The path was narrow and trees grew closely on both sides. At times, they reached to nearly touch each other overhead. Setsuna slowly climbed the stairs, her black hair swirling in the evening breeze. She wasn't altogether sure that she liked the color. Her usual green, though, would be very unusual at this place and time and, for once, Setsuna desired to be unnoticeably normal.
As she approached the massive wooden gate, a thing so overgrown with foliage that it had almost melded with the surrounding forest, a yell shattered the silence. Startled, Setsuna looked up in time to see a girl falling from the top of a nearby tree. With a lunge, Setsuna managed to catch the child. "What were you doing up there, little girl?" she asked as she set the girl down.
Smiling cutely, the child -- she couldn't have been older than eight or nine years -- bowed. "I was climbing the tree, Obasan! Thank you for catching me. Are you coming to visit the shrine?"
"Well, I suppose I am. Do you live here?" Information, any information, would eventually be important, Setsuna knew, and it rankled her that her foresight was limited for the time being.
"Hai! I'm Mizuno Hisa. My grandpa is the priest here, but I'm just staying for the summer." Hisa jumped up a few stairs. "Are you coming or not?"
Setsuna smiled indulgently and resumed climbing the stairs. Hisa skipped along beside her. "Do you like to climb trees?" Hisa's inquisitive face peered up at Setsuna.
The shock of memory almost unsettled her. "I'm sorry, Pluto," the queen had said. "We did what we had to do. There must always be a Pluto." Setsuna forced down the ancient pain that the girl had unwittingly invoked and reinforced her gentle smile. "I haven't climbed a tree in a long time, Hisa-chan."
Hisa responded with an innocent "Why not?"
Setsuna nearly stumbled as the memories of her earliest days welled up again. "Who is my mother, Jupiter? Why does everyone else have one?"
Unnoticing, Hisa continued to talk. "I think everyone should climb trees, Obasan."
When Setsuna did not immediately respond, Hisa tried a different tactic. "Obasan, what's your name? I can't just keep calling you 'Obasan', after all."
"I am Meiou Setsuna, child." Setsuna kept walking.
"Will you be staying a while, Meiou-basan?"
"Wai!" The precocious child skipped ahead up to the shrine itself.
A Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon fan fiction story
by Jonathan Rosebaugh
Disclaimer: Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon belongs to Takeuchi Naoko, Koudansha, TV Asahi, and Toei Douga, and DIC. No infringement is intended.
Setsuna wondered why this shrine had been built on such a high hill. She could hardly be described as out of shape, but climbing so many stairs was tiring, regardless of her physical condition.
Nevertheless, every stairway has a top, and Setsuna had just reached this one. Emerging from the shadowed path into the sunny shrine grounds, she felt her own spirits lift. She was on a Mission, after all. One of the last of her Missions, in fact; for in forty years, her fellow Senshi would finally be born.
Still smiling, she walked toward the shrine. An elderly man was standing outside it, as if he was waiting for her. The fact that Hisa was standing by his side, waiting anxiously, confirmed that supposition.
"Hello, Meiou-basan!" The girl's voice lent music to the evening air and Setsuna found herself smiling.
The old man smiled in return and stepped forward. "And how did you two meet?"
"Meiou-basan caught me when I fell from a tree, Ojisan." Hisa looked worried for a moment, perhaps concerned for the future of her pastime.
"I see. Well, then, I thank you for saving my granddaughter, Meiou-san. Hisa tells me you might wish to visit our shrine for a while?"
"That is true, Mizuno-san. I would like to stay here for a day or so. Will that be possible?"
"Of course!" The priest beckoned her towards the house.
The wooden building rested proudly near the edge of the hilltop. As a more ancient building, constructed before the growing population forced ever-increasing density in urban areas, its spacious rooms could easily accommodate not only the priest and his granddaughter, but also Setsuna -- and the priest's guest.
"Meiou-san, this is Bridgette von Donitz. Bridgette, Meiou Setsuna. Meiou-san will be staying here for a few days," the elderly priest explained to the blonde woman. Turning back to Setsuna, he continued, "Bridgette is visiting us from Germany. She is completing her study in comparative religion by working at our shrine this summer. She's been very helpful." His smile exposed perfect white teeth; an obvious sign of wealth for someone his age.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Meiou-san," Bridgette said as she managed a fair approximation of the proper bow. The blonde's eyes narrowed slightly, studying Setsuna. Her gaze poured over the Senshi like treacle, which, to be honest, Setsuna would have preferred. Bridgette was the type of woman which all men love and all women hate. She made little effort to disguise it.
"Likewise." Setsuna's eyes flashed. There was a mutual understanding between them: Setsuna knew what Bridgette was up to, Bridgette knew that Setsuna knew, and Setsuna knew that Bridgette knew that she knew. It was marvelously convoluted, but it reduced down to the simple fact that neither woman would let the other get away with anything if she could help it.
Mizuno smiled. "Well! I'm sure you'll get along just fine." He made some noises about dinner and disappeared off to the kitchen.
Bridgette turned to Hisa, who shuffled closer to Setsuna. "How was your day today?" Her hands, clasped in front of her as she leaned forward, reminded Setsuna of a praying mantis.
Hisa's demeanor was markedly different now. "It was just fine, Obasan," she replied in a stiff tone as she stared at the ground.
"I heard you fell and almost hurt yourself again. Perhaps you shouldn't be climbing trees?" When Hisa didn't respond, Bridgette turned to Setsuna. "Are all Japanese children this sullen? Hisa-chan worries me when she's like this."
"Oh, I'm sure she'll grow out of it soon." Setsuna didn't have much trouble keeping herself from explaining that that would be because Bridgette would be gone.
"I'm sure. Well, never mind. Come with me, Hisa-chan. I need you to explain something to me again." The blonde held up a notebook and walked off, watching over her shoulder for the girl to follow her.
"Go ask Ojisan," Hisa said, sticking out her tongue. "I can't tell what he sees in you, gaijin." Then, forcefully, as though to convince both Bridgette and herself of what she meant, she said, "You should leave here. Soon." Turning, she dashed out of the room and into the woods. Setsuna raised her eyebrows and followed.
Hisa was dangling from a tree with her legs curled over a branch when Setsuna caught up. "Well, Meiou-basan, what do you think?"
"I think you're overdoing it, Hisa-chan."
"Oh? It's not like she notices." Hisa swung back and forth, waving her arms. "Come one, come all, to see the amazing plastic woman, with fake plastic smiles! She can barely even speak Japanese, so how will she notice?"
"The amazing plastic woman is not as stupid as you think," Setsuna replied dryly.
"What do you mean?"
"Bridgette von Donitz is the daughter of a very highly ranking officer in the German Navy. She's no stranger to intrigue and I suspect that she understands more Japanese than she lets on."
Hisa stopped swinging. "Why is she here? Really, I mean."
"To be honest, I'm not completely sure. She's performing some duty for her country, I believe. It is certain, however, that she is, well, not on our side."
"What is our side, Meiou-basan?"
This girl was really beginning to impress her. "The right side. The side that wants people to live and be happy."
Hisa swung down and landed nimbly on her feet. "You don't really know," she assessed, looking up at Setsuna. "You're just doing your job too, aren't you?"
Years of experience allowed Setsuna to hide the rare mix of anger and slight embarrassment that Hisa had provoked. She was, after all, doing her job, preparing the way for her princess.
Hisa ran back towards the house a little ways, then turned around. "That's okay. You're on the right side, Meiou-basan. I can tell."
"And what side is that?"
"The side that's right, of course! Can't you tell?" Giggling, the girl ran inside.
'I will not lose my temper. I will not lose my temper. I will not let this child provoke me.' Setsuna silently counted to a hundred in several different languages, before returning for dinner.
The night was silent near the shrine, save only crickets and a few owls. Setsuna lay restlessly, waiting for time to pass so she could investigate unhindered. It was ironic, really, that she, the Senshi of Time, had such a problem with patience at times like these.
Of course, from one perspective, she shouldn't be here at all. Serenity had forbidden her to leave the Gates unguarded. But there was nobody at present who could use them, much less override her locks. Furthermore this Mission, like the others, had one end goal in mind: to make the most desirable future for her princess not only likely, but inevitable.
The only difference between this Mission and the preceding ones was that she had the distinct impression that her future self was now lying to her. Of course, her future self was, by definition, somewhat different from herself, but she could not think of any reason why an actual falsehood would be preferable to merely withholding some dangerous truth.
Her time sense would normally have given her some clue of what was going on, of course, but in this situation, all she knew was that something important would happen tonight, and happen here. So she waited patiently. Setsuna had a lot of practice at that.
There! The sound of footsteps, gently moving past the door to her small guest room. And now back again, pausing in front of the door. The person waited there for several minutes, then crept off again. Setsuna held her prone position for a few more minutes before climbing to her feet and following.
Using a few of the techniques she'd learned over the years, Setsuna stealthily tailed the person down the stairs, through several rooms, and into the kitchen. She watched as the female figure held up a vial in the moonlight coming in the window. Apparently satisfied, the person poked around quietly until she discovered the morning rice, set by the fire to keep warm overnight. She pulled this out and placed it on a counter.
Setsuna had seen enough. "Hungry already?" she remarked as she turned on the electric lights.
Bridgette whirled around, anger in her eyes. "You are going to be a big inconvenience for me." She pulled a handgun out of some pocket and aimed at Setsuna's head. "But not for very long."
As Bridgette was still speaking, Setsuna started to move. There was no time for her to try to use any of her powers, so she settled for catching Bridgette's gun hand in a tight grip. The handgun's safety was off, she noted. "I share your sentiment. I don't suppose we could come to some sort of agreement?" She added a twist to Bridgette's wrist for emphasis.
"Not likely." Under normal circumstances, Bridgette would never have been able to surprise Setsuna. These weren't normal circumstances. The German whirled out Setsuna's grip, sending both of them flying in opposite directions. The gun clattered to the floor, in between them.
Setsuna pushed herself to her feet and lunged for it, reaching it a second before Bridgette did. There was no time for any second thought, no time for mercy. She lined up the sight on Bridgette's head and pulled the trigger.
The unmuffled report of a high-powered handgun is, many gun enthusiasts will observe, loud enough to wake up anyone sleeping nearby. Setsuna had just finished rolling Bridgette's body to the side and had picked up the vial when the priest and his granddaughter rushed in. Hisa took in the scene and bent over in shock.
"What happened?" Mizuno asked. He didn't wait for a response. Of course, given the bloodied corpse lying there. "You killed her!" His eyes flashed to Setsuna. "Give me that." He strode over and pulled the vial from her hand. "Atropine in the rice, hmm? You probably already took the antidote," he accused. "Why? It's not as if we have anything valuable here, just ancient scrolls from the early days of Japan. And everyone you could sell them to would know where you got them."
"No. It was your other 'guest' who tired of your company. I came here to try to prevent all this." Setsuna had that sinking feeling that she wouldn't be believed.
"Get out!" For an old man, Mizuno was surprisingly strong. She didn't resist as he pulled her to the door and shoved her outside. "You won't get far. I can have the police here in an hour." He closed and locked the door.
As she stood there, her time sense opened back up and she saw the magnitude of her error. She slowly walked away from the shrine, she whispering, in the high tongue of her Queen's court, "Forgive me for what happened on your grounds, Lady. Forgive me, Holy One." And then, dreading the future that would come, "Forgive me for what I've done, my Queen."
To be continued.
Author's notes: "Oh, grim Belisarius! Can you not see that God is a dancer, and creation his dance of joy?"
This story is dedicated to Eric Flint, who will probably never read it. I have loosely borrowed a few elements from his Belisarius series. But, more importantly, I like to think I have borrowed something of its soul as well. It is a remarkable series. You can read the first book (An Oblique Approach) for free at the Baen Free Library: http://www.baen.com/library/. If you read through the end of chapter two, you will be hooked.
Furthermore, this story would not have been what it is today without the faithful assistance of such friends as Andrew Norris, Ed Becerra, Nick Leifker, Kenneth Lam, Andrew Wilson, and others. Thank you.
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