Copyright 2001, Stefan Gagne
Beauty. True beauty...
Everywhere he looked, he found beauty. From the brilliant crystal columns to the domed ceilings of fine pearl and obsidian. From the delicate mosaic tiled floors, random mashes of color that somehow entrance and captivate the eye. The palace truly was a Shangri-La... and he was a beautiful prince fit for such luxury.
Compare that to the world he had inhabited before. Dirt. Decay. Filth. Everywhere he looked he saw things that sickened him, things that made him feel tainted just to inhale their stink. His beauty was a shining beacon amidst the rotten core, true, but he cared not if others enjoyed his beauty. If anything, he kept his interactions with his lambs minimal.
One was the world he was supposed to be saving, the other the world he was supposed to be fighting. Exchanging his position on this issue after hundreds of years was trivial to him at this point.
The one who was formerly known as Dark General Radon and then known as Magnificent Kamen had become Dark General Radon once more. The transition was easy. He simply swapped a white cape for a black one and nothing else required changing.
However, there was the problem of validation with one's peers...
Former Kamen re-turned Radon turned away from the jeweled window that overlook the external splendor of the palace to face his accuser.
"Surely, Argon, you aren't suggesting I am acting duplicitous," Radon spoke, folding his finely coated arms, tucking gloved hands where they should go for maximum style and poise. "That is ridiculous to the point of being offensive. This palace, as beautiful as it may be, is the end of the line for humans day in and day out. It is the most dangerous place for one to be who harbors ill will to the Yamiko. I would be walking into a deathtrap even I could not escape from. Give me more credit than that."
Argon was clearly displeased... but there was an unspoken contest going on between them. Who could keep their poise the longest in front of the Queen?
The Queen, yes... Radon knew her. Sitting on her gilded throne, on cushions as red as the blood you'd see in Hollywood movies. Silent and mumbling as always, but with eyes that could stare directly into your soul. He did not avoid the gaze. He had nothing to hide.
".... . . ... . . . . .. .......," the Queen mumbled, a dark red glow forming around her as she spoke, as it always did.
"The Queen says that your line of credit was purged when you turned traitor," Argon translated. "And I agree with her. You could be a valuable asset to us, with Xenon and Neon dead. We have welcomed you home... for today. But you are correct, this is a deathtrap for you if you are not with us. The Queen wishes you to prove your loyalty before we give you the resources you have requested. ...no doubt you realized this would be asked of you, so by all means, prove yourself in the most dramatic way possible, Radon."
I never did like him, Radon thought. We are the only two generals left of the first five, but his pomp and attitude was just as disgusting then as it is now...
Radon made a sweeping arm gesture... and using powers accumulated after years of Yamiko existence, pulled two figures into the courtroom. Whether they were willing or not.
The first was a young Yamiko named Ohta, who was apparently reading from a paper folder when summoned. He quickly looked around to confirm his surroundings, then tucked the folder neatly under one arm. Calm.
The second was the young Dark General named Cobalt, who was apparently sitting down when summoned. He fell flat on his rear on arrival, emitted a foul word, and quickly got to his feet. Impatient and annoyed.
"You see before you two traitors," Radon spoke with another sweeping arm gesture, with all the drama he knew Argon disliked. "I call them traitors for they have conspired against you, and I am an eyewitness."
Cobalt snarled. "The hell are you talking about, M-K?" he asked. "You--"
"The traitor will be silent before his queen," Radon warned.
Argon's frown tightened. "That's not an accusation to toss about lightly, Radon. Even if Cobalt is an unorthodox general who we keep an eye on. Especially since we keep an eye on him. What do your eyes see that ours do not?"
Exhibits A and B were produced from Dark General Radon's robes.
"Two folders, two files, two humans," he explained. "Both laced with Cobalt's special blocking powder. I have done my research, asking around the Yami-gaia in the hour before Argon brought me here. One folder was sent to Xenon, the other to Neon... and Ohta hand carried them over. Without realizing they were blocking themselves, both went to Earth, and met their deaths. I know Sailor Nothing's true identity, you realize. Her and all her friends, after spending time healing and observing them from afar. These two folders are of a friend of a Sailor, and a Sailor herself. Ohta and Cobalt assassinated two Dark Generals. THAT is my act of loyalty; bringing traitors to justice."
While Argon and Radon radiated absolute confidence and poise, Cobalt radiated the opposite, canceling both out. "This is nuts," he declared. "My Queen, I've been nothing but loyal to you. I've done everything you asked of me. Whose word will you believe -- me, or the crackpot who's been sending little girls out to kill us all? Magnificent Moron here has lost a few screws over the years, I say--"
"Ohta's fingerprints are on these files as well," Radon added, deliberately putting off the announcement until after Cobalt had dug his own grave. "I lifted his coffee mug from your office when I visited earlier. I move rather efficiently at detective work, I'm afraid. The evidence is proof enough of my loyalty, I believe... don't you agree, Argon-san?"
Argon rubbed his chin... displeased, but for reasons which he wasn't making obvious to Radon. "It would seem so. This is very questionable, Cobalt. We know the powder is your development, and two generals dead in a matter of days is a bit hard to swallow as a coincidence--"
"Planted evidence!" Cobalt declared. "Fraud, plain and simple! How do you KNOW he found those folders at Xenon and Neon's places? My Queen, how can you possibly buy into this? I mean, all you have is his word!"
"And fingerprints," Radon added with a zesty pinch of smugness. "You do know what the penalty is for treason of this scale, don't you? Well... I suppose not, being such a neophyte general. But suffice to say it is long and unpleasant--"
Cobalt whirled on him. "YOU'RE the traitor here, Bastard Kamen. You turned on us!"
"And now I've turned back and turned you out as the turncoat you are. It's quite an interesting scenario, isn't it? The symmetry of it pleases me greatly."
Argon raised his hands, trying to establish order. "Friends, let's keep this civil. I'm not convinced. Cobalt has served well, in his own way. Now, we could verify your evidence, hold a trial, ensure that the right punishment is handed out to--"
"I did it all," Ohta spoke up.
The palace chamber was quiet for a moment.
Cobalt glanced at his self-declared lackey warningly. "Ohta--"
"I'm the one who researched the sailor's true identities, and I made those files," Ohta continued. "I think you'll find that my typewriter produced the writing and my fingerprints are on the papers as well. I laced them with the powder and sent them to the generals specifically so they would be walking into traps. Dark General Cobalt had no knowledge of my actions. And furthermore, you can't prove that he had any connection, since all you have is evidence linking me to this crime. And I admit to the crime wholeheartedly and will accept onto myself any punishment you see fit."
"Ohta!" Cobalt shouted, getting quite worried at this point. "Shut--"
"I understand you'd be very upset with me sir, but I had my reasons," Ohta quickly said. "I can understand you hating me for lashing out at you and your brethren. After all, you stand united with them, and they trust you. Yes?"
All eyes turned on Cobalt. Cobalt, who was never very good on the spot. Cobalt, who had to make one of the toughest decisions he ever had to make...
"...of course," he said quietly. His words were without much conviction beyond the bare minimum needed for the others to believe in him. "Ohta, you're a backstabbing little bitch and I hope you get what you deserve for making me look bad."
Ohta's head sank. "I'm sorry, sir. I did what I had to do."
I know, Cobalt thought silently.
Red light flooded the room, radiation from the Queen's sitting form... and in a flash, Ohta was gone. Only a whiff of carbon in the air marked his death. Cobalt kept his eyes closed throughout the punishment.
"........ . . ..... ............ ............," the Queen spoke, as the glow faded.
"No eternal torture?" Radon asked, genuinely surprised by the action. "My queen, you inflicted far worse on your peer, if I recall. Have times changed in the--"
"The Queen has made her decision and carried it out," Argon spoke, thankful to interrupt him. "This was a minor matter. New Dark Generals can be selected within a month. Cobalt seems to have no involvement, but as a precaution, he will be confined to the Yami-gaia for a period of one year. And your loyalty has been proven, Dark General Radon. Will you be requiring the resources to eliminate the sailors now?"
Dark General Radon allowed himself a wide smile. "No... they have had many incidents, many problems packed into a small amount of days. I will let them simmer in complacency for one week's time. Then... I will strike where they least expect. Until then, Argon, I suggest you do no spawnings, so we can maintain the illusion that we have retreated. Once they are dead, things should settle down nicely and without me spawning any more sailors, we'll be ready to prepare for a full scale invasion. Does this plan please you, my Queen?"
"And you, Argon?"
"I am thrilled," Argon said, allowing the sarcasm to be heard in his voice.
Radon turned to the young lad. "And you, Cob..."
Cobalt had dismissed himself, leaving behind only empty air. Much like Ohta.
Argon allowed himself a mild smile. "I would suppose, Radon, that you could interpret that as Cobalt not being pleased by your plan. He can be quite a wild one, can't he?"
"And a traitor," Radon added, narrowing his eyes at the spot Cobalt used to occupy.
"You take this all far too seriously, Radon," Argon said, adding in a yawn as mild as his smile. Little accents to annoy him. "Of course, so does he. One week, you say? Why not assault now while they're vulnerable?"
Radon was the one smiling now. "I wish for Himei to enjoy a final week. A week to reflect. Either she will spend it in despair after recent events, or she'll revel in our absence. Then, when she thinks we've given up... I will show her what it means to stab Dark General Radon in the back. I don't wish to simply kill her. I would very much like to punish her for her insolence. Perhaps I'll bring her here as a living sacrifice to lay at your feet, my Queen, to torture and play with as you please for a very.. long... time. You have no concept of the depths of despair she is capable of -- I do. You and I will enjoy making her scream forever, your immortal highness."
"..... . ......... ......," the Queen added, her glow brightening/darkening the room.
"A wonderful plan, I agree," Argon didn't agree with his Queen.
Celebration! This was cause for celebration!
"I have to look my BEST!" Aki declared, tossing at least three dresses onto her bed. She spread and separated them, careful not to wrinkle a single inch of fabric. "Which one, which one? Do you think the red would be appropriate? I don't want to wear they gray and black one because that's too morbid, but maybe the yellow is just too bright. I don't know. What's Himei's favorite color?"
Dusty's cat brain, even magically enriched, was not up to this. "Uh... I think she likes black, but ... she might like yellow, or... well, red works for her too..."
"Dustttyyyy!" Aki complained, stomping her foot. "Come on, work with me here! I want to look my BEST when I go pick Himei up from the hospital with her parents! I want something that says 'Everything is okay, the Yamiko haven't attacked again and you're welcome home with loving arms!'"
The cat's tail flicked left to right. "Couldn't you print that on a T-shirt or something?" he reasoned. "It'd be the most efficient way."
"Heels or flats? Or half-heels? Maybe sandals?" Aki asked, peering into the endless depths of her closet. "And do you think my makeup's okay? It's not underdone? I didn't want to overdo it, I mean, it's not like I'm going to a fancy ball, just a hospital, but I didn't want Himei to--"
"Relax!" the cat ordered. "Seriously! Himei isn't going to care. She'll just be happy you're going. Especially since Shin and Kotashi are busy at the paper, and cats aren't allowed in the hospital, and Seiki... um..."
Aki forced herself to count from five to one backwards. Then from three to one, for good measure. She hopped onto the end of the bed, having a seat next to the housepet she had volunteered to babysit until Himei's return. "I know. Himei's not really into fashion. I just... I want to look good. It's important to ME, at least. It shows that everything's okay now. Because everything is okay now. She even said so, remember?"
'It's going okay now,' Himei had said over the phone. The sounds of beeps and whirs could be heard behind her. 'I've been very calm. The doctors want to keep me another day for observation... they want a shrink to talk with me and make sure I won't do it again. But I won't do it again.'
"That's so good to hear!" Aki replied, gripping her pink phone tightly. The call had been a surprise; late at night, after a full day of worrying about Himei, and here she was on the phone...
'I'll explain more when I get back, but I think this has been a very positive experience for me. I have to go now, they're coming around with my medicine. ...I haven't been taking it, of course. You'll come tomorrow when my parents pick me up, right? I'm looking forward to seeing you again.'
"She's faking it," Dusty declared. "I know Himei. She'd rather lie than have anybody worry about her..."
"I don't think she is," Aki said, putting in a pair of tasteful but nice earrings. "Whenever she lies to me, her voice is really flat, or really fake. She sounded real... full of hope. You didn't hear her on the phone; she was so upbeat! And she was looking forward to seeing me again. To seeing all of us again. I'll put my best foot forward, and... and we can move on from this."
Dusty shook his head, then his whole body, and crouched down on Aki's bed. "I'll be the judge of that when I get to talk to her again. I am her mentor, after all. Her animal companion and guide. If anybody can help her with this--"
The shrill note of a car horn sounded from outside Aki's home.
"Oh, Himei's parents are here!" she said, peeking out a window. "Umm.. I guess what I have on will have to do! I gotta go, Dusty! We'll pick you up on the way home from the hospital thanks for keeping me company bye now!"
"--it's me," Dusty concluded, after Aki had already left.
Alone in Aki's home. Which was little different from being alone in Himei's home.
Dusty curled up on the bed amidst the discarded dresses, careful not to get any fur on them. He was getting used to being alone, ever since Himei started getting friends.
Before, when Magnificent Kamen was around, he would give her orders and she'd follow them, and he'd console her after the messy results rocked her life once again. Nowadays... she had others to confide in. Her faithful cat would lend a paw, but little more. Dusty refused to think ill of her new friends; Himei desperately needed friends. This was something negative coming out of something positive...
Similar to something positive coming out of something negative, perhaps. Maybe Aki was a better judge of Himei's character than he was now.
Ordinary cats aren't good at worrying, but Dusty had raised it to a science.
As the car rolled silently through city streets, Aki found herself smiling.
It was crazy, of course. Himei had been hurt. Hurt very badly. And somehow...
Something in Himei's voice made Aki worry less. She had been a ball of worry before that phone call, but now, it felt like she had taken a fresh shower. Everything was nice and clean and she had a reason to feel good about the future.
Maybe helping that good feeling was her realization. Himei may not have heard it, but Aki meant what she had said to her in the hospital... and there was nothing Aki hated more than to be directionless, bewildered, confused. She'd spent a long time in that state when everything came crashing down, when the Yamiko first entered her life. She felt that way again when she realized what Himei and Seiki's budding relationship meant to her...
But now? Now she knew her direction. She knew she loved Himei. She loved Himei deeply.
But she wasn't the one who was meant for Himei in that way... and she didn't see her direction as 'settling' for anything, or letting something go. It was simply the truth. They were close friends, very close, but Himei loved Seiki and Aki would be happy with that. The happiness wasn't forced. Anything that made Himei happy was enough for Aki.
The realization was purifying. It gave her focus, it helped her say "This is who I am. This is what I am doing." She wasn't the lost little girl soaking in fashion and popularity before to give her life some meaning. Not the one the babysitter chewed out long ago, forcing her to wake up for a moment before sleeping again. Now Aki was wide awake.
Despite being awake and aware, she found it possible to forget all about the craziness of that night at Seiki's house. It felt a million miles behind her as the car rolled on. All that mattered now was the phone call. Her voice. Her voice saying it would all be okay again. She wasn't lying, she couldn't be lying. Aki's hope burned like a bonfire, where the winds of discontent would only spread it, make it burn higher...
The fire swelled as she walked down the halls of the hospital, entered the private room Himei had been moved to, and found her smiling and watching Magical Princess Sailor Rose Wand on television. Everything was going to be good again.
It was so easy to fool them all. It was a half-Truth. Shin might not like that; I think she was shooting for a full Truth and recovery, like she had managed. (Did she manage it? She sounded better after having faced her uncle. I don't know about these things, I haven't read any books about survivor recovery and psychology.) But a half-truth is much better than living where I was.
Everything fell apart, and I tried to kill myself. I had sworn to live my life and survive so I could one day have the normal life I always wanted. But despite that oath I tried to kill myself, because in a moment of weakness... it was an understandable weakness, right? I didn't feel like it was me. I wasn't the one doing it. That's because...
Maybe the best way to explain it is to explain it.
Seiki told me what he told me and showed me what he had done. I probably should have been mad, since I made Dusty swear not to make any more Sailors. But since I'd broken my own oath, I didn't get mad. And I don't think I got mad for other reasons. Why didn't I get mad? Maybe he reminded me of me. He was so sad. He felt he had to do something, that he had no choice. He wanted to do what his heart told him to do even if his brain was telling him no. I couldn't hate that. I can't hate Seiki. He's a better person than I am.
I held him for a few minutes. He cried it out. I didn't think boys could cry.
Eventually we heard a nurse coming. Seiki changed back to himself quickly (it's amazing, I didn't pick up the ability to easily transform until a few months into my job) and after a brief exchange with the nurse, he excused himself without another word to me. I think he didn't know what to say to me. I'm not sure I would've known what to say... because I couldn't think of anything comforting enough. It's okay, Seiki. It's going to be okay. That's all I could think of.
Once he left, I repeated that to myself. It's okay. It's going to be okay.
I fell asleep Sunday night and had the worst nightmare I'd ever had in my life.
I woke up the next morning happy and refreshed. I talked to the staff psychologist and hid anything that would get me put into a padded room for the rest of my life. It was so easy to fool them all. I called Aki and I explained to her how great everything was and how I felt good, and she'd drop by the next night when my parents took me home.
I fell asleep Monday night and had the second worst nightmare I'd ever had in my life.
When I got home Tuesday night, Dusty was hyper with worry. I did everything I could to soothe him but I think he was suspicious I was lying to him when I said how happy I was. Poor Dusty. He doesn't understand the things I've been through lately, how different I am from the girl he knew.
I fell asleep Tuesday night and had the third worst nightmare...
Why was I so happy? I'll explain. The same thing that happened Monday morning happened Wednesday morning, too...
My nightmare was the most intense, most awful thing I had ever experienced short of what I had actually experienced that I was dreaming about. What was worse was that usually you can float over things and watch them from outside your body, but I was watching from the same perspective I had gotten it from. Some things were different... the face of the boy was blurred and unidentifiable. That's because it Was Not Seiki. I've worked with the Yamiko long enough to make that connection, to hard wire it. I will not link one to the other. I don't want to see him that way...
I nightmared and dreamed in a nightmare and tossed and turned and was sweating a lot in my sleep. And then I woke up Wednesday morning, and I promptly got out of bed, did a few stretches, and picked a school uniform to put on. I walked to school, still a bit tired but otherwise fine, and attended classes normally.
There's something missing in the above morning routine.
Can you see it?
I didn't have to force myself to stay in bed for forty five seconds.
That's why I was so happy. The part of me that wanted to die had died and was now gone. All that remained was Hope.
It's not a complete victory. It's a half-truth But it's a good beginning, and I think Shin would be proud of me.
I think to celebrate, I'll ask Seiki out on a date.
Uncle Takeshi from America sent Seiki an album for his eleventh birthday.
He didn't know the words, and couldn't read the lyric sheets, but the music was happy and made him feel good inside. Whenever he was having a foul day, rather than reaching for pop music in a language he understood, he'd usually reach for the strange album about creatures who might be giants.
A day after his parents died, he was listening to this album on headphones to drone out the sound the lawyers and civil service workers were haggling over his fate in the next room. He had made his intentions clear; he wanted to stay in his home. Even if he had to live alone, which made him tremble just to think about, he didn't want to leave the life he knew. He didn't want to go to America to live with Uncle Takeshi, and his Uncle was trying to make sure things worked out for him.
Seiki made sure not to cry. If he did, they might think he couldn't do this. He hadn't cried once since they went away.
As he sat in the hallway, listening to the strange words lift his spirits, the session was called to recess. His Uncle joined him, sitting on the hard plastic chairs in the hallway.
"What's that you're listening to?" he asked.
Seiki explained it was the album that Uncle Takeshi had sent him. He pointed to the numbered track on the back of the plastic box.
"You know what that says, right?"
Seiki said he didn't know.
And so Uncle Takeshi pulled the paper insert out of the box, and translated the lyrics for him...
Everything that's right is wrong again
You're a weasel overcome with dinge
Weasel overcome but not before the damage done
The healing doesn't stop the feeling.
All at once, the happy, bouncy little song that kept him company turned into something painful, and Seiki cried for the first time in days.
Now, in wake of the event that had changed his life completely for the second time, everything right was wrong again.
He couldn't recall exactly what day it was, beyond being a schoolday, and being after the night he hurt Himei. It was probably Thursday. That felt far away enough from everything without being far enough away.
Seiki started his morning run to school... but two minutes in, he found he was simply walking. He was also taking an alternative route, one which guaranteed he wouldn't bump into anybody he knew. Today was the day Himei came back to school, he thought absently.
Nothing felt obviously different on his run to school. The sun was still shining, the sky was still blue, buildings were still tall. The difference was that this was After what had happened, and what was Before was Before what had happened. A minor difference, but it made everything different in ways Seiki didn't have the poetry to explain.
He didn't have anybody to explain it to, even if he wanted to. When he got to school, he saw his track teammates in the locker room. They wouldn't speak to him. A few gave him dirty looks, some gave him frightened looks... but he was clearly not welcome to talk about anything big or small with them.
Event skimmed by during the school day, with only small blips registering to him. It was like watching a videotape of somebody else's life. A bad videotape, recorded in SLP mode, like his collection of Magical Princess Sailor Rose Wand episodes back home. All fuzzy and weak, clearly fake to the eyes.
Is this how Himei feels every day? he wondered. He wondered if he was right about that. He wondered if he should ask her before stopping wondering and saying no, he shouldn't.
Seiki walked down the halls of Wazaru, and nobody would talk to him there either. The incident with the dark cloud 'freak weather phenomenon' and Seiki's unusual actions had spread, mutated, and twisted itself up inside the rumor mill. The fact that the team failed in the mission the Fashion Club had assigned them didn't make matters better; when Ami wanted you forgotten, people forgot you. Seiki went from the most popular boy in school to the boy others were frightened to be around.
Is that what happens to Himei every day?
He sat in classes and couldn't hear the teacher because everything felt muted.
He walked by the Journalism Club Room without even looking in the little window on the door to see if anybody he knew was inside. His feet felt numb from walking, even if he hadn't done a lot of walking today.
Everything right was wrong again. The pain he caused. He did what he could. He couldn't say another word to her when she embraced him, he panicked, he ran. He didn't know what he was supposed to do now...
Drifting through the halls. Lunch tasted like nothing. He thought about going to the tree behind the school and stopped thinking about it.
He could walk in front of a speeding car and not hear the horn in this state. Everything felt more and more distant as the minutes crawled on through classes. He got his shoes from his locker and started to walk home. He stepped into the street outside the gates, he hadn't spoken to anyone today and nobody had approached him, he was thinking of not going to his job and going home because even if he was alone it felt like he couldn't handle anything that...
Himei stepped in front of him, wearing a bright smile he didn't
know she could wear.
The haze over his life was torn away in an instant.
He had to take three missteps before he stopped moving.
Time caught up with him.
"I'm glad I caught up with you before you went home," Himei said, still smiling. It was an unpracticed smile, awkwardly fitting but with a spirit that wanted so badly for it to look perfect...
"Ah... you were? You are?" Seiki corrected, words stumbling out of his mouth.
Himei glanced around, making sure nobody was paying attention. "Yeah... um... I don't think this is how it's done, but... do you want to go on a date tonight?"
That's not possible, he thought. Not after everything that's happened. It's like something from something completely different than what this was now. She should hate me. She should be resentful. She should at least be angry that he went over her wishes and saw Dusty. She should not be asking him on a date, that's not what is the sort of thing that should happen after that.
On the other hand, the other hand said, she was the one who told him it's okay. It's going to be okay...
"Are you okay?" she asked, leaning down a bit to look him in the eyes.
"Ah, yes! I mean... things are okay," he replied, looking up with a start. "Uh... you were saying? You want to go on a... date?"
Himei fidgeted. "Well, yeah. I mean, that is, if you want to. I just thought that unless you're busy and you know, you want to..."
"You want to go on a date with me?" Seiki repeated, to make sure he heard what he knew he was hearing just fine.
There were three more of that sort of exchange before Seiki found himself saying yes.
"You said yes?"
"I said yes," Seiki repeated, looking surprised at himself even the day after. "I said yes. I can't believe I did. Maybe it's because she came to me and she wanted it. I wanted to make her happy..."
"But you were happy about it too, right?" Kotashi asked, leaning forward to speak more privately, despite the locker room being empty. His tape recorder he was supposed to be taking notes with for the sports column interview lay unused at his side. "I mean, you DID want the date, you didn't just say yes to make her happy?"
"I don't know," his friend replied, shaking his head. "I... I would have been happy. And I was happy by the time the night was over. So I guess things worked out, I was just expecting... I almost wanted her to hate me. I'd have felt better if I was being punished for this..."
Kotashi sighed. "Seiki, I told you--"
"So did she."
"She said almost the same thing you did," Seiki spoke quietly. "Before we got to the theater... I asked her. I had to ask, because it felt so strange, her smiling and happy while I still hadn't gotten out of this weird, not-there feeling. I asked her, why don't you hate me after what I did? And she said what you said. That it wasn't me. It was the monsters."
"I told you she had a handle on this," Kotashi said, relieved inside. "We can't even compare to what she's gone through. If anybody is going to be able to cope, it's her--"
"She also told me she wasn't afraid anymore."
Kotashi paused his pep talk. "Afraid of what?"
"...killing herself," Seiki said, after pausing long enough to say it. "She told me the reason she was so happy is because she 'got it out of her system'. She had decided she wanted to live, so she could have friends and dates and a normal life like any other girl. Now that she'd done.. what she did, she didn't have to fear doing it anymore. And then she hugged me."
Kotashi let that soak in a moment. "Himei... hugging you. I guess it's possible..."
"She was happy, Kotashi," Seiki said... starting to smile a bit, himself. "She was really happy. It was a weak kind of happy, I could tell she was hurting, but she was smiling. Smiling! It was the happiest I'd ever seen her. ...that's what I want. I want her to be happy. I went through a lot of hell myself when my parents died, and I went through it alone. ...I'd thought about doing what she did. But I chose to life, and she's done it to, and... I really think things are going to work out."
"I'm happy for you too, man," Kotashi said, patting his friend on the shoulder in a manly sort of way. "Frankly, you are dealing with a lot of really gnarly shit and dealing with it better than most would. I'm proud of you!"
Seiki shook his head... his smile fading a bit. "Don't celebrate yet. We haven't had any Yamiko attacks all week."
"I know. So?"
"So it's not like Himei has the normal life she wants yet. I don't have one, either. Maybe we have a respite here, but things could get bad at any minute. I'll defend her with my very life, and I'm not going to pretend we're in the clear. I'm not letting down my guard."
Kotashi nodded. "I know. Shin said the same thing to me yesterday. 'I'm not letting down my guard.' But she's taking advantage of the time we've got, and so should you. Maybe you could ask her out tonight? The other way around, like?"
"I'm thinking about it. I'm honestly thinking about it. How about you?"
"I'm sorry, my friend, but I do not swing that way," Kotashi mock-seriously spoke onto Seiki.
Seiki laughed for the first time all day. "I mean with Shin, man! You two are getting closer together, right? You told me you actually kissed..."
"...oh, Shin," Kotashi said, glancing aside a moment. "Well... she's real busy this week. Like I said, taking advantage of the time. Been writing the book."
"The book about all this sailor stuff?"
"The same. I've proofread a few early chapters. It's amazing stuff. She's changed the names and a few details to keep our privacy intact, but it's still powerful... she's got a pretty good view into our heads. Knows how we all feel about this just from her intuition..."
"And she knows how you feel about her, right?"
Kotashi leaned back against a locker. "I don't know. She hasn't given me that chapter yet. It's crunch time. 'I might not get another chance to write this down,' she told me. ...I think she might think we could get in serious danger soon, and she wants as much on the record as she can before that happens. It's a morbid thought, but she's half realist, half pessimist, and the longer the Yamiko take to make the next move the worse she thinks that move will be..."
Seiki frowned. "I hadn't thought of that..."
"I have to wonder if Himei has," Kotashi said. "Maybe that's one reason she asked you out. To do it before the other shoe drops..."
"So why aren't you?" Seiki asked. "Why not ask her out on a date? I mean... I don't want to be morbid either, I'd like to think if we stand up for ourselves we'll be okay... but maybe you should. You've never gone on a date with her before, right? All-night crunch sessions to meet deadlines do not count."
Now, it was Kotashi's turn to turn his head and glance askew. "Umm... date. Date Shin. Me, asking Shin on a date. Correct?"
"Correct. What's so strange about that? You care about her, right?"
"Be straight with me," Seiki warned. "Come on. Friend to friend. And don't be afraid to use flowery words, I've seen plenty of shoujo anime."
"I don't know if I can get all poetic about it," Kotashi mumbled. "I just... I care about her. Deeply. Yeah, I'd go so far as to say I love her. ...I mean, I worked with her side by side for so long, and we've confided a lot in each other and I always heard that friends make the best.. lovers. I'm having a hard time applying the term 'lovers' to this, you understand."
"You two did kiss, yeah?"
"It was a very tense situation," Kotashi defended. "But okay, I'll say that. I love Shin. I want her to be happy, and I want her to get through all this and finish her book and be happy. I'll do anything I can... I mean, anything short of what you did. I told you I don't think I can do that. ...christ, I feel like less of a man for that. I should be out there fighting to protect her, if not for the fact that she'd have no truck with that and would probably call me a patriarchal luddite or something--"
"Lovers, man, keep on track," Seiki said. "You're doing everything you can already and that's enough. Now continue."
"I love her. Maybe I haven't told her straight... you think I should, don't you? She'd appreciate it. It's the Truth. And that is the sort of thing that's best done on a date, right? You're going to make me do this, aren't you? It's for my own good, isn't it?"
"Ah," Seiki said, smiling. "Now we are getting somewhere."
"You know the only reason why there's region encoding on DVDs is so they can hoard profits through market control," Shin continued. "A movie gets released in America, and we have to wait months for a Japanese-language release. But if there wasn't region encoding, we could import the disc straight from America and watch it anyway -- which still makes the studio money, but it means they can control the market."
"Let's say they didn't want to release Movie A in Japan, for whatever reason. By importing that movie, we are going against the entertainment corporate conglomerate's will. We're defying what they see as their right to control what we see and hear. They didn't have that control on videotapes, beyond the NTSC and PAL importing issues, which anybody with the know-how could defeat. So what do they do? They make region encoding part of the standard, lean like Mafia hitmen on anybody who makes region-free players, and get copyright protection laws enacted that give THEM the power to criminally prosecute consumers who dare to step out of line. It's no better than the Scientologists using copyright law to keep their doctrines away from the eyes of the Truth, where it could be exposed as the ramshackle load of extortionist crap it is. Of course, those guys will exploit the court system's infinite appeals to unjustly sue your ass into oblivion and drain your money via legal fees, whether they're in the legal right or not."
"And take the DMCA, for instance," she continued, as the line shuffled slowly forward. "A law the Americans made up and tons of other countries in Asia are starting to pick up, like New Zealand and the Aussies. This is a law which makes it illegal to expose the shoddy security coding of consumer products. And why? So the corporations can sell you absolute garbage and never have it be exposed as the garbage it is. We're talking the bottom line, the almighty dollar -- if you put that in danger, you can expect the jackbooted attack squads of the zaibatsus to kick your ass into jail. It's illegal to talk about it, much less actually spread the technology to defeat the security. You can't even LINK to the stuff on the web indirectly. It's like outlawing crowbars, even if you need to use one to break into your own car -- that's fair use, I should note. And they're not just outlawing them, but outlawing the technology to make a crowbar, and outlawing any printed text which explains how to make a crowbar, and--"
"Do you have change for a thousand yen bill?" Kotashi asked, rooting through his wallet. "I need some small change for the bus tomorrow and don't want to spend all my coins on the tickets..."
Shin tapped her foot, as she withdrew some change as politely as she could manage. "Fine, fine. Kotashi, are you even listening to me here?"
"No, not really," Kotashi said, pocketing the money.
"Oh," Shin said, puzzled. "I'm not sure if I should reward you for your honesty or smack you one for being a prick about it..."
"I'm not trying to be a prick, Shin," Kotashi said, patient and calm as always. "But we are technically supposed to be enjoying this evening out in a lighthearted sort of way rather than working up into a frothy rage over modern day legal rights issues. ...it IS a date, you know."
The line for movie tickets advanced another two feet. The booth was almost in sight at this point; just another typical crowded Saturday night at the multiplex.
Shin glanced away, coughing in the telltale sign of discomfort. "Right, right. ...sorry. I'll try to keep it curtailed, Your Ed... Kotashi. Dammit, I almost said it again, didn't I? Why is it so hard for me to not be so serious in a serious way?"
"We've always bantered like this, Shin. Just because we've come to.. certain agreements doesn't mean that'll change," Kotashi said. "I like you just fine as you are. I like the banter, too. Just... let's put the rhetoric aside one night. You have GOT to relax some, you've been going nonstop on your book--"
"I need to get as much down as possible," Shin repeated, her stock answer to the question. "I might not get many chances to write the stuff soon. This week long lull just makes me more paranoid, and the issue isn't if--"
"Isn't if you're paranoid, Lenny, it's whether you're paranoid enough," he quoted. "Right. But I think, barring you getting a migraine and running off to take care of the business, we can put the paranoia on pause one night. Okay?"
Shin groaned. "Okay, okay. Point made. Now--"
"I agree with you about those laws, by the way," Kotashi said. "Maybe when all this is over you can write a column on it. Just don't mention the Scientologists, I don't want to get the paper in legal trouble. Heads up, we're almost there. You think we'll have enough time to see the trailers?"
"They better be showing the Lord of the Rings trailer," Shin commented, standing on her toes to see the board of movie showtimes above the ticket booth. They were mere feet from the window now, as she stepped forward to fill a gap in the line. "If--"
A mass of expertly styled hair and selectively chosen fashions slipped into the line gap before Shin could advance, cutting in with practiced ease.
"Two for 'The Princess Diaries,' Hideaki," the smooth and feminine voice of Ami, Fashion Club Leader spoke as she flashed the guy in the ticket booth a winning smile.
Kotashi did not groan, but he was on the inside. He knew what was about to happen even before Shin made a pointed point of clearing her throat behind Ami and Emi.
"Ex Cuse Me," Shin spoke, making sure every sound was as pointed as the point she was about to make. "But you just cut in line. We were next."
"Eh?" Emi asked, turning around, her hair catching up in the turn a moment later. "Oh, it's you. The journalism geek. What do you want?"
"We want our tickets, and we do not want to be late," Shin said. "So push off and wait your turn. That movie's not starting for another twenty minutes, but 'Shrek' is up next, and--"
Ami giggled, turning also. "You're going to see that horrible thing?" she asked. "It's just a little kid's cartoon. And the whole thing with the beautiful princess turning into a horrible, fat, smelly green troll at the end of the movie is revolting!"
A few people in the line who were about to go see the movie groaned and jeered and made other noises of discontent which rolled off Ami's back like water and ducks and/or oil.
Shin's demeanor dropped to sub-arctic conditions. "Thank you SO much for spoiling it. I suppose it's a worse message than a movie that teaches little girls that curly hair and glasses will make you a social reject who will never find happiness and love until she turns into a generic anorexic fashion model template, then?"
Intervening verbally if not physically, Kotashi tried to play the voice of Reason. "Shin, we'll just miss the trailers. It's no big deal. Let them get their tickets."
Shin raised her hands, a peaceful gesture. "Hey, I'm just talking film critique here," she noted. "It's still a free country. You nice girls buy your tickets, and don't let the sticky floors mess up your tall shoes, okay? Good."
The ticket guy slipped Emi her two tickets after a bit of back and forth whispering, and the Fashion Club girls stepped aside. Shin proudly stepped up, feeling like her movie selection was a blow to the forces of conformity everywhere, as she slapped down a handful of miscellaneous change. "Two for Shrek, please."
"Sold out," the ticket guy said. The two girls promptly burst out in girlish giggles.
"Sold.. out," Shin repeated. "Let me get this straight. It's number nine on the top box office movies. It's been out for a few weeks now. There's a big premiere taking its primary audience away tonight. And the show is sold out?"
The ticket guy tried to lean around and look behind Shin, to announce "Next please?", but she moved to intercept.
"Don't think I don't know what's going on here, you little zit faced sheep," Shin hissed, keeping her eyes locked on the boy -- who melted and whimpered slightly under that glare. "I want to see your manager. Now. Just to confirm that Yes, the show is sold out. The customer is always right, correct? It's my right as a consumer to--"
A door in the back of the ticket booth opened, as a man in a business suit leaned in. Shin immediately identified his MANAGER tag.
"Excuse me, is there a problem here?" he asked.
"YES, there is a problem," Shin said. "This clod says that the next showing of Shrek is sold out. Now--"
"Hiiieee, Daddy!" Ami said, waving to the man. "How's work going today? Hey, can we have some free passes? The Club wants to do a double header tomorrow!"
"Of course, Ami-chan," the Manager said, smiling... a smile that dropped like a brick when he turned back to Shin. "If he says the show is sold out, it's sold out. Please stop holding up the line. Next customer, please? You're doing a fine job, Hideaki-kun, keep it up."
"Yes sir!" the ticket guy said, as the Manager closed the door behind him.
Two people stepped around the dazed Shin, approaching. "Uh..." one of them said, unsure. "Two for Shrek?"
"That'll be 1000 yen," Hideaki replied.
The 'snap' was the sound of Shin's temper. And rather than exploding with rage, she got nice and focused in her rage.
"That's just fine," she said, stepping out of line... to face Ami. "I didn't particularly want to visit this bourgeoisie palace run by MPAA thugs, anyway. So you and your pretty little friends go and enjoy YOUR kids movie. Sleep well in contentment that the ugly people are not seeing any bad movies tonight, okay, Ami-CHAN?"
"Ohhh, I'm sure I'll sleep just fine," Ami said, lipstick-coated lips smiling tightly.
"You know, I hope something very bad happens to you one of these days," Shin said. "Then maybe you'll get what you've had coming to you since the first time you cried crocodile tears until your daddy bought you a Barbie doll. C'mon, Kotashi. Let's bail."
She ignored the laughs of the Fashion Victims until she was around the street corner and unable to hear them anymore. Kotashi tailed along, as silent as he was during the entire exchange... waiting for Shin to stop. She did, one block later, in front of nowhere in particular. Stopped and went quiet.
"So..." Kotashi said. "Where are we bailing to, exactly?"
"I don't know. Somewhere. Anywhere," Shin said, kicking a nearby wall. "Dammit. I swear, people like that evil bitch are--"
"She's not evil, Shin."
"Excuse me?" Shin asked, turning to face him. "Were you blind as well as mute back there? She--"
"There is a difference between evil and being an asshole," Kotashi explained, once again, patient and calm as always. "Ami is simply an asshole. As was the ticket guy, and the manager. Weren't you the one who told me your uncle wasn't a monster? That he was just a flawed bastard?"
"That and this have nothing in common. They're... I mean... dammit. I should just get home," Shin decided. "The book isn't nearly done. I just got to the Himei's first night in the hospital. Those events are going to need a lot of detail, and--"
This time, Kotashi was the one to grab Shin's wrist, and lead the way as he pulled her along. The assertiveness surprised Shin so much that she was almost knocked off balance before falling into step next to him.
"Where are we bailing to, then?" Shin asked. "Or is that classified?"
"Like you said, we're going to your place," Kotashi explained... smiling to her, shifting the tone up a bit. "But not to work. You've done enough slaving away... I had a feeling this was coming, so I wasn't just staying quiet, I was formulating an evil scheme. We are still going to see the movie. I know where you can get a copy of Shrek online; someone pirated a copy, compressed it and put it on an archive I've got access to. I told you I agreed with you about the law earlier, yes? We'll watch it in your nice soundproof basement so it won't bug your folks, have some non-watered down sodas, and I'll make microwave popcorn. Who needs the multiplex? Pillows are more comfy than sticky theater seats, anyway."
"Ooooh, this sounds daring," Shin said, the upbeat mood infecting her nicely. "Breaking the copyright law? You're such a rugged and dangerous outlaw, Kotashi. I don't know if a nice girl like me should be alone with a bad man like you."
"Well, ma'am, I'll do my best to be gentlemanly," Kotashi said, tipping an imaginary hat.
"You don't have to go through all that trouble for little 'ol me. I like my boys rough and... and tumble. Or... something. Can you tell I'm absolutely lousy at flirting?"
The two carried on into the night, laughing and having the enjoyable and relaxing date that Kotashi had set out to have in the first place.
Seiki was right, he thought. This was for my own good. It feels right, spending time like this with her... and he didn't want it to end. Ever.
But tomorrow was another day...
Dusty pawed at the calendar on the wall of Himei's room. He was attempting to flip the pages -- a futile task given how little he could manipulate his environment. But something about the way the month had changed yet the calendar was showing last month was irritating him.
Himei usually kept the calendar nice and accurate. She'd cross off the days as they went by, without fail, right before going to bed.
"It helps me know that today wasn't the same as yesterday," she told him, one time. How the days seemed to flow into each other and everything was the same. Not in the nostalgic happy childhood sort of way, either.
The calendar was two days behind. 31. 1. The next month not in view. Last night, Himei had gone right to bed after her date without scratching off the day.
(Her parents hadn't set a curfew, just happy she was happy. They were always distant in her life, figures that move through the house and follow preset paths. Now they probably reckoned that with things looking up for Himei despite a recent suicide attempt, they would be better off interfering even less.)
When Dusty asked how the date had gone, since it was the third one she'd been on this week (movie, dinner and movie, dinner and trip to the park) Himei mumbled something about being sleepy and she'd tell him later before pulling up the covers.
When Dusty awoke, Himei had already left for the day. Up early on a Sunday morning. She left a note saying that she was going to help Seiki clean up his house, then the whole group was going out for ice cream.
Earlier, when Aki was cat-sitting him, he thought how he was getting used to being alone. Himei had friends now... she even had a boyfriend. The one who lost all chances at happiness the night Magnificent Kamen found her was happy at last. Dusty was supposed to be happy about that. Right? This was a good thing. Even if it meant being alone more. Even if it meant not being needed as Himei's sole confidant anymore...
The cat shook his head, shaking out the idea. Not something he wanted to think of again; he'd been thinking of it enough this week. This was a Sunday, and Himei or no Himei, he had his spot in the sunbeam flowing into Himei's room from her sole window. Maybe he had unusually human intelligence and mannerisms, but the cat in him loved nothing more than to curl up in a sunbeam and nap. The perfect way to wash away those worries...
Just as he was stretching out in pre-nap preparation, a shadow flitted across the window, blocking out his sun.
Dusty looked up at the shadow, and froze.
"Sleep," the man suggested. And so Dusty did, but it would not be a relaxing nap at all.
Rooting through closets. Past rain galoshes, past winter coats lying on the ground in disuse.
"Dusty, have you seen my apron? The one I used to cook with?"
Opening dresser drawers, rooting through fairly drab clothing and bits of school uniforms.
"Dusty, where are you?" Himei asked, closing the drawer. "Probably off napping somewhere.........."
Picking up the note left on her pillow.
Meet me in warehouse 8 at the city municipal dock at 8pm or Dusty will die.
Signed, Magnificent Kamen.
Nothing annoys a cat more than water. In a spritzer bottle, it's a pain. Dumped on top of the cat via a bucket is even worse.
Dusty sputtered back to consciousness, raising his head -- and flinching as his ear brushed against hard metal wire. His eyes flicked left and right. A cage. He was in a small cage, a pet carrier cage... an office. Some windows. Lots of dust, looked unused. The only door in closed. No way out of the cage, even if he could open the door and flee, which he couldn't...
The man set the now-empty bucket down, and had a seat in a chair across the office floor. Brushed the rust flakes from the bucket handle off his pristine white gloves... and folded his fingers in front of his mouth, leaning elbows on knees to look down at the caged cat.
"Hello again, Dusty," the one who was known as Magnificent Kamen spoke. "Did you miss me?"
Dusty's eyes narrowed. Despite being a housecat, he tried to look as much like a tiger as possible. "I was wondering when you'd come back," Dusty spoke, low and dangerous. "Himei should have finished you off. I knew the minute she said you escaped that you'd try something."
"I granted you an acceptable level of intelligence, it seems," the former Kamen spoke. "Always a useful asset, the animal advisor. Sailors of the past relied on it when I was not available. Very few of them actively rebelled against me... the few that did, I killed, of course. You are the oversight."
"That's a nice new cape," Dusty commented, recognizing the outfit immediately. Pump him for information, he thought. Anything Himei can use once he finds a way to escape. "So, you're a Dark General now? I thought you loathed the Yamiko."
"Dark General Radon to you, animal. And how could I loathe the family I was born into?" Radon asked. "I do not hate the Yamiko. I do not hate the Yami-gaia. You're confused because I single-handedly led the resistance force, the Sailors, in battle against them. Correct?"
Dusty crouched down in his cage, refusing to unlock his eyes from the Dark General's soulless gray eyes. "The thought had crossed my mind, given you've been fighting them for hundreds of years--"
"Allow me to let you in on a little secret," Radon said, sitting back. "One I have told no one. Yes, the silly priestess came to me and freed me of the Queen's will. She gave me the mission to train the sailors, to fight the evil. I took up the cause with great interest... but there is a difference between defeating the evil to vanquish them, and defeating the evil in order to conquer it. The girl wanted me to destroy the Yamiko utterly. Why destroy such a perfect resource when you can conquer it and use it yourself?"
"Conquer. The difference is in the last step, you see. I trained the girls to be my warriors, honing their ability to destroy Yamiko, in hopes of using them as tools to overthrow the Queen... unfortunately, I never got far enough to take that last step. They kept dying before they were ready to mount the final assault. Isn't that interesting? Here you and the girl thought I was, if not a nice man, at least on the right side. I'm on my own side alone. I'm surprised you never entertained the notion, being such a bright little kitten..."
(This is bad, Dusty thought. He's telling me secrets. He wouldn't do that unless he didn't expect me to live... but Dusty had to continue, in the slim chance he could get this information to Himei.)
"So you've taken over the Yami-gaia?" Dusty asked. "Is that why we haven't heard from you guys in a week? Some sort of civil war?"
"Oh, not yet," Dark General Radon replied. "True, your girls have crushed two of the Generals, and gotten another one too implicated in sedition to make any stand against me. Very helpful. But no, not yet. Your girls are still a threat. Argon is, of course, a threat. Once everything is neat and orderly, then I can make my move on her weakness. The Queen's only true vulnerability..."
Radon eyed the cat. "Don't think I'm not aware you're milking me, kitten. Get the bad guy to divulge his plans, escape, and use them against him. I may loathe this human artform known as movies, but I am aware of who James Bond is."
"Then why tell me any of this?" Dusty asked, pulse racing. If he made a move... Dusty couldn't do anything. But the tension, the flight instinct was still there...
"Because I appreciate delicious irony," the General said, smiling. "I want you to know just how much of a tool you and Himei were in my quest. I want you to know before I have you killed and I take Himei to the Yami-gaia. I'll give her to the Queen at first to play with, to make the Queen think she still has my loyalty. But once I destroy the Queen, I'll take Himei myself. She's been an incredible bother to me -- the most disobedient, incompetent, annoying sailor to date. I've been planning many wonderful things to do to her to pay her back for the pain she caused me... but her friends, they'll just have to die. I'm not interested in them."
"If you think you do that easily, you're dead wrong--"
"Everything is well in hand. I've been planning this ever since that Aki upstart nearly killed me in the park," Radon said, flexing the arm that was previously melted off by Amazing Grace. "She will come tonight to rescue you, and here she will face the finest Yamiko warriors ever produced by the Yami-gaia. On loan from the Queen due to my outstanding loyalty, of course. Then Argon will be destroyed, and then the Queen. It's almost sad, how easily I will unseat her from the throne. Do you want to know how I will accomplish that?"
The war council convened almost immediately.
One phone call to Shin, who sent instant messages to Kotashi's wireless computer, who sent a message by computer to Aki's Himemiya Heavy Industry Concern Beautiful Wireless Girl-Time Communication PDA. Seiki had to be called on conventional telephone.
Bikes were deposited in the front yard. Shin told her mother it was an emergency Journalism Club meeting. Once drawn together, they began to form a plan.
Or at least, speculate wildly about one.
"We need a plan," Aki said, with a small hint of panic in her voice. "Eight is only three hours away--"
"I can look at a clock, thank you," Shin said, continuing to click away with her mouse at her computer, not looking at the group. "We are all aware it's only three hours away. Did any of you sense any new Yamiko being spawned?"
"That doesn't mean anything. He could have brought more experienced Yamiko from the Yami-gaia," Himei said... voice an even monotone, not the more jovial one she used the last few nights.
She glanced at Seiki to her side... who was trying his best to look as confident as Himei looked. (In actuality, Himei was numb, not confident. )
"I thought he hated the Yamiko?" Seiki asked. "He was one of the good guys, right? I mean, he's a Yamiko, from what you told me... but he seems to have a personal thing against you, too, so... uh... why would he have them?"
Kotashi shook his head. "We have to assume he has some sort of help. Him alone wasn't enough against two sailors, let alone three plus a kamen. He'll have either a bunch of Yamiko waiting, some human thugs, or a huge trap, or all three. We have to plan for all three--"
"If it's human, it would be another sailor," Himei corrected. "He wouldn't lower himself to working with hired humans. He thinks humans are disgusting. But if it was a sailor, a sailor's attacks couldn't hurt us. It's either a trap or some Yamiko."
"That's a pretty big assumption," Kotashi said. "Maybe he changed his playbook. Working with Yamiko would be a change too. Can we safely assume no humans? Can--"
Shin whirled around in her taped up rickety old office chair. "Look, we can't assume ANYTHING, okay?" she blurted out, interrupting. "We have no fucking clue what he has in store. We'll assume it's a big black box in the warehouse of unknowns and work from there..."
Two clicks, and blue filled her computer monitor, crisscrossed by white lines.
"Here's a floor plan of the building straight from the city hall computers," Shin explained. "What we do is we pick two points of entry and go in guns a-blazing. We do NOT go in at eight; we go in as soon as humanly possible, and jump him before he's ready. I doubt he's expecting us to have the location scouted; your boy doesn't strike me as the type to have caught up with the digital age. Am I right, Himei?"
"Yes," Himei replied quickly.
"Good. So everybody memorize the floorplan, and hopefully there won't be so many crates in that blasted place that it looks like E1M5," Shin said. "We'll go in teams of two--"
All eyes turned to Seiki, as he spoke up.
"We can't afford to do that," Seiki said... approaching the diagram and studying it. "There's only going to be four of us. Teams of two means two groups going in. I know in the movies when the group splits up and searches it's always disaster, but... with only four people, I think it'd be better for us to go in solo at these four points. There's a window on the side wall, a window in the office, and a window by the cargo door in the back. Three of the four sides of the warehouse. If we break the glass simultaneously we can bust in from all sides. He'll have left the main door unlocked, because he invited us in... I'll go in through that one before the windows break to provide a distraction, since he'd be expecting--"
"He'll be expecting me," Himei said, interrupting. "I'll go in through the main doors. If there's any trap or ambush waiting, it'll be there."
"Which is why I'll go in," Seiki said.
"He'll be expecting me," she repeated. "If you go in, he'll know something's up immediately and you lose your element of surprise. If I get captured, he might think he won. I have to be the one to trigger things off. Besides, Dusty is most likely to be in the office if he's out in the open, and you can get him out of there quickly since you run so fast. It only makes sense."
"Himei, you could be killed if--"
"I could be killed any day of my life as long as I'm a sailor," Himei reminded him. "This is the life I'm forced into. This is the life YOU chose. Now, do you trust me enough to fight my way through this so the rest of you have a better chance, or do we endanger Dusty and endanger us all by letting you take the risk just to keep me safe?"
Seiki started to sweat. "Himei... I thought... you and I--"
"This is war," she said, voice cold and empty... nothingness. "We have no choice. I'm sorry, Seiki. It has to be this way."
Kotashi cleared his throat... and waggled the cellphone in his hand. "And if it looks like your Mission Impossible pretensions are falling flat," he warned, "I'm calling 110 immediately. I'll be watching that warehouse like a hawk every second you're in there."
Shin laughed. "We'll be in and out before you gotta get the cops asking all sorts of funny questions, Kotashi. Time to ride out, guys. I've got a good feeling about this. Dusty will be eating cat treats and tucked under a blanket before this night is over."
"She doesn't need you around anymore, you know," Radon was saying, as he idly twirled his cane in one hand. (He had dropped the rest of the Kamen-costume, but he rather liked the cane.) "You're superfluous. You have only yourself to blame; you made those other renegade sailors."
"She needed them," Dusty defended his actions with. "She couldn't do it alone. She'd have died if not for them."
"Which would have saved me a lot of trouble, but unfortunately she didn't do herself in like the other sailors I had no need for," Radon said with a sigh, tucking the cane under one arm and getting to his feet. "But you've made yourself obsolete. Who needs an animal advisor when you have human ones? Himei's been ignoring you lately, I would suspect. She's having too much fun with her new friends. Doesn't that eat you inside, animal?"
"I love Himei unconditionally," Dusty said, firm in his belief. "She's growing up. She won't be the perpetual helpless child you wanted her to be. If that means leaving me behind... then I'm fine with that. It's hard, but she deserves a happy life, with friends, with a boyfriend. All the things you didn't want her to have."
"A soldier doesn't need those things. They get in the way. When you love another person, they are a liability. To fight a war you have to have nothing holding you back from throwing your life into the fire. Take, for example, you. She's going to be here tonight, and all to rescue you. Walking right into my arms. If she had only let you go, written you off as an acceptable loss, she wouldn't become the Queen's new toy -- but odds are she won't do that, not if she now values friends. Perhaps a long time ago, her cold heart would have abandoned you as the most logical course of action--"
"You must be really bored," Dusty spat. "You've been talking to me like I give a damn what you think."
Radon sighed, swinging his cane idly. "You're right. It is rather silly. Well then, Dusty, I'm afraid much as Himei has no use for you..."
...the Dark General snatched up the cat from his cage in a blur, faster than Dusty could react to. The cane gleamed in the cheap lighting...
"...I have no use for you either, do I?"
Warehouse Number 8 squatted against the setting sun like a lump of unimpressive stone in the shape of a warehouse. Shin glanced at the building over the crate the group was hiding behind, then glanced back at the tiny copy of the blueprint on her computer screen.
"Okay, I'll take the left side window," she said, pointing. "Aki, opposite side. Seiki, office window in the back. Himei, front door. Kotashi's waiting over there and he'll call the cops if anybody runs out of the building without waving the signal, so if it gets TOO hot and there's no options left, bail. Watches synced?"
Aki fidgeted slightly, adjusting the colorfully fashionable watch on her wrist. The digital readout matched Shin's perfectly. "I'm set," she said. "I'm scared, but I'm set. Are you guys sure about this? I've never done anything like this before..."
"None of us have," Shin said, closing the lid on her computer, sliding it into a pocket on her sailor uniform. "And if it helps... I'm damn scared too. I just prefer not to show it. Himei, you go in at 6:34. We'll break in at 6:34 and ten seconds."
"Couldn't we come up with another plan?" Aki asked. "Anything? Something safer?"
"Nothing we do will be safe," Himei said, eyeing the door to the warehouse. "Everything is unknown. All we can do is hope. Go."
Shin sprinted from behind the crate, making her way along the shadows towards her side of the warehouse. Aki mumbled a wish for good luck to Himei, and did the same...
Seiki hesitated. "Himei..."
"Go," Himei repeated.
"I'll find you once we get inside," Seiki promised, tugging the mask of his ordinary-looking kamen costume down over his eyes. "I promise I will. I won't leave you--"
"Don't worry about me; just take out any Yamiko near you," Himei ordered. "And if you see Magnificent Kamen... go for him. He can be harmed just as easily as any other Yamiko and needs to be put away as fast as possible. Don't let worrying about me stop you."
"I'm not comfortable with this," Seiki said. "I know I came up with the plan, but... I'm not a soldier. What if I screw up? I haven't fought ANY Yamiko before! I could screw it up and die and then you'd be... I don't know. I don't know if I can do this..."
"Seiki... look at me," Himei spoke, taking her gaze off the warehouse, and staring into Seiki's worried eyes. "I trust you. You can do this; I know you can. Do you trust me?"
"I trust you, Himei..."
"Then put me out of your mind for the next few minutes, and whatever happens will happen. I'll know in my heart we both did everything we could."
To silence him, Himei leaned in, and kissed him.
Their first kiss. Not even after the first date. Or the second.
To Seiki, everything before that point felt like two hurt people trying to find happiness in each other. Now when he looked into Himei's eyes, he could almost see the sparkle... and he could see the smile, when her lips withdrew from his.
"I have to go," she said, voice unusually soft for Sailor Nothing. "Seiki... please stay alive."
Seiki watched as she crept away, and hissed a response. "You stay alive too!" It wasn't very romantic... but that point was over. Now he had to be a soldier. For Himei's sake and for his, he had to fight and fight with all his heart.
Creeping around the building, hugging the wall, he made his way to the office window. Fingering the rock he had picked up on the way, he watched his watch. 57. 58. 59...
The main doors of the building opened with a creak. The thud of footsteps.
"NOTHINGNESS!" Himei called out, and the fireworks began. He didn't bother waiting ten seconds; the rock was hurled through the window, he dove through as he had jumped over the pommel horse in gym class countless times, and rolled to his feet...
The office was exactly as Shin's blueprints had said; a large, open room with a bank of windows looking out into the warehouse. Through them, he saw the other girls enter, saw the colored lights swirl as they danced with figures black like shadow... Yamiko. They had guessed right. They looked human, but moved like beasts, bounding from crate to crate, avoiding attacks--
Instinct saved his life as he raised his Kamen costume's cane to block another cane that would have put his lights out.
Seiki's heart raced as he rolled to the side, wielding his cane like a sword in a swashbuckling movie... and he set eyes on the man he had only heard of in stories. Horrible stories.
"So..." Dark General Radon / Magnificent Kamen spoke, leaning on his cane as he stood a distance away. "You are the one she replaced me with. Pathetic. Your cape is wrinkled. You bring no grace to the role of kamen."
How do I attack him?! Seiki's mind screamed. He knew how to transform, and Dusty had explained how to use his attack, but... he had forgotten. The panic had caused him to forget...
His enemy pounced, moving swiftly like the demons outside. Seiki's reflexes were sharp, his body athletic, but after a quick series of desperation parries, it was clear he wouldn't survive a cane to cane brawl for long.
"Absolutely PATHETIC," the Dark General hissed, shoving the boy away with one arm. "To think that you could replace ME as her mentor. Her advisor. Dare I say, her keeper... you're nothing, boy. Nothing in my eyes. If you'll excuse me--"
Circling fast, Seiki skimmed across the floor to block Radon from the door, his cane held defensively. "You're not going to hurt her," he spoke, voice not quite like iron, but the desire to be iron there. "I'll stop you here."
"If you could stop me, you would have already," Radon spoke. "You can't figure out how to use your 'special magic attack,' can you? The sailors never understood how it was not true magic, because I never let them understand. You can hit me with that silly stick as many time as you want and I'll simply SMILE--"
Radon swung his cane hard enough to snap Seiki's in two, cracking him across the jaw. Seiki was flung against a nearby wall, and slid down to his knees, feeling hot blood pour from the side of his head...
"Only your will can collapse a Yamiko, and yours is sadly lacking compared to mine," Magnificent Kamen spoke, gesturing with his cane... and the force of his will sending the office door flying off its hinges, as he prepared to leave. "But don't worry, boy. I will take your place as her keeper once more and your absence will not be missed. And perhaps in time, I will fill your role as her lover, as well..."
The voice that wanted so desperately to become iron became iron. As did Seiki's will.
Rising to his feet, the boy wiped the blood from his mouth. "You've ruined her life," he said. "You've ruined it enough... I won't let you hurt her EVER again!"
Radon snapped his cane back, and struck at the boy... and screamed, as the cane melted when it touched the human kamen. Seiki tore into the Yamiko like a hot knife through butter, the swipe of his empty hand enough to rip a giant gash into the monster... a gash of shadow and darkness, a shape that only had a shape because it wanted one. Now a force that wanted it destroyed was proving to be even stronger.
Radon fell to the ground, parts of him melting away, parts of him simply disappearing from sight. His eyes were open and unbelieving, his mouth stammering, trying to form the words his decaying existence wanted to form. His strong voice barely a mumble when he managed his final realization.
"You're like her..." his whisper echoed. "You have the same willpower she does when she loses herself..."
The shredded ghost of Magnificent Kamen twisted and writhed, trying to reassert itself, before simply fading into nothingness.
Seiki stood in silence, feeling that strange rush. He felt more real than anything around himself. Everything was quiet compared to the thumping of his heart, the pumping of blood in his veins, his strength of resolve...
...no, everything was actually quiet. He shook himself out of the strange trance, and listened hard... the battle outside the office was over. One moment later, and Himei was in the office with him, along with the others.
"Where is he?" she asked him.
"Magnificent Kamen's dead," Seiki said, feeling very weird to say it. "I killed him..."
"Dusty," Himei corrected. "Where is Dusty?"
...they found him underneath a pile of knocked over papers in a corner of the office.
He had been severely beaten by Magnificent Kamen's cane.
Aki rushed out of the room, looking pale. Shin's mouth tightened, as Himei carefully lifted the cat... trying to nudge him awake. "D.. Dusty?" she spoke, terrified and small. "Dusty? Can you hear me? Dus--"
A ragged breath quietly inhaled through the cat's nose. His good eye swiveled over, looking at Himei through a drooping eyelid.
"H.. Himei..." he mumbled.
"You're alive!" Himei exclaimed, forcing herself not to hug him. "Shin, call... call a veterinarian! Hurry!"
One motion to whip her pocket computer out, another to connect and run a search for nearby animal hospitals. "I'm on it," Shin replied. "I'll message Kotashi and tell him to bring your bike with the basket around to the door. We'll have him there in no time."
"Save your strength, Dusty," Himei said, cradling him gently. "You'll be okay..."
"...Aoshi," Dusty wheezed. "Aoshi. The Queen... and Aoshi... her weakness..."
"Don't talk," Himei ordered, getting to her feet and hurrying to the warehouse doors. "Seiki, Shin, ride with me. Shin, I need directions. Seiki... I just... I need you with me. Let's go."
His useless office felt emptier.
His ratty, salvaged furniture was still here. Endless amounts of paper from the now defunct restoration project was still lying around, never to be filed and sorted again. But none of it really mattered now, did it?
He tried to will the entire office to burst into flames, but knew he couldn't. Only Yamiko who had lived for decades were powerful enough to do that sort of thing. To them, he was little more than a glorified human. So, he did what a glorified human would do, and used his office chair as a handy club to whack his filing cabinets with. They fell over with an unsatisfying 'whump' without even opening and disgorging their paper guts.
In a final burst of anger, he threw his chair at the tiny window to try and get a nice shattering glass noise. It missed by a foot and hit the wall, denting it (the chair) slightly and nothing more.
With nothing to destroy, he had to settle for letting out a string of expletives that would make a stand up comedian blush. Instead, they made the Queen blush.
"...you're very upset," the Queen said, once the tirade ended.
Cobalt whirled around, glaring flaming evil pointed agonizing death at her. "You. NOW you show up? A week after what you did? Good timing. Get out. Get the HELL out of my office. I did what you wanted me to, and you repaid me with house arrest and killing my top assistant. I'm not going to bow and scrape anymore, and if you want to vaporize me too--"
The Queen tried to speak up, despite having a fairly meek voice at the moment. "Cobalt, I did not kill Ohta."
"I'd call being reduced to a bad smell in the air 'killed'."
"I mean... I wasn't the one who killed Ohta," the Queen corrected, as she glanced around. "Could you close the door to your office? I don't believe they have any spying methods placed in here or you'd have been caught long before. But I need to be careful. So careful I couldn't come to see you until now, until we heard that Dark General Radon had been killed. Please, at least trust me long enough to explain..."
"...this is going to be some shocking surprise I'm totally unprepared for, isn't it?" Cobalt asked, sensing a pattern. He moved to close the door and draw the window blind on it shut. "Because if it is, I don't think I can handle it. Not after all the shit that's gone down today. Unless I'm mistaken, you're about to tell me you're not really the Dark Queen."
"I'm not really the Dark Queen," the woman who was not really the Dark Queen replied.
"Now I wish I hadn't wrecked my chair," Cobalt muttered, before turning to face her again. "I thought something smelled funny when you told me the whole purpose of my task was to get me to see the Yamiko as self destructive children. That's not something the Dark Queen, sitting on her plush throne and mumbling death orders gleefully, would say. At the time I passed it off since I was too wrapped up in my plans to get revenge, but... if I'm right, that means you're indirectly responsible for my quest and Ohta's death."
"I'm indirectly and directly responsible for an untold amount of suffering," the impostor spoke.. head starting to hang low at the memory. Her voice wasn't the confident, commanding one that had spoken to Cobalt on previous occasions. "I have much to atone for, so much that I may never be redeemed. I had to try. No matter how much of a gamble or what it took, I had to try..."
"You're straying," Cobalt informed her. "Get back on topic. WHO... are.. you?"
In a non-flash of white, a soft glow that seemed to exist and then not exist in the blink of an eye without blinding, the finery of the Queen's robes was replaced by a very tattered Shinto priestess's uniform.
"I am the one from whom the Dark Queen was spawned," she explained. "The priestess who tried the impossible, who tried to purify herself of all negative energy and in doing so created the first Yamiko and the Yami-gaia. And in thanks for this act, my dark side the Queen granted me life immortal... and condemned me to live in the Yami-gaia forever amidst her children. That is who I am."
Cobalt considered this.
"I need a drink," he decided, fetching the wine bottle he had been 'enjoying' with Ohta a week ago. Skipping the glass, he uncorked and took a long swig directly.
"For hundreds of years I've been trapped here," the priestess explained. "Running from the Yamiko loose in this decaying, twisted mirror image of Edo. I've been caught. I've been hurt at their hands and kept prisoner from time to time, but I always escape. All the while, I tried to undo my error, tried to undermine the Queen. I... turned one of her first generals against her, gave him an idea that I thought he could use to fight her--"
"And that would be the late Dark General Radon nee Magnificent Kamen," Cobalt concluded.
The priestess nodded. "Yes. He was receptive to the idea, and powerful enough to make it happen... I used an old magic to clear his mind of the Yamiko's uncontrollable impulses, and disconnect him from the Queen's power. The same I used on you. The same I used on Ohta when it was clear to me you needed an assistant."
He was standing in that same spot, Cobalt thought. Sipping wine. Cobalt had asked why Ohta was so loyal. 'I guess you could say I owe her,' he had said...
But things didn't quite work out, did they?
"Things didn't quite work out, did they?" Cobalt asked, voicing his thought. "Radon ran out and started a war against the Yamiko, but something got screwed up along the way. He burned through little girls like flash paper. And now, he's given up your cause."
"He was still a Yamiko at heart, and one with a truly black heart," the priestess said, refusing to meet Cobalt's gaze... an internal shame tugging at her. "...I should have selected Argon. I just couldn't face him again, but I should have... Argon could have done it without the personality flaws Radon held. He was a good man... but as a result of my shame, so many have been hurt... all the sailors to date... the war has gone on and on without any real advantage to either side. I failed. I failed miserably..."
"And that's why you enlisted me," Cobalt said, filling in the gaps as his mind raced and spun out on the sharp curves of revelation. "I could work from inside. I'm a bastard, with almost no Yamiko powers, but I'm not nearly as vicious as Radon. You impersonated the Queen to win my trust -- the Queen, who is barely in control of herself, much less in enough control to realize she never actually hired me. Once you got me to understand the true nature of the Yamiko, I'd WANT to take them down for you..."
The woman sank to her knees, legs too weak to keep her upright. Tears had started flowing silently straight down her cheeks, with no sobs to jitter their path. "I failed again," she spoke quietly. "Now Ohta is dead and you are just as confined as I am. They're the only ones with a chance to stop this madness, but we can't help them. Everything I've done, even with good intentions, has failed. I deserve my fate. I deserve to be trapped here, thrown to the wolves--"
The wine bottle shattered against a wall.
There. THAT was a satisfying noise.
"Bullshit," Cobalt said simply. He reached over, and grasped the woman's arm, pulling her back to her feet. "Yes... you failed. You fucked up. But you tried. If you hadn't... I don't know. Maybe the Yamiko would have gotten a toehold on taking over the world, or at least ruined more lives than they already have. ...Ohta's dead. Yes. One of the only friends I had left is gone. But I'm not going to cry about it. I'm going to make sure his death had a purpose -- he gave himself up to save me. I'm going to take the life he won me, and I'm going to make the REAL Queen pay for this."
The woman shook her head, now able to sob. "B-But... there's nothing we can do. Everything we do fails. I wish I could die, Cobalt. I wish I could die! I've been a victim for hundreds of years and each time I try to be something else--"
"You remind me a lot of someone, you know," Cobalt said. "Shoutan Himei. She's had it the worst of any sailor to date and she's still survived. ...she even survived when I failed her and got her hurt. And if I'm going to atone for that, and if you really want to atone for Ohta and everything you've brought about, work with me. We can find a way to get some help to Himei and her gang. The Yami-gaia is weakened now; we can DO this. Are you with me?"
"I don't know..."
"I do," Cobalt said. "And I know it's time to end this once and for all. All of this."
PREVIEW OF NEXT EPISODE
My name is Shoutan Himei, and I'm very tired.
But I can't sleep. Not yet. I won't have the life I've always dreamed of having... a normal life... until this is over. I can't sleep until the war is over.
If I win, I can rest and awake as a normal girl, with my friends, with Seiki.
If I lose, I can sleep forever.
TO BE CONTINUED
nothing copyright 2001 stefan gagne
unauthorized use prohibited