ll get it!” called Minako from the back of the line.  Then she added with a grin.  “Don’t want to keep her waiting since she’s actually on time this time.”

 

            Kaya leaned in closer to Ami and said softly as she removed the thermometer, “I bought some candy for the children.  Would it be too terribly condescending to offer Usagi some for also being a good patient?”

 

            With a grin, Ami answered, “Not at all.  I think she might actually be expecting it, though I don’t promise you’ll get a good patient.”

 

            “That’s all right.  I’m not expecting very many of those today, anyway.”  Kaya glanced over at Makoto, standing in the corner and holding her son protectively.  No, she wasn’t expecting much good today at all.  A few notations were made in a file with a pale blue tab labeled “B.”  Then she reached for a thick needle and three blue stickered vials.

 

            Makoto cringed and unconsciously tightened her grip on Miki, causing him to squirm uncomfortably.  He began to mewl and signal his distress just as Usagi poked her head around the doorway.  But before any words could pass her lips, the blonde paled, her bubbly greeting dying instantly away.  Instead, she said dryly, “I’m gonna pass out.”

 

            “You big baby.  It’s not even your turn yet,” called Rei from the hallway.

 

            Usagi looked back over her shoulder, and in a wounded a voice, returned with “Rei, you meanie!  I bet you haven’t even seen that needle yet!”

 

            “It’s not bad, Usagi, really,” assured Ami as the vials filled.  “I can’t feel a thing.  Honest.”

 

            “And it’s quick,” offered Ami’s mom as she placed a thick pad of gauze over the insertion sight and pulled out the needle.  “See, that’s all I needed to do.”  She dropped the needled into a gray plastic canister and reached for a Band-Aid.  When Ami was sufficiently patched up, Kaya put on as kind and reassuring a smile as she could muster and turned it on Usagi.  “Okay, sweetheart, you’re next.  But I need help with something first, if you don’t mind?”

 

            Usagi’s head tilted slightly to the side in suspicious contemplation.  “What could I help with?”

 

            “In my desk drawer,” answered Kaya bristling just a bit at the idea of talking to and treating this young woman as if she were a slow ten-year-old, but it was the means to an end, and since Usagi didn’t seem to find offense in it…  “The top one on the left.”

 

            Oooo, chocolate!” exclaimed Usagi as she found the first bag.  Then rummaging a little further, “And Tootsie Pops!”

 

            In the hallway, Mamoru sighed softly in embarrassment as Chibi-usa pushed her way forward to make sure Usagi wasn’t going to try and take her share of the bounty.

 

            Michiru giggled, then smiled sweetly at Haruka.  “You see, Haruka.  If you’re good, the doctor will give you a lolli.”

 

            Haruka scowled at her, her arms never moving from where they were tightly crossed over her chest.

 

            Unfazed, Michiru pattered her arm.  “Don’t worry.  I’ll make sure she saves you a grape one.”

 

            Not to be left out, Rei piped in with, “I want a watermelon one!”  She scooted up behind Chibi-usa in the doorway and looked pointedly at her princess.  “Usagi, pull mine out now.  Otherwise, between you and Chibi-usa, there won’t be a scrap of pink in that bag by the time she gets to me.”

 

            “You can have my turn,” offered Usagi as she continued to hold the candy bags almost as possessively as Makoto was holding Miki.  “The sooner you go the sooner you’ll get your lollipop,” she tried to cajole, pulling one out and dangling it back and forth.

 

            Ami slid from the chair and stepped over to Usagi.  Very gently, she guided her friend over to the chair.  “It’s your turn, and you don’t want Rei bragging that she was braver than you by going second, do you?” asked Ami.

 

            Usagi shook her head a bit hesitantly.  “No, but…”

 

            “Good,” replied Ami, giggling as the exchange earned an insulted grunt from Rei.

 

            Admitting defeat and giving in to her fate, Usagi sighed.  Then she remembered the bags she was holding and that she’d forgotten to do the thing Ami’s mom had said she needed help with.  Taking a second to rummage around in the bags, Usagi smiled widely and presented Ami with her prize.  “Because you were a good paitent.”

 

            “Thank you very much,” answered Ami as she accepted the foil wrapped chocolates and lollipop.  She tucked them away in the pocket of her shorts, then reached to take the bags from Usagi.  “How about I hold these until you’re finished?”

 

            Usagi nodded, then squeezed her eyes tightly closed and thrust out her arm.  “Okay, I’m ready.”

 

            Kaya took a deep breath and reached for the blood pressure cuff.  She might have been amused by the girl’s dramatics if the situation were a bit different and if Usagi didn’t look like she was about to bite the thermometer in half.  A few minutes more, and she was ready for her next patient.

 

            Usagi cracked an eye, then blinked in surprise as a pad of gauze was pressed against her arm where the needle had been.  “That’s it?”

 

            “That’s it,” answered Kaya, not fully meeting the girl’s eyes.

 

            Usagi looked almost disappointed.  Not that she would say that in front of anyone, but she had really expected something more gruesome and life threatening.  After all, if she was going to be a living test subject for a mad scientist, she really did think it should be a bit more interesting.  However, a piece of chocolate was suddenly being held out in front of her, and in the grand scheme of things, that was really the priority.

 

            She grinned and made a happy sound as the candy was handed to her.  Turning to Chibi-usa, she grinned evilly.  “Chibi-usa,” she called in sing-song voice.  “It’s your turn.”

 

            The child held up her chin proudly even as she gripped Hotaru’s hand.  “That’s fine,” she answered as she and Usagi passed each other.  “And I won’t be a baby about it, either.”  She scooted onto the vacated chair, and as her blood pressure was taken, asked, “May I have a watermelon one?”

 

            Kaya grinned at the child and promised her two as “Remember to save me one!” reverberated in the room.

 

            Ami pocketed three as Rei stood unrepentant at her complete lack of shame.

 

            It went almost uneventfully from there, with the exception of a withering glare from Makoto for making her child cry and total stubborn obstinacy from Haruka.  Once she was done with them, the two had wound up in a corner of the living room, grousing together as the stick of a grape Tootsie Pop hung belligerently from Haruka’s lips.

 

            Rei half listened to Ami and her mother as she watched Minako.  Standing at the far end of the room, the blonde spoke quietly to Setsuna while Michiru and Usagi occupied the children.  Setsuna nodded, and a smile the seemed mostly relief appeared on Minako’s lips.  Then her blue eyes looked over and met Rei’s, and the grin changed to the happiness Rei much preferred seeing.  Something else was said, then Minako moved back over to her wife.

 

            Rei titled her head in Setsuna’s direction.  “So, what was that little whisper session all about?”

 

            “Remember that arts festival and concert I told you about?  The one HMP is sponsoring?” asked Minako, getting a nod in response.  “We all need to get away from this mess for awhile, do something fun and completely mindless.  The festival this weekend seemed like a good way to do that.”

 

            “And you talked Setsuna into corralling her charges along, huh?” smirked Rei.

 

            Minako smiled proudly.  “It’ll be good for them.  For us, too.”  Then she sighed.  “I want to have fun again.”

 

            Putting an arm around her shoulders, Rei offered up a caramel-filled chocolate.  “We will.  It may take some of us a little longer than others, but we’ll get back to that again.”

 

            Minako relaxed into Rei’s side and carefully unwrapped her candy.  “If you say it, I believe it.  Because no matter how dastardly my Rei-chan is, she always tells me the truth.”

 

            Rei chuckled.  “Your Rei-chan takes exception to being called dastardly, but yeah, she’ll always tell you the truth.”

 

……………………………….

 

 

            The arts festival had grown exponentially from the small show Tokyo University had begun planning just over a year ago to the now sprawling event Higano Music Productions and its various affiliates had produced.  Every segment of the School of Fine Arts was represented, backed up by representatives from the music and TV industry.  On one side of the park, a stage had been set up for amateur musicians and would later in the evening be turned into a free Nakusu Ai concert.  Aspiring writers gathered for readings and workshops, while video editors and camera operators gave demonstrations.  There were more artists offering free sketches and caricatures than anyone could count, and areas had been set aside for the university sponsored youth programs to offer painting, sculpting, and basic photography lessons.

 

            Tomoko found she was enjoying all of the excitement around her.  And the food was pretty good, too.

 

            The young author smiled at the little girl who looked at her with adoring green eyes.  She moved the book she was trying to autograph just a smidge to the right to keep the child’s ice cream from dripping onto it, and asked the girl her name.  An answer was given shyly, and with that information, Tomoko opened the book to the title page.  Beneath the silhouette of a wing, she wrote, “To Lirio.  Always follow your dreams and one day you’ll find your Pegasus.  Takase Tomoko.”  Beside her name she doodled a smiley face with glasses, then handed the book to the child’s father.

 

            As they walked away, she sat back in her chair and closed her eyes, letting the images from her dreams play out into cohesive thoughts.  She only had a moment, though, before the sound of footsteps over gravel interrupted her sequel.  Back to work, thought Tomoko with a genuinely happy smile.

 

            It was a teenager this time, about the same age as she was, toting along her little brother.  The boy didn’t stand out particularly with his dark hair in a bowl cut and a fresh chocolate stain on his Power Ranger’s t-shirt.  His sister, however, was not the typical type her Pegasus series attracted.  Tomoko tried not to stare at the silver stud in the girl’s nose or the black teardrop tattooed at the side of her eye as a book was enthusiastically thrust at her.  A long lock of burgundy hair was brushed aside revealing a thin silver chain that began at a loop in the curve of one ear, draped down to brush her shoulder, and came back up to stop at a ruby stud in her earlobe.  Which just happened to nicely match the ruby studded eyes of the smiling skull and crossbones that hung from the other ear.

 

            Tomoko swallowed hard.

 

            If the girl had noticed any of her discomfort, she gave no indication of it.  Instead, she launched excitedly into fangirl mode.  “I’m so glad to finally meet you, Takase-san!  I bought your first book the week it came out and have been hooked ever since!  Oh, and you just have to write another sequel!  I know this one just came out, but there are so many possibilities!”

 

            Tomoko smiled widely as she finished putting the glasses on the smiley face beside her signature.  There was always more story to tell, but her publisher had schooled her quickly in how to relay things to her fans.  It was okay to tease them a bit, to give them vague hints, but never promise anything and never give them any details.  Tomoko hated it because she could have spent hours talking about the images and dreams she saw when she closed her eyes.  But she understood the necessity of it, so all she could do was smile coyly and offer a noncommittal, “Perhaps.  Now that you mention it, I could see some possibilities there.”

 

            The girl squealed and clapped her hands, but before she could say anything else, her little bother’s attention veered off.  She lost her grip on him, and before she could stop him, he was several yards away and quickly going further.

 

            “August, stop!” the girl yelled after the boy as he disappeared into the crowd.  She cursed and ran after him, Tomoko quickly forgotten.

 

            “Your book!” Tomoko called, but her voice didn’t carry nearly as far as she needed it to.  The author shrugged and set the book to the side.  The girl would return, she reasoned, once she had captured her errant charge.  In the meantime…

 

            Leaning back in her chair, Tomoko relaxed, the images there before she’d even closed her eyes.  But something caught her attention and pulled her consciousness back to reality.  She had to do a double-take to convince herself what she was seeing was true.  A huge grin lit up her face as she stood and started jogging towards her long-lost beta reader.

 

            “Makoto!” called Tomoko, catching the other girl off guard.  If her friend hadn’t been holding such a tiny baby, Tomoko wouldn’t have stopped until her arms were around her.  As it was, she stopped just short of that so they were toe to toe, her smiling like a madwoman and Makoto shocked into silence.  “I can’t believe it,” went on Tomoko happily.  “How are you?  And why don’t I ever hear from you after you promised you would stay in touch?”

 

            Makoto smiled, albeit a bit stunned by the sudden appearance of her friend.  Ami grinned at her curiously as Makoto answered contritely, “You know I was never good at communication, Tomoko.  And there’s been a lot going on.  But I’m doing pretty good.  How ‘bout you?”

 

            “Better than ever,” replied Tomoko.  “My publisher has me here signing autographs for book three.  Book three, Makoto, and I had to give it to my editor without you.”

 

            An apology got her a grin, then bespectacled blue eyes focused on Miki and she held out a finger for him to grasp.  “And who’s this little guy.  You are just the cutest thing, aren’t you?” she cooed.

 

            Miki burbled and squirmed happily, enjoying the attention of his new admirer.

 

            For Makoto, though, there was just a touch of hesitation before she answered.  The type that comes from waiting too long to tell a friend something important and getting caught before you ever get around to it.  With a nervous sort of chuckle, she answered, “Well, this is Miki.  My son.”

 

            Tomoko’s eyes widened in surprise.  “Really?”

 

            Makoto nodded.

 

            “Why didn’t you tell me?” asked Tomoko, her attention going back to the baby.  “Your mother really is bad at communication.  But you are just too precious,” she went on softly, giving his belly a tickle.  “And I bet you make your mama very happy.”

 

            “He does,” verified Makoto.  “And so does his other mama.”

 

            Tomoko looked up almost as if she were seeing Ami for the first time.  She blinked, then looked pointedly at Makoto.  “You really haven’t told me anything in a long time.”  Then she turned and bowed politely to Ami.  “Forgive my rudeness.  My name is Takase Tomoko, and I used to go to school with Makoto.  I haven’t seen her in so long and was so surprised… I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself first.”

 

            Ami returned the bow and answered, “It’s quite all right, and I completely understand.  I also sympathize.  She truly is terrible at telling people the things she should in a timely manner.”

 

            “Hey, hey,” shot back Makoto in mock annoyance.  “We’ve known each other for equal amounts of time and there was no communicating on your part, either.  But enough of that or Tomoko will turn us into her next novel.”

 

            Tomoko giggled.  “You should be a novel, Makoto.  But to do that I have to talk to you for awhile, and the best way would be for the three of you to join me for dinner.  Were you going to stay for the concert?”

 

            Before Makoto could answer, her name was once again called out across the park.  They all turned to see Usagi waving enthusiastically in their direction, a piece of sketch paper clutched in her hand.  Minako, Rei, and Haruka followed her, and Makoto noted that Rei looked just a touch cross.

 

            “I wouldn’t mind getting together,” answered Makoto finally, “but I’m with a pretty large group right now.”  She chuckled.  “And a couple of them are pretty big fangirls of yours.”

 

            “I wouldn’t mind their company if they wouldn’t mind mine,” grinned back Tomoko.  “Is the little girl with you?  The one with the pink pigtails?”

 

            Makoto nodded.  “She and a friend with her friend’s mothers.  They stopped to paint or sculpt or something, but should be meeting back up with us soon.”

 

            “Good.  I may have something special for her when I see you all tonight.”

 

            Makoto raised an eyebrow quizzically just as Usagi and the others caught up to them.  The sketch the blonde had been carrying was presented with a wide smile.

 

            “Isn’t it great!” gushed Usagi.  “He did one for all of us.”  Then she chuckled.  “You should see Minako and Rei’s.”

 

            “No, she shouldn’t,” returned Rei pointedly.  “Just let her enjoy yours.”

 

            In other company Makoto would have had some fun with that, but not wanting to embarrass anyone, she looked over Usagi’s picture.  It was a caricature with the head three times as big as the body, the tiny torso wearing overalls and rollerblades.  Little hearts, stars, and bunny faces littered the background and matched the decorations on a helmet Makoto knew they’d have a hard time getting the real Usagi to wear.

 

            “I like it,” smiled Makoto.  “You may have to take me to get one…”  She tried to hand the picture back, but Usagi’s attention had already wandered.

 

            Usagi’s eyes narrowed as she studied the newcomer, then grew wide as the last drop of recognition splashed down on her.  “Oh my gosh!  I know you!”

 

            Tomoko blushed even as her eyes lit up at the excited recognition of a fan.

 

            Usagi was quickly joined by Minako, and Tomoko tried as valiantly as she could to keep up with the rapid fire questions.  She was quickly losing that battle, though, when a dark haired beauty stepped in to rescue her.

 

            Stepping between the author and her fangirls, Rei cleared her throat loudly and took command of the situation.  “You two are such amateurs.  And never prepared,” she said haughtily right before pulling three pristine copies of Tomoko’s book from her bag.

 

            “How did you know to bring those?” questioned Minako, her hands on her hips as she frowned at her wife.

 

            “I planned ahead,” returned Rei, giving them both self-satisfied smirks.  Then she turned to Tomoko and inclined her head politely.  Takase-san, if it wouldn’t be too much of a bother…”

 

            “Not at all.”  Tomoko took the books and grinned as a permanent ink pen as also handed over.  “It was nice of you to bring copies for your friends.”

 

            Minako huffed.  “Not likely.  Let me tell you exactly what those are for.”  She straightened up and wagged her finger in imitation of Rei.  “You must have one copy for reading, one for letting friends borrow, and one for safe storage in plastic.”

 

            Ami giggled and Makoto nodded.  She adjusted the baby higher on her shoulder and said, “Yeah, that’s about right.  But I want to know how you knew she was going to be here and I didn’t.  Especially since she’s my friend.”

 

            “I told you, I always plan ahead.”  Then she pulled a folded piece of paper from the pocket of her jeans.  “And I got this flyer off my windshield at the Quik-E-Mart the other day.”

 

            “Hey, abandoned and forgotten back here,” piped up Haruka, raising her hand to get their attention.  “I still don’t know who she is.”

 

            “Sorry, sorry,” apologized Makoto as she hurried to make introductions.

 

            In the course of it all, Tomoko found herself beside Ami, something to which she normally wouldn’t have given any thought to.  However, after a minute or two, she felt the speculative gaze of two sets of blue eyes burning holes into both of them.  She shifted just a touch uncomfortably as Minako came over and tapped Makoto on the shoulder.

 

            Makoto looked at her as if she’d lost her mind and was asking the stupidest questions she could think of after Minako whispered in her ear.  But, undeterred, Minako insisted until Makoto relented.  “Okay, fine, they’re in Miki’s diaper bag.  Just don’t break them.  And shouldn’t you maybe ask her first?”

 

            Minako waved that off and grabbed Ami’s glasses from the bag.  She stepped over and carefully placed them on Ami’s face, then jogged back over to Usagi.  Identical expressions of observation preceded nods of agreement.

 

            Rei frowned at both of them.  “What are you two doing?”

 

            Usagi waved her over and whispered into her ear.  Rei’s eyes widened just a bit in surprise, then she looked over at Tomoko and Ami.  Her head tilted and she took on a thoughtful expression as her thumb tapped against her lips.  The she shrugged.  “Okay, you guys are right.”

 

            “About what?” asked Haruka, ignoring Makoto’s growing indignation.

 

            C’mere,” responded Rei.  When Haruka was beside her, she waved a finger between Ami and Tomoko.  “See it?”

 

            Haruka looked, then squinted to try and look harder.  “What am I looking for?”

 

            “A resemblance,” supplied Rei.

 

            Shaking her head, Haruka held up her hands in defeat.  “Nope, don’t see it.”

 

            “How can you not see it?” asked Minako in annoyance.  She took Haruka’s arm and moved her a few steps closer.  “Here, look again.”

 

            “No!  No more looking,” ordered Makoto as she handed the baby to Ami so she could step between them.  “The only thing the four of you are going to start looking for is Michiru and the others.”  Then she turned around to face Tomoko.  “Sorry about that.  My friends have these moments of insanity that are really hard to predict.”

 

            Tomoko smiled, finding herself amused by them.  “It’s okay.  I think I like them.”

 

            “Ha, you hear that,” threw out Minako.  “She likes us!”

 

            Makoto sighed.  “Well, now you’ve done it.  They think they’re friends with someone famous.”

 

            “Then all of you must have dinner with me.  Just meet me back here around five this evening and I’ll see if my publisher can come up with any goodies.”

 

            “I don’t think you know what you’re getting yourself into,” chuckled Makoto.  “But we’ll be back at five.”

 

            Tomoko smiled widely at the promise and hugged her friend.  They parted, and with Miki tucked back into his stroller, they went in search of the rest of their group.  “Okay,” she finally asked when Tomoko was out of earshot.  “What was all that about?”

 

            Usagi grinned.  “You have a type, Mako-chan.”

 

            “A what?  What are you talking about?”  She glanced down at Ami and realized she was still wearing her glasses.  A light blush touched her cheeks.  “You’ve been out in the sun too long.  Both of you.”

 

            “For what’s its worth, I still don’t see it,” offered Haruka.

 

            “Hey, who’s the love goddess here,” interjected Minako proudly.  “And I’m telling you Mako-chan has a type.  Whether she’ll admit it or not,” she finished with a grin.

 

            Rei followed her love’s pronouncement with some amusement, but just as Minako launched into the full explanation of how she knew all of this, something tickled at the back of her consciousness.  Her pace slowed as she tried to hear, and in her mind’s eye she saw the wispy black tendrils begin to wrap around an orb of deep burgundy…

 

            And then they all came to a sudden halt as a high pitched scream rang out.

 

            That one scream lead to another, and within seconds a panicked crowd was rushing towards them.

 

            “What is it?  Can you see?” asked Minako hurriedly as the girls pushed against the crowd and tried to get out of the way.

 

            Ami had grabbed the baby and Makoto had grabbed both of them, letting Ami use her as support to stay upright.  The taller girl stretched up to try and see as they moved sideways.  “I can’t see… No!  Tomoko!”

 

            Haruka spotted it as she pulled Usagi out of the path of the fleeing mob.  A large rectangle that looked like a book, the cover gradients of purple with the outline of a Pegasus against a full moon had sprouted a head and limbs and had backed Makoto’s friend into a corner of the autograph booth.  The oddly shaped head on the youma was painted white and purple with garish blue eyeshadow highlighting large, brown eyes.  Spiky black hair wore an out-of-place silver ribbon that matched the stripes on its arms and legs.  Talon-like purple nails glittered as the demon tome moved closer to the author.

 

            “Venus Crystal Power…”

 

            “Mars Crystal Power…”

 

            Haruka looked over just in time to see a flash of light emanate from behind the display booths.  She muttered to herself as she shoved Usagi towards Makoto.  She had no idea how those two had gotten over there so quickly, and she hated being one step behind.

 

            Makoto, meanwhile, had taken the baby from Ami and now found herself in the unfamiliar position of not having any idea what to do next.  Ami needed to go, and she needed to save Tomoko before that thing did any damage to her, but Miki…  Then Usagi was shoved up against her as Haruka sprinted off in the direction Venus and Mars were emerging from.

 

            Another scream, and Makoto watched in horror as the possessed book leaned over Tomoko and called forth a brilliantly shining spark of light from the girl’s chest.  The golden glow drifted forward toward a notebook size computer pad the youma held as Tomoko went limp and crumpled to the ground.

 

            “Deep Submerge!”

 

            The youma startled and looked up just in time to be hit with a wall of water.  It was picked up off its feet and carried, taking part of the booth with it, until it hit the nearest tree hard enough to knock down several branches.  The golden spark that had been pulled from Tomoko’s chest fell to the ground beside the girl, pulsing in time to her heartbeat.

 

            “Mako-chan?”  Usagi looked up at her friend, not quite sure what to ask, but waiting for an answer nonetheless.

 

            Before Makoto could find an answer, one came running to her in the form of Chibi-usa.  The girl was one step behind the guardian cats, and Luna called sternly, “What are you three doing?  Transform!”

 

            Usagi gave a decisive nod, more than willing to follow directions.  Her hesitation came only with Makoto’s.  Thinking she might understand, she gently reached for Miki and carefully pulled him from Makoto’s grasp.  Handing him down to Chibi-usa, she ordered softly, “Protect him, the three of you.”

 

            The move did nothing to assuage Makoto, and she nearly turned around to reclaim her son as Usagi pulled them away.

 

            “He’ll be okay,” assured Usagi.  “You have a friend who needs your help right now.”

 

            As if to illustrate the point, Venus yelped as she was tossed across the now empty concessions area, her Love Me Chain losing its grip on its target and flickering out.  Mars’ eyes lit up with a deadly flame, and her bow aimed true… only to fire wide as her arm was grazed by three small projectiles that lodged into a metal flagpole several yards away.

 

            “What the hell!” exclaimed Mars, grasping onto her bleeding arm.  “Where did that come from?”

 

            The youma didn’t dine to answer, instead charging forward, a deep throated “Chu Chu!” issuing from its purple lips.  It barely slowed down as the crackle of static tickled between its pages as Jupiter appeared from behind.  But as the lightening from a Supreme Thunder rained down upon it, it fell to its knees, singed and smoldering.

 

            “Where’s Sailormoon?” bellowed Uranus.  “Let’s get this over with!”

 

            Hearing her name, Sailormoon startled, looking up from her newest charges.  “I have to hurry and help my friends,” she murmured, the spark pulsing in her cupped palms.  She smiled at the little boy she had pulled from the fray.  “Don’t worry.  We’ll fix everything.  You just stay hidden, okay?”  She carefully returned the spark to Tomoko, sighing in relief as it shimmered and faded away over the girl’s heart, then hurried over to join her friends in battle.

 

            The little boy with ice cream on his Power Rangers t-shirt frowned as he watched her go, then scurried away under the fabric wall of what was left of the booth.  Roku was going to be angry with this interruption and at him for not grabbing the author’s Creative Spark while he had the chance.  Better to let her finish this fight on her own, to buy himself some time.

 

            As the boy hurried to disappear, Sailormoon rejoined her friends, stopping beside Mercury.  Mercury’s visor was down, and she could hear the tiny beeps of information being collected even as Mercury stood poised to attack.  A second later, Pluto was at her opposite side asking, “Ready?”

 

            With a glance over at Mercury, to which she received a curt nod, Sailormoon answered, “Yes,” as she held up her Moon Power Tier.  Taking a deep breath, she focused the energy she could feel building within her and called out loudly, “Silver Moon… Crystal Power Kiss!”

 

            The youma’s unnaturally large eyes grew even rounder as it was surrounded by beams of golden light, then overtaken by waves of the softest feathers it could ever know.  With the feathers came a storm of warmth and sparkling silver light, and within that, a voice.  The youma could no longer fight, it had to give up and felt no loss in doing so.  As it closed its eyes and let its head fall back, it felt the final push of defeat and called out, “Muse-ing!” before vanishing in a powdery, gray haze.

 

            Venus limped over with some help from Saturn.  Standing beside Mars, she watched as an inkwell fell to the ground, its black contents spilling into the grass…

 

 

 

            Chisato flicked off her viewscreen in disgust, her deep frown reflecting back at her in the now black screen.  They had needed the author badly, whether he would admit it or not.  Behind her in the dark room, she could sense the rough drawings on the storyboard fade away, and as she walked out with her heels clicking roughly against the floor, she heard the board fall and crack into dust.