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Ami's Song

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I don't own this, wish I did, but this was too good not to share with those who didn't read it on the original site. Had to edit the star symbol separator with a plus one due to shifti's formatting.
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Xanadu story universe


Ami's Song


She gasped.

For some reason, she kept remarkably calm. On instinct, she reached a hand up to her earring; goggles appeared on her face. She pulled out her Mercury Computer without a second thought, and started taking readings.

She didn't bother looking at them. She'd do that later. In the meantime, she was in the greatest collection of beings the world had ever known, and she was getting every possible reading under the sun. Her eyes cast over the crowd, fascinated at the menagerie that had popped up. For some reason, she was reminded of scenes from several sci-fi shows, where humanity was clearly a minority - sometimes even a minority of one.

It took her thirty-seven seconds before she realized that something was wrong with her. She blinked for a moment, sorting out her memories.

She was... she was... Nick. And Ami. She'd just fought Galaxia; she gasped at the memory of her Star Seed leaving her - an irreplacable part of her soul. She remembered getting ready for this costume ball, getting the costume for Mercury just...

Costume. Everyone had been in costume. Everyone was now their costume. Devils and angels, man and beast, all had been changed. Including, it seemed, herself. Assuming, of course, that this wasn't some torment of Galaxia's design... though somehow she couldn't imagine Galaxia doing something this subtle.

She looked at the chaos surrounding her, and realized the safest place possible - the stage. Everyone wanted out of the room; if she waited long enough, the room would be sufficiently cleared to allow her exit. So, she jumped up onto the stage and sat at its edge, her legs swinging out over the ledge.

Everything was new. Her body felt new, her mind felt new... even some of the burdens on her soul for so long had washed away in the change - and both of them definitely had their share of weights. She smiled; it was like Nick held the answers to Ami's problems, and Ami held the answers to Nick's.

Yes... this was definitely for the best. She swung her feet out as far as she could, watching her blue Senshi boots catch the light of the stage, and landed a couple of feet in front of it. She admired herself for a moment; definitely a real Senshi, definitely female, definitely short hair... most definitely Ami.

And she had a world to go see. She continued viewing the mess of the audience, waiting for them to calm down before sashaying out of the auditorium.

+++

The mirror wasn't lying.

Good God, it wasn't lying.

Her gaze started at the floor, at shiny blue knee-length boots; the material reminded her of some stuff she'd seen on wedding shoes, but didn't scuff like those did. Flesh peeked out from the boots, smooth, sexy legs that showed maturation almost at its completion, as they led up to an attractive set of hips, currently covered by a royal blue, flared-out miniskirt that just covered her more personal areas. From here, the skirt met up with a white leotard-style top, tight-fitting but protecting... and showing just how much those curves of hers had changed, with a slim waist and perfectly perky B-cup breasts. This led to the sailor top, one which showed the tiniest amount of cleavage, leading up to a slim neck... and her face.

Good heavens, her face... It wasn't what she'd call beautiful, but it was cute. A soft, round, friendly Asian girl stared back at her from the looking-glass, with a slightly turned-up nose, beautiful almond-shaped sapphire eyes and the tiniest amount of baby fat still in her cheeks, keeping her from beautiful high cheekbones. Framing it all was a short mop of bluish-black hair, the kind of hairstyle she could shake into place if need be.

Her vision started to mist over; tears started rolling down her cheeks. She wasn't even sure why she was crying; for happiness, or sorrow, or relief, or...

She'd wanted this. If someone had come up to Nick and offered him womanhood in a bottle, he'd have drank it in a second. Now... now she had it. All of the doubts, the self-loathing, the painful, horrible desire... all done.

And with it came a whole new set of problems. She... well, Ami knew how to live as a girl, so that helped a bit; however, both of them had been less-than-perfect in terms of social interaction. Also, she didn't have the slightest clue about what to do concerning more private relationships. Urawa had just sort of happened; Taiki had never really developed into anything. She'd always been more focused on her professional future rather than her personal future; the pressures of the upcoming armageddon had left Mizuno Ami feverishly studying, hoping for some way to stop the coming ice age...

And now she didn't have to worry about it - at least, she suspected she didn't. Here, the Moon Kingdom had never existed; here, many of Sailor Moon's great adversaries didn't exist. They were free, now, free to protect the world in other ways, or pursue totally normal lives.

Totally normal lives...

She sank to her knees, sobbing; she thought of a prayer, but even she didn't know what she was saying.

She enjoyed life as a girl. It gave her a peace she hadn't known as Nick; it gave her some freedom of expression long denied him. However, such power always carries wrinkles...

She should have known to expect this. After all, she had some interesting memories of Urawa and Taiki, of the warm feeling she got whenever either would look her way. She knew what attraction to a man was like.

She was getting awfully warm, now; he was so... so...

Doug had been her friend from their senior years in high school; they'd roomed together in college and out in the real world. They kept no secrets; he knew every detail about the struggles she'd endured, as she knew his. He'd always been a fan of Slayers and Lost Universe; as Nick had prepared her Sailor Mercury costume, he'd prepared his Kain Blueriver costume...

... and now Kain Blueriver was in front of her. His 6'-2" height hadn't really changed, though he'd gotten slimmer; her knees felt weak at his unbelievably fluid movements. The unruly shock of red hair on him looked simply adorable; she could get lost in those blue eyes of his, and that cocky grin spoke of supreme confidence. The black cloak put every expression of his into perspective, somehow, though she thought the white shirt and slacks didn't do much for him. She wondered for a moment what he looked like without his shirt on...

Her gaze turned downward, hoping Doug - Kain - would take her blush for something other than what it was.

"Well. You've changed..." She didn't dare look up; she didn't want to see those blue eyes of his again. "You like the change, I take it?"

"Un." She nodded affirmative, her knees locked together. "How about you?"

He shrugged. "I can't complain, though I don't know what I'm going to do from here." He shuffled his feet. "There's not much to it, really; I exchanged one set of problems for another."

Ami smiled, her eyes turning to Kain's companions on the other end of the room. Millie paced impatiently; the diminutive blonde clearly wasn't comfortable with the world she'd found herself in, and wanted to get back to the safety of the ship. Her thoughts, at least what could be told from the eyes, told no sorrow - no longing. Canal, on the other hand... Infinity reflected in Canal's dark eyes, and the whole body language of the goddess Canal Vorfied spoke of revelation; she tried to hide the pain in her eyes behind bangs of green hair, but couldn't succeed. Canal clearly knew - just as Ami herself now knew. "Such as companionship, I take it?"

Kain sighed. "Well... sorta... Millie is... but Canal-"

Ami touched a hand to his lips, a move she knew to be suggestive of other things. She couldn't help herself; he was a man, and she was... "Kain... Doug... I know. None of us can help how we feel, can we? I learned that lesson long before I... long before I became Ami."

Kain closed his eyes in frustration. "Oh, no... not-"

"None of us have choices, Doug," she interrupted, her whisper fierce. "Just... make sure to minimize the damage." She swallowed. "I... I have a girl's heart now, you know; you'd be surprised how... fragile... it is."

Kain sat down on the edge of the bed and sighed. "What can I do, Nick? Canal remembers everything from her past life. She remembers what it's like to be a living, breathing human being - and now she's a hologram *and* a goddess. She... she needs me. Millie, on the other hand, doesn't remember a thing. We told her about what happened... but she's still Millie." His voice lowered. "She... she still loves me, and..." He stopped. "What do I do?"

Ami took a long, deep breath. "Tell the truth. Love them in their own way. I know you love Millie; I've seen the way you look at her. You - Doug - also love Canal; you see her in pain, and you can't help but try to reach out to her." She shrugged. "Love them both - in the only way you can, in the only way they need to be. And don't lie about it even one iota."

Kain put his hands on her shoulders. "And what about you?"

Ami sighed. "Love me as you always have." She wrapped her arms around herself, grabbing his hands in a fierce embrace. "As a friend."

It wasn't easy being a Sailor Senshi.

Ami shot up from her bed, too terrified, too mortified to scream. Her heart flew at a mile a minute; she clutched her neck, straining to get her breathing under control. After a few painful seconds, she began to settle down.

A dream. Only a dream. Not real; not happening. She pounded that fact into her head, forcing her heart rate back down to normal. She wiped the beads of sweat off of her forehead, and let out a shaky sigh.

She'd returned. Galaxia stood in front of all of them, a terrible goddess arrayed in gold. They'd tried to attack. Galaxia's response matched her demeanor; they were struck before they realized what was happening.

Her Star Seed was ripped from her violently, like her heart - no, more than that, her soul - had been torn out. She couldn't even put words to the agony she'd felt; her very existence dissolved as air became her acid. Even through it, her thoughts weren't of death; they were of her friends.

Her dying friends...

Their screams had awakened her; their agony she felt as though it was her own. She rolled off of the bed and staggered to her feet, careful not to disturb anyone.

5 o'clock. The sun hadn't even thought about rising yet. She quietly cursed Galaxia, wherever she was, and made her way into the bathroom. She desperately needed a bath, something to get her mind off of her nightmare, and a nice, hot bath sounded like a good way to do it. Fortunately, she'd had the presence of mind to go clothes shopping the night before; the last thing she wanted was to wear too-large men's jeans.

Her mind started to drift as she lowered herself into the hot water; the conforting sensations around her body started the journey. Everything felt new: the warm water, the sensations on her breasts and nether regions... everything spoke of change, of difference. She looked at the shape of her hand, at the disturbingly tiny hands she'd inherited.

Everything really was new. Nick was gone, really; everything but his wisdom, the lessons he'd learned in his life... nothing physical mattered. And here she was, a teenaged girl, her entire life ahead of her.

Somehow, unbelievably, she'd gotten a 'do over'.

She knew what she was capable of. Her IQ was still in the 250-300 range (a fact she'd confirmed last night); she had a working knowledge of computers that he didn't have, though Nick's engineering skills would prove an excellent compliment. Given where she was, if she really wanted to do something in the way of academics, nobody would stop her - and more than a few people would probably pay her way.

Then the gentle voice came back to her. She remembered the Albert Einstein school she'd gone to before Juuban; she hadn't been challenged there at all. Usagi challenged her; Rei challenged her; Makoto and Minako challenged her. Should she go back to college - especially if she was going to be a Sailor Senshi?

Mizuno Ami - before this turn of events - hadn't considered it. She'd had her life to live; Tokyo University loomed large, and she had been on the fast track there. Now...

Where should she go?

Puzzles the will, she thought.

Eventually, a set of initials popped into her head; they said enough.

WWMD? What would Mizuno do?

Mizuno Ami would keep playing the game. She would get into MIT or Caltech; the latter would provide more of a challenge, while the former would provide a more stable living environment.

She smiled, and watched the water run down her leg. Yes... it was time to start making plans. For once, she had a future to care about.

They were idiots.

No, they were naive or incompetent. Minako was naive for calling the thing; Wren was naive for believing that it could work. She could forgive naivete. But greed, on the other hand...

Needless to say, the meeting was not going well. They'd spoken of Crystal Tokyo, of fathering Chibi-Usas and making a new Utopia for themselves. Barring that, they tossed ideas of building a moon base - a new Moon Kingdom where they could rule.

She could see it from the totally-gone Senshi that they honestly believed it; she had no complaint with them beyond their naivete. The looks from some of the not-so-far-gone, on the other hand, disgusted her more. Power corrupts, they had it, but they wanted more. She could see the glow in their eyes; they wanted a world in which *they* could rule.

She knew the adages far better than that. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. They had a half-donen Ginzuishou at their disposal; she shuddered at the power that crew could pull off. The road they were paving went straight to oblivion, and she didn't want to be a part of it.

The menagerie of the convention stretched out before her upon opening the doors; she didn't notice. All she knew was that she had to run, get away, find -

  • oof!* She was so upset that she didn't notice where she was going.

She ran straight into a wall of muscle, and stumbled back. After a second, she started to mumble an apology. "I... I'm terribly sorry..."

Then she got a good look at the blond-haired hunk she was apologizing to, and took a gamble.

"Drew?"

Drew - Captain America - blinked for a moment at her. "Nick?"

She shrugged a bit self-consciously. "I see that you went through the reality wringer, too." She twirled around. "Like the new me?"

Drew snorted; his muscles flexed unconsciously with each movement. "Why am I not surprised..." He frowned at the direction she'd just stomped from. "So where were you coming from?"

She groaned. "Senshi meeting. I'm not sure which kind of Senshi scare me more: the ones with the total mental conversion without a clue on reality, or the ones with their old marbles still in - who also, by the way, don't have a clue on reality." She shook her head. "They can try for their utopia; I just can't be a part of it."

Drew's eyebrows furrowed together. "You mean they're actually going to try to do Crystal Tokyo?"

"Or a moon base to recreate the Moon Kingdom, or some other silliness." She put her hands on her hips. "It'll never work - not like how they want it. In order for the Senshi to function, they had to be pure. Well, a few are - but a few aren't. Some of them... they want the power too much."

Drew frowned at the closed doors - and what might be going on within. "That could be trouble. After all, there's a government in Japan that might be a bit upset at the revolution..."

"No kidding," Ami replied.

Another Senshi ran up to Ami, and put her hand on Ami's shoulder. She looked like Sailor Jupiter... that is, if a Lodoss-type dark elf had ever joined the Senshi Corps. Unlike most Senshi Jupiter, this one barely reached five foot in height, with crimson hair tied back into a thick braid, skin the color of smooth mocha, and prominent pointed ears that stuck out several inches to the sides of her head. Intense emerald cat-slit eyes narrowed in worry; her lips turned downward into an almost pouting frown. Beyond that, the uniform remained the same: rose earrings, white opera gloves with green trim, a white sailor suit with green miniskirt, and green ankle boots. "Nick, what's wrong?"

Ami shook her head. "I... I can't be a part of it, Wren. I'm sorry."

"Why not?" Jupiter replied. "I mean, what choice do we -"

"Please... I can't explain why. I... it's not the same situation as what we faced... before." Ami took a step away. "I... I'm sorry, Wren. I'm probably going to leave here before I cause more trouble."

Tears started to well in Wren's eyes. "Was... was it something I did? If it was, then -"

"No, Wren," Ami cut her off. She shook her head; what was she feeling? "This is... more than what happened in there. I can't explain it; I wish I could." She felt her knees start to give way; she braced herself against Drew's chest. "Did you ever read Lawson's 'Urges'?"

Wren shook her head. "No..."

Ami took a deep breath. "Well... it's hard to explain, but there's a lot more going on inside here than I let on. Nick... Ami... ME... I can't stay here; I can't do this. There's always been a part of me that needed to go out, to see what the world has to offer; when I stay in one place, doing one set role in life... I learn nothing." She shuddered. "And that... that is worse than death." She took a deep breath. "Yes, I think what they're planning is idiotic. And some of the not-quite-converted in there, the ones who want the power... I can't be a part of what they want." She wiped the tears from her eyes. "It's not forever, Wren. It can't be forever; we know fate won't allow it. But... for now... I need to go."

"You... promise?" Jupiter burned her eyes into her.

Ami nodded, and gave a wry grin. "I promise. Besides, someone needs to fix things when they start going haywire..." She hugged Wren, and kissed her on the cheek. "Now go. They need as much common sense in there as they can get."

Jupiter broke off slowly, waving before walking back to the meeting. Drew looked downward - and was startled to see the torrent of tears from Ami's eyes.

"Um... what's wrong?"

Ami fought for breath through her sobs. "I... I walked out that door. I couldn't be a part of it... but... but I never thought that it would be a part of me so much..." She leaned into Drew's chest, quiet sobs punctuating the air.

Drew held on to her and rubbed her head softly. "You can still go back there if you want. I'm sure they'll..."

"No." The sobs continued, but the force returned. "I... what they're planning is wrong. I can't go back."

Drew sighed. "As you wish."

She looked off at the hotel from a discrete distance, her suitcase and laptop bag in hand, her heart filled with all sorts of emotions. Her soul had been scarred long before she'd entered the place; by the time she'd left a few minutes ago, she'd healed some of them, but gained a few others.

Her life was her own, now. She would not be a part of their Senshi corps; to do so would go against her own beliefs. She couldn't go back to her old life, nor would she want to. She had better things to do.

She'd tested herself last night; she was ready. And, after some web browsing this morning, she knew exactly what to do.

She looked at the bus ticket stub in her hand; the destination read "Boston, MA". Once, many years ago, Nick had pondered going to MIT or Caltech; the economics of the situation had ended such dreams rather quickly. Now... well, she could far more easily find money for school. Women in science and engineering could find their scholarships far more easily; also, someone who could ace any test thrown at her could also get any scholarship available. In short, with her IQ and gift for academics, she could just about name her price. It would probably take at least a year before she could get in; fortunately, if her recollection of Senshi physiology was correct, she had an eternity to wait.

An eternity of discovery... she licked her lips at the thought. Oh, this was going to be good...

She found that she really, really liked hot chocolate.

She'd heard bits here and there about the aphrodisiac properties of hot cocoa; it took getting in the right body to understand why. Women (of which she was one) tended to live lives more insecure than men; hot cocoa provided several forms of security that men couldn't fully appreciate, the taste of which was only a part. The other part was the warmth of the liquid; as she'd discovered all too acutely in the week since coming to Cambridge, women tended to lose heat more rapidly (higher surface-area-to-mass ratio) and viewed the instant warmth of hot cocoa coursing through them as a sort of security blanket.

Well, she really liked her security blanket, and would probably have another, once she finished with this chapter.

She'd found a place to stay; essentially, a couple of students needed help with their freshman engineering homework and, surprise, surprise, she happened to have it down cold. It also helped that she was a girl eventually planning on going to MIT; frankly, they were a rare breed, and the 'Us girls have to stick together' mentality kicked in.

Not to mention that she could more than hold her own against anyone...

Smiling, she continued to study the history book. She'd wondered if, like some of the others that had been to the con, she had a geas forcing her to study; she'd tried it for one day, and had succeeded. Problem was, she'd been so bored doing it that she'd found herself reading about the Thirty Years' War within thirty minutes of waking up the next day. She guessed she didn't have any sort of geas; she just found a life without academics incredibly boring.

Yes, she should fit right in here...

The drone of the television suddenly got her attention; she stared at it for a good minute. They were reporting on the state of the Kublai Con hotel; the place was still sealed up as tight as a drum, and additional personnel were going into it every day.

Unconsciously, she frowned. Pieces were starting to slide into place.

Inside the hotel was, quite literally, a different world. Inside lay angels and demons, lions and tigers and bears, satyrs and fairies and superheroes and Klingons and every other creation of human imagination. Humanity's greatest dreams and worst nightmares came to life in that hotel...

...and, if they unsealed that hotel, all of those dreams and nightmares would be unleashed on the world. Power would shift inexorably... toward whoever controlled that power.

A flash of an image came to mind, of a burning compound filled with women and children, and she shuddered.

She'd have to plan for contingencies, and soon.

It was remarkable, really, something she should have thought of before now. She guessed it was due to Ami's way of thinking; she viewed the Mercury Computer as another tool to fight against the monster du jour. It wasn't until she and Nick had merged that she thought of it as more than a laptop and sensory tool.

She looked at her Mercury Computer (an unbelievably powerful laptop in and of itself), and smiled. Something she'd never thought of during her time with the Senshi: turning the computer's sensory equipment on herself. She hadn't realized that the key to finding out her full potential was in her hands all along. She had the full picture of the abilities she held, now, and what she had measured frightened her.

She was, as expected, Sailor Mercury - though what that entailed was more than she had initially thought. She had the magical energy of an entire planet to call on, and effective dominion over water in all its forms. Her effective range, however, was only about a hundred meters or so; anything beyond that and her control over water became shaky. Most importantly, though, her perception of her own powers had changed. Mizuno Ami had always thought of water as a passive weapon, as she was a more defensive fighter. Nick, as an engineer, had seen water cut through steel; he had given her an edge, and shown her some ideas on how to better use her abilities.

Now she knew how far those abilities would go. She stuck a hand out.

"Shabon Spray!" Instantly, a field of bubbles surrounded her, an inpenetrable, cold fog designed to disorient any opponent. It came easily; she'd done it a hundred times before.

"Aqua Rhapsody!" She'd aimed for a soda can on a nearby table; the tendrils of water rushed at it from all sides, crushing it into an impressively tiny ball of aluminum. That had taken more concentration; she hadn't done that attack very often.

She looked around, curious for a moment; she could feel each molecule of water vibrating in the air. A bit of inspiration hit as she remembered a fight from long ago; she closed her eyes and focused her power.

"Absolute.... zero."

The air around the aluminum ball coalesced, concentrated, a white fog around it; she smiled, giving it little nudges here and there. Then, with a flick of the mind, it flash-froze, instantly becoming crystal.

She nodded, approvingly. She could definitely get used to this Senshi thing...

***

The red dot appearing on her chest told her that time was up.

She switched into Senshi mode in a thought, hoping that the ultra-tough seifuku could repel a bullet, and leapt for cover. She felt a sort of thud on her backside as she dove, and frowned; it seemed that her guess had been right, though she had thought a bullet would have hit harder.

As she hid in the doorway, she saw why. Lying on the ground was a yellow tranq dart. Her frown deepened; she didn't know whether to take comfort in the fact that they wanted her alive or not.

Speed and deception would have to be her advantage. She looked at the facade of the building, and a plan formed. While she'd practiced some in her Senshi form, she hadn't yet been forced to use them in combat; she would only be wrong once.

"Shabon spray!" Snarling, she kicked off of the ground, a second after her blast blinded the street. Her hand pushed off against the second-floor window ledge, then broke a third-floor window, grabbing on and diving into the room before landing.

She frowned. She hated doing what she just did; she just hoped they wouldn't notice. The corner apartment had a window on the other side; she opened it - then stopped.

Protection. She needed protection. They probably had the floor plan of the house done; knowing them, they had one sniper at each window.

Fortunately, she had her own protection. In their eyes, the powers of Mercury were sadly limited; in her experiments, she'd found that Mercury really had some dominion over her element - in this case, water and ice. She could kick tail if she wanted; it's just that the old Sailor Mercury preferred a more passive, strategic way of winning.

Unfortunately for whoever was shooting at her, that was the old Ami's way of thinking. This Ami was far more willing to kick tail. She had a plan... but it was nothing these people would be expecting.

She pulled out her Mercury Computer, looking for potential hostiles, and found two. Both were on the roof, one on her building, one on the building immediately opposite.

Okay. She could play that. The bubbles had obscured her part of the street; she let a blast go that took care of sniper #2's part of the street, then exited the room.

She grinned ferally. Always keep them guessing. She found a window on the opposite end of the hallway; she opened it, then leapt up, her Mercury Goggles showing her true in the distorting fog. She focused her power - this was what she'd practiced for - and gave a deadly whisper.

"Absolute zero."

She'd done some hypothesizing after her practice session as to some uses; it prved to be remarkably versatile. The effect, at mild levels, was designed to immobilize. If she was sufficiently angered, it could easily kill. She'd thought of it after remembering her fight with Beruche; essentially, it did to her opponents what the chess match had done to her.

If it was cold in Boston before, it was nothing compared to what it was like on that rooftop. Water vapor gathered in Ami's hands, then shot to her target - an instant before it flash-froze, locking him in place.

One down. The view between the buildings was still obscured; the bubbles wouldn't last much longer, though. She hadn't tried it at this range; however, she didn't have much choice. Besides, the first victim was starting to scream for help.

Again, the droplets came; he didn't even move from his hiding place, much to her luck. By the time he realized what was going on, it was too late; he was frozen right up to his chin.

She opened her Mercury Computer, searching for any possible threats, then noticed none there.

"Ugh! goddamn icy bitch..."

The grumbles from the first sniper got her attention; she turned around to him. He had the 'men in black' look about him, with clean-cut black hair, nondescript black suit, and decent shoes - totally unremarkable in every way of thinking. She crossed her arms, and glared at him. "A question from the icy bitch: Who sent you?"

He clammed up.

"Fine." She willed another inch to his prison; his chin now sat under the ice. "You want me to increase it?"

He just sneered. "You're no killer."

She looked thoughtful for a moment, an expression which morphed into a smile. "Not yet. Fortunately, I don't have to be." She kicked at the ice near where his tranq rifle was; that part shattered, freeing part of his arm. Fortunately, due to the extreme cold, he wasn't able to do anything. She picked up the rifle, and smiled.

"Good night." She hit the sniper right on the temple with the rifle butt, enough to give him one mother of a headache in the morning - when he woke up, of course. She broke him out of his ice prison, then rifled through his pockets in search of ID.

"FBI... damn." She scanned the IDs with her goggles and computer; sure enough, they were genuine, which meant one of three things. One possibility was that the FBI was after her. The second was that two rogue agents wanted her - unlikely, but a possibility. And the third... was that someone higher up than the FBI, a group the American populace didn't know about, wanted her.

She doubted two agents would go rogue like this, which meant that organizations within the government wanted her. The paranoid part of her mind argued that even the FBI couldn't abuse their powers like this, which meant the third option.

She nodded grimly, a decision made. She smiled, froze a message on his forehead (frostbite would complete the tattoo), and leapt out into the barren night.

"Pardon me, but why are you withdrawing all of your money from us?"

She smiled. "I'm moving."

True enough, of course; she was moving - from city to city, and college to college. From MIT, she'd gone to UConn, where she'd brushed up on her law enforcement procedures and performed the hacktivism that had led to this windfall. From there she went down to SUNY - and to this nice little bank in the heart of New York City.

A bank that had gotten eight thousand dollars richer seventeen hours ago thanks to some funds redirected from child pornographers through seventy-two different monetary institutions to here, and was now back eight thousand dollars due to the creator of said redirection wanting her money.

Hacking for fun, profit, and a cause. If she'd known what she could do with God's Own Laptop earlier, she'd have brought the U.S. Government to its knees after the stunt they pulled.

She walked out of the bank, trying to appear the college student in her "Got DeCSS?" t-shirt, jeans, mirrorshades, and Doc Martens, and made her way to the station. It was time for her to move on again - a shame, as she had grown to like it in New York. The place literally had everything; she might have to come here in the end, once she felt secure enough to start a new life.

Not that settling down was likely to happen anytime soon.

"What are you doing, Nick?"

The question stopped her cold. She turned around carefully. "Hello, Kain." She looked at the figure who'd spoken: black hair, sunglasses, t-shirt, and jeans. Somehow, he'd resisted the urge to wear his cloak. "Nice disguise, by the way."

The confusion in his eyes said it all. He knew what she'd done. "Why'd you do it?"

Ami sighed. "Because the bastards I took it from didn't deserve the money in the first place, and because I just got a whole lot less respect for United States law enforcement." She started down the street, then turned around. "If you want to talk, let's do it elsewhere." She made her way to Central Park, a pleasantly anonymous place, and sat down at a park bench.

Kain eyed her warily. "What happened, Nick? You wouldn't have done this before..."

She let out a deep sigh. "I... I was attacked about a week ago by some agents. FBI - or someone more secret than that." She sighed. "I looked up their names in the files; their records were exemplary, indicating that they were probably doctored by whoever wanted them to look like FBI."

Kain blinked. "That doesn't make sense. Why would they want... oh." Kain sighed as he saw the computer in Ami's hand. "Sneakers."

Ami nodded. "'There isn't a government in existence that wouldn't kill us all for that thing.' Well, I've got 'that thing'; moreover, I am 'that thing'." She sighed. "Seems the government has some computers that they need software for; problem is, the computers are so advanced that nobody can write capable software for them." She let out a deep sigh. "Except me. And a few others from Kublai Con, of course - though they already have them." Her smile came out for a moment. "And I thought IT job recruiting was bad. At least Linus has some stuff to stew over for the next couple of weeks..."

"I saw the results; I've never seen code that tight." He shook his head. "Another of Ami's gifts?"

"Ami's gifts?" She couldn't help but chuckle. "Kain... I... I am Ami, now, just as you're Kain. I can see it; you're acting differently, you're talking differently... you've become someone else. Just as I have." She closed her eyes. "I am neither purely Nick or Ami; however, the body wins by default. I... I *feel* like Ami."

Kain fixed a hard stare on her. "Okay... Ami." He sighed. "How did you know I've changed that much?"

She snorted. "I'm not stupid, Kain. I've known Doug for about a decade, after all..."

Kain ran a hand through his hair. "True." He looked out at the park for a moment; Ami stared at his thoughtful blue eyes.

"Come back with me, Ami."

Ami blinked. "Huh?"

"It's not safe for you here," Kain replied. "Come with me back to Swordbreaker; you'll be safe there. I know Canal won't like it... but it'll only be until we finish the base, anyway."

Ami sat there for a moment. She wanted to go with him; she *really* wanted to go with him. Unfortunately, she wanted to go for the wrong reasons.

"Kain... I can't."

He crossed his arms. "Why not?"

She fought for the right words to say; in the end, only the truth came out.

"Because... because I love you."

Kain stopped cold. Ami grabbed one of his arms, and pulled his hand to her chest.

"Kain... I love you. I love you as Doug, I love you as Kain, I love all of you. That's... that's why I can't go."

"Why? What's the problem? I mean..." Kain trailed off at the look in Ami's eyes.

"Kain, we've had this discussion before, only with innuendo and fear blocking what we needed to say. I love you. Millie loves you. Canal loves you. You... you love Millie, in the way that the rest of us would like to be." She shook her head. "Going with you could only end bloody for me, Kain. I'm sorry."

Kain sighed in frustration. "But what about -"

"I'm a big girl, Kain, despite the fact that I look sixteen. I can take care of myself." Kain glared at her; she just bit her lip. "If... if it gets too hot, I'll call. Okay?"

"Okay." Kain looked out over the crowd. "Now... would you care to join me for lunch?"

Ami gave her best coquettish smile. "Why, I'd love to, kind sir..."

Ami closed her eyes, her hands extended out. Her transformation pen was in her hand; however, she refused to say the words. She thought of the words, and the sensations she felt as she began the transformation...

... there.

Sailor Mercury opened her eyes. It had worked like a charm. She'd transformed with only the pen, and without saying a word.

This was war, she knew. She had an idea of what was happening to those that had already been captured; their survival depended on how well they could write code. If she allowed herself to be captured, well... her fate would be theirs. She'd thought about attacking the facility; however, after reviewing the layout for the building, she thought it a difficult job at best, and suicidal at worst. She wanted to help... but really couldn't.

In a way, this was uncharted territory for her. She'd studied history in her spare time before the change; she had a decent idea on how the United States really operated, and the claws that hid beneath the velvet gloves. She'd considered possibly going to the Project X being set up... but feared that even that couldn't protect her. She was being hunted by members of her own government, and she still didn't know how to take it.

Correction: she did, but didn't know how she would handle it.

She had to handle it with all of her beliefs. She would try not to kill, though she would make no promises. She would not get innocents involved in the fight; this was between her and them. However, most importantly, she had to remain free. Power carried with it responsibility. She could not let others take control of her power away from her.

She mentally willed herself back to normal, letting the power fade from her grip. She hoped to be able to transform one day without holding it in her hand; that was the next step. Speaking the transformation was a dangerous weakness; all someone would need to do to keep her harmless would be to gag her. She needed to be able to change purely at will; given some more practice, she should be able to do so.

She put the transformation pen away in her pocket, and began to concentrate...

She stepped back from the computer, a broad grin on her features. It wasn't perfect; it never was the first draft through. But, it showed promise - and it was original.

Moreover, it was hers - the first writing she'd done since... well... since some oddball events had left her with no fears about male pattern baldness or prostate cancer. Writing was like meeting an old friend; the first few minutes had been awkward, but it was like nothing had changed from then on.

Of course, some had changed. She could tell; her words had more of an edge to them. Nick's words always carried an ache with them, a quiet tear for the emotions she'd always carried. The sadness was done. Anger, however, remained. She had always held her soul in shadow; the only difference lay in the flavors.

She lived in a land that had gone totally mad, a country which rejected her for her very existence. She lived in an existence of paradox herself, with two lives' memories showing opposite views of life. Truth had become lies, the lies truth, and all she knew anymore was to trust her heart.

Perhaps that was why she had come to this life and home. Kerouak had specialized in hearing the song of the asphalt; college life, ironically, had its similarities. The normal rules didn't apply here; not that they were any more or less valid, but that they were different. There were moments when it could be just as cruel or unjust; however, the cruelty and injustice were of a different type than the ones that normal society offered. However, as with real life, those rules came to be for a reason and a price. Each place offered its own unique freedoms and dangers, all of which had to be respected.

And, ultimately, she bled the college ivy onto the paper, just as Kerouak spilled hot asphalt.

Smiling, she closed her computer and stored it away. The voice had come back; good enough reason to feel good on her trip. Victories came in small amounts in her life now; survival took up enough of her good fortune. She picked up her bag and walked out of the coffee shop, her eyes twinkling but careful for surprises.

Seven colleges down - the University of Michigan the most recent. It was a nice, large campus, one where she could become safely anonymous; thanks to the wonders of hiding in large groups, she'd stayed here longer than any other college before - nearly a week. She'd gotten a little paranoid last Saturday when all of Michigan came down to see the game, but that, like anything else, had passed uneventfully.

She sighed. Had she ever been that fanatical about anything?

Her memories, from both sides, reminded her. She gave a chuckle at the personal joke and skipped down the street.

The bus station lay on the other side of town, a good hour's walk; she let out a contented sigh, and started on her way. Kerouak's Cram Session called her, and it was time to answer once more.

Ami walked into the room quietly, wishing not to disturb anyone, and sat down.

She wasn't sure why she was there. She knew it was a bit of a security risk; however, she also had a feeling that the people in the room would respect her more than the U.S. Government. Anti-establishment feelings tended to be unusually high among nerds; after all, they tended to be a lot smarter than, say, the average congressman, and they'd also felt its restrictive grip on more than one occasion. Put simply, nerds couldn't understand why money made the world go 'round.

The only thing she had to fear from these people, she felt, were the occasional leers - and she'd experienced enough of those to not worry about it anymore. She set her bag down next to her, and looked up at the screen... as "Moonlight Denetsu" played through the speakers.

She'd needed to do this for a long time. Find an anime club, see if they were twisted enough to play subtitled Sailor Moon (specifically, the Sailor Moon S Movie), and attend. She needed to see herself, so to speak, needed to look through the otaku's eyes at some moments from her life.

Fifteen seconds in, she bit her lip. She should have expected this; however, the act of watching her old self on the screen chilled her more than she expected. Mizuno Ami, of course, had never seen these events from the fly-on-the-wall perspective; she'd lived through it, and had felt those ice dolls slamming into her.

She grimaced, though, when it came time for the transformations. She didn't remember it taking that long... they took nearly two minutes to get everyone changed. To her, it always seemed instantaneous - one moment Ami Mizuno, the next Sailor Mercury.

The moment she heard the Shabon Spray called, she put a hand to her throat. She'd forgotten; she had Aya Hisakawa's voice. That could be... problematic.

"Hello! Are you new here?"

She fought back a smile. "Just visiting. I'm taking a tour of a few campuses here and there, to see which one I like." She extended her hand. "Hi. I'm Ami."

He smiled back. He was rather cute, come to think of it, with this not-yet-hardened face, deep brown eyes, and disheveled brown hair. "Hi. I'm Chris." He shrugged sheepishly. "I'm just a freshman here, so..." He looked up at the screen. "How long have you been a Moonie?"

"Oh, a couple of years now." 'Such as a millenium', she thought privately. "I started watching the DIC dubs, and... well... I got hooked." She blushed. "Embarassing, I know, considering how it compares to the original, but..."

"Well, every fan has to start somewhere." He shrugged. "A friend of mine showed me some anime when I was in high school. It's addicting; drugs really would be cheaper."

"But not as much fun," Ami offered. She turned back to the screen; she hadn't really thought about what had gone on with the others, especially Luna. The Moon Cat had gone through hell during this fight, nearly losing someone she loved before finding her place with Artemis.

"Um... pardon me..."

Here it came...

"... but we usually go out to Pizza Hut once this is done. Do you want to come?"

She blinked. Repeatedly.

"Um... sure."

"You're one of them, aren't you?"

Ami paused in mid-chew, then completed her swallow. "One of what?"

Chris ran his fingers through his dark hair, a move Ami had seen from too many anime playboys. "Ami. Mizuno Ami, I take it?"

She blushed. Lying was useless; she'd never been good at it, anyway. "Um... well... sort of, anyway. Yes, I am - at least partly - Sailor Mercury."

"Really? Cool!" The rest of the group quickly scooted closer; an older fellow with stark-blond hair started talking. "So what was it like at Kublai Con?"

Ami took a deep breath. "It was... well... I don't think I really have the words to be accurate." She thought for a minute. "Did any of you ever read the "Wild Cards" series of books?"

Two nodded; Ami smiled. "Take what happened there - where part of the world ended up blessed, part cursed - and put it into one building. Some people changed into superheroes, some into supervillains. And some poor souls changed into creatures such as Barney the Dinosaur, or Brain from Pinky and the Brain." She swallowed. "I'm not sure if I agree with how they've handled the situation; yes, they were scared, and rightly so, but that was no reason to lock everyone up for so long." She drummed her fingers together. "I escaped from the hotel after a day and a half; I had to go out and find my life - and I did."

Chris touched her on the shoulder. "So. You said you were looking at a few colleges. Which ones?"

Ami swallowed. "Well... I'd like to go to MIT or Caltech one day." She folded her hands together. "When I was... well... the first time I was sixteen years old, I really wanted to go to one of those two; they seemed like *the* place to go for engineering." She sighed. "Then I got a look at the economics of the situation, and realized I'd never be able to pull it off." A wicked grin crept over her features. "Now, though, it's a whole new ball game. I got a 'do over'."

They looked at her carefully for a minute. A chubby, black-haired fellow at one end of the corner whispered, "You were a guy, weren't you?"

Ami shrugged. "Yes, I was - though I'm more woman than you can handle, now." She gave a playful wink his direction. "With me, the mental changes ended with a hybrid. Some got their memories totally wiped out; some were simply the same mind in a different body. And some... like me... got both. I can remember dying - several times - as a Senshi; I can even recall Silver Millenium events if I think hard enough. At the same time, I can remember being this guy, going through life, trying to find direction - and rarely finding it."

Silence hung around the table for several moments; she hadn't faked her words or what she felt, and apparently it hit home. Chris finally broke the silence. "So what's your direction now?"

Ami sighed. "My hope is to go to college. I'm not sure about the major; part of me wants to be a doctor like my - like Ami's mom; part of me also wants to do computer science." She sighed. "Unfortunately..."

"Unfortunately?"

Ami drummed her fingers together. "I don't know if you've ever seen the dark side of the United States government. At any rate, there is no good or evil side - only one side or another." She sighed. "Someone wants me - a little too much - and for some reason they're carrying government badges."

If silence hung around before, it positively body-slammed them then. "So... you're on the run?"

Ami nodded. "Guys, I need to go." She pulled out two $20s, enough to pay for all of the pizza. "Thanks for your company." She slipped a hand into the strap of her bag; she needed to -

"Wait." Chris pulled out a piece of paper, and wrote a number. "If... if you're ever in trouble, let me know." He shrugged. "I don't know what I can do... but I'm sure we can do something."

She looked at him. Part of her wanted to stay, to maybe call this place home... but she knew that it couldn't happen. Not here. She took the paper then, after a moment's hesitation, kissed him on the cheek. "Th-thanks, Chris." She ran out the door in a flash; in seconds, the cold wind was all that would comfort.

Once was not fun.

Twice was positively infuriating.

Ami hadn't relied on her powers, other than the shabon spray; that and her Senshi strength had been all she needed. She didn't know what condition the foursome were in, other than that they were still alive and in an incredible amount of pain. She had some frustrations to work out; they happened to supply. She made sure not to kill them; however, she also made sure they wouldn't be in any condition to try again anytime soon. She'd taken inspiration from a particularly nasty technique she'd read about in a role-playing game, one where a character's bones are broken and allowed to set at odd angles.

Mind you, that was how she'd wanted it. This was a message: leave her the fuck alone. If they wanted to play God's Own Soldiers, she'd show them just what God's Own Sailor Senshi could do. She picked up her backpack and let the bubbles fade; she couldn't keep the fog up forever, after all.

"A-ami?"

She turned around, a moment of panic crossing her features. Chris stared in amazement at her. "Um... hi." She looked at the suits she left in the snow; all of them were in pretty sore shape. She'd done exactly as she'd intended. "Come on. Let's go elsewhere."

A couple of blocks away, she stopped. Chris looked at her carefully. "Who... who were they?"

Ami pulled out their FBI cards. "Comforting, ne?" She sighed. "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what your country's doing to you."

Chris looked over the cards one-by-one. "What do you plan to do from here?"

Ami shrugged. "I don't know. Leave, for one; the open road calls, after all. As for where... I can't trust anyone anymore." She kissed him on the cheek. "I will keep in touch, though."

Chris grabbed her hand. "I... good luck, Ami." He glanced at the ID cards again. "If you've made enemies out of them, you're going to need it."

Ami's eyes glimmered in the moonlight. "The secret is faith, Chris. I can't afford to let them take me; they've already proven their ethical capacity." Her glare narrowed to slits. "I don't want to kill; I don't want to become as bad as them. But if they try again, after what I did to them... I don't think I'll have a choice." She shook her head. "Bet you never expected Sailor Mercury to say those words..."

Chris shrugged. "I never expected the FBI to be going after Sailor Mercury, either."

She fought with herself for a moment, then kissed him full on the lips. Her body screamed in protest; she wanted to stay there, to maybe... she broke it off before any more could happen. "Be careful, okay?"

Chris stared back, shocked. "Y... you too."

The shadows passed by her window, an eerie strobe at sixty miles per hour. The seat, so familiar now, settled in, comfortable to her. Not many people went by bus anymore; the Greyhound wasn't even half-full, allowing her space for her thoughts. Life's soundtrack consisted of Sarah Brightman mp3's; the energetic song spoke of a fall from heaven's grace, and she felt the adrenaline rush of battle come over her again.

She'd had two more questions answered tonight. The first was that they were still after her; she would need to adjust her tactics if she planned to keep her freedom. To make matters worse, they were starting to get an idea of who they'd made enemies with. She couldn't assume them to be fools; they would probably attack en masse next time, with too many people for her to target at once.

She frowned. She wasn't sure if she had an answer for the Mongolian Hordes strategy, other than to avoid the confrontation.

The second... she'd been beating around the bush for awhile. She liked guys. True, she probably also liked girls as well, but she most definitely had some taste for the male persuasion. She crossed her legs as she remembered Chris' sparkling eyes; he was cute...

... and he was human. The problem with her life was that she couldn't afford a relationship; having assholes in black gunning for her made anyone she chose to join with a target. And that pretty much eliminated anyone who wasn't at Kublai Con from contention.

Still, it was good to know. No more questioning, no more doubt; she'd take love as her heart saw it, regardless of the chromosomes the person happened to be wearing. If she met a cute girl with black hair and beautiful jade-green eyes at the next stop, all the better. She had to live; it was a credo she'd adopted long before her ordeal, back when razor blades had seemed like neat things to use. She had to get through this free and alive - no matter who stood in her way.

And, when it was all said and done, she'd see who was waiting at the end.

Time, she knew, was running out.

She carefully screwed the cover over the electronics, as though finishing a bomb, flipped the cap closed, and pushed her chair back. It looked like a standard lipstick case; however, the circuitry in the case wouldn't make her prettier. This was an emergency system; once she activated the matching program in her computer, she'd have a way out - if she had time to push the button.

Paranoia was beginning to set in, an old friend come back to visit. She wasn't even trusting Greyhound anymore; these agents had known her modus operandi. She had to be unpredictable.

The problem was, she only really knew the college towns. She couldn't blend in elsewhere; she didn't have the skill or the money to. Like it or not, these small enclaves had become her stomping grounds.

And, eventually, they would become her battlegrounds.

She chewed on the last of her cheeseburger, and smiled. Many of her nights in school had been spent like this, burning the midnight oil with Diet Coke and Quarter Pounders with Cheese. It was on nights like these that the skills of her first profession had taken shape. Now... she worked on the skills of her second profession: survival.

The battle was coming, she knew; however, she chose the circumstances of her fight. That was her main advantage in this; she could choose where the fight happened and, to a limited extent, how it happened.

And there was only one place she could think of that would make it perfect - a place where she knew every corner by heart.

She pulled out her laptop and started looking at trade routes available. It was time for her to go where it all started, to the place where she'd first heard of Sailor Moon.

It was time for her to go home.

Christmas morning in College Station. Snow almost never fell this far south, and it didn't today; however, rains from the Gulf pounded the area, cold rains that chilled to the bone, and a wind that pushed the water mercilessly into the skin. In the near distance from her seat in the Denny's, she could see the towers of her old alma mater, the prism of the Civil Engineering building and the towering Meteorology building figuring most prominently. For five years in her past, Texas A&M University had been her home; with luck, it would prove her salvation.

She knew they were waiting. She'd gotten deep enough on the government's computers to put a tap on certain folks' email; she'd timed her arrival so that they'd be ready. Besides, it was Christmas; the campus was deserted. No witnesses. Only a person with no place to go would find themselves there.

A good hunter didn't go to the site. A good hunter forced the prey to go to their site, choosing the field of battle to their advantage. This was her site, and she'd led her prey here.

She picked up the bill on the table, left a twenty for everything, and walked outside. She'd always hated the rains here in her previous life; it made the place unfit for anyone to live. As she crossed the street onto the campus itself, she smiled; the day was perfect. She adjusted the fit of her hat and gloves, and started the walk beyond the fields to the buildings beyond.

The speaker in her ear started giving readings as she made her way through the maze of buildings; she whistled in appreciation. No less than twenty agents were detected in the main courtyard; ten snipers, and ten more hiding in the nearby buildings, waiting to take her away. All held tranq darts; most had genuine pistols to accompany them. This was the problem with holding back, she realized; the enemy was stronger than she was, and would keep on sending agents until either she was captured or they ran out. She'd only lasted two months so far; if she didn't make it decisive today, she'd never be safe.

She frowned. How to deal with them... she could go after each group separately, but she doubted that it would be effective; they'd have a watch out for her, and probably knew she was heading their way even at that moment.

Then she remembered a page from the Jedi school of combat: When outnumbered, attack. She was protected enough that their darts probably wouldn't hit her; with luck, she could take all of them out.

She gave a feral grin. The Academic Building stood in front of her, snipers at the ready. She knew they wouldn't strike until she was in position; she walked close to the building, purposely taking a path that would take her out of their sight for a moment.

Then she acted. She bounded from floor to roof with the assistance of a tree; they stood at the opposite end, waiting for her to pass. They never knew what hit them. She smiled at the four cases of ice; this environment - wet and cold, maybe a few degrees above freezing - optimized her abilities, just as she'd expected. She hadn't killed them... she hadn't needed to. Their colleagues might not be so lucky.

She felt a dull thud on her forearm, and smiled at the tranq dart stuck in her coat. Time to take care of some more folks. She got a running start and leapt for Bolton Hall, just barely making it. These snipers had more presence of mind than their predecessors; they kept firing. A half-dozen darts hit her, three in the chest, two in the leg, one in the arm.

A growl escaped her lips; she wasn't so kind to these people. She'd never tried an Aqua Rhapsody on a human being before; the results were devastating. The force of the water hade broken several bones; they weren't getting up anytime soon.

That done, she checked the places where she'd been hit. Her protection - part Senshi, part plastic armor - was working like a charm. She took off her hat, exposing her tiara; they had to know she was in Senshi mode by this point.

The kid gloves were off, now. She touched her earring; her goggles appeared in a heartbeat.

They'd been arranged in seven groups, she knew; she'd just taken out the two largest. Three more sat on top of Hart Hall, while three others hid behind the columns of the Academic Building. The remaining people went in groups of two: in Hart's computer lab on the first floor, inside Bolton's doors, and at a van parked along a nearby street. As she spoke, one from each of the ground groups started shooting at her.

She sighed, and leapt back onto the Academic Building. She had to take out the snipers, first; the ground troops wouldn't be much of a match for her. She ran across the Academic Building and leapt for Hart Hall, a battle cry on her lips.

She felt a sting on her neck just before she jumped, and grimaced; the distraction was enough to make her miss. She had enough sense to push off of the walls and secure a landing, managing a painful roll into the main courtyard.

The warning from her display told her enough. They'd hit her, and continued to try. The ground agents came out from their hiding places; they knew from her movements that they had her.

She looked around, staggering to the statue of Sul Ross at the center, and grabbed her panic button. They were coming toward her; she didn't have much left. She could feel her concentration slipping away; her display told her exactly how many seconds she had before she lost control: 15... 14... 13...

She closed her eyes, pushing the button, sending the signal. There was one last chance, one way to buy time. She looked out at the cold and rain around them. She could still bend it to her will, if she needed to...

9... 8... 7...

She sensed all of it, embracing it to herself, calling it to her in this time of need. She could even feel the hot, steamy vapor within the lungs of the agents. She'd never tried anything on this scale... she fought as the fuzz came to her vision...

"Absolute zero."

She managed a weak smile as her vision turned white, then black.

Impossibly-clear sunlight called Ami from her slumber; she opened her eyes, noted the headache that hammered into her skull, and turned around, trying to will it all away.

"Good. You're awake."

She turned her head to the sound of the voice; her eyes still couldn't focus all that well. "No, I'm not..."

Another chuckle came from behind that. "Some things never change."

That voice got her attention; she forced her eyes to focus, and forced the pain back. "H... Hello, Do-er, Kain." She looked at the others, at Captain America and Black Widow by her bedside. "Drew. I see that it worked."

Drew crossed his arms. "Come on. Do you honestly think we weren't watching you? We leapt into that fight almost as soon as the ice did."

Ami sighed, letting the smile spread across her face. "Yes, well... I didn't know that. All I knew was that I was probably going to face them by myself." Memory flashed; her jaw dropped. "What... what happened there?"

Kain sighed. "Twelve agents were killed, all of suffocation; your final attack encased the entire courtyard in ice. The remainder tried to arrange for an extraction, ice and all, but they met with some... opposition." He glanced over at Drew. "The ones we captured - those that aren't injured - are being interrogated as we speak."

Ami weighed that information in her head. What disturbed her about all of it was that she didn't care. They had attacked her - had set up an ambush for her - and had done everything to make her into their little play-toy. She knew she'd made orphans of more than a couple of kids today... for them she felt sorry, but not for their fathers. "I... I see. What does the world think of this?"

Drew pursed his lips. "You should know. You're the one who sent those email copies to Reuters. That, plus some words from us, pretty much told everyone what had happened. Congress is calling for a full investigation - especially after those others were found deep in FBI headquarters. One Leon-alike was about to go postal on those guys after seeing Nene like that..." He lowered his head. "As for any charges against you regarding those killed... the locals generally agreed that it was self-defense." He smiled. "Congratulations. You're a hero."

Ami shook her head. "Don't... don't ever call me that. I'm a killer - a warrior, at best. Heroes are the ones who stop the bad guys without making orphans of their kids."

Drew put his hand on her shoulder. "Now you know why I'm no hero." He took a deep breath. "I... I know this may be sudden, but we could use some help here. Tony's a great inventor; however, he can always use some help, especially on the software end. Also... you're damn good in a fight, and we could use you. Do you want to join us?"

Ami stopped. The idea carried more than its fair share of appeal. Tony knew his way around design, and she'd thrive while working with him. Also... it would give her a home, one with people she could be comfortable with. She gave one look back at Kain, just to be sure.

Kain raised his hands defensively. "Don't look at me. It's your decision."

Ami cocked her head to one side. "Well... okay. I would like to give it a try." She looked down at her clothes - she still wore the fuku, as she was still in Senshi mode, but all of her other clothing was gone. "Um... guys... do you mind if I change? I mean, I've been in this outfit for most of several days, now..."

"Okay. Kimiko left one of her outfits for you on the chair." He nodded appreciatively. "And... when you're done... come downstairs to the mess hall. It is Christmas, after all..."

She nodded. It was getting later in the day; however, it was still Christmas, and she hadn't missed it. "Um... Okay." She waited for them to leave the room, then slid out of bed.

Her muscles screamed the moment she shifted out of Senshi form; her clothing disappeared, as she'd arranged to wear her clothes over her Senshi armor. She picked up the outfit, a slow grin spreading over her features.

The bra and panties came on first, utilitarian clothes much like what she was used to. The henley shirt and jumper, on the other hand, weren't.

Not that she was complaining. She'd wanted to be 'normal' ever since she'd started this crazy game; her travels had required her to wear jeans and a t-shirt. It felt good to be able to wear a skirt again. She pulled the shirt over her head and onto her; she stepped into the jumper and buttoned it. She pulled her socks on, then stood in front of the mirror.

Her hair was a mess; her face screamed for makeup. But... she felt like a girl, like a plain, ordinary girl. That was why she'd gone to Juuban a lifetime ago; that was why she'd left the hotel a few months ago. Maybe here, she could be a normal girl.

She gave the mirror a smile. Yes, she could definitely like it here...

The perfect orange glow of a sunset announced the end of the day; she stared at it quietly as it began to fade.

She'd only been to Colorado once before in her life, a ski trip that seemed ages ago, but the serene beauty of the area had taken her breath away then. That hadn't changed; the spartan, unscarred landscape reminded her that there were things more powerful than the forces she controlled.

To be honest, the place was about as perfect as she could imagine. No ratrace existed here; traffic from home to work would consist of a walk from the dorms to Tony's shed (or from her bed to the computer). The facilities reminded her pleasantly of some of the retreat locations she'd been on, where the television was a thing that maybe sat in the corner unused (if at all) and where a person could actually hear herself think.

Then there was the family she'd joined. According to Tony, the place had been a home for delinquent boys in times past; somehow, it seemed too appropriate for the family that congregated here. Tony acted as surrogate father; Marion ended up as the mother figure. The rest of the group counted as brothers and sisters, more or less - except for Pinky and Brain, who took more esoteric roles. They loved each other, they argued, they had fights, they joked and played around, they listened in the quiet moments... they were a Waltons-like family, complete with Ran-boy.

And she was adopted by the family.

She paused for a moment, and pulled out her computer. There was another family she needed to contact, especially now that the government problems had faded. She hadn't contacted them since MIT; they were probably worried sick. The fingers worked slowly; every word seemed to weigh a ton.

"Hey, family. Merry Christmas. I'm sorry I haven't had the chance to contact you in so long.

"I'm all right - now. You probably heard on the news about that freeze that hit the A&M campus; that was me. See, the reason why I hadn't emailed you since early last month was because some people had taken an idea to acquiring my services - by force. They'd attacked me twice before what happened in B-CS this morning. I ended up killing a dozen of them, so they say; I'm still not sure how to handle that.

"Anyway, I'm hanging out here at Tony's place - Tony is the Iron Man guy - and I kinda like it here. It strikes me as the kind of place Mom and Dad would like to live when they retire - out in the boonies, with no distractions or traffic or anything like that. It's really a peaceful place to live. And I have a lot of friends here, freaks like me who were changed by what happened.

"I'll probably visit sometime in the next month or two; that may be a little strange for you, considering I'm a teenaged Asian girl, now. I won't announce it in advance; I'll just be there. I can't plan it any more than that, as I don't know if anyone else wants me like before. But I will visit soon, I promise. I also plan on visiting Martin and Heidi soon; just not sure of the details yet.

"Anyway, just wanted to wish everyone Merry Christmas. If you need to get a hold of me, the email box is open again. I wish I could be there now.

"-- Ami"

She looked at what she had written. She'd left out a lot; then again, a lot needed to be told in person. She knew she wasn't the same person who'd left the hotel two months ago. She'd grown up, in a sense, enough to know what was needed and what wasn't.

And, here, she had almost enough.

Not everything, but almost.

FI