­Hgeocities.com/Tokyo/Dojo/1449/advcd26.htmlgeocities.com/Tokyo/Dojo/1449/advcd26.htmldelayedxс╝НJ                    ╚агэ┤хOKtext/htmlђџ &┤х    bЅ.HThu, 12 Sep 2002 05:38:07 GMT13Mozilla/4.5 (compatible; HTTrack 3.0x; Windows 98)en, *Р╝НJ┤х A Different Viewpoint: Curses and Demons, Chapter 26

A Different Viewpoint: Curses and Demons, Chapter 26


All Ranma characters are property of Rumiko Takahashi, first published by Shogakugan in Japan and brought over to North America by Viz Communications.

A Different Viewpoint: Curses and Demons

Chapter 26

Ami crawled out of her clothing and looked up in dismay at the suddenly cloudy sky. The lithe black panther sighed resignedly and turned around to gather up her clothing as best as she could. Dragging her blouse over the top of her shorts with her paws, Ami buried her face in her clothing and carefully bit down on as much fabric as she could at once and picked up her clothes in a bundle. Her blouse dragged on the ground, and she couldn't think of a way to pick up her shoes, but it would have to do. Ami started to run for home, then stopped, glancing back at her shoes and purse. They were quite conspicuous on the sidewalk like that, and while it would be nice if they stayed there until she could come back to them she didn't find that very likely. Ami set down her bundle and went back to her purse. It was difficult to get the strap between her teeth, but Ami persisted, despite feeling silly at having to pick up things in her mouth.

As she was lifting her purse she came face to face with a frightened looking girl who had apparently nearly walked right into her while shielding her face from the rain. The girl gave off a small scream and froze in terror.

Ami winced, then backed away, dragging the purse in her teeth.

The terrified girl, seeing that she wasn't about to be attacked, started backing away cautiously herself, then turned and ran as soon as she considered herself far enough away. Ami sighed and hurried over to her clothes bundle, dropping the strap of her purse in the middle of the pile, then picking up the whole bundle as best as she could all at once and hurried off down the street.

Ami noted that her blouse and purse were both dragging as she ran, but she decided not to adjust her load yet. As she ran, she kept picturing the frightened girl's face in her mind. She had seen fear like that many times, on the faces of people she had rescued from Youma for example, but it had never been caused by her. Ami consoled herself with the thought that a little adrenaline would be good for the girl's heart, and that certainly no permanent damage had been done, but the thoughts were little comfort when picturing the girl's face in her mind's eye.

Ami was so distracted by her ruminations that as she turned a corner she nearly ran into a group of boys and girls a few years younger than her, walking along together happily and cheerfully talking... at least until she came barreling into their midst. The kids scattered away from her in a panic, and Ami screeched to a halt and fled back the way she had come as well. Ami continued to run, doubling back and going around the block to try to find another way home, but the streets still held a fair number of pedestrians, despite the rain, and she was forced to divert from her course again and again to avoid running into anyone else. The rain died well before she could make it home, and the number of people on the street increased until she was forced to try to find a place to hide.

To avoid groups of people coming from two different directions, the Senshi of Water turned panther leapt over the fence leading into a construction site, and was jerked back halfway over the other side as her blouse and purse caught on the top of the fence. Ami hit the ground on her side a moment later, jaw and mouth aching, and blinking in shock and pain. Painfully she glanced up to the top of the fence where her clothing and purse now hung, wincing at having to move her neck. The last moments of her leap over the fence were a blur of pain and noise in her ears, but obviously she had badly twisted her neck on the way over, and her jaw was in a tremendous amount of pain as well.

Ami tasted blood and grimaced, letting herself lay back down on the hard ground for a moment to recover. Despite the blood pounding in her ears, Ami could still hear the people that she had leapt the fence to avoid approaching the place where she had jumped. Intellectually she realized that they would spot her any second if they hadn't already, and finally she forced herself to her feet with an act of will. Head pounding, She limped over to a large pipe that was sitting out waiting to be installed as part of the local sewer main, and crawled inside. She lay down, putting her head between her paws. Ami was suddenly extremely tired and reasoned that she'd have much better luck making her way home after dark. Surrendering to pain, exhaustion and logic, Ami let herself drift into unconsciousness.

**************************

The rain had caught Artemis and Mamoru Chiba by surprise, leaving two girls, the first tall and blond, the other shorter with white hair, the later without a stitch of clothing on. With the rain clearing the streets of pedestrians, and only a few blocks to go to Mamoru's apartment however, they had decided to make a run for it. While they had gotten their fair share of stares from the few people they passed on the street they had managed to get to the apartment without being stopped. It was when they came around the corner to Mamoru's door that they encountered a real problem. Ikuko Tsukino and Grandfather Hino were at Mamoru's door, and were apparently just turning to leave when Mamoru and Artemis came upon them. Everyone froze at first, staring in horror at the other pair.

Mamoru spoke first. "Tsukino-san, Hino-san, this isn't what it looks like!" The bishoten blond girl realized her error only moments after she spoke, but it was too late to take back her words. Usagi's mother and Rei's grandfather blinked at them in embarrassment and confusion while Artemis quickly darted behind Mamoru.

"Excuse me?" Mrs. Tsukino began hesitantly. "Do I know you?"

Grandfather Hino turned to one side after getting a good look. "Ahem... I'm afraid I don't recognize you either, Miss, although I do know your friend I believe... Atlanta-chan? Do you have any explanation for this?"

Artemis laughed weakly. "It's um... slightly difficult to explain."

"I can believe that." Ikuko said primly. "But I think you had better make an effort. What are you two doing coming to Chiba-san's door in this state?" She frowned deeper. "And how do you know me? I don't recall ever meeting either of you."

Mamoru thought quickly. "I'm Mamoru's cousin!" She announced brightly. "Usagi showed me a picture of you a while back."

Mrs. Tsukino blinked. "Oh? I didn't know Mamoru-san had a cousin."

Mamoru nodded. "That's me!" She started moving forward then, pulling out her keys. "Mamoru-onichan even gave me a key for his place, for when I drop by. Atlanta needed a change of clothes, so I thought I'd see if onnichan had something she could borrow."

Ikuko took a closer look at Mamoru, raising an eyebrow. "Do you borrow your cousin's clothing often? I notice that what you're wearing is a bit big on you."

Mamoru blinked. "Er... were really very close. Onnichan doesn't mind if I borrow his clothes from time to time."

"That's nice." Ikuko said dubiously, the look in her eyes giving the lie to her words. 'I'm glad you can count on your cousin like that." She addressed Atlanta, who was still hiding behind Mamoru. "Atlanta? Is that your name, dear? Whatever happened to your clothes? Are you all right?"

Artemis had also taken the time to think. "I was sun bathing... on the roof of my apartment... but when it started raining I noticed that someone had taken my clothes while I was napping. I was trapped up there until Mamoru's cousin came along and offered to help me out." The moon cat turned girl shrugged helplessly. "My keys were in my pocket when my clothes were stolen, so I couldn't get back into my place."

Grandfather Hino continued to face the wall politely as Mamoru opened the door to her apartment and let her and Artemis inside. "If you'll excuse us, Tsukino-san, Hino-san?" Mamoru asked politely. "I don't believe Mamoru is in right now, but I could take a message for him?"

Ikuko grimaced slightly, but nodded. "Please let him know we stopped by, Miss...?"

"Akane." Mamoru blurted out the first female name that came into his head. "Akane Chiba." Immediately he regretted his choice, but it was too late to withdraw it. "I'll tell him the next time I see him, Tsukino-san." She nodded again to the two older people. "Good-bye now."

Mamoru closed the door quickly and locked it immediately. "Do you think they bought it?" She whispered to Artemis questioningly.

"Maybe." Artemis returned doubtfully. "You flubbed the beginning, although you did recover well... the ending was a bit forced, I'm afraid."

Mamoru shrugged. "I didn't have a whole lot of time to think." She nodded grudgingly at Artemis. "You covered pretty well though."

Artemis shrugged back modestly. (A neat trick in her outfit.) "I suppose I did. Still, they probably suspect something. We should make sure that our story stands up when they check on it."

Mamoru blinked. "Oh right... Usagi. I probably should introduce her to my 'cousin' before her mother gets home and questions her about me."

Artemis snickered. "Now that's going to be an interesting conversation."

*********************************

In her bathroom at home, Minako blinked twice and wiped her face with one hand, getting rid of some excess water. "I'm home?" She turned to Luna looking slightly disappointed. "Well that plan didn't work...." She murmured quietly to herself. "Why didn't I remember that I'd change too?"

Luna looked at Minako in concern. "Minako-chan, are you feeling all right?"

Minako smiled cheerfully at Luna, her eyes suddenly brightening. "I'm fine, Luna. I just remembered that I forgot something."

Luna blinked. "What?"

Mina smiled brighter. "Never mind." She moved closer to the cat turned girl. "I'm just glad...." She moved even closer to Luna, so that she was only inches away, and wrapped her arms around the smaller girl's waist, pulling her in. "Luna, you still care about Artemis. We can make this work. I know we can."

Luna froze in mild alarm, looking up into the blond senshi's face from quite a bit closer than she was comfortable with. "Mina? What in the world are you...?" Luna's words were cut off as the 'warrior of love' kissed her firmly on the lips. The sometimes moon cat was frozen in shock for several seconds before she found the will to push away, forcing Minako back by her shoulders. "Mina no!" Luna exclaimed in distress. "I'm not like that!"

Minako broke her hold on the smaller girl and backed away, looking contrite. "Oh, Luna." Minako began apologetically. "I'm so sorry. I know I shouldn't have, I just... I wanted you to... be with me and Artemis... I love you, Luna...."

Luna sighed and looked away for a moment. "Mina... I'm sorry... I just don't like girls that way..." She turned back to her charge. "Mina, it's not that I don't love you. I do love you, very much!" She ducked down to better meet Minako's lowered gaze. "Why did you kiss me anyway? Did you want to be in a relationship with both Artemis and me? Is that what you've been hinting at?" Minako flushed pink in embarrassment, not able to respond. Luna sighed. "Oh, Mina, Mina, Mina. What did you think would happen?"

Minako looked away. "I don't know. I just wanted you two to be together. I thought maybe I could win you over and we could all be together..." She sighed. "But I guess that was a dumb idea, huh?"

Luna put a comforting hand on Minako's shoulder. "Not a dumb idea exactly, although it is a bit unconventional." She sighed. "I wish it could be that simple... for your sake Minako, I'd give it a try... except I know it wouldn't work. I'm just not wired that way. I'm only attracted to males."

Minako hesitated. "Well... Artemis is a male... a male cat anyway... and he'll be a male human once he remembers how. You're... attracted to him, aren't you?"

Luna frowned. "It's not that simple, you should know that."

Minako looked skeptical. "Why not? You love him, and you're attracted to him, right?" Why can't you two be together?" She answered her own question. "Because of me."

Luna sighed, then shook her head. "That's just life. It never goes how you'd expect."

Minako looked stubborn. "Why do we have to behave like society dictates? Why can only one of us be with Artemis? We're not normal people in a normal situation. We all care for each other, and we're going to be around each other for a thousand years. Why can't we all be happy?"

Luna took Mina's hands in hers. "We will be. We do have a thousand years to get this right after all. Don't regret the choices you make today. I may find someone wonderful tomorrow. Perhaps Artemis and I are meant to be together... but not for a few hundred years. Who knows?" In any case, there is no reason to rush. There's plenty of time, after all."

Mina sighed. "I guess you're right, Luna. I just hate you being unhappy now."

Luna smiled. "How can I be unhappy when people care about me the way that you do?" I'll be fine, Mina-chan, don't worry about it." She took a step back. "Now I think I'll go before your parents arrive. Take care of Artemis, all right? Don't go making any hasty decisions. Remember, you have more than enough time."

**************************

Artemis and Mamoru Chiba were relaxing in front of the TV, watching a kung fu movie when Luna walked in the front door, catching them completely by surprise.

Artemis jumped up nervously. "Luna! I... I was just leaving!"

Luna shook her head. "Stay, Artemis. I have to talk to you."

Artemis sank back down onto the couch. "Um... OK?"

Luna raised one finger. "Wait here for a minute, I'll be right back." Without further explanation Luna walked into the kitchen.

Artemis swallowed nervously, then turned to Mamoru Chiba. "How did she get in? I thought you locked the door?"

"Mamoru-san lent me a key." Answered Luna's voice from the kitchen.

Artemis winced and lowered her voice. "I forgot how sharp her hearing is."

Luna walked back in carrying the kettle that Mamoru had been heating to change herself and Artemis back to their normal forms. "Artemis, I need to show you something."

Mamoru stood up and excused herself. "I think I'll take a walk for awhile. Looks like the rain's stopped."

Luna blinked. "Mamoru? Wouldn't you prefer to change back first?"

Mamoru Chiba shook her head casually. "I think I'll go out like this. I might as well spend some time getting used to this curse while I have the free time to do so." She went to the door and opened it. "I'll be back in an hour."

When she had gone, Luna looked back at Artemis with a pensive frown. "Artemis, the first thing I wanted to tell you is that I'm sorry. I had no right to treat you so badly. I was angry, and jealous, and I'm sorry about that." She handed the kettle to the white haired girl in front of her. "The second thing is something I have to show you. I've been keeping something important from you, and again I apologize, but it's best that you see for yourself. Pour some of that on me, alright?"

Artemis blinked, not really understanding what was going on, but obediently tipped the kettle over Luna's head. Luna transformed subtlely, growing taller and slightly thinner, a bit older in appearance and with longer hair. Artemis stared in astonishment, then just stared. The sight of Luna's new form evoked powerful emotions as she remembered the last time she had seen Luna in that form. Artemis's face ran thought a gamut of expressions, going from astonishment, to remembrance, to love and finally to pain.

Luna winced. "Artemis, I'm sorry. I should have told you."

Artemis moaned softly, not hearing her apology. "Oh no... what have I done? How could I forget? Oh Luna... what have I done?"

Luna shook her head. "No, no Artemis, I forgive you. You owed me nothing. We were friends... are friends, but that doesn't mean you did anything wrong. You made no promises to me, nor I to you."

Artemis stepped forward and hugged her. "No... no, I did promise... you just don't remember it. I didn't myself until seeing you like this just now. On the moon... before the final battle... don't you remember?"

"No..." Luna shook her head, although faint glimpses of memory were starting to return at Artemis's words. "I... I don't...."

Artemis pressed the kettle into Luna's hand, then poured it over her own head, causing herself to shrink out of Luna's arms and drop to the floor. "I can do this... I remember." The white cat looked up at Luna from the floor, his face a mask of concentration. Abruptly he transformed, growing into a tall, bishoten and naked human male with long white hair.

Luna saw him and gasped aloud, memories rushing back to her all at once. "That night... before Beryl's final attack... you... we... you promised to marry me... once Beryl was defeated... we...."

Artemis finished for her. "We spent that whole night together, looking up at the Earth, making love, and promised that nothing would break us apart." The tall man looked away from Luna sadly. "I betrayed you. I broke our promise. Why should you forgive me for that?"

Luna hesitated, backing away in confusion as the memories of her past threatened to overwhelm her. "I... I'm not..." She shook her head. "This is too much.... I think I should sit down."

Artemis backed off, blushing. "Um... maybe I should get dressed, too." Luna blushed as well, turning away from him, her face flaming. Artemis quickly dressed, and sat down on the couch.

Luna joined him on the couch a few moments later, looking a bit dubious and equally amused at the sight of the tall man wearing the clothing he had borrowed from Luna earlier, which fit tightly enough that it left very little to the imagination. "You're more Mamoru's size now." She commented quietly, not quite looking at his butt.

Artemis glanced down at himself in embarrassment. "Yeah... I guess so." He looked over at Luna sadly. "Are you... are you alright?"

Luna swallowed. "I don't know. I was jealous because I felt like you... you... and then I realized... but now I know that you actually did...." She shook her head in confusion. "I don't know how to feel." She took a deep breath to calm down. "You didn't remember. Neither of us did. You didn't betray me, Artemis, not really. I... I don't blame you... I just... I just... OH ARTEMIS!!!" Luna lunged at him, collapsing against Artemis's chest, and began sobbing incoherently.

Artemis reflexively hugged her back, stroking her hair gently and doing his best to soothe her. "I'm so sorry, Luna. This is all my fault. Please don't cry." Luna only cried harder and Artemis tried again. "It'll be alright. Things will turn around, I'm sure of it. We'll work something out." He continued to stroke Luna's hair, murmuring softly to her until she quieted down. Slowly Luna looked up into his face, eyes still wet, and the heart sick look in her eyes caused him to remember anew why he had promised to marry her. Slowly, as if in a dream, he lowered his face to meet hers.

Luna went still, then turned her face away. "Artemis, no. We can't do this."

Artemis froze and raised his head. "Mina...."

Luna wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, blinking furiously. "It... it was another life. You're with Minako now... and you should stay with her."

Artemis looked down at Luna in concern. "Is that what YOU what, Luna?"

Luna hesitated, then nodded. "I want Mina to be happy... and... and I want you to be happy. How would breaking you two up help anyone?"

"But what about YOUR happiness, Luna?" Artemis countered. "Isn't there a way for all three of us to be happy?"

Luna hesitated, remembering Minako's very similar entreaties less than an hour earlier. "All three of us?" She repeated quietly. "Is that possible?"

Artemis blinked. "What?"

Luna hesitated again, torn between loyalty and temptation. < But who am I being loyal too? Minako wants us to be together... Artemis wants us to be together. What's stopping me?> In a moment of clarity the answer came to her. < Fear. I'm afraid of losing both of them... afraid of being alone... but I'm already alone. What am I afraid of?> Luna shivered as she turned to face Artemis squarely. Telling herself not to be afraid didn't make it so, but still despite her fear, Luna found the will to speak. "Maybe... maybe we can... all be happy. Minako said that... that she wants us all to be together... all three of us. She said that she loved me... and wanted me to be with her, and with you." Luna looked worried. "She loves you too, Artemis, very much. It wasn't that she was choosing me over you or anything...."

Artemis was shaking his head slowly, chuckling under his breath. "Is that what she wanted to talk to you about? I should have guessed. Minako... her heart is too big to see someone in pain and not want to help. What did she say to you?"

Luna blushed bright red. "She... she kissed me... and told me she wanted the three of us to be together. I was shocked! I told her that it just wasn't possible. I don't like... girls like that." Luna hesitated for a long moment. "But... maybe... I could try."

Artemis stared at her in mixed confusion and wonder. "Luna... what are you saying?"

Luna swallowed. "That maybe we should... be together... all three of us."

Artemis blinked. "Are you serious?"

Luna hesitated one last time, then nodded. "Yes, I believe I am. I think we should talk this out with Minako first, but if you two both want for me to be with you... then I will accept."

*************************

Ami woke to the extremely unpleasant sensation of something sharp plunging into her rear end. She jumped up with a yelp, which translated into an angry roar in her panther form, and nearly bumped her head on the top of the pipe. Ami staggered forward out of the pipe to escape whoever of whatever had jabbed her so cruelly in a sensitive spot. Coming forward out of the pipe, Ami found herself confronted by a man in a brown uniform, holding a long pipe with a rope looped at one end of it. It was a device used to capture dangerous animals that she recalled seeing on a wild life show a few years back.

Ami ducked back into the pipe rather than let the man snare her, but her movements were getting progressively more sluggish as she fought for consciousness all over again. Ami realized with sudden clarity that the sharp pain in her rear end had come from a tranquilizer dart, but there was nothing she could do with that information in time. The girl turned panther lost consciousness only moments later, with her last emotion being one of extreme frustration.

Makoto watched helplessly as the black panther was loaded unconscious into the zoo truck. She had started searching for Ami as soon as the rain started, but had arrived too late to help. Ami had run several blocks off course while trying to hide, and it had taken too long for Makoto to search the entire area. She had only found Ami at all because of the crowd by the construction yard. With all the witnesses, she had been unable to act, watching helplessly as the police took Ami's clothing and purse, and while the men from the zoo had sedated and captured Ami. She had momentarily considered transforming to Sailor Jupiter and going in to rescue Ami, but had reluctantly been forced to abandon that plan due to all the witnesses. < I'll just have to wait until their aren't so many people around.> She thought as she watched the zoo truck drive away. < But first, I'll need some help.>

******************************

Mina was laying on her bed moping when her communicator beeped at her. She answered it at once and was greeted by Makoto's grim face.

Warned by her friend's dire expression, Mina became concerned. "Makoto, what's wrong?"

"It's Ami." Makoto informed her unhappily. "She transformed when it rained, and she's gotten captured by some animal control people. They're taking her away right now."

Minako sat up straight in bed, looking alarmed. "Oh no! Where are they taking her?"

Makoto shrugged. "The zoo I guess. We've got to go rescue her."

Minako nodded thoughtfully. "OK, I'll come and meet you. Where are you now?"

Makoto hesitated, then shook her head. "I'll come to your place. If you get wet, Akane won't have any idea where you were going."

Mina frowned, but nodded her understanding. "I'll wait by my window. Hurry, OK?"

Makoto nodded. "You don't have to tell me."

Minutes later Makoto ran up to Minako's house, panting slightly, and Minako waved to her urgently from the window to come inside. Makoto hopped up high enough to grab the window sill and climbed the rest of the way in, with a pull from Minako.

"Did you see what was on the side of the truck that took Ami away?" Minako asked the moment her friend was inside.

"Um... City Zoo?" Makoto ventured. "Yes, it was the Municipal City Zoo."

Minako nodded, then went over to her desk and opened the phone book on it. "OK, here's my plan. I've already asked Usagi if we can borrow her disguise pen. We'll swing by Usagi's place and get it, then get to the zoo as soon as possible and see what we can find out. We'll pose as reporters first, I think, see what they're telling the press, then see if we can get inside to see Ami."

Makoto blinked. "Wow, you've really thought this out, huh?"

Minako shrugged. "No big deal. Artemis and I used to hunt down regular criminals too, back in my Sailor V days. You get to know how they think."

Makoto blinked again. "Criminals?"

Mina nodded matter-of-factly. "To get Ami out of the Zoo we're going to have to break several laws, and it really wouldn't be a good idea to be caught doing so."

Makoto nodded in agreement. "I get it. So we have to think like criminals, huh?"

Minako rolled up her eyes. "Most criminals get caught. We've got to be smarter than that."

Makoto frowned worriedly. "I guess we're going to have to be pretty careful, huh? It's not like we can blame everything on a youma attack, like we usually do."

Minako looked thoughtful. "Hmm... no, better not."

Makoto prodded Mina. "What?"

Mina shrugged. "I was just thinking we could get Johnathon to attack the Zoo in his half-cat form, but that would just put him at risk instead of us.... Besides we've already said that he's a good guy."

Makoto sighed. "So if we can't stage a youma attack, how do we get Ami out without getting ourselves in trouble?" She held up a hand. "Not that I wouldn't break Ami out of there anyway, but if there is a way to do this without getting caught, I'm all for it."

Minako shrugged. "First we have to case the joint. We can't make a better plan until we know what we're getting into."

Makoto stifled a laugh at "case the joint" and nodded. "Well then, we'd better get moving before it gets too late!"

Minako nodded back. "Let's transform and run there. It'll be faster."

Makoto blushed. "Er... right... just let me change clothes first." She started stripping. "I'll be just a minute."

Minako noticed the blush and resisted a sudden impulse to leer at the taller girl, turning her back instead. "What's wrong with me?" She muttered under her breath. "It's like I'm turning into Haruka."

"What was that?" Makoto asked, dropping her tank top onto Minako's bed.

"Oh, nothing." Minako replied, not turning around. A few moments later she spoke up again. "Makoto?"

"Yes?"

"Do you think it's weird... about me and Artemis I mean?"

Makoto didn't answer right away. "Not really." She finally replied. "Although I was surprised when I first heard, I don't really think it's weird."

Minako blinked, turning around to face her friend. "Really, you don't think it's strange?"

Makoto had finished undressing and was in the middle of holding up her transformation wand. "Yes really. Hold on a second. Jupiter... Star... Power!" After a flashy but greatly abbreviated transformation sequence, Sailor Jupiter (sans costume) started getting dressed again. "I was surprised a bit, because I always thought you liked guys exclusively...." She blushed. "Not that Artemis isn't a guy... kind of...." She sighed, then smiled faintly. "I'm making this more difficult than it should be. I guess I'm just curious about it."

Minako nodded agreeably. "Go ahead and ask. I don't mind."

Makoto continued getting dressed. "Alright... do you like girls as much as guys?"

Minako considered that. "I'm pretty sure I'm wired both ways, although until Artemis I never... you know." She smiled slightly. "Now that I know that Artemis should be able to change into a guy... once he remembers how... I'm anxious to find out which way is better... with a guy or with a girl."

Makoto blushed brighter red than she already was, but still looked interested. "Um... could you let me know how it turns out?"

Minako raised an eyebrow. "Are you thinking about experimenting, Makoto?"

Sailor Jupiter hesitated, then nodded slightly before kneeling down to lace up her shoes. "I have been... you know, thinking about... well, what it might be like. I can't deny that I'm curious."

"Is there a particular guy... or girl that you're thinking about..." Minako's eyes glinted in interest. "About experimenting with?"

Makoto looked thoughtful. "Well, Ryoga is pretty nice. He's strong, brave..."

"And is incredibly cute!" Minako chimed in with a wink.

"That too!" Makoto admitted. "I'm ready to go now. We should hurry, right?"

Minako nodded. "Yup. Wait a second, we should grab my dad's video camera. I'll be right back." Minako rushed downstairs, then came back a minute later with a large portable video camera. Then she grabbed the overcoat in her closet. "OK, this will do for YOUR disguise."

"My disguise?" Jupiter blinked.

"Minako nodded cheerfully. "Yup! You'll be my camera woman."

Jupiter nodded in understanding. "Oh, I get it. You'll be the reporter, huh?"

Minako nodded back affirmatively. "Right. Now lets get going!" She held up her transformation wand. "Venus... Star... Power!" A flash of light and a swirling transformation later, Sailor Venus moved to the window and leapt out, followed closely by Sailor Jupiter. Stopping by Usagi's house, or more precisely, Usagi's bedroom window, long enough to borrow her disguise pen, Sailor Venus and Jupiter continued on to the zoo at a run, leaping casually from rooftop to rooftop as they ran.

As they headed out from Usagi's place, Sailor Venus spoke up. "So... you're thinking about Ryoga?"

Jupiter shrugged noncommittally. "Well, maybe. He is cute. I'm thinking about asking him out soon... I just haven't figured out how to do it."

Sailor Venus raised an eyebrow curiously. "I thought you were thinking about "experimenting" with someone, from what you were asking, but it sounds like you're not even on a first date status with Ryoga-san. He seems pretty shy to me, Jupiter. I wouldn't try seducing him until the third or fourth date at least if I were you."

Jupiter flushed bright red. "I wasn't planning on seducing.... I mean, I barely know him!"

"Hmm...." Venus looked at her fellow Senshi thoughtfully. "So you're thinking about experimenting, but not with Ryoga?" Jupiter's brighter blush gave her away. "Oh!" Venus exclaimed cheerfully. "I see! Who is the lucky person?"

Jupiter was silent for a long time, her face still flaming. "It's Ami." She finally answered when she had managed to get her blush under control, and immediately blushed again just as brightly. "But I don't know how she'd react."

Sailor Venus grinned broadly. "Really? That's great! I think Ami and you would make a wonderful couple!"

"A wonderful couple of what, I wonder?" Jupiter muttered quietly. "I don't know." She said louder. "I never really pictured myself with another girl. I always thought I'd have a boy friend.... I still like boys, it's just I don't know any boys that I feel about... the way I feel about her."

Venus nodded. "I know EXACTLY what you mean. It's hard to have a boyfriend when you have to keep secrets from him, and run out on half your dates... and protect him from monsters without letting him know you're doing it."

Jupiter sighed. "Yeah." She brightened. "But I could tell Ryoga. He practically knows already, and he can handle himself if a monster attacks...." Makoto sighed. "But I really don't know him that well yet."

Venus nodded again. "So you have to ask him out so you can find out more. What about Ami? You already know her really well, right?"

"Yes, but..." Jupiter answered uncertainly.

Venus raised an eyebrow. "And you love her?"

Jupiter looked surprised. "Of course I do!"

Venus smiled wryly. "Do you find her attractive... physically?"

Jupiter hesitated before answering. "Yes." She finally admitted. "I do. I normally don't think about girls that way, but... I do find her to be... very attractive... physically." The Senshi of lightning shook her head. "I'm not sure why exactly. I mean, I like guys that are tall... strong... confident. Ami's shorter than me... smaller... a little shy... but that... that just makes her Ami."

Venus nodded. "Ami's really cute, and not at all like a guy. You like cute girls and big strong guys, and what's strange about that? Guys and girls are supposed to be different, after all."

Jupiter sighed. "I guess... but I still don't know what Ami would think about it if she knew how I feel about her. I mean, she likes guys, doesn't she?"

Venus nodded once again. "So she says, but so do you and I. She might like you as much as you like her... you just have to ask her."

Jupiter swallowed nervously. "What if she doesn't feel the same way? Then she'd know that I... that I'm attracted to her.... Things just wouldn't be the same after that."

Venus nodded slowly, then winked at her fellow Senshi. "OK, how about this. I'll find out how Ami feels about girls for you without letting her know it's you that's interested." She raised a finger. "On one condition. If it turns out she happens to like tall, beautiful, brown haired girls, then you have to tell her how you feel."

Sailor Jupiter blushed but nodded. "OK, it's a deal."

Sailor Venus beamed. "Alright then. Now we REALLY have to rescue her!" Soon the Tokyo Zoo came into view, and Sailor Venus led them to an alley a few blocks away where they came to a halt. "OK." Venus glanced at Sailor Jupiter thoughtfully. "Put on the trench coat and carry the camera. No one looks at the cameraman anyway, but keep the camera in front of your face whenever you can." She held up the disguise pen. "Make me into a sexy TV reporter!" Moments later, Sailor Venus was dressed in a tasteful but attractive suit jacket and skirt, and looked around ten years older. The disguise pen had changed into a portable microphone which Venus waved triumphantly. "Alright! Lets go, Jupiter. Now remember, I'm, um... Akio, and you can be, um..."

Jupiter interrupted. "I'm not going to be B-ko."

Venus blinked twice. "Er... right. How about Madoka?"

"Sure." Jupiter accepted the name with a shrug. "Not that anyone will want to know my name, probably."

Venus shrugged back. "Better safe than sorry. Come on, lets go find the press."

When they finally found the rest of the press covering the story, the press conference had already started. There were more than a dozen reporters present to speak to the Zoo superintendent, and as they pressed their way to the front the reason for the crowd became apparent.

"Has the girl's body been found yet?" A familiar looking reporter asked loudly.

"There is no way to know if the girl is actually dead yet." The Zoo spokesman explained. "Although the police are investigating the matter. I believe they will be preparing a statement for the press soon."

"In your professional opinion, sir, do you really believe that the missing girl is still alive? Her clothing was found at the scene, ripped. There were traces of blood, and a wild panther at the scene, reportedly with blood on it's jaws?" The reporter made his dubiousness evident in his voice, and the rest of the crowd seemed ot agree with his opinion.

The Zoo official remained calm, putting up his hands for silence. "It is too soon to say anything with certainly. Everything possible is being done. A more complete statement will be given by the police in the morning."

Several more reporters began shouting questions. "Where did the panther come from?" "How did such a dangerous animal get into the middle of the city?" Were the loudest questions asked, and the Zoo official held up his hands before answering them.

"All of the animals here at the Zoo have been accounted for, so we can safely eliminate that possibility." The man stated with obvious relief. "That said, the animal appeared to be in good condition , aside from it's recent injury. While the origins of this panther have not yet been determined, I believe it is safe to say that is was brought here by some human agency and escaped only recently."

Venus and Jupiter exchanged worried looks, and Venus continued to push her way to the front of the crowd. As she reached the front there was a bit of a lull as the other reporters noticed her, the female reporters checking out their new competition while the male reporters just checked her out. Sailor Venus, even disguised as a reporter, stood out in the crowd.

The Senshi of Love raised her hand to ask a question and got the official's immediate attention. "Would it be possible to see the facility where this animal is being kept?"

The official blinked. "I believe we can have a small group tour the facility after this discussion." He turned to the other reporters. "Are there any other questions?" The press conference continued for several more minutes and the majority of the reporters left after it was done. Only two other reporters wished to see the panther, so the Zoo official took all three of them and their camera men (and woman) to the Zoo's main veterinary building.

On the way, Venus's fellow reporters introduced themselves. "I'm Hito Ikagi." The familiar looking man said with a winning smile. "Channel four news. My colleague here is Maggie Chung, with CNN. I don't believe we've met...?"

"Akio Kasuga, Animal Planet." Venus answered smoothly. "Nice to meet you."

Maggie Chung raised an eyebrow. "Animal Planet?"

Venus covered quickly. "They've decided to add a new segment to the show... "When animals run amuck" or something like that. I'll be hosting it."

Maggie Chung nodded with polite interest. "Well, good luck with that." Having classified her as basically uninteresting, her fellow reporters stopped paying attention to her, something Venus was quite pleased with. She had recognized Hito Ikagi after he had introduced himself, remembering him doing a series of reports about her fellow Senshi and on the recent youma attacks. There had been a particularly loathsome piece about Johnathon Dwire's cursed form brainwashing the Senshi that she had especially disliked, and she was glad that he had lost interest in her so soon.

The Zoo administrator introduced the reporters to the head veterinarian, who showed them to the hallway where the captured panther was being kept. Cages lined one wall of the hallway, and the slumbering form of a black panther was immediately visible in one of them.'

"She's still out." The distinguished looking veterinarian explained as he showed them to the panther's cage. "We kept her sedated for the examination and she should be asleep for several more hours at least."

Maggie Chung spoke up, directing her microphone to the veterinarian. "Doctor, can you tell us if you've discovered anything about the blood found at the scene?"

The veterinarian shook his head. "The blood is still being analyzed. We expect to get some results back by tomorrow. I can confirm that the panther has suffered an injury to the mouth, which could explain the blood stains that were found. I also believe she might have injured her neck, but it's too soon to tell for sure how bad those injuries are."

Sailor Venus spoke up. "Is she very badly injured?"

The veterinarian shook his head. "It doesn't appear life threatening, and the spine appears to be in alignment. It's probably just some minor trauma, like a pulled muscle, but we'll have to wait and see how well she recovers first." The other two reporters asked several more questions, but Sailor Venus paid them little attention as she took in the layout of the facility, noting the two entrances and the lone video camera at one end of the hall.

As they left the Zoo, Sailor Jupiter glanced worriedly behind them. "So we go back in and break her out tonight?"

Sailor Venus hesitated, then shook her head. "We don't know how bad Ami's hurt. If she injured her neck, it isn't smart to move her right away. We can't go until we know that moving her won't aggravate her injuries."

Jupiter grimaced. "But we won't know that until tomorrow. Her mother is going to really be worried... and Ami will miss the first day at school!"

Venus shrugged with a sigh. "Better safe then soaking, right?"

"That's "sorry."" Jupiter corrected. "But I guess you're right. We shouldn't take a chance on getting Ami hurt. I guess missing a day of school won't hurt her grades any... and it's better than taking chances." She sighed. "Poor Ami, she's not going to have any idea that we know where she is. She'll be so worried... and she's hurt...." Sailor Jupiter moaned. "I can't stand it. Can't we call the goddesses for help?"

Venus frowned. "Ami has Skuld's email address, but we don't have any other way to contact them, unless they're watching us right now." She looked up at the sky hopefully. "Urd-san? Belldandy? Skuld? Anyone?" After a few moments she sighed. "If they are, they'll come, and if not, there's not much we can do about it." Jupiter nodded with another sigh, and Venus looked her in the eye with a smile. "Cheer up, Jupiter. We'll save Ami, and she'll be just fine, you'll see. Come on, you can walk me home."

End Chapter 26

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