Upon Waking

By Crawlspace

 

 

            The only light in the room came from the small lamp on her desk.  Outside, the stars and moon were hidden behind gray clouds – an ominous thing she couldn’t quite push from the corners of her consciousness.

 

            She pushed her glasses further up in a nervous gesture, then took a deep breath before setting her pen down and slowly rereading the note.  This hadn’t been an easy thing to explain.  Her less than steady script gave testament to that.  She cared too much for her mother, though, to leave her without some explanation.

 

            Convinced the wording was now right, she carefully folded the note and placed it in a matching envelope.  ‘Mom’ was written neatly on the front, and then it was hidden away in her desk drawer.  When the time came, and her mother realized she was missing, this was where she would come to find her daughter’s secrets and an answer to where she had run off to.

 

            That done, she sat back in her chair and stared forward.  Fear was to be expected, she reasoned.  They were facing the largest battle of their short lives tomorrow, and none of them knew what to expect.  But there was another sort of fear beginning to tickle at her heart.  Somehow, she knew this was going to be the last chance she had to say all the things she wanted to the person who had come to mean so much to her in the last year.  Someone who should know she was truly loved at least once in her life.  Lying alone in her room, the fear of things left unsaid had found her the courage she needed to act.

 

            Slowly, she stood and reached to turn off her desk lamp.  There was somewhere else she needed to be.

 

-----   -----   -----   -----

 

            Makoto rested her forehead against the tiles in her shower as hot water beat against her sore back.  She was tired.  This last fight had taken more out of her than she’d realized.  Her left side ached from the impact with the brick wall of the old library, and the soap was stinging all the little cuts and scrapes she’d gotten during her tussle with the youma.

 

            Stupid beast.

 

            Her palms came up and rested flat against the wall.  Maybe running in like she had wasn’t the smartest of ideas.  Venus had said to wait for Mars and Mercury to show up, that the three youma would be easier to take down as a group.  But she had just wanted to get it over with.  Besides, Venus had brought that damn cat with her, and Moon’s pet was likely nearby as well.  Jupiter figured the less time she had to spend around either of them, the better it would be for everyone.  So she ignored Venus’ words, not hearing them out of convenience, and took down the first creature before it even saw her coming.

 

            Having their companion torn to ribbons by an Oak Evolution very effectively got the attention of the other two creatures.  As one dark body hit the ground, two pairs of yellow eyes turned on her in glowing rage.  Fangs were bared in deadly snarls, one’s mottled pelt bristling in anger before both charged.

 

            She hadn’t expected the impact to be as hard as it was.

 

            Makoto sighed and turned so her back was against the wall with the water cascading down her front.  She winced slightly as her bruised shoulder touched the tiles with a bit too much pressure.

 

            Sailormoon had screamed when the creatures tackled her.  She remembered hearing that cry over the grunts and growls of the beasts above her.  Without warning, the weight of one was removed.  Venus and her Love Me Chain, Jupiter assumed.  When it was over, that particular youma would be nothing more than a smoldering pile of ash, no doubt courtesy of Mars.  Jupiter hadn’t seen it, though, or the other girls’ arrivals.  She was too busy with her own battle.

 

            She brought a finger up to trace around the puncture wounds in her arm.  Could have done without these.  But they’d be gone in another day, and then it would all just be another bad memory for her to file away and forget about.  She wondered idly how hard it would be to forget the stench of the creature’s moist breath against her face, or the crushing weight of it as its claws pinned her down to the pavement in the parking lot.  Or how she hated feeling as if she’d lost control of the fight, and the burst of anger and outrage that had run through her.  That was what had pushed her, allowed her to get her feet out from under the thing and plant them squarely in its middle.  One hard shove, accompanied by an angry yell, and it was off her and on the defense.

 

            Makoto’s fists balled up at her sides at the memory of the physical fight.  These weren’t weak creatures.  Dumb perhaps, but not weak.  Its claws got in a lucky swipe, tearing through her senshi fuku and leaving four thin trails of blood along her ribs.  She had repaid it in kind, rendering one of its eyes useless and taking out a row of its fangs.  But the damn thing wouldn’t give up.

 

            She must have looked horrible to the others at that point, Makoto thought, all scraped and bruised and bleeding like she was.  They were all there, yelling at her to move so they could get a clear shot.  But this was her battle, and she was going to be the one to finish it.

 

            It had looked like a clean opening to her.  She just had to grab the thing, break its furry neck, and then go home.  Except, it hadn’t worked that way.  She’d misjudged her timing, and before she knew what was happening, the youma had her off her feet and in the air.  The wind was knocked out of her hard as she hit the building.  Her vision was swimming when she felt the ground beneath her, and be damned if there wasn’t one part of her body that didn’t hurt, but she was going to finish this if it killed her.  Calling up what energy she had left, already feeling the electricity on her fingertips, Jupiter had struggled to her knees.  Venus already had the youma chained, holding it steady for Mars as she aimed her fiery bow.

 

            The angry growl came from Jupiter this time as she let loose a Supreme Thunder.  Her aim was perfect and brought the others up short in surprise.  Moon and Mercury stopped dead in their haste to get to her side as the youma howled in agony.  Static sparks danced along its smoking fur as it fell to its knees, curling in on itself.  One last, strangled yelp managed to escape its broken mouth before it gasped its last and fell dead.

 

            Makoto stuck her head under the shower spray.  She was tired.  All she wanted to do was change into her sweats and fall into bed.  But she had a set of very good friends whom she had scared pretty badly.  They weren’t about to let her limp home on her own, but at least Ami was the only one who had insisted on staying.  And those damn cats hadn’t even bothered to try and follow them back here.

 

            “Please,” asked Makoto silently of whatever higher being might be listening.  “Please just let her put on a few bandages and leave.  I can’t do this tonight.  And please, please no more dreams.”

 

 

-----  -----  -----  -----

 

            Her hands folded tightly in her lap, Ami shifted nervously on the couch.  She glanced down at the cups of lukewarm tea sitting on the coffee table, then over her shoulder into the hallway.  The shower had been running for an awfully long time, she thought, concern showing in her eyes and the small frown she wore.  She wrestled away the idea of going and knocking on the bathroom door to check on Makoto and make sure she was still on her feet.  Makoto wouldn’t like that.  A silent sigh passed her lips, and she looked back to the coffee table, this time reaching forward to rearrange the items she’d laid out from the med kit.

 

            The sudden silence caused by the shower shutting off made her sit up straighter and pull her hands back into her lap.  She stared forward and listened, waiting to hear Makoto’s approach.  Instead, she heard one door open, followed a moment later by another closing.

 

            Ami released a tense breath.  She disliked this kind of quiet.  Usually, the silence that hung between her and Makoto was an easy, peaceful type.  Often it would come as they shared a late meal after a long day or lost themselves in their favorite books on afternoons when company was preferred to solitude.  In the silence that hung between them now was something heavy and dark.  They had all begun to feel it, had all noticed over the last few weeks that something was wrong with their friend.  Subtle inquiries to her wellbeing had been rebuffed, albeit gently and casually.  But there were just so many times one could blow things off as not enough sleep or a lingering cold before those subtle inquiries became more demanding.  Ami figured today’s battle was going to be that end point for all of them.

 

            The bedroom door opened quietly, and Ami turned to see Makoto coming in from the hallway.  Her steps were slow, her bearing almost reluctant.  Her demeanor added to Ami’s own tension, and when Makoto stopped at the edge of the coffee table, Ami offered her a tight smile.  “Feel any better?”

 

            Makoto nodded.  “Yeah.  Thanks.”  She waved a hand over the table.  “You didn’t have to go to all this trouble.”

 

            Not sure if she meant the tea, med kit, or both, Ami answered simply, “I wanted to.  Now sit so I can see how much damage was done.”

 

            For a second, it looked as though she would refuse.  Then she took a deep breath and moved to sit at the end of the couch.

 

            Ami tried very hard not to feel hurt by the intentional distance Makoto was putting between them, writing it off as the girl’s wounded pride.  The smile she’d forced, however, faltered as she moved closer and ordered Makoto to take her shirt off so she could see the worst of it.

 

              As Makoto pulled the gray t-shirt over her head, she protested halfheartedly, “It’ll all be gone in a day or two.  Nothing to really get all worried about.”

 

            “I didn’t get there early enough to scan those creatures as thoroughly as I would have liked,” answered Ami, her focus drawn to the four gashes across Makoto’s middle.  They were ugly and jagged, but thankfully shallow and already showing signs of healing.  “We don’t know what kind of damage they could leave behind for a body, and we’re better off being cautious.”

 

            Makoto tensed as the smell of peroxide hit her at the same time it hit the white cloth in Ami’s hand.  Ami apologized just before the cloth touched the wounds on Makoto’s abdomen.  A sharp hiss issued forth through her clenched teeth, and Ami cringed in sympathy.

 

            “I’m sorry, Mako-chan,” said Ami again.  She carefully applied a bandage to the wounds and taped it against Makoto’s ribs.  Taking her time and as much care as she could, she gave the same treatment to the puncture points in Makoto’s arms.  As she taped down the last bandage, she said absently, “There.  That should do it for right now.”

 

            “Thanks,” answered Makoto.

 

            It sounded somewhat grudging, but Ami could hear the sincerity in the word, and she smiled.  “You’re welcome,” she replied, gently nudging Makoto around so she could see her back.

 

            The scrapes and little cuts were already turning pink.  By morning they would likely all be completely healed.  The bruises, though, looked considerably worse.  Her entire left side, from her shoulder down into the waist of her sweat pants, was tinged in shades of black, purple, and a sickly yellow.  Ami’s fingers hovered over Makoto’s damaged skin.

 

            “Please, Mako-chan,” said Ami softly, “be more careful from now on.  I know it can be easy to get caught up in something and lose yourself, but none of us are indestructible.  Not even you.  I don’t like to see you needlessly hurt or doing things that will give you regret when the moment’s passed.”

 

            Makoto was silent for a moment.  Her head bowed and she stared at her fingers as they held on to the couch arm.  “Has that ever happened to you?” she asked.  “Have you ever been so wrapped up in one thing that you were totally lost on it, and then, after time had gone by, you regretted it?  Because maybe you realized it wasn’t what you thought it was after all, and you changed your mind?”

 

            Ami’s hands fell to her lap, her fingers twining loosely as she answered, “I suppose I have, yes.  There have been a few instances in my life when time has offered a better perspective and made me rethink things I thought I was certain of.  I guess perspective has even made me regret a few things.”

 

            Makoto stood suddenly, grabbing her shirt and pulling it over head.  “I’m really pretty wiped out tonight,” she said, her back to Ami.  “I don’t want to kick you out after everything you’ve done for me, but…”

 

            “No, it’s okay,” answered Ami.  She stood from the couch and moved up behind Makoto, one hand reaching up to carefully touch the taller girl’s arm.

 

            Makoto tensed and took an involuntary step forward.  As Ami’s hand dropped back to her side, Makoto crossed her arms in front of her, hugging them tightly to herself and welcoming the distraction of one pain trying to supercede another.

 

            Ami couldn’t see her face and was glad of it.  She didn’t think she could handle looking Makoto in the eye right at this moment.  Instead, she moved hastily and a bit awkwardly to leave.  “I’ll… I’ll just get going.  Get some sleep, Mako-chan, and I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said as she pulled on her shoes and opened the door.  She paused for a second in the doorway.  “Goodnight,” she said softly before closing the door behind her.

 

----   ----   ----   ----

 

            They had come back to the shrine and settled down like it was any other afternoon, but a tense silence had quickly fallen over them, punctuated by the absence of one of their own.  Minako shifted her legs as she leaned back against Rei’s bed.  Behind her head, Luna and Artemis lay, their tails twitching anxiously.  Ami was staring at the books laid out on the table, but it was obvious she wasn’t seeing any of it.  The pages remained still, and the pen she held against her notebook hadn’t moved once.  Rei and Usagi were doing their own versions of the same thing, making the pretense of a study session pointless.

 

            “So,” said Minako finally, her voice sounding painfully loud as it broke the silence.  “Are we ready to talk about it yet?”

 

            Ami didn’t look up from her books, instead seeming to pull into herself even more.  Rei, likewise, stayed silent, though her eyes lifted up and landed on the cats.  The look she fixed them with was part expectant, part accusatory, and left them both with a cold feeling when she looked away.  It wound up being Usagi who put words to it for them.

 

            Twisting her pencil in her hands, she said with a worried voice, “Something’s wrong with Mako-chan.  She keeps saying it’s because she isn’t sleeping right, but it has to be more than that.  And she was having bad dreams.  I wish we hadn’t teased her about it.”

 

            “She didn’t say they were bad, Usagi.  You wouldn’t have teased her if she had,” said Ami, hearing guilt in the blonde’s words and wanting to assuage some of it.  She looked up at the others, the same question in all of their expressions.  “I think the dreams might have just been an excuse, or maybe a symptom of whatever else is wrong.  But it is more than just sleeplessness.  She’s been canceling plans for the last few weeks, even routine things.  And the way she fought yesterday…”

 

            “I told her to wait,” said Minako as Ami’s voice trailed off.  Her head tilted back so she was looking at the ceiling.  In her mind’s eye, she could still see the sudden anger that had appeared on Makoto’s face just before she threw herself into the fight.  “She ignored me.  Just mumbled something about ‘taking out the furry bastards’ so she could get it over with and go home.”  She closed her eyes for a moment and sighed, then looked back to the others.  “This was what?  The third time in as many weeks?  I know Mako-chan can be impulsive sometimes, but she isn’t that reckless.  And she went after those things this time like it was something personal.”

 

            Luna cringed, less from the words than the stare Rei shot her with.  Beside her, she could feel Artemis shudder under that gaze and understood without any more doubt that the girl knew what had happened.

 

            “But she’s hurting herself, not just with the fighting, but by pulling away from us,” said Usagi.  “It can’t be that bad.  Or that bad that she can’t talk to us about it.”

 

            “Maybe to her it is,” said Ami softly, her eyes falling back to her books.

 

            “Then we need to know what it is even more,” replied Minako.  She waited a beat to see if anyone would say anything else.  When no one did, she leaned forward onto the table and said, “I’ll talk to her tomorrow, after school.  Maybe I can get some kind of idea what she’s thinking, and then we can start to work all of this out without anyone having to get hurt any more.”

 

------ ------ ------

 

            They’d stayed together awhile longer, not doing much, but not really wanting to leave.  Luna and Artemis had quietly left some time before everyone else.  Rei suspected it was because they could feel the tension in the room more than the others, the guilt she could see in their nervous movement finally getting to them.  She couldn’t quite bring herself to feel sorry for them, though.  And while she was fairly certain she had all of her memories intact, she couldn’t quite shake the question of what they had taken from her.

 

            Rei waved one more time to Usagi as she and Ami walked away and out of sight.  She stood there for several moments more, feeling the stare aimed at her back.  A smirk formed on her lips, and she turned around, crossing her arms over her chest as she did.  “You know, if you keep staring at me like that, I’m going to get the wrong idea.”

 

            Minako crossed her arms in imitation of Rei.  “You’ve been unusually quiet about all of this.”

 

            Rei shrugged, “I haven’t had anything constructive to add.”

 

            “That’s never stopped you before.”

 

            “What’s that supposed to mean?” shot back Rei indignantly.

 

            With a grin, Minako answered, “Exactly what it sounds like.”  Then she let her hands fall and tucked them into her jacket pockets.  “I can’t tell if you know something, think you know something, or if you’re somehow involved in all of this.  Same with Artemis.  He’s been acting weird for about as long as Mako-chan has, and if he knows something, it’s a safe bet Luna does, too.”


            “Most likely,” said Rei with a nod.

 

            Minako frowned at her in annoyance.  “If I can’t get answers from her, I’m coming back to you.  We need to fix this as soon as possible for Mako-chan’s sake, because she’s going to self-destruct if she stays this angry.”

 

            Again, Rei nodded.  “Fair enough.  But you might not like what answers you get.  From either of us.”

 

            Minako took a deep breath.  “Yeah, I figured.”  Then, slowly, she smiled at Rei.  She needed to put some of this aside for awhile and regroup for tomorrow.  “I don’t want to be leader any more tonight,” she said, trying to make the words sound light.  “Wanna go get a soda or something?”

 

            Rei grinned back at her, understanding.  “Sure.”  She reached into her pocket and pulled out several coins, then said sheepishly, “But we’re going to have to make it a little soda.”

 

            Minako giggled softly.  “I can live with that.”  She walked up to Rei and linked their arms.  “Come on.  Tonight, the straws are on me.”

 

 

-----    -----   -----   -----

 

            A cool breeze blew Minako’s bangs back across her eyes as she stood in front of Makoto’s door.  She pushed them away hurriedly, then poised her finger back over the doorbell.  It hovered there, unmoving, for a long moment before dropping back to her side.  For the fourth time, Minako turned and took a step away, letting out a frustrated breath as she did.

 

            “Okay, Minako,” she murmured to herself.  “This isn’t a hard thing to do.  Just ring Mako-chan’s doorbell the same way you have a million times before.  There’s not going to be anything on the other side that you haven’t already seen.”

 

            She nodded her head firmly to confirm her decision, straightened her shoulders, then turned back ready to hit the button.  And found herself staring straight at Makoto’s chest.  Minako let out a startled yelp and jumped backward, her hand clutching her heart.

 

            Makoto grinned at her.  “I thought I heard something out here.  Do you want to come in?  Or would you rather just keep staring at my door?”

 

            “I didn’t hear you at all,” answered Minako, still clutching her chest as she followed Makoto into the apartment.  She toed off her shoes, then asked, “How long did you know I was out there?”

 

            “How long were you out there?” returned Makoto with a smirk.

 

            Minako frowned.  “I wasn’t being that loud and fidgety.  Was I?”

 

            Makoto didn’t answer.  Instead, she walked further into the living room and gestured towards the couch for Minako to sit.  “Do you want something to drink?  I’ve got some leftovers I was going to heat up for dinner, too.  There’s plenty for two if you’re hungry.”

 

            “No thanks,” answered Minako, running what she was about to say through her mind, trying very carefully to choose the right words.  “This is a little off schedule for you, isn’t it?  Don’t you usually have dinner with Ami when her mom can’t?”

 

            Makoto visibly tensed, and the easy smile she’d been wearing because of Minako’s antics disappeared.  “Yeah, well, not tonight.”  She folded her arms across her chest and turned away from Minako.  “To be really honest, I wasn’t much in the mood for company.”

 

            Minako nodded.  Keeping her voice even and soft, she replied, “You haven’t been in the mood for company a lot lately, Mako-chan.  I wanted to talk to you about that.  And why you’re throwing yourself into battles you know you can’t fight alone.”  She hesitated a moment, giving Makoto a chance to speak.  When that didn’t happen, she went on, “You’re not alone, Mako-chan.  In any fight.  We’ve all noticed how you’ve been lately, and we can tell there’s something wrong.  We want to help before it gets any worse.”

 

            “You can’t,” answered Makoto, her voice sounding weak.  “I have to deal with this on my own.”

 

            Minako moved up behind her and placed a hand on her shoulder.  “No, you don’t.  You need something to make whatever this is better, and it’s something you aren’t finding by yourself.  Let us help you find it.”

 

            Makoto laughed bitterly.  “I know what I need to make this better, Minako.  Believe me, you can’t give it to me.  And I don’t think you’d be real happy with me if I took the next best thing.”

 

            Minako didn’t even try to hide her confusion.  Instead, she took a deep breath and headed into the part of this she least wanted to deal with.  “I admit I don’t have any idea what’s going on,” she said, her voice just a touch different than before, firmer in its tone.  “But you’re scaring everyone pretty badly by pulling away from us and acting the way you are.  As your friend – a friend who loves you and is worried – I want to find a way to make things better for you.  We’d all like to do that.  But I don’t have the luxury of being just your friend.  As Venus, I see how this is affecting the whole group, and I need to fix that, too.  You were acting self-destructive going into that last fight the way you did.  That’s a dangerous thing, Mako-chan, not just for you, but for the ones fighting beside you.  We need to find a way to make sure that doesn’t happen again, for everyone’s sake.”

 

            Makoto stiffened and her hands fell to her sides to form tightly balled fists.  Minako felt the trembling start just before Makoto whirled on her, forcing her to take several steps back.  In those green eyes, she could see the same angry storm that had appeared before the battle, and she braced herself for the rage about to be thrown at her.

 

            “Don’t you dare try to question the way I do my duty!” yelled Makoto angrily.  “You may not like the way I did it, but I did exactly what I was supposed to, the same way I always have.  The same way that’s always been expected of me since the day that damn cat put a henshin pen in my hand.  And I’ve always done my duty, no matter what it cost me.  I’ve served Usagi just as faithfully as the rest of you.  I’ve given her everything I have.  Everything!  And I’ve never once walked away.  I never will.”

 

            Minako licked her lips and squared her shoulders.  Speaking calmly, she said, “I know, Mako-chan.  I’d never question your loyalty to Usagi or your absoluteness in your duty to the princess.  But your loyalty won’t matter much if you’re so blinded by anger that you act recklessly and get yourself killed.”

 

            Thick silence hung between them for several long minutes.  Then, slowly, the tension in Makoto’s body began to relax.  Her eyes closed as her head bowed in a defeated gesture.  Her fists flexed a few times before uncurling completely, and she slowly backed up until she touched the wall.  Sliding down until she was seated on the floor, she pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them.

 

            Minako walked over to her and sat beside her.  Again she placed a hand on her friend’s shoulder.

 

            Makoto looked over at her, knowing Minako was waiting for some further explanation of things.  But how could she explain the anger and betrayal she felt toward those damn cats?  Or how much it hurt to have someone who had honestly loved her taken away by two others she had trusted with her life.  Then there was the whole question of Ami herself.  Luna’s words that day still played over and over in her head.  If Ami still loved her and wanted to be with her, why hadn’t their relationship changed?  Makoto didn’t have an answer for that.  All she knew was that she didn’t want Ami hurting the way she was, and for right now, that meant finding a way to deal with all of this alone.  So, rather than try and send Minako away with nothing, Makoto offered her a fraction of the truth.

 

            “It’s nothing that hasn’t happened to me a thousand times before,” said Makoto quietly.  “Except this time it hurts a whole lot worse.  I just need some time to get things straightened out in my head and figure out how to deal with it.  That’s all.  And… I’m sorry I yelled at you.”

 

            Minako graced her with a warm smile.  “It’s okay.  I’d rather you take some of it out on me than on something that will throw you against a wall when you piss it off.”

 

            Makoto grinned back at her a bit self-consciously.  “That wasn’t part of the plan, you know.  And believe me, no one regrets that part more than I do.”

 

            “I doubt that’s really true,” answered Minako.  She gave Makoto’s shoulder a gentle squeeze, then stood and offered a hand to the girl.  “Come to Rei’s with me for awhile.  Everyone’s going to be there, and it would do you some good to be around your friends.  It would do them some good to see you, too.”

 

            Makoto took the hand that was offered, but regarded Minako suspiciously.  “You guys aren’t trying to set me up for some kind of weird intervention thing, are you?  Because I’m really not that far gone.”

 

            Minako shook her head and giggled.  “Of course not.  But we were going to sit around and talk about you if I couldn’t get you out of here.  They’re worried about you, Mako-chan,” she said with a shrug.  “Whether you like it or not.”

 

            “Okay,” answered Makoto, a small grin beginning to form.  “But we’re not going to talk about me.  We study, we eat.  That’s it.”

 

            “Deal.  Um, but if we’re going to eat, could we maybe bring your leftovers?” asked Minako, her hand scratching the back of her head in a nervous gesture.  “Cause the rest of us are too broke to order out, and that only leaves Rei’s leftovers.”

 

            The grin on Makoto’s face widened.  “I won’t tell her you said that, in the interest of keeping the peace.  Come on,” she continued, tilting her head toward the kitchen door.  “You can help me package it all up.”

 

            Minako nodded happily and headed for the kitchen behind Makoto.  She hadn’t gotten all the answers she wanted yet, but this was a start.  And it would, at least temporarily, let Rei and Artemis off her hook.

 

----   ----   ----   ----

 

            The days were getting warmer as the season progressed, but the evenings still brought a chill with them.  Outside Rei’s, Ami stared up into the clear sky and tugged her jacked a bit closer.  The peace above her conflicted sharply with her emotions, and tonight, no matter how hard she looked, she wasn’t finding any answers among the stars.

 

            The light crunch of leaves and dirt under feet caught her attention, and she turned to see Rei approaching.  The miko smiled as she stopped beside Ami.

 

            “I wondered where you’d disappeared to,” said Rei as she glanced up at the stars that had held Ami’s attention.  “Usagi was going to wait for you, but I sent her on with Makoto and Minako after promising I’d get you home safe.”

 

            “Thank you,” replied Ami, returning some of the smile Rei had given her.

 

            “No problem.  So, you want to tell me what’s up?”

 

            Ami looked down at the ground and nudged a small rock with her toe.  Quietly, she answered, “Mako-chan was smiling when she came in with Minako.  She even laughed.”

 

            “Yeah,” said Rei, her smile turning into a smirk.  “Though I think some of that was at my expense.  But I’ll forgive both of them this time since it helped bring a little of the usual Makoto out.”

 

            “Mmm.  It was nice to see her like that again.  It’s a shame it couldn’t have lasted longer, though.  You could tell, couldn’t you, that she started to pull away again after awhile?”

 

            “I did,” answered Rei around a sigh.  “I think she just needs some more time to deal with whatever it is she’s going through, Ami.  That’s all.”

 

            “Time doesn’t solve every problem.  Especially when there’s a constant reminder of the problem placed in front of you every day.”  Ami’s fingers began to play anxiously in front of her as she looked back up at Rei.  “I think… I think I’m the problem, Rei.  I’m what’s upsetting her so badly.”

 

            Taken aback, Rei asked cautiously, “Why would you think that?”

 

            Ami shrugged, hesitant in finding a way to put words to her thoughts.  “Little changes in how she behaves towards me that I don’t see happening with everyone else.  The feeling I’ve been getting from her recently.  Tonight, how she seemed to be using all of you as shields so I wouldn’t get too close to her.  For the last few days, I’ve been trying to think what I might have done, and I keep coming back to the same thing.  I believe I’ve gotten so used to her presence, that I didn’t notice the changes in my own behavior towards her.  I’ve been… too familiar with her, I think, and it’s made her uncomfortable to be around me.  Because of that, after I gave her someone to be with, my carelessness has made her alone again.”

 

            “You’re still in love with her, aren’t you?”

 

            Ami startled, her eyes widening.  The wording Rei used wasn’t lost on her, and neither was the tone.  There was no surprise at the revelation, as if this was something Rei had always known and only needed confirmed.  As she released a deep breath, a sad smile formed on her lips.  “Yes, I am.  And if you’ve noticed, then I’m right in thinking she has as well.  But I never meant to allow her to see it.  I just wanted to give her someone to be with when she was lonely.  Everyone else always had someone to go home to, except for her, and she’s the one who likes going home to an empty apartment the least.  It never seemed right that way.  So we started having meals together to fill the time, which led to us spending more time together just for company, since my mother is gone so often.  Mako-chan’s always being left behind for some reason, but she thought she could trust me as her friend.  I can understand why this would make her angry.  I only wish I had seen what I was doing before she did.”

 

            Rei shook her head.  “No, Ami.  You haven’t done anything, either to make her angry or make me notice how you felt.  And trust me when I say she has no idea, either.  Aw, damn it!” exclaimed Rei as she threw up her hands in exasperation, once again startling Ami.  “You know, this is all just one huge mess!  I don’t care how many times she tells me it’s not my business anymore, this whole thing concerns you as much as it does her, and you have a right to know.  Except Mako-chan’s so confused and unsure about everything at this point that you aren’t going to get any answers from her, and I don’t have near as many as you’re going to need.”

 

            “Rei?  What…” trailed off Ami, her confusion enough that she didn’t even know how to form the question around Rei’s outburst.

 

            Rei calmed a bit, though her foot continued to tap against the ground in agitation.  “There’s no other way at this point.  You need to talk to Luna.  She’s the one who caused all of this, and she’s going to have to be the one to fix it.”

 

-----   -----   -----   -----

 

            Minako sat straddling her white desk chair and silently stared at Artemis.  The cat was curled into a tight ball on her bed, pretending to be asleep.  She knew better, though.  His tension and the way his ears kept twitching were a dead giveaway.

 

            With her chin resting atop her arms on the back of the chair, Minako let a bored sounding sigh pass between her lips, though her mind was anything but bored.  Her eyes never once straying from Artemis, she turned the conversation she’d had with Makoto over and over in her head.

 

            “’A thousand times before,’” she said quietly, her eyes narrowing a bit.  “What does that mean?  She had a crush on someone who rejected her.  But why is it so bad this time?  And who would it be?  She hasn’t hit girl-in-love mode in a long time.  What did we miss?  And how come it’s suddenly ‘that damn cat?’”

 

            Artemis’ whiskers and ears twitched simultaneously to form his version of a cringe.  The act made Minako wonder how many times he’d heard that phrase already.  But Artemis’ reaction only delayed her thought processes for a few seconds as the different pieces of the puzzle shifted.

 

            “It’s not one of her normal crushes this time,” she went on, her lips pursing.  She chewed on the inside of her cheek for several moments before starting again.  “People reject her… people leave her… she loses people.  Who has she lost?  She’s hurt… she’s angry, made worse by the hurt… she loved them.  Why?  And why does Rei know what’s going on while the rest of us are clueless?  I don’t think Rei is really her type.  She isn’t Rei’s, either.  So how is Rei involved?  And why ‘that damn cat?’  That… damn… cat…” she drew out unintentionally as the pieces shifted once again.

 

            The puzzle upturned, falling into a different pattern that refused to fit together properly.  Whatever it was, she just couldn’t put her finger on that one missing piece that would make everything fit into a genuine picture.

 

            A sudden scratching outside the window caught both Minako’s and Artemis’ attention.  Artemis lifted his head in an almost hopeful gesture of rescue as Minako moved from her chair to open the latch.

 

            Luna jumped down to the floor, then hesitated at the scrutinizing look Minako leveled at her.  For a moment, the two just stared at each other, until the thud from Artemis’ jump snapped them out of it.

 

            “Luna,” said Artemis in greeting as he walked up beside her.

 

            Luna nodded at him, then said, “Can you come with me for a while?  There’s something I have to do, and I’d like you to come with me.”

 

            “Of course,” answered Artemis, relief plain in his voice.

 

            “I’d ask what you two are up to,” interjected Minako, “but I think I promised someone I wouldn’t.  At least for now.”

 

            Luna looked at her in surprise, but Artemis gave her a nudge toward the open window.  “I’ll be back later,” he said, then followed Luna out.

 

            When they were gone, Minako closed the window without locking it.  She walked over to her bed, then flopped down, turning onto her back and hugging a pillow to her.  “What’s going on, Mako-chan?  And how is Artemis caught up in all of it?”

 

------- -------- -------

 

            A quick run down the balconies and fire escape outside the apartment building, and the cats were to the sidewalk and walking with Luna leading.  “Does she know?” asked Luna after several minutes of silence.

 

            “No.  But she’s trying very hard to figure it out.”

 

            Luna’s head bowed as she stopped walking.  “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  It was supposed to make things easier.”

 

            Artemis nudged her gently with his head.  “I know,” he said softly.  Then, “Where are we going?”

 

            Luna looked back up and took a deep breath.  “To Ami’s.  She asked to speak with me about Makoto.  This is it, Artemis.”

 

 

-----   -----   -----   -----

 

            Ami sat forward on the couch, wringing her hands tightly as she did.  It had been nearly an hour since she’d called for Luna, and the stillness of the empty apartment was beginning to agitate her already uneasy nerves.

 

            She felt the cats’ presence more than heard it as they stopped in the living room doorway.  As Ami looked over at them, a small sense of relief fell over her.  Rei’s crypticness had left her on edge, but here stood her answers.  Taking a deep breath, she rose and walked over to them, then knelt to better address them.

 

            “Thank you for coming,” said Ami, automatically reaching forward to scratch Luna’s ears.  The black cat’s flinch made her pause and pull back in surprise.

 

            Artemis forestalled Ami’s question by cutting in with, “I hope you don’t mind, but Luna asked me to come along.”

 

            Ami shook her head.  “No, it’s all right.  I expect you know what’s going on as well.  Perhaps having both of you here will make sorting things out a bit easier.”

 

            “How much did Rei tell you?” asked Luna.

 

            “Very little,” answered Ami as she stood.  “Mako-chan confided in her, and she wants very much to keep that confidence.  All she really told me was that I needed to come to you for my answers.”

 

            Luna looked up into Ami’s eyes.  She could see the need for knowledge in their blue depths, pushed back behind fear of what that knowledge could bring.  The worst thing, though, was the trust.  A trust she knew she was about to break.  Her chest tightened, and she looked away, walking over and jumping onto the couch to put some distance between them.  When she began to speak, her eyes focused on the window and the night sky, rather than on Ami.

 

            “Makoto has remembered something,” said Luna, softly and without preamble.  “An event I… I thought she would be better off forgetting.  That’s why, when your memories were restored at the production studio, I made the decision to block it.  In both of you.”  Luna turned back to Ami.  “Until that moment, when it began to resurface in her, I had no idea it had happened.  I couldn’t see everything behind it, only the desperation in which it took place.  I only had a few seconds to decide, and I thought what I was doing was for the best.  I never meant for either of you to be hurt by it.”

 

            Ami stared at Luna in stunned silence.  An icy grip clutched at her heart as the seconds beat on without any more of an explanation being offered.  “You… you altered her memories?  And mine?  How?  And why?” she asked, her voice rising.  “What happened that was so terrible you felt you had to do something like that?”

 

            Luna faltered, and Artemis stepped in without thinking.  “It wasn’t a terrible thing, Ami,” said the white cat, wanting to offer some comfort in the moment.

 

            “Then why!” shot back Ami, the tension of everything finally snapping in her.  “Why do this to us?  And for Mako-chan to react the way she has…”

 

            “It was the night before D-point,” broke in Luna.  Her shoulders squared, and she stood a bit straighter, not necessarily ready, but knowing it was time to face it.  “What do you remember about that night?”

 

            Ami’s brow creased, first in confusion from feeling as if she’d been thrown off track, then in thought back to that night.  At times, she dwelled on those memories more than she liked to admit, mostly because of how unclear they all were to her.  A sudden spark of anger lit in her as she realized that haziness had been a deliberate act, and not just a side effect of the “do-over” she’d been granted.

 

            A small frown remained on her lips as she concentrated on the things she could remember clearly.  Turning slowly, she walked out into the hallway and stopped in the doorway to the dining room.  “Mom was home that night,” she said to the cats, who had followed behind her.  Her hand rested on the door frame as ghost images flickered across her mind.  “We made dinner together, then sat down to eat.  I wanted to spend as much time with her as I could, just in case.  I knew I couldn’t tell her, and I felt guilty about that.  I decided to just be with her, then, so the last memory she’d have of me would be a good one.”  Ami’s hand lifted to the back of her neck and pressed to counter the pressure she felt forming in her temples.  There was a similar tightness in her chest, and she wished not for the first time that she was better at handling these sorts of emotions.

 

            Her voice just a touch unsteady, Ami continued, “We’d only just started to eat when the phone rang.  There was an accident, and the hospital needed more staff to help cover all the victims coming in.  Mom had to go, and there was no reason I could give her to make her stay.  She kissed the top of my head before she left, and said we’d try again tomorrow.  I watched her put on her coat and go out the door, then finished eating and cleaned up like I’d promised I would.  Then I went up to my room to try and sleep.”

 

            Her body shifted with her thoughts, and Ami moved over to the stairs.  Pausing, she looked up at what abruptly felt like an endless, dark tunnel.  Hesitantly, she started to climb, staring straight ahead and talking as she went.  “I know I went up to my room, but I don’t remember actually going.  Everything is too fuzzy.  Other things are just missing.  But you already know that, don’t you.”

 

            It was a statement, delivered without accusation, in the same tone as the rest of her words.  And yet it still made Luna cringe.  Coming up the stairs behind her, Artemis gave her a gentle nudge, both to remind her of his presence there beside her and to get her moving a little faster, as Ami was getting away from them.

 

            Ami flicked on the light switch in her room, squinting against the sudden brightness.  She stood in the center of the room and looked around, noting how very little had changed in the last three years.  “I couldn’t sleep,” she said, her eyes narrowing as she tried to see beyond the clouded images in her memory.  “I laid in the dark, and all I could think about was the battle we were going into.  I was afraid I would have to leave without being able to say the things I wanted to.”  Ami turned and looked over at her desk.  Her feet moved on their own until she was standing in front of it.  “I couldn’t do that,” she continued, her palms resting flat against the desk’s surface.  “I decided I’d write my mother a letter, so she would know.  But…”

 

            Her fists curled, and her eyes closed as she fought to remember.  She knew she had gotten out of bed.  Then what?  Sitting in the dark?  Turning on a light?  A pen put to a piece of note paper?  If words had been written, she couldn’t remember what they were.  Her last words to her mother lost.

 

            “Things become darkest here,” went on Ami softly.  “I must have been at my desk, I’m almost certain.  I think I fell asleep before I could…  I’ve always regretted that, not being able to take the last chance I had to say all the things I’d wanted to.”  And then it hit her.  Her eyes flew open and her head snapped around to fix on Luna.  “But I didn’t fall asleep, did I?”

 

            Luna looked like a deer trapped in headlights.  Frozen under Ami’s stare, all Luna could do was shake her head and offer a weak, “No.”

 

            Her fists balled up tighter, and a sick feeling began to grow in her stomach.  Her voice shaking, Ami asked slowly, “What did I do, Luna?  What don’t I remember?”

 

            “You went to see her,” answered Luna.  “To tell her all the things you needed to.  She heard you out, and she didn’t turn you away.”

 

            Ami fell back into her desk chair, numb.  Her head hurt and her eyes stung with fresh tears.  Her head bowed as those tears began to slowly fall.  “How could you?” she choked out, her voice barely above a whisper.  “How could you take that from me?  From us?  It took me so long to find the courage to tell Mako-chan I loved her, and I’ve been so angry at myself for letting that one chance slip away.  And she loved me back?  She loved me, and I can’t remember any of it, no matter how hard I try.”

 

            “I’m sorry,” said Luna, knowing the words weren’t nearly enough, but not having any better to offer.

 

            Ami looked at her, quiet anger in her features and carried on her words.  “Give it back.  All of it.  If you were able to take it, you must be able to give it back.”

 

            Luna nodded.  “I can.  I’ll need Artemis’ help to do it.”

 

            “That’s fine,” answered Ami.  She swiped at her eyes, trying to clear her vision.  “I don’t care how you do it, just so long as you do.”

 

            “Sit on the bed, then,” went on Luna.  “Try and relax.  That will make it easier.”

 

            Ami nodded and did as she was told.  She crossed her legs under her and pulled a pillow into her lap, then leaned back against the wall her bed rested along.  With her eyes closed, she could hear Luna and Artemis talking quietly to each other, but she ignored them.  Instead, she let her mind wander back to that night, trying to pull out the memories she knew were there, to see the things Makoto already had.  But all she could see was darkness, and no matter how hard she fought against it, it remained solidly in place.

 

            Then, all of a sudden, she felt herself surrounded by a gentle warmth.  The darkness was slowly replaced by a brilliant white light, and on the other side of that light, she could hear a familiar voice.  “Mako-chan,” she breathed, and reached forward into the light.

 

            And with a deafening force, the world around her exploded.

 

            Ami whimpered and fell against her pillows, curling into a tight ball against the barrage of sounds and images flooding over her.

 

            Standing at the door, feeling just a little lost and silly for not being able to control her tears.  Feeling grateful for not being laughed at because of those tears.  More at ease for having someone close to her who understood.  The fear still there.  Not fear of their possible end, but fear of what Makoto might do when she opened her heart to her.  Finding the strength she didn’t know she had until that moment, and saying the words.  Gentle fingers moving against her cheek, those green eyes still not laughing at her, and a warm breath from soft lips as they pressed tentatively to hers.

 

            Things shifting.  That voice again, saying her name in quiet reverence.  An easy weight over her, and hands that were no longer tentative.  Soft gasps and fingers whispering across her skin.  In love, finding completion.

 

            Later, lying together in the dark, a little cold, a bit tired, and just a touch afraid of what was going to become of them.  Strong arms wrapping around her and pulling her close.  Safe in that warmth, and calm because of the happy smile she was being given.

 

            “We’re coming back.  And when we do, I plan on falling in love with you.”

 

            Smiling herself, knowing she was already loved and that this was a promise for something more.  Something she hadn’t had the courage to ask for sooner.  And knowing that the person she loved wanted and needed this just as much as she did.

 

            Still curled up on her bed, Ami clutched her pillow tighter, memories and emotions overwhelming her.  Quiet, broken sobs issued from her as tears coursed down her cheeks.  Her body ached with loss, and her heart hurt, crying out in longing for the one she’d loved and had taken away.

 

------- -------- --------

 

            The bedroom door opened slowly, a small creak in the hinges letting the two downstairs know she was coming.  Luna and Artemis stuck their heads cautiously around the living room doorframe and watched silently as Ami descended the stairs.  There was an eerie calm about her as she walked passed them and opened the closet to get her jacket.  Closing the closet door, she held her jacket to her and turned to face them.

 

            Even in the dim light, Luna could see the red in Ami’s eyes from her crying.  There was weariness there, also, and an easy to see determination that meant she’d made her decision.  Luna took a step forward and said quietly, “Ami?”

 

            “I can’t do this with you tonight,” said Ami simply.  “A large part of me understands why you did what you did, and I want to talk about it more.  Specifically, I want to know how you did what you did and what’s going to happen for all of us from this point on.  Understanding your reasons, however, is not making this easier right now.  We can’t talk the way I know we’re going to need to.”  The beginnings of a tiny grin began to tug at the corners of her mouth then.  “Besides, there’s someplace more important I need to be.”

 

 

-----   -----   -----   -----

 

            Ami left the cats at the house without giving it a second thought, and the further she went, the faster her steps became.  She couldn’t help feel like time was pressing in against her, and that somehow, if she wasn’t there now, time would leave her behind.

 

            With the note hidden away in her desk drawer, Ami tried to force herself not to think about it anymore.  She tried not to think very hard on what she was doing now, either, even though she could feel the nervousness growing in her stomach the further she walked.  Her feet began to feel heavier with each step, her pace slowing as her heart beat out an anxious rhythm, and the foolishness in this began to seem very clear.  Finally, she stopped altogether and looked back over her shoulder.  Perhaps it would be best to turn back. 

 

            Ami bounced on her toes impatiently, and a shuddery breath passed through her lips as she was forced to stop and wait for the light at the crosswalk.  As she stood there, the events from the last few weeks tumbled around in her mind, making her even more impatient to get going.

 

            She was hurting as much for Makoto as she was for herself in all of this.  Ami was certain now that Makoto’s anger hadn’t been aimed at her, like she’d first thought.  The hurt, however, had been directed at her, and a tiny part of her was resentful that Makoto would so easily place her among all the others who had offered fleeting promises of love.  She knew enough to understand those others were the cause of the uncertainty, though, and that a little reassurance would vanquish any lingering doubts Makoto might have.

 

            The changing light cut off her thoughts, and Ami shook her head to clear it, then hurried across the street.

 

            Ami shook her head to clear it of those thoughts, then hurried back on her way.  Her pace quickened as she passed the park.  If this was foolish, then so be it.  Too much time had passed as it was, and there was likely very little left.  She wasn’t going to waste any more on uncertainty and doubts.

 

            Hurrying through the crosswalk, she counted down another block.  Two more to go and she would have her truth.

 

            Two more blocks, and everything would be okay.  She would tell Makoto she knew, that she remembered everything and was so sorry she’d forgotten.  That she was still loved.  A bright blush accompanied an almost silly grin.  She’d think about the rest of it later, after everything that needed to be said had been.

 

            Taking a deep breath, she began the climb up the stairs to Makoto’s apartment.  Her hands twisted nervously in front of her, and her heart beat even faster than before.  Trying to calm down, Ami counted each step until she reached the top and Makoto’s door.  Butterflies dancing rapidly in her middle, Ami reached up to knock.

 

            It surprised her how easily her mind quieted and how calm she felt as she ascended the stairs to Makoto’s apartment.  Her hands rested in her jacket pockets as she recounted each step until she was standing in front of Makoto’s door.  Sudden butterflies began to dance rapidly in her middle as she reached up to knock.

 

            It took Makoto less than 60 seconds to answer the door.

 

            It took Makoto less than 60 seconds to answer the door.

 

            It felt like an eternity.

 

            It felt like an eternity. 

 

            Makoto smiled when she saw her, and Ami knew her friend was glad to see her.  “I’m sorry to disturb you so late,” said Ami quietly, her hands twisting anxiously in front of her.  “I knew you’d be alone, and I wound up that way as well.  So, I thought perhaps you’d like someone to keep you company.”  She looked up at Makoto, her eyes hopeful.        

 

            Makoto’s smile was sad when Ami saw her.  But in just seeing her, all of Ami’s anxiousness and excitement faded into a calm stillness where there was nothing but the two of them.  For several seconds they just looked at each other, then Ami smiled gently and stepped forward, wrapping her arms around a surprised Makoto and resting her head against her shoulder.  She felt Makoto startle and tense at the contact, then, slowly, she began to relax.  Her arms came up around Ami’s shoulders and hugged the girl to her.  Ami’s grip tightened, a silent promise to never let go again.  Makoto did the same, her breath hitching as tears fell slowly to the blue of Ami’s hair.  Here she was loved, completely and without question.  Here, with this one person, was where she needed to be.

 

*       *       *

 

Epilogue

 

            A cold wind blew through the trees, knocking off what few leaves still clung to the branches.  Luna curled up a bit tighter on the thick branch she was watching the girls from.  Several branches above her, Phobos and Deimos perched, eyeing her with the same distrust their mistress so often did anymore.  At the moment, though, Rei was ignoring her, the young miko’s attention instead focused on her two wayward blondes.

 

            Down in the courtyard of the shrine, Rei stood with broom in hand and sighed a very longsuffering sigh as Minako and Usagi cannonballed into the largest pile of leaves.  A moment later, two heads popped up, laughing and giggling, with leaves and twigs stuck to their hair and clothes.  Rei’s head shook in disapproval, but the half smirk she wore left Luna believing otherwise.

 

            Another laugh, deeper than Minako’s and subtler than Usagi’s, drifted up to Luna’s ears.  She looked toward the origin of that laugh, and the grin she’d been wearing slowly dropped.  Standing apart from the others at a safe distance, Ami and Makoto watched in amusement.  Both were smiling at their friends’ antics, and it was Makoto’s laughter that had found its way up to her.

 

            Sudden movement behind her startled both Luna and the crows.  Phobos and Deimos took flight, putting more distance between them and the addition of another feline.  Luna relaxed back onto the branch, maneuvering to make room for Artemis.

 

            Artemis settled in beside her, then said, “You don’t have to hide up here, you know.”

 

            “I’m comfortable up here,” answered Luna.  “Besides, they’re having fun today.  I don’t want to cause any unpleasantness.”

 

            “Ami forgave us.”

 

            “And Makoto still calls us ‘those damn cats.’”

 

            Luna looked back down into the courtyard.  Usagi and Minako were getting the obligatory chastisement and looking very much like they were silently conspiring on how best to get Rei into that pile of leaves.  Makoto had picked up her rake once again and was still chuckling as she handed one of the empty bags to Ami.  The two of them lingered in the handoff, their eyes holding, and Makoto gave Ami a wide, warm smile.  Ami returned it in kind, the joy of such a simple thing shining in her eyes.  If they hadn’t all already known, in that one moment, it would have been obvious.

 

            Familiar guilt tugged at Luna, and she took a deep breath.  Yes, she had gotten forgiveness from Ami.  The trust, however, had never completely healed.  Makoto still barely tolerated her presence, their relationship becoming one that was ‘strictly business,’ and Luna knew she’d only been given that much for the sake of the team.  Minako had finally let it go without a definite answer.  Whether it was the promise she’d made to Rei or the noticeable peace that had settled over Makoto, Luna didn’t know.  She also didn’t know how Usagi was interpreting the changes in the group dynamic that were brought on by lingering suspicion.  The blonde had been… quiet about things.  Sometimes, Luna thought she could see knowledge in those blue eyes as they watched her.  On rarer occasions, Usagi would fret just a bit.  Then, in her own eternal optimism, she would swear things would be okay, as long as they all had each other to get though it.

 

            All they needed was each other.

 

            More girlish giggles and laughter flitted up to her, and Luna glanced over at Artemis.  “Would it have been this easy?  Back then, would it have been this easy and simple for them?”

 

            Artemis shook his head.  “I don’t know.  That’s not a question anyone can answer.”

 

            Luna nodded and looked back at the girls.  No matter the past, things would work out the way they should.  In this life they would be happy, and when it was time to start the next, they wouldn’t be alone.