This is an amateur, non-commercial story, which is not produced, approved of, or in any way sponsored by the holders of the trademarks/copyrights from which this work is derived, nor is it intended to infringe on the rights of these holders. And so it goes.
It was a dark and stormy night. Ryoko hated them as a rule; she couldn’t sleep outside on the roof, the thunder and lightning reminded her of the things she’d done while Kagato’s pawn, and there was that whole rain thing to contend with. Restless, she’d floated downstairs to the living room and turned on the television to see if anything good was on.
Ryoko was on her third bowl of popcorn while watching that hilarious “Alien” movie when she heard a soft tapping on the front door. The VCR clock was blinking the time--“12:00”; who could possibly be here at such a late hour? A visitor? A threat? Mihoshi? She couldn’t be sure, so Ryoko chose the cautious approach. First, she teleported up to Tenchi’s room and made sure he was safe, then she gave Ayeka and Sasami a quick check before finally heading to the front door.
No one was there. To make things worse, that rain stuff was getting on her feet. Ryoko growled and shut the door, making sure to fasten the locks. Tenchi had asked her to be more careful about that, especially after the time they’d gone out and returned to find everything missing. It hadn’t taken Washu more than five minutes to track the thieves down, and another two for Ryoko to persuade them to return everything they way they’d found it, but still… Ryoko checked to make sure things were secure, nodded in satisfaction, and turned around to find her own face directly in front of her.
“Hi!” said Minagi.
* * * * *
“Good lord, Ryoko,” Ayeka said as she sat down on the sofa. “Did you have to scream like that? I thought something terrible had happened to you. Wishful thinking, I know,” she added with a sigh.
“Bite me, Princess.” Ryoko was floating in a lotus position directly over the coffee table. Sasami had managed to put together a very serviceable selection of snacks on short notice and was preparing the tea even now. “She startled me, that’s all,” the former pirate continued in her defense.
“I’m really sorry,” Minagi said as she helped herself to a cookie. “When no one answered the door, I went around back and took a peek to see if anyone was home. The TV was on, so I just phased through the glass and…” She shrugged.
“It’s okay,” Tenchi assured her, blessing her with his warmest smile. “We’re used to unexpected company. So what brings you here, Minagi?”
“Well…” The young swordswoman looked down at her feet. “I’m kind of in trouble, and I needed a place to stay tonight.”
“Trouble?” Ayeka echoed. “Can we help? Is there anything Sasami or I can do?”
“You’re more than welcome to stay here,” Tenchi said. “For as long as you need to. After all, you’re family!” Ryoko winced at that statement; the fact that Minagi was the result of her DNA mixed with that of the great Master Yakage was a bit of a sore spot. And, given her considerable beauty, Ryoko wasn’t crazy about her look-alike spending much time in Tenchi’s presence.
“I don’t think you can help,” Minagi said in a quiet voice.
“Well, why don’t you tell us what happened, and we’ll be the judge of whether or not we can do anything?” Washu suggested.
“Okay.” Minagi took a deep breath. “Well, to start off with, I got suspended from the Pirate’s Guild.”
“That’s terrible!” Ayeka declared. “Mother had told me that things were getting tight in the Empire, but I hadn’t realized that it would come to this!”
“What are you talking about?” Ryoko demanded. “Since when do you need permission to be a pirate?”
“Since always,” Ayeka replied primly. “YOU were a renegade.”
“Piracy has always been a part of the price of doing business in the Jurai Empire,” Ayeka continued, ignoring Ryoko’s jibe. “At one point, however, there was so much of it going on that the economy was suffering. My grandmother came up with the novel idea of regulating the practice through registration and general rules of order. It’s worked splendidly for thousands of years.”
“You have to join a Guild to be a space pirate?” Tenchi asked, dazed.
“But…what’s to stop someone from just going out and doing it anyway? Without joining?”
“Grandmother,” Ayeka replied.
Sasami giggled. “You’ll have to meet Granny Seto, Tenchi. Then you’ll understand.”
“Huh,” Ryoko snorted. “She never stopped me from doing what I pleased.”
“Yes,” Ayeka replied, “and isn’t it interesting that you always struck places that were as far away from wherever Grandmother Seto was as possible?”
“Can we get back to the story?” Washu demanded.
Minagi nodded and sipped at her tea. “Well, you know. They told me the economy was hurting right now, and all the piracy was driving prices up, so they were forced to suspend some of the newer members until things improved.” She shook her head sadly. “I’d just made some upgrades to Hinase, and there were the Hello Kitty items I’d won on eBay… Well, I needed some money to pay for all that!” she exclaimed. “So I decided to find one last ship that looked like an easy target and hit it fast. I could always say that I didn’t hear about the suspension until afterward. I spotted a really good target—it was a small drone unit on automatic pilot, no crew—and I cleaned it out.”
“Go on,” Ayeka urged.
Minagi sighed. “It was carrying a shipment of sake. Really good stuff, too. I opened a bottle and took a sip, and woke up the next day with a major hangover.”
“Uh-oh,” Sasami gasped, paling.
“It…turns out…that my target’s cargo belonged to…uh…Lady Seto. It was her personal label.” Minagi winced and stared at the floor again. “I am really, really sorry, Princesses.”
“You stole a shipment of Grandmother’s sake and you’re still alive?” Ayeka said.
“Wow,” Sasami breathed.
“Well, the Jurai Royal Navy showed up a day later and escorted me in,” Minagi continued. “They confiscated Hinase, put me up for disciplinary action with the Guild, and hit me with a huge fine.” She wiped a tear away. “Then they froze my bank accounts. And…then they told me I was being sent to Earth until I paid the fine off. Lady Seto said that in her opinion, some honest hard work would teach me a lesson about honor and integrity. Then she said I wasn’t to ask for any help from you all, and…and here I am!” The miserable young woman burst into tears; Tenchi leaned over and handed her a handkerchief, which she gratefully accepted.
“Ayeka, we have to do something!” Sasami pleaded.
“We can’t,” her older sister said, shaking her head. “She’s getting off lightly as it is.”
“LIGHTLY?” Minagi looked up, eyes red and nose running. “I DON’T HAVE ANY MONEY, I’M STUCK ON THIS BACKWATER PLANET, THEY TOOK MY BEAUTIFUL SHIP, I CAN’T BE A PIRATE ANY MORE, AND YOU SAY I’M LUCKY?”
“You’re still alive to complain about it,” Ayeka pointed out.
“Yeah. Granny Seto must have liked you.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Minagi sobbed. “They told me I can’t stay here with you more than a night or two, and I wasn’t to ask the princesses for any intervention, either. I don’t know anyone, I can’t talk to Hinase, the technology on this planet is ridiculous…I’m flat broke, and I…I…” She began to sob into Tenchi’s now-drenched handkerchief.
The residents of the Masaki house glanced at one another uneasily for a moment or two. Sasami was glaring fiercely at her older sister, who looked torn but unwilling to intercede. Suddenly Tenchi’s face brightened. “Minagi, I think I know someone who can help you out…”
* * * * *
“Sure, you can stay here with me,” Kiyone Makibi said. “Mihoshi’s back at GP headquarters until next month, so it’s no problem. Hope you don’t mind the cramped quarters,” she added as she shut the door behind Minagi. “It’s not much, but it’s all we can afford.”
Minagi looked around at the cluttered, messy apartment. “It’s fine,” she said. “I’m really grateful you’re doing this for me.”
“Not a problem.” Kiyone handed her a futon. “Tomorrow, I’ll loan you my copy of the help wanted listings and show you around. I’ve worked at a lot of the places that are hiring, so I can give you a few pointers too, if you’d like.”
“I’d really appreciate it.” Minagi nudged a few empty fast food containers aside with her foot and spread the futon out. “So, how did you manage to work for so many people in so short a time?”
Kiyone shook her head. “I had Mihoshi with me. That just about guaranteed a short employment period.” She rolled out her own bedding. “Right now, though, I’ve got a really great job. It’s with Tenchi’s father, so he understands when I have to leave on such short notice. Oh, that reminds me.” The GP officer handed Minagi a key on a string. “Welcome home, roomie.”
“I don’t know what to say, Officer Makibi…”
“Kiyone,” Minagi corrected herself. “You’re being great about this.”
“Not a problem. Oh, one more thing.” The teal-haired detective slid under her covers and reached for the light switch. “Well,” she said with a long-suffering sigh, “it’s just that I know what people say about me when I’m not around…”
Kiyone rolled her eyes. “You know. Works with Mihoshi, lives with Mihoshi, all that. Has to be something going on and all?” She shook her head and sighed again. “I just want you to know that regardless of what you’ve heard, I’m not some raving bull dyke out to ravish any woman that happens to be staying here. Okay?”
Minagi blinked, then nodded. “Okay.”
“Great.” Kiyone switched off the light, then lay down and settled in for a good night’s sleep.
“Pity…” Minagi sighed in the darkness.
* * * * *
“Okay, so that’ll be three miso soups and grilled fish platters, a cheeseburger, three sodas and…three beers for the lady.” Minagi scribbled the orders down on her pad and smiled at the odd quartet sitting in the booth. She’d seen quite a variety of clientele her first week on the job, but this bunch certainly took the cake. The sole male just sat there, silent and miserable, until the bossy redhead smacked his shoulder and yelled at him to order. The other teenaged girl seemed to be off in her own little world, while the adult woman, a military type, Minagi could spot them a mile away, acted as though she was as young as her charges.
Ah well. Not her problem. Minagi hurried over to the kitchen window and posted the order, then willed herself up off the floor about an inch and floated over to the drink dispenser. The first two days had been murder on her feet until she’d realized that so long as no one saw her do it, a little levitation could go a long way. Other than the constant running around, it wasn’t too bad a job and the tips were decent. If things went well, she would have enough money by Tuesday to chip in for the rent and maybe take Kiyone out for a cheap dinner. The GP officer certainly deserved a treat; Minagi kind of felt sorry for her. She’d never seen anyone who had so much trouble sleeping at night.
As Minagi approached the booth with their drinks, she noticed her mystery customer had returned to his usual table in the corner. He’d been in the restaurant every night that week, sitting back there with his computer laptop and a cup of coffee, typing away at who knew what. Minagi would have completely ignored him except that on several occasions she’d caught him staring intently at her. The game had gone on repeatedly, night after night, and Minagi’s curiosity was getting the better of her.
“BAKA!” screamed the redhead; the boy had accidentally spilled her soda all over her lap. “LOOK AT WHAT YOU’VE DONE! MY DRESS IS RUINED, YOU IDIOT!”
“I’m sorry, Asuka, I’m really sorry,” the poor guy pleaded, instinctively reaching over to blot at her soaked outfit with his napkin.
“ACK! GET YOUR HANDS AWAY FROM THERE, YOU PERVERT!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
The alleged adult looked up at Minagi expectantly. “Where are my beers?”
“I’m sorry, they’re bringing up a fresh case from the basement.” Minagi wondered why on earth this ninny didn’t put a stop to the redhead’s tirade. And the silver-haired girl beside her just kept staring out the window. Minagi shook her head and hurried back to the counter for some dry towels.
Seven minutes later Minagi arrived with their dinners, and the redhead was still reading the riot act to the poor boy, who just seemed to shrink deeper and deeper into the booth. “Here you go,” Minagi said with a forced smile. “By the way, miss,” she said to the redhead. “Could you please keep your voice down? You’re disturbing the other customers…”
The girl smiled viciously and suggested in flawless German that Minagi perform an obscene act upon herself. She seemed quite certain that the idiot waitress had no idea what had been said, but unfortunately for her German was one of the five hundred and eighty-five languages that Minagi had learned growing up. Two seconds later, the tip of an energy sword was hovering a quarter-inch from the redhead’s no-longer-smiling features.
“Fraulein,” Minagi said with a tight smile. “Halt den mund, bitte.”
The redhead’s face was sheet white. “Ja,” she squeaked.
“Good.” Minagi’s smile returned. “Now, I hope you enjoy your dinner. Especially you, cutie,” she said to the boy, who was gazing up at her with something akin to awe. She gave him a saucy wink and returned to the counter. The manager was standing by the register eyeing her carefully.
“Everything okay there?”
“Sure,” Minagi nodded. “No problems.”
* * * * *
“So what happened?” Kiyone asked later that night. “Why did he fire you?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Minagi shrugged. “For some reason they all freaked out when I suggested angel food cake for dessert. The redhead came at me and, well, you know… I was trained to react automatically to an attack!”
“Of course not. I’m not that bloodthirsty. I just threw her through the front window.”
“At any rate, the manager called me over at the end of the evening and fired me.” Minagi sighed as she slipped into her futon. “I’ve got a few leads for tomorrow, though.”
“Good luck,” Kiyone said, wrapping her fingers around the gun under her pillow as she settled down to sleep.
* * * * *
Minagi took a deep breath and pressed the button for her next call. “Good afternoon,” she said in her most cheerful voice. “I’m with the Kurashiki Land Development Company, and I’m calling you with an offer on some property that you’ll just HAVE to see…” She got about that far before the person on the other end hung up.
Minagi shook her head and tried not to fret. The managers had been kind enough to give her a trial period, and she’d really worked hard to present a fresh, upbeat vocal presentation, but after two days she still didn’t have a single customer to show for her efforts. Time was running out and things just weren’t looking very hopeful.
An idea came to her. Technically it was against the rules, but so long as she brought in a customer, they’d never really know that it wasn’t a random call. They wouldn’t let her down, surely. Someone would recognize her voice and help her out. They were her friends.
Heart pounding, Minagi overrode the random number selector and punched in a specific set of digits.
Tenchi Masaki was having one of those days. Ryoko and Ayeka had been going at it since breakfast, Mihoshi had come THIS CLOSE to destroying the dock - this time from TAKING OFF! - and Washu had tricked him into a two-hour physical examination that bordered on the hentai. And then there’d been the carrots. He’d lugged four baskets of the damned things home today, only to discover Ryo-ohki had devoured the lot within twenty minutes.
And to top it all off, the phone was ringing, and as usual no one was making the slightest effort to answer it. Growling various complaints and insults under his breath, Tenchi hurried over and picked it up on the seventh ring. “Hello - Masaki Residence.”
“Good afternoon!” said an incredibly bright and perky voice. “I’m with the Kurashiki Land Development Company, and I’m calling you with an offer on some property that you’ll just HAVE to see…”
“AGH! DAMNED TELEMARKETERS!” Tenchi screamed into the phone. “HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU ALL THAT WE’RE NOT INTERESTED? GO AWAY AND LEAVE US ALONE!” He slammed the receiver down on the base unit and stormed up the stairs, hopefully to enjoy some precious peace and quiet for a change.
* * * * *
“That will be 5,000 yen,” Minagi said crisply. The old man handed her a pile of crinkled bills as she finished loading his purchases into a plastic bag. A few minutes later he’d shuffled off for home, leaving Minagi all alone inside the convenience store. She sighed and peered out the front window, wondering if she’d get any more customers tonight.
The late shift was boring at best, but it paid well. In addition to her register duties, she was expected to keep the shelves stocked and the place generally neat. The scarcity of customers gave Minagi ample time to accomplish her tasks as well as run through a few sword katas for exercise. It got lonely after awhile, though; she wished she could chat with Hinase. Their conversations and games had made the longest voyage bearable, and his absence right now nearly broke her heart.
The bell above the door tinkled; Minagi leapt into the air and made a perfect two-point landing behind the register before the customer had walked into the store. She turned and smiled at the newcomer…but the smile quickly faded the instant she saw him, and vice versa.
“Hey, it’s you! The guy from the diner!” He paled slightly and took a step backwards, but Minagi was too quick for him. She had him pinned against the wall before he knew what was happening. Shaking slightly, he gripped his laptop for dear life as Minagi leaned forward.
“Are you following me?” she growled softly.
“No! No! I swear! This is coincidence!” he pleaded, his face white as a sheet. “I just got off duty and needed some groceries!”
“Off duty?” Minagi’s eyes narrowed. “You’re military, aren’t you? Huh? Admit it!”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m stationed here! Look, I just came here to buy some food! Would you please back off and let me go?”
Minagi tilted her head and studied him closely. “Okay. So what’s on the laptop? Why did you have it out every night at the diner? Why didn’t you let me see what you were doing?” Her captive winced and looked away. “Come on, tell me!”
“Okay, okay,” he sighed, his shoulders slumping in resignation. “The truth is…I was watching you.”
“Duh,” Minagi snorted.
“No, no, you don’t understand! I…I write stories! And you looked so unique and beautiful, I was putting you into one of my tales, that’s all!” The guy’s features had long since left pathetic and were approaching pitiful. “If you really want to see one, I’ll call it up, but that’s all it is, I swear! I had no idea you were working here, honest!”
“Stories, huh?” Minagi hated to admit it, but she was almost intrigued. “What kind of stories?”
“Stuff, that’s all. About people, and the things that happen to them. The hurt, the struggle to survive, the things they endure…it’s all about the pain, you know?”
The guy nodded. “Life is pain, miss. Anyone who tells you otherwise…”
“…is trying to sell you something.’ Yeah, I’ve seen that movie, and I think you have too. A few too many times.” Minagi took a step back and reduced her ‘menacing psychobitch’ demeanor. “Okay, I believe you. Sorry about that. You can never be too sure, you know?”
“You’re telling me,” the fellow said, leaving the store as fast as he could.
* * * * *
Minagi was deeply engrossed in the latest ‘Magical Military Girl Misato’ manga when the bell tinkled once again. She slid the book under the front counter and smiled brightly at the nervous young man wearing the long black overcoat who’d just come in. He was perspiring heavily, had his hands shoved deep into the jacket pockets and was trembling almost violently; Minagi pointed to the back corner. “Bathroom’s over there.”
To her surprise, however, the stranger came up to the counter. One hand shot out of the pocket to reveal a long knife complete with serrated edge. “Shut up and hand over all the money in your register…” he started to say, but by the time he’d hit the word ‘money’ the clerk was no longer in front of him. Confused, he turned around only to find her standing behind him, armed with a smile and what looked like a long neon tube in her hand.
“Drop it,” Minagi snarled. The would-be thief hesitated, then, in an act of incredible stupidity lunged forward with the knife. Minagi easily avoided the thrust and in one smooth motion used her sword to slice his blade from the handle. It clattered against the floor; the thief stared at her for a moment, maybe two, then ran for his life out the door.
With a snarl born of boredom and pure outrage, Minagi took to the air in pursuit. Unwilling to let the game end so quickly, she gave him a two-block lead before closing in with a triumphant scream. The last thing her prey saw before mercifully blacking out was a crazed woman with long, flowing cyan hair descending toward him with the meanest damn looking special effect aimed right at his…
* * * * *
“Fired?” Minagi squeaked. The storeowner nodded solemnly. “But…but why? He tried to rob the store, and I stopped him. I called the police and everything!” In the background, the local constables were hauling the struggling boy into their car, ignoring his ravings about crazy women flying at him with electric swords.
“Minagi,” the older man said, not unkindly. “You did read our store policy book, didn’t you?”
“Of course, sir. You said it was required reading.”
He nodded. “What is our policy regarding robberies?”
Minagi winced. “We’re…to give them…the money…sir. No pursuit, either.”
“That’s right. Not only did you face off against him - lucky for you his knife fell apart before he could hurt you – but then you chased him down, leaving the store open and unprotected for fifteen minutes. Now, we’re very fortunate that no one came in during that time, but still…” The owner smiled sadly. “Minagi, you did a very brave thing tonight, but rules are rules, and you disobeyed them. I’m very sorry.”
“It’s okay, sir. I do understand.” Minagi hung her head in shame.
“However, since you did apprehend that boy for us, I’m adding a bonus to your paycheck as thanks.” The old man patted her shoulder paternally. “I wouldn’t worry too much, Minagi. A pretty and ambitious young woman like you will have no problem finding another job.”
“Finding them is one thing,” she muttered to herself as she headed home. “Keeping them is another.”
* * * * *
“Aw, damn. What do I do now?” Minagi said to the night winds. She was floating far enough over the city that it was highly unlikely anyone would spot her, especially at this late hour. Flying was a cheap alternative to public transportation when she could manage it. Unfortunately, at the moment she didn’t have a destination in mind.
Her mood was as black as the sky around her. “I go home, I’ll have to explain this to Kiyone.” The GP officer had been initially sympathetic to Minagi’s job woes, but after the fourth firing Minagi could tell her roommate’s patience, never great to begin with, was starting to wear thin. “And then I’m going to have to look around for another job…what else is there at this point?” A tear trickled down her cheek. “Damn it, I miss Hinase…”
The neon halo of a sign below caught her attention. “Cherry Petal?” Minagi scratched her head and zoomed in closer for a better look. The scent of alcohol tickled her nostrils as she landed beside the building. “Huh. Must be a bar.” The idea of a drink or two appealed to her; after the night she’d had, Minagi felt she deserved some small reward for her diligent efforts, and besides, if she stayed out long enough she’d avoid Kiyone until later that day. With a long, heartfelt sigh, Minagi opened the door and went inside.
The Cherry Petal was tucked away deep within the industrial district. It had a strange mixture of clientele; burly construction workers drank side-by-side with businessmen. They were all brought together by the Petal’s main attraction - its collection of pretty exotic dancers who would shake, shimmy and striptease in exchange for the yen that came flying their way. Minagi really didn’t care about the floorshow, though; she flagged a waitress down. “Flask of sake, please,” she asked.
“Sure thing, hon,” the waitress, a petite woman who went by Yuki according to her nametag, replied. She’d seen just about everything possible since starting here; a pretty young woman with wild cyan hair, here to see the girls dance? Shame, but what the heck. Yuki just hoped this one was better behaved than that woman from a month ago. She’d come in with some hairy little creature and sat in a corner booth all evening, then tried to get several of the girls to visit a love hotel with her. Took all kinds…
Minagi had finished about half the flask when voices from the bar caught her attention. “Let me go, Shigo!” cried one of the dancers; a huge, burly patron had wrapped his meaty hand around her slender ankle. “Come on, please, huh?”
“Aw…come on, Nami,” he said, his voice deep, rumbling, and thoroughly intoxicated. “You keep telling me no. Tonight I’m gonna take you home with me, honey.”
“Let GO!” The other patrons milled around uneasily; they knew the house rules about ‘no touching’ but they also knew what would happen if they got between Shigo and anything he wanted. It usually resulted in a great deal of pain and possible hospitalization.
The bar’s security officer walked over and put a hand on Shigo’s shoulder. “Let her go, Shigo. You remember what we said we’d do if you broke the rules again…”
“Back off, Hiro,” Shigo growled.
“Enough,” repeated the bouncer. Shigo whipped his free arm backwards and slammed it into Hiro, who took flight and didn’t land until he collided with the far wall. The momentary distraction gone, Shigo decided it was time to claim his prize and go home. He reached up and easily brought the struggling dancer down from the stage, a huge lecherous smile plastered on his boozy features. So happy was he about his new toy that he didn’t immediately notice that someone was tapping him on the shoulder.
Shigo turned around slowly to find Minagi standing there. “Let her go,” the slender young woman ordered.
“Get fucked,” Shigo replied. Obviously the little dyke hadn’t seen what he’d done to that idiot Hiro. He turned his back on the little witch… his first and last mistake.
* * * * *
The manager’s office had very nice carpeting, Minagi decided. Having stared at it for fifteen minutes or so, she’d had ample time to judge it. The fellow who ran the bar had asked her to wait in here while he smoothed things over with the police and paramedics. He’d also asked his bodyguards to make sure she waited in here. Wishing for no further troubles, Minagi had meekly complied.
The door flew open and the manager strolled in. He nodded to his guards, who bowed and exited silently, then sat down on the edge of his desk and stared at his guest. “My name is Hiratsu Iwanaga,” he said. “I own this establishment.”
Minagi nodded. “I am terribly, terribly sorry for what happened…”
“You must be very strong,” he said, cutting her off. “Very skilled at hand-to-hand, too, from what I could see. I took a look at Shigo…that was the work of someone who knew what she was doing.”
“I…have had some training, yes,” she nodded, still unwilling to look the man in the eyes. “Again, I must apologize for what I did…”
“Have you ever worked as a bouncer?”
Minagi hesitated. “No,” she finally replied.
“Are you interested in working here?”
Her face slowly lifted. Iwanaga had the features of a man who’d seen and done a great deal, not all of it honest, but there was something worthy there. “Mr. Iwanaga…”
He leaned back and retrieved a cigarette from a box on his exceedingly neat desk. “Hiro’s pretty banged up,” he commented as he lit up and took a deep draw. “They’re taking him to the hospital. I imagine they’ll send him home, but he’ll be out at least a week, probably two. We’ve had a lot of experience with Shigo, you see.” He exhaled a long stream of smoke. “So I need someone strong and capable of handling situations. You appear to meet those qualifications. So, I’m asking if you want the job until Hiro comes back. If you do a good job, we’ll see what we can do about extending it. Interested?”
“Uhhh…” Minagi was definitely interested, but one question hadn’t been asked…or answered. “How much…”
Iwanaga replied with a figure that was double the best salary she’d gotten to date. “Yes sir,” she replied with a deep bow. “I would be honored to work here.”
“Good.” He offered his hand. “Welcome to the Cherry Petal…”
“Minagi. Minagi Hakubi.”
“Welcome, Minagi. We’re glad to have you.”
* * * * *
Minagi spent the next afternoon memorizing the building layout, taking special note of exit and window locations. She took scant notice of the dancers practicing their routines on the catwalk and stage, but they were paying a great deal of attention to her. “Since when is a girl working to protect us?” complained one of the star performers. “Especially a little thing like her?”
“Since she kicked Shigo’s ass from here to Tokyo,” said the girl Minagi had rescued the night before. “Don’t let her looks fool you, Luna. She put him in the hospital. I doubt we’ll ever see him again.”
“Pity,” Luna sighed. “He was a good tipper.”
“He was an animal when he was drunk,” snorted another one of the girls. “And he was always drunk. Good riddance.”
“Well, so long as she remembers her place is out there, not up here,” said a fourth performer, “we’ll all get along fine. BAKA! WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU?”
The shout—or perhaps the insult—caught Minagi’s attention. “Excuse me?” she asked, approaching the stage. “Were you talking to me?”
“No, honey,” the dancer replied with a dismissive wave. “I was looking for Baka. He’s our errand boy. We need anything, we get him to do it.”
“When we can find him,” snorted Luna. “Bet he’s asleep in the back room again, Phoebe. You’ll have to rouse him, just like always.”
“I’m here, I’m here,” muttered a hulking, hairy creature from the door leading backstage. Minagi blinked, surprised at the young man’s stature. She’d been living here long enough to find a hairy native pretty startling. “What did you need, Phoebe?”
“Go get us some lunch. I’m starved. And make sure you hurry back here. I hate cold food, you know.”
“And don’t forget to pick up my latest issue of ‘Bishonen Saturday!’” Luna yelled.
“Okay, okay,” Baka nodded sleepily. “I’ll get it. No problem.” He lumbered past Minagi and headed out the front door.
“Five thousand yen says he’ll mess up the order,” Luna laughed.
“But…you didn’t tell him what you wanted,” Minagi pointed out.
“That’s why I’ll win the bet, honey. By the way, what’s your name?”
“How sweet. I’m Luna, one of the main attractions here. She’s Phoebe, also one of the stars. Selene will be here in an hour; she loves making an entrance. You just make sure you take especially good care of us, and we’ll get along just fine, okay?”
Minagi bristled at the condescending tone of Luna’s voice, but she simply nodded in reply, then returned to her reconnaissance. She was just starting on the kitchen area when Yuki came up and introduced herself. “You were really terrific last night. I’ve never seen anyone kick butt like you did. Even Hiro, and usually he can handle himself pretty well.”
“Uh, thanks,” Minagi replied, looking slightly bashful. “Hey, Yuki. Can I ask you a question, just between us?”
“Sure,” the waitress nodded.
“Those two women, Phoebe and Luna?”
“Oh yeah,” Yuki laughed. “They’re something, aren’t they? It’s kind of silly, pulling a prima donna routine for a small club like this, but along with Selene, they rake in the most tips every night. So I guess they’re entitled to some attitude.”
“The way they treat that one guy, that… ‘Baka’…” Minagi said. “That’s kind of cruel, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, but then again, he lets them. In fact, he lives for it. Don’t ask me why.” Yuki glanced down at her watch. “Crap. I’ve got to find out what tables I’m working. See you later, Minagi! We’re all really glad you’re here!”
“Thanks!” Minagi watched her new friend hurry through the double doors, then went back to work. If security was her responsibility, then by golly the Cherry Petal was going to be the most secure facility in Japan.
* * * * *
Twenty-five minutes into the first program, Minagi’s hearing picked up a constant rattling back by the stage door. She glided silently through the crowd and melted into the deep shadows of the cluttered back area, then waited patiently. Two minutes later, the door creaked open and someone crept stealthily into the building, shutting the door with extreme care.
Minagi held still until the intruder was directly in front of her. “Excuse me,” she said in a pleasant, all-business voice. “What are you doing here?” She was rewarded with a scream of pure terror and a standing leap into the air; by the time the woman came down, Minagi had a firm grip on her left arm. “Come with me, please.”
“Get your hands off me!” the stranger demanded. “Who the hell are you? Don’t you know who I am? You’re in big trouble, bitch, let me tell you right now…”
“I’m the bouncer, I don’t know who you are, and anyone who sneaks in as clumsily as you did deserves to get caught,” Minagi replied. Her prisoner responded with a long diatribe about how very important she was, and how Minagi was going to lose her job for this indignity, that she was going to pay dearly, and so on until they passed the dressing room.
Luna poked her head out the door and gasped. “Selene! Where have you been? You’re on in five!”
Selene yanked her arm free of Minagi’s grip and huffed. “This little bitch couldn’t mind her business. Treated me - ME! - like a second class criminal. As if she was anything worth writing home for.” The dancer marched into the dressing room and without warning her facial expression and body language instantly changed. “Hello, everyone! Look at me! Aren’t I just so lovely tonight? Am I going to rock their worlds or not? Hmmm?”
“You look fantastic, Selene,” said Phoebe. “You’ll look even better when you get into costume, though. Hurry and dress, dear!”
“Righty!” Before she did so, however, the dancer turned and shot Minagi a glare that could have melted the polar icecaps. The dressing room door mercifully closed before anything further could be said; Minagi sighed and headed back to the main room, hoping that her first night on the job wouldn’t be the last.
* * * * *
“I’m going to march right into Iwanaga-san’s office and tell him what she did to me!” Selene declared to Luna and Phoebe after work. The dancers were cleaning up and changing clothes after a very profitable evening; the crowd had been very well behaved and more generous than usual, two events that most of the girls attributed to the new bouncer.
“You should, honey,” Luna nodded, setting down her manga. “We can’t have that girl making trouble for you. I mean, after all, look at you. You’re the STAR of the Cherry Petal. Everyone knows that.” Her dark eyes narrowed as a long-legged girl in a crimson wig approached the trio, a ball cap filled with yen in her hand. “What is THAT, may I ask, Saeko?”
The intruder hesitated, thrown off balance by the chilly reception she’d gotten. “Well, you know…we all did so well tonight, we thought we’d all give a bit to our new bouncer. She really kept on top of things tonight, you know?” She extended the ball cap to the three women. “So what do you say?”
Phoebe laughed. “If you think I’m giving any of MY hard-earned money to someone who just struts around and looks cute for the customers, think again.” She slapped the hat away, sending the money flying. As Saeko knelt to pick it up, Phoebe snickered. “Wait a second. You’re right. We should give her something—as a going away present. Here.” She let a hundred-yen note drift down to the floor.
“What are you talking about, Phoebe?” Saeko said, glaring at the other woman.
“I’m going to tell Iwanaga about how that little bitch tried to stop me,” Selene said smugly.
“I wouldn’t,” Saeko warned.
“And why not?”
Saeko’s smile was now just as nasty as those on the women she was confronting. “Because if you do that, Iwanaga is going to wonder why you came in so late to begin with. Especially since he gave you a warning about that a few days ago.” She rose to her feet and headed back to the haven of her comrades; the now-deflated clique considered this advice.
“Damn. She’s right,” Selene sighed. “Damn.”
“Ahh, don’t worry about it,” Phoebe said. “She’s just here until Hiro comes back, remember? And he was always willing to look the other way for you. Just put up with her for two weeks or so, and we’re rid of her. Until then, we just act like she doesn’t exist.”
“Good idea,” Luna nodded. “So we’re agreed?” The other two heads nodded. “Okay. From here on in, we’re steering clear of Minagi.”
* * * * *
As the dancers stretched in preparation for the night’s routines, Minagi did a bit of exercise herself. While she couldn’t very well bring out her energy sword, Tenchi had very kindly loaned her one of the Heilzen swords he’d acquired during that whole Bizen mess, so she had something in hand while performing her katas. As she moved effortlessly through the routines, one by one the dancers paused in whatever they were doing to watch with admiration – and, in three cases, quite a bit of envy.
“Wow,” Saeko sighed as Minagi finished. “You ought to be up on the stage, Minagi, instead of working the floor. You’ve got great moves.”
“Sure do,” Miho nodded as she reached down to touch her toes. “You’re wasting your talents by bouncing, hon. You’d clean up on tips.”
“Not that it’s ever going to happen,” Selene sneered from her makeup table. While her star attitude and disdain for Minagi were still very much evident, she had been getting to work earlier of late. “Three more days, and she can practice those pretty moves for the guys in the unemployment line with her.”
“I can’t wait for Hiro to get back, personally,” Luna agreed. She leaned out the dressing room door and glared. “BAKA? WHERE’S MY MANGA?”
“I don’t know why we keep him around, honestly,” Luna grumbled.
“Comic relief, dear,” Phoebe reminded her crony. She snatched the huge booklet from the gofer’s hands and tossed it over to Luna. “You know, I was talking in one of my chat rooms last night about women who run around with swords, and do you know what someone told me? He said that…”
“Don’t listen to those three witches,” Mifuyu urged Minagi. “I heard that Hiro’s going to be out a few days longer, and Iwanaga wants to keep you on in some capacity. The crowds haven’t been this well-behaved in ages, and he thinks you’re the reason!”
“Really?” Minagi smiled. “That’s really nice. I like it here.”
“Besides,” Saeko grinned. “You drive the three witches nuts, and that makes you our hero.” She turned to get her costume on, but without warning another one of the dancers collapsed to the floor, clutching her stomach and vomiting. “Tomo? Tomo, what’s wrong?”
“Gah!” cried Luna. “My manga! I haven’t read it yet!”
“Ewww. Gross,” Selene growled. “How am I supposed to work myself up to my usual state of cuteness when people are puking all around me?”
Minagi quickly came to the stricken girl’s side. “Someone call for an ambulance. We need to get her to a doctor right away.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Saeko asked, kneeling down as well.
“Just a second!” Phoebe yelled, racing over to her laptop. “I know a doctor over on one of my chats…at least he says he’s one…”
“She’s running a fever and her skin’s clammy.” Minagi looked up and found nothing but motionless women around her. Her eyes focused on Selene. “Get to a phone and call for an ambulance. Now.”
“Why should I?” the pampered princess whined. Before she could blink, though, Minagi was inches away from her face, her yellow eyes glittering with fury and the promise of retribution if obedience was not forthcoming. The prima donna gulped, stumbled to her feet, and ran at top speed for the nearest phone.
* * * * *
A small cluster of dancers watched the ambulance roar away, their comrade inside. Nearby, Luna tossed her now-soggy and utterly ruined manga into a waste can, her face twisted in disgust. “Appendicitis,” Saeko sighed. “Who’d have thought?”
“Hey, I just realized!” Mifuyu gasped. “We’ve got a problem - Tomo was part of the group routine, and now we’re one short!”
“So what?” Phoebe snorted. “The rubes will never know the difference. They won’t be able to take their eyes off us in the first place.” The smug grins on the three queens’ faces made it quite clear that ‘us’ was an exclusive club.
“Pity Minaaaaaaagi couldn’t fill in for Tomo,” Selene laughed.
“Why couldn’t she?” Etsuko asked suddenly.
“Yeah, why not?” Saeko echoed a moment later.
“Me?” Minagi squeaked.
“Her?” Phoebe, Selene and Luna gasped.
“Yeah, why not?” Rio jumped in. “She’d be great!”
“But…I don’t know any of the moves,” Minagi stammered. “And I’m supposed to be working the floor…”
“It’s for one dance,” Etsuko said, excitement building in her voice. “They’ll take one look at you and forget about making trouble, and if all else fails, we’ll all jump the bad guys at once!”
“Speak for yourself,” Luna grumbled, glancing over at the trashcan containing her lost manga. “Some of us are too delicate for rough-housing.”
“Come on, Minagi,” Etsuko pleaded. “Just this once? For Tomo? You can give the tips to her afterwards…please?”
Minagi considered, wavered, considered again. She knew this was a mistake; she had no business getting involved. She thought about what Master Yakage would say. And she knew she would have to decline.
“I told you she wouldn’t do it,” she heard Selene say to her two companions. “Just as well. As if she could possibly compete with me…”
“All right,” Minagi said firmly. “I’ll do it.”
* * * * *
The dancers circled Minagi, helping her into her skimpy costume while instructing her how to remove each piece. “The moves are really simple,” Etsuko said as she adjusted the far-too-short skirt. “You pick things up fast, and we’ve seen how smoothly you can move. Just remember to give them a good show and never stop smiling.”
“And don’t forget about the panties,” Rio added.
“Panties?” Minagi squirmed slightly; the damned things were too tight. Tomo was decidedly on the petite site, chest excepted.
“Oh yeah,” Etsuko nodded. “At the end of the number, you flick your thumb here like this…” She made a quick motion by Minagi’s underwear, and the cloth split seamlessly in two, tumbling to the floor. “Don’t let them fall. Grab them and toss them into the crowd right before you go offstage. It’s a traditional thing.”
“You have got to be kidding,” Minagi said. She wondered yet again what in the hell she was doing. If he hadn’t already been dead, Master Yakage would have had a coronary by now.
“Nope,” Mifuyu grinned. “I’ve heard that some of those guys collect the entire set.”
The circle suddenly parted as Selene shoved her way forward. Given how her own outfit was designed with her ample chest in mind, she probably hadn’t needed to use her arms. “Get one other thing straight, little girl,” she declared. “There’s only one star in this production. That’s me. Stay out of my way. Don’t try to get cute. Or you’ll regret it.”
“Show time!” called the stage manager. The dancers got in line; Minagi found herself between Etsuko and Mifuyu. “So…just who am I supposed to be, anyway?”
“Sailor Uranus, of course!” Mifuyu giggled.
* * * * *
“And now, gentlemen, the Cherry Petal proudly presents…SAILOR MOONS AND HER SAILOR STRIPPERS!”
Minagi felt like she was lost in a dream. She smiled, mimicked the others’ moves, and faked it as best she could. The crowd around the stage looked fuzzy, almost indistinct, and their shouts and cheers were like hazy murmurs in her ears. They went crazy when Selene’s top popped open without warning. They raved over Saeko’s legs. And they didn’t seem to mind that Sailor Uranus now had cyan-colored hair and yellow eyes. They didn’t mind one bit.
In retrospect, it was probably a good thing that Minagi wasn’t paying too much attention to the customers. Spotting Noboyuki Masaki amongst the revelers might have startled her and ruined everything. As it was, she had no way of knowing that when her panties went flying into the crowd, Tenchi’s father ended up claiming them, having beaten back a brown-haired fellow with glasses, a shaggy brown beard, and his assortment of Sailor Power Wands.
“I DID IT!” Noboyuki screamed triumphantly. “I’VE GOT THE SET AT LAST!”
* * * * *
Minagi’s debut was not universally appreciated. Back in a far corner booth, two guys sat glowering at the customers circling the stage. “Boy, it sure isn’t what it used to be,” said the one on the left.
“Tell me about it,” said the other. “God. You leave for a few months, come back and find all these new people running around ruining a really great place. I hate seeing it happen. I really do.”
“I know,” the first guy nodded. “Man, this is terrible.”
“Yeah. Remember when we first came here? We could get up close to the stage and get all the panties we wanted. It was so great. Now…” He motioned toward the throng. “They don’t have any appreciation for the old guard.” The guy shook his head in disgust. “I’ll bet the panties aren’t anywhere as good as they were when we started out here. I’ll bet they’re just a lower quality. I wouldn’t want their panties now even if they came up here and offered them to me.”
“You said it,” agreed the first patron.
“Excuse me,” said a rather handsome fellow with a laptop under his arm - a fellow Minagi would have instantly identified had she spotted him. “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. The routine isn’t really worse than it used to be…it’s just a little different, that’s all. Time passes, things change. It’s the way things…”
The first guy stood up. “Shut up. If you don’t shut up right now, I’ll have you thrown out of here for good.” The newcomer blinked a few times, then shrugged and walked away, ignoring the baleful stares of the two he’d confronted.
“Damn newbies,” muttered the second guy as he sipped at his drink. “They’ve ruined everything.”
“You’re absolutely right…”
* * * * *
There was another who missed Minagi’s debut. He stood across the street from the Cherry Petal, staring at the building with narrow eyes and smoking his cigarette down to the filter. It had taken the better part of two weeks to recover from the beating that little light-haired bitch had given him; he’d spent the time since trying to track her back to her apartment. But no matter how hard he tried, she had somehow managed to give him the slip every time. It was like she vanished into the night sky somehow.
Shigo tossed the cigarette butt to the pavement and fished around in his overcoat for another smoke. A plan was slowly forming in his mind, one that would avenge his embarrassing defeat and teach all of them that he was not a man to be fooled with.
He’d show them all. Very soon.
* * * * *
“Hey, welcome home,” Kiyone said, rising up from her futon as Minagi came in. “Kind of late for you, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I’m sorry. One of the workers got sick and had to go to the hospital. I checked on her before I came home.” Minagi took to the air, gliding through the tiny apartment as she grabbed her own futon and spread it across the floor. “Oh, by the way.” She fished out a huge wad of bills from her pocket. “I think this will take care of the rent for this month. Count it and make sure, will you?”
“Sure.” Kiyone accepted the cash and thumbed through it, her eyes growing wider as the numbers continued to grow. “My…god. This is enough for both of us, Minagi! I can’t accept all of this…”
“Sure you can,” Minagi said with a smile as she settled into bed. “You let me move in with you and all. I know it’s hard for you to make ends meet, Kiyone. Go ahead and take it.”
“Well, okay.” Kiyone tucked the money under her pillow (beside the gun) and settled back down. As she started drifting back to sleep, the GP officer made a mental note to find out just where Minagi was working these days…and see if they were hiring.
* * * * *
“Damn,” whispered Saeko.
“Wow,” breathed Rio.
“Hmph,” snorted Luna, her attention ostensibly focused on her manga.
Minagi looked around at the sea of faces surrounding her. “Well? What do you think?”
“That…is one hell of a routine,” nodded Mifuyu. “We’re going to have to have an ambulance nearby if you do that on stage to handle all the coronaries.”
“So you think it’s okay?”
“Okay? Minagi, that is fantastic!” Etsuko exclaimed. “Iwanaga-san sees this, he’ll keep you on for sure!”
“I hope so.” Minagi crossed her fingers; she’d been raking in the money since filling in for poor Tomo. Hiro’s return, while a welcome sight, had cost her the original job, but this new one was more than making up for it. Tomo was due back in a few nights, though, so Minagi had been working on a routine of her own. She’d spent night after night practicing in the apartment - Kiyone had been called away on a GP assignment, so there was plenty of room and privacy. She’d finally summoned up the courage to perform it for the others and get their impressions, which were pretty much universal in their enthusiasm - with three notable exceptions.
“Can you believe that bitch? She thinks she’s better than me. As if she could ever compare,” Selene pouted in the dressing room. When Phoebe was not immediately forthcoming with reinforcing praise, she pushed her friend’s laptop screen down on the woman’s fingers.
“Hey, do you mind?” Phoebe snapped. “I was in the middle of a conversation, I’ll have you know.”
“You were in the middle of a conversation with ME, and I am much more important than some teen age dweeb you’re trying to seduce over the Internet.”
“He isn’t a teenager. He’s thirty and a very successful teacher at Shinonome High School, I’ll have you know. Also a sake connoisseur, and into mountain climbing.”
Luna came in, throwing her manga across the room. “You aren’t going to believe this,” she said, with more than a little anger in her voice.
“What now?” Phoebe sighed.
“Iwanaga loved Minagi’s dance. She’s getting a spotlight, starting tonight.”
“But…but…I GET THE SPOTLIGHT!” Selene cried. “IT’S MINE!”
“Not any more, sweetheart,” Luna said sadly. “And it gets worse…”
“Oh yes. Baka brought her the scabbard for that damned sword when she finished…and she THANKED HIM.”
“NO!” cried two voices in unison.
Luna nodded solemnly.
“That does it,” Phoebe said tightly. “Time for action.” She flipped the screen of her laptop back up and began to type.
“What are you doing?” Selene asked.
“I’m going into all my chat rooms and asking them to come here tonight. And when they do, they’re to cheer us, and boo Minagi so thoroughly that she’ll never come back.”
“Oooh, good one!” Selene said, clapping her hands.
“Assuming, of course,” Luna muttered, “that any of the guys she’s chatting with are old enough to get in. Or that they’re even guys to begin with.”
* * * * *
Tenchi hung up the phone, his puzzlement plain to see. “Who was it, Lord Tenchi?” asked Ayeka.
“It was Dad,” he replied in a distant voice. “He was asking about Ryoko.”
“Me?” Ryoko floated down from her lofty perch and hovered next to Ayeka. “Whatever it is, Tenchi, I swear I didn’t do it. Not even that little fire down by the sake shop.”
“What fire down by the sake shop?” Tenchi asked sharply.
“I dunno,” Ryoko replied quickly.
Tenchi considered pursuing the line of questioning, then decided that he was probably better off letting it go. “Anyway…he was wondering why no one had told him that Ryoko was dancing at a club.”
“A club?” Ryoko asked.
“Ryoko? Dancing?” Ayeka said.
“Yeah.” A slight flush crept across Tenchi’s features. “Y’see, there’s this club Dad goes to…it’s kind of a…well, a gentleman’s club.” He scratched at the back of his head, clearly unable or unwilling to elaborate.
“Lord Tenchi,” Ayeka smiled. “You needn’t be so embarrassed.”
“Not at all. You see, my father belongs to several such clubs. He goes a few times each week to unwind and enjoy the company.”
“He does?” Tenchi squeaked.
“And your mothers…don’t mind?”
“Of course not. They’ve even accompanied him a few times and enjoyed themselves thoroughly. Mother herself particularly enjoys the fan service they provide.”
“eep,” said Tenchi.
“I mean, just between you and me,” Ayeka added in a conspiratorial whisper, “Mother’s reaching that age where she gets hot rather quickly and needs relief. Twenty minutes with a girl and she’s right as rain again. Lord Tenchi, is there a problem? You’ve got another nosebleed.”
“I’m fine,” Tenchi mumbled, reaching into his pocket for his ever-present Kleenex. “I’m fine.”
“Fan service, huh?” Ryoko said with a leer.
“Oh my yes. They have these huge feather fans, and you sit there with a girl on either side of you and they just keep moving them back and forth until the breeze has thoroughly refreshed you. I hope to visit there myself someday.” Ayeka turned her attention back to Tenchi. “You were saying, Lord Tenchi?”
“Ummm…yeah. Right. Anyway, he was at this club called the Cherry Petal a few nights back and one of the dancers apparently looked just like Ryoko.”
“Dancers?” Ayeka blinked. “His gentleman’s club has dancers?”
“Well…yeah. They dance and take their clothing off for tips. He took me there for my sixteenth birthday.” Tenchi flushed at the memory.
The Crown Princess of Jurai made a horrible face. “That’s DISGUSTING. And they DARE call it a GENTLEMAN’S club?”
“What’s wrong with that?” Ryoko chuckled. “You saying Daddy’s clubs don’t have girls or boys stripping down for fun and money?”
“Certainly not! They would never stoop to such depths, I’ll have you know! The gentleman’s clubs my father frequents are fine, upstanding establishments that cater to more sophisticated tastes than…than THAT.”
“And of course you’ve been to one. To see for yourself.”
“Well…” Ayeka hesitated. “No, not really. But Father and Yosho told me all about them. And they would never lie to me!”
“Yeah, right.” Ryoko shook her head. “So, Tenchi…you think maybe it’s Minagi?”
“I don’t know, but that would be my first guess.” Tenchi shuffled his feet uneasily. “Maybe we should…you know…go over there and check it out?”
“Most certainly not!” Ayeka declared hotly. “I will not soil my virtue by setting foot in a place of ill repute!”
“Fine.” Ryoko shrugged nonchalantly. “Tenchi and I will go, then.” She wrapped herself around him. “It’ll be just like going out on a DATE…”
“Ryoko…” Tenchi pleaded, praying her hands wouldn’t venture too far south.
Ayeka grit her teeth and clenched her fists. “Let me get the car keys and some money.”
* * * * *
“Boy, it looks pretty crowded out there,” Minagi whispered. She’d just peered through the curtains to get an idea of her audience; never before had the Cherry Petal seemed so very small. She could almost taste the electricity and excitement that flowed about the room.
“It’s a full house tonight,” Hiro nodded. He stretched his arms out and grunted with the exertion. “And they’re being generous, too.”
“I am so nervous. What if I screw up?”
“You won’t. You’ll do great, and even if you mess up a little, they won’t care. They’re here to see a beautiful woman dance, and you fit the bill perfectly.” Hiro patted Minagi on the shoulder and smiled. “Don’t sweat it. By the way, you’re on in five.”
“Oh, thanks so much,” Minagi muttered.
* * * * *
“Nobody takes MY spotlight, MY adoring fans, MY tip money…” Selene growled as she slipped out of the dressing room and crept into the back end of the building. “Little sweet thing thinks she can just come in here and try to be the prettiest one, well I’ll show her…she can dance her tight little ass off, won’t do her a bit of good if no one’s here to see it…”
Across the street from the Cherry Petal, Shigo sat in his car and smoked a cigarette. If the place kept to its normal schedule, a headline act would be starting in a few minutes. He had three containers of gasoline sitting in the trunk and several lengths of chain on the passenger seat; he’d have to work quickly, but if all went well those bastards would learn tonight that it never paid to make an enemy of Shigo Kiwasama.
Ryoko’s yellow eyes glittered at the two guys cowering in their corner booth. “Excuse me,” she said in a sweet growl, “but this one’s reserved tonight.”
“But…but…I’ll have you kicked out!” squealed the smaller of the two men.
“Only if you live long enough to try it,” the former pirate purred, giving them a good look at her long, sharp canines. The two men quickly scrambled out of the booth and found a new haven, one as far away from Ryoko as possible.
“Well, you were right!” Ayeka declared a moment later as she and Tenchi joined the smiling Ryoko in the booth. “You did manage to find an empty place for us after all! I must say I am impressed.”
“Hey, it’s a knack,” Ryoko shrugged modestly.
Not far away, a familiar face flipped his laptop screen up. He rested his fingers on the keyboard, waiting for the show to begin.
The lights dimmed. The strains of Middle Eastern music drifted through the still air. A single dim spotlight shimmered into view, revealing a slim, beautiful woman with yellow catlike eyes, hair the color of the dawn sky and a body that, while artfully hidden here and there by an array of long, shimmering scarves, revealed and hinted enough to stir the souls of even the hardest heart in the room. Sitting perfectly balanced atop her head was a long, silver sword.
A deep, dark drumbeat joined the melody, a rhythm that worked its way into the blood and refused to let go. Minagi swayed to the beat, enslaved to its call. Her arms snaked through the air as she danced, and still, with every motion, the sword remained precariously perched atop her head.
A flick of her wrist, and a scarf floated down toward the stage. Minagi caught it easily with her foot and dangled the prize before her audience. It was gone in a heartbeat. She smiled and moved on, gliding over to the other side and surrendering another scarf. And yet for all her movements, the sword shuddered slightly but did not fall.
The music picked up in tempo, and Minagi’s mesmerizing dance did as well. She arched her back, she sank to her knees, she floated all around the stage, losing another scarf here, another there, and yet there seemed no end to her offerings, and now the crowd was clapping in unison to the beat, urging her on to greater feats.
Nearby, Ryoko tore her eyes away from Minagi and turned. Tenchi was sitting there, eyes wide and utterly entranced, a slow trickle of blood gliding down from his nose.
Ayeka was in exactly the same state. “Oh dear,” she whispered. “I think it’s getting warm in here, don’t you? I wonder if they’ve got a fan service here?”
Minagi writhed and undulated to the music, lost in its magic. She could feel the crowd’s eyes upon her, almost taste their appreciation as they watched her dance. It was almost intoxicating. She let another scarf fall away and smiled as five men lunged for it.
This beat piracy any day of the week.
Shigo poured the last of the gasoline into the trash bin, then reached into his jacket. He lit a single cigarette, took one deep puff, and let it fall into the garbage.
Selene wrapped her fingers around the fire alarm handle. She smirked quietly to herself as she imagined what would happen next, then gave the handle one sharp tug downward.
Minagi was down to three scarves when the fire alarms wailed. The crowd milled around for a moment or two, confused and still somewhat dazed by the show, but self-preservation quickly kicked in and people headed for the various exits. Only when the unfortunate souls up front discovered that the doors wouldn’t budge, and the patrons behind them kept pressing forward to escape, did the magnitude of the problem become apparent.
Fortunately a few people kept their heads. “Ryoko, over there,” Tenchi quietly ordered, pointing toward a relatively secluded section of the club. “Ayeka, over there. You know what to do.”
“Yes, Tenchi,” the women said in unison. One force field and one energy blast later, two new exits appeared. Tenchi yelled at the panicked masses and pointed toward the gaps. “Over there!” he called in a voice that demanded respect. “Forget the doors! Get out over there!” The crowd hesitated for a heartbeat, then obeyed. Tenchi noticed that one man, a tall, handsome fellow clutching a laptop under his arm, was guiding the frightened patrons through and doing an excellent job of maintaining order. Interesting.
Ryoko poked her head through the wall. “Tenchi, someone’s chained all the doors!” she reported.
“Is there a fire?”
“Yeah, in the back. It’s starting to spread. I think the fire trucks are coming, though.”
“Okay. Cut through the chains if you can do it without anyone noticing.”
“Aren’t you going to stand up and leave, Tenchi?” Ryoko asked.
“Ummm….yeah. In a minute, okay?” he replied, his cheeks crimson.
The dancers in the dressing room didn’t need the wail of the fire alarm to warn them something was wrong. The flames and smoke pouring into the back end of the room were evidence enough.
“Come on!” Saeko screamed. “Let’s get out of here!” She and Rio herded the terrified women to the main door, only to find a smirking Selene standing there. “Get the hell out of the way!” Saeko ordered. “We’ve got to leave!”
“Come on, it’s just a false alarm,” the kawaii performer grinned. “No need for panic.”
Saeko pointed to the rapidly vanishing back wall. “Guess again, you idiot!” Selene took one look and instantly led the other dancers toward the nearest exit. Phoebe was one of the last to leave the dressing room; before Saeko and Rio could drag her out, she had barely enough time to type a final message on her laptop to her beloved chatrooms:
“Come ON, Selene!” one of the dancers cried. “Open the door!”
“I CAN’T! IT WON’T OPEN!” Selene sank to the floor, weeping great tears. “I CAN’T DIE! I CAN’T DIE! I’M TOO PRETTY TO DIE IN A NASTY UGLY FIRE!”
Baka suddenly appeared from around a darkened corner. “What’s going on?” he grumbled, wiping the sleep from his eyes. “Why’s everyone in an uproar? I was right in the middle of checking the bathrooms, honest…”
Selene grabbed the dazed gofer with desperate strength. “Baka,” she gasped. “Baka. Sweet, wonderful Baka. Strong, big-shouldered Baka. You are wonderful. You are incredible. I have always lusted for you secretly, deep in my heart.”
“Really?” Selene nodded rapidly. “Then why do you always call me that name? I told you the first time I saw you that my name is…”
“I DON’T CARE WHAT YOUR DAMNED NAME IS!” Selene screamed. “GET THE DAMNED DOOR OPEN BEFORE WE BURN TO DEATH AND I’LL MARRY YOU, FOR GOD’S SAKE, BUT GET THE DOOR OPEN! NOW, YOU BAKA!”
Baka’s face brightened somewhat. “You will? Wow. That’s really sweet of you, Selene…”
Suddenly the crowd of women parted in the wake of a naked, determined Minagi. “Stand back,” she ordered crisply. “And by the way, you didn’t see this.” Summoning her energy sword, Minagi swiped the blade between the double doors, instantly vaporizing anything in its way. One mighty kick later, the doors were wide open and the dancers were outside…save one.
Selene had made the tragic error of standing directly between her co-workers and safety. She lay flat on her back, utterly trampled and utterly dazed. “I feel pretty, oh so pretty…” she sang to herself.
“Come on.” Minagi knelt down and hoisted the battered dancer to her feet, then more or less dragged her outside to join the others.
Shigo’s smile was dangerous as he trotted toward his car. He could feel the warmth of the flames against his back, and the sound of the frantic pounding of fists against the securely chained doors warmed his heart considerably. “Good job,” he muttered to himself. “Good job.”
The explosion took him by surprise, knocking him face forward to the ground. Turning, Shigo saw that a huge chunk of wall was missing, and the Cherry Petal patrons were pouring out through the gap like water…and coming his way. An icy surge of panic raced through his body; Shigo stumbled to his feet and lumbered toward his car.
He never saw the foot that tripped him. Shigo hit concrete a second time, and before he could get back up he felt a heeled boot smash into his back, pinning him. He turned his head to see who was making trouble, but only got a glimpse of long teal-colored hair before a huge, nasty gun blocked his vision.
“Freeze, dirtbag,” a distinctly feminine voice ordered. “This isn’t my jurisdiction, but I don’t think the locals will mind an assist from the GP.”
Nearby, the news media was gathered around Selene, who had made a miraculous transformation from doormat to ingénue. “Oh, I was just fortunate to be the one who first saw the flames,” she was telling the television reporter, “and thank goodness I was near a fire alarm at the time, or who knows what might have happened?” As she spoke, she arched her back and her robe accidentally slipped open just enough to give the viewers a peek at her prized assets. “I’m so happy no one was hurt, and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get another job quickly, a good honest position at a reputable establishment…”
“Well, that’s okay, Selene,” Baka said, nudging the reporter out of the way as he lumbered forward. “You aren’t going to need to work. You’re going to marry me, remember? You said you’ve been secretly in love with me all this time. So let’s go get married, right now!”
Selene’s mouth opened to emit an acidic response, but she suddenly remembered that she, and the baka, were on television. “Baka,” she said breathlessly, “I don’t know what to say.”
“Oh, it’s okay,” the handyman smiled. “I talked to Dad a minute ago, and he was fine with the whole deal. Thought we were perfect for one another.”
“Your…father?” Selene squeaked.
“Yeah. Here he comes right now! Hey, Dad!” To Selene’s utter horror, none other than Hiratsu Iwanaga himself walked up to join the happy couple. “Dad, I just told her that you approved of the marriage. She’s thrilled, aren’t you Selene?”
“eep,” said Selene.
Iwanaga’s smile was almost malicious. “I imagine she is speechless, my son.” He took Selene’s hand and gave it an almost violent squeeze. “Welcome to my family…daughter.”
“Here, Minagi.” Tenchi offered the nearly naked warrior his jacket; she accepted it gratefully, not so much for the warmth but more to stop people from staring at her. “I think everyone got out okay.”
“Thanks to me,” Ryoko said proudly. “Do I get a reward, Tenchi? Hmmm?” She puckered up and leaned forward, only to bestow a smooch on the palm of Ayeka’s hand.
“Thanks to you?” Ayeka snapped. “It was MY force shield that created that hole, you know. All you provided were pretty fireworks to go along with MY work. Reward, indeed.”
“Oh, go find yourself some fan service, Princess.”
“You think you’re so terribly funny, don’t you?”
“Compared to you, it’s easy to be funny.”
Minagi and Tenchi moved away from the argument in progress. She stared at the smoldering remains of the club and sighed sadly. “Well, there goes that job. And I almost had enough money saved to pay the fine and get Hinase back.” Her shoulders slumped. “What am I going to do now, Tenchi? What?”
“I’m sure something will turn up, Minagi…” Tenchi’s voice trailed off as the stranger with the laptop approached them. There was a decidedly military manner in his bearing. “Can I help you, Mister?” Tenchi said, casually moving between the stranger and Minagi.
“I’m here to speak to the lady, actually,” the newcomer replied, smiling.
Minagi looked up and studied him carefully; her eyes narrowed as recognition set in. “You,” she growled. “The guy from the diner, and the convenience store…and I thought I’d seen you here a few times too. What do you want?”
“Allow me to introduce myself. Lieutenant Jakeskaht, SI.” He offered Minagi a card, which she took after a moment.
“SI?” Tenchi asked.
“Seto Intelligence. I was assigned to keep an eye on Minagi here and make sure she kept to the terms of her sentence. I must say, I did enjoy your dancing tonight,” he added, with a wistful smile for her benefit.
“Really?” Minagi said shyly.
She held out her hand. “Then how about a tip to show your appreciation?”
The lieutenant smiled. “How would the return of your license…and your ship…do?”
“What?” Minagi gasped.
Jakeskaht nodded. “I’ve been watching you. You’ve worked very hard. You’ve helped out a great deal here, and you went back to save lives without a second thought. I’ve been in touch with Lady Seto and she agrees that under the circumstances, we can commute the punishment to time served.” He handed her a datachip. “Your license and the passcode to reclaim your ship.”
“Wow,” Tenchi said. “That’s great, Minagi! You’re back in business!”
“Yeah,” the swordswoman said, still staring at the datachip. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Well, uhh…” Jakeskaht blushed slightly and stared down at his feet. “I was wondering…if…well…you might be…hungry?”
“Excuse me?” Minagi said archly.
“Well, like I said…I have been watching you for some time now….and you are a very attractive woman…and now that I’m no longer assigned to your case…I would like…to…get to know you better. If you’re interested, that is.”
Minagi’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve been spying on me all this time. Your employer has put me through a few months of hell for some god-damned alcohol. I don’t have a damned thing to wear right now…and you’re asking me out to dinner?”
The officer’s blush deepened. “Yeah.”
“Okay.” Minagi concentrated, and a stylish dress materialized around her body. “You’re kind of cute, and you’re buying. That works for me. See ya later, Tenchi. I’ll drop by before I go get Hinase, okay?”
“Uhhh…okay,” Tenchi nodded, his eyes wide.
“So, SI boy,” Minagi continued, taking the dazed officer’s arm and leading him away from the remains of the dance club. “You’re going to take me to the best steak house in this city, and we’re going to have the best meal of our lives, and you’re going to pick up the tab, right?”
“Sure looks that way,” Jakeskaht nodded, overwhelmed.
“Lieutenant,” Minagi said brightly. “This looks like the start of a beautiful relationship.”