Springtime was in full bloom in downtown Tokyo. Students on spring break were congregating in every public area, buying bento, holding hanami parties, even hanging out in the Crown Arcade. Motoki was in heaven. Mamoru was just annoyed. It was getting so that one couldn't even hold a senshi meeting in relative peace.
"Ugh, I can't believe how crowded it is," Usagi complained, squeezed onto Mamoru's lap in the usual corner booth. Mamoru forbore to mention that getting everyone into that booth had become impossible well before the current influx of liberated students. After all, at maximum attendance, there were eleven of them now. And two cats. Fortunately, the outers were not in presence today. They had been appraised of the alteration in the shitennou's status and agreed to upgrade them from "shoot on sight" to "observe and report". However, they felt strongly that this was a Golden Kingdom matter and had no desire to interfere. It was just as well. Even with Usagi on his lap and Rei scrunched indecently close to Jade, getting seven people into the booth was still a stretch.
"Okay, everyone," Mamoru said authoritatively. "You all convinced me to wait until classes were on break to start seriously hunting for the other shitennou-"
"I'm sure it did good things for your grades, Mamoru-kun," Ami pointed out.
"I doubt it," the prince said dryly. "I may have been looking at the textbook, but I don't think you could call what I did 'studying'."
"Ahem," Usagi cut in. If left to herself, Ami would go on about insignificant matters until the heat death of the universe. The bluenette was still having extreme difficulty with the idea that she had had a very serious, downright hot-and-heavy relationship with a man back in the Silver Millennium, and that said man might be walking and talking and lusting after her at this very minute. It didn't help that Rei and Jade seemed constitutionally unable to keep their hands off of each other, even in public. If Ami didn't stop blushing soon, she was going to give herself sunburn. But Usagi wasn't going to let that stand in the way of true love. "I think Mamoru was trying to say that, now that break has arrived, it's time to focus on finding the others and bringing them back into the circle."
"Yes." Mamoru cleared his throat. "Okay. What do we have so far? Jade?"
The other man jumped and looked up from his girlfriend. "Right. Sorry. I've been going through the consular records from the last ten years whenever I got the chance. Some of those passport pictures are pretty terrible, but I don't think any of them have left the country."
"What if they left before then? Your parents moved away when you were just a baby," Makoto pointed out. "Or what if they're orphans? Mamoru and I are both orphans. Then we'd never find them! Or what if-"
"Then we'll deal with it," Usagi said soothingly. Makoto had not required much convincing at all to embrace the probable return of Nephrite. Her dreamer's soul and romantic nature had been enthralled by the story of love, betrayal and redemption. Holding her back until spring break had been the problem; Makoto had wanted to start going door to door right now in search of her soul mate.
"And my parents are an unusual case," Jade pointed out. "They were only here briefly for my father's final year of graduate work."
"What if that happened to someone else? Maybe we should check the universities-"
"Makoto, relax," Usagi ordered. Then she turned to Jade. "It is a valid question, though; shouldn't we look back through the last twenty or so years at least?"
"The records are only computerized for the last ten years," Jade sighed. "Apparently the Japanese government resisted handling customs electronically until they absolutely had to, and there's been no funds for going back and digitizing the old records. And I can't exactly start requisitioning old files without a good excuse."
"All right," Minako said practically. "Until we have reason to believe otherwise, we'll assume that the other shitennou are still in Japan."
"But what if they were never in Japan?" Makoto wailed. "What if they're just from other countries? Then how will we-"
"That's not likely," Usagi cut in. "We were all born within the same district, remember, Mako-chan? Sure, Minako-chan and Jade-kun's parents moved away, but it's far more likely that they're right here in Juuban."
"I agree," Ami said. Usagi beamed at her for overcoming her shyness enough to contribute. Ami really had been growing into a mature, confident woman before this recent setback. Hopefully she would soon come to realize that being in a relationship was not the end of the world.
Makoto seemed to accept Ami's answer. "So what now?"
"Hospital records," Mamoru said.
Ami twitched. "Wait a second, Mamoru-kun," she tried.
"If they were born in Juuban, their certificates will be on file with the local heath board," the prince continued. "And as medical students, Ami-chan and I have access to those records."
"I don't think that's such a good idea," the bluenette said nervously. "It would be an abuse of trust to misuse our access."
"It's not misuse," Minako protested. "It's love!"
"We don't have authorization to look at their private medical records!" Ami argued.
"Sure we do." Mamoru grinned. "I'm the prince of Earth, remember? They were my personal guard. I'm their next of kin from the Silver Millennium."
"And I'm arguably their attending doctor, too."
"That's sophistry!" Ami protested weakly.
"No, that's the law," Endymion stated. "They are citizens of the Golden Kingdom and my subjects. That gives me all the rights I need."
"I agree," Jadeite said, throwing his support to his prince. "The law was very clear on this point."
Ami subsided unhappily.
"Come on, Ami," Rei said in a conciliatory tone, reaching across to tap the bluenette meaningfully on one hand. "I know this is making you nervous. You don't have to jump right back into a relationship the minute we find Zoicite, okay? Jade and I are handling this the way we want to. You can do the same."
Ami looked worried. "What if he expects more?"
"I doubt he will," Minako said comfortingly. "He was more than willing to be patient in the Silver Millennium, remember?"
"No," Ami admitted flatly.
"Well, take my word for it, he was."
"I think we're forgetting something," Usagi said, bringing the conversation back around to business. "Birth certificates don't include photos, and frankly, I doubt we'd recognize the shitennou from their baby pictures."
"No, but we can compile a list of names in the right gender and age range," Mamoru replied. "Then we can start refining by other lifestyle factors."
"Meaning?" Makoto asked.
"We're not professional royalty anymore, but a lot of our skills and personality traits seem to have remained the same from the Silver Millennium," Usagi explained. "We can use that to our advantage."
"Nephrite will have a reputation for honesty and diligence," Mamoru continued, nodding at Makoto. "And we can ask around at various engineering firms for someone who hasn't left their office in a month." He grinned at Ami, who, predictably, blushed. Then he frowned. "Kunzite is going to be harder. He really lived for his work, and I have no idea what he might have started doing if he didn't have his old responsibilities anymore."
"Police officer?" Jade suggested. "Bodyguard?"
Mamoru shook his head. "I just don't know." His gaze slid over to Minako. "Any ideas, Minako-chan?"
She frowned in thought, then shrugged. "No, but I'll let you know."
"Something with a lot of responsibility," Jade said thoughtfully.
"Well, in the meanwhile, everyone keep your eyes open," Usagi said. "After Luna woke me up, there started to be a lot of strange coincidences, remember? Bumping into Mamoru all the time, meeting Rei at the arcade, Minako transferring into our school. I think it was the crystal working to pull us all together. We may see a similar effect now, so pay attention to the details, okay?"
"We will," Makoto said for everyone. Her eyes were far away, probably dreaming of her reunion with Nephrite.
"Okay," Mamoru concluded. "Then let's go."
In a tiny office buried several levels underground, Kusanagi Zen stared at the numbers wavering disquietingly on his computer screen. They were nowhere near what he wanted them to be. Just in case, he pulled off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Sliding the lenses back on his nose, he looked again. Nope. Still wrong.
Leaning back in his chair, Zen sighed. This project, like most of those he found himself on, was weeks behind, way over budget, and failing to produce any meaningful results whatsoever. It was only after things had gotten bad that frazzled project managers called him in, hoping for a miracle. More often than not, he was able to provide one, thus saving the reputation of at least half of the section heads in the Ministry of Advanced Science and Technology at one time or another. Unfortunately, it was starting to look like this one was beyond repair.
Zen stood and stretched, feeling abused back muscles complain loudly that thirty-six hours in a standard-issue government chair were no picnic. His brain chose that moment to fizzle and short out, presumably on the grounds that thirty-six hours of energy drinks and ramen were no substitute for five real meals and a good night's sleep. It was time for a break.
Riding towards the surface in an agonizingly slow elevator, Zen checked his watch. Apparently it was lunchtime topside. The good news was that meant the cafeteria would be open and he wouldn't need to venture outside in search of food. The bad news was that the cafeteria would be crowded. AS&T had the best tofu on the entire campus of the Ministry of Defense, although that wasn't saying much. Twice a day salarymen from all over the complex descended on their building to eat, chatter and generally make Zen wished he'd stayed in the lab.
Well, he hadn't seen sunlight in days now. He was due, and the salarymen could just deal with the presence of a taciturn engineer in their midst.
It took far too long to get to the cafeteria proper through the congested hallways, and even longer to make it through the line and pay for his standard project-rescue-mode lunch. Moving into the seating area with tray in hand, Zen winced at the sea of suited figures stretching from wall to wall. Maybe eating in his office wasn't such a bad idea after all.
By an inconveniently placed support pillar, sitting at a table tucked away in semiprivacy, a broad-shouldered man with white hair caught Zen's eye and raised one hand in a familiar signal.
Zen shoved through the crowd, paying no attention to the herd, and put his tray down just in time to stop an aggressive woman from making off with an empty chair. "Konnichi wa, Yamazaki-san."
"Kusanagi-kun," the other man replied. He subjected Zen to a critical look. "You look paler than usual."
"First sun in two days," Zen agreed, breaking open the prefabricated chopsticks.
"Whose project is this?"
"Morouka-kachou's." Zen rolled his eyes expressively.
The other man said nothing, and to the casual observer, his expression had not changed. However, Zen had been eating random meals with Yamazaki for years now, and he was able to catch the extra degree of disapproval in the crinkling of the edges of his eyes and the corners of his mouth. Morouka was in for it now; Yamazaki was the department head in charge of staffing and budget for AS&T. Zen rather thought that Morouka's next pet project was about to run into a critical shortage of funds and manpower.
"I was hoping you'd come up for lunch today," Yamazaki said, surprising Zen. Usually the two men ate in a companionable silence, and rarely scheduled a meeting on purpose. The department chair was too busy to take lunch very often, and Zen's schedule was unpredictable in the extreme, defined as it usually was by the needs of mismanaged projects. When they happened to sync up, they enjoyed each other's company, but the only time one of them would deliberately seek out the other was…
The younger man looked up, a question on his face. Yamazaki nodded, a slight but significant motion of his head.
Zen looked back down at his food and discovered he wasn't hungry any more. He threw down his chopsticks. "Let's take a walk."
Outside, the sun made him wince and pull out the shaded glasses he kept for times like this. They weren't prescription, so when he switched them out, the world past his nose faded into pleasantly blurry shapes. Zen liked it that way. There were too many sharp edges lurking in the corners of his mind as it was.
"I take it you haven't slept in those thirty-six hours," Yamazaki surmised, setting out for the decorative shrubbery planted next to the AS&T building. It was as private a place for a conversation as they would find without leaving the government campus entirely.
"Nope," Zen admitted.
"I had a very disturbing dream last night."
"More of the usual?" Zen was not referring to ordinary nightmares of the showing up naked to work variety. It wasn't hard to know when they had shifted to discussing other lives in an ancient kingdom. Those shared memories were the foundations of an unlikely friendship between the quiet department head and the skilled engineer.
Kusanagi Zen had always been gifted with electronics. That skill had won him entry into a prestigious high school and, when the time came, the world-renowned Tokyo University School of Engineering. He had graduated with a master's in five years instead of the usual six, and been presented with generous offers from many top companies. It had surprised almost everyone when he chose government service instead. Many people asked him what drove him to that decision. Zen always told them that he had felt a sense of duty. He never added that he felt an even stronger sense of guilt and a need to make amends.
Walking into the cafeteria after a few months on the job, Zen was only been looking for a place to eat his lunch in peace. His new coworkers had already learned that the brilliant young engineer was also a retiring, difficult companion who preferred solitude to camaraderie. That day, just like today, the cafeteria had been full. Unlike today, Zen's gaze had passed over the serious-looking man eating alone. Until that man had looked up and stared straight at Zen with shocked silver eyes.
Yamazaki Kanji was ridiculously young for his position, only twenty-five on the day Zen's life had collided with his. But people said he had a gift for management. He was able to work the bureaucracy like a fine instrument. His ability to organize and inspire his people was legendary. Despite all this, he was a taciturn man, preferring actions to words, cultivating an acquaintance with many but friendships with none.
Ordinarily Zen would never have considered approaching someone who so far outranked him as Kanji, and whose reputation for reticence was only exceeded by Zen's own. But after their eyes met, Zen found himself thudding down into the empty chair at his table without any conscious memory of crossing the room. One shared glance had been all it took to acknowledge the link between them. After work, they had spent the first of many nights getting quietly drunk in the privacy of Kanji's apartment, comparing memories better forgotten and calling each other by old names better left unsaid.
The sound of cars speeding down the freeway brought Zen's attention back to the present. He and Yamazaki had reached the edge of the campus and stood in a small clearing by the guardrail that separated them from eight gleaming lanes of concrete.
Yamazaki was answering Zen's question. "No, not more of the usual." He leaned against the metal guardrail, eyes distant. "Very different, actually."
Zen leaned against a tree and waited. There was no point in rushing him when he was like this. Kanji would speak when he was ready.
"It was back in the palace on Old Earth," the older man said at length. "Before we resumed contact with the Silver Alliance. We were all very young. Twelve or thirteen, maybe."
Zen nodded to show he understood.
"It was Endymion's birthday," Kanji continued. "There had been a week of festivities. The prince was bored with the constant pomp and circumstance. At the end of it, when we were dismissed back to our normal duties, he was relieved."
Zen was starting to get flashes of memory that tracked with Kanji's story. It often happened that as one of them talked of the past, the other would begin to remember as well. When they first met in this life, they had talked often, late into the night, filling out their recollections of the past.
"We wanted to do something for him that he would actually enjoy. I told the master of swords that I wished to schedule an extra wrestling practice for the afternoon session instead of our weapons lesson. We met in the forested section of the formal gardens."
"To practice on uneven terrain," Zen said. "I remember."
"Not that day," Kanji said. "On that day, we climbed trees."
Zen stared. "You never let us slack off, even when there was no one else around to see!"
"But that day was the prince's birthday. So we had our own private celebration, and climbed trees."
Slowly the memory filtered back. The sky had been clear and the breeze gentle; Endymion's birthday was in high summer, but the canopy of the trees had gentled the sunlight and shaded the ground. Everyone had tried their hand at climbing, falling repeatedly until they got the trick of grabbing the branch and swinging their legs up to cling on. Nephrite had wanted to climb higher, but Kunzite had insisted they stay in the low branches. Even in fun he had not wanted to risk the prince falling out of the tree and breaking his neck.
Zen shook his head. "That's a good one," he sighed. "It's nice to get a good one occasionally." Then he paused, frowning. "Wait. You said your dream was disturbing."
Kanji nodded slowly. "At the end of the wrestling practice session, we climbed back down and walked back to the palace. Endymion thanked me, and all of you, for the birthday gift."
"Then he turned to face me," Kunzite said. "The trees turned into skyscrapers. The sky became dark, and the buildings all lit up with neon lights. When I turned back to look at Endymion, he was not twelve anymore, or even as old as he was at the end of the Silver Millennium. He was older- perhaps as old as I am now, or a few years younger. A man grown. He looked right at me and said, 'Why are you hiding from me?'"
Zen sucked in his breath.
Kanji shook his head. "That is when I woke up."
"That's bad," Zen said worriedly. "That's just like before."
He looked at Kanji, who was wearing that expression of worry that only five other people would ever be able to recognize, and knew they were both thinking of the same thing.
Zen's memories had started returning while he was finishing his middle school program and studying for his high school entrance exams. At first he had been secretly thrilled. The unscientific elements of magic and reincarnation did nothing to damp his wonder at the technological capabilities of a society he was slowly remembering. The things he relearned how to do in his dreams were wondrous. A civilization where things like food and water could be created by machines instead of grown in the soil! Computers so advanced they could actually learn natural language by rewiring themselves, as the human brain did. A method of high speed transit that made the shinkansen look plodding. Zen had spent a month in heaven, doodling diagrams on any spare piece of paper that came his way, often waking up in the middle of the night or shooting out of the shower half-clean to seize pen or keyboard and record his latest inspiration.
Then the rest of his memories had returned, and joy turned to despair. He had betrayed the bright kingdom of his dreams. The glorious civilization of his memories had been dust and ashes for a thousand years.
The new memories had pulled at him, urging him to take walks down streets he had never seen and visit places he had never known. Zen had found himself caught by the news reports of the mysterious sailor-suited soldiers battling unspeakable evils in downtown Tokyo. He realized that knew them from the past, and that knowledge was trying to draw them back together. But Zen saw all too well what kind of welcome he could expect if he followed the pull of his soul. Instead, he had spent the time after graduating from middle school secretly finding out what getting drunk was all about.
Unfortunately for him, it did not work as advertised. When he woke up the next morning, all of his memories were still there to haunt him. More than all. New memories began appearing, ones seemingly set in the present day. Those were the ones he couldn't bear to think about even in the light of day, because in those memories the face and hands were his own.
If he could not destroy the memories with drink, he could bury them with work. Zen threw himself into the punishing program at the prestigious preparatory school with a fervor that impressed his advisors and worried his parents, who were afraid he was going to work himself into brain fever and death. He did not tell them that, some days, he hoped he would do exactly that. He followed his obsession into the undergraduate program at Toudai, then the graduate program. When the end of the academic line finally loomed, Zen strongly considered transitioning to a new field of study and pursuing additional degrees. The cocoon of university was safe. Research could not harm anyone...
The recruiter for government positions had changed his mind. Nothing could expiate his sins, but if he was not going to succeed in destroying his past, he had a duty to do as much good as he could in this new life.
Meeting Kanji had been a bright spot in the grey days that followed. For the first time, Zen had someone with whom he could share the crushing weight of history. They could talk to each other when the guilt got too bad, and trust the other to get them home safely after a night where one too many beers had failed to chase away the memories of dying, horribly alone and reviled by the world.
But the dreams were starting again. Now that Kanji had alerted Zen, he could feel the subtle tug on his soul. It was nothing he could identify or ignore, but it was the worst kind of danger. Endymion calling for him, consciously or worse, subconsciously.
It meant weeks of second-guessing himself. Did he want to walk down to the corner store because he was out of milk, or because Endymion would happen to be there at the same time, picking up a late-night dinner? Was he planning an evening in the park for the peace that occasionally brought him, or was there going to be a youma attack at one of the buildings next door? Had he been called up by an old schoolfriend truly on a whim, or was Zen about to meet him in the same office building where a beautiful scientist worked to build a better tomorrow? The safest thing to do when the dreams started was to lock himself in his office and his apartment, seeing no one and going nowhere, until they stopped again and left him in peace.
"Sooner or later we're going to go mad, you know," Zen said to Kanji, only half joking.
Kanji checked the position of the sun through the trees and started walking back towards AS&T. "Maybe that would be for the best."
With thanks to everyone who reviewed or favorited The Dinner Hour.