Let me tell you something about the Enemy.
A lot of people have the concept of the Enemy all wrong. The Enemy is not the person who wants to kill you. The Enemy is not the person you're trying to kill. Granted, these things can fill the role of the Enemy, but they aren't Enemy itself. They aren't Enemy with a capital E. (Capital letters make everything important. I have to express myself right if I'm going to make people understand me. Capital letters help me express myself.)
The Enemy is something you must fight. It's something you must defeat, but you can never defeat it; the Enemy always exists. You can win the battle, kill a soldier, win a war and still not defeat the Enemy. That's because it's impossible to truly be at peace. Anything which resembles peace is just a pause between breaths. Anything which resembles happiness is just a denial of the Enemy.
When you're fighting the Enemy, there's no such things as friends, no such thing as love and not even any such thing as hate. It's a singular act. Everything gets pushed to the wayside; it's just you and the Enemy, and...
And I'm rambling. I'm saying nothing, and I'm probably contradicting myself a few times. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to mess it up, let me start again.
Let me tell you something about friendship.
Friendship is a liability. Letting people close to your heart means they have easier means of sticking a knife in it. Maybe they don't want to hurt you, maybe that's the furthest thing from their minds, but the very fact that they're up there and close to you means it will eventually happen. If they die, it hurts you, because you feel that pain. You take it into yourself. If you get them killed, that's even worse, and I really didn't...
I can't communicate this. I have something I want to say and I can't get it out, not in a way that makes sense. It's like a broken record, over and over. Just saying it's a broken record makes it sound like a broken record, like I've given up and can't bother to figure out...
Having Aki as a friend means I have to talk more. I always talked to Dusty, but that felt different. This is strange. I can't form the words sometimes, and I can't tell if I'm lashing out or being too quiet. All the time we spend together I'm on the edge of my nerves, like something's going to go horribly wrong and it'll be because I don't know what I'm doing. I'm just stumbling my way through this new friendship, babbling, contradicting myself, overreacting, underreacting. This is what frustration means. It's a unique kind of pain, like constipation of the soul. You want to open up, to get something out, and what you end up with is shit.
At least when we're fighting the Enemy together, everything is clear. It's focused and simple. We fight. We struggle. It's an empty war, a hollow battle and I can feel the nothingness inside me as I connect thought to action to consequence. Aki and I, we fight as a team now, and only then do the words not fail me. The only time I really feel like I have my act together is when I'm staring in the face of my own death.
And that probably means there's something very, very wrong with me.
I almost wish he was still around, to tell me how to feel. To tell me what to do. I never agreed with him, but at least he helped me keep things in perspective. I'm adrift and lost, and even if Aki tries to steer me towards happiness, I don't think I'd know what to do once I got there. I almost wish he was still around. Even if just to ask him why he did this to me.
Soft leather boots pounded on the soft linoleum tile of the toy store. Moonlight streaming in through the windows only accented the edges around the girl; a blur in motion, chasing another blur in motion. Heavy breathing pounded the air, arms swinging, trying to catch up to the night janitor...
"Now!" Sailor Nothing (also known as Himei) called out, as she saw the target execute a nice handplant ninety degree turn at the end of one aisle. -- and get tackled by Aki, ready and waiting to spring from a three point stance and sack the guy. Both bodies went down in a heap, as Himei warmed up to the Nothingness, ready to vaporize the Yamiko.
This was the third one so far, and they were getting better with each fight. Two active Sailors meant less escapes, less missed targets. One to chase the enemy down, the other to intercept, both to purge...
A meaty thunk sounded as the monster slugged Aki squarely across the jaw, and made a run for it.
Of course, Himei thought, because they took down three in a row it meant chances were greater of one actually getting away. She ran, and jumped over her fallen friend; no time to stop and check on her, not with the fight in full swing.
The janitor kicked over a display of virtual pets as Sailor Nothing got closer; jumping over the mess took time she didn't have. When a stand of Pokeballs went down, she took one misstep on the tiny round objects, twisted an ankle and fell flat on her face. End of fight, Yamiko gets away.
It had to happen eventually, Sailor Nothing rationalized. Plenty of Yamiko got away even when she was teaming with Magnificent Kamen. Sometimes you just have bad luck--
"CLEANSING HOLY BEAM!"
Himei raised one gloved hand to block her eyes, body operating on instinct and memory while her mind absorbed the surprise. There was a bright light, a tortured scream... and silence.
Then the clack of a cane on the black and white tiled floor. The clacks and the steps. Clack, step, clack, step. The familiar cadence...
"Hi-- Sailor Nothing!" Aki called out, remembering at the last second that they were supposed to use code names while on the job. Himei's friend pulled her to her feet, her body staying nice and limp, eyes locked on the approaching figure...
He sniffed the air, and looked around at the messy toy store in disgust. "I see," he saw. "I see that even cut adrift, you are causing problems. Further proof of your inability to do anything right, 'Sailor Nothing.' Adorable moniker, by the way."
White cloak, silver cane, golden mask... Aki's eyes widened, from the mental description Himei had fed her. "Oh.... uh..."
"Silence," the Kamen suggested. "You who were never sanctioned are not a part of this. Himei... do you know why I've come to see you? And it was not to save you from the jaws of defeat against that Yamiko..."
Fear. Horror. Surprise. Shock...
Swallowed. Sailor Nothing pushed away from her friend, to stand on her own feet, and return Magnificent Kamen's disdainful look with one colder than the slopes of Hell.
"You came to clean up my mess," she replied. "More specifically... to clean up me. I had a feeling you'd find me again, sooner or later."
"You know me well," the Kamen replied. "Very well. I will make this brief, as your presence does indeed sicken me, rogue Sailor. Wei Park. Tomorrow night, at midnight. We will settle matters then... you will come alone, of course."
Himei didn't reply. She didn't have to; he would assume her compliance was an open and shut case. Magnificent Kamen turned on one well polished heel, to take his leave--
"You're Magnificent Kamen, aren't you?" Sailor Beauty / Aki asked, frowning deeply. "I know you. Himei told me about you. She--"
"Your words are nothing to me, as I never approved your rise to the fuku," he reminded her. "Goodbye, Himei. Remember... come alone. I promise to relieve you of this burden."
In a burst of white rose petals, the Kamen vanished. Sailor Nothing began to pick her way through the scattered toys, intent on getting the hell out of there; ignoring her friend's protests, she exited the building without a word.
From behind a display stand loaded with stuffed animals, a digital video camera made a near-silent 'beep'. And Kongou Shin smiled.
"Gotcha," she whispered to herself.
I once went on record saying all dreams were nonsense, because they were just random gibberish tossed up by the imagination based on tokens of memory yadda yadda yadda. In keeping with the tradition of confusion and self contradiction I've been forming lately, I had to eat my words.
That night, I had a nightmare. Not just a video playback of one of my worse nights as Sailor Salvation, but a genuine nightmare spawned by imagination. I have decided that my imagination must hate me very badly, because it hit every fear-point like an A+ oral presentation with slides and illustrated diagrams. What's more, it did this with a kind of anime-like style.
I once saw a few episodes of 'Utena' when it was being played on TV Tokyo, but I couldn't watch any more. It was too much like my life. But I did remember this strange storytelling trick they did, where characters were presented with blacked out features and skin... just hair, costumes, and body language. Funerals, love, friendship, anything could be shown this way with the same weird little fairy tale motif...
That's not the strange part. The strange part was I couldn't tell if I was dreaming or if I was hallucinating. It had to be a dream, but I didn't remember going to sleep, I didn't remember coming to this surreal theater, somehow it felt too real to dismiss. Like a memory spool, like my usual dreams...
I'm rambling again. I'm sorry. The dream...
First I saw Magnificent Kamen killing Aki. Our powers don't work on humans, so he wasn't zapping her with his Cleansing Holy Beam; that would be nice. No, he was beating her to death with his cane. The skin was blacked out but the blood wasn't. Very, very calmly, he would strike her again and again, that hard metal staff cracking the skull, sending a spray of brains all over the place, while she gurgled and babbled the babble of a person stuck between brain damage and death. She had even urinated all over her fuku, as her body went haywire. And yet, she wouldn't die; he'd keep hitting, she'd keep twitching, and it wouldn't stop...
It must have stopped at some point, because then I saw the Yamiko. They look like other people, of course; what makes them what they are is what they do. I saw it all. Yamiko killing people, Yamiko torturing people, Yamiko raping people, Yamiko doing everything they could think of just to cause damage and hurt. And each one was just out of reach, running too fast for me to catch. Just like the janitor today. Just like the dozens of others that got away before. Where do they go when they outrun me, when I fail to stop them? Do they go to the Yami-gaia, or do they hang around, just under radar, ruining and destroying people's normal and mundane lives? I can only sense them when they are born. Beyond that, I can't tell one apart from an ordinary person...
And finally -- and this one was the clincher -- I saw myself. My features were mostly blacked out, but I could recognize my hair, and my bathtub. And those were my wrists laid open and bleeding all over the bathroom, into the water, onto Dusty's ruined and carved up body. But I could see one thing on my face... my smile. A happy, relieved smile. At peace. Myself, dead, and everything right with the world...
Then I woke up, Dusty's whiskers tickling at my nose.
"Rise and shine, Himei!" Dusty greeted, cheerful and upbeat. "Did you sleep well?"
"I dreamt of Magnificent Kamen killing Aki and myself cutting open my wrists," I told him, as I rubbed sleep-stuff from my eyes.
He stopped being cheerful and upbeat after that. I feel kind of bad about it. Here he was having a perfectly nice day and I ruined it. Just like the Yamiko. Just like Magnificent Kamen.
That sun-shiny morning, with the birds chirping and the trains rolling and the city slowly rousing itself to face another day, Aki was preparing herself.
It would be the first day back at school since her "medical leave." Butterflies filled her stomach, of course; even if she'd shrugged off the yoke of the Fashion Club, she was having a hard time adopting a self-affirming stance in light of the whole school looking at her like a freak. That's just too much, the idea of all those eyes on her Yamiko twin's body, now seeing her as ... as someone like Himei--
But she was someone like Himei, now. And she had embraced that, she'd done her best to embrace it. She was an outcast. A weirdo. It wasn't her fault, but it had happened, and now she had to face it. She had to face... the whole school's stares...
Aki was strong. She could do this. She was independent now, and liked herself, and was doing something good and right and useful for the world at large. She was the better person. And at least she didn't have to face this alone.
"You're not coming with me to Wei Park."
That didn't floor her.
"I don't think we should hang out together anymore."
"What?" she asked, being the sort of person to supply the straight lines.
"This isn't safe for you," Himei explained, as the two began the long march towards school. "Magnificent Kamen knows who I am, but he doesn't know who you are. It's better if we keep it that way. If he sees you with me, he's going to be able to figure out who you are, and then he's going to kill you."
"Himei, whoa, wait! How do you know that for sure?" Aki asked, pulling at the straws. "I mean... he said he was going to relieve your burden. Maybe he's going to take away your powers and the headaches! He could do it for me too if I go with you, and then we'll be--"
"When Magnificent Kamen says 'relieve your burden,' he means 'kill you,'" Himei clarified. "He doesn't like messes. He doesn't like witnesses. This is a private war between him and the Enemy, with me as... with me previously as his weapon. Did I ever tell you about Kirai Atoshi?"
"Kirai...? Wait, didn't he--"
"Disappear without a trace? Yes. That's because Magnificent Kamen killed him."
"B.. but Magnificent is one of the good guys!" Aki exclaimed. "Maybe he's a jerk and I hate what he's done, but he's for US! For humans! Why would he--"
"Because Kirai saw something he shouldn't have," Himei interrupted. "He saw an entire Yamiko fight. There was no way to cover it up, to convince him it was a dream. The guy told Magnificent Kamen he was going to get word out about it... so Kamen told me to go home. But I didn't. I stayed, and watched 'the good guy' ... relieve Kirai of his burden. Do you understand now, Aki?"
"..." Aki replied, looking at her shoes as she walked.
"You don't have to be afraid, Aki," Himei assured her. "I'll face him tonight, then you'll be safe. I won't obey him anymore... but you don't have to get involved in this. Being close to me will just get you hurt, and I couldn't live with myself if you got hurt because of... because of me, and all this. I'm sorry. If I don't come back tonight, just try to resist the Yamiko impulse. I'm too weak to resist, but maybe you can. I'll probably see you tomorrow. Bye."
Himei picked up the pace, running fast enough to qualify for the track team. Aki looked up sharply, too late to stop her.
"Himei!" she called out, trying to get her friend to turn around.
No use. Aki was alone now.
Alone to face the day ahead... and if things went badly, maybe alone for good.
Now was the time to strike.
Time after time, she had missed her prey. The quarry was either a minute ahead or a minute behind her... always evasive, a long string of bad luck that would make any other hunter fold and go home. But not in this case. The hunter was a patient animal... crouching, hidden, ready to pounce...
"Excuse me?" the prey spoke, turning around before she could make it to the safe haven of the school gate.
"Kongou Shin, of the Wazaru Daily View," the hunter spoke, flashing her student ID for verification purposes as she stepped forward. "I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions--"
"No comment," Aki spoke, eyeing her watch. "Class is going to begin in a few minutes, anyway--"
"Hey, don't worry, it's not about that whole three day suspension thing," Shin said, smiling to win trust. "I just wanted to get an opinion check from you on other issues..."
"Can you make it fast?" Aki asked, hiking up her weighty schoolbag a little, still retaining a note of suspicion in her voice. "I don't want to be late."
"I can make it fast. I was wondering if you wanted to comment on sailors?" Shin asked, holding up her PDA, its internal microphone encoding away the sounds it heard.
"...sailors? You mean the American ones up in Okinawa?"
"No, I'm thinking of the 'magical girl' variety," Shin spoke... keeping a careful eye on Aki's reaction. There was a momentary look of shock there -- caught. Clearly Aki wasn't used to being drilled on the subject. "The kind that change into soldiers of love and justice and fight bad guys at night. Sometimes during the day. Usually in pairs. You wouldn't happen to know anything about them, would you?"
"Only what I see on television," Aki spoke quickly, trying to step around Shin -- who moved to intercept.
"Sources tell me you know more than you're letting on. In fact, sources tell me that you happen to know one called 'Sailor Beauty'. Now, all I have right now is hearsay, rumor, allegation, and flawless digital video of Sailors fighting bad guys with flashy sparkly powers with copies stored in locations you don't know about with instructions to automatically be mailed to local newspapers if they don't hear back from me today," Shin lied. "So, I was thinking, maybe you'd want to help me nail down the Truth rather than letting misinformation rule the day?--"
The loud clatter of the school bell interrupted Shin... distracting her long enough for Aki to do a quick sidestep around her. "I have to go! I'll be late! Sorry I can't help!" Aki called out, as she moved.
"I'm going to expose this!" Shin warned out loud. "It's up to you to decide how, Aki! We'll talk more about that later, I guarantee it!!"
...but once she was gone, Shin grumbled. Maybe it wasn't the best approach, but hey, what would be? "Hi, are you Sailor Beauty?" There was no good approach. All she could do, and did do, was get the foot in the door to cause Aki to sweat a little. Sooner or later the girl would crack.
Failing that, she could go after Himei, but... Himei was the quiet type. She probably wouldn't have twitched at the mention of Sailors like Aki did. No, Aki would be easier prey for her sleek, man-eating mountain lion 'o journalism.
She flipped open her PDA's cover, and deleted the audio file. No sense keeping it around now. Not juicy enough.
*beep*, went her PocketICQ.
Shin glanced at the new instant message as well as the last six messages from the same guy, and deleted them all without reading them.
#234, 1:34 AM: Message was deleted unopened.
#235, 2:09 AM: Message was deleted unopened.
#236, 2:58 AM: Message was deleted unopened.
#237, 7:16 AM: Message was deleted unopened.
#238, 8:00 AM: Message was deleted unopened.
#239, 8:31 AM: Message was deleted unopened.
Resend message? (y/n)
Shaking his head, he flipped his PDA back to record mode. He tapped on a few filters designed to cut down on the background noise of the locker room, and loaded up the question file he had prepared right before sleeping last night. "Okay," Kotashi continued. "So, last week's track meet went well, with you taking first place in under three minutes. Do you feel this was a career high?"
The boy across from him finished toweling off his forehead, and flung the terrycloth around his shoulders. Easier than walking across the locker bank to hang it up. "Not really," Seiki, Star Track Runner of Wazaru High explained. "I know I can do better. I've been coming to school earlier the last few days to train harder... I can't say I've been giving 110%, or even 100%. I won't be satisfied that I'm doing a good job unless.... Kotashi? You there?"
"Huh?" the newspaper editor said, glancing back. "Uh, yeah. You gave 110%, I heard. So--"
"What's got you so distracted, man?" Seiki asked. "I know it's early, but you've had your usual two morning coffees already, right? Half cream, full sugar?"
"Yeah... yeah, I did. I'm sorry, Seiki-kun. Listen, maybe we should do this interview later," Kotashi apologized, closing the cover on his PDA. (The same one she uses, he idly thought.)
"Okay. But I want to know what's going on with you before I let you off the hook. We've been friends since primary school, I can tell something's seriously wrong. Is it the paper? I know the principal's been on your back about that column--"
"No, no, it's not the newspaper. It's... well. It's Shin. You know, the one who called you the bastard stem-cell cloned offspring of Luke Perry and James Van Der Beek last month in her column?"
"I took that as a compliment, actually," Seiki spoke, grinning a bit. "I know who Shin is, Kotashi, you talk about her constantly. So, what about her?"
"She's hunting down some big story. Something about the thing with Komachi Aki... but she won't tell me what it is, she's late with her column, and last night when she came by to work with me on today's edition... I guess she caught me waking up from a nap or something, but she was totally freaked out. I tried asking her what was wrong, and she ran. I mean RAN, ran like the time you won the Oshii Trophy last season in that photo finish. Now she won't return my messages... eeh. I don't know, Seiki. It's confusing as hell... I just wish she'd talk to me. I hate this awkward silence..."
Then Kotashi let out one of those meaningful sighs / pauses that, in the universal language of relationship issues, means 'I'm thinking something deeply emotional right now about the person I just mentioned.'
Seiki picked up on it instantly. "Kotashi... look, you and Shin--"
"Working relationship, Seiki. She writes a column for the paper and I haven't gotten a column in three--"
"Don't start with that," Seiki warned, taking his usually calm tone up to chiding levels. "Nobody sighs like that because a column is late. You're missing her, and you're worried she's mad at you and won't speak with you again. How about if I go talk to Shin for you? Play the middleman. I'd be happy to."
"No... no, it's okay. I want to handle this personally," Kotashi decided, getting up from the bench and pocketing his computer. "It's my paper, she's my writer, she's my friend... I can do this. Maybe if I could find out more about Aki's situation, I could figure out what's going on that's got Shin so riled up..."
"You know, I was wondering about that too. I was on the other side of the building when it happened, but the others guys on the team were talking about it all day. Mostly perverts who were cracking some pretty sick jokes about her... maybe I could help you find out. I'll ask around about her today. Maybe I can learn something that'll help you."
"You don't have to, you know..."
"It's fine, it's fine. You know... Aki asked me out on a date once," Seiki recalled, a bit distant. "It was months ago... But I had to turn her down."
"Too busy banging cheerleaders?"
"Ha ha, Kotashi," Seiki non-laughed. "You know I'm not that type... I felt sorry that I had to do it, but... I don't know. It didn't feel right to me. I still don't know what I'm looking for..."
"You're too much of a hopeless romantic. Emphasis on hopeless," Kotashi noted. "You've got girls throwing themselves at your feet and you brush them off like lint just because you 'don't know what you're looking for'? Who does, man? You can't expect that sort of thing to fall in your lap without lots of hit or miss attempts. It's the only practical approach."
"You're one to talk, you still haven't asked her out."
"Her who?" Kotashi asked.
Hours passed. I didn't turn to look at Aki during class. Maybe she turned to look at me but I wasn't looking at her so I wouldn't know. I helped pass the time by trying to learn what they were teaching. It was better than thinking about my chances of surviving the night. (I don't like to angst all the time, after all.)
She understood, right? She knew that it was too dangerous to be seen together. Magnificent Kamen could be watching right now. He had powers I still couldn't fathom... like the white rose petals teleport, he never did that before. But he always pulled strange tricks out of a hat when I needed them... needed him to save me from death at the hands of a Yamiko.
And now he was going to kill me. He didn't say so, but I could feel it. Never leave a loose end.
Okay, maybe not thinking about it wasn't going to work. Especially not at lunchtime, as I sat under a seldom-visited tree in the back of the school, staring at my bento, without the benefit of education to distract me from my thoughts. Without the benefit of friends to distract me.
Aki would try to distract me. She'd talk about fashion trends, or suggest fun things we could do, or just tell stories. And I could sit there and listen to her and nod, even if I didn't know what to say because I can't speak well. I'd be happy to do that. To sit there and let her take me away from my worries, even if just for a minute...
No. It's too risky. I'd let food distract me. Even if rice was too plain to really be noteworthy. I stared down at my lunch, and tried to take as much time as I could to decide which piece to eat, to think really hard about it...
A shadow passed in front of me, providing a great distraction. Then I looked up and got as distracted as humanly possible.
My heart stopped just for one beat.
"Excuse me... Himei, right? Have you seen Aki?" he asked.
Every day he'd jog by me on the way to school. Aki would make fun of me, saying I didn't have the guts to ask him out on a date. I never told her I wanted to, it was just her joke. He was talking to me. I didn't know what to say to him. He was actually talking to me.
"I heard you're friends with her, I figured you might know..."
He's one of the people that Aki used to be like. Popular. Like the Fashion Club. He would never really talk to me. He'd say 'Hi' on the way to school, but that was just being polite, like all of us were raised to do. Now he was saying words, a lot of them. I should say words in return. I should be picking out words and saying them...
The hairs on my neck rose. No, not a Yamiko -- I was being stared at. It was a familiar feeling. I shrank back against my tree, casting a glance at the passing gaggle of students, who were boggling at me talking to Seiki. Track team captain. Star athlete. Him talking to a freak like me...
And he turned to face them, a frown forming as he did. "You folks got a problem?" he asked, in a defiant way. A strong way that was really awesome, like someone in a big Hollywood movie doing a catch phrase, standing up for something really important in some very important way...
And they immediately walked the opposite direction, not casting a single look backwards. Like magic.
I almost dropped my lunch on the grass when he turned back to me, and smiled. Smiled at me...
"Don't let them get you down, okay? If it helps, I hate that stupid 'Henmei' name the other guys in the locker room call you. ...hey, don't I pass by you on the way to school every now and then?"
I have to say a word. It's strange not to say anything. He's going to think I'm strange. I can say 'Yes'. Yes is true, yes that he passes by me now and then, and maybe I could comment that I say hello back each time--
Someone was pulling him away from me.
"Hey! Coach wants to see us about this weekend's heats," the jock guy said. "Let's go, lunch is almost over!"
"But--" Seiki protested, but it was too late. In the span of a few more blinks, they were gone.
I could breathe again. Well, I could always have breathed... could breathe? Breathing? Could will have breathen? ... what was I thinking again?
He actually knew my name. He actually hated my other name, Henmei, "Weird 'Mei"--
You're disgusting, he had told me.
Magnificent Kamen. Maybe I SHOULD be thinking more about him. No more distractions. I had to find a way to survive tonight, if it was possible to survive his wrath. That should be first and foremost. I was a fool to try and think of other things. I had to think. Not speak, not ... right.
I thought about it and thought about it and didn't realize I forgot to eat my lunch until well into next period.
The first wave always gets the good stuff.
The second wave get the dregs.
But the third wave, the one that comes in at the end of lunch after the stocks are replenished, gets to pick a few items to eat after school. Good breads, snacks, and soft drinks... store it in your bag and it'll keep until after school, a good low cost way to munch without having to bust out money for a coffee shop or ice cream place. Every student knew that.
And thanks to her research, Kongou Shin also knew that Aki was a dedicated third waver, buying some sweet bread every day. She kept hidden around the corner, waiting for her prey to finish up, waiting to pounce and tap the girl on the shoulder, ask how--
A finger tapped Shin on the shoulder.
Mad journalism scared girl on edge of her nerves already kickboxing instinctive skills burst into being as she snapped a fierce kick backwards.
Lucky for her designated victim, he was expecting a bad reaction and jumped aside before his stomach was knocked out of his ass. "WHOA!" he yelled, waving his arms wildly. "Easy, easy, Shin! It's just me!"
Shin's nerves flared higher on seeing Kotashi... then she forced them down. "...I'm busy," she told him, keeping her voice paced evenly. "Lunch is almost over, anyway. Beat it."
"We've still got a good five minutes... and I want to know what's going on," Kotashi said... although keeping out of kicking distance this time.
"You'll read about it in my next column, your editorial highness."
"What, no preview of coming attractions?"
"No," she replied, turning to leave. "Goodbye."
"Shin!... ...Shin, please," he pleaded, dropping any flippant remarks in favor of sincerity. "Please... talk to me. Come on... I'm your friend, aren't I?"
(Well, at least she wasn't running away again. She wasn't turning back to face him, either, but he had to continue as if she was listening.)
"Maybe I'm your editor, maybe we've had some running arguments over our work... but that hasn't stopped us from talking, not once. After I woke up from.. my nap last night--"
"You were taking a nap, then?" Shin asked, sounding a bit skeptical. And she did turn around, so he had to be saying something right...
"I guess so," he continued. "I was pretty tired, maybe I sorta slumped off my chair... look, my point is, you freaked out and ran. What happened? Was it something I said? Did... did something happen at home, Shin? Was it--"
"...tell me one thing, Kotashi. Just one thing," she spoke quietly.
"Name it," he asked, confident.
"Have you ever... Kami, how do I phrase this... have you ever... you remember what happened to me, right?"
"Have you ever wanted to do that?" she asked directly.
Kotashi's keen journalist's skills of anticipation and prediction gave up and went home. "What?!" he asked, shocked at the very thought of it.
"I'm serious!" Shin replied, stepping closer to him.. and looking downright angry. "Yes or no, have you ever wanted to do that?"
"Of course not! That's ridiculous!"
"Have you ever THOUGHT of doing that, then?"
Kotashi looked down at his feet. This was going to suck. Badly. But he knew she'd see right through a lie...
"You want to know the truth?... yes. I thought about it. I thought about me raping you."
"I knew it," Shin replied, already prepared for the answer. "He told me so, you sick bastard, you and your--"
"I thought about it," he repeated, determined to clarify this before it got ugly. "Yes... I imagined myself doing that, Shin. It made me think. I thought, 'That's what I'm capable of.' Your uncle was capable of it, I'm capable of it, the whole human race is. And that horrified me."
"...what?" Shin asked, her prepared accusatory speech faltering.
"That night, when you buried your head on my shoulder and told me your Truth, it made me realize something about people," Kotashi explained, although clearly under emotional duress. "I saw that every one of us has a darkness inside us. We were born with it, just like the animals, just like your uncle -- it's the capacity to kill and destroy and hurt. But what makes people who they are is what they do with that capacity... and I swore on that day I'd never do anything to hurt you, Shin. I could acknowledge that part of humanity, that part of myself... and then absolutely refuse to give in to it, because that's not who I am. We've shouted at each other over columns, we've debated politics, we've had spats... and as many times as I know you've thought of strangling me and I've thought of smacking you one, neither one of us has acted on those thoughts. So yes, Shin. I thought of it. But I've never wanted it."
That's that, he decided. Now she kicks my teeth in and it's all over.
Awkward moments passed as the thin red hand crept closer to the 12 on the clock above their heads -- and then hit it, the bell sounding to signal the end of lunch. Shin nearly jumped a foot out of her skin at the sound, already on edge.
"I guess we better get to class now," Kotashi said, grateful for the interruption. "Listen... if you don't want to see me again, I can accept that. I know how hard that just hit you and I'm sorry I had to say it, but it is the truth--"
"It is the Truth," Shin spoke quietly to herself, to add the capitalization.
"The Truth," her friend agreed.
"...there was another you at the Club Room the other night. Another Kotashi."
"You gonna be busy after school?" Shin asked, glancing back up at the clock. "We've gotta motor now, but there's no Journalism Club meeting this afternoon. I'm free."
Kotashi's puzzlement upgraded from a 100 piece picture of the Mona Lisa to a 500 piece picture of the Last Supper. "Well, yes, I'm not busy. But--"
"I'll explain after the last bell rings. We have a digital video input on the TV in the room, right?"
"Good," Shin acknowledged, nodding once... and softening her expression from her usual practical outlook. "And Kotashi, I'm sorry I've been avoiding you. I should have trusted my feelings on this one. I should have trusted you. That's bad journalism."
"...it's only human, Shin."
"Touche, my hated enemy. See you after classes."
The ancient samurai write war poetry to meditate upon their problems.
Monks sit under a freezing waterfall to focus their thoughts.
I play Dance Dance Revolution.
The moment I got home, having successfully avoided Aki all day (i wasn't lonely, i didn't want to hurt her, i didn't need her around, i didn't miss her, iwasn't in denial, i had to) I pulled out the DDR mat, dusted it off, and hooked up my aging Playstation to my television. Finding the game's disc in my tiny CD collection was easy. I booted it up and changed the settings to my preferred ones, then muted the television. All set.
The game works like this : Arrows scroll up the screen, bottom to top, in time with the music. When they hit the top, you hop on the up, down, left, or right arrows as it tells you to do. That's it. I'm in pretty good shape after fighting evil endlessly, so I can handle the taxing physical strain it puts on your body to hop up and down so much, but the exhaustion does set in after a few songs.
I don't play this game for fun. I play it to help me think. Following the arrows, obeying the instructions with some degree of mindlessness... the tired aching of my muscles as I play... the way it kills time. All these things equal something I don't exactly enjoy, but something I need sometimes. The precision of the act helps me keep a tight focus on my thoughts, while I shuffle the actual stepping on arrows and the music to the back of my mind.
When Dusty walked into the room to talk to me, I was able to converse while playing. It's like fighting Yamiko; you do it on instinct, your body reacts the way it should, leaving your mind open to do other things. Up, down, up-down double step.
"Aki's not coming over today?" Dusty asked. "I figured you'd want to talk with her about--"
"She can't come over every day, Dusty. It's not practical," I reminded him. Left, right, up, left-down. "Just because we're friends doesn't mean we have to be in constant contact."
"Ah," he replied. "Well... you know, I really think things are going well. Aki had a rough start, but she's been getting better at this stuff--"
Right right right right, half beats, two pair. "The Yamiko we've handled have been simple. Cobalt never makes very strong Yamiko, they're easy to clean up."
"Yes, well, all the better for her to cut her teeth on, eh? ...hmm. That's a disgusting image... anyway, I think she's ready for the confrontation tonight. I don't know what Magnificent Bastard wants, but with her as your backup, I bet you can handle it."
"She's not coming."
"I'll tag along too, since I'm--"
"What?" Dusty asked. "Why isn't she coming?"
"I told her not to come. He'll just kill her."
"He didn't say he was going to--"
"I know him, Dusty. You know him. He hates leaving behind loose ends. He hates witnesses." Right.
"Then... what makes you think he won't attack you, too?"
Down. Down. Down. Down. "He'll attack me."
"Then you definitely need Aki!"
"I want her to live. Everybody who I let into my life is put in danger, Dusty. I'm tired of it." Right-down, up-left. "Even if I have to sacrifice--"
Stop. Cat on the power button of the Playstation. Screen blank.
"You think this works one way, Himei?" he asked, staying perched on the gray box. "You sacrificing yourself for the ones you care about? It works two ways. I'd do the same for you... and I'm willing to bet Aki would as well. You don't accomplish anything pushing either one of us away. You NEED us."
"...I don't need you to die with me," I told him, breathing hard, my body standing still instead of bouncing along to the beat.
"So you'd rather he kill you, then hunt me and Aki down to 'clean up loose ends'?"
"Haven't thought this out real far beyond your own role, have you?" Dusty asked, a little amused at it... before getting serious. "Himei... things have changed. This is about more than your struggles and problems. You're not dancing alone, you have others to think about. Aki's doing this for her own self esteem AND to help you... and you know I'm here to help you. Try to do the same in return, okay? I know you're new at this whole 'teamwork' thing, but--"
"Okay. I get the point, Dusty." Right. "You don't need to go on and on about it."
Dusty would've blushed, if he could. "Uh, sorry. It's the leadership role, see, it gets you in the mood for big speeches. ...so, are you going to call Aki?"
"...I'll think about it."
"Is that a yes or a no?" Dusty asked, tapping the power button with his paw again, a little reward for my understanding.
"I'll think about it," I replied, tapping my right foot to cycle the next song.
I would. Right, right, right.
The Journalism Club invested in venetian blinds last semester, to cut out the outside world. Less distractions equals better newsprint, after all. In this case, it also meant keeping the outside world from seeing something utterly impossible.
The final frame of the digital video froze in place, a red X popping up to indicate that the show was over.
"...okay," Kotashi spoke, after a few moments of gathering his thoughts. "I know you hate people who ask stupid questions, so I'll only ask it once. Is this fake?"
"No," Shin replied, keying the video to play again.
Kotashi nodded once... his eyes staying on the screen, as the fight in the toy store resumed. "Okay. I'm going to assume you are not insane, because you're the second most practical person I know aside from myself. I'm going to assume you're not playing an elaborate joke on me since we had that big opening up and sincerity festival earlier today. Keeping that in mind.... explain this."
"I'm still theorizing. I don't have all the details yet--"
"Okay, theorize, then."
"We've got these guys with white hair and cheap opera cloaks who put people to sleep, then copy them into evil twins," Shin theorized. "On the other side, we have genuine, real-deal magical girls who show up and stomp them into the ground. This is the only one I got on tape... but they were there the night you 'took a nap.'"
Kotashi leaned back in his chair. "You can't be serious..."
"That's why I was giving you the third degree earlier, Kotashi. Because take one guess what your doppleganger immediately tried to do when I walked in on the scene."
"Oh, god... Shin... he didn't really-- I didn't--!"
"Be cool, my hated enemy," Shin soothed as only she knew how. "I was saved by our darlings in fuku. As for the rest... I heard your words, I believe you. What I met up with wasn't you... it was someone who didn't make that decision you made. The darkness inside all of us, just like you described. But philosophy aside, the fact of the matter is we ARE dealing with magical girls, and I'm sure Aki and Himei are they. That weird guy with the cane even called Himei by name."
"What? Whoa, hold on. Give me that." Kotashi snatched the pocket computer from Shin, and keyed the Pause control, freezing it on a shot of 'Sailor Nothing' and 'Sailor Beauty', as they had referred to themselves. "Your camera may not be that hot, but I can tell that they don't look a thing like Aki and Himei. One's got long hair in a ponytail and the other sh... but they're not the right siz... they're not them. It's obvious."
"They're them," Shin repeated. "I have it all figured out, see. You know how Clark Kent puts his glasses on and suddenly nobody can tell he's Superman? The same thing. You can stare at the video all day, I know because I have, but your brain just refuses to make the connection unless you force it to. The magic even extends to MPEG. How else could someone in that outlandish costume go incognito?"
Kotashi rubbed his forehead, a headache the size of an aircraft carrier coming on. "This is nuts. This is so nuts..."
"Aki gets taped up and her evil twin trashes her reputation. You get knocked out and your evil twin jumps me. And you saw this guy's evil twin. All the facts fit, even if the facts are impossible. It is the Truth."
"...Shin, you want to write a column about this, don't you?"
"It'll never fly," he warned her. "You could point out all the facts and still find no takers. I don't doubt you, but you and I are funny that way. It's too bizarre to work with the readers..."
"I'm aware of that, you editorial tyrant," Shin commented. "This is one of those Truths nobody is going to want to believe."
"So... what do you do with it, then?"
"I do my job, of course. I make them believe."
"I don't see how you can--"
When two people are swapping sentences back and forth, a third piping in unexpectedly is always jarring. Kotashi and Shin turned with a jerk (two jerks respectively) to face the third party.
Seiki didn't notice their jittery nerves, as he leaned in closer to look at the television. "Huh," he said, puzzled by it. "Is that an episode of Magical Princess Heart Wand?"
Shin jammed her finger on the STOP area of her pocket computer's screen hard enough to blur the LCD colors. "Yeah, it is, it's from a TV show," she replied quickly.
"That's funny. I thought I knew all the episodes by heart."
(As if things weren't stunning enough.)
"Kotashi, you wanna go shoot some hoops?" Seiki continued, oblivious. "Coach gave us the afternoon off. Or... were you and Shin...?"
Kotashi waved his hands in an assuring manner. "It's cool, it's cool... be there in a few minutes. Meet me out back."
Fortunately, Seiki left without much protest. The two journalists breathed a single sigh of relief.
"I think we'd better keep this under wraps, Shin," Kotashi suggested. "I hate to tell you to suppress the truth, but--"
"I wouldn't be doing my job if I let the Truth out now. It's not ready for prime time," Shin replied, as she disconnected her computer from the digital video input cable. "I'm gonna be stalking them for the rest of the day. I'll leave my cellphone on, but only call if it's important."
"Shin, are you sure that's safe? If those are really monsters they're dealing with--"
"I'm expecting to take up a career where I visit war zones armed with nothing but a pencil, paper, kevlar and the Truth, man. I belong on the scene, no matter what the scene."
"Fine... but you call me if anything goes wrong."
"Oh, what what'll you do? Kick some monster ass and save my bacon with your magic heart laptop?"
"Just call, please."
"Yes, your editorial highness," she joked.
I've seen this before.
It's a scene. It's a very common scene in shoujo anime. It's after sunset in a playground... no children around. Just a lonely girl sitting by herself on a swing, holding onto the supporting chains, rocking back and forth gently. Looking down a bit. Thinking about her life.
I wasn't seeing it from outside my body or anything, but I didn't realize how resonant the scene was until my fifth minute of waiting. Perched on the swing in front of the bushes. Waiting for... whatever was going to happen.
I could have been in my Sailor Nothing form for this -- not that I'd have any advantage, since Sailor attacks only affect Yamiko. They pass right through humans. But it would've given me a numbness, a sort of apathy and ignorance of pain that would make it easier if he killed me. But... it might also mangle my emotions. And I needed tight control on those emotions... not too little, not too much. This was going to be a sticky confrontation.
I wasn't letting him get what he wanted until I got what I wanted. The truth.
Just as he declared, he arrived at the stroke of midnight. Click, step. Click, step. The same cadence from the toy store. The same pace that I would know millisecond per millisecond even without hearing it. Almost like a DDR beat...
Magnificent Kamen stopped ten feet away. Mustn't get too close to the dirty girl. But he would still be within range.
"You are alone, yes?" he asked quietly.
"This doesn't involve them," I told him. "I sent them home. It's just you and me."
"As it should have been from the start," he reminded me. "You as Sailor Salvation, I as your protector and leader. Fighting the good fight, never giving up the war, just as I have done for generations of Sailors past. I suppose I could blame myself for picking such weak meat for the role of the Sailor... but I choose to blame you. It was your own flaw, your own weaknesses which brought--"
"Do you have a point in here, Kamen?" I asked. "If I wanted to be lectured about my weaknesses, I could talk to myself."
"My point is that you are now a risk to this entire operation," the masked man spoke. "I had assumed that after setting you adrift, you would be out of my hair. It seems you are not."
I was about to get off the swing... no. Stay put. Position is important. But my voice, that I could raise, I could taken on the anger I truly felt. "Of course I'm not out of your hair," I told him. "I still feel the urge! You abandoned me, but you didn't make it stop, and I can't turn it off!"
He yawned mildly, uninterested in my plight. What a shock. "I'm aware," he told me. "The urge will never go away."
This is what I came for. This is what I wanted to know.
"Then how did you think I would be 'out of your hair'?" I demanded. "Why would you do this to me?"
"Simple. I assumed you would commit suicide."
...any cleverly worded practiced response went out the window.
"What?" I said instead.
"A simple enough thing," Magnificent Kamen illustrated. "I cut you adrift so you would sink. The urge would drive you to remove yourself from my picture. After all, it wouldn't be the first Sailor Salvation to slit her wrists, or hang herself. Four of them have so far. They were too weak, too undisciplined... like you. The war was better off without them. I simply found replacements for them. In fact, your predecessor used sleeping pills to escape her destiny. Such a little coward..."
I was clenching a fist. Obviously I wouldn't punch him. It just felt... right to me. "You... you sick--"
"That is the only way out of your plight, Himei. That is your freedom. You have the ability to end all of this, to get out of the war, to find peace... a simple razor's edge away. I see it as a merciful end. You have thought about it, haven't you? What's the difference between thinking about something and taking that step of actually doing it? There is no difference. That is the ultimate truth, Himei. The truth I have learned over the years..."
"Shut up," I ordered him. But it came out all weak. Halfhearted. I was supposed to commit suicide? That's why he did this? That's what my dream was. Escape. Peace...
Kamen drew the handle of his cane from its staff... revealing his blade. He rarely used that. Not unless he had to kill a human.
"Because I am a softhearted man, I will give you that option," he told me. "A swift, clean, self-decided end. Please, take my kindness. Don't make me have to kill you. Don't let your last moments be spent in terror and pain."
Nothing else. Sailor Nothing. No joy, no happiness. Nothing left to do but fight and fight and fight and eventually die. The fighting hurt. The death would be final. It would be over. My solitary end. After all, I had nothing else.
"Think about it, Himei," he pleaded. "Peace at last. Happiness. You'll never find happiness any other way. You have nothing else to live for--"
But he was wrong.
"You're wrong," I told him.
He paused. "Oh? Am I, 'Sailor Nothing'?"
"I'm not happy," I agreed. "You're right. I haven't been happy in a long time. I don't think I'll be happy very much in the future, either... but happiness is possible, in some small way. ...Aki showed me that. And that's why you're wrong. Because I do have something other than the endless war."
"Ah, the other Sailor. I should have finished Dusty before he had the chance to make more. I was hoping it wouldn't come to this, but I see that you give me no other choice--"
"Now," I commanded, holding very still.
"Now?" he asked--
Maybe it was delayed a second or two, but it worked.
Sailor Beauty popped up from the bushes behind my swing set, aimed her handheld can, and cut loose with a jet of liquid Mace over my shoulder. The fluid struck Magnificent Kamen directly in the eyes.
The stately and graceful tuxedo'd warrior collapsed to his knees, screaming and trying to claw his chemically burning eyes out.
"That was close," I told Aki. "I said 'Now', right?"
"I was.. a little shaken from what he said," Sailor Beauty replied, pocketing the Mace. "Now what do we do with him, though?"
I got off my swing. This was the part I wasn't sure she was ready for. I wasn't even ready for it. But I didn't have any other choice. It was him or me...
"That's simple," I told her... pulling a kitchen knife from my backpack. "We do to him what he was going to do to me. You don't have to stay for this. You can go home now."
"Wh-what?!" Aki gasped. "Himei, you can't! He's... he's a person! We.. we could tie him up and give him to the cops, or--"
I turned to face her. "This is a war," I reminded her. "He said he's going to kill me. There's nothing else I can do. I hate him for making me do this. I hate him for making me do ALL of this. But if he's going to do this to me, paint me into a corner... I've made my decision, Aki. I'm not going to die for him. I..."
Terror. I recognize the expression easily. I could see it in Aki's eyes as she looked behind me.. And I quickly turned as well.
Magnificent Kamen was on his feet. His eyes were red. I don't mean bloodshot red, I mean RED. He looked a little taller. He loomed. He glowered. He was disgusted, angry, dripping with chemicals and ready to kill...
And now I was going to die. I guess I had always figured in my mind that would be the outcome tonight. Resisting was--
"A-AMAZING GRACE!!" Aki screamed, cutting loose with a rainbow array of light and power from sheer 'fight or flight' instinct. It whisked through me, giving me a brief feeling of flying. That wasn't going to...
Magnificent Kamen reeled away to his left, fast, but it was too late. The outstretched arm with his sword was struck by the light.
And melted. Like a bag of water after you take the bag away. Black water. It fell to the ground, the sword clattering, as he clutched at the writhing stump of his shoulder... something like liquid shadow forming there. Like the guts of a monster.
Like the stuff Yamikos are made of.
He could have cut me down like a blade of grass right there and then. You could have knocked me over with a feather. The slightest touch would have made me jump out of my skin. I guess I'm trying to say I was shocked.
Instead, Magnificent Kamen emitted some horrible, beast-like howl of pain, snarled at us... and ran. He ran quickly out of the park, jumped into the air, and vanished in a blast of black rose petals. The flowery results fluttered to the ground silently. Just as silent as we were.
"I don't get it. I thought your powers don't work on humans."
"They don't," I replied, not taking my eyes off the space Magnificent Kamen occupied. "He must have..."
I never get a moment's rest. Not once, not ever.
I turned to look at who said that.
The girl lowered her video camera. "Hey again, Aki," she greeted, smiling. "I told you I'd expose this. I told you you'd get to decide how. Well, better late than never, I always say."
Magnificent Kamen would have killed her immediately for that. Never leave a loose end...
But I wasn't like him. I was human.
PREVIEW OF NEXT EPISODE
Caught you red handed! Ha! Now you've got no choice. Hey, it's blackmail, but the Truth must persevere! Although my story may have a few lumpy paragraphs...
Just when I think I have a handle on this stuff, everything changes again. I have to keep it together for Himei's sake... but it's not easy...
Before there were two of me. Maybe now there's three of me. I can't tell anymore. The dreams are getting worse. What does it mean?...
Let me tell you what frustration is. Frustration is knowing what you need to do and being unable to do it. Frustration is being kicked by your peers. I need a plan. A plan...
Next time on Sailor Nothing, four different people, four different stories. Everybody's got problems. For instance, I can't find my catnip mouse toy. Where'd my catnip mouse toy go? How am I going to get through the next episode without my catnip mouse toy?!
...you'll live somehow, Dusty.
TO BE CONTINUED
nothing copyright 2000 stefan gagne
unauthorized use prohibited