Ami pushed open the stairwell doors and headed nervously down to the basement of the hospital. Keep your back straight, she told herself. Look natural. You have every reason to be here. She fought the urge to look over her shoulder constantly, and couldn't keep herself from craning her neck upwards every time the stairwell turned on itself.
She just felt so ambivalent about the whole thing. Mamoru may assert Endymion's right to look at certain medical records, but it felt like sophistry to her. And they would have to go through hundreds, even thousands of unrelated records to find the three for which they searched. It felt like a betrayal of the trust the hospital had reposed in her when they accepted her for the externship.
Thinking about betrayal had been the wrong move. Inevitably, her thoughts turned to him. The real source of her disquiet and unease. Ami was disgusted with herself. Avoiding problems was no way to go through life. She made herself think the name. Zoicite.
("Lady Mercury, I was hoping you would have a moment. We've been looking into a new method for purifying water and I thought you might have some insight.")
(Fascinating problems, a world unlike any she'd ever studied, one not perfectly maintained by magic and in constant turmoil)
("Lady Mercury, perhaps you can assist us. Our scientists have suggested that it may be possible to refine energy from fossilized plants…")
(Late nights and later mornings, held enthralled by an endless sea of opportunities, the rhythms of a new ecosystem to be learned and mastered)
("A new method for curing rhinoviruses…")
("A better system for detecting tectonic vibrations…")
(Looking up from the gas burner to see the same green eyes watching her back, sharing her feelings, for surely that emotion she saw in his eyes was for the knowledge alone?)
Even thinking his name made her shiver involuntarily. And whatever Usagi seemed to think, this continuing embarrassment was not her preferred state of existence. It was true that her experience with boys was, shall one say, limited. And that the thought of getting seriously close to one sent her heart rate through the roof. But anxiety was not the same thing as dislike. When she tried to consider it logically, the idea of being able to skip the standard early phases of a relationship was appealing. No nerve-wracking period of wondering if your feelings were reciprocated. No awkward first date, each trying to say and do the right things to appear to advantage. Best of all, from Ami's point of view, no need to risk sounding like a complete loon as she tried to explain that she was actually a reincarnated princess from a magical kingdom on the moon who fought evil in her spare time and would one day help supplant the existing government in favor of her princess, a still-slightly-klutzy blonde who thought love would conquer everything and had the Silver Crystal to back her up on that one.
There was a conversation she would not mind skipping in the least.
So why was she so nervous about meeting Zoicite again? Was it the expectations? What if he didn't like the new Mizuno Ami flavor of Mercury? Or what if he had changed and now wanted a traditional woman who thought three kids and a house in the suburbs was the height of achievement? The mere thought left her breathing faster and feeling trapped.
Slowly, Ami open the door at the bottom of the stairwell and slipped through to the basement hall of records.
(Walking past the war room at night, long after the strategists should all be asleep, watching the projections changing on the display as the red armies advanced towards the green cities of Terra)
(A muffled noise from within the room, a flash of golden hair)
(Venus crumpled over the control board, shoulders shaking in the shifting blood-colored shadows)
(A terrible tightness in her heart)
Down here, the lights were controlled by motion sensors, and stayed off most of the time to save energy. Ami didn't want them to reveal her presence, so her first action was to reach over to the plastic box where the lightswitch used to be and flip the motion setting to off.
Although health care was heavily subsidized by the government, their ambivalence towards electronic records had fortunately not spread to the medical institution. There were still endless racks of paper files in the rear of the room- no reason to throw them out, of course- but doctors understood the importance of being able to cross-reference old cases and study trends from the past to aid the practice of medicine in the present. Juuban had recently completed a major digitization push and now boasted the largest backlog of electronic records in metropolitan Tokyo, going back a full forty years.
And that was just going to have to be good enough. Ami didn't want to think about the problems it might cause if her boyfriend from the past were forty-one.
("We have been at this for quite some time, my lady. I find I need to clear my head. Perhaps you would care to join me for a short walk through the gardens?")
(Strange flora, growing so straight and tall, reaching towards the sky as if they knew that in this place, they would still find atmosphere there, well above the height of the buildings)
(A deep breath. A contented smile. She found the expression so strange on his face. She had never thought that a scientist, a seeker of knowledge, might ever consider themselves content)
The computers down here were ancient and took full minutes to boot. Ami spent the time cursing the misallocation of digitization funds that saw all the money spent on the shiny new data center downtown and left none for terminals in the actual hospital. The whirring of the CPU fans sounded artificially loud in the stillness of the room, and when the operating system started loading Ami honestly thought the machine might be trying to achieve orbit.
Finally the system was up and ready to serve data. She fired up the records index and keyed in the initial round of criteria she and Mamoru had agreed upon. Male, minimum age eighteen, maximum age twenty-seven. Names and addresses only. Born in the Juuban district. She tried to hold her breath while the search ran, but had to give up on that partway through.
(Watching him come closer. Wanting to move, to smile, to do something to signal that she wanted him to continue. Unable to move a muscle, even to breathe)
(A gentle kiss in the moonlight)
(Was this contentment?)
The computer beeped. Ami's eyes skipped straight to the number of records found. Five digits, but a leading 1, thank Selene. She looked down at the size of the data if she copied the full records and winced. No way. Well, she had known that would be the case, and to tell the truth she felt better about just taking names and addresses. She could tell herself that wasn't really sensitive information.
Ami reached into her messenger bag, pulling out an external hard drive that had been specially bought for this purpose. She plugged the power brick into the wall and the cable into the back of the computer. That last operation triggered an unpleasant cloud of dust and a short sneezing fit that made her freeze, half under the computer desk, and pray fervently that no one had heard. When the coast seemed clear again, she wriggled back out and dropped back into the chair. Send to external media.
Calculating estimate, the computer reported. 35 minutes.
Ami winced. Nerves singing with tension, she settled back to wait.
Yamazaki Kanji was not a man who placed much store in superstition. Whether it was consulting one's almanac or praying for a good score on exams, he had always felt that time spent hoping was time not spent planning. And planning, as far as he was concerned, had a far better track record.
Today he didn't seem to be having his usual success. Three meetings in rapid succession had told a story of projects inexplicably mismanaged by formerly competent subordinates. By the time Fukuda-san had scurried away, the word was spreading rapidly that Yamazaki was in an especially unforgiving mood. After that, his subordinates largely steered clear of him, and he finished the day in relative peace. Unfortunately, that did nothing to improve his mood.
What the hell, he thought when the clock stuck 7pm. I'm getting out of here.
If his staff were surprised to see him leaving at such an unusually early hour, they kept their thoughts to themselves.
The well-groomed pathways of the Ministry campus were filled with salarymen, emerging from the wide-flung buildings and funneling towards the train station on the eastern edge of campus. Kanji let himself be caught up by the flow, content for once to lose himself in a crowd. Snippets of conversation drifted past him, like listening to a dozen radio stations simultaneously.
"Yamada said that if we didn't make our numbers this month, we'd be looking at layoffs."
"Yamada doesn't realize he'd be the first one out if that happened?"
He entered the train station.
"They say Senator Hino actually found someone interested in his daughter!"
"No way, who?"
"Some young lawyer over at the American Embassy."
"Really? A foreigner…"
One corner of Kanji's mouth quirked upward. Senator Hino had once tried to arrange a dinner meeting between his daughter and the then-recently-promoted Department Chief Yamazaki. To Kanji's repeatedly expressed regret, however, their schedules had just never managed to sync up. Eventually the Senator had moved on to other prey.
And now he had apparently found an interested party. Kanji wondered if the mysterious lawyer really understood what he might have committed to.
His train pulled into the station. Kanji steeled himself and stepped on board with the others. He hated trains. But walking home would be an admission of weakness he was not prepared to make.
His parents had said proudly that Kanji was such a steady, reliable boy. It was the highest praise they could bestow. Both had worked at the same company since the day they graduated from college. They had met in the cafeteria, where each took lunch at precisely 12:30pm. They had courted on the train to and from the office, meeting as they changed from their respective expresses to the local that ran straight to the foot of their company's office building.
(Kanji sat in his high school classroom, diligently working his end-of-term exam in mathematics. He had been struggling with pre-calculus, and these problems were absorbing his entire attention.)
(A knock echoing through the classroom made everyone look up. "Continue your exams," the teacher directed, rising from his desk and taking the few steps to the door. He opened it and leaned out for a moment, then returned to the room. Through the window, Kanji could see the rain continuing unabated.)
("Yamazaki-kun, please put down your exam and proceed to the headmaster's office.")
(Kanji looked up again in surprise. The teacher's face told him nothing. Mystified, Kanji did as ordered.)
(His classmates looked at each other with wide eyes. To be pulled out of an exam was serious. No one could quite bring themselves to believe that Yamazaki-kun had been caught cheating or anything of that sort.)
(Kanji knew the headmaster to be a solemn man, not given to showing emotion. He was surprised at how deep the wrinkles on his face seemed. And he was unnerved by the compassion in his eyes.)
(The headmaster said there had been an accident on the Hibiya Line. It had been the nine o'clock train. There had been deaths.)
(It was a Wednesday. Kanji was sixteen.)
The train pulled into a new station. Crowds of people embarked and debarked, going about their daily lives.
(Kanji found that, because of his age, he had options under the system. He was old enough not to be automatically placed in foster care or a group home, but too young to be granted emancipation as a routine matter. He had to demonstrate that he could care for himself.)
(His parents had been owed a generous pension from the company they had both served so long. Now that money came to him. Kanji drew up budgets, carefully listing every expenditure, showing that it was enough for a single boy to live on, if he were frugal. His high school was well-known and attracted many students from outside of metropolitan Tokyo. In consideration of his new circumstances, the headmaster arranged for Kanji to be eligible for dorm residency. His tuition was reduced to a manageable level. The school provided acceptable levels of adult oversight. He documented everything, drawing up detailed and exhaustive plans. He achieved his goal. Kanji was granted an exemption.)
(A government agent arranged for the sale of the house he had grown up in and most of his parents' effects. The Tokyo Metro Corporation paid a settlement. It was enough for three years of college. Kanji could deal with that. He drew up a plan that allowed him to graduate in that amount of time and hit college running flat out. Every minute of every day was scheduled for study, class or sleep. His advisor shook his head and warned Kanji that overcommitting could have dangerous consequences. Far better to take it slower and graduate, perhaps in three and a half years, perhaps with some loans, than to have a nervous breakdown and not graduate at all.)
(Kanji listened politely, thanked his advisor, and then continued to follow his plan. He knew his own limits.)
When the dreams started at the end of his first year, the advisor's predictions seemed justified. Kanji feared he was losing his mind. Too much work could do funny things to the brain. He was spinning an escapist fantasy of a golden utopia in order to evade the stress of his daily life.
But his dreams marched inevitably onwards, and Kanji learned the truth. This was no mental mirage. Life was not so kind. They were real memories of a time long gone by. And he would have been far, far better off had they slept eternity away in the recesses of his mind.
Outside the window of the train, the lights of the city blurred.
"I still can't believe I did this," Ami moaned, resting her head in her hands. "I feel terrible!"
"Relax," Minako said soothingly. The two girls were sitting around the blonde's kitchen table, where Minako had set up her laptop and hooked up the hard drive. Ami had a better computer, but just getting the data out of the hospital had upset her more than the leader of the senshi had bargained. When the bluenette showed up on her doorstep a nervous mess, Minako had made her a cup of tea and settled her down, then fished out the external hard drive and hooked it up herself. Now she was paging through the data while Ami had a minor breakdown.
"These are protected files," Ami said despondently. "I took an oath."
"I'm pretty sure the Hippocratic Oath doesn't say anything about personnel records."
"That's only because they didn't exist yet," came the muffled voice.
"Ami." Minako turned away from the computer and reached over, pulling Ami's chin up to lock eyes. "You're not really upset about the medical records."
"In the past, you have hacked into the school board, the municipality databases, and the Sailor V arcade machine. You have stolen time from just about every supercomputer on Toudai's campus in order to run analyses on enemy data."
"Those were for a good cause," Ami tried to argue. The edges of her lips betrayed her by quirking up into a proud smile at the recitation.
Minako smiled back. "Yes, they were," she agreed. "And so is this. So what's really bothering you? Is it Zoicite?"
Ami jerked away.
(A small square of solid magic, no larger than a credit card)
(His eyes, wide with pain and fear)
Time seemed to hang suspended.
(Her hands slick with sweat as she grasped the hilt of an unfamiliar sword)
(Debris everywhere, dust so thick the air hurt to breathe)
"Ami!" Minako lunged across the intervening space, wrapping the blue-haired girl in a tight embrace. "Breathe, Ami, breathe!"
(The shock of impact so sudden, so unexpected, that for a moment it didn't hurt at all)
(A jagged chunk of metal buried between her breasts)
A clenched fist pounding on her back-
(The long and terrible fall)
She coughed, choked, coughed again, and hauled a deep breath into empty lungs.
Minako pulled away and stared at her with terrified blue eyes. "What was that?" She shoved a glass into Ami's hand. It trembled so badly that water slopped over the edge and into her lap. Minako wrapped her own hand around Ami's and helped the bluenette drink. She downed half of it, then pushed the glass away, sinking back into the chair, Minako's arm still around her shoulder.
(kisses in the moonlight)
(blood in the dust)
"I don't know," she lied, eyes darting in terrified circles.
"Bullshit," Minako said flatly. "I've seen that look in the mirror before. What did you remember?"
"I don't understand it," Ami whispered. "I don't think I want to."
Minako looked worried. "If thinking about Zoicite is triggering these memories, you'll have to understand it sooner or later," she warned. "I know it's hard, believe me, but it's worse to go through it alone or suddenly. We can talk to Rei, maybe try guided meditation-"
"No!" Ami found herself half out of the chair before the echoes of her shout finished returning to her.
Minako stared at her for a moment, then seemed to reach a decision. "All right." She rose fluidly, wrapped her hand around Ami's wrist, and began leading her into the back of the apartment. "You're in no shape to do any more work tonight. Come on. Bedtime."
Ami pulled back. "I can't sleep over. I have work tomorrow…."
"I'll throw your clothes in the wash overnight. You can get to the hospital from here just as well as your own place." Her eyes softened with worry. "Please, Ami-chan."
She gave in, feeling her strength running out of her like water, like the magic she cast out to create fog or rain. "All right." She let Minako propel her into the lacy bedroom, supply her with an oversized shirt in lieu of pajamas, turn out the lights and withdraw silently, Ami's street clothes held in a pile to her chest. She was asleep before her head hit the pillow.
Outside, Minako loaded the clothes into her washer, twisted the appropriate knobs and pressed the start button. She waited until the machine clicked into gear and began filling with water, the sound of pumps and hoses effectively hiding any noise softer than a shout. Then she pulled out her cell phone and dialed from memory.
The ringing on the line sounded loud in her ear. She pressed the plastic closer, turning the volume down.
"Moshi moshi," a sleepy voice answered.
"Usagi?" Minako glanced at the door to the laundry nook and turned, projecting her voice away from the aperture. "I think we may have a problem."