The Tangled Web We Weave

by Crawlspace

 

~ Day 3 ~

~ Monday ~

 

            He rolled over expecting to encounter another body.  Instead, he found only a cool mattress and abandoned pillow.  Ken opened his eyes slowly, then turned his head so he could squint at the clock.  Not completely certain, he decided it read 1:28 am – just over an hour since Kaya had come tiptoeing through the door.

 

            Letting out a long, tired breath, he lifted himself to look for wherever it was Kaya had gotten to.  In the dark room, his eyes immediately caught the glow of the laptop as it sat untended on the loveseat.  Kaya wasn’t too far from it, pacing slowly back and forth with her arms crossed over her chest and her head bowed in thought.

 

            “Why are you pacing?” he rasped out wearily.

 

            Kaya stopped mid stride and looked over at him with an air of surprise, almost as if she hadn’t realized she was doing it.  After a second of hesitation, she let her arms drop and her posture relaxed.  “I was thinking,” she answered quietly.  “And I wanted to check a few things.”

 

            “What things?” Ken asked as he sat up.

 

            Kaya moved back over to the laptop and hit a button to deactivate the screen saver.  “I’ve found articles on people who were in accidents and walked away without so much as a scratch.  There’s more on people who have had miraculous and even swift recoveries from things they had no right even surviving.  But nothing like what happened today.  And there was no overreaction involved.”

 

            “Let it go.”

 

            Kaya recrossed her arms and stared at him in silence.

 

            “Just let it go,” Ken repeated.  “She’s just a strange kind of kid, Kaya.  They all are.  Yes, even Ami.  You’ve said it enough times yourself to know it’s true.  So let it go, let the girl have her privacy, and just chalk it up to one more thing that makes them all a little different.”

 

            He waited several seconds for her to answer, and when she didn’t, he laid back down and pulled the covers around him.  “You went to all the trouble of sneaking out of your grandmother’s room so you could sleep in here with me.  You should come and lay down so we can both do just that.”

 

            A few more moments of cold silence followed, then the laptop clicked closed and feet padded softly across the floor.  Kaya stopped at her side of the bed, staring down at the man lying there.  Then she pulled the covers aside and climbed in, pushing at the pillow until she was at least marginally comfortable on her back.  “I never said they were strange.”

 

            Ken grinned.  “I know.  Your choice in words was more polite, but that doesn’t change what it is you were really saying.  And it doesn’t change the fact that you love your daughter and care about her friends.  It just means you accept them for what they are.”

 

            A corner of Kaya’s mouth turned up as she felt his hand brush against hers.  “It’s still a curiosity,” she pushed, a small amount of humor in her tone.

 

            A quick sigh of laughter escaped from Ken.  “If I admit that, will you let us get some sleep?”

 

            “Yes,” answered Kaya as she turned onto her side.

 

            “Okay, then.  That girl is a curiosity.”

 

            Kaya nodded in victory.  “Yes, she is.  Good night, now, dear.”

 

            Ken chuckled and draped an arm over her waist.  Sometimes, defeat was a preferable outcome. 

 

*            *             *

 

            There were a number of items on Setsuna’s list of things she didn’t like waking up to find in her bed.  Things like spiders, cookie crumbs, and broken crayons.  At this moment, a large part of her did not want to open her eyes to find out what it was she had just rolled over onto.  She knew, however, that if she was going to take any kind of action to remove it from her bed, she was going to have to see it first.  So, reluctantly, she maneuvered herself onto her side and opened her eyes.

 

            Her princess grinned sheepishly back at her.

 

            She contemplated adding wide-eyed princesses to her list, and asked, “Usagi, why are you in my bed?”

 

            “Well, you see,” started Usagi, an edge of the comforter twisting in her hands, “I was in that big, old room all by myself, since the kids are out back camping with Uncle Kyo… He likes you, ya know.”  That sheepish smile changed to a full out grin as she sidetracked them.  “You should go out with him or something while we’re here.  The garden at night is really romantic, or maybe…”

 

            “Usagi,” interrupted Setsuna, quickly cutting the blonde off.  “I have no interest in Ami’s uncle, romantic or otherwise.  Now, why…”

 

            “Oh,” Usagi, jumping back in.  Her face screwed up in contemplation.  “Her aunt, then, maybe?  But she’s married, so that wouldn’t work out very well.”

 

            “Usagi!” sighed Setsuna nearing exasperation in her tired state and less amused than she would normally be by the contemplative half-frown Usagi wore.  Enunciating very slowly, she asked again, “Why are you in my bed?”

 

            “Oh, right!” chirruped Usagi, getting back to the point.  “I was all alone in the room, and I started thinking about Minako’s ghosts because I kept hearing all these strange sounds and noises.  I scared myself pretty badly, and finally I couldn’t take it anymore.  So I turned on all the lights, but I can’t sleep with all the lights on like that.  I didn’t want to be alone in the dark, though, but Mamo-chan won’t let me sleep with him while we’re here.  So, I figured, since I was alone, and you’re all alone…”

 

            Setsuna stared at the girl as her blue eyes looked at her pitifully and a hopeful, pleading smile spread on her face.  ‘I don’t care who gave birth to her in this lifetime,’ she thought.  ‘She is just like you.  And I could never say no to you, either.’

 

            “All right,” said Setsuna slowly.  Then she held up a hand to stall Usagi’s excited glee.  “But, if you are going to sleep in here, you must be still, and quiet, and actually sleep.”

 

            Usagi nodded happily and pulled the covers up under her chin before closing her eyes.  “Good night, Setsuna.  And thank you.”

 

            Setsuna smiled at her in the dark of the room.  ‘So very much like you.  Both of them.’  “Good night, Princess.  Pleasant dreams.”

 

*            *           *

 

            A sharp cry punctuated Miki’s fussy mewling, his way of reminding them that he was awake and hungry, just in case they had missed the first few cries.  The desired effect was achieved as his Ami-mama appeared, smiling down at him with her eyes half closed and sleepy.  He waved his hands up at her to be picked up, and kicked his legs impatiently.

 

            “You slept for a long time tonight,” said Ami quietly as she lifted him.  She settled him in the crook of her arm and stroked his dimpled cheek with the back of her finger.  “I bet you’re hungry after such a good rest.  And something else, too,” she added, her nose wrinkling as the smell reached her.

 

            A long string of mournful sounding baby vowels answered her, Miki apparently glad to have someone to commiserate his situation with.

 

            “All right,” she answered back.  “Let’s get this taken care of, and then we’ll see about getting you a meal.”

 

            After a quick change, the baby, at least, was happier.  And considerably more anxious to get to the business of eating.  He fidgeted restlessly when Ami rested him against her shoulder rather than cradling him the way Makoto usually did to nurse.

 

            “Just a little longer,” consoled Ami, rubbing his back gently as they walked through the halls.  “It’s a considerably longer walk to the kitchen in this house than it is at home.”

 

            Miki gurgled spit bubbles at her in response, then stuck his fingers in his mouth and began to chew.  The spit-up cloth slung over Ami’s shoulder protected her from the drool that proceeded to run down his hand and chin.

 

            Almost to the kitchen, Ami slowed when she saw her Grandfather round a corner and start towards them.  She immediately noticed the cookie in his hand, and smiled at the way he quickly brushed the crumbs from his pajama top.

 

            “Good evening, Grandfather,” said Ami through a grin.  “You’re up awfully late.  Or should I say very early for a Monday morning?”

 

            Rin, completely straight-faced, answered, “Either will do, I think.  I woke up a bit ago and decided to check on something I expect Kaya might be interested in discussing at some point.  This was an afterthought,” he continued, holding up the cookie.  “Seems like he and I had similar ideas.”

 

            “It does,” replied Ami.  “Though I expect you’ve been a bit quieter about it.”

 

            Mmm.  The benefit of being able to procure my own snacks.”  He looked at Miki for a moment, and the way the baby was sucking on his fingers.  “You used to do that when you wanted to be fed.  You also cried.  You all cried, except for Kaya.  She was a quiet baby, never like unnecessary noise.  Seijuurou was quiet for a time, also, but that was because Midori kept him by her all the time.  He never had a chance to cry until Kaya came along, and then he had to learn to share his mother.  Speaking of which, doesn’t his mother usually handle this?”

 

            Ami nodded.  “But I woke up first this time, so I thought we’d try a bottle.  It gives me a little time with him.  And it’s better to fail at the attempt than to let the opportunity pass, isn’t that right, sir?”

 

            “That’s right,” he answered, proud of her determination.  “No sense in you letting Makoto’s hard work in preparing his bottles go to waste, just like I’m not letting Hikari’s hard work in baking go to waste.  But don’t share that particular conviction with your grandmother.”

 

            “I promise,” said Ami as her smile widened.

 

            Rin gave a curt nod, then leaned in to kiss Ami’s forehead.  He patted the top of Miki’s head, then said, “I’d best get back to bed before Midori realizes I’m gone and goes to my office to find me.  Our little secret won’t mean very much if that happens.”

 

            “Good night, sir,” she said as they parted, then made her way into the kitchen.

 

            Three months of practice had made both her and Makoto experts at doing things one-handed.  In short order and with little incident, she had the thawed bottle out of the refrigerator and warming.  While they waited, she walked the floor with the baby, rocking him and humming to him in a low voice.

 

            The wait seemed longer than it really was because of the baby’s fidgetiness.  When the bottle was finally ready, and Ami had them situated in one of the kitchen chairs, Miki looked up at her with an expression that seemed to say, ‘Finally!’  His hand caught hold of a fold in her nightshirt and gripped it tightly, giving a few quick tugs to hurry her along as he tried to turn in to her breast.

 

            Ami took a deep breath, cradled the baby up a bit higher, and carefully moved the bottle to his lips.  She tickled them lightly with the tip of the nipple, and Miki opened his mouth on instinct.  But when he realized his lips weren’t closing around the nipple he was expecting, he grimaced as though he’d tasted something sour and tried to move his head away.

 

            Ami quickly moved the bottle away and set it on the table.  Resettling him, she gently shushed the cranky sounds he was making while trying to find her own center of calm and patience.  She pushed down the anxiousness she’d felt growing since she lifted him from his crib.  The frustration and disappointment with his initial rejection were set aside and not dwelled on.

 

            Speaking to him in soft tones, she picked up the bottle again and reoffered it.  Miki’s fists balled up tightly and his mouth set in a way that spoke of stubborn determination.  “You’re going to be quite a force to reckon with in a few years, aren’t you?” she said softly, carefully easing the tip of the bottle against his lips.  “But I’ll love you no matter how stubborn you try to be, just like I love your mama.  Now, come on, little man.  We’ve done this before, and you know it’s not so bad.”

 

            A drop of milk touched his lips as he moved them at the feeling of the bottle.  Ami held the bottle still as the baby seemed to stop and think for a moment.  Then he moved his lips again, his tongue moving with them against the roof of his mouth.

 

            “That’s my hungry boy,” she replied, the beginnings of a smile forming.  She inched the bottle forward carefully, and this time when Miki latched on, he didn’t let go.  Her smile grew, and the last bits of frustration and tension flowed out of her as the baby went from tentativeness at a less than familiar food source, to a happy, greedy suckling.

 

            “You really are hungry, aren’t you?” she chuckled lightly as he snuggled against her in new found contentment.  “Eat well, and when you’re all finished we can go back to bed and tell your mama what a good boy you were tonight, and how happy you are because you have a full tummy.”

 

*            *            *

 

            The set of Makoto’s shoulder’s relaxed as she watched Ami and the baby ease into the feeding.  She smiled at the happy grin that settled on Ami’s face, and moved away from the edge of the doorway she was peeking around.  Leaning against the wall, she let out a long yawn and stretched her arms up over her head.

 

            “Well, since I’m not needed,” she said to herself, then pushed away from the wall.  “Back to bed.”

 

            She was back in the family wing when she heard soft footsteps approaching slowly behind her.  Turning around, she saw Ami’s aunt, and offered the woman a polite smile.  “Good evening, Ishida-san.”

 

            “Kino-san,” replied Shouko with a curt nod.

 

            Makoto rocked on her heels for a second, trying to think of a way to bridge the awkwardness between them.  She pushed her hair back off her shoulder in a nervous gesture, then said, “Kinda late to be up, huh?  But it’s like that with a baby.  Ami’s got him down in the kitchen, and I was checking on them.  She got him to take a bottle tonight.”

 

            Shouko returned the polite smile, albeit with a bit more tension in her bearing.  “I’m glad it worked for them.  I was just checking on my children myself.  Since all seems well, you’ll excuse me, because as you said, it’s quite late.”

 

            Shouko resumed her walk back to the bedroom, and just as she walked passed Makoto, the girl frowned.  “You don’t like me very much, do you?”

 

            Shouko stopped and turned slowly to face Makoto.  Green eyes met hers head on and demanded an honest answer.  She held that gaze, her brown eyes masking any emotion behind them in opposite counterpoint the storm brewing in the others.  Her voice level and quiet, she replied simply, “I don’t know you well enough to dislike you.”

 

            Makoto bit her lip for a second and flexed one hand agitatedly.  “Then why are you always acting the way you are towards me?  Cause it sure seems like you don’t like me.”

 

            Shouko crossed her arms tightly over her chest.  “That’s very forward of you.  All right then.  While I don’t necessarily dislike you, I do dislike the situation you’ve created.  I am finding it not only difficult, but uncomfortable, trying to reconcile Ami and everything she’s found herself involved with into my children’s lives without giving them the impression that this is all just simply ‘okay.’  Your private business should have remained private, and I heavily disapprove of you placing a child into the middle of things the way you have.  I question the abruptness of and the stability in this relationship partly because of the clear lack of adult guidance in your life, and the lack of it I can imagine has been going on in Ami’s life because of the debacle my sister-in-law’s own personal life has become.  Your youth alone adds tremendously to the risk factor in this whole affair, and I don’t believe you actually understand what it is you’re getting into because the only person who could even begin to tell you doesn’t see it herself.  Are you even prepared for what’s going to come?  For the times when you’ll find yourself spending days alone, or weeks without being able to really talk to Ami because she’s worked herself to distraction and exhaustion?  When that overwhelming desire to achieve that she’s inherited is in full force, and it pushes everything else aside, will you be able to deal with not only your own loneliness, but your son’s disappointments, as well?  Or will you look for someone more convenient, the way it seems you’ve done with Ami?”

 

            Makoto’s fists gripped tightly at her sides, and her eyes fairly sparked with anger.  “You don’t…”  She bit her tongue and quieted her voice by taking a deep, unsteady breath.  Lower, but no less volatile, she repeated, “You don’t know us, and you don’t understand us at all.  Ami isn’t a convenience, she’s my best friend, and I know her inside out.  I know better than anyone just how hard she works, and that she studies more than she really needs to.  And I’m proud of her for it and everything she’s accomplished because of it.  I love her for everything she is, obsessive studier and all, but not in spite of it.  And I would never leave her or hurt her because of something so stupid.”

 

            One corner of Shouko’s mouth turned up, and she nodded slowly.  “A long time ago, I said something very similar with a conviction much like your own.  I said it when Seijuurou proposed to me, and again when we were married.  And I kept saying it, right up until the day I left him.”

 

            Makoto’s mouth opened to respond, but her mind skittered and faltered.  Her mouth closed as part of her indignation was slowly replaced with confusion.

 

            “We’ve both said all we really want to, I think,” said Shouko, taking advantage of the silence.  “Good night, Kino-san.”  She inclined her head slightly and continued back to her room.

 

            Makoto turned to watch her go, but didn’t try to stop her.  A deep frown etched into her features as she watched the bedroom door close behind the woman.  Standing there in the dim, nighttime lights, she stared at the door in annoyance for several minutes, unsure what to do with herself.

 

            “Mako-chan?”

 

            Ami’s soft voice made her jump, and she spun around to face her.

 

            “Sorry,” Ami giggled lightly.  Then her grin fell and she asked, “What’s wrong?”

 

            “Nothing,” answered Makoto.  “I was just checking on you guys since you were taking so long.”

 

            Ami took a step closer to her.  “And?  You’re unhappy about something?”

 

            “No, I’m not,” denied Makoto.  “Why do you think I’m unhappy?”

 

            Ami smiled at her, then touched a finger to Makoto’s still frowning lips.  After a second, she lifted her finger and carefully traced around the corners of Makoto’s eyes.  “That’s why.”

 

            Makoto smirked.  She let out a breath and absently reached forward to stroke down a wild patch of hair on Miki’s head as he slept contentedly tucked against Ami.  “I ran into your aunt.”

 

            “Oh,” replied Ami.  She sighed.  “Should I say I’m sorry?”

 

            “No.  After all, her existence isn’t your fault.”  She mentally kicked herself, and brought up her hand to cup Ami’s cheek.  “Don’t worry.  It wasn’t a big deal, and she did say she doesn’t dislike me.  We just have a personality conflict.”

 

            “All right,” said Ami slowly.  “Since I can’t say I’d be surprised by such a thing.  Aunt Shouko’s personality does tend to conflict with a great many peoples.”

 

            Makoto put her arm around Ami’s shoulders, and they walked back to their bedroom.  With her hand over the doorknob, she added, “I do have a question, though.  Are your aunt and uncle married?”

 

            Ami stopped abruptly as the question hit her out of left field.  “As far as I know,” she answered.  “I expect I would hear about it a great deal if they weren’t, given my family’s ideals on such things.”

 

            “Yeah.  Of course.  It was a stupid question.”  Makoto shrugged.  As the bedroom door closed behind them, she looked down at Ami and smiled widely.  “I love you.  I always will, even if you do study too hard.”

 

            Ami chuckled.  “What an endearment.  And I love you, too.”

 

 

            Shouko walked easily though the familiar bedroom, not having to worry about stepping on sleeping children.  She climbed into bed, lying on her side facing Seijuurou’s back, and arranged the covers up around her.

 

            Comfortable, if not completely settled, she reached up and let her hand hover over her husband’s arm.  She hesitated like that for several seconds, considering, then pulled her hand back.  Rolling onto her opposite side, she closed her eyes and tried to go back to sleep.

           

*          *          *

 

            Kyo had been accused many times of being juvenile.  He never bothered to deny it, knowing that by society’s standards it was a basic truth.  Instead, he would just nod his head, act chagrined and appropriately chastised, and then go back to the children who needed him and the games they played as they fought against time.

 

            The benefits of never having grown up mentally were laid out around him in the rec room.  A vintage pinball machine stood in a place of honor, kept company by arcade versions of games he’d wasted his teenage years perfecting his technique on.  The only nod to modern gaming in the room sat closely watched, as Haruka and Usagi battled it out for the Grand Prix title.  A pool table was set up at one end of the room, with a stained glass lamp advertising a once-popular brand of beer centered over it.  Kyo smiled as Mamoru sank the solid yellow ball into the side pocket.  The pout on Rei’s face made it obvious who was losing this round.

 

            At the wet bar at the opposite end of the room, Minako put a cherry on top of each cola she’d poured, and then walked over to her losing mate.  We should add a milkshake machine, mused Kyo.  He figured this group of kids would really like something like that, far more than the rest of his family.  He glanced across the Pac Man table he sat at with his nephew.  The kid was doing an incredible job of multitasking, keeping his yellow Pac Man from being eaten by pastel colored ghosts, while at the same time, watching the virtual car race going on out of the corner of his eye.

 

            Kyo had brought Seiji down here when he’d heard some of the girls were playing, hoping that the two little ones would be here, and that Seiji would start to be a bit more social.  He also hoped that if Hotaru was here, her Mommy #3 would be here also, and that would just be fun for him.  Alas, neither of them had been present.  However, this particular set-up provided a different sort of opportunity.

 

            The latest race was quickly coming to an end.  Haruka, cool as an ice burg and just as focused, eased down on the accelerator and shifted into a higher gear.  Usagi, even with a two lap handicap, was getting nowhere fast.  Hunkered down over the steering wheel with both hands gripping it tight and ignoring the gearshift, she slammed her foot against the gas peddle, pushing it to the floor of the simulator.  Her virtual car made a hideous screeching sound, but the blonde didn’t seem to notice as she forced it on, her face screwed up in painful determination.

 

            A minute later, her defeat came crashing down on her.  A slightly muffled electronic crowd cheered as a large #1 appeared on Haruka’s screen.  Usagi’s car skittered to a stop on the side of the track… and then burst into a massive ball of flames.  The blonde sighed and hung her head in defeat.

 

            Michiru, who was standing behind them, patted Usagi’s shoulder.  “Perhaps, next time, you would have better luck with an automatic.”

 

            Haruka chuckled, then cleared her throat and tilted her head just a bit to the side.  Leaning between the seats, Michiru placed a quick kiss on Haruka’s cheek, granting her a prize.  “Though I wonder if I should reward such behavior at all,” she teased.

 

            Haruka smirked.  “You were the one who wanted to be the go-go girl.  Come on.  Race with me.  I haven’t had a chance to beat you yet.”

 

            “She gets enough punishment just being married to you,” quipped Minako.  She set her glass down and took the now empty seat beside Haruka.  “My turn!  I’ll show you how it’s supposed to be done.”

 

            The next race was just starting when the familiar sound of Pac Man dying emanated in all its mono glory from the game table.  Kyo refocused as his Pac Man came up, and as he began to gobble up white dots, he said quietly, “Seiji, you should go next.”

 

            The boy pointed to the game screen.  “You have to die first.”

 

            Kyo grinned.  “I don’t mean this.  I mean Grand Prix.”

 

            Seiji’s blue eyes grew wide behind his glasses.  Then he shook his head hard.  “I can’t.”

 

            “Sure you can,” answered Kyo easily as he ate a power-up and went chasing ghosts.  “They’ll let you.”

 

            Again, Seiji shook his head.  “I can’t win.  It’ll be embarrassing if she sees me lose.”

 

            Kyo looked up from his game and straight into Seiji’s eyes.  The first crush was always the hardest, he thought.  And the boy had set his ambitions pretty damn high for his debut effort.  “It’s not about winning,” he said, trying to sound encouraging.  “No one can beat Tenoh, Seiji.  She’s a pro.  This is just about showing off what you can do against someone with her skill.  You’re just as good as the rest of them.  Don’t be afraid to prove it.”

 

            Seiji frowned while biting on his lower lip.  His eyebrows knit together as his forehead furrowed in thought.

 

            Kyo sat back and reset the game, a laid-back smile on his face.

 

            The sound of the crowd once again filled the room, and Minako sighed in defeat.  She watched as Haruka claimed her prize for winning, then looked over at Rei as the miko was setting up a shot.  A blue striped ball landed in the corner pocket, and Rei smiled triumphantly.

 

            “Hey,” said Minako playfully.  “I think the looser should get a little something, too.”

 

            Rei straightened up and rested the cue stick upright beside her.  “Do you?”

 

            “Uh huh,” answered Minako with a nod of her head and a flutter of her eyelashes.

 

            Rei chuckled, then set aside the cue stick.  She picked up her soda and walked over to Minako.  Fishing out the cherry, she held it by the stem in front of the blonde.  “Here, to help soothe the bitter taste of your defeat.”

 

            Minako grinned broadly, then leaned forward to snag the cherry off its stem.  She chewed and swallowed, then said proudly, “See, she loves me so much she let me eat her cherry.”

 

            Usagi choked and spewed soda all over the front of Mamoru’s shirt.  As she coughed and sputtered, Kyo tried his best not to laugh the way Haruka was.  Seiji stared at his uncle clueless, while Minako asked, “What?  It was just a cherry.”

 

            Michiru smiled in amusement as Rei’s cheeks tinged pink.  Then Rei sighed and pulled Minako out of her seat.  “C’mon.  Mamoru’s kicking my butt.  As soon as he gets a clean shirt, we’ll add you and Usagi in to play doubles.  That should even things out.”

 

            “Hey, Tenoh,” called Kyo after Mamoru excused himself to get changed.  “How about a new opponent?”

 

            Haruka grinned at him in friendly challenge.  “Feeling lucky, Ishida?”

 

            “Me?  Hell no,” replied Kyo.  “I can barely survive Pac Man, and my ego is fragile enough.  I meant him.”

 

            Haruka’s eyes shifted to the boy who looked like he was trying to melt into his chair.  One eyebrow rose skeptically.

 

            “Do you want to play, Seiji?” asked Michiru gently.

 

            Seiji looked up at her, his cheeks already warm from the attention, and nodded.  “Yes.”

 

            “All right, then, kid,” said Haruka, motioning to him.  “Get over here, and let’s see what you can do.”

 

            Haruka watched him as he slowly climbed from his seat and walked over to them, keeping his head down and his eyes hidden.  And I thought Hotaru was shy, she thought as he climbed up beside her.  He had obviously played before, she noted, as the boy quickly adjusted the seat and pedals to his diminutive height.

 

            “Okay,” she said when he was situated, the tease in her voice toned down a few notches.  “We go ten laps.  I’ll give you the usual handicap of two laps.”

 

            “I…” stuttered Seiji.  He licked his lips and swallowed hard.  “I don’t need a handicap,” he said very softly.

 

            Haruka smirked.  “Brave kid,” she said with just a touch of admiration, and his cheeks grew even darker.  “Okay.  Here we go.”

 

            For the first lap, Haruka kept just ahead of him, easing herself into the race.  By the third lap, they weren’t even close, but Seiji never faltered, keeping his speed and course steady.  Michiru observed the two of them in silent amusement.  The almost identical looks of concentration; the racer bearings, fully developed in one and just showing in the other; the drive to get to the finish line that blocked out everything else.  Haruka would beat him easily, but there was the beginning of a real racer seated beside her, and he was giving her more true competition than she normally got in arcade competitors.

 

            Haruka’s car cruised across the finish line, and the familiar #1 flashed on the screen above her time.  A few moments later, Seiji’s car crossed.  His time flashed on the screen, and his hands slid from the steering wheel.  Slowly, a wide smile spread across his face.

 

            “Two laps,” he said in quiet excitement.  “I was only behind by two laps!”

 

            Usagi slurped the last of her soda through her straw.  “Wow!  That’s good!  I usually loose by four, even with the handicap, unless I blow up first.”

 

            Michiru reached out and gently tousled his hair, congratulating him, as Haruka nodded in approval.  “Good race, kid.”

 

            Seiji beamed, his smile so wide it looked like his face was going to split in two.  A bit unsteady in his giddiness, he tripped slightly climbing down from the simulator, but barely noticed as he went back to his uncle.

 

            Kyo smiled, nearly blinded not only by the pride and joy radiating off the boy, but by the flaming redness of his cheeks and ears.  Yeah, the first crush was always the hardest, and this was a moment Seiji wasn’t likely to ever forget.

           

*            *            *

 

            Rays of sunlight filtered through the canopy of leaves above them.  The woods were quiet except for the occasional twitter of birds or scurrying of something small in the underbrush.  There was an illusion of size here, the layout making it feel more like a vast forest rather than well arranged clusters of trees.

 

            Leaves and twigs crunched under Makoto’s feet as she made her way slowly to a point she figured she would recognize when she found it.  There was just a bit of drowsiness around the edges of her consciousness.  She never had gotten back to sleep after that early morning encounter with Ami’s aunt, and the whole thing still irked her, making her restless and fidgety.

 

            The walk had been Ami’s idea, to burn off some of that restless energy.  The woods, however, had been hers.  There was something else she wanted to do, she’d realized, and this seemed to be the best place for it.

 

            In preparation for their outing, a backpack had been stocked with several hours’ worth of baby necessities, along with a few things for his mothers.  Makoto had then strapped Miki to her front, since getting the stroller out here would be too much of a hassle, clipped his pacifier to his t-shirt, and off they’d gone.

 

            Coming up on what seemed like a good midpoint, and feeling secure that in here, no one could see them, Makoto stopped walking.  Then she turned around and smiled at Ami.  “This should do it.”

 

            Ami smiled back at her.  “All right,” she replied.  She slid off the backpack and looked around for a suitable place to rest it.  “And just what is it this spot will be doing?”

 

            “There’s something I want to do privately before Luna makes us do it as a group,” answered Makoto.  She unstrapped the baby, handed him to Ami, and set his carrier beside the backpack.  A half grin accompanied her production of her henshin wand.

 

            Ami grinned in reply.  “To burn off some restless energy?”

 

            “And to make sure everything still fits and functions the way it should,” added Makoto.  She dangled the wand in front of Miki’s curious blue eyes.  “This is a secret, Bug, so don’t tell anyone.  Okay?”

 

            Miki burbled and bubbled, his pacifier falling from his mouth in a wet tumble.  His hands reached out to try and grasp the shiny object, and Makoto moved it closer for him.  When he snagged it, he cooed happily, even though his hands were too small to wrap around it fully.  He tugged on it, trying to pull it closer to him, and Makoto moved with him.  A pleased squeal was cut short as he popped the end of it quickly into his mouth and began to chew.

 

            He hadn’t had nearly enough time to get a good taste of it when Ami’s fingers covered Makoto’s and carefully pulled the wand from his mouth.  “It’s probably not a good idea to let him do that.  Imagine what Luna would say if she saw.  I can’t imagine she’d be very pleased.”

 

            “She would stroke,” chuckled Makoto.  “But your Ami-mama’s right, Little Bug.  This isn’t a chew toy.”

 

            Miki’s face fell, and he let out a most pitiful sounding whimper.  He reached out to try and get it back, but was only offered his pacifier instead.  He took the pacifier without argument, but continued to fuss at Ami.

 

            “Come on, now,” said Ami as she readjusted him so he was upright and facing Makoto.  “Watch what your mama can do.”

 

            Makoto smiled almost nervously, and took a deep breath.  “It’s been a long time,” she said absently as she took a few steps back from them.  She gripped her wand tightly in front of her, and for the first time in almost a year, called out firmly and clearly, “Jupiter Crystal Power, make-up!”

 

            Like an old, familiar friend, she felt the warmth and light begin to flow through her.  Behind her eyes she could see the flashes of lightning and hear the rumbling thunder of her own planet, the forces of two kingdoms combining to strengthen her.  In a matter of seconds, generations’ worth of tradition and duty coalesced within her, fortifying an already dedicated heart.  Almost as quickly as it had begun, it ended, and there stood Sailor Jupiter, just as if she’d never been gone.

 

            “Welcome back,” said Ami quietly, a wide smile on her face.

 

            Jupiter grinned broadly.  “Thanks.  It’s good to be back.”  She lifted her gloved hands up in front of her and turned them over several times.  Her scrutiny then shifted to the front of her senshi fuku as her hands straightened nonexistent wrinkles.  She looked back over her shoulder, then gave a curt nod of approval.  “Everything just where it should be.”

 

            “Did you really doubt it?” asked Ami.

 

            Jupiter shrugged.  “Until last year, I never doubted I’d always be able to transform before heading into battle.”  She stepped closer to them and smiled at her son.  “What do you think of your mama, now?” she asked, holding a finger out for him.

 

            Miki held very still against Ami, observing Jupiter cautiously the way he would a stranger he was meeting for the first time.  He turned his head to look up at Ami, and sucked his pacifier a little harder.  Then, tentatively, he reached out to grasp Jupiter’s finger.

 

            “That’s my Bug,” said Jupiter as the baby’s fingers closed around hers.

 

            With the contact, recognition seemed to light in the baby’s eyes, and he babbled happily around his pacifier as Jupiter lifted him into her arms.  She snuggled him close, touching their foreheads together, and kissed his pacifier.  Miki giggled and grabbed onto the bow on her chest, pulling at it playfully.

 

            Ami laughed softly as she watched them, and pulled out her own henshin wand.  “Don’t let him watch when I transform,” she said.

 

            “Why?” asked Jupiter as the baby traded his pacifier for the edge of her bow.

 

            “Information gathering,” she answered.  “I’m curious as to how he recognized you so easily.”

 

            “He looked like he wanted to hide from me,” smirked Jupiter.

 

            “Only for a few seconds, though.”  She held her wand up and moved it in a circular pattern.  “So he doesn’t see.”

 

            “All right,” relented Jupiter, and she did as asked.  As she kept the baby occupied, she heard Ami call out her transformation phrase behind them.

 

            A few seconds later, “Okay, you can turn around now.”

 

            Jupiter turned to see Mercury, her visor down and her mini-computer already in hand.  “What are you doing?”

 

            “Checking a few things,” she answered as she pushed a sequence of buttons.  “Remember when I scanned the two of you while you were pregnant?”

 

            “Yeah.  You were having fun playing that night.”

 

            Mercury grinned.  “This is just a little follow-up.”  She pushed a few more buttons, and the computer chirped at her.  “He’s still within the typical range for everything.  No significant changes in energy output, as well as void of any physical abnormalities.  Though from the information I have here, he is a bit chubbier than the average three-month-old.”

 

            Jupiter chuckled and tickled the baby’s tummy.  “You hear that.  You’re normal.”

 

            The baby laughed, a line of drool connecting him to Jupiter’s bow as it fell from his mouth.

 

            Ew,” said Jupiter bluntly as she frowned at her now damp bow.  Then she looked up at Mercury.  “Now what?”

 

            Mercury closed her computer and deactivated her visor.  “Let’s see what he thinks of me.”  Stepping up to them, she ran her fingers over the unruly auburn tresses on Miki’s head.

 

            The baby greeted her in much the same way he had Jupiter, but his moment of paused confusion passed quickly at Mercury’s familiar touch.

 

            Mercury smiled, and Jupiter said, “See, he’s a normal and smart little boy.  He knows who his parents are.”

 

            “Though it’s still a bit of a curiosity to me,” replied Mercury.  “It’s not supposed to be that easy.”

 

            “You’re his mother,” repeated Jupiter, as if that was the full and complete explanation for things.  “And now that you’ve had your turn to play,” she went on, turning a mischievous grin down on Miki, “I want my turn.  Come on, Bug.  Now you’re going to see something really cool.”

 

            Imitating her smile, the baby laughed and made a passable attempt at clapping his hands.  Even if he couldn’t really comprehend what all the fuss was about, he did recognize his mama’s playtime smile.  And nobody was better at playtime than his mama.

 

*          *          *

 

            The warmth of the afternoon sun soaked into his fur as Artemis lay sprawled on his back, surrounded by the fresh smell of grass and wildflowers.  His tail swished back and forth lazily while he half listened to the far-off sound of Luna running through the field.

 

            The sound of paws over grass ceased again as she paused in her hunt, and Artemis’ mind became as still as the world around him, until a sudden tickle broke his mental silence.  His nose scrunched up, and his whiskers twitched, and for a moment that seemed to solve the issue.  Then he felt it again, a little firmer on the tip of his nose, and he eased open his eyes.  A kitty-cat grin appeared on his features when he saw the bright orange butterfly perched contently on the end of his nose.  Once again, he twitched his whiskers, but the butterfly only fluttered its wings in response.  Slowly, he brought his paw up and took a playful swat it, this time succeeding at sending the thing on its way.

 

            Letting his paw fall back to the ground, Artemis let out a long, yowling yawn.  He licked his lips, thinking that maybe soon he’d like to find some water, then rolled over onto his side to see if he could spot Luna.

 

            Several meters away, he saw the end of her dark tail sticking up in the grass.  The rest of her, he assumed, was crouched down low on the ground, in stalker anticipation.  After a few seconds, her tail began to move as her hind legs rose slowly in preparation to pounce on whatever prey she’d set her sights on.  Then off she went, quick as a shot.

 

            Artemis let out another yawn, then closed his eyes again, resting his head on his paws.  He was just beginning to drift off when he heard the soft tread of Luna’s paws beside him.  “Catch anything?” he asked without opening his eyes.

 

            “No,” answered Luna.  “But I wasn’t really trying to.  I’d much rather have Usagi’s leftovers for lunch than a field mouse.”

 

            Artemis smirked, then opened his eyes and lifted his head at the low rumble of thunder that sounded in the distance.

 

            Luna looked up into the clear, blue sky, then back at Artemis.  “I guess now we know what Makoto was up to.”  She settled herself beside Artemis and stretched out on her side, her toes splaying in pure feline delight.  Then she curled herself into a more respectable position and added, “Minako had a good idea about using this place for practice.  We can do that tonight, after dinner, along with another security sweep of the property.”

 

            Artemis grinned proudly at the compliment paid to his ward, then followed Luna’s example and curled up comfortably for a long afternoon nap.

 

*            *            *

 

            It was the last cookie.  Not just the last cookie left over from their lunch, or the last cookie in the house, but the last cookie in the whole of the known universe.  And, as Fate would have it, that last cookie had fallen in the hands of the Evil Master Zorlog.

 

            Sitting lonely on a paper napkin, high above the eyes of mortals on the cushion of Gram’s Chair, the cookie waited.  Guarding the cookie were two of Zorlog’s most trusted henchmen, Mog and Moof.  Mog’s hard, dark green hide bore the scratch marks from his many battles against the sidewalk outside the land of Kara’s House.  One of the thick horns that curled back over his black hair and around his ears had broken off, and his snarl was a chipped white.  Moof, on the other hand, looked as new as he was.  His pale purple complexion remained unmarred for lack of battle experience; his long white hair still lay straight against the back of his uniform.  A dark purple uniform that still had all of its buttons and neon green piping, making it stand out in stark contrast to the make-shift gray loincloth Mog had been given upon his transfer to the barracks in Kara’s Room.

 

            Sleeping down at the bottom of Gram’s Chair, the Evil Master Zorlog dreamt without fear.  He was, after all, The Mighty Evil Master of the Universe™, even if he had lost his shoes, half of his uniform, and most of his hot pink hair in an unfortunate scissor related incident some months back.  He was the ultimate in bad guys, just like the box said, and no one could defeat him.

 

            However, that wasn’t going to keep someone from trying.

 

            Back in the valley behind the couch, a brave band of Sailor Senshi gathered.  They spoke in loud whispers as they plotted the rescue of their cookie.

 

            Kara giggled, then pulled her Sailor Mars doll to the front of the pack.  “Okay,” she said, moving Mars in the appropriate manner to match her commanding speech.  “We have to go get our cookie back.  Mog and Moof are easy to beat, cause they’re stupid.  But Zorlog is smart, so we have to be careful about him.”

 

            Chibi-usa peered around the corner of the couch.  Zorlog was still asleep on Haruka’s chest, the latter also appearing to be asleep.  Chibi-usa ducked back behind the couch and picked up the Chibi-moon doll.  “He’s still asleep.  Maybe we can sneak in while he isn’t looking.  I’ll go with Tuxedo Kamen!”

 

            Hotaru smiled widely and temporarily abandoned her Neptune doll to pick up Sailor Moon.  “Not without me, you won’t!” she announced with a small giggle, then latched Sailor Moon onto Tuxedo Kamen’s arm as best as the unjointed limbs would allow.

 

            “I bet it’s a trap!” announced Mercury as Kara picked her up from the floor.  “Hermes thinks that, too, don’t you, boy?”

 

            A gray, plush cat with a gold star on its forehead nodded in agreement as he was placed beside Mercury.

 

            Hotaru reunited Uranus and Neptune.  Then, in an effort to try and restore some of Uranus’ dignity, tried to smooth down the yellow dotted, lace trimmed moo-moo dress that had replaced her uniform.  It didn’t help.  “That one can be very sneaky,” she finally said in agreement.  “We should all attack at once.”

 

            Two heads nodded, and the chosen band of warriors slowly headed out, with Sailor Mars in the lead.  Moving quietly, they snuck across the floor until they were within a foot of Zorlog and the imprisoned cookie.

 

            And just then, Zorlog awoke!

 

            Three high-pitched screams signaled a hasty retreat as Haruka sat up.  Holding Zorlog in front of her face, she laughed deeply and menacingly.

 

            Shouko winced as Kara trampled over her bare feet in her haste to get back behind the couch.  The child was gone before she had a chance to chastise her.  Letting it go, and feeling she was now safe from the advance of the Evil Zorlog, she uncurled her sore toes and went back to her book.  However, the busy artist across the room once again captured her attention.  This time, rather than ignoring her curiosity, she set aside her paperback and walked over to Michiru.

 

            A bit hesitantly, she said, “Please forgive the interruption.  However, I was wondering if I might…”

 

            One corner of Michiru’s mouth turned up slightly.  “One moment,” she answered.

 

            Shouko nodded, then seated herself on the ottoman and waited as Michiru added the last pencil strokes to her sketch.

 

            An earsplitting squeal ran through the room, and Shouko looked over quickly to see Chibi-usa being grabbed up and slung over one of Haruka’s shoulders as her brave comrades scattered.  She took a deep breath, and tried to get the tension in her shoulders to loosen up.

 

            “That looks about right,” said Michiru as she set aside her pencil.  She held the sketchbook out for Shouko, and the woman took it with a smile.

 

            She spent several minutes examining the sketch of a sleeping Haruka.  It was a close-up portrait, fading off below the mock-up of Kara’s doll, which Haruka held clutched to her chest.  Even in the roughness of the sketch, there was a softness in her features and a great care given to the lines that created the details of her expression.

 

            “She isn’t what I expected,” said Shouko idly.

 

            Michiru smiled slightly in amusement.  “What was it you were expecting?”

 

            “The racer,” answered Shouko simply.

 

            Michiru nodded.  “People often do, though she rarely has time enough to disappoint those expectations.  That suits her just as well.  I am surprised, however, that you would be familiar with that image.”

 

            Shouko laughed lightly.  “My son’s sport of choice for the last two years has been car racing.  Ever since his uncle introduced him to it, it’s where all of his spare time has gone.  In the course of it, I’ve seen every trade magazine published on the subject.  It’s pretty much a guarantee that every time Tenoh Haruka races, it’s going to be in a headline or on a cover.  As long as Seiji confines his interests to spectator and video gamer, there’s no harm.”  She looked back down at the sketchbook in her hands.  “I have, however, tried to steer his interests a bit more in this direction.  A little of the finer culture won’t hurt him.”

 

            Feeling a touch of pride in the subtle compliment, Michiru replied, “Feel free to look through it, if you’d like.”

 

            “Thank you,” answered Shouko in happy, but understated anticipation.  As she carefully turned the pages of the sketchbook and took in the scenes of people and landscapes from around the estate, she kept up the conversation.  “My sister is a fan of both your art and your music.  I admit to being very impressed with what you’ve accomplished at such a young age.  As I said, I’ve tried to steer Seiji’s interests, as well as Kara’s, a bit more towards the arts.  Kara, though, is still a bit young for most of it, and the one time I thought Seiji was starting to show true interest… Well, let’s just say he had ulterior motives.”

 

            Shouko paused, and for a second, a frown touched her lips.  She looked up from the sketchbook and said quietly, “Actually, while we’re on the subject, there’s something I’d like to discuss with you concerning my son.”

 

            Michiru nodded expectantly, giving permission for Shouko to continue, though she expected she knew what was going to be said.

 

            Looking a bit embarrassed, Shouko went on, “You see, he’s developed something of a rather large crush…”

 

            “Rei!”

 

            Their quiet conversation was abruptly interrupted by Kara’s very loud enthusiasm.  The little girl ran passed them and latched onto Rei’s arm, trying to pull her over to their game of Senshi.

 

            “Excuse me one moment,” said Shouko quickly to Michiru, and then she directed a firmer tone to her child.  “Kara, it’s rude to pull on someone like that.  Apologize, and then ask her politely if she’d like to see your dolls.”

 

            “Yes, ma’am,” answered Kara.  She turned apologetic blue eyes up to Rei.  “I’m sorry.  Do you wanna see my dolls?  I have a Sailor Mars!” she said, the admonishment quickly forgotten in the excitement of having another Mars fan to play with.

 

            Behind Rei, Minako giggled.  Rei looked back at her and smiled in a somewhat egotistical way, then back at Kara.  “Sure.  I’d love to see your Mars doll.  She’s your favorite, right?”

 

            “Uh huh,” answered Kara as she took Rei’s hand, and, now that she had permission, pulled her over behind the couch.

 

            Shouko looked back at Michiru.  “I’m sorry for that.”

 

            “It’s all right,” answered Michiru.  “And I’m aware of your son’s crush.  He left a very sweet note under our bedroom door the first night we were here.”

 

            “Really?” said Shouko, surprised.  “He isn’t usually that forward about things.  But he has been spending a good deal of time with Kyo lately.”

 

            “He’s a very interesting man,” commented Michiru.

 

            Shouko laughed.  “That’s one way of putting it.  However, he is very good to my children, even if his experiences have made him more lenient with them than I’d like.”  She gave a small shrug, effectively brushing aside that line of the conversation.  “Seiji, though, is usually very quiet and keeps mostly to himself.  However, if he starts to make a nuisance of himself, I would appreciate it if you would tell me and allow me to handle it.”

 

            “Of course,” said Michiru, giving the woman a reassuring smile.  “We’ll be considerate of his feelings the same way we would hope others would be considerate of Hotaru’s.”

 

            Slowly, Shouko returned the smile.

 

            Behind the couch, the girls were hunkered down over the Barbie doll-sized Senshi on the floor.  As Kara chattered animatedly to Rei, Haruka put a hand on Minako’s shoulder and grinned.  “Prepare yourself,” she whispered softly.  “This is going to get ugly.”

 

            Minako looked at her in confusion, then back down to the dolls Kara was picking up one by one.

 

            “And Sailor Moon was dating Tuxedo Kamen.  She even kissed him,” went on the child.  “But then she used her super ultimate attack on Zorlog, and made his heart shine with love.  Then they fell in love with each other and lived happily ever after.”

 

            “What happened to Tuxedo Kamen?” asked Rei in amusement.

 

            “He realized he was in love with Sailor Mars,” announced Kara, smiling broadly as she picked up her Mars doll.  “Sailor Moon was just an infatiation, and his heart really belonged to Sailor Mars the whole time.  She’s cooler, and her ‘Fire Dragon’ is a way better attack than Sailor Moon’s ‘Love Shining Exclamation.’”

 

            Rei’s mouth hung open for lack of anything appropriate she could say in front of a four-year-old.

 

            Haruka smirked.  “You’ve got a Venus in there, don’t you?”

 

            “Yep,” answered Kara.  “I’ve got all of them except for Sailor Pluto and Sailor Saturn, cause my daddy says they’re really hard to find.  I even have Hermes.”

 

            “Who?” asked Minako.

 

            “Hermes.  He’s Mercury’s kitty,” answered Kara.  “He was a special gift from the King of Mercury to his daughter.  See the gold star on his forehead?  That’s a special medal so they can all talk to each other and do their transformations into their secret identities.”

 

            “Really?” said Rei.

 

            “Really,” said Kara.  “All their boxes say so.”  Then she picked up Venus, and Minako nearly choked. 

 

            Sailor Venus’ long blonde hair had been hacked off into an uneven bob.  Blue marker was applied liberally over her eyes, with newly applied dark eyebrows standing out over top of it, and a bright cherry red painted her cheeks.  Like Uranus, she had lost her uniform and had it replaced with an orange ball gown.  She did have the distinction of being the only one in the group still wearing shoes, the yellow ‘sneakers’ held in place with generous dabs of glue.

 

            “She looked too much like Sailor Moon,” said Kara, brushing back what remained of Sailor Venus’ hair.  “So I gave her a make-over.”

 

            Rei bit her lip to keep from laughing at the look of horror on Minako’s face.  Kara, oblivious to Minako’s distress, continued to tell Rei all about the Sailor Senshi and their magical cat, Hermes.

 

*            *            *

 

            She’d found herself alone for the better part of the day, after Chibi-usa and Hotaru had gone off to play with Kara.  They’d all had dinner together not long ago, and afterward, Setsuna had wandered off on her own again, enjoying the quiet solitude she was a bit more used to.  Daily life with her own family was one thing to deal with.  Daily living with Ami’s family and the entire Inner Guard… Well, it had been a very long time since she’d experienced this particular level of togetherness.  Thankfully, the large estate provided her with a very lovely escape.

 

            The garden was in full bloom, a soft landscape of bright colors.  Flagstones formed paths through the flowers, each one leading to a small pond.  Pearl white fish with dark orange eye patches swam in lazy circles, occasionally shooting to the surface to catch an insect or pellet of food.  At the edge of the pond, a wooden bench provided a place to sit and relax.

 

            Setsuna watched one small fish nip at the tail of another, and then quickly swim away.  She grinned, then opened her journal and positioned it on her knees.  Her handwriting was neat and precise, the elegant script of a long forgotten language.  As the evening moved slowly to dusk, she penned an odd assortment of thoughts and observations made over the last few days.

 

            As she began to lose the last of the usable daylight, she closed the journal and tucked her pen into its spine.  It was nearing time to meet the others.

 

            Standing, she noticed for the first time the other visitor to the garden.  Keeping his distance, Kyo stood over a splash of red and white flowers, giving great attention to the blooms.  After several moments, he surreptitiously glanced over in her direction, and when he saw her looking back, he smiled widely.

 

            Setsuna caught herself staring and casually looked away, focusing all of her attention to shifting her journal from one hand to the other as Kyo approached.  When he stopped in front of her, she smiled politely.  “Ishida-san,” she said, offering him a slight nod.

 

            Kyo imitated her formalness, and answered, “Meioh-san.  We were given such a pleasant evening tonight, I thought to take advantage of it in some small way.”

 

            “Don’t allow me to interrupt you,” replied Setsuna.  “I was just heading back to meet the others.  Enjoy your evening.”

 

            As she started to walk away, Kyo snagged one of the flowers and quickly fell into step beside her.  “Allow me to accompany you back.  My father would admonish me for being a bad host if I didn’t.”

 

            “I promise not to speak of your bad manners in front of anyone,” assured Setsuna.  “I don’t mind walking back on my own.”

 

            “Nonsense.  And I’m a better man than that, to allow a lady to walk alone at dusk,” replied Kyo.  He rolled the stem of the flower between his fingers and settled his empty hand into the pocket of his denim shorts, making it clear he wasn’t changing his course.

 

            One corner of Setsuna’s mouth turned up into a very small smile, and they fell into silence as they walked the rest of the way to the house.

 

            The others were already gathered outside waiting for her, and she could see clearly that they’d noticed her approach.  Stopping, she turned to face Kyo.  “Thank you, Ishida-san, for seeing me back.”

 

            Kyo grinned at her.  “My pleasure, Meioh-san,” he answered, and with a flourish, presented the flower to her.

 

            She accepted the flower with a courteous nod of thanks.

 

            Kyo nodded in return.  Then, with a tiny bounce in his step, he turned and continued on into the house.

 

            Setsuna watched him go, and while she did a few wisps of her comrades’ laughter tickled her ears.  She sighed and looked up into the sky.  The moon was just barely visible above the vibrant colors of the sunset.  “I suppose you’re laughing at me for this, also.”  In her memories, she saw a pale, delicate hand try to cover soft giggles, and she smiled.

 

            She let a few seconds pass before turning, and with her head held high and her steps steady, she walked into the torrent of smirks, teasing smiles, and giggles.  “It seems I’m the last to arrive,” she said, ignoring them.  “I suppose that means we’re ready to begin.”

 

            An amused grin on her lips, Haruka rolled right over Setsuna’s nonchalance.  “So… you spent your free time tonight strolling through the garden with Uncle Kyo.”

 

            “It is a lovely evening for walk,” added Michiru.  “Very romantic.”

 

            “We did not go for a walk together,” said Setsuna in clarification.  “We just happened to be moving in the same direction at the same time.  It was complete coincidence.”

 

            “Nice flower,” smirked Haruka.

 

            “It’s pretty,” chimed in Hotaru.  “And it was so sweet!”  She looked around on the ground for a moment, then plucked up a small yellow flower.  Bending deeply, she bowed before Chibi-usa.  Then she placed a hand over her heart and held out the flower.  “For my lady,” she said dramatically, though the effect was ruined because of a giggle she couldn’t quite contain.

 

            Chibi-usa took the flower and brought it up to her nose.  She sniffed, then held it to her chest and batted her eyelashes at her suitor.

 

            “Now you’re just being silly,” commented Setsuna, sounding reproachful even through her smile.

 

            Both little girls nodded at her.

 

            Minako laughed at them, then inserted herself into the middle of it.  “As much fun as this is, I think it’s dark enough for us to get started.  We’re breaking off into three groups.  Setsuna, you’re with me, Chibi-usa, and Hotaru.  Then it’s Ami, Rei, and Michiru for group two.  Group three is Haruka, Makoto, Usagi, and Mamoru.  We’ll each take a section of the property for the perimeter check, and after everyone checks in with an ‘all-clear,’ we’ll start practice.”

 

            Recognizing her cue, Ami picked up with, “Each group will be assigned a specific target.  The objective is to capture your target, while at the same time preventing the targeted member of your group from being captured.  Luna and Artemis are the only ones who know who the chosen targets are, and they’ll relay that information to each group when we check in with our perimeter reports.”

 

            Makoto crossed her arms over her chest and stared at Ami.  “Is this what you two were cooking up when you ran off after dinner?”

 

            “Yes,” answered Ami with a proud smile.  “We thought we could all use something a bit more challenging than the usual workout.”

 

            “So much for a lazy summer vacation,” quipped Rei.  “And who came up with the group configurations?”

 

            “Artemis and I,” answered Luna.

 

            “Then I already know who my target is,” said Rei under her breath.

 

            Ami grinned, then added, “We do need to keep in mind how much area we have to work with, and what our limits are once the simulation starts.  Luna and Artemis will be keeping an eye on things, to make sure we don’t get out of hand.”

 

            “Okay, then!  Off we go!” announced Minako.  She grinned over at Setsuna for a fraction of a moment more, lingering just long enough for the mischievousness sparkling in her eyes to be noticed.  Then she pulled Rei up along side her, and lead the group away from the house.

 

*            *            *

 

            Venus viewed the almost total darkness in which they walked from two opposing perspectives.  On the one hand, it offered them a good cover from their enemy, especially given that they were walking through an open field.  On the other hand, it provided that same cover for their enemy, whoever it might be, and made seeing each other difficult.  Any of the subtle, silent communication that would be useful in a battle situation would be lost in this environment.  This was the biggest negative to her, because she had no intention of losing any of the members of her group, especially if the one attacking happened to be Mars.

 

            She grinned, anticipating the coming battle exercise, even given Mercury’s concerns that the whole thing would turn into a chaotic melee.  A lifetime ago, patrols and practices like this had been routine.  For Venus, tonight touched on old memories that weren’t completely hers, but that were as much a part of her as any of the memories and experiences that made her Minako.  She looked over on her left and smiled even wider at the serious expression that Pluto wore.  ‘A lifetime ago,’ she thought absently, and she knew she was with the only two people who could completely understand.

 

            Several sets of small, artificial lights let her know their circular patrol was nearing its end.  Walking up on the lights that outlined the dock on the lake, Venus slowed her steps and reached for her communicator.  “Everyone agree it was a clean sweep?”

 

            Chibimoon and Saturn nodded, and Pluto put voice to their agreement.

 

            “Okay, then,” replied Venus.  She activated her communicator, and when Luna answered, said, “We’re all clear out on this end of the property.”

 

            Luna nodded in relief.  “The others have all checked in with the same.  Hopefully, Rei’s ‘ghosts’ have moved on.”

 

            Venus frowned.  “Both groups beat us?  By how much?”

 

            “Not more than ten minutes,” answered Luna, amused at Venus’ competitive ire.  “We’ll give you your target if you’re ready.  Then we can give everyone the signal to begin.”

 

            Venus nodded.  “Yeah, we’re ready.  Who are we grabbing?”

 

            “Sailor Moon.”

 

            A wide grin spread on Venus’ face.  “Well, this is going to be interesting.”  She looked down at Chibimoon.  “Try not to enjoy yourself too much.”

 

            Chibimoon smiled mischievously back up at her.

 

            A slight smile appeared on Saturn’s face.  “Remember, though, to get to her we’re not just going to have to go around Tuxedo Kamen, but Uranus and Jupiter as well.”

 

            Chibimoon’s smile fell a fraction at that reminder.

 

            “And their tactics will likely change when they realize who our target is,” added Pluto.  “It will become less the game they were expecting and more the need to protect the Princess.”

 

            Chibimoon’s smile faded completely, and Venus chuckled.  “Don’t worry.  We have Saturn.  Though Mercury would be really useful right about now.”  Venus pulled her bottom lip between her teeth and chewed for a few moments, thinking.  “Ami was worried about keeping things ordered, so she set up the attack patterns in a triangle, to keep offense and defense balanced.  Let’s assume Sailor Moon’s group is going after Mercury’s and pick a point in the middle of their patrols.  We go that way,” she concluded, pointing in the direction they were to start walking.  “It’s within boundaries, and is as good a place as any to start looking.”

 

            They started on, falling into the same formation they’d used during their patrol.  Pluto and Saturn flanked Venus and Chibimoon, walking a step behind them and forming a sort of half circle.

 

            Venus glanced over behind her at Saturn, quickly comparing her two smallest soldiers.  How many times, she wondered, had their enemies been fooled by the small size and quiet demeanor of the soldier in a child’s body?  With her glaive held at the ready beside her and looking too large for her to handle, she seemed fragile.  An easy target as a little girl in a role too big for her.  It was easy to be fooled by Saturn, she reasoned.  Until one looked into those eyes.

 

            By contrast, Chibimoon was still a child in all respects.  Trotting along at a steady pace beside her, Chibimoon clutched her Pink Sugar Stick, just waiting for something or someone to jump out at them.  For all her enthusiasm, her power was still new and largely underdeveloped, a fact made patently obvious when she found herself in battle situations.  Venus smiled to herself, though, enjoying the child’s delight for the game they were playing.

 

            And then there was Pluto…

 

            Venus glanced over her shoulder at the woman guarding her back.  That emotionless appearance gave away no hints to the true nature of the Time Senshi.  Whether she intentionally tried to be as mysterious as the Gates she guarded, or if it was simply the shield and mask she’d developed over the centuries, Venus could never figure out.  But she did know there was a sense of humor underneath it all.  She’d witnessed it in two lifetimes, however rarely it might appear.  It was just a matter of finding an opportunity for her to let it out.

 

            So, smiling impishly, Venus announced, “We’re on vacation.”

 

            Three sets of eyes looked at her questioningly, wondering where that had come from.

 

            “In spite of the few little issues we’ve had, we’re on vacation,” she went on, sounding as if she were imparting great wisdom to her listeners.  “And because we are on vacation, we should all be having fun.  Saturn, have you been having fun?”

 

            Saturn hesitated for a moment, then answered, “Yes.  Very much.”

 

            “Good,” replied Venus, giving an approving nod.  “Chibimoon, how about you?”

 

            Chibimoon nodded enthusiastically.  “A lot.”

 

            “Excellent.  That just leaves you,” she said, turning a quick grin on Pluto.

 

            “Am I to assume that means you believe I’m not enjoying myself?” asked Pluto.

 

            Venus shrugged.  “You seemed to be enjoying yourself in the garden tonight.”

 

            Pluto let out a silent sigh.  “Why is everyone suddenly so interested in my private affairs?” she asked wearily.

 

            “Because until now,” answered Venus, “you haven’t had any affairs for us to be interested in.  Not this time around, anyway.”

 

            “I suppose telling you there still isn’t anything of interest for you won’t do any good?”

 

            “Not really, no,” replied Venus.  Then, her smile and voice softened a bit.  “I can’t say I really know what it’s like, but I can guess that it isn’t easy, going in a circle of having and losing.  But she hated that you were alone so much, and in spite of her slight possessive streak where you were concerned, she loved you too much to want you to spend eternity alone.  And I think Uncle Kyo would have amused Her Majesty a lot.”

 

            Pluto smiled.  “He would have.  However, I am not interested in a relationship with him or anyone else at the moment, for my own reasons.  Reasons that I would prefer to keep my own.”

 

            “Fair enough,” returned Venus.  “But no one said you had to have a relationship with him.  Just have some fun and enjoy the attention.”  One corner of her mouth turned up into a smirk.  “For ten minutes, stop being Pluto and live for the moment.”

 

            One dark eyebrow rose at the once familiar line.  “I’m surprised you remember that.”

 

            “The others still have mostly static for memories, but Venus’ memories come in high definition and surround sound,” said Venus, tapping a finger to her temple.

 

            Pluto smirked back at her, some of that sense of humor starting to show through.  “I meant I’m surprised because that particular phrase was only ever spoken in private, behind closed doors.”

 

            “Oh.  Yeah, well…  We were little, and it was a big castle,” replied Venus sheepishly.  “Lots of places for us to hide so it looked like we weren’t playing in rooms we weren’t supposed to be in.”

 

            “Indeed,” said Pluto in amusement.

 

            “Yes.  Um, we should probably stop talking from here on.  So we don’t get caught.”

 

            “Of course, my leader,” teased Pluto, earning soft laughter from Chibimoon and Saturn.

 

            Venus smiled, and they walked on a bit further in silence.  The openness of the field ended as they crossed into the woods she was certain Mercury would attempt to confine them to.  “Saturn,” she said softly as a tingle touched the back of her neck like a warm breath.  “Get ready to block.”

 

            Saturn nodded, shifting her glaive slightly.

 

            “Now!” yelled Venus, and before the word was even fully out of her mouth, Saturn had them safely protected behind her Silence Wall.

 

            Neptune’s Deep Submerge splashed over the purplish forcefield, hitting and washing over them like a hard rainstorm rather than with its usual tidal wave force.  As the spray of water subsided, and Saturn let down the field, Venus strained her eyes in the dark direction the attack had come from.  She took an instinctual step backwards, pushing Chibimoon more into the back-to-back circle she, Pluto, and Saturn were forming.

 

            “Over there!” called Saturn.

 

            Venus looked over quickly and saw the fiery flash in the rustle of leaves just as it was released in her direction.  Before she could react, Pluto was there, deflecting the arrow and dissipating it into wisps of flame.

 

            “Shabon Spray,” carried softly to Venus’ ears, and in a matter of seconds, they were standing in a cool, dense mist of Mercury induced bubbles.

 

            “That’s not good,” said Venus.  “Cause I guarantee we’ve been noticed by Jupiter’s group by now, and that she isn’t too far off.”

 

            “We should move,” stated Pluto.

 

            “Agreed,” replied Venus.  “Head in Mars’ direction.”

 

            They’d taken two steps when they were abruptly cut off by Neptune.  Hands on hips, she grinned at them.  “Going somewhere?”

 

            Venus grinned back as Mars and Mercury appeared in the mist from opposite sides, closing them into a wide triangle.  “Not at all,” she answered calmly.  “We were just making sure you were still here.”

 

            “As you can see, we are.  Now, as you’re the one we’ve come to collect, perhaps you would like to surrender and save yourself and your teammates from any unnecessary trauma,” she said, smiling and beautiful even in her self assured arrogance.  “We’ll gladly let them go if you come along quietly.”

 

            Venus smirked as Saturn stepped between them, pointing her glaive squarely at Neptune.  “What was that you were saying about unnecessary trauma?”

 

            Neptune put up her hands and backed away slowly out of the mist, still smiling in that self assured way.  Just as she faded from their view, the sound of several sets of feet came plowing through the underbrush.  Those feet stopped abruptly, and before anyone had a chance to get out of the way, Jupiter hurled a Supreme Thunder directly into the mist.

 

            Bolts of electricity traveled across the blanket of bubbles, latching onto anyone unfortunate enough to be standing in it.  The voltage was nowhere near what Jupiter was capable of, but it was more than enough to get her point across.

 

            “Mercury’s over there!  Grab her!” Venus heard Uranus shout as she gritted her teeth and fought to stay on her feet.  Forcing her eyes to open, she squinted enough to see Mercury on her knees with Tuxedo Kamen only a few steps behind her.  She would have commented on how bad a move that was, but Neptune beat her to it.

 

            The blue beams of a Submarine Reflection lit up the night, reflecting in the slowly fading mist and knocking Tuxedo Kamen off his feet.  Moving quickly, Neptune grabbed Mercury’s arm and hauled her to her feet, pulling her away from their enemy and the defeat her capture would signal.

 

            Taking advantage of the momentary distraction, Venus pulled Chibimoon closer to her and quietly rallied her troops.  “Saturn, you distract Uranus.  I’m going to take Jupiter,” she said, her Love Me Chain materializing in her hand.  “Chibimoon, you watch my back, because I have no intention of being hauled in as someone’s prize.  And Pluto, our girl is all yours.”

 

            Her troops nodded with newfound vigor, and then threw themselves back into the fray.  It was winner take all, and they weren’t going to go down easily.

 

            Chibimoon took a deep breath and held tightly to her Pink Sugar Stick as she watched the others break off from the group.  Venus grinned down at her, then nodded, asking silently, “Ready?”  Chibimoon nodded back, her heart beating faster as they began to move in search of Jupiter.

 

            Venus moved like a cat, silent and quick, her footing sure.  Chibimoon stayed at her back, watching from side to side, anticipating the attack she knew would come.  And just as Venus’ pace quickened, she saw it, a rustle of movement behind some low hanging branches.  A dim flicker of flame appeared as an attack was begun, and without hesitation, Chibimoon launched herself in that direction.

 

            She could feel the heat and hear the last syllables of a Burning Mandela when she landed on her target.  She also heard a word her mother had warned her never to repeat as Mars was knocked back several steps by the force of the impact, her attack abruptly aborted.  With every ounce of strength she had, Chibimoon clung to Mars’ waist, wrapping her legs around Mars’ thigh so she wouldn’t slip.  Venus had assigned her an important task, and she wasn’t going to fail her.

 

            Mars, after quickly recovering, looked down at the little pink bur attached to her and frowned.  She took hold of the collar of Chibimoon’s fuku and gave a hard tug.  When that only caused the child to cling tighter, she used both hands and pulled harder.

 

            Chibimoon didn’t budge.

 

            Glaring, Mars tried to force her hands between her waist and Chibimoon’s arms.  “Let go, you little…”

 

            She could feel herself beginning to slide down Mars’ body.  In an attempt to save herself, she grabbed onto the fabric of Mars’ fuku with her empty hand, and with the other, started whacking at Mars’ hands with her Pink Sugar Stick.

 

            Ow!  Damnit!” yelled Mars as the Stick connected with her knuckles.  “Stop it!”

 

            Chibimoon ignored the irritated directive and continued to swing the Stick as Mars tried to get a solid grip on her.  Unfortunately, even though she was managing to keep Mars’ hands mostly at bay, she was losing her fight with gravity.  She could feel herself sinking further down, and wrapped her legs ever tighter around Mars’, not realizing just how far down she was.

 

            The look of surprise on Mars’ face was almost comical as Chibimoon’s heels dug into the back of her knee, forcing it to buckle.  Her arms flailed as she tried to keep them both balanced and upright, but Chibimoon’s weight completely threw off her center of gravity, and down they both went.

 

 

            Venus had seen that small flicker of fire just as Chibimoon had gone barreling off into the brush.  As she came up on her quietly strategizing target group, she wondered how her small charge was doing.  Then she put Chibimoon temporarily out of her thoughts, and hoped the other two were in position.

 

            Stepping into their field of vision, Minako smiled at her four opponents.  “Hi, guys,” she said jovially, immediately setting them into defensive poses.  “It’s nice to see you, too,” she quipped.

 

            “Where are the others?” asked Uranus suspiciously.  “I know you didn’t just step out on your own for a friendly chat.”

 

            “Actually, I did,” she answered.  Then she looked directly at Jupiter.  “I thought I would take a cue from Neptune and ask if you’d like to surrender to me.”

 

            Jupiter laughed at her.  “Sure.  I’d love to,” she replied sarcastically.

 

            Venus shrugged as the other three changed positions to better protect Jupiter.

 

            As they moved, Saturn stepped into their view.  She stopped closest to Uranus, her glaive moving slowly, the moonlight filtering through the branches overhead and reflecting off the blade as it was leveled in challenge.

 

            Uranus smiled widely.  “So that’s how you want to play,” she said, her Space Sword materializing in her hand.  Over her shoulder, she said to Tuxedo Kamen and Sailor Moon, “We can handle these two.  See what you can do about Mercury.”

 

            “You’re forgetting Pluto and Chibimoon,” reminded Tuxedo Kamen.

 

            “No, I’m not,” said Uranus.  “We’ll call if we need help, but I’m betting they’re busy fending off the others.”

 

            Sailor Moon shrugged.  “If you’re sure,” she said, casting a wary glance in Venus’ direction.

 

            Uranus nodded.

 

            “All right,” said Sailor Moon, and as Saturn and Uranus began to circle each other, she and Tuxedo Kamen went off in search of their own target. 

 

            Venus smiled at Jupiter, her Love Me Chain dangling from her hand.  “Shall we?”

 

            Jupiter smirked.  “Mars would kill me.”

 

            “Only if Mercury didn’t get to me first,” laughed Venus.

 

            “True,” returned Jupiter.

 

            Then, to the nearby tune of metal against metal, they began their dance.

 

 

 

            Sailor Moon had to bite her lip to keep from laughing.  It was funny enough just to see Mars and Chibimoon hit the ground like a sack of potatoes.  It was even funnier to watch Mars struggle to get the clingy child off of her as they wrestled in the leaves.  Chibimoon was refusing to give up, swinging her Pink Sugar Stick for all she was worth while grabbing onto an arm, or a leg, or her fuku skirt, or anything else she could get at each time Mars tried to push her away. 

 

            Shhh…” cautioned Tuxedo Kamen, putting a finger to his lips as a few of her giggles escaped.

 

            Sailor Moon nodded, bit her lip a little harder, and for a few seconds more, they watched the struggle.  Then, just on the outer fringes of visibility, Neptune and Mercury appeared, presumably to help their comrade.

 

            “Can’t have that,” said Tuxedo Kamen.  A rose appeared between his fingers, and he stepped away from their hiding place.

 

 

 

            Mercury stood and stared in a form of mild shock.  Then she winced as the solid heart on the end of the Pink Sugar Stick connected with Mars’ elbow.  Mercury looked up at Neptune, who seemed to be similarly surprised by the sight before them.

 

            “We should untangle them,” suggested Neptune finally.  “Perhaps we can use her as leverage.”

 

            They’d taken two steps when a rose came flying out from the darkness.  It landed at their feet, the point buried solidly in the ground.

 

            “And to make sure they stay out of our way…” said Tuxedo Kamen as he emerged from the shadows, another rose already poised between his fingers.

 

            Mars and Chibimoon stopped their tussling when they heard Tuxedo Kamen’s voice.  Mars, on her back with Chibimoon’s knees planted uncomfortably in her stomach, held the girl’s hand stationary and tilted her head back to see him.  She immediately noticed that the next rose was aimed at her.

 

            Scrambling, Mars pushed Chibimoon off of her.  But not quickly enough.

 

            In rapid succession, Tuxedo Kamen threw his roses, two pinning the shoulders of Mars’ fuku to the ground, another attaching to her skirt.  He managed to get a fourth rose into Chibimoon’s skirt before Neptune stopped him.

 

            The Submarine Reflection lifted him off his feet mid throw, sending his final rose flying wild, and slammed him against a tree.  The wind knocked out of him, he crumbled to the ground.

 

            Sailor Moon gasped and ran out to him.  Seeing the mirror still in Neptune’s hand, she pulled her tiara off and called out, “Moon Tiara Action!” as she flung it in Neptune’s direction.

 

            Beside Mars on the ground, trying to free her from the deeply embedded roses without drawing blood on the razor sharp thorns, Mercury watched Neptune easily deflect the attack.  Then her eyes widened as a shadowy figure stepped up silently behind Sailor Moon from the darkness.

 

 

           

            Saturn swung her glaive in a wide arch, nearly clipping Uranus as the older senshi jumped back.  In the small opening provided as she brought it back up, Uranus charged forward.

 

            Saturn used the staff of her glaive to block the attack, and grunted with effort as she held steady against Uranus’ blow.

 

            “You know,” said Uranus, her own exertion showing in her voice.  “Jupiter can break Venus in half if she feels like it.”

 

            “I know,” answered Saturn.  She took a deep breath, then pushed hard, knocking Uranus back a step.

 

            They began to circle each other again, slowly, locking eyes and barely breathing.  “She’ll need help to capture her,” went on Uranus, ignoring the coldness those eyes projected in battle, knowing there was a warm soul underneath.

 

            Saturn allowed a small smile to touch her lips.  “I know that, too.”

 

            Uranus frowned.  “You’re counting on Pluto.”

 

            If she didn’t know better, Uranus would have called the smile that caused smug.

 

            “Yes,” said Hotaru simply.

 

            Uranus’ eyes narrowed, and her brow furrowed as she studied her child.  Then it hit her.  She cursed under her breath and took off running in the direction Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Kamen had gone.

 

 

 

            Jupiter dodged out of the way as a Love and Beauty Shock shot through the trees, taking several branches and a few small bushes with it.  She rolled to a stop and quickly got to her feet, bracing herself behind a thick tree trunk. 

 

            She could hear Venus’ steps as the girl approached her.  Keeping her breathing calm, she timed her movements to the words she could hear.  And just as the Love Me Chain came sailing in her direction, she jumped to the side and grabbed the end of it.

 

            Venus frowned as Jupiter wrapped the end of the golden chain around her wrist and tugged back.  Digging her heels into the ground, she stared down the smiling senshi of Jupiter and pulled with all her weight.

 

            Jupiter, holding on with one hand, barely even looked like she was trying.

 

            With a chuckle, Jupiter said, “You should have sent Saturn after me.  Or at least brought Pluto along with you.”

 

            “She’s… busy…” ground out Venus as she continued to play an uneven game of tug-of-war.

 

            “Doing what?”

 

            “Doesn’t… concern you.”

 

            Jupiter smirked.  “It does if she’s going to jump out and knock me unconscious with her Time Staff.”

 

            Venus didn’t say any more, only continued to pull on the Chain.

 

            Rapidly approaching footsteps caught Jupiter’s attention, and she looked away from Venus.

 

            Spotting Jupiter, and figuring she might need the help, Uranus called out as she ran passed, “They’re after Moon!”

 

            Jupiter’s brow creased in confusion.  She looked back at Venus, who was now grinning widely.  “Damn,” she muttered, then abruptly let go of the Chain to run after Uranus.

 

            With nothing suddenly on the other end, Venus lost her balance and stumbled backward.  Landing hard on her rump, she “oomphed,” then began to laugh softly to herself.

 

 

 

            Her tiara bounced pretty ineffectively off of Neptune’s mirror.  She wasn’t terribly surprised by it, but it was worth a try, at least.  Sailor Moon reached up to grab her tiara as it returned to her.  As her fingers were about to close around it, the Time Staff appeared over her shoulder, snagging it from the air.  With her tiara circling down the hilt of the Staff, she hesitantly turned her head to look behind her and gulped.

 

            Pluto smiled gently down at her and placed a hand firmly on her shoulder.

 

 

 

            Uranus had a pretty good idea of what she was going to find.  She was not, however, completely prepared for the reality of it.  Mars and Chibimoon were pinned to the ground by roses.  Mercury was kneeling over Mars, looking somewhat helpless.  Tuxedo Kamen was trying to catch his breath as he sat slumped at the base of a tree.  Neptune was extremely unhappy.  And Sailor Moon…

 

            Sailor Moon stood, her back against Pluto, with the Time Senshi’s arm across her throat.

 

            “I call ‘game,’” said Pluto clearly, a victorious smile on her lips.

 

            Uranus let out a heavy sigh.

 

            “What happened?” asked Jupiter as she came up beside her.

 

            Looking chagrined, Sailor Moon answered, “I didn’t hear her.  I didn’t know she was there.”

 

            Venus and Saturn joined the group, mirroring Pluto’s victory smile.  “Well done,” complemented Venus as she dusted the dirt from her backside.

 

            Pluto inclined her head.  “Thank you.”

 

            “Um, hello!” called Mars.  “Since this session is so obviously over, do you think I could get a little help here?”

 

            Pluto released her captive so she could help pull Tuxedo Kamen to his feet.  As she did, Venus went and knelt beside Mercury and her trapped partner.  She smiled broadly at Chibimoon, then to Mars asked, “What happened to you?”

 

            “Isn’t it obvious?” returned Mars.

 

            “I got her,” supplied Chibimoon happily from where she sat pinned to the ground.

 

            Venus snickered, and Mars sighed.

 

            “You can tease me about it later,” said Mars.  “And I call first dibs on the hot tub!”

 

            “Same here!” came a chorus of voices.

 

            As they debated over who would be the first group into the hot tub, Jupiter walked over to Mercury and held out a hand.  Mercury smiled up at her and took the offered hand as Tuxedo Kamen began to remove the roses holding Mars down.

 

            “Good game,” said Jupiter softly.  “That all worked out really well.”

 

            “Thank you.”  She studied her partner for a moment, then replied, “You’re less upset about losing than I would have expected.”

 

            Jupiter shrugged.  “Next time.  She won’t fool me so easily again.  Right now, though, I just want to get back to the house and check on the baby.  See if he’s giving your mom a hard time.”

 

            Mercury nodded, then let herself lean against Jupiter’s side.  Jupiter’s arm draped across her shoulders, and the group began to start back to find Luna and Artemis before heading back to the house.

 

*            *            *

 

            Lying on top of his blanket in the middle of the bed, Miki yawned widely, his sleepy blue eyes heavy as he seemed to fight falling asleep.  Makoto smiled down at him and finished snapping his onesie around a fresh diaper.

 

            “That’s my sleepy little Bug,” she cooed softly.  “I know it’s passed your bedtime, and that you’re ready to call it a night.”  She lifted him and gently rested him against her shoulder, humming to him for a few moments before settling him in his stroller.

 

            Tucking a blanket around him as he drifted to sleep, she thought out loud, “Maybe I should leave you with your Nana for a few more hours.  But you’d rather stay with us, wouldn’t you?”  She smiled, finding her own answer to the question.

 

            The bathroom door opened, and Makoto smirked when she saw Ami.  “What happened to the bikini?”

 

            Ami looked down at the black and white striped one-piece she was wearing and shrugged.  “This seemed more appropriate for the pool room at this hour of the night.”

 

            “Then why did you hand me this?” asked Makoto, holding up the top half of her swimsuit.

 

            Ami grinned broadly.  Then she walked over to the baby.  “Is he ready to go?”

 

            “Yeah,” answered Makoto.  She grabbed the rest of her bathing suit and the t-shirt she was using as a cover-up.  “Just give me a second to get changed.”

 

            A few minutes later, they were heading down to the pool room to meet the others and see who would be the lucky individual to try and pry Rei from the hot tub.  As they were leaving the family wing, they saw Shouko and Kara coming from the opposite direction.  The little girl walked very slowly, one foot placed deliberately in front of the other, as she grasped a large glass of water tightly in her hands.  She bit her lip as the water sloshed precariously close to the edge each time she took a step.

 

            As they passed each other, Shouko said politely, “Good evening, girls.”

 

            “Good evening,” answered Ami.

 

            Kara stopped abruptly, forcing her mother to do the same.  “Mama, can you take my water, please?”

 

            Shouko took the glass from Kara’s grip, and, relieved of her burden, Kara smiled widely.  Stepping up to Ami, she wrapped her arms around her cousin’s waist and hugged tightly before moving over to Makoto to do the same.  “You guys were gone for a long time, and Seiji wouldn’t play with me, so I didn’t have anything to do.  But Mama read me a story, and then we got kitchen water so I have a drink when I go bed, ‘cause it’s bedtime now.”

 

            Makoto grinned at her.  “It’s Miki’s bedtime, too, but he was trying really hard not to go to sleep tonight.”

 

            Kara peeked into the stroller, then looked up at Ami.  “Can I play with him tomorrow?”

 

            “I think that would be all right,” answered Ami.

 

            “Okay,” said Kara.  She turned back to her mother, and her face became serious.  “I can take it back now.”

 

            A slight smile touched Shouko’s lips as she handed the tall glass back to her daughter.  All of Kara’s concentration went back to her glass of kitchen water as she slowly started her way back to the bedroom.

 

            As they parted, Makoto started to bite the inside of her cheek.  Once they were downstairs, she stopped and said, “Here.  You take him, and I’ll meet you there.  I want to talk to your aunt.”

 

            Ami moved reluctantly to take the stroller’s handle as Makoto stepped away.  A touch of concern in her voice, she drawled out, “Mako-chan… I don’t know…”

 

            Makoto smile reassuringly.  “Don’t worry, I’ll be nice.”

 

            “I’m not worried about you being nice,” said Ami.  “I’m more concerned about things becoming tenser than they already are.  And after this morning, I don’t think there are any objects left in the woods for you to take your frustrations out on.”

 

            “Don’t worry,” repeated Makoto.  She placed a quick kiss on Ami’s cheek and gave her a little push.  “Go on.  I won’t be long, I promise.”

 

            No less concerned, Ami did as requested and left Makoto to go after Shouko.

 

            Makoto practically bounded up the steps in her newfound determination, but once she was back in the hallway, her enthusiasm dimmed.  Be nice, she repeated to herself as she neared the bedroom door.  Be nice.  Tell her the way it really is, and ask what she meant when she said she left.  Cause obviously she didn’t go very far if she’s here now.  And be nice.  Be nice…

 

            A deep breath preceded her knock, and she took a step back as she heard the doorknob begin to click open.

 

            Shouko opened the door and stood for a moment, surprised to see Makoto there.  “Can I help you with something?”

 

            “Yeah, actually,” answered Makoto.  “I wanted to talk to you about this morning.”

 

            Shouko let out a small sigh, then nodded.  “All right.  But not here.  The library should be empty at the moment.”  She turned back into the room to address Kara, who was sitting up in her sleeping bag, trying to see around the door.  Lay down and go to sleep,” commanded Shouko.  “I’ll be back shortly.”

 

            Kara frowned and grudgingly did as she was told.

 

            Shouko stepped out into the hallway with Makoto.  In the lead, she took them to the library in silence.  Once there, she pulled the heavy double doors closed and turned the latch, guaranteeing the privacy she assumed they both wanted.  Then, taking a seat in one of the highback leather chairs, she crossed her legs and said, “What is it you felt needed further discussion?”

 

            The woman is too damn calm, thought Makoto as every possible answer she could give to that question slammed into the front of her brain all at once.  Fidgeting a bit, and balling her fists for lack of knowing what else to do with them as they hung by her sides, she blurted out, “I won’t leave her, and I know just how she is.  Ami knows how she is, too, so she doesn’t just disappear on us.  And just because you couldn’t handle it all doesn’t mean we can’t.”

 

            A little too much of an answer there, Makoto decided as she watched that calm demeanor quickly fall away.  Damn.

 

            Shouko sat up straighter as her posture stiffened.  “You should refrain from making references to situations you know nothing about.”

 

            “You do,” shot back Makoto.  “You’ve been doing it since we got here.  And not just with me, but with all of us.  What is it?  Do you think we’re going to rub off on your kids in some horrible way or something?”

 

            “Simply, yes.  Though not in the way I think you mean.”  She ran a hand through her brown hair in an agitated gesture, pushing it further back from her face.  “Young woman, I am not some uneducated, ignorant housewife.  I’m well aware that certain aspects of who you are won’t ‘rub off’ on my children.  Your personality and behavior, on the other hand, do concern me.  You don’t ever step back and see it, do you?”

 

            Makoto shook her head, lost in what the woman was talking about.

 

            “You have a very unique group of friends,” explained Shouko calmly, starting to sound almost clinical as she regained some of her professional calm.  “Not only do we have you, who admittedly we know very little about as Kaya hasn’t been the most forthcoming with information, but we have your friends, who the press seems to take a certain delight in.  One of your friends in particular has a certain reputation as, for lack of a better term, a carefree, promiscuous playboy.” 

 

            Shouko held up a hand to stall Makoto’s protest.  “I didn’t say it was a necessarily deserved reputation, but it is the image Tenoh gives to the media, and she does nothing publicly to counter it.  Given Kara’s penchant for repeating and imitating everything she sees and hears, as well as Seiji’s impressionability, I prefer to err on the side of caution.  In other words, I want to know the people I leave my children with before I leave them, and if that makes me seem overly cautious or unkind, then so be it.”

 

            “But you don’t like us,” said Makoto, crossing her arms.  “You said so.”

 

            “I said I don’t approve.  There is a difference,” answered Shouko.  She recrossed her legs and leaned back in the chair.  “There are certain things that should be kept private.  Such personal affairs as yours are one of those things.  There are also certain things that children should never be brought into.  I feel you’ve all placed an unfair burden on them by bringing them into it, just to satisfy your own selfish wants.”

 

            “I love my son!  And I take good care of him!”

 

            “I know.  But taking responsibility for your mistakes after they’ve happened doesn’t change the fact that they never should have happened in the first place.”

 

            “Miki isn’t a mistake!” shot back Makoto.  Her ire was rising quickly, and all thoughts of ‘being nice’ were easily abandoned.  Shouko could see the sparks of temper in those eyes, along with something else she hadn’t meant to touch on.  With a very real warning in her voice, Makoto went on, “Don’t you ever call my son a mistake.  You don’t have the right.  No one does.”

 

            “I apologize,” said Shouko softly.  “It wasn’t my intention to place any sort of hurtful label your child.”

 

            Not in the least placated, Makoto dropped down into one of the chairs and began to tap her slippered foot rapidly against the floor.

 

            “But the behavior involved in his conception was careless,” went on Shouko.  “That is what I disapprove of, whether you chose to acknowledge it or not.”

 

            “I never said it wasn’t,” grumbled out Makoto.  “But it happened, and we’ve made it work.  This morning you accused me of using Ami as a convenience, but she isn’t.  She has a big heart, and she loves us, but I’m not using her because of that.”

 

            “Perhaps,” said Shouko.  “She very obviously loves you.  But I would question the motives of any young woman who found herself pregnant, and within six moths was living with someone who wasn’t her child’s father.  I question you even more because of what I know of your background, and because it’s Ami you’ve involved so deeply in this.  And I still wonder if you really understand just how much Ami’s habits are going to change in the next few years.  I was going through all of it right beside Seijuurou, and even understanding it, I wasn’t prepared.  And no one else in the family could understand it, because for them, it was normal.”

 

            Makoto leaned forward onto her knees.  “You said you left, but you obviously went back.  You made it work, and it isn’t fair of you to assume that I’ll just abandon Ami when it gets hard.”

 

            “I lacked independence,” replied Shouko, something akin to a self-disparaging half-smile appearing on her lips.  “You’re used to being on your own.  To setting your own rules and living the way you want to, without interference from anyone.  It took Seijuurou over a week to realize I was gone, and I still found myself unhappier without him for that month I was alone than I was when I was with him.  I still wonder, though, if I had been more independent or had a stronger sense of self, would I have gone back?

 

            “You would have if you really loved him,” said Makoto.

 

            “It’s not that simplistic,” returned Shouko.

 

            “Sure it is,” answered Makoto.  “When you love someone like that, you know them, bad habits and all.  Doesn’t mean it’s always easy to deal with, though.  Me and Ami make each other crazy sometimes because of the way we do things.  We fight once in a while, but we work it out.  We always will, and believe me, ‘always’ is going to be a very long time for us.”  She chuckled at that, knowing full well the woman in front of her had no real comprehension of just how long their forever was going to be.  Then she added, “And Ami’s mom made sure we knew what we were getting into.  She said some of the same things you did, about motives and convenience.  She got what she wanted from us, though, and she keeps tabs on us.  Her personal life isn’t my business, or anyone else’s, but whatever’s going on in it hasn’t kept her from seeing what we do.  Most of the time, I think she knows more than we realize.”

 

            “I suppose there’s some reassurance there,” said Shouko, not sounding particularly convinced.  She stood, preparing to end a conversation that had exceeded her comfort levels.  “I am not trying to keep my children from any of you, Ami in particular.  She is their family, and I still believe she is, overall, a good role model for them.  My disapproval will be made clear, but in a way that won’t alienate them from either Ami or her family.  Does that satisfy you?”

 

            “I suppose it has to,” answered Makoto with a shrug.

 

            “Then you shouldn’t keep your friends waiting.”

 

            Makoto nodded and stood.  “’Night.  I guess I’ll see you at breakfast.”

 

            Shouko inclined her head.  “Good night.”  Then she walked over and unlatched the door, freeing them both from the library.

 

            They parted ways, Makoto heading down to the pool room, Shouko heading back to her bedroom.  A quiet tension hummed off the woman as she walked through the hallways.  She wondered briefly where Seijuurou was, and if he would mind going out to the pool with her.  It was too late for a run, even with a partner, and a swim would be almost as effective.

 

            “Speak of the devil,” she muttered as she came up on Seijuurou sitting on the hallway floor.  His legs were stretched out in front of him, his feet crossed at the ankle, and he looked much more comfortable than he should leaning against the bedroom door.

 

            Seijuurou grinned when he saw her and patted the floor beside him.  “Come here.  Sit, sit.”

 

            Shouko raised one eyebrow in question, then complied.  “Is there a reason we’re out here sitting on the floor?”

 

            Mmm hmm.  I want to talk to you without disturbing Kara,” answered Seijuurou.  He pushed his glasses up, as if he were adjusting his shield for a blow, then said, “Kara said Makoto came by to see you.  She also said you don’t like her very much.”

 

            “Why do people keep assuming I don’t like her?” asked Shouko with a sigh.  “I barely know her.”

 

            “I know,” said Seijuurou.  “And I know how you are when you don’t like what someone’s doing.  Kara can’t tell the difference, though, so you’re going to have to talk to her about it.”

 

            Brown eyes looked at him in annoyance.  “Imagine that coming from you.  And why couldn’t you talk to her about it?”

 

            “I did.  I told her you liked Makoto just like everyone else does.  But it doesn’t mean as much coming from me.”  He smirked, not even realizing he was repeating the same words she had said to him.  “And it would probably help some if you stopped calling her ‘Kino-san’ all the time.”

 

            Shouko frowned at him, then proceeded to change the subject.  “Where’s Seiji?  The girls are occupying the pool room tonight, so I wondered if you would go outside to the pool with me.”

 

            “Seiji’s with Kyo.  He wants to play a piece for Gram at her party Wednesday night, and Kyo’s listening to him practice.”

 

            “You shouldn’t keep pushing him off on your brother like that,” chided Shouko.  “And I really wish you would talk to him rather than leaving it all up to Kyo.  Who knows what he’s filling Seiji’s head with.”

 

            Seijuurou sighed.  “I know, and I will.  But right now, we’re getting changed so we can go for a swim.”  He stood and held down a hand for her.  “So, why are you after me about Seiji’s crush all of a sudden?  You were barely mentioning it before we left.”

 

            “I mentioned it rather often,” answered Shouko as the stepped into the bedroom.  “You just weren’t paying attention.”  She noticed curious blue eyes staring at them from the floor, and pulled Seijuurou into the bathroom.  Then, leaning in close to whisper so her voice wouldn’t travel, she explained in detail why.

 

            Seijuurou’s eyes widened in surprise, and then he let out a huge laugh.  “You’re kidding!  I had no idea.  And she’s so…”

 

            “Otherwise involved,” supplied Shouko.  “We can leave it at that.”

 

            Seijuurou chuckled.  “If you say so.”  Still highly amused, he left the bathroom to get his swim trunks.

 

            Shouko rolled her eyes and shook her head.  As much as she hated to admit it, perhaps Seiji was best left to Kyo in this situation.  Giving up, at least temporarily, she followed Seijuurou back into the bedroom.

 

 

            She knew she was frowning.  She also knew she was muttering her frustrations to herself as she made her way down to the indoor pool.  And she honestly didn’t care.

 

            Makoto stopped walking midway down a flight of stairs.  No, that wasn’t true.  She did care, because she’d promised Ami she wouldn’t make things worse.  Truthfully, though, she wouldn’t really say things were worse.  But they sure as hell weren’t any better, either, and she was just as frustrated by the lack of resolution as she was by the woman who refused to see passed her faults.

 

            “It’s a good thing you’ve grown out of the habit of beating people up for things like this,” she grumbled to herself.  “Well, mostly.”  She sighed, then tried to shake off some of her tension before resuming her course.  No doubt Ami was almost just as tense as she was by now, wondering what might be going on.

 

            Upon entering the pool room, Makoto quickly concluded that the only person missing her was Ami.  She would have questioned even that if their eyes hadn’t met the moment she walked into the room.

 

            Chibi-usa ran between them suddenly, severing their eye contact just before she cannonballed into the deep end of the pool.  Her splash bobbled the raft Usagi was floating around on, but the blonde managed to stay upright.  She threw an unhappy glare in Chibi-usa’s direction, effectively covering the small nudge she gave Mamoru and his green Styrofoam noodle in the child’s direction.  Chibi-usa, though, managed to doggie-paddle her way to the edge of the pool all on her own, and Mamoru went quietly back to floating beside Usagi’s raft.

 

            Makoto watched Hotaru grin.  The girl said something more to Ami, then pushed away from the side and swam over to her friend.  From where she stood, Makoto could see the tension in the set of Ami’s shoulders as her feet lifted from the pool.  A small gesture kept her from standing, though, and Makoto walked over and sat beside her.

 

            “Did everything go all right?” asked Ami as Makoto dipped her toes into the water to test the temperature.

 

            “More or less,” answered Makoto.  She let her feet sink fully into the lukewarm water and shrugged.  “We were both able to walk away from it on our own.”

 

            Ami’s bearing tensed even more.

 

            “Don’t worry,” reassured Makoto.  “We weren’t as nice as we could have been, but things aren’t any worse.  I promise, and I think I may have a better idea where she’s coming from and what the problem is.  And it isn’t you, so don’t worry.  Really.  We can just chalk it up to a personality conflict and the fact that I just don’t think she trusts me at all.  She’s got no problems with you.  Actually, if she had a problem with you, she probably wouldn’t care one way or the other,” she concluded, realizing absently that she was starting to ramble.

 

            Ami took a deep breath and nodded.  She wasn’t at all happy with this situation, but she wasn’t sure yet just how to handle it.

 

            A playful grin touched Makoto’s lips, and she slung an arm over Ami’s shoulders, pulling her in closer.  Ami’s cheeks warmed, and a light giggle escaped from her as Makoto’s lips touched her cheek.  “Hey.  How much longer until our turn in the hot tub?”

 

            “They haven’t been in for very long.  So we probably have a while yet,” answered Ami.  She peeked around Makoto over to the hot tub.  Rei had her eyes closed and was starting to look truly relaxed in spite of Minako’s playful poking and teasing.  Haruka was grinning mischievously and occasionally offering up her own comments, while Michiru pretended to ignore it all.  Setsuna… well, she looked as though she really was ignoring it all, content in her own little corner of the hot tub-created universe.

 

            A slightly playful grin formed on Ami’s lips and she slid from the edge into the pool.  “Take off the shirt and come in for awhile.”

 

            Makoto smiled down at her very own little mermaid.  “I think I’ll go sit with the baby,” she said, pointing over to stroller.  Luna and Artemis were dutifully guarding her little prince as far away from the water as they could get, the two of them curled up on the thick towels lying on the floor around the stroller.

 

            Ami snagged an edge of Makoto’s t-shirt before she could move.  “Leave this on and come in, then.”

 

            Makoto’s smile widened.  She took Ami’s hand from her shirt and brought it up to her lips.  Then she pulled the shirt over her head and slide into the water.  After all, what fun was it to have your very own mermaid if you weren’t willing to swim with her?